Monday 27 June 2011

The Many Faces of Riesling

Riesling is a bit like classical music. Complex, technically precise, and rich in history. And like classical music, it appeals to only a niche group. Jancis Robinsons says of it, "The most underappreciated white grape in the world, but in my opinion the finest." The presence of monoterpenes in Riesling, responsible for the delicate floral aromas of violets and rose petals, can come as a shock to wine drinkers more familiar with the citrus and oak character of Chardonnay. Add in a distinct, bracing acidity, and a lean body, and it is easy to see why Riesling accounts for only 12% of white wine sales in Singapore.

It wasn't always this way. In the 19th century, German Riesling sold for higher than even the grand crus of Bordeaux. Riesling was considered the finest varietal of the Rhine winemaking regions since the early 18th century, prompting various church authorities to encourage Riesling plantings over lesser varietals. But just as Germany was responsible for the rise and influence of Riesling, it also played a hand in its downfall. The 1971 German wine law, which associated quality with sugar and ripeness rather than terroir, unleashed a flood of sweet wine into the market just as consumer preferences were evolving towards drier styles. A plethora of similar sounding varietals, amongst them Welschriesling and Cape Riesling, which possessed some of the aromatic qualities but none of the finesse and longevity of true Riesling, put another nail in the coffin.

A recent tasting of Rieslings with The Local Nose, paired with a selection of tapas from Vintry reminded me how much this grape has to offer. More than any other varietal, Riesling expresses the soil and climate of the vineyard, while still managing to maintain an individual charm. It is like having Picasso, Dali and Monet painting the same vase of flowers. My tasting notes are reproduced below:

2009 Württemberg Lauffener Riesling - A good showing of German-style Riesling, with typical lime and kerosene aromas. Light bodied with an above average length.

2009 Tamar Ridge Kayena Vineyard Riesling - From Tasmania, a cool climate region. Very subtle aromas of kerosene and citrus. The body was rather thick for a dry Riesling, perhaps due to the alcohol. A very different style from Clare and Eden Valley Rieslings, which have more pronounced fruit character.

2007 Haart to Haart Riesling - From the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, this wine had an unusual rubber-like aroma. Delicious minerality on the palate, reminiscent of small river pebbles. A long, persistent finish.

2009 Biffar Josephine Riesling Kabinett Feinherb - What a mouthful of a name! Kabinett Feinherb refers to the style of the wine, which is off-dry. The nose had a lovely lychee and candied fruit note, with a slight hint of lentil. Similarly rich on the palate, but with sufficient acidity to ensure that it did not become cloying.

2009 Domain Road Riesling - This Riesling from Central Otago displayed primary lime and mineral fruits with subtle floral notes on the nose. A fruit forward palate of lime and lemon curd, with slatey mineral notes. A very typical New Zealand Riesling, tightly focused with concentrated fruit.

There are many other regions now which make excellent Riesling. Alsace and Finger Lakes (New York) tend to make Rieslings in bone dry styles, while Austrian Riesling is dry with floral notes. Australian Riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys have a distinctive petrol character, even in younger wines, and citrus characters. Even though Riesling is less popular than, say, Chardonnay, winemakers love to make (and drink) this grape for its finesse and complexity. Unless there is a change in wine drinking trends towards lighter styles of wine though, I do not expect the rest of the world to follow anytime soon.

On a final note, for those who have not tried out Vintry's Caramelised Roast Pork, it is the most tender, succulent, melt-in-your-mouth pork I have tasted in Singapore. A perfect match with dry German Riesling.

Thursday 16 June 2011

That Elusive Asian Spice

pic from

I've noticed the term "Asian spice" cropping up regularly in tasting notes recently. Which is rather like saying, a wine has minerality. It's an imprecise word that can mean a variety of scents and flavours. Szechuan peppercorns, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, basil and lemongrass are all spices used in Asian cooking, but they taste very different from one another. When "Asian spice" is used to describe a wine, does it smell of lemongrass then? Surely an odd scent to find in Cabernet Sauvignon wouldn't you think?

Out of curiosity, I made used of Google's date range function to find out how many web pages had the word "Asian spice" and "tasting notes" in them within a certain time frame. Up to the year 2005, there were 47 hits on these search terms. Extending the date range to the current date resulted in around 12,000 hits. Ok, I thought, maybe more tasting notes have been put online over the past six years. So I put in the terms "blackcurrant" and "tasting notes" and repeated the experiment. This time, there were 11,500 results up to 2005, and 149,000 up to today. So that means that there are now 255 times more tasting notes with the words "Asian spice" compared with an increase of 13 times for "blackcurrant".

Perhaps this growth of wines tasting like "Asian spice" has something to do with what a major player Asia (in particular China) has become in the wine trade. Hong Kong is already the largest market for wine auctions, and Asia is expected to account for a third of en primeur sales this year. With Europe and the United States still in economic doldrums, it is Asia which is setting new records for the price of fine wine. Maybe it follows, that if you are marketing to Asia, you should use terms that are more familiar to Asians? Just like Chateau Lafite adding the Chinese symbol for 8 to their 2008 bottles, is "Asian spice" a marketing gimmick?

I have no qualms about tasting notes featuring more descriptors that are easier to understand in the local context, such as litchi, mango and star fruit. Jeannie Cho Lee MW wrote an excellent article in the July 2009 issue of Decanter which examines the difference between Western and Asian palates. Such descriptors allow locals to identify better with the flavours of the wine, which is an important consideration when buying wines. Yet I can't help feeling that "Asian spice" is a catch-all phrase that doesn't really add value to a tasting note.