Chance sometimes introduces us to wines in ways that make life seem extraordinary. While in Berlin recently I dined with a group of friends at an ordinary Turkish café. Late in the evening I discovered a wine rack at the back of the room.
The café owner, Mehmet, only spoke German and Turkish. But we negotiated a rate of 20 euro a bottle. Apparently the wines had been there when he bought the lease about 15 years ago. Most of the wines had no labels, or the labels were so damaged they were difficult to read. The only hint was the bottle: the long thin shape meant they had to be rieslings.
These wines must have endured years of temperature fluctuations from below zero in Berlin’s winter to more than 40C in summer. These kinds of fluctuations are bad news for wine. The damaged labels proved the wines had been stored badly. This leads us to reflect on the resilience and wonder of German riesling.
These whites are often consumed young, when they offer fruity and aromatic wines with flavours of green apple, grapefruit, gooseberry, rose blossom or cut green grass. They taste crisp because of the high acidity. Yet this acidity, if combined with quality fruit, produces rieslings with exceptional potential for ageing. Quality dry riesling can be enjoyed half a century after bottling. High sugar content provides an extra preservative, making sweeter wines especially suited for cellaring.
Riesling is seldom oaked and is highly expressive of its terroir, meaning that the character is influenced by the wine’s place of origin. The grape variety orginated somewhere in the valley of the Rhine, since both its genetic parents Heunisch and Traminer have a long documented history in Germany. A third of all Germany’s riesling grows in the Mosel Valley but the Pfalz, Nahe, Rheinhessen and Rheingau regions also produce wines of substantial quality.
The most superior wines, known as Prädikat, vary in sweetness depending on sugar levels in the must, the juice extracted from the grapes. Dry or off-dry rieslings are known as trocken or halb (half) trocken. These are often referred to as kabinett, meaning wine good enough to be kept in the winemaker’s personal cabinet.
Spatslese wines, meaning “late harvest,” are typically semi-sweet and fruitier than kabinett. Auslese, meaning “select harvest,” are made from very ripe, hand selected bunches, and are typically semi-sweet or sweet.
Very late harvest rieslings known as Beerenauslese (literal meaning “selected berry harvest” and abbreviated as BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (literal meaning “dried berry selection” and shortened to TBA) can become magnificent dessert wines. These are usually made from grapes affected by botrytis or “noble rot”. In the case of TBA the berries are individually selected. They are shrivelled, often looking like a raisin.
Riesling develops profound harmonies as it ages, particularly after about a decade. Some older rieslings reveal a distinct petroleum note that the French describe as “goût de pétrole” because of its associations with a kerosene character.
This can be off-putting for people who primarily seek young and fruity aromas. But it’s a key part of the profile of mature riesling and something that experienced drinkers seek. Once smelled it can never be forgotten.
Factors that lead to this kerosene note include the use of ripe grapes with high acids harvested late from regions that do not irrigate, from hot vintages. Interestingly, Australia’s warmer regions produces grapes with skins sometimes seven times the thickness of German grapes. This level of thickness perhaps explains why some New World rieslings develop different flavour notes compared with German wines.
Back at the Turkish café, someone played an old piano and the crowd started to sing. A belly dancer appeared and beckoned people to dance, and dancers slipped 10 euro notes into her costume. We opened four wines at the table and three were acutely memorable. Mehmet tipped the fourth down the sink.
In order of discovery from the crowded racks we drank a 1992 Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg spatlese from Schloss Plettenberg in the Nahe region, a 1997 Durkheimer Feuerberg Kerner auslase from Pfalz and finally a 1996 Kreuznacher Hofgarten Huxelrebe auslase from the Reichsgraf von Plettenberg vineyard in Nahe.
All had low alcohol, of about 9 or 10 per cent, and had been stored poorly. The labels were barely readable. Yet the corks were in good condition and the aromas sublime: A range of fruit flavours like ripe apricots, mango and pineapple combined to give a sensation of sunshine and joy in the mouth. The kerosene notes were mere hints in the background, like sweet memories.
More pronounced were the aromas of honey and syrup, like the smell of toast lathered with honey at breakfast. All wines glistened a golden colour in the glass, and offered extraordinary mouthfeel, like kissing angels. The people at my table smiled in silence, reflecting on the joys of being alive.
Because of its balance of sugar and acidity, riesling is a versatile wine for matching with food regardless of its age. It can be paired with white fish or pork, and is one of the few wines that can stand up to the stronger flavours and spices of Asia.
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