Riesling is one of the top grapes favoured by those in the wine trade – and for good reason. It is totally unique in its ability to withstand extreme cold, produce TDN and make such a vast array of wines with little or no need to be blended with any other varietal. David Rosenthal from Chateau Ste Michelle in Washington State, Erni Loosen from Dr Loosen Estate in the Mosel, Sam Barry from Jim Barry Wines in the Clare Valley, and Jean-Frédéric Hugel from Famille Hugel in Alsace, each discuss three of their new wines and what makes them special while Geoffrey Dean tastes.
“My grandfather used to say this is ‘a perfect wine to drink yourself sober,’ because of the low alcohol. He used to offer guests this at 4pm instead of tea,” says Erni Loosen about his Riesling Kabinett.
To hear four such eminent Riesling winemakers pontificate together about the varietal and some of their wines – and to taste them – was a rare treat for those on the same Zoom call. David Rosenthal from Chateau Ste Michelle in Washington State, Ernst Loosen from Dr Loosen Estate in the Mosel, Sam Barry from Jim Barry Wines in the Clare Valley, and Jean-Frédéric Hugel from Famille Hugel in Alsace need little if any introduction.
Jamie Goode prefaced the tasting and discussion with a brief reminder of what makes Riesling such a special grape. How it has a high level of cold tolerance – down to minus 25°C – which explains its success in Niagara and New York State; how it is so adaptable, growing well in a range of climates; that it is rarely ever blended, and has no affinity with new oak; how it can get flavour ripeness while retaining very high levels of acidity (with a pH as low as 2.8); that it can be picked early or late, and can handle botrytis; how its styles range from luscious/sweet to bone dry; and how Riesling contains more TDN (1,1,6,-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronapthalene) than any other white varietal (TDN being the compound that gives rise to petrol and kerosene notes). Both New World winemakers, Rosenthal and Barry, confess they are not fans of TDN, while Hugel does not try to avoid it as it adds complexity but feels it should not be a youthful characteristic.
Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley 2020
Beautifully pure and lovely focus to this dynamic entry level Riesling. Interestingly, some wild yeasts are used for fermentation, although most are inoculated. Some lees ageing of anywhere between 4-6 months, which helps round off the high acidity from big diurnal shifts. With global warming, the viticultural team are trying to find cooler places locally so that fruit can be picked at the end of October. 100,000 cases to be produced next year. 12.5% abv
Chateau Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling 2020
What the winery is best known for, with up to 850,000 cases made per annum. Same minimalist winemaking as for the Dry Riesling but the fermentation is stopped a little earlier, with an off-dry style and 20 g/l of residual sugar the result. That is very well balanced by a pH of 3.05 and total acidity of 6.8g/l, which gives a crisp finish. More peachy with apricot than the citrus character of the Dry Riesling. Very versatile wine, as goes well with spicy Asian food and seafood. 12% abv
Chateau Ste Michelle & Dr Loosen Eroica Riesling Columbia Valley 2019
The partnership started in 1999 with Ernie Loosen, with the idea being in his words “to renovate Riesling’s reputation after the German flooding of the market with Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun.” Rosenthal added that extended hang time was the goal as Riesling needs that to get aroma ripeness without sugar over-ripeness. “I think we even harvest later than the Mosel in late October with an even higher TA of 7-7.5 g/l which counter-balances the residual sugar of 11.5g/l,” he declared. “The fruit comes from two cooler vineyard sites – in View Crest, Yakima Valley and in the Evergreen Vineyard Ancient Lakes area, a relatively new AVA. We try to capture the elegance of Mosel wines and the purity and power of Washington.” 12% abv
Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Dry Riesling Alte Reben 2019
Loosen explained why this vineyard is something of an exception for the middle Mosel. “Normally we get slate soil there but here it is weathered volcanic conglomerate soil,” he said. “This is why this is called Spice Garden (Würzgarten) as you get totally different aromas compared to slate. There you get stone fruit with peach but in Würzgarten you get herbal spice aromas. Of the 7 hectares we own, 3.5 are ungrafted, being on own roots and over 100 years old. The little berries we tend to get make nice very complex fruit with enormous complexity. There is also long hang time as the berries’ thick skins mean they don’t get attacked by botrytis.” Indigenous yeasts add to complexity, with structure coming from 12 months on the full lees. No malolactic fermentation is carried out, nor any racking before the wine is bottled. 12.5% abv
Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2019
Fermentation is stopped leaving 35-40g/l of residual sugar, with the final TA coming in at 9-10g/l. “But you don’t taste the RS due to the mouthwatering acidity and lovely fruit,” Loosen said. “My grandfather used to say this is ‘a perfect wine to drink yourself sober,’ because of the low alcohol. He used to offer guests this at 4pm instead of tea. So it’s a great aperitif wine, but can age due to the low pH. I have a 1938 from JJ Prum in my cellar.” A nose of pear and minty herbs precedes spice, earthy notes on the palate with hints of salinity and minerality. 8% abv
Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 2019
Picked later and riper at 10.5-11.5% potential alcohol, with 5-10 days more hang-time than the Kabinett, this has 66g/l of residual sugar with 1g/l less TA. As such it is rounder and more luscious, with ripe melon and pineapple notes and zesty tension on the palate. Spicy with racy acidity and terrific length, this is a beautiful wine, albeit one to lay down. “Best at a minimum of 10 years age,” Loosen advised. 8% abv
The Florita, Jim Barry 2017
Sam Barry praised the Florita Vineyard for being a famous site, although only 5% of it (the best block) ends up in this label. Originally planted to Palomino, the vines were replanted to Riesling in 1962, all on own roots. A clay-based sunscreen is sprayed to prevent harsh afternoon sun, also helping to keep the canopy cooler and increase hang-time by two days. “Sunburn is the biggest problem for us, so we fight against TDN and have east-west rows,” Barry revealed. “We get a huge diurnal range – from 40°C down to 12°C at night when all the heat is blown out of the valley by sea breezes. We press very gently, getting 400-450 litres per ton, as we don’t want to lose acid.” The 2017 is a wine of tremendous drive and purity with zesty acidity and notable intensity of lime fruit. It is taut and beautifully focussed, with a very long finish. 12.5% abv
The Florita, Jim Barry Cellar Release 2013
The Florita 2013 is starting to show what makes this wine unique. The magic of aged Australian Riesling is that it takes on a toasty marmalade character, which this wine has. With a pH of 2.9-2.95, there is ample acidity in this wine to allow it to age for much longer as well as power of fruit. No TDN notes – Barry says these are only seen in hot dry years. 12.3% abv
Wolta Wolta LoosenBarry Dry Riesling 2017
The fruit for this collaboration between Barry’s father, Peter, and Ernst Loosen came from an area of the Clare Valley known as ‘Wolta Wolta’ (the Aboriginal for good water). “Dad and Ernie got on like a house on fire when they first met in London in 1995, and became good friends,” Barry said. “The most exciting thing about this project, which the two of them dreamt up at the 2015 Riesling Convention, is that it shows you can produce Clare Riesling in another way. Having it sat on full lees for two years has built complexity, texture, weight and mouthfeel that that no one has really seen in dry Australian riesling.” Fermented with indigenous yeasts, the wine was matured in large neutral oak (a 3,000-litre ‘Fuder’ cask). It has 7g/l of residual sugar (compared to 2g/l in Florita). “For me, it’s a very interesting experiment and style of wine,” Loosen commented. “This longer ageing gives a beautiful charming character.” 12.5% abv
Hugel Classic Riesling 2019
“What I want to do is show you varietal and terroir expression with these three wines,” Jean-Frédéric Hugel declared. “So we must taste the entry level and most expensive wines. In Alsace, we have very very little slate, unlike the Mosel, and lots of everything else. The mosaic of our soil has allowed us to grow Riesling in very different styles and profiles. The idea with the Classic is to show a benchmark. It’s from a blend of various soils in Alsace – predominantly granite & limestone, a tiny bit of slate and a fair bit of marly soils and sandstone. The clay content in marl gives fleshiness while the sandstone gives leaner wines with more aromatic profiles.” Hugel hailed 2019 as one of the top two or three vintages of the decade. 13% abv
Famille Hugel, Edition Limitée Riesling Grossi Laüe 2011
Based an old label – a re-edition of a 1950s one – this is two steps up in quality from the Classic. “The fruit comes from the three or four best blocks of the 12 we have in the famous Schoenenbourg vineyard, which made the reputation,wealth and fame of the town of Riquewihr. It’s what drew my family to settle in 1639, the objective being to get some Schoenenbourg. We are now the second largest owners on it, which gives us incredible choice in terms of blending.” The 2011 vintage was a warm one, helping to explain the 14% abv. Full-bodied and rich, it is dry with bright acidity as well as both earthy undertones and a streak of salinity. Almond aromas precede ripe white peach and fresh lemon notes. A stunning wine. 14% abv
Famille Hugel Schoelhammer Riesling 2010
“Each of our 220 vineyard blocks has a name,” Hugel continued, “and one – the Schoelhammer – was nearly always more accomplished in terms of depth, concentration and mouthfeel, as well as having personality and ageing potential, so we thought let’s bottle it. This is built for the long-term, with 2010 the perfect meeting between the old times, when we picked in October, and warmer climates that allow for consistent quality.” Spicy with candied fruit and mineral crushed stone notes, this has power and structure yet vibrancy. Deep and earthy, this is so complex with a long life still ahead of it. “In the family, we like a minimum 20 years ageing for our single vineyard wines,” Hugel confessed. 13% abv