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Sunday, May 19, 2019

All Hail Riesling, The Ruler of the Rhine and Our Hearts!

May is Riesling Month on!

German wine is a wonder and dangerously close to not being possible. The position it holds on the planet and its altitude makes it cold for most of the year, so the plant growing season is longer and more drawn out than most wine varieties can handle, and they won't ripen in time before winter. But thanks to the long days, the vines see plenty of sun. The best wine growing regions in the country have slate soil and steep slopes along the Rhine River and its tributaries like Ahr, Nahe, and especially Mosel. The slate soil absorbs both direct sunlight and the reflected sunlight off of the rivers to warm the grapes above, and those rivers also help to moderate temperatures. But even still, it takes some special grapes and vines to handle the German climate.

So the entire world is lucky that Germany spawned one of the noblest of grapes: Riesling. Physically the vines's tough wood can handle the climate like a champion, and its fruit has the right amount of sugar and acidity to make world class wine in it as well. This is the varietal that makes me smile more than any other. Let's take a bow for Riesling, the ruler of the Rhine and our hearts!

The story of Riesling begins in the Middle Ages. There were many other grapes planted in Germany back in the day, including the similarly named Räuschling, but out of the Rheinland rose the country's chosen champion.

An entry in the cellar log of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen in Ruesselsheim records the earliest known mention of Riesling on March 13th, 1435, when the Count purchased six vines of "Rießlingen" ("riesslingen") from a man named Klaus Kleinfish for 22 shillings. Other early accounts include St. Jacob Hospice buying "Ruesseling" in 1464, a vineyard in Worms was growing “Ruessling" in 1490, and then there was “Rissling wingart” in Pfeddersheim in 1511.

The Count's "riesslingen" vines weren't the first Riesling vines around; he just recorded the earliest actual documentation of its existence that we have, proving that Riesling was on the Rhine in 1435. However, Wachau in Austria claims that they've had it since 1232.

Alsace, France (which was called Elsass for most of its history when it was part of Germany) claims they've had Riesling since 1348, but their earliest surviving record of the variety is 1477 when Duke René of Lorraine noted that Riesling is one of Alsace's finer products. That said, the first documentation of the variety actually growing in Alsace doesn't happen until 1628. Even so, Alsace is just as important to the history of Riesling as the Rheinland. Some people will legit fight you if you talk smack about Alsacian Riesling or even whisper that you prefer German. And, yes, there is a possibility that Alsace could even be the true origin of the variety.

You'd think some DNA testing might solve this origin issue but sadly it has not. What it does show is that one of its parents is a cross between a wild vine and Traminer. The other parent is known as Gouais Blanc in France and Weißer Heunisch in Germany, and that variety was widely planted in the Middle Ages by French and German peasants. Gouais Blanc is not only a parent of Riesling but also Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the entire Pinot family. And guess what? Pinot Gris is big in Alsace too. Where's Maury when you need him? Maybe he can put an end to this mystery!

Our earliest example of it being called "Riesling" is within an herbal book written by Hieronymus Bock in 1552. So we have all these similar original names like "riesslingen""Ruesseling", "Ruessling", and “Rissling" that eventually were settled on "Riesling". But why was it given these names? It could be because of the dark wood of its vines, as "russ" means "dark wood" in German. Or it could be from the word "rissig", which means "cracked", and Riesling vines have deep groves on their bark. There's also a vineyard in Alsace named Ritzling and the locals will tell you that it gave Riesling its name.

We know that Riesling was spreading nicely through Western Germany and what's now Eastern France in the Middle Ages but it wasn't until the Prince-Abbot of Fulda got in on the action when the actual wine that it produced started to take shape into what we know as Riesling today. And it was kinda by mistake!

Heinrich VIII. von Bibra
In 1716 the Prince-Abbot of Fulda, Konstantin von Buttlar, bought an old beater Benedictine Abbey in Johannisberg, fixed it up real nice, tore up all the old neglected vines, replanted the vineyards with Riesling, replaced the carburetor, installed a lift kit, and named it Schloss Johannisberg. Okay, cool, right? The property stayed with his Prince-Abbot predecessors through Adolphus von Dalberg, Amand von Buseck, Adalbert II. von Walderdorff, and Heinrich VIII. von Bibra.

In 1775, 59 years after Konstantin purchased the abbey, letters from the winegrowers to current owner Heinrich asking for permission to begin the harvest were delayed by weeks. BY WEEKS. According to Google Maps, walking from Fulda to Johannisberg takes 32 hours, so I don't know if the German Pony Express were on strike for better wages or benefits or what.

When Heinrich finally got to Johannisberg after receiving the message, the grapes had been infected with botrytis cinerea. This fungus pokes holes in the skins of the grapes, leaving it with less water and more sugar and acids. In the end you get less juice but more nectar, so you get more of a slice of heaven but for more money, thus it has earned its nickname as "the noble rot". By this point in history Hungary had become the first to discover the benefits of botrytis and to use it to their advantage in their signature dessert wine Tokaji, but the most famous dessert wine region in the world, France's Sauternes, wouldn't come upon it for another 60+ years.

Late Harvest (Spätlese) Grapes
By the order of Heinrich the wine was made anyway and it was absolutely divine. Leaving the grapes on the vine longer than necessary quickly brought along the popularity of Spätlese ("late harvest") and it became standard practice for Rieslings out of Johannisberg. Then it worked its way out to the rest of Rheingau, along the Rhine, and down the Mosel. Auslese ("selected harvest") became a thing, which is even riper than Spätlese. And a whole scale of classifications based on grape ripeness took shape. Mail delays, of all things, changed German wine forever.

Riesling isn't as widely planted in Germany as you may think it is, but at one point it was completely dominant in its plantings until there was a backlash against it in the 1800's. The desire to harvest earlier and the means supplied by scientific advancement to do so with other varietals, like Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau, really hurt Riesling big-time. It did bounce back in plantings, but not to the extreme levels that it once enjoyed. Today Riesling accounts for 23% of the vines in Germany and it has earned its popularity as top exporter and face-of-the-franchise. The quality of wine that it can make as a white still wine is only rivaled by Chardonnay, and it beats that rival in ageability.

While when most people think of Riesling they think of sweet, Rieslings run from super sweet all the way to bone dry. And when they have the right acidity, as they do often in Germany, it will balance the sugar out. That German wine classification system I mentioned earlier based on ripeness is called The German Prädikat System and it isn't just for Riesling. But, from what we see here on the American market, it's the most important when you're shopping for German Riesling.

Take a look at this awesome pyramid of the Prädikat System by Pacific Rim. On the lower levels you have Tafelwein and Landwein, which are basic table wines, and QBA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete), which is better quality than table wine, before you get in to Prädikat levels of late harvesting.

The Prädikat levels begin with Kabinett. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean there aren't Kabinetts out there that are better than, say, some Auslese level wines; this is just the lowest ripeness level that the grapes were harvested at.

Spätlese ("late harvest") is next and these grapes spend more time on the vine past the normal harvest, giving the wine more character. Auslese ("selected harvest") has to reach a certain sugar level so they can be very sweet. But when fermented to dryness they can lead to some impressively high alcohol wines.

Beerenauslese ("selected berries") is sweet dessert wine that falls under the category of an Eiswein (ice wine). The grapes are picked individually rather than by the bunch, and sometimes have been infected by botrytis cinerea. Trockenbeerenauslese (selected dried berries) is also an Eiswein. The grapes are left on the vine long enough to become raisins, they're also selected by the grape (errr, raisin), and more often than not also infected with botrytis cinerea. Trockenbeerenauslese is the nectar of the gods.

Riesling can be super sweet to bone dry, and nowadays they'll sometimes show the sweetness level of the wine on the back label using a universal scale that's easy to understand. But, just in case it doesn't, I'm going to share with you another easy way to tell if it's a dry or sweet wine: the higher the ABV percentage, the drier the wine. That's it! Easy as that! If a wine is 5% like many Moscatos it's going to be very sweet. If it's 9% it's going to be semi-sweet. If it's 13% it's going to be dry. This is because sugar is what's converted into alcohol during the fermentation process, so there's more remaining sugar in the wines with lower alcohol, thus the sweetness. However, you cannot use this trick with sparkling wine, fortified wine, or dessert wine.

This article has been pretty Germany-heavy for obvious reasons, but WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE WORLD? Riesling hasn't just been sitting still and looking pretty in Germany and Alsace!

Australia's dry Rieslings are legendary, California has obviously been producing good Riesling for awhile now, Washington State is freakin' killing it on both the dry and late harvest ends of the spectrum, and Canada's Riesling ice wines are amazing. I still maintain that my favorite wine of all time is Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario. It's lighter than a Sauternes, but still honey heaven.

Riesling is made all over the place and it's just one of the wines that allows you to travel the globe and explore all of its wonderful incarnations in the comfort of your own home. But it's the most pure in happiness and joy of the varietals that I know, and I'm so glad that it's in my life. Don't allow yourself to miss out.

I love you, Riesling. Stay cool.

- Joey Casco CSW/CSS

The Oxford Companion to Wine
Certified Specialist of Wine Study Guide
History Of The Riesling Grape
Schloss Johannisberg - The History
The German Prädikat System -  Pacific Rim Winery
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