Book Review: Riesling Rediscovered

John Winthrop Haeger, Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry. University of California Press, 2016.

John Winthrop Haeger’s new book is a worthy addition to a growing bookshelf on Riesling wines, including Stuart Pigott’s recent Riesling: Best White Wine on Earth. It is a thorough, rigorous and quite fascinating analysis of Riesling’s world, focusing on dry Riesling production in the Northern Hemisphere.

How Riesling Is Like Bach

Dry Riesling reminds me of J.S. Bach. Both Bach and Riesling are clean and precise without sacrificing a certain deep emotional engagement. And both invite serious study. If you enjoy Riesling (or Bach?) and have a nerdy interest in where it comes from, how it is made, and who is making it, this book is for you.

Riesling Rediscovered is split into two sections, but not Old World and New World as you might expect. The second half is a detailed examination of some of the main Riesling vineyards and producers in Germany, Austria, France (Alsace), Italy (Alto Adige), Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), and the United States (Washington, Oregon, and California).

These profiles, the result of extensive on-site research, are unusually detailed and informative — perfect for the reader who wants to drill down into a particular region or maker’s story.

The book’s first half provides a rather elegant examination of the Riesling experience, with chapter-length analyses of history, sweet and dry wine styles, production methods, the importance of clones, and Riesling habitats in the Old World and the New.

chateau-ste-michelle-dry-riesling-2013-bottleThe Sweet and the Dry

At the center of the book are several interesting issues. The first involves style. When you say Riesling to people they will often respond quickly that it is sweet and indeed for many decades Riesling was known and even treasured for its sweetness. Spectacular sweet Rieslings were at one point the most valuable and sought after wines in the world.

And then things began to change, even in Germany and Austria. Now it is the case that most Riesling wines around the world are dry and sweet Riesling is the exception. The rediscovery of Riesling as an elegant dry wine is one of the book’s important points.

Riesling’s reputation for sweetness, however, has been slower to change than the wines themselves, which is a problem for those who would like to see this wine’s domain expand. Consumers are too often surprised that what they pour from the bottle doesn’t match their expectations — either “too sweet” if they expect a dry wine or “too sour” if they expect something sweet.

The United States is a special case in this regard. The U.S. is not just the largest wine market in the world by total sales, it is also an important actor in Riesling. The U.S. is the second largest Riesling producer by volume after Germany, for example, and it is also home to the largest-selling Riesling wine in the world.

That would be Chateau Ste Michelle’s Columbia Valley Riesling from Washington State, which may also be one of the world’s great Riesling bargains. I have sometimes purchased this wine for less than $6 per bottle, a ridiculously low price given the quality.

Wine drinkers in the United States made the move away from sweet and fortified wines surprisingly late, but today by and large they prefer dry wines (the recent Moscato and Sweet Red phenomena notwithstanding). When it comes to Riesling, however, they talk dry but like to drink on the sweet (or “off dry”) side. Chateau Ste Michelle’s off-dry Columbia Valley wine vastly outsells its Dry Riesling twin.

And so the U.S. is the odd one out in world Riesling, according to Haeger — the last line of resistance in the movement from sweet to dry.The rediscovery of Riesling as a dry wine is still gaining momentum here.

Elephant in the Room?

I enjoyed Riesling Rediscovered quite a lot and learned something new on every page. I look forward to diving into the details again and again in the years ahead. But as big and tightly packed as this book is, the world of Riesling is bigger still. It obviously isn’t possible analyze every important vineyard or producer in the world (the vast Wine Atlas of Germanywhich appeared in 2014, shows how complicated this is for just a single country).

But the biggest omission — the elephant in the room — is the entire Southern Hemisphere. Any list of the most important dry Rieslings would surely include wines from Australia, for example, along with some from New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Australia does not even appear in Haeger’s index. Pewsey Vale Museum Reserve  “The Contours,” one of my desert island wines, is nowhere to be found.

The reason is purely practical, Haeger explains — no disrespect intended!  The world of Riesling is gloriously big and growing. Any single study has to draw the line somewhere and Haeger needed to do so here to finish this book in just five years. Haeger chooses depth over geographical breadth and that’s understandable. But I hope he has a second volume in the works!

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Riesling and Bach? Am I nuts? Well, here’s what I mean.

10 responses

  1. I believe China is in the Northern Hemisphere…. There is also a story of Riesling in China. For instance the champion of Pula Valley in Yantai is their ” Italian Riesling “. I tasted the 2013 and 2014, the first was a good surprise, the second was excellent for my taste, perfect with Chinese food. It is important , as Pula Valley plans to have 7000 hectares of vineyards, not all Riesling of course, but it will be quite significant. The guests at the Gourmand Aeawds in Yantai May 28-31 will drink those Pula Valley wines at the celebration dinner. The Chinese believe in Riesling. Four years ago leader COFCO studied carefully the best Riesling from Germany. This was quite interesting as few believed in white wines in China at the time. They had a launch at their private club in Beijing, with German Riesling winemakers present. I was one of half a dozen foreigners present, the others were all Chinese, who really liked the Riesling they tasted, with a perfect dinner. The end of luxury goods and the wine crisis stopped this rise of Riesling in China. But now wine is rising fast again, with +38% for wine imports in 2015, and white is what the young and women want. Yantai is probably the best in China for white. You can ask if you come winemaker Gerard Colin, who launched Grace, Scottish Castle Treaty Port , DBR Lafite- CITIC, and now Taila, where he just won international medals for his white. I have tasted his 2014 and 2015, you will if you come. At our first dinner in Yantai, we will have the Penglai Scottish Castle Treaty Ports wines for our guests, and at the final dinner we will have the Taila wines. I believe Riesling from China is one of their best chance on the world stage Best regards Edouard Cointreau, from Yantai

    • Thanks for this, Edouard. You are fortunate to have an insider view of China’s wine development and I appreciate you sharing your insights with us. My friends Pierre and Cynthia brought back one of those great Rieslings from China and shared it with us. Made me a believer! Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for another thoughtful review.

    “…home to the largest-selling Riesling wine in the world…That would be Chateau Ste Michelle’s [CSM] Columbia Valley Riesling from Washington State, which may also be one of the world’s great Riesling bargains. I have sometimes purchased this wine for less than $6 per bottle, a ridiculously low price given the quality.”

    My rant: CSM offers good, affordable wine but at a price. Altria (previously named Philip Morris Companies) is the parent company of CSM. CSM doesn’t just represent corporate wine but ultimately corporate tobacco interests.

  3. What happens when one company has a monopoly? Perhaps as an economist that is the truth in WA Riesling you should illuminate the world on. Riesling in WA is a disaster. Simple as that.

    Knowing about wines and wine economy doesn’t always translate to the return to the earth……in the end that is the where the buck stops. And it has stopped.

    I enjoy your musings.

    Keep it up.

    Kent

    • Thanks, Kent. You have an insider view of Washington wine that I lack. Look forward to talking about this with you the next time we meet (will you be at Riesling Rendezvous?). Thanks again.

  4. Mike great post as always, I’m in search of the book as we speak. I am a fan of dry Riesling, not so much the sweet ones. I seem to find more to my liking coming from France rather than Germany. With you permission, one of these days when I get writers block I may repost this review.

  5. I particularly like dry Australian Riesling. The one’s that have incredible aromatics and sometimes are described as fresh tennis ball and petrol. Pewsey Vale make an amazing dry riesling from the Eden Valley.

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