I like riesling more than I think I do.
What I mean to say is that as I pondered the theme of the May Wine Blogging Wednesday and tried to choose an Old World riesling for this contribution, I kept thinking about the many ways in which I’d enjoyed it, just over the last few months: alsatian Léon Beyer riesling by the glass in two restaurants (dry, mineral and yet nicely aromatic and expressive), a 2002 Grittermatte riesling from Domaine Julien Meyer (a touch oxydized, yet clean, well-rounded and complex), a 2000 riesling from Ontario’s Hernder Estate Winery, a bottle of Mort’s Block from Kilikanoon, a Grant Burge riesling, a Mount Cass slightly botrytized riesling from New Zealand (see my French-language review here) , and so on. The variety in acidity, mineral character, floral and citrus aromas and other characters never ceases to impress me, as I note the high range of flavors and styles that are found in this varietal, depending on where it is grown and how it is put together. The integration of acidity and sweetness and varying levels of both are especially fascinating, from bottle to bottle.
Yet somehow, I seem to have a baseline notion in my brain that riesling is a dry wine from Alsace that you drink in the fall or winter with sauerkraut, pork chops or dry-cured ham and sausages. Even though I love it with salmon, peel-and-eat shrimp, sushi, hard cheeses, and all sorts of other dishes – even dessert for the sweet ice wines and other scrumptious late harvests. And even though many rieslings are refreshing enough to make very pleasant summer drinks. Go figure what goes on in a wine lover’s head, sometimes.
Anyway, as I looked around the Old World (through the Société des alcools du Québec catalogue), I tried to find something original. A wine that could show me a different variation on the acidity-sweetness complex.
So that’s how I got myself a bottle of Jásberény Riesling (or Rizling, as the label also says) from Hungarovin (which used to be the State Monopoly in Communist times), at the rather small price of 10,60$ for a one-liter bottle. From what I know about the Hungarian climate and the country’s ability to produce decent quaff at low prices, it seemed likely to me that it would perform reasonably well. The Montreal Gazette even ranked it among its best-value wines of 2006 (scroll towards the end of the PDF document).
I’m not sure I would go that far.
The nose on this pale wine is fairly typical riesling: a touch of petrol, a touch of citrus, with some cooked pear and apple compote. But as you taste it, these elements just don’t seem to come together very well. The acidity is up front and center, while the sugar seems almost to have been added to the mix, over the fruit salad type flavors. Alsace should not tremble from the challenge of this Eastern riesling.
Neither should Germany, judging from S.A. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr 2005 Kabinett from the Mosel valley. The wine, whose name refers to a Sundial (Sonnenuhr) erected in 1842 by Jodocus Prüm as a landmark above the village of Wehlen, was really my first choice for WBW 45. I didn’t really count that much on the Jásberény to be a revelation.
The Sonnenuhr was a revelation, if need be, of the incredible pleasure provided by German rieslings, with their bright fruit, sweetness and low-alcohol freshness. It is, I have to say, a wine from the remarkably successful 2005 vintage, where the kabinett wines, the lightest and supposedly driest wines in the rather complicated German prädikat system of classification, are richer and riper than they often have been in the usually cold climate of the Mosel.
Abundant, generous aromas of ripe orange with a touch of spice and honey burst immediately from the glass as I poured the wine as an after dinner drink, with my wife and four of her friends and colleagues (another proof that riesling is not just for sauerkraut).
On tasting, the balance between sweetness and acidity showed perfectly, integrating precisely as the Jasbereny didn’t. Despite the residual sugar, there was no heaviness. On the contrary, thanks to a low alcohol level (9.5%) and relatively low-key winemaking, the freshness was remarkable: it was very much like biting into a ripe grape, with the sweet juice bursting as the skin breaks, a long-lasting impression that lingered, as it gradually revealed mineral notes that stayed on as a final impression. Everybody around the table wound up tasting it, and the wine did not linger in the glasses.
For such treasures of traditional winemaking, it is worth confronting the complications of the prädikat system. A little bit of effort is amply rewarded.