Sunday, 24 June 2012

Appreciating Riesling

Riesling is a difficult grape to understand and appreciate. It has many faces, from sparkling (Sekt from Germany), and dry to sweet made from botrytis noble rot grapes or grapes frozen at -8ºC, and with all kinds of sweetness in between. The common characteristics of all Rieslings are high acidity and relatively low alcohol.

In my discussions with Mosel winemakers, including Reinhard Löwenstein, the 13th generation of Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein, and biodynamic winemaker Clemens Busch, they all stressed the influence of slate on German Rieslings. Blue slate lies deeper underground and vines have to work hard to get the trace minerals, resulting in wine with more minerality—the typical elegant Mosel style. Red slate has a more rounded mouthfeel with gooseberry and red fruits, while grey slate gives more yellow and tropical fruits. At the Riesling Journey masterclass conducted by Carsten Klane from German Fine Wine in Hong Kong last month, we tasted several German Rieslings alongside Rieslings from Alsace and Australia, and the differences were obvious. German Riesling has a tighter and leaner structure, especially the Mosels which can be steely, while Alsatian Riesling is bolder. Australian Riesling is generous but lacks the subtlety of those from the Old World when compared side by side.

Apart from the sweet noble rot and ice wine Rieslings, where consumers know that the wines are, well, sweet, many people are confused and put off by the off dry/medium style Rieslings from Germany. I have to confess this is the reason I didn’t go near Riesling when I first explored wine. The trick, instead of focusing on the sweetness, is to think about the balance between sweetness, acidity, alcohol and fruit. A well-made medium dry Riesling is not cloying like syrup, but concentrated and fruity with a nicely balanced sweetness set against the acidity. It can go well with a variety of savoury dishes from steamed dumplings (蒸餃子) to Kung Pao chicken (宮保雞丁) and sweet and sour prawns (咕嚕蝦球).

A couple of useful tips on sweetness when you buy German Riesling: Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese are categorised according to the sugar level at the time of harvest. They can all be either dry or medium. You need to interpret this with reference to the alcohol level. For example, a Kabinett with 11% alcohol will be dry while one with 8% alcohol will by semi-dry. Similarly, a dry Spätlese has about 12-13% alcohol and  a dry Auslese about 13-13.5%.

Here are a few useful German - English translations to help you read the labels:
  • Trocken: Dry. Any wine with this word will have less than 9g/l residual sugar.
  • Grosses Gewächs (GG)/Erste Gewächs: Equivalent to Grand Cru. Dry wine from Erste Lage (first growth vineyards) under the VDP classification. Alcohol level usually 12-13.5%.
  • Halbtrocken: Off-dry, usually 9-18g/l residual sugar.
  • Feinherb: Half-dry, an unregulated designation, usually sweeter than halbtocken, in the range of 12-40g/l residual sugar.
  • VPA: the Association of German Quality Wine Estates.
Clemens-Busch is available from German Fine Wine, and Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein is available from Berry Bros & Rudd.

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