In these egalitarian times, we don’t often speak of what were once called the “noble grapes,” because such a hierarchical scheme would imply that grapes omitted from that brilliant roster were somehow inferior. A generation ago, however, the term was common among writers about wine and commentators on the wine industry. Generally, six grapes were allowed “noble” status: Chardonnay, riesling (see accompanying image) and sauvignon blanc; cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. You’ll notice the French bias immediately; we’re talking about Bordeaux and Burgundy, with a bone thrown to Alsace and parts of Germany with riesling. Notice that nebbiolo and sangiovese don’t make the cut; those are Italian grapes. Chenin blanc? Forget those divine dessert wines of the Loire Valley; they’re not Sauternes.
Still, there was a point to the noble grape concept, and I tell you that some grapes are simply better — or potentially better — than others. Chardonnay is capable of making splendid wines that grapes such as, say, torrontes or albarino, however charming and refreshing they may be, just can’t match. Cabernet sauvignon grapes can be turned into wines of the sort of depth, dimension and dignity that, oh, alicante bouschet or refosco could not begin to reach. No matter, of course, in the grand scheme, because we derive pleasure from all kinds of wines for many different occasions and reasons, but the truth is that certain grapes deserve their elevated reputations, if, I have to add, they are handled carefully and thoughtfully in the vineyard and the winery.
Riesling certainly deserves inclusion in the pantheon of noble grapes, as I was reminded as I stood in the kitchen at home and spent a couple of hours with this group of nine wines made from the grape. One winning aspect of riesling is its versatility; riesling is, in fact, the most versatile of the noble grapes. Even in this limited encounter, you can see that the wines range from delightful and appealing to stunning and profound without losing authenticity and integrity. The grape is geographically versatile, too; these nine wines encompass three of Germany’s best-known regions — Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz; two areas in Australia, two in California and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. The styles range from bone-dry to sumptuously sweet, but all are characterized by the grape’s inherent acidity and limestone-like minerality. This was a flight that I really liked.
With one exception, these wines were samples for review.
The Frisk Prickly Riesling 2011, Victoria, Australia, is a real sweetheart of a riesling, a bit moscato-like in its initial delicate sweetness, floral nature and cloud-like softness, but just ripping with crisp acidity and honed limestone minerality. As the name implies, it’s lightly frizzante, that is, gently sparkling, just a tickle, as it were, that helps deliver notes of green apple and pear to your nose in a delightful manner. Ripe citrus flavors are touched with lychee and a hint of smoke; the wine sheds its sweetness and turns increasing dry and structured crossing the palate, finally reaching an austere, mineral-laced finish. Quite charming as an aperitif or with shrimp or chicken salad. 8.9 percent alcohol. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $12, an Incredible Bargain.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Ca.
The Bex Riesling 2009, Mosel, Germany, is fresh, crisp, juicy and lively; sporting a pale straw-gold color, it offers a bouquet of lime peel, grapefruit and honeysuckle deeply imbued with riesling’s signature petrol or rubber eraser aroma and a transparent foundation of damp limestone and shale. This is lovely, lithe and lacy in structure, fairly simple and direct, to be honest, but tasty with ripe apple, pear and lime flavors, very dry with a finish of crushed oyster-shell minerality. 9.5 percent alcohol. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $10-$13.
Imported by Purple Wine Co., Graton, Ca. Great image from yumsugar.com.
This is a terrific spätlese, deftly balanced between sweetness and dryness, between generosity and focus. The color of the Weingut Max Ferd Richter Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2009, Mosel, is glinting pale straw; aromas of spiced peach and pear, with delicate back-notes of quince and lychee, are woven with hints of rose petals and limestone. Pretty heady stuff, all right. In the mouth, you feel the slight tension, the sliding resolution between the initial sweetness, partaking of very ripe and macerated stone-fruit, and the striking acidity and limestone minerality that dominate the wine from mid-palate through the long earthy yet finely-tuned finish. 8.5 percent alcohol. This should develop nicely through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $24-$28, Good Value. The estate has been owned by the family since 1680.
Imported by Langdon Shiverich, Los Angeles.
Seeing the vintage of the Trefethen Dry Riesling 2008, Oakville District, Napa Valley, you may ask, “But, FK, why the 2008 when the 2010 is the current release?” The answer is that I like to drink Trefethen’s rieslings at three to four years old, when they become, as it were, like shafts of bright and shining limestone and shale-like minerality. We always have a bottle of this wine on the table at Thanksgiving; last year it was the 2007. (In fact, the 2010 was my Wine of the Week on August 29th this year.) The 2008 we consumed at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner indeed practically vibrated with the minerality I mentioned, from start to finish, as well as exuding notes of petrol and peach and pear, a hint of jasmine, but, boy, is it ever a profound matter of stones and bones. It sort of wrapped itself around the turkey and dressing and potatoes and so on and supported everything subtly and beautifully. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. I paid $26.
Let me just get this word out right now: Superb. I’m referring to the Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. The color is radiant medium gold; the bouquet draws you in irresistibly with aromas of baked apple, roasted peach and apricot skin nestled in a honeyed radiance of cloves, sandalwood and orange marmalade. This description makes the wine sound heavy, but instead it is ineffably delicate, almost lacy and transparent in its wreathed character; paradoxically — and great wines embody myriad paradoxes within their balance and harmony — it’s also profoundly dense and earthy, its viscous nature splendidly belied by tremendous acidity whose tautness could ring church bells from Brisbane to Boston. A wonderful achievement. Stephanie Toole operates this small estate, which I visited in the far-off days of October 1998, with meticulous attention, producing only 4,500 cases annually of five wines. Alcohol contest is 11 percent. Drink through 2013 or ’14 with the simplest of fruit desserts or a plain sugar cookie or on its own. The current release in Australia is 2011. Exceptional. About $27-$36.
Imported by USA Wine West for The Australian Premium Wine Collection.
The frozen grapes for the Inniskillin Riesling Icewine 2008, Niagara Peninsula, Canada, were harvested from the last week of December 2008 and into early January; the wine is not aged in oak. A beguiling medium gold color seems to inspire aromas of candied orange zest, marzipan and creme brulee layered over baked peaches and apricots and a hint of mango; the wine is supernally rich, honeyed and viscous — it rolls over the palate like money — yet balanced by whiplash acidity and profound and penetrating slate-like minerality. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of smoky cloves, lime peel, a touch of jasmine and depths of spiced and macerated flavors, like stone-fruit dissolving in brandy. Inniskillin is owned by Constellation Brands, and it’s good to see that despite being part of a giant conglomerate that has swallowed dozens of wineries and brands the quality of the product has not diminished. Winemaker is Bruce Nicholson. 9 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $80 for a tall, stylish half-bottle (375 ml).
Imported by Icon Estates, Rutherford, Ca.
The Schloss Reinhartshausen Erbach Schlossberg Riesling 2007, Rheingau, Germany, is a damned serious riesling all right. The color is pale straw-yellow; aromas of jasmine and lychee, pear, quince and crystallized ginger open to notes of grapefruit, limestone and shale. The wine is seamless from front to back, but there’s nothing ethereal about its earthy character or its crisp, snappy acidity, and despite latter-day touches of fig, peach and marzipan, it’s not sweet at all; this is achingly dry, resonant, austere, even partaking of a sort of Olympian detachment through the stony finish. Still, as I said, the wine is seamless, beautifully balanced, authoritative without being blatant. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $29-$40. The term Erstes Gewächs on the label is the German equivalent of Grand Cru.
Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
At seven years old, the Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenberg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany, feels perfect, yet I wager it will age beautifully for another seven years. The color is brilliant medium gold; a poignant and penetrating hit of petrol or rubber eraser permeated by hints of softly over-ripe peaches and apricots identifies this wine as a classic riesling dessert wine, though the richness and honeyed nature are balanced by or even serve as foil to some astringent floral note. The viscosity of the gorgeous texture fills and coats the mouth, while the wine grows more intense, more freighted by cloves and quince, more deeply imbued with flavors of orange zest, crystallized ginger and apricots. In the manner of great dessert wines, however, a slashing blade of acidity lends the wine keen vibrancy and a dry, scintillating finish. A grand achievement. 8.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018 or ’20. Exceptional. About $50 for a half-bottle (375 ml).
A Rudi Wiest Selection for Cellars International, San Marcos, Cal.
Twenty-three years old, yes, but the Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1988, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills was only released in 2010, when it was a relatively young 22, after spending 20 years in bottle. The color is caramel-amber with a deep copper glint; the bouquet partakes of barely overblown flowers, like peonies and camellias before they begin wearily to drop their petals, along with coconut, toasted almonds, candied ginger and roasted and slightly caramelized peaches; a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of pine resin and maple syrup. There’s a deep caramel circumference to the flavors of burnt orange, lime peel and spiced apricots, and that’s where the sweetness stays, at the edge of the palate, while the interior flow, as it were, is not just surprisingly but audaciously dry, leading to a finish of daunting austerity and limestone-like minerality. There’s a touch of confusion about the balance between mid-palate and finish, but primarily this wine is a delightful and intriguing example of what can happen when riesling gets all grown-up. 12 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013 to ’15. Excellent. About $45.