Chardonnay is usually awarded the prize as the most noble of the white wine grape varieties.
Starting with the fabulous white wines of the Côte d’Or of Burgundy and then through Chablis and Champagne before moving overseas, this vine has proved its merits for generations.
Chardonnay is relatively easy to grow, yields well, can handle a wide variety of soil and climate conditions, and comes with the stuffing to make good wines. It offers options to the wine-maker so that there are many styles from the bone-dry, steely, mineral-driven wines of Chablis, to the buttery, sunshine wines of California. It goes well with oak fermentation and aging, but does just as well without a touch of wood. It can produce wines for immediate enjoyment as well as those that can mature elegantly with age.
There is another white wine varietal which scores just as well on most of these measures, and better on many. To the wine trade, this is the “other” noble white: Riesling.
For most of us our first exposure to this grape was likely some cheap plonk from Germany — thin, acidic, bitter and sweet. Almost for certain that sweetness was added and not from the original grapes. Thankfully we are well past those days, although the best German Rieslings are not easy to obtain here.
Riesling is blessed with a wide range of natural aromas including citrus, tropical fruit, floral, and even terpene (often described as gasoline or kerosene, but more closely associated with herbs such as rosemary). It has high acidity which not only gives zest to a sip, it helps preserve wines for incredibly long time spans measured in decades. Riesling can be produced in dry, semi-dry, and sweet styles, including those influenced by botrytis. It has a place in every part of a meal from the aperitif on its own, through the main course, to dessert.
Besides Germany, you will find this grape producing wines in Austria, Italy, the Alsace region of France, and overseas in places such as Australia, the United States and Canada. Warmer areas have needed to learn to control yields and preserve acidity to retain that great Riesling character — and they have done so. Good examples abound, so try a few.
Outside of Germany the concentration is on dry wines in which most of the natural sugar has been converted to alcohol in the normal range for wines. Even in Germany the trend is toward drier styles. Look for these wines when you want a white to go with a pork or chicken dish, especially if the dish is flavoured with complementary herbs or fruit.
My interest was sparked on a recent visit to the NLC when I spotted a Last Chance sale of the Rolf Binder Highness Riesling 2009, Eden Valley, Barossa, South Australia ($17.43, almost $4 off). The bouquet was lime, actually zest of lime, terpenes (think rosemary and spruce tree), floral (call it lavender), and pears on the finish. This was full bodied, definitely a varietal Riesling in character, but dry, with no sweetness. Score: 16/Very Good.
Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org