IMW riesling seminar: globetrotter or terroir wine?

Published by Sally on June 23, 2010

A panel of MWs balanced by producer, marketeer and scientist came together in Vienna, in May 2010, to explore the global potential of riesling under the discussion title ‘Globetrotter or terroir wine?’

Riesling in the Mosel

Riesling in the Mosel

The riesling renaissance has been repeatedly raised in trade and consumer press but appears never really to materialise among mainstream consumers. So riesling appreciation remains the best open secret among oenophiles. With less than 1% of the global vineyard planted to riesling, it’s unlikely ever to be much more than a specialist wine.

Part of the challenge has been thought to be the diversity of dryness in the wine, from bone dry to lusciously sweet. But chardonnay can come like this too.

Possibly more of the challenge is that riesling is very site specific, it doesn’t necessarily always need the poshest accommodation, but it is quite temperature-sensitive, not too keen on heating or air-con, it prefers pretty stony beds. Whereas chardonnay will bunk down almost anywhere and make a decent fist of it. 

The panel
Bob Campbell MW, journalist, educator, photographer, New Zealand
Monika Christmann, head of oenology and wine technology, Geisenheim Research Centre
Roman Horvath MW, managing director, Domäne Wachau, Austria
Rowald Hepp, managing director, Schloss Vollrads, Germany
Willi Klinger, managing director, Austrian Wine Marketing Bureau
Arne Ronold MW
, journalist, publisher, Norway
Josef Schuller MW, chairman, Institute of Masters of Wine

Hepp explained the difficulty for the early riesling diaspora from its Germanic roots, saying “emigrants from Germany took riesling with them when they left in the crisis of the 1920s. They were a bit disappointed with the styles in California and Australia – it was not the style they were used to.”

But he added, after decreasing riesling acreage in the 1970s, riesling is in expansionist mode again, albeit modestly.

Approximate global riesling plantings 

Germany 22,000 ha
Australia   4,400 ha
France (Alsace)   3,500 ha
Austria   1,800 ha
California   1,600 ha
New Zealand   1,000 ha
Chile     300 ha
South Africa     200 ha
Spain     100 ha

Sources: various national organisations, most recent data available


Wachau vineyards, Austria

Wachau vineyards, Austria

Christmann took up the site specificity theme, suggesting riesling is adapted to both single vineyard and multi-vineyard blend, saying “you can produce great wines from single vineyards and sometimes you can produce better wines by blending. We have super vineyards, but not all are so super that we can say that these produce the best wines every year.  You can choose to make a blend coming from very good base wines.”

Should the style of wine come from the vineyard or the winery? Christmann said “as a producer it’s your baby you have to sell. What style do you want to achieve?” Before adding “riesling is one of the most sensitive varieties when it comes to processing techniques to avoid uptake of polyphenols.” So only great care in the winery will express whatever potential might be building in the vineyard.

Residual sugar was inevitably an issue.  A stylistic choice definitely, but can absence of residual sugar mask varietal character?  Hepp thought so, speaking of his two wines (see below) “the first one has more terroir and mineral expression, the [spatlese] has more varietal expression.” 

Noble rot in dry wines is another masker of varietal definition.  But Christmann said “there are different answers to [whether] it is important to have some botrytis in riesling. In our experiments, most people wanted to have up to 20% botrytis in the wines.”  To which Ronold countered “to my mind that could be so for interim rieslings, those not showing much terroir character. But for top rieslings from specific terroirs, then botrytis is a no-no, you want to keep what is unique with your vineyard.”  

Rowald said “maybe botrytis can add complexity but not necessarily terroir expression. Botrytis makes it more difficult to keep single vineyard expression. Botrytis makes wines a bit more even.”  But, he added “for noble sweet wines botrytis is a must. But we talk more of concentration than terroir.”    

Nelson, New Zealand

Nelson, New Zealand

With typical new world succinctness Campbell said “botrytis obscures terroir.  At high levels it will also obscure varietal character.”

Campbell took up the new world side of the globetrotting discussion, pointing to New Zealand’s early attempts with the variety, saying “riesling was introduced into New Zealand in the early 1800s but it died out because of phylloxera. It was re-introduced in the 1970s, when it moved to South Island, where it’s more suited.”    

“In South Island the cool climate equals high acidity. The best wines carry a little residual sugar to build up the tension between sweetness and fine acidity, which for me is what fine riesling is all about. But consumers have not embraced sweet riesling with as much vigour as producers would like.”

In Australia, Campbell said “riesling was Australia’s most widely planted white variety until the early 1990s, when chardonnay took over.” He added plantings were more driven by climate, so focusing on the cooler areas of Tasmania, and the Great Southern Area in Western Australia. But it is Clare Valley in South Australia that has made the biggest name for itself, producing usually bone dry, edgy, angular, tight rieslings with more than a savoury nod to location. 

Back in Europe, and more than 80% of Austria’s riesling is concentrated in the Lower Danube areas of Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal and Traisental. There are two broad soil types in this area – loess and primary rock (internal link). Horvath explained “riesling from loess soil is more creamy, more textured, more expressive in youth. Riesling from primary rock gives more leaner styles.”

In the wines selected for the seminar a mix of origin and varietal definition could be identified, although the wines were not shown blind. Which suggests the experience of riesling as an independent traveller rang truest, seeking out those special places, and often staying off the beaten track. And remaining true to itself. Horvath said “riesling is a globetrotter, but not as a mass tourist. Riesling adapts to local culture, it experiences the local specialities. In this sense riesling is a globetrotter. But with some experience you can tell the origin, so riesling is both a globetrotter and a terroir wine.”

Tasting notes. Vienna, May 2010, and comments from the panel

Schloss Vollrads Erstes Gewachs Riesling 2008, Rheingau, Germany
Hepp:  “from our best vineyards sites, over 8 months on fine lees. Represents dry, mineral, flinty style.  2008 had masculine acidity; low pH level.”  
Honeyed, apple and white pear, intense nose and palate attack, smooth and big expansion of flavour in the mouth. Concentrated palate, citrus, honeysuckle aromatics, with stony notes mid palate. Layers of flavour emerging in a sophisticated style. Long

Schloss Vollrads Riesling spatlese 2009, Rheingau, Germany
Hepp: “the other face of riesling. I love to show both faces. Late harvest, picked 2.5 to 3 weeks after the first one. This style also very traditional, it was the classic riesling a hundres years ago. Sweet style intensifies the fruit flavours of riesling.” 
Honey and a bit steely. Just 8%. Honeyed, lush bruised apple, quince, tropical notes. Very pure, focused fruit, with lush, attractive balance. Sweet and finishes very fresh. Delicious and delicately balanced.

Egon Müller, Riesling Spatlese 2008, Mosel, Germany  
Apple, steely, aromatic, citrus, peachy, zingy.  Precise, intense, racy, light and densely intense, textured. An ‘other worldly’ experience, ethereal lightness of being with massive flavour for a ‘light’ wine. Really don’t feel the sweetness, acidity holds it all together beautifully with a fresh finish.

FA/FH Geisenheim Classic ‘von Lade’ Riesling 2009, Rheingau, Germany
Christmann: “Produced at the research centre. A blend of the best vineyards we have, with the right time of picking, and gentle processing.”
Peachy, steely and tropical, medium body, savoury type of acidity, firm backbone, fully dry, hint herbal twist to mid palate. Strong and muscular r style.  Long.

Grosset, Polish Hill Riesling 2009, Clare Valley
13%, dry. 460M ASL, sandy soil
Galvanised steel, edgy and taut. Savoury and edgy, linear and long. Not so much primary fruit flavour here. All in that taut, gritty-steel spectrum.

Villa Maria, Taylors Riesling 2005, Marlborough
Single vineyard in cooler Awatere Valley. 8.5%, 43g/l RS. pH 2.8.
Bruised apple, sweet attack, racy and edgy, angular acid, citrus, attractive layers of fruit. Lacks the sophistication of the German example above (probably also lacks the cost). Attractive, but not over exciting.

Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Rangen 2007, Alsace
Ronold: “Most southerly and highest altitude (350 to 450m) grand cru in Alsace, with southern exposure.”  13.5%.  2g/l RS (unusually dry for a Zind-Humbrecht wine.) Volcanic sediments.
Big, smoky, stony dry savoury nose, with peaches and nectarine fruit following in the wake of steely upright flavours. Linear, medium-bodied, with remarkable strength and muscularity. Not so much overt primary fruit, more in the stony, steely, aromatic smoky spectrum. 

Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile 2004, Alsace
Grapes from two grand crus Gaisberg and Osterberg, 12.8%, 8.2g/l TA
More overtly primary fruit nose, peach, apricot, citrus, more lifted and perfumed, floral. Intense palate attack, but gentle, somehow, despite ripe, rich acidity core. Fruit flesh adorns the backbone with some succulence, but dry. Smooth, sophisticated, intellectual. Precision-focus to be envied.

Brandl Riesling Heiligenstein 2000, Kamptal
12.7%, 1.5g/l RS. Primary rock covered by volcanic sediments.
Peach, tropical, with stony substance alongside. Medium weight, with dense volume of fruit/savoury combo.  Structured and  muscular. Very little age showing, freshness in savoury lines, precise. Remarkable youth.

Franz Proidl Riesling von Urgestein Senftenberger Ehrenfels 2007, Niederosterreich
13.5%, 2.8 g/ RS. Steep terraces, primary rock.
Aromatic peachy, overt primary fruitiness to the fore, smooth and succulent, with layers of aromatic spice and peachy tropical fruit. Steeliness alongside.  Nice balance and intensity. Ripeness of fruit. Lovely layers of fruit/savoury. Long finish

Domäne Wachau Riesling Achleiten 2009, Wachau
Horvath: “Achleiten is about minerality. Not so much about primary fruit. Smoky aromas, toastiness, fleshy flavours balanced by firm acidity.” 
Fresh, juicy, immediately appealing but so young; and fruity. Density and complexity is portended by rich concentration of dramatic fruit.

Domäne Wachau Riesling Achtleiten 1999, Wachau
Horvath: “this is not about peachy, it’s about smoky mineral character.”
Just a hint of development of colour to pale straw. Hints of petrol, with mango purée coming quickly to the fore. Rich, almost dry baked fruit, some crystallised fruit, youthful and expressive, aged notes notwithstanding. Intense flavour, layers of complexity.

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