Tower of power There's something about riesling that separates the wine aficionado from the novice.
An aficionado, when presented with a riesling, will rejoice in the refreshing acidity, citrus (lime and lemon) and tree fruits (green apple and pear) backed with steely, minerally notes that can give off whiffs of petrol.
A novice will say, "Riesling is too sweet, do you have anything that's dry?"
The first riesling many consumers tasted used to be Blue Nun or Black Tower. Both are available all over the world, are slightly lower in alcohol than the average wine and have a bit of residual sugar.
Blue Nun and Black Tower were great commercial successes. The former had a memorable 1970s ad campaign, "Looking for a great wine? I'm the nun-and-only"; while the latter was featured on popular 80s television shows Dallas and The A-Team. Both have distinctive, eye-catching packaging (blue glass for Blue Nun and an imposing black bottle for Black Tower), and are similar in taste: slightly on the sweet side, low in alcohol, no oak, and with mouth-watering fruit flavours (that's the acidity at work). But the rieslings prized by connoisseurs couldn't be more different. Riesling is considered to be one of the great white wine grapes - the others are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and semillon. The grape has incredible longevity and can thrive in cool climates, hence its natural homes are in Germany and Alsace, in France. In the 18th and 19th centuries, riesling was highly prized. Aficionados knew that rieslings, with their high acidity and concentrated flavours, aged well in the bottle.
Today, rieslings from Australia's Clare and Eden valleys can easily match the best from Alsace - the flintiness of a Henschke Julius Riesling is just as distinct as one from Hugel's top vineyard, Clos Sainte Hune. Both are bone dry.
I recently found an interesting riesling: J Lohr Estates Bay Mist White Riesling, from Monterey, in California. Seeing the words "white riesling" on the label had me scratching my head - aren't all rieslings white?
Curious, I looked up the history of the grape. Guess what? Red riesling does exist! It is a very rare red-skinned clone - but because it's not dark-skinned it is still considered a white wine grape. Some believe it could have been the forerunner of white riesling. It is grown in small amounts in Austria and Germany, where red riesling is often confused with red-skinned traminer grapes.
For the everyday wine consumer outside Germany, the biggest challenge is deciphering the labels of German wines. Rather than explaining sweetness levels in English, often they say trocken (dry), halbtrocken (off-dry) or trockenbeerenauslese ("dried berries selection" - in other words, grapes that have been botrytised; but, if you didn't know, you might think it meant "dry-sweet"). Some forward-thinking winemakers are putting a sweetness scale on the back label, which is a big help for consumers looking to try something new.
I have yet to try a red riesling. Until I do, I shall continue to enjoy the white varieties to the fullest.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.