If I was forced to pick my favourite white grape, it would probably be Riesling. Happily, there were some recent opportunities to drink a fair bit of it — a trip to Germany, which has shaken off its poor reputation as a wine producer, and now makes some splendid whites; bottles gifted by friends; and a tasting organised by one of the finest wine manufacturers in Alsace, France, Hugel et Fils.
The romance about Riesling is wrapped up in the fact that the wine is as much about the grape (or the vineyard/terroir where it grows) as the winemaker/winery. Riesling is rarely if ever matured in wood (and so does not assume the oaky flavour that chardonnays and some other whites generally have). It is also not subject to malolactic fermentation (the secondary fermentation process which alters the acid-structure of a wine to create more softness and roundness). Yes, an AOC like Alsace allows Rieslings to be chaptalized (or sweetened with the addition of sugar), but this has not been necessary for a few years now thanks to a succession of harvests with good ripe grapes.
Since the intervention of the winemaker is negligible, Rieslings are the purest expression of grape in a wineglass. It is a purity that expresses itself unequivocally on the palate. Good dry Rieslings — which have now staged a big comeback — have a clean, delicate and bracing acidity and the hint of fruit always expresses itself with a zesty freshness, like lemon squeezed a moment ago.
Riesling is also an extremely adaptable grape, which produces wine ranging from the crisp and bone dry to subtle and sweet. German Rieslings, in keeping with the country's opaque labelling practices, are classified in six categories (Kabinett to Eiswein) depending on the level of sweetness, or more accurately ripeness. A remarkable longevity is another attribute; the wine can be drunk young but the process of maturing is fascinating and some bottles have known to have weathered as well as the best reds.
It's reputation as a thinking man's wine — one that wine critics write lovingly about but one that finds less acceptance in the mass market — is slowly changing, with the growing popularity of Rieslings from Germany, Austria, Alsace and Australia. Light and racy, dry Rieslings are extremely food friendly unlike some of their other white counterparts. The balance of fruit and acidity make it a good complement of Asian food — Indian, Chinese and Thai.
(The return of Riesling also marks the return of this column after a short hiatus.)