Taking advantage of the warm weather, I hosted a garden party for my regular drinking crowd last weekend, eager to see those friendly faces again before I retreat to the solitude of my windowless wine cellar for the inevitable sixth wave.
Serving up cedar plank salmon from the BBQ, I paired the dish with a nice Riesling from the Alsace wine region that has passed back and forth between French and German control several times over the centuries. For North American palates raised on a steady diet of Chardonnay, other white wines like Riesling remain an enigmatic mystery to most, perhaps only enjoyed to its full potential in its native climes of Germany and Austria.
Vintage boozers may still be wary of the waves of cloyingly sweet Riesling that flooded the market in the swinging 70s and decadent 80s, and perhaps even remember our own Canadian attempt at a German Riesling, in the form of Hochtaler boxed wine, a staple of Canadian refrigerators in the 1970s and 1980s. I can still remember the television commercial, starring a Marlene Dietrich lookalike singing in a faux German accent about the joys of Hochtaler, with the bottle covered in Teutonic lettering to make it look more exotic, despite being a bulk wine produced in Quebec since the 1970s, and still in production today.
Luckily, the Riesling industry underwent a dramatic transformation in the 1990s, and is now usually produced as a dry or off-dry wine without excessive residual sugars.
The first step in your journey of accepting Riesling into your life should be the proper pronunciation and spelling, both of which are frequently flummoxed by those of non-Teutonic descent.
You’ve just read the word Riesling a half-dozen times, so if you don’t know the spelling yet, it is possible you never will. However, the pronunciation tends to vary by regional accents, getting worse as you move further away from Germany. To say the word properly, enunciate it like Reeze-ling.
The Riesling grape is native to Germany, and has been cultivated there since the 14th century. While the majority of plantings are still in Germany, the Riesling grape has also flourished in the Alsace region of France, as well as in the land down under of Oz, and even here in Canada.
In fact, Canada has the Riesling grape to thank for our best-known contribution to the world of wine, as most Canadian ice wine is made from Riesling grapes that are left on the vine until they freeze.
Similar to Pinot Noir, Riesling is very expressive of its terroir, meaning that the taste is highly affected by its local soil and climate conditions. This makes a German cool-climate Riesling much different than an Australian hot-climate Riesling, simply due to how the grape matures during the growing season.
Regardless of where it is grown, there are some common characteristics to all Rieslings. The wine is quite aromatic, with plenty of floral and perfume scents on the nose. Be sure to pour this into a large glass with a tapered rim, which helps capture the bouquet while you are tasting the wine.
Dry Rieslings are generally consumed fairly young, which enhances their fruity notes of grapefruit and peach. However, due to its relatively high acidity, Riesling tends to age quite well, with some of the most expensive and rare German vintages being aged for over a century! A more reasonable expectation is 5-10 years for the dry varieties, while sweeter wines can age longer due to the higher sugar content providing a preservative effect.
Despite the transformations in the 1990s, which saw Riesling move to a drier style, there are still many sweet varieties of Riesling produced, the most famous of which are sweet dessert wines and ice wines.
Riesling is generally aged in stainless steel vats instead of oak barrels, so it retains a crisp and citrusy flavour, with none of the notes of vanilla or toast that imparted by oak. It pairs particularly well with salty foods, as well as Asian dishes like sushi.
If you would like to expand your wine horizons, wander down the German aisle of your local wine store, and you will find Rieslings at every price point! If you prefer to shop locally, there are plenty of Canadian Rieslings to choose from. My favourite is the Gray Monk Riesling, from a family-owned Okanagan winery celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, and still a bargain at $20/bottle.