You'd think that, as a keen wine drinker, I should keep my mouth shut about this but, after all the years of drinking more Riesling than mineral water, milk and every other wine combined, I am still fully perplexed for this very simply reason:
Riesling is far cheaper than it should be.
I know why people don't buy Riesling: most of the world thinks it is always syrupy-sweet and most Germans think that it is overly acidic. Riesling does have a higher amount of acid than most grapes but modern wines, particularly the dry ones, don't have an unpalatable amount of acid, nothing to break open the heartburn tablets for and, imagine this for a second, acid in wine is good: it pairs well with many different cuisines and is an important part of both the structure of a wine and a crucial part of its ability to carry flavour. The mis-conception that Riesling is always sweet is also pretty much true if you only visit supermarkets and smaller wine stores outside of Germany or Austria. However, the majority of Riesling sold in Germany is dry and these wines are beginning to emerge in other countries (finally).
But this isn't about Riesling's struggle against mainstream mis-conception, rather a simple fact: Riesling is worth a lot more than the price most of us pay for it. Decent Chardonnay is a great deal more expensive and seldom as good as Riesling - I know this is an objective statement but, it's true as well: take a ten euro Riesling and a twenty euro Chardonnay and....the Riesling is nearly always the better wine.
Riesling has the ability to impress: I have converted hundreds of Chardonnay drinkers to Riesling and hundreds of Pinot Grigio drinkers onto Riesling as well: they always have the same objections and then, when it is in their mouths and finally swallowed, they are forced to agree with me and I'm not talking about expensive wines here. Actually Riesling has such a wow factor that I've converted drinkers of only the driest wines to actually try and like sweet wines and off-dry wines made of Riesling.
But, Rieslings struggle against false or unimportant interpretations isn't new and a handful of bloggers and wine journalists have been trying to combat it for years. There is however a huge argument in favour of Riesling and that is quite simply the value-for-money factor: aside from a handful of wines from Alsace and sweet wines from Rheingau and Mosel (and one dry wine from Rheinhessen), Riesling is nearly always completely affordable and I'm not talking about average quality wines here. Ten euros is going to get you a very good wine in Germany, twenty euros and you're looking at world-class white wine....think of what you'd pay for that in France or the USA.
1) Nearly all Riesling is good
Yep, that's not a lie - nearly all Riesling (particularly the dry ones) are good, 80% are even very good. You can't say that about any other varietal (apart from perhaps Grüner Veltliner). Seriously: there are very, very few bad Rieslings out there: yes, the supermarkets stock extremely cheap Riesling however most of these are drinkable and more than half are actually enjoyable. Whether dry, sweet, cheap or premium: Riesling is always a treat.
2) Riesling is the best food wine
There is a Riesling for any food dish - actually I'll be posting more on this point in the next few weeks but, for now, I challenge you to think of a dish that you can't pair with one form of Riesling. Like Asian food? Always Riesling. Seafood? Again, Riesling is your best bet. Steak, burger, pizza? Riesling is always a good choice - imagine being able to choose a bottle of wine at a restaurant that fits with everyones' dish? I can't think of another varietal that can offer that.
3) Compare the value-for-money factor with other wines. Riesling always wins.
Take a 200 euro Pauillac, a 200 euro Pommard and a 200 euro Cabernet from Napa - nothing will come close to the value for money factor in a 20 euro Riesling. Of course, the wines are very different but, if you were to assign the same price per quality to Riesling as you would to the above-mentioned wines, Riesling would cost 200 euros or more. Don't believe me? Check out the scores of the best Rieslings from every major wine critic and those of the Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa wines....now do a quick internet search to find out how much they cost. Don't forget to pick up your chin from the desk once you're done.
4) Riesling ages gracefully
Dry Riesling ages better than white Burgundy and some sweet Rieslings are pretty much eternal. Provided that the wines have good corks, sweet wines can be enjoyed 50, 60 and even 100 years later. Dry wines can age 15-30 years and, thanks to the acidity (see I told you it was a good thing), they always retain a certain freshness. Whilst investment buyers might only choose a few select wines from the most famous wineries in the rarest forms, most Riesling ages very well regardless of cork or screw-top. To describe how Riesling ages is like describing how beef tastes: there are so many different aromas and characteristics that come with so many wines - they are all remarkably different but they all have the ability to age.
5) There are very few poor vintages
Whilst a top vintage is just as rare as in the other regions (although strangely becoming ever-so-common), the "bad" Riesling vintages seldom create low-quality wines. Actually, in the entry-level category for winery-made products, the level of consistency is unparalleled in Europe. Riesling always pulls off a decent show - whilst the premium dry and nobly sweet rarities are noticeably different between the vintages, it is still rare to find a bad or disappointing wine.
6) You can drink Riesling when you want
Maybe not all people agree with this point but I'm going to make it anyway: Riesling is fabulous at every point in its development: from fresh-in-the-bottle to pre-historic: Riesling is always enjoyable. Whilst some of the sweeter wines do lose a bit of, let's call it "zing" in middle-age, they are still perfectly palatable throughout their lives: you can wait or you can drink it now: you don't have to wait for ripeness...but you can...if you want: it really is completely up to you!
7) It wasn't always this way
There was a time when Riesling wines from the Mosel and Rheingau regions cost just as much and sometimes even more than the famous products of the Domaines and Chateaux of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Again, I challenge you to check that fact out. In the late 19th and 20th Century, Riesling from the Rhine regions and its tributaries (commonly referred to as Hock back then) was some of the most expensive wine in the world and was one of the most important German exports: these days machinery and automobiles have taken this title but it all started with wine - some of Europe's oldest and most profitable wine merchants were (and still are) based in Germany's Hanse-Städte: they used to export millions of litres of Riesling all over Europe and the wines were so sought-after that they often auctioned for much higher amounts of money than the French wines of the time did.
8) Riesling isn't necessarily cheap to make.
Whereas a great deal of European and New-World vineyards are fully-mechanised. A great deal of those in Germany (particularly those where Riesling is grown) aren't and probably never will be. High-altitudes, steep slopes and slippery floors make the planting, caring-for and eventual picking of Riesling grapes quite a job. Not only that: German employment guidelines for the pickers are some of the strictest in Europe and German vintners pay some of the highest wages in the world for seasonal pickers. Also, being so far North, German winemakers (again, particularly with Riesling regions), there is a large element of risk in the production of Riesling: hail, not-enough sun, too much rain, fewer natural predators for pests, frost and many other factors make producing Riesling a far greater risk than many other varietals and, in the regions where it is produced, it can be very unrewarding to make wine at all: yields are low, crop loss is high and winemakers are in a constant battle against nature to make a living.
9) Riesling expresses its 'terroir' more than any other varietal.
Whereas you can train yourself to taste the soil upon which a wine has grown, Riesling is one of the best wines to discover this in. Whether slate or limestone, quartzite or volcanic, it is nearly always present in the glass. No two Rieslings taste the same and, due to the simple fact that most German wine is sourced from a particular region (usually comparatively small to those overseas), the wines often stay true to the form that nature chose for them: regardless how many separate vineyards' grapes are used in them. Whereas all regions have a variety of soil types and differing climates within them, Riesling wines are often shaped by the place they were grown in - whereas Pinot Noir and Chardonnay also express terroir well, Riesling does it best.
10) There's not as much of it as you think there is.
German wine and the word Riesling are synonymous: think of Germany and you think of Riesling. Because of the customer's mis-conception that Riesling is sweet and too acidic to consume, winemakers have been forced to plant other varietals - wine tastes change and, whilst Riesling crops have remained stable in the last few years, the varietal occupies less of Germany's vineyard space than it used to (in %). In fact, compared with other regions, German wine production is tiny: in Bordeaux alone there are over 120,000 hectares of vineyards. In Germany there are around 102,000 hectares, only about 22% which are covered by Riesling vines (source).
But perhaps things are changing. Riesling has never attracted the same attention as Bordeaux and Burgundy (particularly in the important emerging markets). This will undoubtedly change though and the nation's new wave of young winemakers is likely to have an effect on the demand both overseas and inland. the German Wine Institute, Generation Riesling and the VDP are doing a great job in promoting the varietal and prices have risen slightly in the last decade.
Unfortunately though, 2016 looks like it is going to be a disastrous vintage: weather, pests and a whole host of other factors mean that there will be far fewer 2016 wines than in the vintages beforehand. Stock up on 2015 Riesling (one of the best vintages ever) to make sure you don't miss out.