Riesling is a Noble Grape

Riesling is a grape of many ways. It can be dry from a fermentation that consumes all the fruit sugars, it can be still or sparkling. Some evolve gracefully from time spent aging in a bottle, others in a great big tartrate lined oak barrel that has been used for centuries. The interior of these barrels gives the wine a distinct mouthfeel that is definitely not anywhere near oaky.

Many people think Riesling is sweet and it can be. But there is so much more to it! Riesling can be semi-sweet or semi-dry, sweet or even real sweet as in dessert. It can be crisp and it can have a wonderful minerality. It’s a very versatile grape. And the Germans and Alsatians have been perfecting this for a few centuries.

A couple of common characteristics of Riesling, especially those from Germany, are they are rarely blended with other varietals and rarely exposed to oak. With the possible exception of some maverick vintners fermenting in neutral oak barrels or the Alsatians who use barrels lined with hundreds of years’ worth of tartrates.

The wine classification system in Germany is highly organized and much can be learned about the wine’s pedigree by reading the label. The German Wine Law of 1971 is strictly adhered to in Germany’s delineated and registered vineyards and the grapes from these vineyards can be used to make wine of the different quality levels, that are determined by the ripeness, or must weight (more sugars make a heavier must) of the grapes.

In Germany, sugar levels at the time of harvest are an important consideration in the Qualitatswein (quality wine) production. The sweetness of the wine is categorized using terms that describe the ripeness of the grapes such as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Berenauslese, Trockenberenauslese and Eiswein.

Equally important is wine’s acidity which is made possible by the cool nights on the steep ridges of the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer Rivers off the Rhine River where some think the best Rieslings in the world are made.

Acidity is yang to the Riesling’s sugars yin. You must have an equal amount of both to make a balanced wine. There are two types of acidity, malic acid and tartaric acid. Malic acid is the softer rounder acidity. Similar to the mouthfeel of a nice cold glass of half and half. Tartaric acidity will bring a snappy citrus crispness to your wine.

In cool years, waiting until November to harvest Riesling is a high stakes gamble. If the birds don’t make off with the harvest, the longer hang time and cooler weather concentrates the sugars and the acidity levels definitely rise.

Hundreds of years of practice at making wine in a cold climate was an exacting science for German winemakers. They measured the fruit sugars, the acidity and always keeping an eye on the thermometer, both inside and out. Before refrigeration, wineries could and did stabilize the wine with the weather, the low temps in winter would halt fermentation and leave the wines with natural sugars and a resultant lower alcohol.

High levels of both acidity and sugar are necessary if you intend to age a Riesling. Riesling acquires more depth and breadth as it ages. If the levels are high, after ten or so years, they could precipitate out into “wine jewels” little tartaric deposits in the bottom of the bottle.

I recently shared (wine is always better when shared) a bottle of a Selbach 2003 Zeltinger Himmelreich Spätlese from my cellar. Reading the label word by word, Selbach is the producer. Himmelreich is the name of the town where the vineyards lie and Himmelreich is the name of the delineated vineyard. Finally, Spätlese is the name of the style the wine according to the strict law of the Germans. It was magnificent with the lemon, ginger and white pepper cake.

Another you may be familiar with is Dr. Loosen (In German, double vowels are never both pronounced, only the second vowel is used) 2016 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett. A delicious, lip smacking wine with everything. Spice, minerality, floral notes and lovely fruit.

The Langguth family winery was founded in 1789 by Franz Wilhelm Langguth. They have expanded from the Mosel to five continents. They also own the famous Blue Nun brand and is in the top five of German wine producers.

In the early 1980’s, they made the move to Washington state to try their winemaking knowledge on Riesling. They invested a heap of money to build a very huge winery in Mattawa. It opened in 1982. Jurgen Grieb, a graduate of a German winemaking institute, was imported to be the winemaker.

Weinbau Vineyard, a 460-acre vineyard was planted in 1981 as part of Langguth Winery. Alas, some good wines were made but after a few years they were out of business. Weinbau is now part of the Sagemoor partnership, the huge winemaking facility is a custom-crush winery and Jurgen Grieb liked Washington state enough that her stayed on to open his own winery, Treveri Cellars in Wapato.

Treveri Cellars Sparkling Riesling is, in the German tradition, 100% Riesling. From Washington’s oldest AVA, Yakima Valley, this sparkling wine is semi-dry and like any of their sparkling wines, perfect for every occasion.

One other enormous German influence on Washington Riesling comes in the form of a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen. Eroica Riesling was launched in 1999 and is 100% Riesling primarily the Ancient Lakes AVA. The winery describes the name best: “Named for Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Erotica reflects not only its variety and site, but also its heritage: bold and forward from its Washington roots, elegant and refined from German inspiration.” Well said.