Class Recap: “Riesling”

How should we introduce riesling?

An aristocrat fallen on hard times, maybe.

Like pinot noir, it has a deep association with a specific place and soil type (Côte d’Or and limestone, for pinot noir; the Mosel and slate, for riesling) broken up into dozens of tiny named vineyards obsessively ranked by specialists. Also, monks.

Like pinot, despite said deep association, it’s also travelled far, not just Germany (where it’s the country’s most-planted variety) but central Europe, the Balkans, across the Rhine to Alsace, and overseas to Australia and the Americas.

Like pinot, it’s one of those grapes invariably called ‘noble.’ It’s probably a cross between ancient progenitor vine gouais blanc and traminer, or a close relative of traminer. This makes it related to pinot, too, and means that at least eighty other varieties are its half-siblings or grandchildren or grandparents, everything from gamay and chardonany to furmint and blaufränkisch. The name shares the same root for the old German word that came to mean writing, rîzan, which originated in carved runes and had the early sense of ‘to tear, to make an incision,’ and might have something to do with how the berries split between the fingers.

And it was valued enough to have unrelated knockoffs passed off as substitutes and named in its honor: ‘riesling Italico’ or ‘welschriesling’ in Austria and northern Italy, ‘grey riesling’ (trousseau gris) in California, ‘Cape riesling’ in South Africa.

For all of that, though—the pedigree, the name recognition, the international reach—there’s a stigma that riesling just can’t seem to shake. Everything about it is shadowed by the question of sweetness.

It’s not just that riesling was turned into an industrial commodity. Most international grape varieties have been; it’s how they got international. Nobody writes pinot off because of the 12 million bottles of Meiomi produced annually. Riesling had the misfortune of being turned into a commodity that the culture decided wasn’t cool.

Sweetness was special, once. Especially in climates that grow wine, natural sweetness was a rarity, difficult to obtain and treasured when it appeared. Colonialism, slavery, and plantation sugar changed the game. (The book to read is Sidney Mintz’s classic 1986 anthropological text Sweetness and Power.) The European postwar period brought beverage technology that made sweetness even easier to dial in: temperature control, stainless steel, sterile filtration. Suddenly, sweet wine was something you could pump out on demand.

Despite all kinds of mass market wines powered by sneaky levels of dialed-in sugar—everything from ’80s-style white zinfandel and moscato to supermarket red blends like Apothic and, yes, Meiomi pinot noir—riesling as a grape seems to shoulder a lot of the burden. In a world where the first question I’m asked across the bar is whether a wine is ‘dry’, the presumption is almost always that riesling isn’t.

If you want an extra meta-level to the narrative, I think that riesling has been, classically, (like since the ’80s) a wine industry darling, championed by geeks who complain they can’t get a wider audience hyped on it. The natural wine revolution of the last two decades has flipped the script. So many of those classic German riesling producers are growing on slopes soaked in herbicide, adding sterile-filtered süssreserve to sweeten up their kabinetts, dosing at hundreds of ppm of sulfur. It’s not that rieslings made in a lower-intervention way don’t exist (or that natural wines with a degree of sweetness can’t) but the 22 year-old baby somms who were drinking bottles of back-vintage spätlese after work in the East Village in the late aughts are now much more like to be pounding glasses of chenin on schist.

Anyways: here are three rieslings that are dry, made from organic farming at minimum, and vinified with a level of intervention ranging from “low” to “lower.” Special shout-out to Aquila Cellars in the western slope of Colorado, whose first vintage was in 2019!

Class was on Super Bowl Sunday and also the night before Valentine’s Day (lol), Sunday, February 13th. Some questions to ask while you taste:

1. What do you expect from riesling? How do these wines meet or challenge those expectations?

2. Spend a moment with the acid structure and textural shape of these wines. How do they feel different, in terms of expressions of place?

3. Riesling is often pigeon-holed in terms of style and expression. What are some different ways you might use these wines? What kinds of drinkers might you introduce them to?

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How it might look on a wine list
CLEMENS BUSCH, riesling trocken MOSEL

In one sentence
A biodynamic grower in riesling’s Côte d’Or.

Who made it? Clemens and Rita Busch, who have put together about 16 hectares in the years since Clemens took over the family winery in 1984.
From where? The slate slopes plunging into the Mosel river, in Germany, a place that, in its tiny fragmented named vineyards and devotion to a single grape variety and historical prestige and monks echoes the place of pinot noir in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.
Out of what? Riesling up to around 60 years old grown in a hillside amphitheater of grey, blue, and reddish slate facing Clemens’ village of Pünderich across the river. Seventeen hectares of the hill are planted to vine and Clemens owns 11 of them. The entire hill is now known by the name of what was, historically, its most famous vineyard: the Marienburg. I marked up the satellite map to show you:

Made how? Clemens does almost all of his wines in ancient (youngest is a half century old) 1,000L wood barrels, indigenous yeast fermentation, doesn’t sulfur or freeze to block malo, and at most there’s a light filtration and 30ppm sulfur added at bottling. The regular riesling trocken is the only one fermented and aged in stainless.

How it might look on a wine list
LINDENLAUB, riesling, “En équilibre”, ALSACE

In one sentence
Powerful, smoky, zero-sulfur riesling for your Alsatian mixed grill.

Who made it? Christophe Lindenlaub, whose father started bottling the family’s wines to sell for the first time in the mid-80s; Christophe started helping out in 1999 and, together they began moving their farming to organics in 2009. In 2014, Christophe decided to forgo sulfur in the cellar.
From where? Dorlisheim, a village just a little west of Strasbourg in Alsace, a border region whose cultural identity owes as much to the other side of the Rhine as it does to ‘France’. They make their coq au vin with riesling.
Out of what? Young-ish vines on limestone and reddish sandstone.
Made how? Cold soaked and pressed to ferment with native yeasts and age in stainless steel tanks, bottled without filtration and without added SO2.

How it might look on a wine list
AQUILA, skin-contact riesling, “Something for the Kids”, NORTHFORK VALLEY

In one sentence
Textural, ultra-high elevation skin-contact riesling from a new biodynamic project in the western slope of Colorado.

Who made it? Brandt Thibodeaux and Courtney Geyer, who are doing a mix of local landowner partnership (committing to rehabilitate and farm a neglected or abandoned vineyard, say) and new experimental plantings to see what grows at some of the highest elevations in the the world. Practicing biodynamic.
Out of what? The Dill Vineyard, 3 acres on a 6,300 mesa on a property with sagebrush, pasture, and apple orchards that the current owners bought in 2018.
From where? Northfolk Valley in the western slope of Colorado, near Hotchkiss, a place I mapped for Craig Cavallo and Dan Pucci’s American Cider. I’ll let Brandt explain it (this is from an interview he did with the folks at Domestique in DC): 

“There are not many places in the world where temps in the summer peak 100F and the winters drop below 0F.  The closest climate to the Northfork Valley is Armenia. Unfortunately, none of the ancient varieties, like Areni Noir, that are grown there have become available to the US, but this is something we are working on. Bud damage and drought have adversely affected yields since 2017, so our production in 2019 and 2020 was less than half of what we should have produced and in 2021 we had nearly 100% bud damage and only harvested one barrel from about 30 acres. From a farming side, it is our goal to shift everything from bi-lateral cordon to cane pruning, and to experiment with other styles of grafting, pruning, and planting that we think will be more effective and more cost effective. We also intend to start intercropping with medicinal herbs/cash crops in every other row in order to diversify the biology of the farms and our revenue streams. As of next year we hope to start experimental plantings of over 30 vinifera varieties that we think will do even better than Pinot Noir and will work on bringing in about 30 vinifera varieties that currently are not available, including those from Armenia.”
Made how? Two harvests, an early one in September for acidity and a later one in October for richness & texture, both footstomped and given a few days of skin contact, the early harvest thrown in with the late one to finish fermentation and then pressed into steel tank. They were going for pét-nat, but there were bottle stability issues so they disgorged everything back into tank and let it finish fermentation and chill out before bottling.

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