Think of the three white noble grapes. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay come to mind immediately. But you may scratch your head before thinking Riesling. You are not alone. It is one of the three classic white varieties, growing the most in Germany, but found also in Austria, Alsace, Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Ukraine and Canada. But the varietal has not been very popular in India so far. I have reasons to believe that it will be soon be in fashion .
The German Riesling has been considered to produce aristocratic wine and was the noblest variety, some of the wines selling at prices even higher than the Bordeaux Chateaux wines a century ago. It was truly the grape for the kings, nobility and czars. Unfortunately, the quality started going down over time till it became identified as a mere component of Liebfraumilch, the sweet, mellow and insipid ‘concoction' made, at times, by adding sugar (chaptalisation). The avatar of the eighties has a minimum of 18 gms. of residual sugar, good enough to make it taste like a flat, cloying sweet wine.
Another reason why it has not yet made waves in India is because we find it a tad too sweet. This is a variety that can be extremely aromatic. It is the only varietal which makes a complete spectrum of wines from dry to sweet ice-wine to very sweet TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese) in Germany. Usually thriving in a colder climate, it can be mellow, flat and higher in alcohol in warmer areas. Germany being a relatively low volume wine producer, despite the 17 wine producing regions, has not been promoting wine outside its boundaries as aggressively as some of the New World countries. With no support from the government, the promotion takes a back seat. This is a critical component in the nascent Indian market. So the German Riesling has not made a mark here so far.
What is so special about this grape? Specially, in Indian context? Firstly, the grape lends itself to lively acidity at every level of sweetness. This makes the wine mature beautifully in the bottle for a decade or more without losing freshness. You can still find young, hundred –year old Rieslings. This sugar-acid balance makes this wine perfect for spicy Indian food. Acidity cuts into the fat and the sugar counters the chilies.
In a recent tastings of a couple of high quality labels from Mosel and Rheinhessen we found that the slightly sweeter versions (off-dry, Spaetlese and Auslese) could handle the spicy hot mutton curry, fish curry and butter chicken with aplomb by proper matching of the style of wine with the food and curry spices. Colour of the meat was less of an issue than the flavour of the spices. Of course, there is a limit to the hot spices it can handle. The extra hot south Indian style mutton curry we tried to match even with the sweet Auslese at Hotel Leela Mumbai could not tame the hot chilies.
German Rieslings have lower alcohol content due to colder climes. 7-9% is the norm rather than 11-14% elsewhere. This makes it a better partner with food than some of the other regional varieties in warmer regions, with higher alcohol levels. Weight watchers may find the lower calories because of lower alcohol level, a welcome feature too.
What many of us may not be aware of is the fact that a good quality Riesling lasts longer in an opened bottle provided it is stored properly. During my recent conversation with Fritz Gunderloch, the visiting winemaker- owner of Gunderloch winery in Rheinhessen, he told me that if stored properly, wine left over from the open bottle can last for three months without really losing its flavour. He should know! His is the only winery in the world that has received 100 points from Wine Spectator thrice. Of course, the latest100- pointer, half- bottle TBA Riesling 2001 that retails for US $ 2000 makes it drinkable only by modern day kings and czars. Dry Kabinetts on the other end of the spectrum make them highly refreshing as aperitifs in Indian summers.
Earlier this month when Fritz visited India for multiple trade tastings, I had an opportunity to put his hypothesis to test. Wines from Dr. Loosen, Mosel winery that has revolutionized wine making concepts and is famous for good quality Rieslings, had been couriered and received after payment of custom duty. On opening the case, a few bottles of one label were found wet. Apparently, wine had leaked out of the stelvin cork, damaged perhaps at the customs office. We chose to taste all these bottles with damaged cork by mixing them randomly with the sealed bottles. No one could find any difference in the flavour though the bottles were exposed to oxygen for over a week. I believe Mr. Hasselbach when he tells me that in a recent blind tasting of Gunderloch wines in the US, the best wine turned out to be a bottle that had been opened and stored for over a month. Imagine the cost savings and increased drinking pleasure for Indian wine drinkers for whom storing away the unfinished bottle and consuming in 3-7 days may be the norm!
While, we are still far away from consuming a half bottle of icewine or TBA or a late harvest wine made from Botrytised grapes , with or as dessert during the course of a meal in one evening, Riesling does give us a fragrant option with lively acidity and gloriously aromatic flavours- from aperitif to the main course, to dessert. How many varietals offer us that luxury?
And the Riesling doesn't have to be from Germany either. Washington State and Clare Valley have also honed their techniques and find it difficult to produce enough Riesling. A crisp welcome awaits the resurrection of the forgotten king of grapes, in India. Hail King Riesling!