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.
The 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 Germany, which 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!
Riesling and Bach? Am I nuts? Well, here’s what I mean.