With all due respect to the diesel engine, Reinheitsgebot and some fine electronics, the greatest gift to the world from the land of the Rhine River valley is Riesling. Earlier in the month winemakers, wine writers and industry professionals from all over the world gathered at Brock University (home to the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute) to celebrate this very special grape for two days.
But why Riesling?
Wine writer and educator Linda Bramble succinctly summed it up when she quoted Terry Theise's book, Reading Between the Vines. “If you grow Riesling where it belongs, its wines come out of the ground already perfect.”
Anyone who has tasted great Riesling wouldn't disagree with that definitive statement but what keeps things interesting for wine lovers and winemakers is that nobody has quite the same ideal of what is perfection in Riesling. That left for plenty of room to explore and discuss that at the university's third annual Riesling Experience conference.
This immersive event includes expert speakers, panel discussions, tasting, lunches and vineyard tours. One of the highlights was keynote speaker Pierre Trimbach of Domaine Trimbach. The 12th Generation Alsatian winemaker explained what makes Riesling from his corner of the world so special. Lying in a former seabed and along a plane defined by the Rhine River to the east and the Vosges Mountains to the west, France's northern most wine region is very unique. Those mountains act as a shield and keep things very dry—it's the second driest spot in France. It also has a long slow-ripening growing season which suits Riesling very well.
But Alsace isn't without its challenges. Being on a former seabed and fault means that similarly to Niagara there's just about every soil type, and that leads to wines that can taste quite different from each other. But the biggest challenge according to Trimbach is the impact of global warming. With higher sugars in the grapes today he now sees potential alcohol levels in poor vintages that exceed the best vintages from 40 years ago. So as a winemaker his difficult task is achieving the right balance between flavour ripeness, sugar ripeness and acidity. After all as Trimbach explained his answer for when he's asked what the secret to making great wine is “First, is balance. Second, is balance. Third is balance. And the rest is blah, blah, blah.”.
So regardless of the numbers, one way Trimbach tries to achieve this is through a lot of tasting. When he can he likes to taste with his father, the former winemaker—they bounce thoughts off of each other. There's also a cellar with bottles dating back to 1864 that he can refer to should he need. “I have an Image of our Riesling in my mind and on my palate and it is still the same. What we are making today is in the same mold or philosophy,” he said.
Attendees were able to taste some his younger Rieslings back-to-back with some older vintages. All wines exhibited a little more weight than is typically found in a lot of Riesling as well as a dry flavour profile that leaned towards stone fruit and ripe citrus. The 2009 Réserve, from a very warm vintage according to Trimbach, showed well. The nose had a deep concentration of stone fruit, tangerine, orange flower and lime. The palate confirmed the nose and added flavours of fragrant white peach. The medium plus length finish showed minerality with the kiss of an orange blossom note. The wine was dry with a medium plus body that was well balanced with a medium level of acidity—it certainly didn't show its 13.5% alcohol. As good as the 2009 Réserve was the 2001 Cuvée Frédéric Emile was on another level. A slight pale gold was the first clue that this wine had seen a little aging on top of the 3-4 years of bottle aging Trimbach does for his top wines before they can be purchased. Where the 2009 Réserve Riesling featured a mix of 80% purchased grapes and 20% estate fruit the Cuvée Frédéric Emile is all from two vineyards of 45-year-old vines planted on limestone-rich soil behind the winery. This wine enticed with aromas of honey, ripe melon, lime, white peach and a hint of funk similar to an autumn rainstorm in a forest—a characteristic I find in great Alsatian wine. This was a very honest wine delivering all of that complexity on the palate with a medium plus finish strong with white flower honey, peach and lime. Like any great wine this was in perfect balance with no aspect overpowering another—body, acidity and alcohol were at the medium plus level.
Closer to home, Cave Spring Cellars winemaker Angelo Pavan gave an overview of Riesling in Ontario stretching a quarter century. As the winemaker and founder of Cave Spring, Pavan has had a great deal of experience working with Riesling. He believes that Niagara is at the southern limit of where Riesling can perform well. In his experience Riesling tends to benefit from cool nights and its photosynthesis slows down faster than other varieties so it doesn't fare well in heat. There's evidence of this in the average brix (a measure of sugar) levels in the grapes. Over the past 25 years the 2009 vintage which had the second lowest number of growing degree days, (a measure of heat accumulation used to predict when a crop will ripen) had a slightly higher average brix than 2005, which had the highest number of growing degree days. Although global warming may be affecting the weather better viticultural practices in Niagara have helped keep sugars in Riesling relatively consistent. The other topic Pavan covered was a comparison of Niagara to Alsace and the Rheingau—home to the highest proportion of Riesling vines in Germany. Over the growing season Niagara has significantly more growing degree days than either and a mean temperature equal to Alsace and higher than the Rheingau. The hitch is Niagara has at least a third more rain during the growing season. So what does this mean? Pavan's conclusion is that Niagara produces a Riesling that's stylistically between the two other regions with a semi-dry style that is typically sweeter than Alsace but drier than the Rheingau. So you can expect a mix of the riper stone fruit and the less ripe minerality and citrus flavours in a Riesling that has an enticing sweet-sour ying-yang balance.
But as much fun as it is talking about Riesling, where it really shines is with food. This year's Riesling Experience featured an extravagant five course lunch by Wellington Court. Both the food and the service were nothing short of brilliant. The first course of a cured beef Carpaccio was a bit of revelation. Although Riesling is versatile you don't often see it paired with beef. The dish's tender beef, local lettuce with a slightly bitter bite, cold pressed canola oil and a touch of crumbled Ermite blue cheese was a beautiful pairing with some Cave Spring Cellars 2009 CSV Riesling. The single vineyard Riesling was able to play off and echo some of the savoury and bitter flavours in the dish. By itself the CSV Rielsing had flavours and aromas rich with honeydew melon, white peach, tangerine and minerality. It was well balanced in an off dry-style with a medium mouthfeel, acidity and a long medium plus finish that lingered with bright citrus and wet stone. The main course of an Alsatian-style chicken sausage, bacon-studded sautéed cabbage and local asparagus with a creamy mustard sauce was also fantastic. It tasted like it had come over with the Trimbach Rieslings which had the acidity to soften the richness with the heft to respect those rich flavours. If this meal didn't convince you of Riesling's great range, versatility and food matching ability then no meal would.
It was a great a day of learning, tasting, interacting and enjoying all things Riesling. For those that booked early it continued with tours of some of Niagara's iconic Riesling vineyards the following day. It's hard to imagine how the organisers will top this year's Riesling Experience but just like the grape I'm sure they will reveal some enticing surprises when they're just right.
Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2009
Availability: Not yet released, contact the winery (2008 available in LCBO Vintages 566026).
Trimbach Réserve Riesling 2009
Availability: Not available (2008 In LCBO Vintages 995316).
The Riesling Experience
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.