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Riesling, the Golden Seducer

March 01, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Once again, Riesling has reared its golden head in the international wine world. Don't be alarmed. This happens every once in a while; most likely nothing will come of it. I'm not referring to those sweet, flowery, generic Rieslings that most of us have learned to avoid. I mean dry Rieslings from fine vineyards, which are among the world's greatest wines.

Dry Riesling has a remarkable capacity for ravishing the senses while engaging the intellect. In youth it seduces with delicious fruit flavors and a singular perfume that often has piercing notes of white peach, tart apple and lime. Its bracing acidity complements all kinds of food. But that's just the beginning.

Riesling ages better than any other white wine, developing astonishing complexity and richness over decades without losing the vibrant freshness that makes it so appealing in youth. At 20 or more, when the vaunted white Burgundies are quivering, sweating and falling out, the great Rieslings are still working on their tans.

The glory of Riesling was explored and celebrated last month at the International Riesling Tasting 2000 in Sydney. The event was sponsored by Frankland Estate and the Australian Somelliers Assn. It brought together elite Riesling producers from Australia, Alsace, New Zealand, Germany and Austria for two days of tastings and seminars with hundreds of wine fans and members of the wine trade. The underlying message was that the bad old days of Riesling (a general decline that began in the mid-1970s, although many observers date it to World War II) are over.

Yes, indeed. Fine Riesling is back.

The progressive tone of the Riesling 2000 symposium was set by the choice of Riesling guru (and occasional Times contributor) Stuart Pigott as moderator. Pigott is a British wine expert, but don't hold that against him. He is anything but the pompous, middle-aged white male in a suit that most of us envision when we hear the words British wine expert.

For one thing, he's an expatriate who has chosen to live in the former East Berlin. That he openly shuns the entrenched narrow-mindedness of the British wine trade is clear in his demi-monde-ish fashion choices: black leather pants and other black clothes, set off by the occasional red or orange shirt. He and his black-clad wife, Ursula, have cropped their jet-black hair almost identically. They could stroll unannounced through a production of "Cabaret" and no one would notice.

In the drab coat- and tie-bound world of wine, a nice splash of black is pretty refreshing. And black goes so well with Riesling--that golden infusion of sunshine and bony soil, with its ravishing fruit and lingering smack of stone.

To start off, Pigott organized an extraordinary blind tasting that showcased the astounding range of Riesling expressions. Grouping 30 wines into five flights of six wines each, he led the tasters through a geographical and stylistic odyssey. Any taster's creme de la creme could be considered the best wines of a handpicked elite.

If I had to pick a few of my favorites, they would include the '98 Felton Road from Central Ontago, New Zealand; the '95 H. Donnhoff Niederhauser "Hermannshohle" from Nahe, Germany; '98 Framingham "Classic" from Marlborough, New Zealand; '97 Orlando "Steingarten" from Eden Valley, South Australia; '97 Frankland Estate "Isolation Ridge," Western Australia; '97 Grosset "Polish Hill," South Australia; and '96 Zind-Humbrecht "Rangen de Thann," Alsace.

That the 1990 vintage was a turning point in Riesling's modern evolution was illustrated in a tasting seminar arranged by Pigott to demonstrate the ageability of Riesling. The case already had been made by the time an incontrovertible argument appeared in the form of an absolutely brilliant 1951 Kremser Kogl Riesling from Weingut Undhof-Erich Salomon. Encountering a wine that was older than I with yet many fewer creaks and twinges reminded me of a line by the American poet William Stafford: "So the world happens twice / once what we see it as / again as it legends itself deep, the way it is."

Apparently, the typical Riesling template is to mature as a young wine for a few years, go into suspended animation for a few years, then embark on a longer development into glorious old age. During that phase, the bright lime-lemon character normally undergoes a sea change into more complex aromas and flavors. Free advice: If you're cellaring Riesling in any quantity at all, drink wines less than 2 years old and older than 8, allowing a downtime of some six years for the adolescent wines to coalesce: like parenthood, only fun.

Terroir was the focus of a tasting and panel discussion in which five producers presented and discussed wines from specific locations. Australian Riesling guru John Vickery showed his Richmond Grove and Orlando wines from the Barossa, Clare and Eden Valleys of South Australia, along with several wines each from Georg Breuer (Rheingau), Gunderloch (Rheinhessen), H. Donnhoff (Nahe) and Dr. Loosen (Mosel).

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