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Spring is Riesling season par excellence. While I personally enjoy drinking Riesling year-round, from a commercial perspective this is the moment to focus on lighter styled, more delicate herb and floral scented versions, whether they feature discernible residual sugar or not, because of the strong link between Nature’s annual reawakening and the style of this grape. Featuring Riesling that is fresh, low in alcohol and redolent of garden fragrances, signals that you are in step with our overall shift to lighter dining fare and less cumbersome clothing.

Not to stereotype Riesling as a pretty seasonal wine and nothing else. Some of the oldest and most complex white wines I’ve ever tasted have been examples from Germany and Alsace. Beyond longevity, what’s remarkable about top notch Riesling is its clear ability to express subtle differences among wines of varying vineyard origins in a way that very few other grapes (Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, among others) are able to. Another strength is its versatility with food. While the grape’s reputation has suffered among the consuming public until recently, it has long been a chefs’ favorite. There are Rieslings for a wide variety of dishes, although sometimes this very chameleon-like quality has left buyers wary. Of all noble varieties, Riesling is the one that you are least able to purchase with confidence unless you know the specific wine’s characteristics.

Confusion is understandable because there are so many Riesling iterations, particularly with regards to residual sugar levels. Whether bone dry, semi-dry or fully sweet, good quality Riesling remains a wine of balance, purity and length of flavor. Interestingly, the two great historic Riesling regions seem to be trending in opposite directions in terms of style; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they are coming together, as more Alsatian wines are bottled with discernible sweetness and Germany produces a higher proportion of drier wines each vintage. One thing for certain is that because Riesling is fickle to grow, there’s little reason to produce it as just a fruit drink substitute containing alcohol, since other varieties more reliably fulfill this function at a lower production cost. This is not to deny that a well-chilled Riesling can be very refreshing and satisfying on a hot day, but only to emphasize that the grape is capable of delivering so much more, in terms of food compatibility and reflection of terroir-expressive flavors.

Following are my notes, with the wines (all magnificent!) listed in ascending order of preference.

Tasting a vertical flight a few years ago with Jean Trimbach, of Maison Trimbach, illustrated the point about ability (even necessity) to age, as well as quality transcending the level of sugar.  Trimbach generously provided a wide range of his two great signature wines, the “Cuvee Frederick Emile” and the “Clos Ste. Hune”.

At Trimbach they only make this rare late harvest wine if botrytis attacks the grapes, which in Alsace’s dry climate happens only sporadically.  Originating from grapes grown on one south facing parcel, this has an intriguing combination of tropical and vegetal floral scents.  It is sweet and luscious, with pineapple balanced by a stony minerality, but perhaps just shy of acid.

Interestingly enough, in this exceedingly hot year (with an unheard of 11 days over 1OO degrees Fahrenheit in August and unusually warm evenings throughout the season), the signature Riesling attained lower alcohol levels than normal because many of the vines shut down ripening completely.  The wine had a lovely delicate apple blossom scent, a green herb, slightly vegetal fragrance, and steely taste on the palate that was balanced with just a touch of sugar.  Clean, very engaging and delicate, it had the classic character of a wine you would associate with a cool vintage.  It was considered more forward and was actually released prior to the 2OO1 and 2OO2 vintages.

Still very pale in color, this wine had greener, more earthy, herb accents, with a clear expression of minerality and a riper, more tart lemon and apple flavor.  It tasted absolutely bone dry, with a lean, tart finish.  Still extremely young and very promising.

From a densely planted 3 acre walled vineyard in the Rosacker Grand Cru that is protected from winds, the Clos Ste. Hune is always an experience that is more intense and more distinctive than the Frederick Emile (which is a blend of three Grand Cru sites).  Originating on the most limestone-rich site in Alsace, from 5O+-year-old vines, this wine featured a fine green apple and stony earthy scent.  Medium in body, with soft acids and a creamy, mineral accented flavor, this is a Riesling style emphasizing great finesse.  1997 was relatively hot in Alsace and the result (as with the hot vintage 2OO3 Frederick Emile) is a wine of understatement.

This was a rainy year, which complicated maturation, but it is one of the best Frederick Emile’s I’ve ever tasted, at least on a par with the previous wine.  The nose is mature, with tangerine skin, earth and the aroma of oil all nicely integrated.  On the palate it has a predominantly earthy taste at first, but then a profusion of Riesling fruit bursts through, with rich Mandarin orange, ripe lemon and crisp apple coming on in waves.  The fruit is penetrating, the finish long and very satisfying.

Despite its considerable age this wine has the most intensity, weight and, incredibly enough, promise.  The nose was muted at first, then revealed a smoky, lemon and apple character, accented by delicate white flowers.  Very lush, with a rich balance of orange marmalade and lemon flavors and, as with the other vintages of Ste. Hune, a magically long pure finish.

Another great Alsatian producer whose Rieslings I have been fortunate to taste through in a range of vintages recently is Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.  This fully biodynamic estate is run by Olivier Zind-Humbrecht with the intention of expressing the specific characteristics of each harvest and each terroir under cultivation.  He seeks to interfere as little as possible with the natural biological processes of plant growth and wine production so that each of his many cuvees finish fermentation whenever the yeast themselves stop reproducing.  The Domaine’s approach to residual sugar levels is that once fermentation ends, however many grams remain is the amount that each wine should have.  While this can be very confusing for consumers, beginning a number of years ago, Zind-Humbrecht has been marking each wine with a numerical index of how much sweetness each wine has, with 5 being very sweet.  In 2OO7 the Rieslings were mostly very dry, with strong acidity levels.  The one at right is a stunner:

From a gently sloping limestone-rich 3 acre vineyard with vines average over 3O-years-old, this wine is lemony and vivacious, with a searingly tart, stony structure.  It has a floral fragrance, is very juicy and citric, and has a long, shimmering finish.  It doesn’t have the weight or the fruit intensity and extract of the Grand Crus Zind-Humbrecht produced in the same vintage, of course, but it strikes me as having Grand Cru aromatic and mineral complexity.

Among the other Rieslings I’ve tasted recently that are worthy of comment, the following blind tasting winners each represent a different style than Trimbach or Zind-Humbrecht.  The positive note is that consumers remain interested in Riesling’s appeal and, in fact, appear more willing to turn to it than ever, despite the complexity of varying sugar levels and styles.  As with the above, those at right are listed in ascending order of preference.

With an aroma of cooked apple, herb and limeleaf, this drier style Riesling shows a strong influence of lees contact.  It has an earthy, apple skin, slightly cheese-like finish, with faint hints of apricot.  A good illustration of the fact that Alsace, or Germany, do not have a monopoly on Riesling ageability. 

Lightly floral, with fresh herb and delicate honeyed fruit flavors.  There’s a touch of spritz, medium sugar levels and plenty of apple-like acids to balance the sugar.  Very engaging, a charming spring and summer quaffer.

Very light, with a petrol, delicate apple aroma, this medium sweet Riesling features bracing acid and gentle tart fruit flavors.  It’s a very fresh and clean example.  South Africa does not produce a lot of Riesling, but if this is any indication of an evolving style, it’s a fruitful direction to follow.

This reliable Saar estate produces a slightly sweet, mushroom and lemon accented Riesling that is quite interesting and balanced at a moderate price.  At the Qba level it’s hard to find sweet Riesling in a ripe vintage that is not a bit candied, but this is structured firmly, with crisp delightful fruit and a peachy tangerine-like finish.

Another in a string of very fine, abnormally warm vintages in the Mosel, with riper fruit profiles, this is quite sweet and light in body.  Pale green in color, it has great apple-like juiciness, with more than a hint of spritz and very tart acids.  Racy and lingering, it’s a fresh young wine from one of the premier estates and einzellagen in the Middle Mosel that tastes wonderful in its youth but can evolve for 1O to 15 years.

If there’s an untold story of a great American wine, it has to be upstate New York Riesling.  Weighing in at a svelte, positively Germanic 11.5% alcohol, this beauty has a steely, herb-scented peach quality that is fresh and delicious.  It’s got a bit of spritziness, but also a soft, mellow texture to support the fruit.  Lightly sweet and citric on the palate, it’s one of those Rieslings that will pair with a range of spice-accented fish and poultry dishes.  The winery makes an outstanding “Dry” Riesling that is almost as good.

With a waxy, melon, apricot mélange of fruit on the nose, this is a thoroughly delicious dry Riesling with a great cut of acid.  Oily and rich on the palate, it’s complex flavors are rounded out by lemon peel, peach pit and crunchy apple.  The whole fruit section of your grocer all in one wine!