The most delicious dessert I’ve had in my life was accompanied by a beautifully-aged, off-dry Riesling from Napa Valley. Two years later, I remember that wine more than I remember that dessert. Despite the gooey custard of that creme brulee, crisped to perfection on top, it was the Riesling that made the experience memorable. The vintage packed more power than I had ever tasted in a white wine.
Although they often have complex and stunning flavor profiles, Rieslings get a bad rap among even seasoned wine enthusiasts. But Riesling is becoming increasingly popular in the wine community, and for good reason. Here are some Riesling trends we’ve been watching.
Getting Back to Heritage Grapes
By far the most significant wine trend of the past 15 years has been a demand for tradition to play a greater role in our modern winemaking techniques across varietals. As our food production moves toward organic farming, and as more people strive to put natural, unprocessed foods in their bodies, wine culture is following the same path. Gone are the days of overly-sweet Riesling made in huge batches by machines, and Riesling’s home country in particular is leading the way.
These traditional wines are focused on rootstock, the cornerstone of quality. What makes producers such as JJ Prum’s namesake winery stand out is its dedication to its all-original rootstock, and its refusal to compromise style over substance. You won’t find fancy equipment designed to tear through as many grapes as possible on this estate. Instead, 70 percent of the original rootstock from 1911 is still used today with nearly-identical techniques as Prum himself used. These wines are a piece of history, with recent vintages on par with those made on the estate 100 years ago.
History aside, the 1999 JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling vintage is a wine worth collecting. It’s rare for a white wine to age in a cellar longer than 10 or 20 years, but JJ Prum’s Riesling has stood the test of time. The 1999 Riesling has a full, complex flavor with strong apple overtones. Like most good Rieslings, it also has a hint of flint at its finish. The top cuvees from this producer include fine vintages of Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese, Bernkasteler Badstube, and Graacher Himmelreich Auslese.
JJ Prum’s signature matchstick aroma is due to the winery’s use of wild yeast fermentation and a hands-off cellaring approach. As the wines age, the sulfur-like scent fades, leaving behind a masterful wine that is a testament to the JJ Prum winery’s focus on traditional methods.
The Rise of Dry Riesling
By the 1950s, after World War II, the United States had developed an unquenchable thirst for Riesling, but it was centered around brand new, mass-produced sweet wines created to meet the demand of consumers.
Today the trend is going in the other direction. You can expect to see vintages in modern Riesling collections that are dry on the tongue, but not overly acidic. An example of this quality in action is the 2012 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Riesling, which has strong citric acid coupled with a dry, stony feel overall. A good vintage from Alsace will have this raspy quality, so look for vintages with evidence of this terroir when you make a selection for your cellar. When selecting Zind-Humbrecht wines for your collection, the best dry vintages will be from the Clos Windsbuhl cuvee, especially in colder years.
The United States is also experiencing a renewal of interest in dry Riesling. Riesling plots in California have doubled over the past few years alone, cementing the region as the second-largest producer of this varietal in the world. Keep a close watch on Napa Valley and Washington state vineyards in particular as you expand your dry Riesling collection.
Thick Is In, Thin Is Out
Traditional Riesling may be light, even effervescent, but some modern Riesling have a weight to them that you would never expect from this varietal.
Like the modern focus on traditional methods, heavy Riesling is a current trend with a long historical past. Wineries in Austria have nearly always chosen a technique involving less filtering for making their vintages, leading to a dense mouthfeel in both their dry and sweet wines.
A winemaking region that is capitalizing on some of these trends is Australia. Today’s Australian winemakers are crafting vintages based on a drier version of German classical techniques. In this sense, the terroir is putting an even trendier spin on Riesling, offering tastes that are drier than some German wines, but with the dense chewiness of a modern Riesling.
This trend is an especially important one for collectors to consider, because heavier wines tend to age with more complex flavors than lighter vintages. The more a winemaker focuses on fermentation, without filtering the wine, the more likely that wine will age well for years to come.
Young Harvest Over Late Harvest
Superb Riesling can come from either a young or a late harvest, but as tastes move toward a preference for dry wines, it’s understandable that collectors are pushing for earlier harvests.
Decades ago, many wine experts predicted the popularity of late harvests that would produce balanced sweet wines such as the 2009 Dunham Riesling, but for those building a cellar today, late harvest Rieslings are no longer the standard.
As a result of tastes moving away from saccharine varietals, we will see more producers plucking their harvests earlier in the season than in the past 10 years. Dozens of estates in California’s Napa Valley are already leading the way in this new tradition, removing the grapes from the vine the moment they reach their peak ripeness. The result is a wine that still has aging power, but also has a youthful spark that some late harvest vintages lack.
Riesling Blends No Longer Taboo
Generally, a good Riesling speaks for itself. This is a wine that is almost always best left on its own, never having to compete with other wines for attention. The only time I have seen a Riesling elevated after being blended is when a dash of Gewurztraminer had been added. This combination, when executed exactly, gives Riesling a vibrant spirit that it sometimes lacks on its own.
Many vintners are making only single-grape cases in 2015, as more winemakers focus on traditional craft above all else. Riesling is one of the few varietals being used by modern winemakers (especially in Australia and North America) to create new, exciting blends.
Time will tell if this fad sticks, or if it falls out of favor by 2020. We will likely see more Riesling-Gewurztraminer blends from relatively new terroirs over the next decade, but ultimately, it’s likely that single-varietal bottles will continue to reign supreme in the long run.
In any case, now is the time to try new blends from reputable wineries. Choose wines that are made with only the best grapes to avoid sub-par blends used to stretch the crop. Research how much Gewurztraminer is blended with Riesling for additional control over the flavor. The ideal combination requires a only a splash, usually less than 5 percent, of Gewurztraminer in the bottle.
How to Shop for the Best Riesling Wine
If you’re looking to build a strong, diverse collection of Riesling, go for a balance of styles. When you start with these five trends, you’ll have a collection that will only grow in value.
Whether you already have an expansive Riesling collection and want suggestions to deepen your cellar, or you are just getting started with this varietal, you’ll find a wide selection of Riesling vintages on Vinfolio. Visit the Vinfolio store to find our selections of fine collectable Rieslings.