The world is rediscovering what some think is the greatest white grape
She's the sexy, mysterious sister that slinks in the shadows. Tall and lithe; underneath she's spicy and racy. Gives you goose bumps. Gets under your skin. Only speaks when she's spoken to; never gives it up after one sip. But once she lets you in, you'll never forget her.
Discovering riesling is a bit like love.
Hailed by many critics as "the greatest white grape variety in the world," riesling is perhaps the most misunderstood, especially in South Africa, where, outside wine-snob circles, it's usually recognised as dubious, sweet and cheap.
That's because we've been duped. Right up until the 2010 South African vintage, tonnes of quaffable white has been flogged as "Cape" or "Paarl" riesling. But these bear no resemblance to the noble grape; they're in fact the inferior variety, crouchen blanc. The "oops!" happened when crouchen blanc vines imported from France were mistaken for riesling.
Little wonder true riesling has had a stunted growth in SA compared with other parts of the new world; Aussies and Kiwis glug it like water, and in the US, riesling and sauvignon blanc sales are neck-and-neck.
"For decades, South Africans have been drinking crouchen blanc, thinking it was riesling," says Carl Schultz, winemaker at Hartenberg Estate. "Not surprisingly, they found it pretty ordinary."
So riesling fanatics tied on their boxing gloves. "Over the last few years there's been a lot of effort put into riesling in SA," says Gary Jordan, winemaker at Jordan Wines. "Top producers in SA banded together to form a group called Just Riesling and finally in 2009, with lobbying from people like Jancis Robinson, Michael Fridjhon and the German media, parliament ruled that it must be called by its real name."
Why all the bother? Because of its longevity in the bottle, its complex character and the grape's ability to express itself through the vineyard.
Riesling's birthplace is Germany, where the Rhine region created the world's best off-dry rieslings for a couple of hundred years. Over the border, Alsace did a good job too, with an expression of wine that's bone dry.
But even the Germans managed to bugger it up in the '70s and '80s, flogging sugary supermarket wines like Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch. As consumers' palates became more sophisticated, riesling was shoved aside by the cool kids - chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. But there's a resurgence of interest.
"Wines like Blue Nun gave people the perception that riesling is only cheap and sweet, but in fact one of its strengths as a varietal is its versatility - from dry to off-dry, sweet to noble late harvest," says Paul Cluver of Paul Cluver Wines. "Most top SA producers are doing dry styles, which is fantastic. They have amazing depth, acidity and freshness, with excellent balance."
Riesling has the racy acidity of sauvignon blanc, but with layers of flinty fruit and aromatics. It's not a team player - it resents even a whiff of oak, or being thrown in with other grapes. In their youth, local styles show crunchy flavours of lime, Granny Smith and flowers, developing into honeysuckle and resin - "an orange rolling around in a pine forest," a mate of mine says. Its aromatic spiciness makes it a winner with food.
If anything, riesling becoming cool again is a positive sign that South Africans are venturing from the shallow end of the drinking pool.
"People are saying, 'so we know sauv blanc ... what else?'" says Cluver. "Even as a sundowner riesling is phenomenal. But first people need to discover it."
For more go to www.drinkriesling.com.
Ingrid Casson is the wine editor of Food & Home Entertaining.
Paul Cluver Riesling 2010, R85
Hartenberg Riesling 2009, R57
Jordan Riesling 2010, R80
Alsace: Trimbach Riesling 2009, R125
Australia: Pewsey Vale Riesling Eden Valley 2010, R155
Germany: Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Wiltinger 2009, R145
Imported wines from Wine Cellar, 0214484105, or Reciprocal Wine Trading Co, 0114829178.