June 27, 2021

The Riesling Renaissance

Riesling is probably one of the most misunderstood grape varieties on the planet. From the slate steppes of the Mosel to the sandstones of the Clare Valley of South Australia, Riesling has a personality that manages to charm its way onto tables across the globe.

In centuries past it was revered across Europe, a favorite of the Romanoff family in the Russian court in the late 19th Century and gaining the highest prices for any wine on the market at that time.

Fast forward to the 1970s when a veritable ocean of dilute, sweet, commercial and very subpar versions flooded the market, undermining the reputation of this most noble of varieties. The culprits shall remain nameless but references to ecclesiastical maidens living in dark towers cause shivers to run up the spine of creditable Riesling producers.

Enter some of the modern heroes of the Riesling renaissance. Dr Ernst Loosen in the Mosel, Jeffrey Grossett in the Clare, New Zealand's own Hatsch Kalberer and Andrew Hedley in Marlborough have taken Riesling seriously, producing wines of true international benchmark standard. The best producers have a tendency to be a little fanatical about Riesling. Often producing myriad styles at extremely high quality – from fine, steely, rapier like dry wines with what can best be described as thrilling acidity to lush, opulent, even decadent botrytis affected “stickies” that take the term concentration to an absolute extreme, and various styles in between. And that’s the problem.

From a consumers perspective the stylistic range that Riesling as a variety can take is at once a blessing and a curse. The other problem is that commercial Riesling bears little resemblance to the finest examples which contribute to this identity crisis. In New Zealand our cool climate means Riesling can often retain its acidity a little too thrillingly which urges winemakers to leave a little too much residual sugar to balance. The result is a kind of Riesling mash up – part sweet, partly dry, usually deliciously aromatic but sometimes too heavily influenced with botrytis to be taken too seriously – but that’s another story.

So in effect we winemakers have created the perfect storm. Confusing customers so much so that we've forced them away to other easier to understand or attention-grabbing styles.

Having made Riesling in New Zealand since the early 1990’s we have seen and felt this demise acutely. Making Riesling has always been one of the greatest of challenges as a viticulturist and winemaker as there is virtually nothing to hide behind, no oak, no malo, very little lees influence. This means the quality of the fruit is absolutely paramount. Our little block at Lake Waitaki is one of those magical sites that allows Riesling to reveal its true self. We prefer to make dry styles, and this site is warm enough and dry enough with soils of low enough vigour to allow Riesling to ripen slowly, getting the acid and sugar in the sweet spot to vinify to almost complete dryness.

In 2016 this worked extremely well. Our son Nic spent a big chunk of summer thinning the bunches determined by shoot length, as the shoots were small we didn’t leave too many bunches. Hence low yields and concentrated flavour. Once ripe, the fruit was carefully hand harvested.

In the cellar this respectful treatment continued with gentle whole bunch pressing, low temperature fermentation and moderate lees contact to allow the wine to “knit” together. At bottling the wine is simply delicious. Concentrated Riesling aromatics of white flowers, yellow and green citrus, lemons and limes with a very attractive note of ripe gala apple and a hint of ripe peach. Behind these primary fruit aromas is a subtle flinty note we believe is derived from our sandstone soils – minerality if you will. In the mouth the wine is equally profound. Concentrated ripe Riesling flavours held in check by balanced acidity hold the wine in a dry tension that simply begs for salty food. Pair this with grilled scampi or prawns. It will drink well in its youth but equally will reward cellaring to reveal its true identity, that’s if you have the time.

Jeff Sinnott & Jim Jerram, Ostler Vineyard