There's an argument to be made for Riesling
, and it's made on a regular basis. It goes something like this: Riesling is great, it's flexible and it's food friendly, with wines ranging from dry to syrupy sweet, so there's something for everyone to like. This has been the argument of the day for years now. Trouble is Riesling still finds resistance in the marketplace.
There's an argument to explain that as well. It’s the same argument that I’ve often posited as an explanation of Shiraz's market shortcomings. It goes something like this: the reason people don't buy Shiraz is because they are confused by it; since it’s made in so many different styles, a buyer doesn't always know what they're gonna get.
So variety is supposedly a selling point for one wine while it's one of the fundamental problems for another. This sounds like it speaks more of the mindset of those who talk about wine than any marketplace truism.
Riesling’s True Potential
Here's something else that both Syrah
and Riesling share: a lot of wine that is fine, but just doesn't wow me. In fact Riesling seems like a wine that often fails to wow me. For me, it's the sugar, that crutch, so easily making a wine taste "good," so hard to make it “feel” good. What I mean is that while most wines tend to be easily described in two dimensions, structure and flavor, the third dimension—texture—really comes into play with sweet wines.
Perhaps that's why I can be a sucker for dry Riesling, not necessarily bone dry Rieslings, but dry enough to be neither sweet nor heavy in the mouth. Once the sugar in a wine becomes noticeable, it really takes a fine hand in the vineyard and in the cellar to produce a wine where the acid balance is such that you get an exciting sweet/tart experience on the palate.
Even if you hit that sweet/tart sweet spot, you're still not out of the woods with these wines; you still need to be able to produce a wine where the sweetness doesn't obscure the nuance and terroir of the wines. And that is the problem with Riesling; too many producers aren't able to keep the wines exciting and lively in the mouth while revealing the full potential of the grape.
This is a bit heretical in the wine world. I’m supposed to be telling you that Riesling is great, the next big thing. And of course a lot of Riesling is great; the trouble is a lot of Riesling is also pretty ordinary, and it can be confusing to try and figure out what you're getting when you buy a bottle. This handy guide to deciphering German wine labels can help with that last point, though there's just not much to do about the first.
The truth is that while little truly bad wine is being sold these days, there are plenty of wines that meet some minimum standards but do little more. For most people, these are gateway wines. White Zinfandel is a great example, a wine that served to introduce millions to wine while never being taken seriously among the cognoscenti. It just may be that Riesling has assumed some of the heavy lifting on that front.
There are pros and cons to taking point in the wine world. Yes, millions try you first, but it's not as though people were clamoring for a better White Zin after they grew bored of their first. No, they moved on. There was an understanding that sweet little White Zin was the training wheels; once you're ready to ditch them, you don't look for another set.
Riesling has become the training wheels, and people are still prepared to move on from sweet wines once those training wheels come off. Add to that the fact that the wines being used in training, while perfectly fine, are often uninspiring and barely hint at the true potential of Riesling, and you have a perfect storm for the abandonment of the grape.
A Fresh Take on Riesling
Why have I bothered with all this you're asking? Just an attempt to reframe the discussion about Riesling. Riesling has not fulfilled its full potential in the marketplace, not because it's sweet or difficult to understand (those play a role), but rather because often as not it’s uninspiring and drinkers don't return to it because they crave some variety.
So what? That’s another good question, and one that brings me to the point. We should be celebrating Riesling’s diversity, not its shortcomings. One of the byproducts of the marketplace resistance it faces is particularly attractive pricing. You can find some really great Riesling well priced between $15 and $30 or so. We should be trying them, and not just the great Rieslings of Germany and Austria I might add, but also those from Oregon, Australia and all places in between.
One last piece of the Riesling puzzle: there seems to be an unusual snobbery when it comes to Riesling. There are many people out there who turn their noses at anything but German and perhaps Austrian Riesling. Certainly, there are some grapes that really do excel in a very small region of the world, but Riesling is not one of them.
There are great rieslings around the globe, in myriad styles, and while I will admit that the best German versions are tops in my book, so many outperform other wines at their price points that one really has to wonder why they haven’t grabbed hold of a bigger market share. The dry Australian versions are also fabulous, and the world’s sweeter styles, when that acid/sugar balance is right, are sufficiently attractive for their early fruit that maybe we shouldn't be overly concerned with their limited terroir. Just drink them young and enjoy them.
There are several standout wines here, making for a robust top 10 list, but at the same time there were over 40 wines tasted for this article, and some that missed the top are 10 worth a look due to their attractive price-to-quality ratios.
Intense and perfumed on the nose, with lime fruit framed by gardenia like floral notes; a suggestion of sweet vanilla and orange cream. Intense with super vibrant acids supporting really pretty ripe peach, lemon and green apple fruit that has a faintly candied edge. There's a little sugar here, but the intense acidity deftly whacks it to the ground and kicks it while it's down. The finish is all blazing citrus fruit riding a lightning bolt across a dry stony riverbed before smashing into a fruit basket filled with pears, apricots and tangerines topped with a hint of sweet spearmint. Maybe not the most complex Riesling out there but certainly one of the most fun. Shazaam! 93pts
Quite perfumed on the nose, with aromas of apple blossoms, dry tree bark, quince and limes.
While painfully young, this shows great cut in the mouth with a nice edge of richness, though it remains medium to light bodied. There's a lovely rush of sour apple, lime and raw quince flavors on the palate, with gentle floral accents and a hint of spice emerging on the back end. This finishes with exceptional length and brightness, and a faint hint of bitterness that serves as contrast to the deep fruit. A lot of depth here and excellent potential for development. This rocks. 92pts
2012 Jim Barry Riesling The Lodge Dry Riesling Clare Valley 12% $20
Tight and earthy on the nose, with early notes of lilacs followed by minty top notes over guava and melon aromas. This is powerful yet at the same time remains subtle. Flows across the palate; elegant and pure with lovely racy citrus flavors that hint of tropical fruits. The acidity is very strong yet superbly integrated within the rich fruit and yet this remains medium bodied in the mouth. You get a sense of dry extract and power here, but the wine never loses its poise, delivering melon, apple and papaya flavors on the long finish that ends with a salty twang of minerality and lip smacking acids. This is quite young, with excellent potential. 92pts
Dusty on the nose with faint hints of waxy apricot fruit over citrus and apple aromas. A lovely blend of sweetness and vibrant acidity pops on entry, delivering peach fruit drenched in lime flavors and edged with a nice mineral cut. Perhaps just a bit sweet for Kabinett, but it’s lovely with energy in the mouth and lovely flashes of sweet orange on the back end that drift over the focused, sweet/tart finish with nice dusty slate notes. Lovely wine. 92pts
This is lovely on the nose, deep and focused, drawing you into the glass with faintly dusty slate and spice aromas framing the core of melon rind and lemon pith fruit. This is just so tense on the palate, with vibrant acids just covered by a veneer of sweetness. The fruit is ripe and fresh, citrusy with green apple peel accents, but it competes with the strong mineral quality here which scrapes slate across the tongue and onto the long, sweet apple and faintly apricot-tinged yet mineral-dominated finish. This is exciting in the mouth. 91pts
This has an arresting note of sweet jasmine-laced lemon preserves on the nose that gains nuanced orange, peach and pineapple complexity with air. Just lovely. Pretty sweet in the mouth, this is rich and powerful with an explosion of apricot and peach on entry that is followed by tropical orange and pineapple flavors that finish with nearly candied sweetness and honey flavors. I shouldn't like this, I should think that this is too sweet, and if I drank much more I would think that, but in small doses this is delicious. A bit of a fruit bomb but with shadings of mineral and herb adding complexity. The finish is a touch short if one has to nitpick. 90pts
Intense on the nose, a bit earthy but full of spicy orchard fruits and baked citrus notes with a touch of cranberry. Enters the mouth on the sweet side, but at the same time with fabulous acids so there's that classic sweet/tart thing going on that I love in Riesling. The flavors are a bit spicy and run the gamut from apricot to golden raspberry, with hints of green apple and orange in between. Decidedly fruity, this has a rather classic Spatlese feel to it and a lovely finish, bright, juicy and faintly chalky. Not a sophisticated wine that I would cellar for long, but it is a heck of a Riesling fruit bomb. 90pts
This is rather pretty, showing off plenty of white floral notes along with dried lemon rind and pretty, slightly exotic fruit aromas that recall mangosteens and almost hint at lychees. Just a touch diffuse in the mouth, but does show classic sweet/tart fruit. The flavors are bright with notes of baked green apple lurking under beautiful lime flavors that are thoroughly supported by acidity on the mid-palate and are accented by lovely lemon verbena inner mouth perfumes. This quickly grows on me, showing more bright lime and pineapple on the long finish which sees the sugar fall to playing a supporting role. It's long and very pure; given a bit of time I expect this to tighten up a bit. 89pts
This shows some evolution on the nose with faint butcher's wax top notes over chamomile, anise flower, and dried citrus fruits with a gummy bear edge. Smooth and supple in the mouth, there’s a lovely spice of supportive acid here holding up dried heirloom apple fruits along with a faint edge of evolution adding anise flower spice notes and a touch of nuttiness to the palate. There's a lovely richness here, not from sugar but from ripeness that lends this some attractive power. The finish is a bit of let down, lean and ungenerous and possibly a sign that one should drink this sooner rather than later, but today this is showing quite well and deserves a nice sole meunière. Air helps the finish here, adding a really lovely and persistent baked apple note. 89pts
Shy on the nose, with lightly stony notes over peach pit and wildflower aromas that have a slight green herb edge. This starts out a bit tight, acid-driven and lean on entry, though it gains weight and power in the mouth. The texture really is quite fine, showing richness without sweetness on the mid-palate while delivering some lovely walnut-inflected orange pith and lime fruit that shows a touch of salty quartz minerality. The finish is all minerals and acid, very refreshing and moderately long. A fairly sophisticated Riesling that should have broad appeal. 89pts
Light apricot, raw nut meat, dried flower and peach aromas are balanced and fairly intense. This shows a really fine balance of intensity and complexity in the mouth while remaining fairly dry and medium to light weight. The flavors build on the palate, starting off with subtle lime and blood orange flavors that gain hints of minerality and dried apple peel on the mid-palate before showing more apricot notes while retaining a nice blood orange overlay on the fairly long finish. Not intense, but nicely detailed. 89pts
Quite tight on the nose, first with aromas of pure, fresh lemons slowly being joined by floral basenotes, a little minty/medicinal anise seed spice and faint apple peels. Fairly powerful, but within expectations for a Spatlese. This is a lovely wine, unremarkable perhaps but with fine balance, strong apple, and lemon rind flavors that show complicating hints of quince and honey all wrapped up in a smooth texture that extends along the moderately long, candied apple finish, with neither sugar nor acid ever getting the upper hand. It's not going to wow anyone, but at the same time it's not going to get too many people upset either. 88pts
Sulfured up the wazoo. This smells like a tractor barn. This needs plenty of air to clean up and even after an hour of air the sulfur remains an element, though it is joined by floral and citrus pith aromas. This needs plenty of time to clean up and become drinkable. Once it does, it shows a nice bright, fresh character with plenty of peachy fruit framed with citrus and sweet apple tones. It's sweet for a Kabinett, but not too powerful, and the acidity keeps this vibrant in the mouth.The finish is cleansing and shows admirable purity of green apple and baked citrus fruits that linger, along with a hint of honeyed sweetness. Tough to score this today, catch it without enough air and it's a mess, but given time to breath it cleans up nicely and shows some juicy richness. 88pts
Mineral and floral on the nose, with a faint wash of blue flowers that yields to an almost gooseberry like fruit over slightly musky base notes. This is a ripe yet tense wine that hits the palate with a smack of minerality that defines the wine. There are nice framing notes of clear apple skin and citrus pith fruit, but the rocks take center stage right through the moderately long, slightly salty finish. Not a hedonist's wine but one that wants to make you cry uncle, so if that's what floats your boat, you're gonna love this. 88pts
Well this is a different bird. Smells of petrol and honey with some earthy dried fruit aromas and a strong floral/gardenia top note. A little sweet on entry, but the acid quickly snaps this back to dryness. There's a rich, almost stemmy quality to the fruit here, with more of a treacle than honey flavor on the palate accenting the lime zest and slight white cherry-toned fruit. The finish is savory and fairly long, with a touch of appealing pepperiness. This is pretty dry for "semi-dry," and the acid/sweetness balance is just about where I like it. The relatively unusual flavor profile will keep this from enjoying a wider audience, but I do like the savory complexity here. 88pts
Very aromatic, with a lovely array of fresh citrus fruit, earthy apples, and floral and spice aromas over a fine base of dusty minerals. This is a touch spicy in the mouth with a white peppery accent to the herb-inflected ripe apple and lime pith fruit. There's also a mineral edge here that adds nice cut to the mid-palate, which gains weight in the mouth turning fairly powerful and rich, if remaining dry. The back end shows a slight licorice note that tops the modest green apple and peach-toned finish. Firm, well balanced and complex, this lacks a little verve in the mouth and shows a touch of heaviness. 87pts
A bit earthy on the nose, with dried apple driven aromas topped with polleny floral notes, a touch of green herb and a dusting of white pepper. Easy going and well balanced, if on the lighter side for Spatlese. There's a nice core of sweet apple and pear fruit here topped with lime notes and a touch of mineral austerity along with the aromatic herb element from the nose, all driving the medium length and attractively complex finish. This has an almost astringent edge of austerity to it which I find attractive. It's a bit simple, but nicely structured. 87pts
Very ripe on the nose with an almost vanilla and cashew edge to the pineapple, peach and jasmine aromas. Air does bring a nice touch of mineral out as well. This has a lovely texture, showing a bit of richness while remaining light on its feet, but it's broad and low in the mouth nonetheless. There's a ripeness here with flavors hinting at orange and peach on the palate that carry over to the modest finish. Easy going and easy to drink. 87pts
Deep and ripe on the nose with lovely, lifted wildflower perfumes over hints of currant and apple fruit. Fairly sweet and powerful for a Kabinett, this shows off slight flashes of red fruit along with apricot flavors, all topped with lime and quartzy mineral flavors. Some orange notes show up on the back end and are joined by pithy citrus notes on the fairly long and fairly sweet finish, which shows a touch of that red berry fruit again. For lovers of sweeter wines. 87pts
There's a nice dusty mineral note here along with a pleasing combination of tart citrus fruits, baked apples and a hint of blueberries. This shows some richness on the palate, with sweet flavors of apricot and key lime pie all supported by solid acidity. There is a lot of sugar here, though, so this is quite a sweet wine, with attractive green fruit flavors and a fine edge of almost creamy sweet apple flavors that show a nice hint of spice and a pithy grapefruit top note. Lacking a bit of nuance, but still quite attractive. 87pts
A bit sulfury on opening, this shows a touch of papaya on the nose with slightly soapy floral aromas and hint of pine nuts and lemon. Quite dry for a Feinherb with no real sweetness and just the faintest suggest of added body from the sugar. It's a nice wine, not particularly fruity, with light lime and lemon flavors over fine dried herb and mineral notes that gain a little peachy aromatic tone on the back end and through the long, finely focused and slightly salty, mineral-driven finish. I rather like this; it’s refreshing, more aromatic in the mouth than flavorful, and shows excellent restraint. 87pts
Quite perfumed with oily, waxy base notes under pithy citrus fruits, with hints of green apple and talc. Sweet and rich on entry, though with plenty of acidity lending this vibrancy in the mouth. There's a nice core of honeyed, slightly nutty citrus fruit here topped with a hint of something almost minty and cut with quartzy minerality on the back end. The finish is a touch short but shows lovely acids, mouth cleansing yet remaining well integrated. Not too complex and perhaps a touch sweet, this is still very nicely put together. 87pts
Fairly pronounced aromas on the nose recall apple fruit with pear peels topped with a light note of frosted ginger cookies. In the mouth, this shows a bit of weight and power, though it does remain nicely transparent, with mineral-inflected heirloom apple and dried pineapple fruit topped with some fruit stripes gum tones. There's enough sweetness to cover the acid here, and a faint bitter note to help add complexity and balance on the moderately long tea-toned finish. Round, easy going and not overly fruity. 87pts
A bit high-toned with mineral and white pepper notes over light floral and pear aromas. This shows a nice edge of richness in the mouth with a hint of ripeness supporting fresh, clean apple, almond and lemon flavors streaked with mineral notes. The finish is a touch peppery and nicely long. Not too complex and rather straightforward, though refreshing and decisive in the mouth. 87pts
A little sweet on the nose with lovely melon, apple and peach fruit all topped with a squeeze of tangerine and a few honeysuckles. Round and a little lush in the mouth, this has plenty of acid to balance the touch of sugar. There's a touch of bitterness at its core, which adds some detail for me, but may be off putting to some. There's plenty of apple, orange and light green tea flavors here in a simple style that finishes with a nice, almost pineapple/citrus wash, lengthened by the touch of residual sweetness. Really well done in a fruit-forward, popular style. 87pts
A bit earthy and compressed on the nose, with early hints of quince followed by lime pith and almost blueberry aromas. This is sweet, yet fairly light weight, with enough acidity to keep things in balance but not enough to keep the sweet/tart thing going. Like the nose, the palate reminds be a bit of blueberries, with sweet Asian pear and honeyed lime notes gaining prominence on the mid-palate. There's a slight brown sugar note as well, which pops on the finish before being washed over by some nice sweet/tart apple flavors that show good persistence. A fun wine, fruity and easy to drink, if dessert-level sweetness for me. 86pts
A touch sweet on the nose, with faint hints of candle wax and minty blackcurrant leaf over a base of apricot glaze. Fairly lightweight for an Auslese, which is not a bad thing. This is also fairly sweet, with good acidity keeping it fresh and reasonably well-focused in the mouth. There's plenty of fruit here, not overdone but balanced with peach, melon and almost a grapefruit-citrus quality, plus a touch of currant on the back end. The finish is a bit short and lacks follow through, but all in all, this is a rather attractive, easy to appreciate Auslese. 86pts
A bit heavy and slightly herbal on the nose with plenty of apple and citrus pith topped with a hint of white pepper. Even with lovely acidity, this still opens a touch on the heavy side, showing off ripe apple and slightly fig-like flavors. There's distinct minerality here adding interest, but the wine is slightly heavy, with building acidity adding lemon flavors and brightness to the moderately long finish. 86pts
Reticent on the nose with slow to grow polleny floral and fennel aromas over lime pith, sliced fennel and melon notes, with incipient hints of petrol and chalk. This is sweet in the mouth and while I'm sure there is a ton of acid here, there's little to be felt, though the texture of the wine remains lively, considering the sweetness. There's a rich mouthful of pollen-streaked apricot fruit here, with nice dashes of Meyer lemon juice and some freshening green apple notes on the back end, but the sugar keeps this a bit simple and dull.The finish is surprisingly short but does end on a nice light mineral note, with some sweet tea elements on the finale. A bit of an apricot bomb. 86pts
Big candied lime and lime aromas greet the nose along with complicating notes of chives and quartz. This is fairly sweet, or rather it's sweet though there's enough acidity to make you think it's not that sweet, but the weight of the wine says otherwise. There are lots of lemon, lemon curd and almost pineapple flavors here over light mineral tones that lead to a modest tart apple finish that shows a lingering sweetness. 86pts
Intense and focused pear, peach and floral aromas greet the nose along with a faint underlay of machine oil and stems. This is easy going in the mouth, well balanced and fresh with a whisper of sweetness adding some weight around a core of tart pear, peach and almost coconut-like flavors. The back end turns a bit fruitier and yields to a bright lemony finish. This is a touch simple, but fun and easy going. 86pts
Light but distinct aromas of dried apples, lime and dusty earth comprise the nose. This is a touch simple in the mouth but shows nice dried citrus pith fruit notes in a clean, direct and refreshing style. There's nothing extra here, just simple fruit over light mineral tones that are joined by light dried leafy notes on the back end, which shows off hints of peach and preserved lemon with pretty good persistence. 86pts
A little sulfury on the nose, though plenty of airing reveals a slightly spicy, dried floral-tinged core of heirloom apple and dried lemon peel fruit. This could use a bit more acid in the mouth. It comes off as slightly dull and heavy, with an intriguing blend of orchard fruit flavors, chives and mineral notes all cloaked in a gauzy veil of pollen. The flavor profile is appealing, I just wish the wine showed a bit more freshness in the mouth, and that the finish was longer. 85pts
Ripe, slightly candied lemon tones greet the nose followed by apple peel and wet slate aromas.
Round and slightly voluptuously textured, even though this is not terribly sweet and it seems to have plenty of freshening acidity. The flavors lean toward the green apple and apricot side of things, with a little mineral pop on the back end and a slight hint of austerity on the modest finish. 85pts
Very white-fruited on the nose with a hint of pumpkin accenting the unripe honeydew melon, crab apple and Asian pear aromas. This is a touch heavy for a Kabinett, delivering honey-tinged flavors of apricots and peaches in a moderately rich style. There's a little pear fruit on the back end, followed by some candied sweetness and a nice slow to emerge hint of spice that adds some detail to the honeycomb and apple flavored finish. The sugar adds some length here, but there is sufficient balancing acidity. A ripe Kabinett, both in flavor and sweetness. 85pts
Soft and lightly floral on the nose with low hints of passion fruit, peach and pineapple. A little round in the mouth, though this shows good balance between the obvious sweetness and the obvious acidity, making for a rich yet balanced medium bodied wine. The flavors show hints of melon, apricot and orange marmalade with a touch of tea leaf on the back end and citrus pith through the finish. Nicely done and moderately complex. 85pts
Almost stony on the nose, with a nice, deep white floral note and hints of jasmine and light wild strawberry fruit. Round, soft and lightly honeyed on entry with tropical mango and papaya flavors along with dried apricot notes that are sweet and a little sticky. This has good acidity but plenty of sugar to make it sweet; while not cloying, it is almost a dessert-level sweetness for me. Would certainly be a great wine for spicy foods. 84pts
Quite perfumed with notes of quince, fig and honeysuckle. Rather straightforward in the mouth with good acidity and modest sweetness supporting mineral-based apple fruit that takes on a hint of spice on the modest finish. 84pts
Dried apple peels, lime pith and light dried herbal notes come together on a rather intense if slightly sharp nose. This is dry and acid-driven on the palate, with lots of pithy citrus and dried pear skin flavors along with a hint of cantaloupe on the mid-palate, which shows the faintest hint of roundness. The finish is dry, tart and relatively short with steely acidity. 84pts
Not very aromatic, with waxy crayon and floral aromas that hint at light green herbs with faint dusty base notes. A bit odd in the mouth with sufficient acids to keeps this light and poised, but enough sugar and sugary flavors to make this seem quite ripe. The mid-palate has a touch of quince paste to it along with honey and lime flavors. The citrus element gains the upper hand on the back end and is reinforced on the modest finish by the bright acidity here. 84pts
Sweet lime, lemon and even pineapple aromas greet the nose along with a gentle sweet, polleny, fennel top note. This is a touch soft in the mouth, supple and broad with not a lot of height. The flavors show hints of peach accenting the lime pith and apple notes, but there is something vaguely ripe underlying it all. There's some nice freshness on the back end, along with a touch of sugar that helps to counterbalance the raw acidity. This is just a bit off balance. 84pts
A little heavy and dull on the nose with obvoius CO2. There's a gentle sweetness to the nose, and a waxiness with soft floral, red cherry and apricot aromas. A little soft and broad in the mouth, this lacks some energy that I expect from Riesling. The flavors are a nice blend of apricot, orange marmalade and stony mineral notes with a hint of white pepper and a definite, welcome salty tang that pops on the back end along with some tutti frutti notes which linger on the modest finish, turning into a banana flavor. 83pts
Fruity apple and lemon aromas greet the nose along with hints of sweet flowers and honeycomb.
This is fairly low acid, particularly for a Riesling, so think soft and broad in the mouth with slightly creamy caramel-tinged apple fruit and some candied cherry notes on the mid-palate followed by ripe, sweet pear fruit. The finish is modest and a touch coarse with a hint of bitterness. Simple, fruity and somewhat atypical for Riesling. 82pts
Spicy and a little rubbery on the nose, with lots of pithy citrus fruit aromas and green fruit notes.
Dry and yet surprisingly soft in the mouth, this shows of modest and modestly ripe fruit that hints at apple flavors. There's a lack of pretty much everything here—ripeness, depth of flavor, and fruit—showing dry, earthy and lightly minerally notes on the modest finish. 70pts