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APRIL: More on riesling

As a New Zealander I’m not familiar with the brand Blue Nun, but that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with the idea it represents for the riesling grape - syrupy taste, all shiny sugared and shoulder pads of 80s glam (Jem and her Holograms totally drank riesling). 

But, riesling is my favourite white wine grape (as spoken about in January), and so I went off to chat with Ed, from Highbury Vintners, to find out more about this under appreciated wine. Ed inspired me to have the dry Jan realising month in the first place, with his strategically placed ‘Dry January’ sign over the dry rieslings.

Ed and I share the same love over this slender bottled beauty. 

Ed has been working at Highbury Vintners for 2 and half years. It’s a business that has been open since the 80s, a family affair - not Ed’s family, but he knows a lot about the business and so our chat also expanded into life as an independent wine shop. Independent sellers have been growing steadily over the last decade as people are getting more discerning about wine. This has been helped by more wines, varieties and styles being readily available. I am not being biased when I say that New World wines have really changed the way we think, feel and look at wine. Ed said so too, kinda.

“London is arguably the centre of the global wine market - no other city has access to the range of wines we do and is able to sell it as we do. The growth of London restaurant scene has made wine more accessible to people and the influence of world food culture in my view has been at the core of this. Coupled with more people from around the world coming to London bringing their own ideas and wine culture.

Also interestingly we now have a situation where young winemakers from Europe go to the new world to hone their winemaking skills and also young winemakers from the new world going to Europe to hone their skills! ” 

The thing with variety is that it makes ‘things’ accessible. Within a world so dominated by an idea of what wine should be, wine developed concepts akin to brands, and France dominated. You had to know what you were drinking, you had to understand the village, the appellation, the terroir…Wine growing in other places around the world, meant that cheaper wines were available. Therefore wine was moving with the world; and boy was the world moving - quite literally, New Zealanders were coming over to Europe with the knowledge that their favourite Sauvignon Blanc was a kiwi one!

We have been drinking wine since we accidentally fermented some fruit on a hot summer’s day and enjoyed the headiness of that sip. Therefore as caught up as we can get with wine, it is worth noting that wine is not new; but fashions do change. We are currently (in my humble opinion) in heady times where food and therefore wine, is ‘cool’. Pop-ups and Instagram is making the world of dinning and eating adventurous and accessible “…people are more interested in unusual grapes, more willing to try new things, as places like Sager and Wilde, Verden, 40 Maltby Street, 10 Greek Street demonstrate”

Interestingly enough, over the last two - three years the increase in 1/2 bottles and magnums (approx. 3 fold) represents this move towards wine geekery amongst the average person. With half bottles you can try a wider variety of wine, if just two people at the dinner table; and a magnum is perfect for a large dinner party. This is indicative of a trend towards eating and cooking well, at home.

To go back to the idea of wine and branding, brings me back to riesling. Ed pointed out the labels from the German and Austrian resiling - “Can you pronounce that?” - and therein lines the problem - riesling feels unaccessible and complicated. I can understand this, I know I love a riesling but I am the first to admit that I will buy a bottle of wine based on a wine label; so I don't know much about German riesling. How to we change this reputation? This was really what I wanted to find out from Ed - what is riesling, what is it’s identity and how can I go about converting people? Riesling; what is your USP, your elevator pitch?!

“It’s pure. It sings to you” with which Ed went on to explain how it’s not masked by oak (“it is in a way, transparent”), and how (in the right hands) it can take on the terroir so clearly; for example the riesling in Mosel (Germany) is slatey taking on the aspects of the cliffs  Because it can reflect the surroundings so well, it is a “chameleon” grape, it can be dry, austere, limey, lemon, orange, mandarin, stone fruit, ginger, slate and of course petrol-y. This grape is so much more than its image - you can find the perfect riesling for you. And I guess that is why it can be a bit tricky, because it does take a little bit of of work to work out which riesling you like; but hey, nothing good comes easy. Basically no other white grape shows it's terroir like Riesling, terroir being the soil, location and climate from where it's grown.

The rule of thumb is a riesling is either sweet or alcoholic -

“Think of it like a balancing act, generally they can either be dry or sweet, and dry ones tend to have higher alcohol than sweet ones. Sugars that are naturally present in grapes are transformed into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the action using yeast (basic rule of alcoholic fermentation), this stops once all the sugar has been converted into alcohol (normally around 12-15% ABV, but if the sugar levels are higher like in late harvest Beerenauslese and beyond then fermentation can only produce about 7-9%ABV.  Also winemakers can stop fermentation with human intervention by using SO2 and manipulating the ferment (normally at the cheaper end of the market to make wines sweet and simple).”

The German’s are very traditional with their rieslings and have six classifications, - Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein; listed in order of ‘ripeness’, which breaks down as Kabinett is light and a Eiswein (ice wine) is a dessert wine. Although nowadays German Rieslings are generally dry, the other styles needing are more time consuming to produce and are less popular. The Alsace rieslings are often on the dry side and the Australians are dry, limey, petrol - “modern and food friendly” to paraphrase Ed.

Riesling is one of the best white wines to age. To age wine you need structure, tannins, body, acidity and sweetness, and resiling has acidity and sweetness. You can age a Riesling between 10 - 15 years, a lot longer than most white wines. As it ages it becomes honeyed; tropical and richer.

In summary, think about your personal palette, chose a riesling along the lines of alcoholic levels to match your sweet tooth-ness, and avoid anything too new. Personally, I think a dry, petrol-y Australian is perfect with a spicy Thai meal. 

Now, one last New World vs Old World story - the saga of the screw top. EU cork and wine makers were having none of these New World makers buying their cork, flooding their world with all these new wines! And so refused to sell them cork. The wine makers of the New Worlds got together and vowed to make something new, something better, and they did. Voile, the screw top! But of course, the Old World got cross, and lots of snobbery appeared around the screw top. Basically it was a battle of the middle of earth in the wine industry. Well, maybe I’m being a tad dramatic…

Screw tops are great for riesling, as it needs to be delicate to keep its purity when ageing, therefore no oxidising from a cork, is perfect. 

(Next riesling quest is to find out why the bottles are shaped as they are...)


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