I recently began rereading George Saintsbury’s classic, “Notes on a Cellar-Book.” The 1920 volume was one of my first wine books read back in the early 1980’s that I had not thought much about since. With time – and much more context and experience with wine – I am finding the book a fascinating window into late 19th and early 20th Century views on what makes a wine truly great.
I was reminded of this last week when I read Jancis Robinson’s post about Riesling. She rightly talks about how Riesling gets short shrift when compared with top varieties such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. I regard the grape in the top tier of white varieties along with Roussanne, Marsanne and Chardonnay. Each of these grapes make wine of power and subtly which can age for years with the proper terroir and attention to winemaking.
Not surprisingly – at least to me – Steve Heimoff used this post to vent his astonishment about how wine geeks adore Riesling. I’ll give Steve a pass here since I know how hard it is to get good German and the wines of Alsace in California and how many crappy California Riesling must have been in his mouth. But his points are well taken.
Riesling is a grape that can be easy to enjoy but difficult to fully understand. Like all great varieties, it is layered and nuanced. But unlike most of the other great varieties, Riesling has an animal character that can put you off in its youth. It’s strong and undefiant, which is part of the reason I like it so much.
Another reason many might view Riesling as not noble is the stereotype many of us Baby Boomers have of the variety from our youth. How many of us grew up seeing Blue Nun or Zeller Schwarze Katz bottles on our dinner tables in the ’60’s and ’70’s? At some level that has to bring the grape down but I was able to develop a love for the variety even after these indignities. But it took years and a lot of really stellar bottles to convert me.
Bringing this post back to the beginning, Chapter VI of, “Notes on a Cellar-Book,” has these words near the beginning:
…despite the wonderful first taste of the great ‘Auslese’ wines, I think both Hock and Moselle best as beverage drinks; for in these lower quantities, the overpowering and almost barbaric volume of flavor does not occur, and they are fresh and pleasant quenchers, going well with most sorts of food.
“Hock” is an old British term for white German wines much like “Claret” is used as a generic term for Bordeaux red. In Saintsbury’s time Hock was the best of the German Rhine wines. Even then, nearly 100 years ago, Riesling was a niche variety. And I think it will continue for another hundred years.
Until then, more for me!