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Riesling: the noblest white grape?
Chardonnay has won the minds and hearts of the masses, but Riesling makes the wine trade's favourite white wines. Jamie Goode tastes 18 of the finest Rieslings from around the world, and discovers why the experts think it's the noblest and most versatile of the white grapes. 

'Riesling around the world', Handford Fine Wine tasting, presented by Matthew Boucher, Tuesday 10th April 2001

While ugly sisters Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc get invited to the ball, Riesling -- the Cinderella of grape varieties -- goes unnoticed and neglected, despite possessing greater virtue and beauty. That's how many influential wine critics see things, at least. The great unwashed public clamours for more and more Chardonnay and Sauvignon, but Riesling, often referred to as the wine trade's favourite white grape, has a loyal but small band of followers.

Not so long ago I was fairly dismissive of Riesling, but after being exposed at last to top quality examples from Germany and the Alsace, I'm now convinced that Riesling is a truly great grape variety. Why? Four main reasons:

  • Terroir transparency
    Possibly the greatest facet of Riesling is its ability to express site-specific characteristics from the vineyard or region it is grown in -- it's probably better at this than any other grape variety. Rielsings made in exactly the same way by the same producer from two vineyards with different soils or aspect will usually show corresponding differences in flavour profile.
  • Longevity
    Riesling shows an amazing capacity to age. Even relatively inexpensive Kabinett and Spatlese wines from Germany develop gracefully for many years: I've had ten year old bottles tasting unbelievably fresh and youthful. The drier Alsace styles can also last for decades. And of the new world styles, Australian Riesling has developed quite a reputation for longevity, especially when compared with the relatively short life span of Aussie Chardonnays.
  • Versatility
    As this tasting showed, Riesling can be made in a variety of styles and textures, ranging from austerely dry to lusciously sweet, with good examples showing widely differing characters from a host of wine-making countries.
  • Affordability
    Great examples of Riesling are never going to be cheap. But compare the prices for the best Rieslings with the current prices of other fine wines, and they are remarkably affordable, no doubt because of their (unexplainable) relative unpopularity.

Now to the wines. This was a tremendously interesting tasting of an exceptional line-up of Rieslings, well chosen by Matthew Boucher. The only slight regret for me was that many of these were tasted far too young in their evolution. With some extra bottle age almost all of them will gain a great deal of complexity, and it's only really the new world examples that are showing anything near their best this early in their development. The tasting itself was divided into four flights: Germany, Austria, Alsace and the new world, with an extra flight of two sweet wines to finish.

On to the wines...

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