Many wine lovers who grew up in Wisconsin cut their teeth on German riesling. Its bright fruit flavor made it easy to appreciate, and just as easy to abandon as those wine lovers’ palates became more sophisticated.
But if you haven’t sampled riesling lately, consider this: Many wine experts say riesling is their favorite grape, and not just because it’s the foundation of the German wine industry.
Riesling, better than any other grape, has the ability to reflect the conditions under which it is grown. Most experts respect riesling’s versatility, resiliency and the terroir that gives the wine its distinct character.
Terroir refers to the various elements that influence wine grapes, including soil, sunlight, climate, length of growing seasons and even the skill of the individual winemaker. Riesling grapes provide a rich, interpretive canvas, and the resulting wine’s transparency reflects more variations in terroir than wine produced by other grapes, yet without succumbing to those conditions.
As such, riesling wines can be as different as night and day, depending on the soil’s mineral content, the vineyard’s elevation and the winemaker’s intent. The resulting wine will well illustrate the grape’s interpretation of all those conditions, and how well they thrive under different growing regimens.
The classic German riesling, all bright fruit, perfumed nose and luscious mouth feel, has long been the grape’s benchmark wine. But the grapes produce excellent variants that can be sweet or dry, dinner or dessert variety, with no loss of integrity.
The nose can range from floral perfume to astringent petrol notes, and the wine’s body can be plump and fulsome, or lightly ethereal. The capability for both is contained in the fruit.
Rieslings historically have been produced in the cooler climates of Austria and Germany, some of which are now being outpaced by New World vineyards in the United States and Canada, not to mention New Zealand and South Africa. Australia’s Clare Valley is pushing the envelope, creating unusual rieslings that experts agree may be the first in some time to truly advance the art form.
Best yet, rieslings chill well and can brighten any outdoor event. Here are seven locally available selections to get you started:
A number of Wisconsin wineries offer riesling, but if you only try one make it the Botham Riesling ($11), from Botham Vineyards just outside of Barneveld. The riesling is crafted in the “Johannesburg style,” according to winemaker Peter Botham. Expect a wine with gentle sweetness and a soft mouthfeel that replicates the classic style and pairs well with cheeses and chocolates.
The Hugel et Fils Riesling ($20) from the Alsace region of France, by comparison, tends toward the dry side with significant depth and balance. A floral/petrol nose gives way to a palate dominated by pears, but with big character and quite a bit of polish. The winemaker’s craft has made this a notable showcase for the grape’s possibilities.
The Trefethen Estate Dry Riesling ($19), from the Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa, California, has crept a little further down the semi-dry spectrum. Its slight petrol nose leads to a wine that’s well-balanced between fruit and acidity, with notes of white peach and citrus on the palate.
Reilly’s Barking Mad Riesling ($12), from Australia’s Clare Valley, takes a turn distinct enough to raise eyebrows. However, its petrol nose, ripe citrus and sweet finish prove it can only be a riesling despite the area’s more rigorous and unusual growing conditions.
Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Noble House Riesling ($12), from Germany’s Mosel region, takes a turn back toward the familiar nose and flavor profiles, although lightly so. The wine’s fruit and acidity balance nicely, streaking across the palate with a fairly long finish. Peach, apricot and mineral characterize the bright, light-bodied wine.
Dr. Fischer Ockfenner Bockstein Kabinett ($19), also from Mosel, ratchets the elements of the two previous wines up a notch or two, adding brighter characteristics and greater depth. A hint of strawberries highlights a complex flavor palate in this exceptionally made wine.
One of the most delightful Rieslings on the market comes in a half-sized 355 ml bottle. King Estate’s NxNW Dessert Riesling ($15) from Washington is produced in “eiswein” (or “ice wine”) style from late-harvest grapes, meaning they contain significantly more residual sugars. The resulting wine is the perfect balance of luscious sweetness and plenty of acidity. Flavors of tangerine, papaya and honey abound in this refined choice. It’s perhaps too sweet to be a dinner wine, but as a twilight sipper at the end of a romantic picnic, it can work wonders.
Michael Muckian is an award-winning Madison-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in multiple local, national and international publications. In addition to business and finance topics, he also writes about food, wine, travel, theater, music and visual arts.