Okanagan Versus the Rest of the World Round Eight: Riesling
Oh, Riesling, perhaps the noblest of the noble grapes. Honey-scented tinged with the gentle aroma of newly blossomed citrus and orchard trees, it’s the racy, regal, mineral-driven wine that is so hard not to fall in love with. The king of aromatic grapes, a glass of fine Riesling is a gustatory and sensory experience par excellence. But Riesling is more than just a pretty face. We all know by now that few things in life go together better than food and wine and Riesling’s food friendliness puts it a cut above so many other wines.
The key here is acid. Acid is that lovely palate refresher that gets your salivary glands going and cuts through fat like nothing else. This is why when rich dishes with pork or duck are on the table, many folks will reach for a bottle of Riesling. If you think spice is nice, don’t think twice about pouring yourself a glass of this Germanic gem next time you sit down to tuck into a spicy Indian curry, some Szechuan beef, or a pile of jerk chicken. The light sweetness of an off-dry Riesling will help tame the heat of even the most eye-watering chili peppers. The wine’s tendency towards low alcohol is also a big help when it comes to spice; high alcohol exaggerates heat and may make you wish you’d opted for a beer instead. And why have beer when you can drink wine?
There are plenty of other grapes out there with “Riesling” appearing as part of their names but these are nothing more than pretenders to the throne and a Riesling by any other name will not smell as sweet. Riesling, true Riesling that is, originates from the steep slopes around the Rhine in Germany.
It is rare among whites for its phenomenal capacity to age. In reality, many white wines don’t age well and the most you can hope for is up to a few years (Chardonnay is, of course, the other well-known, common exception). But Riesling can age for decades with ease, developing the so-called ‘petrol’ aroma which is more or less unique to this grape. Some sweet examples are still drinking well over one hundred years on. That said, not all Rieslings are sweet and in fact, many are bone dry.
The unique terroir of Okanagan Valley was practically made for Riesling. Complex soil structures and a cool climate with long hours of sunshine means that Riesling can not only shine in the Valley but can reach pinnacles of finesse, elegance, and deliciousness. Okanagan shares the same latitude as Champagne and more importantly, the Rheingau, one of Germany’s great Riesling regions. It is one of the grapes that helped propel Okanagan Valley into the limelight as a serious wine region, capable of producing phenomenal, long-lived wines that are deserving of a spot at the most discerning wine lover’s table.
Courtesy of the 2016 Best of Varietal Awards, here are some of Okanagan Valley’s best and brightest:
2016 Best of Varietal Awards
BC Best of Varietal Wine of the Year: 2013 St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery St. Hubertus Vineyard Riesling (also won Best Riesling)
Riesling Gold Medal:
2013 Gray Monk Estate Winery Riesling
2015 Moraine Estate Winery Riesling
2012 Inniskillin Okanagan Dark Horse Vineyard Riesling Icewine
Icewine Gold Medal:
2014 Nk’mip Cellars Winery Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine
2014 Inniskillin Okanagan Riesling Icewine
2015 50th Parallel Estate Riesling
2014 Dirty Laundry Vineyard Riesling
2014 Cedarcreek Estate Winery Riesling
From the 2016 British Columbia Wine Awards:
2015 Red Rooster Winery Riesling
2014 Harper’s Trail Riesling
2015 Wild Goose Vineyards Stoney Slope Riesling
2014 Monte Creek Ranch Winery Riesling Icewine
2015 Wayne Gretzky Okanagan Signature Series Riesling
2014 Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery Signature Riesling Icewine
There are more Riesling vines planted in its native country of Germany than anywhere else in the world. It reigns supreme here as that nation’s greatest grape and the wines it is most famous for. Along the upper latitude limit for where quality wine can be made (like Okanagan), German Rieslings tend towards low alcohol; grapes can struggle to ripen in certain years and may not reach the necessary sugar levels to produce higher alcohol wines. But high alcohol isn’t a necessary condition for greatness. The wines are impeccably balanced with racy acid, purity of fruit, and are superb expressions of the minerality and terroir.
The Mosel, the Rheingau, and Rheinhessen are all places to look if you’re in the market for some top-notch, out of this world Riesling. These wines are incredibly bright, focused, and balanced. They’re unmistakable. Ethereal in body but bold in flavor, ranging from a pale greenish yellow to rich golds. German Riesling is often considered the benchmark for minerality and terroir. At least it was until Okanagan arrived on the scene to give it a run for its money!
The soils here are renowned the world over for their ability to yield such stellar Rieslings. Slate is said to be the key but there are plenty of other superb Riesling regions which are slateless.
Sweet German Rieslings may or may not be botrytis affected. German wine labels are notorious for being difficult to understand. If you’re keen to satisfy your sweet tooth, look for labels with any of the following:
Beerenauslese (fully sweet)
Trockenbeerenauslese (fully sweet)
Eiswein (fully sweet)
Tasting notes: green apple, pear, lemon, citrus blossoms, jasmine, honeysuckle, slate, minerality, and petrol as the wines age. Botrytized wines show honey, ginger, saffron, and spice.
Just south of Germany, Austria’s Rieslings are slightly riper than those found north of the border. They are another example of a world class, classic country for the noble white grape. Austria mostly follows the same terminology as Germany when it comes to ripeness levels with a few exceptions.
Wachau has its own designation categories. Without going too in depth, here are the basics. From lightest to fullest, they are:
Steinfeder – lowest alcohol, light, refreshing.
Federspiel – the in-between style, medium alcohol
Smaragd – richest style with the highest alcohol, can show some botrytis and is the best candidate for aging.
Tasting notes: peach, apricot, citrus zest, honeysuckle, mineral-driven. Botrytis-affected: ginger, saffron, honey, spice.
This warm continental region with part-French part-German influences is the only place in France where you’ll encounter Riesling. Riper, fruitier and slightly less acidic than those you’ll find across the Rhine, Alsace Rieslings are typically dry. Of course, you will find sweet Rieslings here. Keep an eye out for wines labeled Sélection de Grains Noble or Vendange Tardive. These are both late harvest wines. SGN wines will be botrytis affected while VT emphasizes the characteristics of the grape variety.
Tasting notes: apricot, nectarine, lemon, honeysuckle, citrus blossoms, mineral-driven. Botrytis-affected: honey, beeswax, ginger, saffron, spice.
Regions like Clare and Eden Valleys are the epicenter of Australian Riesling production. Thanks to their higher elevations and cooler climates, Riesling does quite well here although there is a marked difference between these styles and those found elsewhere in the world. That petrol-like aroma is fairly common in Aussie Rieslings thanks to the warm climate; the compound that causes the petrol aroma (trimethyl dihydronapthalene in case you were wondering) increases in the grapes as they get super ripe, when they’re exposed to more sun, or if the vines experience water stress. Another common note in Rieslings from down under is lime. Lime zest, lime candy, lime leaf…you get the idea.
Tasting notes: Lime, white flowers, petrol, peach, apricot, nectarine, mineral-driven.
The Finger Lakes’ cool continental climate is America’s answer to regions like Okanagan, Mosel, and the Rheingau. The Finger Lakes AVA is Riesling country. Vineyards dot the areas immediately adjacent to the lakes, moderating the climate and allowing the grapes to ripen evenly. While there are plenty of other varieties cultivated in New York, Riesling is far and away the state’s claim to fame and what helped drive its viticulture and establish it as a serious wine region. You’ll even find ice wine here!
Tasting notes: nectarine, lime, lemon, pears, apples, white flowers, mineral-driven.
Top Golden State Riesling comes from the coastal regions like Mendocino and Monterey. Quite frankly, cooler climates examples are the only ones to seek out from California. Coastal breezes and a handy dose of fog will keep Riesling racy and elegant, but move further inland or to warmer regions and you run the risk of encounter versions that are less balanced.
Tasting notes: stone fruits, Meyer lemon, mandarin, ripe peach, pineapple, citrus blossoms.
Believe it or not, Washington State makes the most Riesling in the USA and is home to the largest single producer of Riesling in the world. The state is definitely leading the way for domestic Riesling in the US and has been a driving force helping to give the grape a good name state-side.
Reasons for Riesling
There are many a reason why Riesling deserves a spot on your dinner table or in your wine fridge and we’ve covered most of them here. It’s delicious, yes, and food-friendly, pairable with a wider variety of ingredients and cuisines when compared with other grape varieties – red or white. Need a go-to wine for those tough to pair cuisines like Indian or Thai? An off-dry Riesling should be your first stop. That touch of sweetness will help tame the heat of hot dishes loaded with chili peppers.
These are beautiful wines, harmoniously balanced between fruit, acid, and alcohol. If there’s one thing to take away from this, is that you should be drinking more Riesling and as far as we’re concerned, Okanagan Valley is the perfect place to start!