Wine: Rebel riesling

By Jo Burzynska

The time has come for wine drinkers to get over their disdain of this aromatic wine and appreciate its breadth of flavour, writes Jo Burzynska.

Mount Edward Drumlin Central Otago Riesling 2013; Greywacke Marlborough Riesling 2012; Mountford Estate Waipara Riesling 2011. Photos / Supplied.
Mount Edward Drumlin Central Otago Riesling 2013; Greywacke Marlborough Riesling 2012; Mountford Estate Waipara Riesling 2011. Photos / Supplied.

Riesling is rebellion!" was the battle cry of Framingham winemaker Andrew Hedley when presenting his position on this noble, but niche, variety at a recent Summer of Riesling tasting.

Although initiatives such as the Summer of Riesling have been encouraging more people to try the wine, Hedley suggests it may be better to keep it underground as a more edgy entity.

Ah, the ever-present riesling conundrum: it makes for some of the finest wines in the world and is revered by critics and winemakers, but is yet to find popular appeal.

Preconceptions play a major part in this, which kick in before any cork is pulled or screwcap snapped. Older drinkers connect it with insipid stuff that once went by the name of riesling, but was often not even made from the grape, and many assume it's all sweet and therefore unsophisticated.

Let's start with the question of quality. The reality is, riesling has never been better; something clearly illustrated by the tasting Hedley was talking at, which featured more than 80 examples from across the country.

I can't think of a local tasting of these dimensions of any other variety where the quality was so high across the board.

Now, on to the "s" word - sweet - which is possibly riesling's greatest stumbling block. It's actually a variety that's made in every style imaginable, from bone dry to lusciously sweet, with New Zealand's conditions more favourable to examples with a touch of sweetness.

Not that this is always obvious, as the crisp character of cool-climate rieslings often counterpoises the sweetness, making many taste drier than their sugar content would suggest.

Sweetness has, sadly, become a dirty word among wine drinkers.

Framingham is one of many wineries that choose not to mention the word on its labels for fear of putting people off. It uses euphemisms such as "generous" and "richness" instead, according to Hedley.

But there's nothing wrong with a bit of sweetness. It's not used to malign the macaron or prevent Coca-Cola from being a crowd-pleaser. However, with wine, it's become erroneously connected with the unsophisticated when, in fact, it's the people with the most wine knowledge who are largely the ones enjoying riesling.

Hedley thinks there may be more hope for riesling with the younger generation, who don't hold the prejudices of their parents and have more open minds. This is something that's been tapped into by the successful "Joiy" brand; a lightly sparkling riesling presented more like a posh RTD.

However, the halo effect for the wider riesling category was curtailed somewhat when the brand had to change its name from "Ritzling", which referenced its source following issues with the Ritz Hotel and its eponymous champagne brand.

Call me foolishly optimistic, but I still think there's hope for riesling to be more widely appreciated, in a similar way that sauvignon blanc and pinot gris have witnessed in recent years.

Like many proselytisers, I've found that once people actually try riesling, its crispness and pure fruit profile is in sync with current tastes.

Given riesling also expresses the place where it's grown, arguably like no other white variety it also taps into people's growing interest in the authenticity and provenance of what they consume.

Hedley proposes that it might be time to recognise New Zealand's special vineyard sites as is the case in riesling's German heartland. He acknowledges that for many drinkers getting their heads round this information is too much of a challenge. He considers riesling's current somewhat esoteric status may have a silver lining in ensuring it doesn't become dumbed down and keeps it cool.

"I think riesling should resist the call for a renaissance and celebrity culture," he maintains. "Things that enter the mainstream tend to get safe and boring. Riesling is much better than that."


TOP PICKS FOR THE SUMMER OF RIESLING NATIONAL TASTINGS:

Mount Edward Drumlin Central Otago Riesling 2013 $29
A beautifully balanced low-alcohol Gibbston riesling that juxtaposes pure and mouth-filling peach fruit with a vibrant freshness and zesty bite. There are also hints of aniseed and herb plus a strong stony character reflecting the schist soils upon which it was grown. Available from Glengarry, Caro's, Accent on Wine and Point Wines.

Greywacke Marlborough Riesling 2012 $29
An exhilarating riesling driven by a powerful line of grapefruit zest and flinty mineral and infused with florals. It has a subtle sweetness but a crispness that means it finishes quite dry. Find at Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Point Wines and First Glass.

Mountford Estate Waipara Riesling 2011 $35
There's voluptuousness to this sweeter style with its viscous texture and great concentration to its aromatic palate of white flower, bergamot, white fruits and mineral. Available at Fine Wine Delivery Company and Hamilton Wine Company.


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