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Is Riesling the greatest white grape?

Christopher Burr. Master of Wine. September 2023.


 Is Riesling the greatest white grape

If you search retail websites for the most popular grapes, invariably Riesling doesn't feature, and often a search for most popular country doesn't feature Germany, the home of Riesling. You have to search for white wines, then it comes up, as everywhere stocks some Riesling wines.

But it is true that almost every other grape is more popular: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio coming top of the popularity list. Even grapes unheard of a few years ago, like Picpoule, or Albarinho now feature widely. Go back to the time of Queen Victoria, and Riesling was by far the most popular wine drunk in Britain. And that carried on right up until the 1960s. Admittedly, Victoria married a German Prince, and they honey-mooned in, and often visited, the Rhineland. There is even a statue of Queen Victoria in one of the finest vineyards in Hochheim, aptly re-named after her visit as Hochheimer Victoriaberg. Indeed, also at that time, sparkling Mosel, made from Riesling, was more popular than Champagne.

It never ceases to surprise me that most of my serious wine loving friends, and professionals in the wine business, love the Riesling grape, and adore wines made from it, yet it still remains unfashionable.

Why does it appeal to wine professionals? I think mainly because the grape expresses so many aspects of what wine can be. It always tastes like where it comes from, perhaps the best at expressing "terroir" as the French call it. The grey slate vineyards in the Mosel give a slate palate, whereas the red slate soils further down the valley give a totally different taste. Likewise, the warmth of Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia, where much Riesling is grown, express a totally different fruit aroma and taste, even from cooler hill sites, than say the Rhein or Mosel in Germany, or the Villages of Alsace in Northern France, each of which having a different micro-climate.

Riesling can also make the best and most divine sweet wines, beautifully crafted off-dry or semi-sweet wines, and crisp bright dry wines, all top class, and all balanced with wonderful acidity to prevent the sweetness becoming cloying or heavy.

In the heyday of Riesling popularity, the fashion was for some residual sugar, which meant that not all the sugar was fermented out to alcohol, so most wines were of 7 to 10% alcohol by volume, so light and easy to drink, yet still packed with complexity and flavour. The fashion these days is to ferment these wines to bone dry. Fine, but the alcohol is invariably 12-12.5%, and many are missing the gastronomic joys of a semi-sweet wine. The Germans call these wines Spatlese and Auslese, where the grapes are left to fully ripen and tend to pair better than any other wine with spicey food like Thai or Indian cooking. High alcohol enhances the "heat" from the spice, so these low alcohol wines are better, and the residual sweetness compliments and balances tastes of spice, and saltiness, with the bright acids and fruit in the wine leaving the mouth fresh and clean.

I am delighted to see a wonderful range of top Rieslings in Laithwaites. Rieslings from all around the World:

The Limited Release Clare Valley Riesling 2022 from the Mount Lofty hills north of Adelaide, is excellent. £8.99 for a mixed case of six.

 Limited Release Clare Valley Riesling

From Western Australia on Margaret River, they also have the Art Series Riesling from top producer Leeuwin.

 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling

From Marlborough, in South Island New Zealand, they also stock Jane Hunter's Riesling - another expression of cool climate.

 Hunter's Riesling

But, quite rightly, they also have an excellent selection of Rhein and Mosel wines, with a wonderful selection of most of Graf Von Buhl's top vineyards, and some from the 2019 vintage. Here I should say, Riesling develops wonderful complexity with a few years age, and is probably the best grape for developing character and charm as it ages, which it does better that all other wines. I am lucky enough to have drunk a great German Riesling from 1727!! It was still wonderful.

All the lovely selection of Von Buhl wines are dry, as is the fashion in Germany. But they do have one sweet Riesling from New Zealand under their Dessert Wine section.

Naked Wines also have a good selection from four excellent German estates, and I am delighted to say they have 27 Rieslings on their list.

In Waitrose I would pick out a wonderful off-dry (Spatlese) wine from the famous home of the Von Metternich family. The Schloss Johannisberger Riesling Grunlack Spätlese, is only 8% alcohol. £42 for a standard 75cl bottle. Perfect for spicey food, or a good cheese board, and lovely as an aperitif.

 Schloss Johannisberger Riesling Grunlack Spätlese

From Dr Ernie Loosen, Waitrose also have his excellent Urziger Wurzgarten Kabinett, reduced from £15.99 to £12.72. It is still a bit young at 2021, but this top vineyard grows some of the best Riesling in the world, so this is great value and worth keeping a few bottles.

 Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett

Pleased to also see Waitrose are selling Dr Loosen Riesling Eiswein, (picked so late in autumn or even Christmas, whilst the first frost has frozen the grapes to concentrate the sugar). £19.99 for a 187ml bottle, but a very special treat for those who love a great sweet wine.

 Dr Loosen Riesling Eiswein

Majestic's selection is equally impressive. Their own Definition Mosel Riesling, is a good dry Riesling made by Ernie Loosen, £9.99 for a mixed six.

 Definition Mosel Riesling

Also, to show their own buyers love of the Riesling grape from around the world, they have the excellent Petaluma 'Hanlin Hill', Clare Valley Riesling, £22.99.

 Petaluma 'Hanlin Hill', Clare Valley Riesling

Seeing the wonderful selections that retailers have, perhaps they should feature them more prominently on the websites and search features. I just have the feeling that apart from Industry "geeks" loving Riesling, perhaps we are on the verge of a re-discovery, and these lower strength, elegant, crisp, flavourful, diverse and expressive wines will suddenly become fashionable again, where they deserve to be.

PS. some may remember the ghastly era of the "Liebfraumilch" boom in the 1950s-1970's. Indifferent, semi-sweet, cheap wine, which put so many people off Riesling, and drove the British 'palate' to bone dry wines. Probably Liebfraumilch, which had a reputation for "naff-ness," was the prime culprit for the decline in Riesling's popularity!

Updated 18th September 2023

Christopher Burr, MW

Christopher Burr, MW

Christopher has been involved in the wine business for over 45 years. He is one of only 502 MW’s from 31 countries worldwide. Learn more about his experience as a Master of Wine here.

Read more articles by: Christopher Burr, MW

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