It was a few years ago, in a terrific restaurant in the gorgeous town of Colmar in Alsace in the northeast of France, when I first really fell in love… with riesling.
It was a grand cru and the local winemaker had brought along a couple of bottles of his finest for a meal with a trio of wine writers. Previously, although I was conscious of its virtues, I don’t think I’d ever really “got” riesling to the same extent as, say, I had when, way back, I first tasted Marlborough sauvignon blanc or a barrel-fermented chenin blanc from South Africa, to name two of my other favourite white wines.
Riesling was always a bit too off-dry or simply too sweet, or sometimes too petrol-y for my liking, or sometimes just a bit insipid. But, on this occasion, it just clicked.
What was quite memorable was how, as the wine breathed a little in the opened and slowly emptied bottles, the flavour developed and seemed to mutate to match the range of dishes – from fish to meat, cheese and pudding – with the sprightly, citrus notes at the outset developing into something more savoury and complex.
Now, as I said, it was an excellent wine with great food and we can’t replicate that experience or afford a grand cru every day, but it did help me understand the appeal of riesling and also the context of drinking it correctly. What is also interesting is that in places like Alsace and neighbouring central European countries where it is mostly grown – Germany, Austria and northern Italy, the weather can be forbidding in winter and the food appropriately hearty – think choucroute and a variety of robust meaty dishes, loads of ham and bacon – which the locals happily pair with riesling, whatever the weather.
And the local version of coq au vin, traditionally made with red wine, is, of course, coq au riesling, a truly excellent alternative. So be brave with your riesling, buy the best you can afford, let it breathe a little, don’t drink it too cold and don’t be afraid to pair it with the kind of dishes that might overwhelm a pinot grigio or a sauvignon blanc; this is a remarkably food-friendly wine.
In fact I’d be tempted to say that it is actually better with food than as an aperitif on its own. And remember that Riesling comes in a variety of styles with a flavour palate ranging from a very dry, limey, flinty minerality to a more luscious, off-dry style, but full of complexity – so make sure you know what you are buying.
Riesling can reveal its virtues quite slowly and subtly – there is a difficult to define nervy taughtness about them that is unlike other wines; but to my mind, it is when they relax that they really come into their own. For instance the AJ Adam Dronher Riesling Troken 2014 (£19.99 kwoff.co.uk; £25.50 thegoodwineshop.co.uk) from the Mosel is definitely something of a slow burner: zesty and tight when first opened, you might wonder what justifies the price – but it needs plenty of time to breathe and then its fruit flavours emerge, with notes of mandarin, apricots and hazelnuts, still very dry, light on its feet and with a long finish. Will handle quite spicy fish dishes – such as cod with chorizo and chickpeas – as well as roast pork or veal.
Germany, is, of course, pretty much riesling central and although the emphasis was always towards the off-dry end of the spectrum – and once very popular in the UK – more wines are now much drier and more focused. That same equisite balance between luscious fruit and dryness is also apparent in the Vom Rotliegenden Trocken Okonomierat Rebholz 2017 (£18.33, minimum order 12 bottles, justerinis.com) from a top-notch vineyard in the Pfalz, which is also taught and intense, with stony mineral flavours and hints of green apples and pears emerging. Wonderfully complex and enticing.
In northern Austria, the Kamptal region is home to some great Rieslings, including the biodynamic Loimer Kamptal Riesling 2019 (£16.95 etonvintners.com) from the excellent vintage last year. Full of sumptuous apricot and passion fruit flavours, but very dry on the finish.
Compared to the previous three wines, all of which need a little time to reveal themselves fully, the San Leonardo Riesling Trentino 2016 (£31.75 vinvm.co.uk), trom the mountainous Alto Adige-Trentino region in northern Italy, is more linear and obvious from the start, with thrilling minerality, bracing flavours of lemon and lime and a refined, very Italian elegance – as pure as an Alpine stream. Avoid anything too spicy here – this is for a special meal, with the finest, simply cooked white fish, such as turbot or Dover sole.
Of course riesling is no longer confined to these central European areas. South Australia’s Eden Valley has the right climate to make brilliant riesling, with its own distinctive New World forwardness sufficiently restrained: these are not like your average over-oaked chardonnays. The Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling Eden Valley 2013 (£24.00 specialistcellars.co.uk) has that little bit more richness and intensity that comes from some bottle ageing, but hasn’t yet developed those “petrol” aromas that can be a little offputting for some – albeit enticing to others. It’s complex, mineral and bursting with citrus flavours; a brilliant wine for any kind of shellfish and white meats.
The wonderfully named Dandelion Vineyards “Enchanted Garden of the Eden Valley” Riesling 2019 (£14.29 haywines.co.uk) tastes more rounded and full than its vintage might suggest, with an almost mealy texture and flavours of pears and passion fruit emerging from the intense minerality; perfect with white meats or lighter game, like pan-fried pheasant breasts.
Just to the north, the Clare Valley is also noted for its exceptional wines, such as the Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2019 Clare Valley (£30.28.bbr.com). This is another special occasion wine that simply oozes class and complexity: steely on palate; lemon and lime flavours; bracing minerality; and a long finish. Riesling is also getting considerable attention in China and the Kanaan Winery Ningxia Riesling 2018 (£21.20 vinvm.co.uk) is something of a revelation – it’s not classic riesling but has a zesty style all of its own, with lots of grapefruit and other citrus flavours rather like one of the more restrained New World sauvignon blancs – and would be excellent with any spicy Asian-style dishes.
But now back to Alsace, where, to my mind, the finest Rieslings can often be found, in an area where the dry and sunny but temperate climate produces some of the best white wines in Europe. If you want the grand cru experience, look no further than these two: the Cave de Hunawihr Riesling Grand Cru “Rosacker” 2018 (£23.99 henningswine.co uk; £18.50, min order six bottles, thefinewinecompany.co.uk) is simply exceptional, again that clean minerality with underlying ripe pear and citrus notes, a full texture and a long finish; it perfectly matched the creamy, mushroomy coq au riesling I cooked to accompany tasting some of these wines.
And equally stunning, from one of the great names of Alsace, and perhaps my choice for a choucroute, is the Domaine Schlumberger Grand Cru 2017 (£27.00 noblegreenwines.co.uk) which is perhaps richer and more traditional style: complex, ripe fruit flavours and a hint of spice. Yes, some of these wines are on the pricey side for everyday drinking, but, when perhaps our social lives are constrained, we need to treat ourselves at home. And you never know, you might just fall in love.