This happened to me the other day. The wine in question was a bottle of Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese Riesling 2011.
Dönnhoff is regarded by many as one of (if not the) finest producers of Riesling in the world.
The estate is set in the heart of the Nahe wine region. The Nahe is a relatively small German wine growing area and takes its name from the Nahe River that flows through the region. The region’s best vineyards are usually found on steep slopes towering down over the Nahe river.
This brings me to the Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle – the jewel in Dönnhoff’s crown! The Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle vineyard is a little over 8 hectares in size and is positioned on the north side of the Nahe River.
The soil is quite complex and the upper part (where the very best grapes are grown) is made up of volcanic and slate soils. The slope has a calf-burning steepness of 30-45% and only Riesling is planted – my kind of vineyard!
The wines – like this one from Dönnhoff - are known for having intense mineral and spicy notes with immense concentration of fruit. This is thanks to the soil structure and also the position of the steep slopes overlooking the Nahe river, which reflects the sunlight onto the vines.
I don’t mind admitting I have a real soft spot for this vineyard. Not only did I spend a magical few months working on it during my time at the Dönnhoff estate a couple of years back but also served the Niederhäuser Hermannhöhle Riesling from Jakob Scheider at my wedding! So, yeah, I’m a convert!
I won’t bore you with any more minutiae about this vineyard but if you love Riesling (dry or off-dry) then I urge you to explore the wines produced from grapes grown in this vineyard. You will find one of the purest and most memorable expressions of the Riesling grape in the world.
When brothers Jeff and Bill Gordon planted their first vineyards in Washington’s Columbia Valley back in 1980, there were just 19 wineries in the State and 5,000 acres of vines planted.
Today, Washington State’s wine industry is home to over 750 wineries and more than 40,000 acres of vines.
So, what was it that drove Gordon Estate and wineries like them to plant vines in Washington’s largely unchartered territory? And, why has its wine industry exploded at such as rapid rate over the last 30 years?
There is no single answer as to this question but, undoubtedly, one of the critical factors lies in Washington’s location and geography.
Washington State is located in America’s Pacific Northwest, immediately to the north of Oregon. It is positioned on the 46°N parallel (incidentally the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy) which allows its vineyards benefit from up to 17 hours of sunshine every day during the growing season. This is two hours more than its sunny Californian cousin to the south!
Another factor that is fundamental to the success of Washington’s wine industry is the existence of the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades divide the State from east to west. The eastern side is characterised by a hot, dry, desert-like Continental climate due to the mountains acting as a rain barrier, blocking precipitation moving east from the Pacific Ocean. It is here that the vast majority of Washington’s vineyards are situated. To give you an idea of the dry conditions, the Columbia Valley – home to Gordon Estate winery – gets on average only 8 inches of rain per year!
But, geography aside, the vintners in Washington have also been smart in their choice of grape varieties. The arid conditions conditions suit varieties that ripen late and lend themselves to a fuller bodied style of wine. It is no surprise therefore that the State’s most planted grapes include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
The one anomaly to this is Riesling! Washington is, in fact, not only the largest producer of Riesling in the US but Riesling is the most planted grape variety in the State. The key reason why Riesling seems to flourish in Washington is the substantial changes of temperature between night and day. This allows producers of Riesling to achieve optimal ripeness whilst maintaining the grape’s identifiable trademark – acidity!
For this reason, you can find Riesling produced in a range of styles – from bone dry to super sweet – with impressive balance between sweetness and acidity.
One interesting occurrence over the past few years in Washington has been a number of collaborations taking place between Old and New World Riesling producers.
A great example of this is Long Shadows Vintners in Washington State. Long Shadows was the brainchild of former Stimpson Lane CEO, Allen Shoup. It was Shoup’s dream to run a winery as a joint venture with winemakers from different regions of the world, whereby he would harness their expertise to produce wines grown from Washington State grapes.
Nowadays, Long Shadows produces many varietals, but when it comes to their Rieslings, Shoup has called on Armin Diel, owner of the renowned Schlossgut Diel winery in the Nahe region of Germany. Together they produce the Long Shadows Poet’s Leap Riesling which has been a real hit with the critics in the US.
Another example of the marriage between Old and New Worlds is Eroica. Eroica is the joint venture between famed Mosel winemaker Ernie Loosen and Bob Bertheau of Washington giant, Chateau Ste. Michelle. The idea behind Eroica was to draw on both Old and New World techniques and philosophies to create a wine which not only reflects the region from which the grapes are grown, but also its US and German heritage. Since its launch in 1999, this partnership has seen continued success and shows just what can be achieved when producers collaborate and explore unchartered territory.
For me, Washington State provides the UK wine trade with the perfect opportunity to show the public that there is more to American wine than California. And, more to that point, that Riesling is actually a grape variety that can thrive in the UK.
Oregon is starting to get a foothold in the UK and I do not think it will be long before Washington follows suit. I accept that these wines may remain niche for a while to come but for independents and restaurants that are looking to inject imagination into their wine lists, Washington State will certainly become a viable option.
I’m very excited to announce that on Friday 21st March I will be launching my own pop-up restaurant for one night. I have teamed up with old school friend turned chef, Freddie Southwell, to put on a show-stopping night for lovers of food and wine.
As well as running his own catering company, Wild Seasoning, Freddie has spent time in Nepal passing on his passion and knowledge of Nepalese food to foodies via cookery classes, market visits and traditional village tours. At our pop-up, he will be offering a selection of Nepalese style dishes cooked in a modern contemporary way – his vision is to redesign famous Nepali dishes whilst sticking to the core principles of the Himalayan food culture.
I’ll be putting the drinks offering together and looking after front of house. Of course, with the heat, spice and aromatics of the Nepalese cuisine, there is no better match than Riesling. My Noble Revolution Rieslings will be more than up to the task and I believe this is a moment for The Reactionary to take centre stage. (If you haven’t tried them yet, send me an email by clicking here and I’ll send you a bottle!).
There will also be a selection of craft beers, cocktails, red wines and digestives which I will prepare to suit Freddie’s menu. There will also be a fantastic selection of soft drinks available from Fever-tree.
So here’s what will be coming out of the kitchen.
Spiced new potato sandheko with a mint yoghurt
- Daal pate with pickled vegetables on crispy chapatti
- Mutton momos with yellow tomato achaar
- Peanut sandheko spoons
- Chicken sekuwa wings with coriander achaar
Nepali spiced steamed fish-cakes, carrot, mooli & coriander salad served with a lemon & red onion achaar
Nepalese Chilli pork three ways – Chilli pan-roasted pork loin, chilli braised pork cheek & Chilli oil confit pork belly served with Apple & fennel achaar & squash tarkari puree
Chilli pan-fried paneer cheese with a tomato & onion takhari (veggie option)
Steamed Basmati rice infused with Jimbu topped with crispy onion, garlic & daal
Yoghurt ice cream with caramelised pineapple, salted almond chilli praline, mango puree, lime jelly
There are just a few tickets left – you can purchase them here. If you can’t make it this time round, email me on email@example.com and I’ll put you on the waiting list for the next evening we do.
Thanks, as ever, for your support.
Through my Noble Revolution Wines venture I have introduced many people to the charms of German Riesling. But, most everyday wine consumers are still not aware that Austria produces excellent wine from both red and white grape varieties. But, for those in the trade, it is old news that Austria’s top wines are capable of standing up to anything else in the world in quality terms.
But, to appreciate how Austria rose to such heights in the wine world, we need to understand its history – it is a story of how an inglorious past has made way for a glorious present.
At the end of 1985, the Austrian wine industry lay in ruins, broken and disgraced. Earlier that year, the story broke that certain wineries had been adding a substance used in anti-freeze – diethylene-glycol – to bulk out and sweeten their wines. Austrian wine exports practically collapsed overnight and its reputation as a winemaking nation was torn to shreds.
The Austrian authorities quickly realised that a quality control system needed to be imposed on the country’s wineries. Lax regulation was replaced with strict new laws, including maximum yields, which were brought in to demonstrate Austria’s commitment to improving the overall quality of its wines.
In turn, this kick-started a trend among many of Austria’s wineries to downsize. Statistics show that year-on-year since the late 1980’s, vineyard plantings have decreased, as have the number of wineries and volume of wine produced. As the wine industry consolidated, a clear message was sent to the outside world – bulk was being replaced by boutique.
As part of the rebranding of Austria’s wine industry, a number of Austria’s indigenous grape varieties were put forward to play leading roles. The grape that has above all been fundamental in Austria’s positive wine trajectory is Grüner Veltliner.
Many people see Grüner as producing a younger style of wine with a trademark green apple and white pepper character and refreshing acidity. But, there is no doubt that it can produce fuller-bodied, complex wines capable of ageing.
But, Riesling is also playing an increasingly important role. In fact, unlike the other most popular white grape varieties in Austria, where the number of plantings is decreasing, Riesling plantings are on the rise. Statistics from the Austrian Wine Marketing Board show that between 1999 and 2009 the total number of hectares of Riesling vines increased by 13.4%. Compare this to Grüner which decreased by 22.7% and Muller-Thurgau which also decreased by a staggering 36.1%.
It seems to me that Grüner and Riesling make the perfect tag-team for Austria. Grüner is the native grape that has led the resurgence in Austria’s wine industry. Unlike Riesling, it can also offer fuller-bodied wines, capable of oak aging.
But, Riesling has the benefit of being widely regarded as one of the most noble, versatile grape varieties in the world. It is a grape that thrives in cooler conditions and Austria has shown that it can produce exquisite examples of it in both dry and sweet styles. Both Grüner and Riesling are known for their trademark high acidity and have become known as two of the most food friendly and versatile grape varieties.
Some of the genuinely most exciting wines I have tried over the past few years have come from winemakers who are willing to experiment and innovate. Austria seems to be jam-packed with such characters and if it can continue to focus on championing these two wonderful grape varieties, I have no doubt that its future will be very bright indeed.
I have had the pleasure of drinking a lot of great Riesling over the years from all around the world. Germany, Alsace and Australia remain for me Riesling “centres of excellence” where this magnificent grape is able to reach its fullest expression.
But, beyond the borders of these three heavyweights, other regions are certainly showing that they are contenders on the world stage. The amount of top quality, hand-crafted Riesling coming out of Austria seems to increase year on year. New Zealand is showing it is capable of producing some fantastic Rieslings in a range of styles. And the Americas are also playing an ever important role – in particular along the cooler, coastal regions of Chile and Oregon in the US.
But, a region that is unquestionably one of the dominant players on the world wine stage, yet from afar seems to produce virtually no Riesling is California.
Why is this? The reason I ask the question is that, Riesling aside, I am a huge Pinot Noir fan and going through a major Californian Pinot phase at the moment. It got me thinking about the region as a whole and the notable absence of Riesling production.
Well, the obvious answer is that Riesling is a grape variety that thrives in cooler climates – it is therefore not exactly a natural fit with a State that is known for its endless sunshine and warmth.
But, in fact, a closer look reveals that, joy of joys, a small amount of Riesling is being grown in California. According to the statistical data released by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, 4,452 sacred acres of land in the State are planted with Riesling vines. Not only that but the figures show that between 2000 and 2012, the tonnage of Riesling grapes crushed increased from 9,351 to 36,925, making it the fifth most harvested grape in California.
You see, whilst California may be famous for its warmth and sunshine, its coastal areas can actually be quite cool due to the moderating influence of the winds and mists rolling off the Pacific Ocean.
The area with greatest amount of Riesling vines in California is Monterey County with 2,237 acres. This is followed in second and third place by Mendocino County (a couple of hours north of San Francisco) and Santa Barbara County (an hour north of Los Angeles). The reason why Riesling seems to flourish in these areas is that they are in close proximity to the cooling influence of the Pacific, giving this most noble of grapes a fighting chance of reaching its finest and fullest expression.
Although I have tried many a memorable US Riesling from Oregon and Washington State, I must confess to never having slurped on any Californian Rieslings. Clearly, this is unacceptable so I plan to remedy this in July of next year when I will be making the pilgrimage out to California for the Wine Bloggers Conference 2014. By pure coincidence, it takes place in Santa Barbara County, so I will be sure to seek out its finest Riesling! But, if the Pinot produced there is anything to go by, I am in safe hands!
In the meantime, I will leave you with this list of wineries which have been recommended to me by my trusted winelover friends from across the pond. I cannot vouch for them personally, but they have certainly now been added to my hit list of wineries to visit in July: Navarro Vineyards (Mendocino), McFadden Vineyards (Mendocino), Tatomer (Santa Barbara), Greenwood Ridge (Mendocino), Mandolin Wines (Monterey). Any other recommendations are very welcome.
There has never been so much great wine being produced. Time and time again, I am surprised and excited, not only by wines from regions that I have never explored before, but also by those that I thought I knew inside-out!
For this reason, I always try to keep an open mind when it comes to tasting wine – I take an all-embracing stance. That said, I have learned from experience that when it comes down to brass tacks, I am unapologetically a Riesling and Pinot Noir guy. It’s just the way I’m programmed.
And when it comes to wines produced from these two grape varieties, Oregon is the place I want to be.
Oregon lies on the north-west coast of America between the States of California and Washington. Over the years, it has earned a reputation for producing elegant, high quality, hand-crafted wines and its cooler, maritime climate lends itself perfectly to the production of Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Yet, while there is no doubt that Oregon is producing some sublime expressions from both of these grape varieties, they have both led very different lives over the past couple of decades.
Take Pinot Noir for example. Pinot is unquestionably Oregon’s number one success story, its poster child. The past couple of decades have seen Oregon become synonymous with producing distinctive, high end Pinot Noirs. Over 50% of the vines planted in Oregon are dedicated to this grape and this figure continues to increase year on year as its popularity goes from strength to strength.
Nowadays, Oregon is even home to the infamous ‘International Pinot Noir Celebration’, an annual three-day bash where thousands of thirsty delegates descend on Oregon Wine Country to celebrate what Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame) refers to as “this haunting and brilliant grape variety”.
I have had the pleasure of drinking Pinot Noir from a number of Oregon wineries over the years. The likes of Elk Cove, Bergström, J. Christopher, immediately spring to mind, bringing back happy memories of beautiful soft, silky Pinots with generous amounts of red fruit.
Riesling, on the other hand, has had more of a bumpy ride in Oregon over the past few decades. Some thirty years ago, Riesling was the white grape du jour, with its vines constituting around a quarter of the planted acreage in the State. Nowadays, however, this number has been whittled down to around the 5% mark, as many Riesling vines have been ripped up to make way for the more fashionable Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lately, however, there have been indications that there are brighter times ahead for Riesling. Figures show that there has been a rapid growth in Riesling sales in Oregon over the past five years. One of the main drivers for the renewed interest in Riesling has been the city of Portland. Only a few miles to the east of the Willamette Valley – Oregon’s premier growing area – Portland’s thriving restaurant scene has embraced this versatile and noble grape variety, triggering an increase in the number of plantings.
But, there is actually another aromatic grape variety alongside Riesling which has also been able to flourish in Oregon’s cool, maritime climate – Pinot Gris. In fact, Pinot Gris has done more than flourish as its annual tonnage is now 3 times larger than Chardonnay in the State!
The typical style tends be fresher and lighter-bodied than the Alsace Pinot Gris we often find in the UK, exhibiting stone fruit characteristics, such as white peach, as well as pineapple and lychee. Like Riesling and Pinot Noir, its elegant style and clean, fresh acidity (thanks to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean) makes it very versatile and food-friendly.
Oregon cannot be said to be an emerging or “up-and-coming” wine region as it has been producing quality wine for decades. But, in UK terms, I think it would be fair to label it in this way. We are seeing more Oregon wine hit our shores than ever before but it still remains for many a boutique wine category.
Price will be an issue for some, but does first class German Riesling or Pinot Noir from Burgundy come cheap? Certainly not – the quality justifies the price tag. The same principle should be applied to the wines coming out of Oregon. The estates tend to be small, the quality high and the wines have character and a sense of place.
At the end of the day, if there is one region in the world that encapsulates the style of wine that I like to drink, it is Oregon. The question is, will you join me?
This article was originally published in The Drinks Business under the title ‘Think Oregon, Drink Pinot’ on 21st November, 2013.
As regular readers of this blog know, Riesling is my passion. Riesling’s thrilling balance of acidity, complex citrusy flavours and ability to respond to vineyard character makes it one of the world’s greatest grapes.
German Riesling, in particular, holds a special place for me, as it was in Germany – in the village of Rüdesheim in the Rheingau to be exact – where I first stumbled upon this magical grape variety.
Yet, to my dismay, German Riesling has historically had a tough time in the UK due to its association with “cheap and sweet” low quality bulk wine and an overcomplicated labeling system.
In fact, one of the reasons that I launched The Riesling Revolutionary was to help improve its image in the UK and show people that the Germans are actually producing some world class, DRY white wines.
However, as time went on, I felt that my efforts were being undercut somewhat by the fact that many German producers were continuing to produce wines with gothic looking labels and confusing terminology.
The quality of the wine was never an issue for me. It was the way it was being presented to the consumer.
But rather than standing idly by, I thought I would get hasty and take matters into my own hands.
So, Noble Revolution Wines was born.
My mission was to create a range of wines that not only possessed everything I loved about great German Riesling – crisp acidity, textbook minerality and a sense of place. But, they also had to be attractive and approachable for UK wine drinkers.
If uncertainty surrounding sweetness was an issue, I would make sure that my wine labels clearly stated that the wines are DRY.
If people were often put off by gothic looking script and technical jargon, I would make my labels ultra MODERN looking, exclusively in English and jargon free.
If people associated the tall, slim traditional German wine bottle with the Hock and Liebfraumilch of yesteryear, I would bottle my Rieslings in a BURGUNDY shaped bottle.
One of my first decisions after launching Noble Revolution Wines was to team up with my now business partner and former Senior Vice President at The Coca Cola Company, Herbert Hoffmann. With over 20 years working for the world’s most iconic drinks brand, I knew that Herbert’s wealth of experience and expertise would be invaluable when taking our wines to market.
Together, we set out in search of a winemaker who could help us make our dream a reality. We found that person in Jürgen Meng. Jürgen’s winery is based in the village of Mülheim in the heart of Germany’s Pfalz wine region, the largest growing region in the world for Riesling. The Pfalz’s reputation for producing juicy, powerful Rieslings and Jürgen’s passion and energy made him the perfect partner for Noble Revolution Wines.
So, we set him the challenge of producing for us a range of dry Rieslings that not only tasted great but also reflected the character of the region and the vineyards where the grapes were grown. In the meantime, we went away to find a designer who could create the artwork for our labels.
We could not have been happier with the results. Jürgen kept his end of the bargain in a big way by producing two superb tasting, dry Rieslings from the 2012 vintage. Also, the design team from Identity, led by head designer Mark Whittington, created labels that were distinctive, trendy and had a sense of intrigue.
Further posts will follow in the coming weeks about the wines – named ‘The Trendsetter’ and ‘The Reactionary’ – and more information will also be available at www.noblerevolution.com which will be live shortly.
But if, in the meantime, you have any questions or would like to know where you can find the wines, just drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, a big shout out to all those people who have helped me with this venture over the past few months. You know who you are and I am immensely grateful for your input and support.
It is certainly an exiting time for fans of Riesling – and German Riesling in particular – as the German Wine Institute has recently laid out plans to increase its investment in the UK wine market. One of the key objectives behind this increased investment is to create better awareness and understanding about the charms of German Riesling among UK consumers.
In order to help achieve this, the DWI has recruited 3 brave souls – dubbed the “Riesling Revivalists” – to take the Riesling mission to the masses. This Riesling triumvirate, which includes yours truly, will help to preach the Riesling gospel at various wine tastings and food festivals.
The exact dates of the events have not yet been confirmed but you can find more details about the DWI’s plans in the press release below.
“The German Wine Institute is “significantly” increasing its UK investment to boost its burgeoning growth of the above £5 price bracket.
The country is still losing volumes in the UK – they are down 17% against the overall UK decline of 3% – but the body is confident it is nearing the tipping point and will start to see volumes go up soon.
“We always lose volume much quicker than value,” said Nicky Forrest, managing director of Wines of Germany in the UK. But she is hopeful that “maybe in the next 12-18 months we will reach the tipping point and will start increasing volumes.” Forrest says most of the volume decrease has been at the below £4 level. Its value stands at £11.9 million, down only 2% on 2011.
When it comes to Germany’s volumes sales by price point, the below-£4 section of the market has declined by 23% from 75% in 2010 to 55% to the end of May 2012, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile the £5+ market has grown by 36% from 7.4% to 16.8%.
German Riesling reaches an average price point of £6.47, ahead of the average bottle price of £4.90, according to Nielsen MAT figures to the end of June 2012. Its Riesling wines also have 57% of the overall Riesling market here, up 9 percentage points on 2011.
The generic body unveiled its marketing plans for the UK which will focus on Riesling and Pinot Noir. It has recruited three “Riesling Revivalists” to spread the word on the variety. Writers Anne Krebiehl and Matt Walls and lawyer-turned-sommelier Alex Down will “evangelise” about the variety to consumers.
It will launch a Dragon’s Den-style competition called “Get it on” where winemakers pitch their UK-specific German wines to trade experts with prizes including listings and financial support from Wines of Germany on offer.
It is also relaunching its Riesling Fellowship after a five-year hiatus, which will see Riesling producers and ambassadors from around the world recognised by the German Embassy, similar to the Gran Orden de Caballeros for services to Spanish wine.
Also planned for next year is a gastronomic tie-in with a number of food festivals and masterclasses on german wine with Jeannie Cho Lee MW.
In addition it plans to grow it Riesling Summit, and double the size of its 31 Days of German Riesling promotion, which attracted 50 trade outlets this year.
The UK is the country’s biggest export market for wine, following the USA.”
Let’s face it, we foodies have never had it so good. 20 years ago, most of us had to rely on the likes of the late Keith Floyd to travel the world for us in search of culinary adventure. But nowadays, for a few quid we can hop on a flight and hours later be merrily sipping and munching away in our gastronomic location of choice. And what more, through the globalisation of the produce market, we don’t even need to leave British shores to experience exciting and exotic flavours and ingredients, as many of them are now widely available in our supermarkets and restaurants.
Whilst I support the current trend to “buy local” and support local growers and producers, one has to admit that the arrival in the mainstream over the past few years of exotic ingredients such as galangal, wasabi and holy basil has signalled exciting times for chefs and domestic cooks. In addition, the arrival of these new and exciting ingredients – many from Asia and the Indian Subcontinent – has also created huge potential for unusual and innovative food and wine pairings.
Admittedly, finding the right wine to match a dish is not always an easy task. There are, of course, certain old favourites such as Roquefort and Sauternes, Chablis and oysters, Port and Stilton which have stood the test of time. But as we become more creative with our ingredients so we need to rethink our wine choices – a bottle of claret may go well with your roast lamb but what about when faced with a fragrant and spicy beef Thai salad?
It’s fair to say that some wines suit certain types of food better than others but if there is one grape variety that stands out from the pack in terms of its versatility and food-friendliness, it has to be Riesling. Many people think of Riesling as a sweet German wine but this is not always the case. In fact, Riesling is a wonderfully versatile grape and is produced in many parts of the world in many different styles ranging from the bone dry to the lusciously sweet. It is this range of sweetness levels and diversity of flavours that makes Riesling uniquely placed to compliment not only traditional cuisine but also more exotic flavours.
For example, Australian Rieslings are usually very dry and often exhibit intense citrus notes which make them excellent partners to seafood, shellfish in particular. But they can also pair very well with sushi and sashimi. Look for a Riesling from the Clare Valley or Eden Valley which are particularly good growing regions for Riesling in Australia. Top producers include Jim Barry, Grosset, Mount Horrocks and Pewsey Vale, to name but a few.
The Rieslings of Alsace in France tend also to be dry but are fuller bodied and richer than their Aussie counterparts. This weightiness together with their high acidity makes them particularly good companions to fatty foods such as pork belly or roast goose. There are many excellent producers of Riesling in Alsace but look for the likes of Trimbach, Hugel, Zind Humbrecht and Schlumberger which are widely available in the UK.
And then there are the German Rieslings. German Rieslings can range from the bone dry to medium sweet to very sweet which makes them food-friendly across the board. The drier Rieslings go particularly well with fish and white meats (think Coq au Riesling!) but, for me, it is the off-dry category which is hugely underrated. An off-dry German Riesling (or one from New Zealand for that matter) is the perfect partner for hot and spicy foods. These wines, often only 7% or 8% alcohol by volume, tend to be jam-packed with aromatic fruit which allows them to stand up impressively to spicy and fragrant flavours, whilst a good hit of residual sugar has the effect of soothing the heat of the chilli. Recommended German producers making both dry and off-dry Rieslings which are available in the UK include Ernst Loosen, Josef Leitz, Dönnhoff, Franz Künstler, JJ Prüm.
Riesling may not have the greatest reputation here in the UK but I urge you to cast aside the stereotypes and give it a go – it is a true food-friendly wine and really has the potential to make a worthy companion to your next meal!
For those of you who regularly tune in to The Riesling Revolutionary, you will be familiar with me waxing lyrical about how I believe the Riesling grape is unrivalled in its ability to deliver a diversity of styles of white wine.
You won’t be surprised to hear therefore that I jumped at the chance to put this to the test at the New Zealand Wine Annual Trade Tasting at Lords back in January of this year in the form of the so-called Riesling Challenge.
By way of background, The Riesling Challenge was thought up by Neil Charles-Jones, the director of Mud House Wines in New Zealand. The concept involved Mud House Wines harvesting a load of grapes during the 2010 vintage and then sending 12 equal amounts to 12 of New Zealand’s most revered winemakers.
So, back in April 2010, The Riesling Challenge began when 48 tonnes of Riesling grapes were harvested by Mud House from one of their vineyards in the Waipara Valley and then delivered to the following 12 Kiwi based winemakers:
- Paul Bourgeois, Spy Valley (Marlborough)
- Mike Brown, Golden Hills Estate (Nelson)
- Matt Dicey, Mount Difficulty (Central Otago)
- Matt Donaldson, Pegasus Bay (Waipara)
- John Forrest, Forrest Estate (Marlborough)
- Duncan Forsyth, Mount Edward (Central Otago)
- Patrick Materman, Pernod Ricard NZ (Marlborough)
- Simon McGeorge, Waipara Hills (Waipara)
- Larry McKenna, Escarpment (Martinborough)
- Ant McKenzie, Te Awa Farm (Hawke’s Bay)
- Jules Taylor, Jules Taylor Wines (Marlborough)
- Simon Waghorn, Astrolabe (Marlborough)
The winemakers were then left with the challenge of using their allotted 4 tonnes of grapes to make at least 250 cases of whatever style of Riesling they so wished – dry, medium, sweet, fermented in stainless steel or oak, you name it, they were allowed to do it.
By December 2010, all of the wines had been bottled and each of the 12 winemakers assembled to taste blind and score each other’s wines. After much lively discussion and deliberation, first prize went to Matt Donaldson of Pegasus Bay. Second place went to Matt Dicey and Mike Brown took third place.
Moving forward to 2012, I was quivering with excitement when I heard that attendees at the New Zealand Wine Annual Trade Tasting would have the chance to try the 12 Riesling Challenge wines. However, this time, it would be the attendees at the event casting their votes for their favourite Riesling, not the winemakers!
Arriving at the event, it didn’t take me long to track down the table in question, as I steadily worked my way through each of the 12 Rieslings.
The two wines that stood out for me, in particular, were those produced by Matt Donaldson and Larry McKenna. Looking back at my notes, I wrote that Donaldson’s wine was “off-dry, showing beautiful balance with firm citrus notes on the nose which develops into pineapple and tropical fruits on the palate. This winemaker has shown no fear”. For McKenna’s Riesling, I wrote that it was “off-dry, with honeysuckle and juicy green apple and a hint of pineapple on the palate and shows excellent balance and an impressive finish”.
In the end, 139 votes (including my own) were cast by the attendees and once again Matt Donaldson was crowned the victor. However, this time, first and second places went to Dr. John Forrest of Forrest Wines and Simon Waghorn of Astrolabe, respectively.
I later found out that Donaldson had freeze-concentrated his grapes to intensify flavours and sugars, a move that appears to have given him the edge over this competitors.
For me, the joy of this exercise was twofold. Firstly, it showed what an important role the winemaker plays in shaping the wine’s style. The variety between the 12 wines was a clear example of just how much the style of the finished wine can be dictated by decisions made by the winemaker during the fermentation and maturation processes. Secondly, it confirmed my belief that the Riesling grape lends itself wonderfully to being made in a number of different styles.
In that respect, as an aside, I was most interested to discover that 8 of the 12 wines were off-dry. Off-dry Riesling as a category is much misunderstood and, in my opinion, hugely underrated. So, it was great to see so many of the winemakers choosing to make their wines in this style. (I actually did a really cool tasting of sweet NZ Rieslings with the team at HowToBakeACake.org other day to great effect!)
Also, I have discovered that a few cases have been exported to us here in the UK. Tanners Wine Merchants appear to have a few cases still in stock (£119.99 for case of 12) so if you pick up a case be sure to let us know which of the 12 is your favourite!