Ahhh...Riesling and 
the Fast Return 
of Vibrant Autumn

by Drew Stofflet, Time Out Wine Columnist
Yes, with our gazes set towards the ever diminished sun and with great speed the fall harvest season has  spread over us, saying goodbye to the blissful days of high summer.

No doubt it runs pretty short around these parts. The delicate squash have barely begun to ripen, the tomatoes won't, and the chanterelles still hide in the grasses for the time being. Some of the kale and turnip greens rise reddish orange above the purple and green leaves. The peaches have passed, but wild apricots still deliver zest, and the sarvis berries are fat and blue, like juicy blueberries.  While the bears are about foraging, we look ahead to the apple harvest, conjuring up visions of pies, stuffing, muffins and cider.  

This time of the year simply invites us to let go of the past, to look ahead, as well as count our blessings. Fall is to dive in, like a giant leaf pile, and the flavors beg of the great, noble riesling.

Ahhh, riesling. What reward awaits at the end of our beautiful, short mountain summers. It's time to do away with those afternoons spent swirling rosés with lemon twists and sipping sun drenched summer whites. When the days wane and the temperatures dip it is time to begin exploring and enjoying riesling, for all of its many evocative presentations:  from simple to wildly complex, from ethereal and transparent to bold and crisp. And when the sugar levels rise, they only become more seductive, some would say almost hedonistic. Quite honestly, there is so much to the wonderful world of riesling that I can't even imagine covering even one small sliver of it here. So here is a brief overview.

Riesling is considered one of the three major white grape varietals, but it is certainly not as popular as chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. It is often misunderstood or generalized as overly sweet and fruity. To a lesser extent, riesling's genetics are still in question. Some evidence points to crosses with wild vines, more akin to sugary beasts than to vitis vinifera — the grape species responsible for all of the refined wines we cherish. Furthermore, many a starry-eyed student of the sommelier's path has stared with dread at a wine list in done completely in German.

The earliest accounts of riesling first appear around 1435 from Germany's Rhine River, known as the Rheinghau. Today, Germany's most planted grape accounts for almost twenty percent of its annual wine production. Later in the same century, riesling was also documented in Alsace, the northern French region where today it is also the most popular grape grown. So too in that century did riesling appear in Austria's Wachau region, where today it is also widely popular.

As the climates of the aforementioned countries should attest, the noble riesling grape craves cold temperature and direct sunlight. The steep south facing hillsides above Germany's Mosel River Valley produce some of the most intriguing white wines in the world. Here, the grape is known to produce delicate, floral wines said to be almost transparent, in both color and flavors. The lithe nature of these wines carries clear and bright apple and pear flavors, with apricot perfume as a frequent greeting.  Underpinning these subtle nuances is the presence of minerality so remarkable that flint and slate are not accurate enough descriptors:  some refer to a “porphyry” character, like that of “small, speckled stones.” The balance of this fruit and minerality makes riesling a true example of terroir, where all of nature's forces align to deliver exactly such a sense of place, and of the roots set deep into the Earth's bedrock.

To maintain this purity of expression, most riesling sees no commercial yeasts or oak in its fermentation or aging process. Sugar levels at the time of harvest determine pradikat levels, measuring sweetness of the finished wines. Varied levels of complete to lesser fermentation gives as many as seven different categories of wine — with kabinett being the driest and simplest — to eiswein, frozen on the vine in all of its late-harvestable glory. As the sweetness climbs, the wines can be powerfully rich and viscous, full of fruit, wild aromatics and phenols, those magical and intriguing whiffs of petrol that can often throw off the noses of the uninitiated.  

Getting to know these gems does not take a lifetime nor a sophisticated palate, just a willingness to dive in. In addition to the thousands of beautiful old world releases from regions in Germany, Austria and Alsace, France, the new world too produces its share of bold, new styles of riesling. Australia's Clare Valley and Marlborough, New Zealand produce wines high in acid that almost resemble super-ripe sauvignon blanc.  California's venerable Napa Valley and Oregon's Willamette Valley produce both dry and sweet styles to savor. In the coming weeks, as the plants and trees continue toward their vibrant, colorful ending, get the apples baking, whip up something extra-savory and break out any and all riesling. I will be, and I will tell you about some of them. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.

Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at drew.stofflet@gmail.com