Riesling seems to be one of those ‘love it or hate it’ grape varieties. I’m generally in the former category but I get the feeling from talking to other wine drinkers I meet that I’m in the minority there. I know that everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them so, clearly, there will be some who just don’t like the sort of flavours Riesling offers. But, more frequently, those that tell me they hate Riesling point to the semi-sweet bargain-basement Hocks and Liebfraumilchs you used to find in every supermarket as the reason for their view of the variety. I have to be careful how I reply as I need to gently point out that those wines rarely contain any Riesling (they’re more likely to be made from Muller-Thurgau). But, even ignoring that misunderstanding, there are so many different interpretations of Riesling worldwide, it’s hardly fair to say you either love them all or, indeed, hate them all.
In Germany alone you find delicate, dry or just off-dry examples (try something from the Mosel), slightly richer bottlings from further south (the Pfalz, perhaps) as well as the wonderful fine dessert wines with only 7 or 8% alcohol. Across the Rhine, in Alsace, the dry Rieslings are more full-bodied, regularly with 13% alcohol, or there’s the lovely sweet late-harvest bottles. All very different from each other but all with the distinct refreshing acidity that is so much Riesling’s hallmark.
But, travel to the cooler regions of the New World – Oregon, Washington State, parts of Australia and New Zealand – and you find a particular local take on the variety: From Australia, especially, the acidity is often in the form of a lovely lime-flavoured freshness and a bottle we opened recently showed this to perfection: Howard Park’s Riesling from the lesser-known Mount Barker region of Western Australia (Great Western Wine, £12.50). Here, influenced by cool winds and currents from the southern ocean, Riesling ripens just enough and the result is a delicious white, ideal as an aperitif or to accompany lighter dishes with, perhaps, a gentle Asian fragrance.
Pinot Noir is, undoubtedly, one of the fussiest and most difficult of all the major wine grapes to grow. Plant it somewhere too cold and it simply won’t ripen, too warm and you get coarse, jammy flavours and the ‘sweet spot’ between these two can be perilously small. It thrives, of course, in its French homeland, Burgundy, and there are some delightful examples elsewhere, including in Germany, Chile, New Zealand and the cooler parts of the USA (especially Washington State and Oregon but, despite the film ‘Sideways’, less frequently in California in my experience).
Obviously, you can forget much of Australia – it’s just too hot, although there a few areas where the cold Antarctic winds and tidal currents make the climate far cooler (and so Pinot Noir friendly) than you might expect from the latitude. Among these are the Great Southern region of Western Australia and Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. On the other hand, surprisingly, there is one part of Australia where it’s so cool that growers need to seek out sheltered spots with good exposure to the sun to ripen their Pinot Noir at all. That is the island state of Tasmania, about 100 miles south of the mainland which is, in fact, on the same latitude as New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
And it’s from Tasmania that Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir (Wine Society, £14.95) comes. I tasted it recently: a typical Burgundian ‘farmyardy’ nose greets you but this is followed on the palate by lovely raspberry and cranberry flavours, a hint of cinnamon and a really long, crisp finish. Given the price of good Pinots from elsewhere, I thought this was excellent value for money and an ideal match for our pan fried duck breasts with a honey and thyme sauce.
But, before I make you too hungry, I’ll end with a wine trivia question for you: what is the most westerly Designated wine region (Appellation Contrôlée or local equivalent) in mainland Europe? I’ve just enjoyed a wine from there and I’ll tell you about it next time.
There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013. That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing. There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.
I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing. But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit.
Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.
But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia. The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain.
Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it. Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.
When you next meet up with a group of wine loving friends, why not pose them a little problem: “If you had to spend a whole year drinking nothing but the wines of just one area of the world, where would you choose?”
I’ve been asked this on a number of occasions and have usually suggested France’s Loire region – excellent whites, both dry and sweet, attractive fruity reds, the odd decent rosé and some very drinkable fizz – although I was once told that I was cheating; the Loire was too big to be considered a single area! Among my friends Bordeaux and Burgundy are popular choices and, no doubt, California would get a lot of votes if there was more choice from there here in the UK.
But a bottle I opened recently made me think of somewhere else: South Australia’s state capital, Adelaide, is surrounded by vineyards: McLaren Vale to the south, Adelaide Hills to the east and the famous Barossa Valley to the north-east with the Eden Valley beyond. And, even though these areas are so close to one another, there is a tremendous variety of wines coming out of them – more than enough choice to keep me interested for a year.
Chunky Barossa Valley Shiraz, fruity Cabernets from the McLaren Vale, lovely, elegant Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Adelaide Hills and the wine that prompted this blog, Riesling from the Eden Valley.
At altitudes up to 400 metres (1200 feet), Eden is one of the cooler parts of the region and suits the Riesling variety perfectly. Rolf Binder’s ‘Highness’ (Waitrose, £10.99) is an excellent example with all the typical floral rose scents and zesty lime and grapefruit flavours that so typify the Riesling grape here and, with just 12.5% alcohol, it’s beautifully refreshing, either with food (mildly spiced Asian dishes work well) or just on its own as an aperitif.
So, how about you? Why not ask your friends and see if they’d choose the Adelaide region or somewhere else? Do let me know and why.