Like food and fashion trends, wines can fall into and out of favor seemingly overnight. Yet Rieslings are timeless.
Say the word "Riesling," however, and most people think sweet wine. But a Riesling from Germany's Mosel and Rhine regions is a different story. These wines can be bone dry, refreshing the palate with an abundance of stone fruit notes, bracing acidity and steely minerality, finishing with a hint of petrol (a hallmark of local Rieslings).
German white wines also tend to have a third less alcohol by volume, which makes them a perfect food friendly wine.
Then there are the delicious dessert wines, the intensely concentrated Eiswein made from grapes harvested and pressed while frozen, and the decadently sweet Trockenbeerenauslese made from overripe raisiny grapes.
Riesling’s purity and the balance of fruit and acidity comes from vineyards planted on mineral-rich slate slopes rising dramatically from the river’s edge. The slate layers over millennia have morphed into vertical folds along the steep hillsides that enable the vines’ roots to penetrate as much as 50 feet down into the soft rock.
I discovered the brilliance of Rieslings (and other German wines) on a seven-day cruise aboard the luxury ship AmaDante cruising along the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. I experienced the myth and magic of these mighty rivers, savoring along the way spectacular Rieslings and gewürztraminers from the German and Alsace wine region.
The California-based Ama Waterways, specializing in river cruises, offers a smorgasbord of adventures. I selected the wine-themed Rhine & Mosel Splendors cruise to get a better grip on Riesling wines produced in the valleys of these rivers.
The route charted by the 146-passenger ship journeyed along two of Europe’s most alluring rivers flanked by impressive hillside vineyards and majestic castles.
The 549 kilometer-long Mosel (Moselle in French) begins in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, France and flows northeast until it becomes the border between Germany and Luxembourg. The Mosel is joined by two small rivers, the Saar and Ruwer, in the ancient Roman town of Trier before it begins its serpentine flow towards Koblenz and merges into the 1,320 kilometer-long Rhine River.
After two days on the Mosel and passing through many loops and hairpin bends, we merged into the Rhine (Rhein in German language). One of Europe’s most important waterways, the Rhine flows from Switzerland to the North Sea traversing six countries: Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Our ship touched all of these, save Austria and the Netherlands.
The ship docked daily with guided excursions planned at Bernkastel, Trier, Heidelberg, Cochem, Rüdesheim, Ludwigshafen, Strasbourg and Riquewihr, towns and villages steeped in ancient Roman history.
The highlight of the cruise arrived on day three in the form of a 65-kilometer stretch of the Rhine gorge (the popular name for the Rhine Valley). It was a heady experience sipping a refreshing Riesling on the breezy sun deck, passing by soaring castles and vineyards rising high from the riverbank, painstakingly planted by monks in the Middle Ages.
Since this was a wine-themed cruise, there were four visits to local wine cellars, plus three on-board wine seminars on German and Alsatian wines conducted by New York-based wine educator Holly Howell. Germany’s southwest area is a white wine region, with Riesling leading the pack, followed by gewürztraminer, müller-thurgau, silvaner, weissburgunder (pinot blanc), grauburgunder (pinot gris), and the only red wine spätburgunder (pinot noir).
Of the 13 German wine producing regions, we visited or passed by seven of them - Ahr, Pflaz Baden, Mittelrhein, Rheinhessen, Nahe and Rheinghau (Rhine gorge).
During the course of the cruise, there were daily (morning and afternoon) guided shore excursions, some of which included wine tastings ashore, to charming towns of Bernkastel on the Mosel River, Rûdesheim on the Rhine and Strasbourg and Riquewhir in Alsace.
In the cellar of Dr. Pauly Bergweiler in Bernkastel, we sampled deliciously dry and medium dry Rieslings finishing with an eiswein, grapes of which were picked in the chilling temperature of 7 degrees Celsius (44.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
At Rûdesheim, the capital of Rheingau, we viewed the well-manicured vineyards from high above in a cable chairlift. The quaint town is planted to more than 800 acres of vines, 80 percent of which is Riesling.
Here, the wine tasting took us to 16th century Bassenheimer Hof cellar to savor Adolf Stolzer wines, where we tasted a flight of 2016 vintages that included a blend of Riesling and müller thurgau and a decadent eiswein.
Arriving in the Alsace region, we tasted the freshness of Rieslings and gewürztraminers (a hallmark of Alsatian wines), its characteristic derived from the region’s complex mosaic of some 13 distinct types of terroir and various soil compositions.
In the historic cellar of Le Gruber in Strasbourg, we tasted wines of Gustave Lorentz, a winery dating to 1836 and dedicated to organic farming. A lineup of 2016 vintages of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir was paired with cheeses and sausage; and the classic cake Kugelhopf served with an aromatic gewürztraminer.
The fourth cellar visit took us to Riquewihr (population 1,500), a fairy-tale village cradled by the towering Vosges Mountains and home to two of Alsace’s 51 Grand Cru vineyards — Schoenenbourg and Sporen, wines of which we tasted at Maison Zimmer’s historic 1572 cellar: an aromatic 2015 Sporen gewürztraminer, a dry, minerally 2012 Schoenenbourg Riesling and a medium dry pinot gris made from 30-year old vines - all handcrafted by Régine Zimmer, whose family history dates to the 1840s.
Back home, I gathered a few local winemakers at our home in Paso Robles for a tasting of California Rieslings from Napa and the Central Coast alongside German and Alsatian wines.
All the wines stood true to their profile with a balanced harmony of acidity and aromatics. The 2014 Dr. Thanisch Riesling from Mosel was bone dry with a hint of petrol, the Alsatians -- 2016 Lucien Albrecht and the 2012 Regine Zimmer — had vibrant acidity and fragrant fruit.
Among the Napa collection, Trefethen’s 2017 vintage from the Oak Knoll District was glowing with citrus flavors and the 2016 Bouchaine from Las Brisas Vineyard showed a perfect balance of floral notes and acidity. From Spring Mountain District a 2017 Galerie Terracea reflected a fruity profile. The 2016 Hagafen from Coombsville had a dash of spritz and was the one from Napa Valley that finished with a trace of petrol.
From the cool coastal vineyards along California’s Central Coast, the Rieslings rang with bracing acidity compared to Napa. San Luis Obispo County’s cool Edna Valley and Cambria are noted for Riesling vineyards, a source for winemakers such as Xavier Phillips who crafts his small production of Frânken Riesling under his Union Sacre label.
From Edna Valley came a 2014 floral and citrusy version from Claiborne & Churchill, a winery known for Rieslings.
There were a couple of off-dry Monterey County Rieslings in the lineup -- Tudor’s Nacina with 1.8 percent residual sugar and J.Lohr’s lychee-scented version. Then there was Maidenstoen, a wine dancing with seductive citrus notes and fresh-cut flowers strung together with steely minerality. Mike Callahan (winemaker at Edna Valley’s Chamisal Vineyards) is a Riesling fanatic and crafts only this one varietal (just under 500-case annual production) under his Maidenstoen label from site specific vineyards that he seeks out along the Central Coast.
Callahan is among the handful of winemakers carrying the torch. “It’s a sad time for Rieslings,” he lamented in our phone conversation. “Some really cool sites are being pulled out and planted to pinot noir.”
But if winemakers like Callahan pursue their passion, the timeless Riesling could well be trending again soon.