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Another Misunderstood Grape – Riesling Tasting

Woodinville, WA Vineyard

For some reason we’re always banging the drum for lesser-known wine regions and misunderstood wines. We visited Temecula, CA and Woodinville, WA 20+ years ago, before each became [or hoped to become] the “next Napa.” Gary pushed Ruggero Di Bardo’s Susumaniello from Puglia just as Trader Joe’s put it on its shelves in 2018. I’ve been nagging friends about rosato wines from Italy for years as a refined alternative [mostly from Nebbiolo and Sangiovese grapes] to much of the commercial, sweet French rosés that dominate shelf space each summer.

And now I come to praise the beleaguered Riesling. First choice of many novice wine drinkers who’ve heard that Riesling = sweet, Riesling gets a bum rap from wine connoisseurs, who place it at the bottom of the already-maligned white wine category. My first encounter with Riesling came during a memorable visit to the Finger Lakes 10+ years ago. The region’s cool climate and fast-draining, low-nutrient soil [Forbes,12/28/18] has provided the ideal terroir for Riesling grapes. While the wines back then were mostly on the sweet side I found a few dry-ish Rieslings from Ravines, Red Newt, and Dr. Frank’s. Fast forward a decade and I admit that my knowledge of Riesling remains shockingly limited.

That ignorance was put to the test when our friend, a professional Chef and all-around bon vivant, brought three Rieslings–two of them German, the other from the Finger Lakes–for a tasting last month. The grape appears to be native to Germany and appeared around 1435. And not surprisingly, the Germans have tidily organized the grape into six levels of sweetness, from the driest Kabinett to the sweetest Eiswein (ice wine).

The Contenders

• Hillock + Hobbs Estate Vineyard Dry Riesling 2019 [Seneca Lake] $38
• Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2015 [Mosel] $20
• Selbach-OsterZeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Feinherb Spatlese 2014 [Mosel] $18 BEST IN SHOW

The Reviews

Hillock + Hobbs 2019
Generally well received but not loved. Two tasters noted the wine’s “clean limestone nose” with a hint of honeysuckle, while the other two picked up a “grassy nose” and tart apple flavors. At $38, our Chef simply wrote, “Very nice but not sure it’s worth the money.”

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2015
When our tasters wrote “I get petroleum on the nose” and “It tastes like a gas leak,” where do you go from there? It did have some “good acidity” and a “creamy, sweet finish,” which was surprising given that Kabinett is supposed to be the driest of the German Rieslings.

Selbach-OsterZeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Feinherb Spatlese 2014 RECOMMENDED
Winemaker Johannes Selbach redeemed himself with the 2014 Riesling Feinherb, which is classified as Spatlese, the 2nd driest of the German Riesling levels. We all picked up herbal notes, with one taster also noting a “peaches and cream/limestone” nose. With a “nice balance of residual sugar and acidity,” the wine seemed more “full bodied” than the others, a little “syrupy and darker” than the 2015 Kabinett from Selbach-Oster. We all agreed this wine was the best of the bunch and at $18, the least expensive.

Funny side note: The Spatlese level is “typically half-dry and often (but not always) sweeter and fruitier than Kabinett.” [Wikipedia] In our tasting, the Spatlese was easily drier than the Kabinett. This brought to my mind a scene in Woody Allen’s Love + Death where in his Russian village, Old Nahamkin was younger than Young Nahamkin. Some things just defy classification 🙂

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