As I have been out of the wine business for several months now, I have lacked the opportunity to sample the variety or quality of wines I used to. What a pleasant refresher, therefore, to drink a few nights ago a good German riesling. I've been buying Washington state and California rieslings, and one standby from Germany (St. Gabriel), all from the grocery store and all under $7. This time I drank a glass of unknown provenance -- I couldn't politely peek at the label or ask questions, because I was being treated and besides, the restaurant was really dark -- but definitely authentic and definitely from what we might call the fatherland. The nice man pouring said so.
Comparing the taste of this riesling to more recent purchases was like comparing a story that has a beginning, and a middle, and an end, to stories that begin and end but tell nothing in between. (Are there stories like that? Well, imagine there are, for the moment.) My grocery store rieslings start out with a bit of pale gold color, and a bit of tanginess in the smell; then they taste sweet and then they leave that mouthwatering acidity after I swallow. That's it.
A good German riesling tells the full story. In this one, I saw the glorious, rich, amber-gold color, and smelled that sharp lemon cake-and-clove smell. The missing middle of the story was fruit, which is what lesser rieslings lack. I tasted what seemed like an orchard full (pardon the exuberance) of delicious, almost thick, peach and lemon-apricot fruit. Do I dare surmise that this example might even have been an Auslese, that is, a wine whose grapes were plucked in enticingly ripe bunches during the third harvest in a good year? There's no one to correct my guess so I'll let it stand. ... And then came riesling's typical acidity, not tongue-curlingly alone but just in balance with fruit and sweetness, and all as it should be. I think.
It made for a lesson in what wines can be, and in what they sometimes are not. It was, I suppose, a lesson in terroir. Wine writers say that of all the noble grapes, riesling is just about the most "transparent," meaning most able to convey something of the soil and climate in which it grows. Oz Clarke writes, "The ability to translate the vineyard into the glass through the medium of winemaker and vine is what makes Riesling so endlessly fascinating" (Oz Clarke's Grapes and Wines, p. 194). My California and Washington state examples seem, in retrospect now, to have translated into the glass all the reasons wine writers give explaining why riesling does not generally do well outside its native Germany. "Early ripening ... when planted in a hot climate, its juice becomes quickly overripe and flabby" (Jancis Robinson, Wine Course). "Few areas [outside Germany] really seem to have got the hang of it" ... "most are dull and bland" ... "so many New World leaders are basically hot countries, too warm for successful Riesling" (all Oz Clarke, Grapes and Wines).
One place, though, that is making fine rieslings these days is Australia, hot though it is. Clarke mentions Australia's Eden and Clare Valleys specifically as producing what he calls one of the three "benchmark" styles of the wine, the other two being of none other provenance than Germany and Alsace (in eastern France), where we would expect benchmark styles. It seems that the two valleys' "convoluted topography," cool nights, and high altitudes replicate German conditions well enough to make riesling happy there. Clarke is willing to reproduce illustrations of two Australian riesling wine labels in Grapes and Wines, which certainly looks like an endorsement: Mount Horrocks is one, Pipers Brook Vineyard another. He also reproduces an illustration from, and says nice things about, Kiona White Riesling from Washington State, which would seem to endorse the possibility that there is hope for other New World rieslings.
If you try any of them, I would suggest a benchmark in evaluating them: ask if they tell the whole story, beginning, middle, and end. Sweetness, fruit, and acidity. (Of course, in all of the above we have ignored the existence of dry rieslings.) The happy news is that all of your explorations should not break the bank in these difficult economic times. Wine writers who praise riesling to the skies -- and they all do -- also note that it remains so generally unpopular as to be generally a great buy. A wine so splendid and so difficult to get right shouldn't also be a steal, but there it is. "There's only enough top quality wine available for those of us who crave it," Clarke says.
I'm guessing, therefore, that those limited amounts of top quality product, comparative bargains though they'll turn out to be, are not likely to be tempting me from my grocery store shelves anytime soon. I may have to expand my hunting grounds ... but at least I begin to understand why.