Riesling grapes before ripening

Riesling revival? What revival?

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Of all the noble wine varieties in the world today, more than fifty major varieties alone, there is a surprising amount of agreement on which makes the finest wine, Riesling. Wine experts love it, but it seems the public doesn't.

More than any grape it reflects where it is grown and it needs certain conditions to flourish. Cool climate, long sunny ripening conditions, stoney, poor soil. Its home is Germany but it can be found in Australia, France, Austria, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, even China. And South Africa.

South Africa possesses areas where the Riesling can truly express itself, notably Constantia. But excellent Riesling is being made in Robertson by Danie De Wet and Rietvallei, in Elgin by Paul Cluver (a Tri-Nation’s Gold medal winner), in Stellenbosch by Jordan, Thelema and Hartenberg, in Durbanville and Paarl with grapes sourced from Darling by Nitida and Fairview respectively. Then there are the superb dessert Rieslings of Robertson Winery, Klein Constantia, Paul Cluver and Van Loveren.

Each winery comprises some degree of the calcareous, granity, sandstone and clay soil, the heat tempered by sea breezes or aspect, or cool pockets where it can ripen slowly. Add to that careful rootstock choice, the right clone, low yields and expert winemaking and you have the requirements for world class Riesling.

Riesling styles in South Africa can match all tastes. From bone dry, steely minerality which can match the Mosel’s finest, or lime fruity in-your-face aromatics of Australia’s Clare valley, or fragrant, silky off dry styles reminiscent of the best Spatlese, right through to the luscious bitter apricot treats of Noble Late Harvest styles often with more than 200g of sugar per litre yet beautifully balanced due to Riesling’s natural acidity.

So why doesn’t it sell? Hoping to prove myself wrong, I counted the number of Sauvignon blancs on the shelves of a leading national supermarket; 61 brands to choose from. How many Rieslings? One. There were three ‘Cape Rieslings’ (Crouchen blanc, a decidedly inferior grape). One look at the South African Wine Information and System’s (SAWIS) figures tells the sad story. Riesling makes up just 0.2% of the total area of wine plantings, a tiny 211 hectares, even Cinsault has ten times more. Less than 1000 tons of Riesling grapes are crushed for wine, compare that to 30 000 tons for Ruby Cabernet or 270 000 tons for Chenin blanc. The figures have remained static for more than five years, which makes the comment in the SAWIS Industry Directory, that there is ‘renewed consumer interest,’ rather puzzling.

I guess we wine lovers should be pleased about this. Genuine consumer interest would push up demand and prices and increased production might not equate with increased quality. Riesling is truly the ‘Cinderella’ grape. The true beauty hidden by the rest, rather like the best SA Pinot noirs, only less challenging to perfect. So perhaps we should not be shouting for a revival. Anyway, if Jancis Robinson OBE MW can’t revive it then who can?

Instead we should be selecting our favourites and squirreling them away so that if its time finally does come we can bask in our foresight and expertise, while drinking some exquisite wine.

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