If you asked me to pick my favorite white wine, I wouldn’t have to think about it. Riesling. But not that sweet, bulk Riesling that tastes more like Capri-Sun than wine. I’m talking about send-a-shiver-up-your-spine Riesling. If you’ve never had a Riesling like that, you haven’t had the right Riesling.
Native to Germany, Riesling can reflect the terroir of place like no other grape. And while I’m almost certain I could pick Riesling out of a line-up of other white varieties, I’m terrible (like, really terrible) about identifying which region a Riesling is from in a blind tasting. All I can do is offer a bunch of wild guesses.
So, when the good folks at RdV Vineyards offered a master class on Riesling with Master Sommelier, Jarad Slipp, I jumped at the chance to attend. And toss wild guesses all over the tasting table.
Our first task was to taste four different Rieslings blind, and try to guess the region they came from. We were told there was one each from Alsace, Australia, Austria and Germany. Easy-peasy, right?
Yeah, not so much.
I drink more German Riesling than anything else, so I was pretty sure I had the German one pegged. But the others? I had no idea . . . and it was more than a little bit humbling.
Here’s the reveal (retail prices listed are from wine-searcher.com):
Rudi Pichler Wösendorfer Kirschweg Riesling Smaragd 2014 Wachau
I’m guilty of almost universally overlooking Austrian Riesling. When I think Austria, I think Grüner Veltliner (Riesling production in Austria is teeny by comparison to GV). Smaragd (named after an emerald-colored lizard that lives in the vineyards) is the Wachau designation for dry wines, with a minimum of 12.5% alcohol. Btw, Austrian Rieslings are almost always dry (bonus!). This is such a precise and energetic wine — full of citrus and minerals. Lovely balance. Richer than the German Riesling, even though the German was sweeter. 13% ABV. Retail = $50ish.
Pike’s “The Merle” Clare Valley Riesling 2014
Australian Riesling is always a bit of a head-scratcher for me. When I think Australia, I think ridiculously big Shiraz. How does a cool climate grape like Riesling manage to get a toe-hold there? Clare Valley has a smidge of altitude (1,300 to 1,600 ft), which manages to keep the nights cool, even in the summer. This was another super-clean and crisp wine, with acidity that (and these are Jarad’s words, not mine), “could strip the enamel off your teeth”. Loaded with tart citrus flavors and a spine of minerals. 12% ABV. Retail = $40ish.
Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Riesling Spätlese 2013
This estate is a former Benedictine monastery, dating back to the 10th century (think feudalism in Europe), back when Germany was a kingdom, and part of the Holy Roman Empire. Tons of minerals on the nose – reminds me of spring in the mountains. Sweeter by far than the other three (Spätlese is the German designation for late harvest, or fully ripe wines). The acidity is superb, and combines with that sugar to produce nothing short of a magical balance. An insane value for the price. 7.5% ABV. Retail = $35ish.
Jean Luc Mader Rosaker Grand Cru Alsace Riesling 2014
I’ve been a little gun-shy around Alsatian Rieslings lately. The ones that are readily available here in the US tend to be sweeter, rather than dry. And I hate it when my palate is expecting one thing and gets another. But it’s my own fault. If I would just remember to look at the ABV — the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine — that wouldn’t happen. This one came in at 13% ABV, so you can bet the farm it’s going to be dry. Very clean and pure tasting, with flavors of stone fruit and apples. Wicked acidity, but beautifully balanced. Retail = $50ish.
My favorite of the first four? The Alsatian Riesling. Time to hit the Interweb for a re-supply.
Next, we moved on to four Rieslings from Riesling heavyweight, Joh. Jos. Prüm. The Prüm estate was founded in 1911 (practically yesterday in Euro-years), but the Prüm Family has roots in Mosel dating back to the 12th century. The estate’s primary focus is Riesling. Send-a-shiver-up-your-spine Riesling.
Joh. Jos. Prüm 2014 Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett
Graacher is the name of a small village in Mosel, and Himmelreich translates literally to Kingdom of Heaven. The soils there are laced with blue slate, which gives the wines a pronounced mineral character. Kabinett is the German designation for a wine that’s made with fully ripe grapes from the main harvest (vice late harvest). And Kabinett is the German word for cabinet, meaning wines a winemaker would choose to keep for his own cabinet. This is a wonderful example of a Mosel Riesling. So pure and elegant. Apples and citrus and minerals galore. Retail = $35ish.
Joh. Jos. Prüm 2014 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese
Wehleier Sonnenuhr is a very steep and very rocky vineyard in Mosel, and Sonnenuhr is German for sundial. The blue slate in this vineyard is said to be the “purest” blue slate in the Mosel. This is a very elegant wine, with flavors of stone fruits, citrus, and tons of minerals. How can something so light have so much flavor? Retail = $40ish.
Joh. Jos. Prüm 2011 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese
It was so interesting to taste these three vintages side by side. Age does something magical for Riesling. The edges of an already elegant wine soften, but the balance doesn’t. Retail = $40ish.
Joh. Jos. Prüm 2007 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese
My favorite of the three vintages, hands down. Just wow. One of those wines that make your eyes roll into the back of your head. Elegant and smooth. Supremely layered flavors. Petrol nose. Apples and slate. I was really bummed when my taste of this was gone. So, I made it my mission this week to find and buy a case of this!! Retail = $45ish.
There’s really nothing like the transformation that takes place in a Riesling bottle over the years. Aged Rieslings are simply magic — like drinking sunshine, from sunrise to sunset.
We had a pretty perfect afternoon at RdV Vineyards, enjoying and learning about Riesling. And, on our way out, it got even more perfect: we got to watch a dramatic summer storm roll in over the hills . . .