“I was hoping to talk to you about Riesling,” I shyly conveyed to Wine Director Eric Larkee. We were sitting at the bar at MGFD. He was savoring his double espresso, no sugar, no milk. I was sitting quietly, a little nervous about the talk ahead. Like many other wine consumers, I previously associated the grape varietal with a heavy, oftentimes overwhelming, sweetness. So, when I first sat down for my lesson about the high acid wine, I knew that Eric had his work cut out for him.
He finished his coffee with a couple sips of water, and slowly started opening up about high acidity, labeling classifications and charts. After a lot of explaining, and occasionally re-explaining, Eric taught me that a talk about Riesling is also a talk about balance and versatility. There’s no isolated component that makes one Riesling drier or sweeter than another, or one simple, clear cut explanation to it all. Understanding Riesling is all about seeing the big picture, and seeing how everything works together.
Eric started off our talk with a basic, conversational topic – location and the weather. Originally of German origin, today Riesling is produced in both the New World (Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand) and the Old World (particularly in France, Austria and, of course, Germany).
Riesling thrives upon struggling a bit, flourishing even in the most difficult, stony soils and cold climates. In warmer climates, such as in Australia, the Riesling varietal is at risk of not reaching its acidic potential. In order to achieve a balanced wine in warmer climates, the grape must be handled very carefully.
A good Riesling is all about the “ying – yang”, the natural acid-to-sugar balance, or ratio, in the wine. It sounded very confusing to me at first, partially because I had completely forgotten the basics behind some of the scientific words up ahead. But it was even more confusing because, in Riesling, a high amount of sugar doesn’t necessarily indicate a sweeter wine.
Eric explained that acid can act like a buffer for sugar levels, creating a sensation that is not heavy or cloyingly sweet. The interplay of these elements, acid-sugar, ultimately determines part of what you will taste. A Riesling with high sugar, but high acid, might taste drier than one with less sugar and much less acid.
The high acid structure and residual sugar also allows the wine to age well. Eric explained that time harmonizes the integration of the sugar in Riesling and, thus, aged Rieslings will actually be drier than younger Rieslings.
Also, as Rieslings age, they may pick up a flavor note that resembles petrol, or eau de kerosene. Although some Riesling aficionados might praise this petrol aroma, Eric mentioned that Michel Chapoutier, the renowned Rhone producer, challenged the notion that this aroma of petrol is even desirable. Chapoutier actually referred to it as a historical accident that was later erroneously praised. He argues that the petrol is the result of the decomposition of the veins of the grape. A proper pressing would ideally avoid this decomposition and, thus, the entire aroma known as eau de kerosene.
After all the petrol talk, Eric brought out a bottle of Riesling and pointed at the back label, where a pH level was listed in small black letters. He refreshed my memory and explained that pH levels indicate a range from acid to basic (1 being most acidic, 14 being most basic). Below 7 indicates a more acidic value and, when it comes to Rieslings, low pH levels may accentuate the expression of natural acids, and reduce sensations of sweetness. So, a Riesling high in residual sugar, low in acid, and low in pH will actually taste slightly drier than a wine with a higher pH.
Another factor in the balance equation is also the alcohol percentage. In wine, alcohol is created when yeast turns the sugars from the grapes into alcohol. Again, not as simple as it sounds, because this doesn’t necessarily mean that all the sugar will be converted into alcohol.
If you spot low alcohol levels, say at eight or nine percent, on a Riesling bottle, this might indicate that there’s plenty of sugar still remaining in the wine. If the alcohol percentage is above eleven perfect, then chances are you’ve got a bottle of a drier Riesling in your hands, because more of the sugar has been converted to alcohol.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Let’s Talk Riesling, Part II, the second part of my lesson with Eric Larkee, featuring Riesling labels and taste profiles.