We might not fully embrace the Germans’ enthusiasm for leather shorts and pickled cabbage, but no wine says ‘English country garten’ quite like Riesling. Brimming with crisp, green apple flavours, lemon and lime, balanced by acidity as taut as tennis-racquet strings, as light and fresh as the summer rain that might stop play, nothing beats Riesling for messing about in the sun.
Riesling has suffered by unfair association with sugary Liebfraumilch and cheap German brands beloved by Big Brother contestants. Yet Riesling is extolled as ‘the greatest wine grape of all’ by Hugh Johnson, who should be a professor at Hogwarts School of Wine Writing, if there were such a thing.
This most Teutonic of grapes is the only non-French variety included in the elitist Francophile club of ‘noble’ grapes; and in the late-19th century, German Rieslings were as highly prized, and just as highly priced, as the great reds of Bordeaux.
What's Riesling like?
Mouthwatering, rapier-like acidity holds the key for Riesling, providing the elegance and structure, the steely backbone that prevents even the sweetest versions imploding into a cloying, sugary mess. This same acidity also allows Riesling to age gracefully, developing layers of honey, marzipan and trademark aromas of petrol and kerosene (A Good Thing) that come with age.
Riesling – pronounced ‘Reese-ling’ – covers the full dry/sweet spectrum from aristocratically austere to thrillingly rich, though the trend is becoming drier.
The words trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (half-dry, or off-dry) offer guidance on labels, while Wines of Germany advises, ‘If no taste description appears, the wine will usually have some perceptible sweetness’.
Where Riesling grapes are grown
There can be no better example of grape and vineyard working in perfect harmony than Riesling in its spiritual homeland in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in northern Germany. Here, a slow, cool growing season allows the grapes to ripen slowly while retaining their life-affirming acidity.
The best vineyards are on steep, south-facing slopes for maximum exposure to sunlight. The slate soils also store warmth, which is reradiated after sundown, while imparting a mineral-y quality to the wines. The vines are planted neither too low, where river mists would inhibit ripening, nor too high (above 200m), which would be a tad too cold.
German Riesling remains the benchmark but fine examples also come from Alsace, in France, where the heavier clay soils produce fuller, weightier, drier versions.
Australian Riesling, especially from the Clare and Eden Valleys, also deserves its fine reputation. Riesling vines were planted by German immigrants whose Lutheran churches and oompah bands still punctuate the skyline and stillness of the Barossa region.
Australian Rieslings are stronger and fuller-bodied than their German counterparts, yet the best examples retain a steely structure and refreshing fruit with a ripe lime quality.
Pairing Riesling with food
Riesling’s racy acidity makes it a versatile partner for food. Drier styles work well with shellfish, smoked fish, sushi and salads.
Off-dry Rieslings go with Oriental and Asian food, while the sweetest styles are ridiculously good with blue cheese and tangy fruit tarts.
Being naturally low in alcohol – often as low as 8% – German Riesling is light in calories, so it’s perfect for sipping by the pool. Just be sure to reserve your sun lounger with an early deployment of towels.