There is something compelling about Riesling. It almost never fails to raise questions: do I like this? is it sweet? is it not sweet? is that… banana? The grape and its wine generate intense debates regarding its “flaws” (e.g. petrol) and its “perks” (mouth-puckering acidity) What is not at issue is how well this it pairs with food (excellently), and how brilliantly it merges sugars and acids. I’ve gathered five Rieslings — 2 from the Mosel, and 1 each from the Kremstal, Willamette Valley, and Finger Lakes regions — to revisit the appeal of this classic wine.
Sigismond, Katzenelnbogen, and the Hanseatic League: a Riesling Trifecta in 1435!
The Rhine Valley is distinguished for having the earliest documentation for the Riesling grape. An inventory dated to 1435 lists cuttings of rieslingenamong the properties of Count Johann IV of Katzenelnbogen. Katzenelnbogen is found in the Rhine valley, and its Counts held lucrative customs’ rights for shipping along the Rhine River. Maritime trade was a common source of wealth in northern Europe at this time, when commercial guilds ensured common defense, regulation, and support of their veritable monopolies.
L) Johann IV, Count of Katzenelnbogen; C) Sigismond I; R) Holstentor, Lübeck, 15th C.
These guilds were collections of largely “independent” and “free” cities, whose allegiance ran directly to the Holy Roman Emperor; that is, they owed no feudal or financial obligation to nobles granted such allowances by the Emperor. Access to goods — like riesling cuttings in 1435 — had little interference from the Emperor, in part because then-emperor Sigismond I was busy persecuting Hussites.
The free-reigning guild-based Hanseatic league was so powerful that it emerged victorious in several skirmishes with Denmark, earning 15% of that country’s trade profits. Cessation of war between the two in 1435 saw reaffirmation of that 15% tribute.
Was wine part of this international trade? Of course it was! In particular, wine from the Rhineland was exchanged through the port at Lübeck, in northern Germany.
Riesling of the Mosel
While Mosel wines most certainly would have participated in the trade of the Hanseatics, it was in the 19th century that the area really blossomed. In that century, the twin cities of Traben and Trarbach — lying on either side of the Mosel — were at the center of the Mittelmosel’s fluorescence. Why Mosel? Riesling loves its steeply-sloped, slate rich, topsoil-poor terroir; the world’s steepest vineyard is found in the Mosel, sloping up to 65 degrees. Traban-Trarbach also has steep, stoney, sere soils, and vineyards with long histories. In the 18th century, the Kingdom of Prussia grew out of Germany’s March of Brandenberg and Poland’s Duchy of Prussia, and ruled over the Rheinland. An historic vintage in the 19th century raised the profile of Mosel’s wines, and the Prussians lowered commercial tariffs on their wines, helping to extend the region’s popularity and prosperity. Prussia benefited as well; tax records dating to the 19th century indicate that many of the area’s most highly-valued vineyard sites were already named (and taxed) at that time (see an explanation, here).
Some of these vineyards remained in good health over the centuries, but others had fallen into disrepair and neglect. Fear not! These are being brought back to health by the concerned winemakers of the “Klitzekleine Ring”, whose express goal is to rehabilitate, maintain, and preserve them. A case in point is the Trabener Zollturm vineyard plot, now in the hands of Weingut Immich-Batterieberg — which dates to our Riesling trifecta of the 15th century! Immich-Batterieberg obtained the vineyard from the Klitzekleine Ring, which consists — among others — of the Weiser-Künstler winery.
Weiser-Künstler consists of the duo Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler. The two started their winery in 2005, and their plantings cover a teeny-tiny 3 hectares. The vineyards are old and steep, and situated in and around Traban-Trarbach. These vineyards also have historical significance; they were named, taxed parcels in the Prussian records.
L). Weiser-Künstler Riesling; C) 19th Century Cadastral Map: source; R). Stein Blue Slate
Weiser-Künstler Feinherb Riesling 2014 is their “entry-level” Riesling. I tasted a soupçon of petrol — really, an oiliness with hints of smoke — and lots of citrus. This is a feinherb wine, which means its sugar levels are unregulated; it typically has more sugar than a dry riesling and less than a semi-sweet one. This one is lively and fresh, with lots of acid to balance the sugar.
Who else is interested in Germany’s historic vineyards? Ulrich (Ulli) Stein. Like the Klitzekleine Ring, Dr. Stein is an advocate for the old, steep, difficult vineyards of the Mosel — whose yields compose his wines. His eponymous winery is located further north, near the town of Alf. Stein Blue Slate (Blauschiefer) Dry Riesling 2014 is the result of some of these old, un-grafted vines. Is this what Blue Slate tastes like? Then give me more, please. Green apple. Super crisp, super clean, with notes of green apple and salted, green apricots (yummm!). The finish is all citrus and stone.
A bit of Riesling from Austria
Mosel doesn’t get to have all the fun with Riesling — nor solely Germany. Their Austrian neighbors also grow quite a bit of the white grape, for which the Wachau region is renowned. The Wachau is found on the Danube, about 70 km west of Vienna. Vienna was the resident city of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors by 1440, and later the Empire’s capital city. This proximity to Power precluded the operation of such independent trade as that of the Hanseatic league — which was oriented more northerly, but nonetheless affected the commercial interests of winegrowers along the Danube. Influx of wine from Germany and Hungary caused the Austrians to enact protectionist tariffs and outright bans on foreign wines. Who was making this wine? Monasteries, of course, who owned vast tracts of vine-covered lands along the Danube. It is those same monasteries that make the Wachau region so picturesque today, and that inform modern viticulture.
What other region is found along the Danube, has a history of monastic vineyards, and is known for its Riesling? The Kremstal lies between Melk and Krems (like the Wachau), mostly on the northern bank of the Danube (while the Wachau is mostly to the South), and produces wonderful Riesling. Both are contrasted to wines of the Mosel by their relative fruitiness and richer palate that results from warmer weather patterns. Of course, there are differences. For one thing, the wines of Kremstal lack Wachau’s odd-to-English-ears designations Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd. You’d like a Smaragd? Get ye to Wachau! You’d like a great Riesling from, say, Weingut Müller-Grossmann? Uncork a Kremstal.
L). Müller-Grossmann Riesling; R) Austrian Wine Regions: source
Weingut Müller-Grossmann has 10 hectares of sustainably-farmed land on the South side of the Danube. Hand-harvested grapes from the Steiner Point vineyard go into their easy-drinking 2014 Riesling, with ample acid and ripe fruits. Apricot joins lemon-lime citrus, and the ever-present wet stone, in this clean, tart beauty.
New World Riesling
Riesling is a member of the Vitis vinifera group of grapes, which came from Europe. Indigenous grapes of North America are of the Vitis labrusca variety. While Native Americans were undoubtedly drinking fermented versions of the corn, squash, and other vegetables that they grew — and possibly wine from fruits — they could not have been making Riesling wine until European contact. Of course such contact did occur in the late-15th century with “discovery” by Christopher Columbus, but it would be quite a while longer till Riesling came to roost. Columbus claimed North America for Spain, and their missionaries planted “Mission” grapes — Listan Preito from Spain and from Spanish lands in South America. Settlers brought other vinifera to the Virginia and Pennsylvania colonies in the 17th century, but these failed in their European forms. It wouldn’t be until the late-19th century that Riesling grapes would make it over, brought by German immigrants.
Despite the late arrival of vinifera and Riesling, there are vineyards with quite old pedigrees. A case in point are the Sawmill Creek Vineyards in NY’s Finger Lakes region that have been in the Hazlitt family since 1852 — well before Dr. Konstantin Frank introduced cold-weather varietals into the Finger Lakes’ Region in the middle of the 20th century. Even so, Riesling grapes from their vineyards are used by several, prominent wineries in single-vineyard bottlings.
Billsboro Dry Riesling Sawmill Creek Vineyards 2014 is one such winery. Billsboro’s very-small production (179 cases!!?!) is worth seeking out. The nose is mostly tropical, with kiwi, pineapple, and banana. It is acidic and lime zest-y, but with softer fruit notes — including tangerine — layered inside that acidic shell.
Out West — in Oregon — bottlings of single vineyards-of-note are also common. A case in point is the Lone Star vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills appellation of the Willamette Valley. Ovum Memorista 2012 is sourced 100% from the Lone Star Vineyard — whose fruit the winemakers’ compare to that of the Mosel. It has a softer style than those Mosel wines, above, from Stein and Weiser-Künstler — perhaps due to the oval tanks employed in its fermentation. It has an oily mouth with delicate flavors of lemon curd and marzipan, plus some green, bitter almond, and green apple. This one will be even harder to find, as only 118 cases were produced. Find it; it is worth the effort.
Riesling can be complex and difficult to understand, with component flavors that are evasive and perplexing. But, done right, the resulting wine can be sublime. Whether from its home in the Rhineland, the Kremstal, or the New World, it is worth drinking.