WHY GROW RIESLING?

© John H. Trombley, Jr.

Lately I’ve had the privilege of spending some leisurely time traveling around Germany, a country whose name is almost synonymous with Riesling wine. I’ve been privileged to taste some of this land’s greatest Rieslings, both old and young.

So perhaps it’s time for me to ask myself, “why Riesling?”, and to answer for you the question, “why grow Riesling”?

Oz Clarke, in his compendium Wine Atlas, says, “this wonderful grape produces some of the most heavenly, the most noble, and the most elegant of wines.” For me, it’s simply the world’s greatest grape, with which I’ve fallen irrevocably in love.

Riesling certainly rises to the heights of vinous pleasure-giving, but it also can make wines that are so simple and refreshing that they could be drunk with breakfast. Like its cousin, Pinot Noir, it appeals to the senses and brings joy to the drinker, not needing lengthy analysis of flavors or styles. But if subtlety and challenging tasting is what you desire, Riesling has that, too.

This white grape, with small, dark spots, has been grown in almost every thinkable climate and soil. It’s quite adaptable and is a good transmitter of the character of the vineyard in which it grows. It also responds well to the efforts of the winemaker to give it a certain style. As with Burgundy, tiny plots within feet of each other make vastly different wines in Germany and elsewhere.

The planting of Riesling in Germany was originally almost an accident. It had been brought into Germany in the Middle Ages by the monks, who traded varieties across the areas covered by their efforts at viticulture. Just as Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder) was dispersed eastward from Burgundy to the Mosel and Rhine basins, Riesling came northwestward from Austria (it is thought, under the influence of the Church) to the Mosel.

Then in the 19th century a disastrous series of deep winter freezes killed most of the Pinot Noir roots but left the Riesling plantations healthy. After this experience the authorities encouraged replanting the freeze-ravaged areas with Riesling. Today it is successfully grown in some of the more severe climates where Vitis vinifera has been able to survive, including my own home state of Michigan.

In the German-speaking world (Germany itself, Austria, and Alsace) Riesling takes center stage and is the grape from which all the greatest wines are made. In these northerly latitudes, Riesling must be planted to the best sites if it is to ripen predictably, and takes a full two weeks longer to come to harvest than other grapes grown here. Why plant a grape with the disadvantage of slow ripening in a cool climate?

As centuries of winemaking history have shown, this disadvantage can be converted into an advantage under the right conditions. In the best years, Riesling is hanging on the vines well past Allerheiligentag; the first day of November’s All Saints vineyard worker’s holiday. Its property of positively requiring a long, slow, cool ripening means that it can acquire the most refreshing, cool, and complex acid structure of any variety. It’s this fruity tartness that focuses the wine’s other taste elements and invites sip after sip. Although all winegrowers anxiously watch the sugar levels in their ripening grapes, the Germans are just as conscious of the falling acidity and its change from the sharp malic to the rich, round tartaric variety.

Riesling seems to positively thrive on poor soil. Simple crumbled slates, sandstones, calcareous marls, volcanic tuffs, and other lean root environments seem to bring out a kind of elegant style in the grape. If it’s planted in excessively loamy soil, it can lose that elegance.

Riesling wines get the bad rap of always being sweet. And it is true that modern trends have assigned this role to Riesling in certain production areas. However, we know that this sweetness is optional and not at all necessary for the wine if it is made from grapes of good quality. Germans drink their Riesling usually quite dry, and if the grapes are ripe, this dryness is not unpleasantly sharp. I’d like to distinguish between sweet Riesling and noble sweet Riesling. In the former, the sugar is often produced by beets or canes and is added to the must. As necessary as this may be in less successful vintages, it cannot produce great wines.

When Riesling is allowed to ripen slowly in the foggy river valleys of the Mosel or Rhine, sometimes it’s benefited by an outbreak of the noble rot Botrytis cinerea. The tiny mycelia of this fungus pierce the grape skin and allow water to escape during the warm, sunny autumn days, and assist in acquiring further concentration, both of sugars and acids. Then it’s up to the vintner whether to leave some of this sugar in the wine or ferment it to dryness. A little extra sulfite seems to be all that’s required to stop fermentation, if that’s what the choice is.

In the past, the Mosel wines were often made as low in alcohol as possible, leaving as much sweetness in the bottles as could be obtained. Modern tastes are to ferment it more fully, either to a moderate and more balanced sweetness or to dryness.

A noble sweet, Riesling with a bit higher alcohol loses none of its delicacy, but has a fuller presence in the mouth of the drinker, and is easier to match with a wide variety of foods at the table.

One secret of Riesling that isn’t well appreciated: it’s one of the world’s most age-worthy wines. Kept in a cool cellar, the best Rieslings seem almost immortal, and, with luck, can become something quite sublime. All the elements of the wine: fruit, acids, sugars, and alcohol, come together in a seamless harmony that proclaims one of the world’s great wines.

Although I am a lover of Riesling as a beverage and not as a growing vine, you can see that it has the power to produce wines of quality, individuality, and style, which show the uniqueness of their soil, situation, and production, by you, the grower. It can readily make wines of different and useful styles. It also can survive, and thrive, under challenging conditions. And that’s why I think you should grow Riesling.


John H. Trombley, Jr., is a native and lifelong resident of Detroit, Michigan, whose professional life was spent as a clinical pharmacist. Twenty-five years ago he discovered German Riesling just in time to have his ideas of that sublime beverage distorted by the unusually sweet and ripe 1976 vintage. Since that time he’s been intensely interested in, and a collector of, European wines, but the Riesling, especially in its Mosel-Saar-Ruwer manifestations, has been his passion.

John is a writer of some note on the subject of Riesling, especially on the Internet. He makes regular trips to his favorite wine regions to keep up with his passion.

John is currently retired and lives with his family in downtown Detroit, and works as a volunteer for World Medical Relief.

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