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Sebastian Payne: The Real Magic of Riesling


Sebastian Payne MW Sebastian Payne MW

Most winemakers have special respect for riesling, of all the grapes that make white wine. Chardonnay is so amenable, winemakers can do what they like with it. Sauvignon is in your face and straightforward like gin and tonic. But riesling provides a challenge. Pinot noir is the grape that fascinates them among the reds. Cabernet and merlot are easy to handle by comparison. Perhaps they choose pinot because it is maddeningly difficult to get it exactly right in bouquet, texture and character, but when you do it can be sensationally good. It's the challenge. The charm of riesling is its very distinctive character and almost infinite variety of bouquets and levels of sweetness. For some drinkers it has just too much personality, but those of us who love it never tire of trying it.

Vineyards overlooking The Mosel River in Germany
Vineyards overlooking The Mosel River in Germany

I got the bug when I first joined the wine trade, working for a German wine importer, whom I was privileged to join on a buying visit when choosing the legendary 1971 vintage. I have clear memories of tasting in growers' cellars in the Rheingau, Mosel, Pfalz, Nahe and Rheinhessen discovering the subtle shades of difference in each village's wines. But then in the 1980s something went wrong. Big buyers on the UK market were partly to blame, grinding down the buying price so there was no flavour but sulphur, sugar and acidity in the cheaper wines and trying to make the grander levels on the cheap. This probably put a couple of generations off riesling for life. It's a crying shame.

Riesling matches Asian-style food very well
Riesling matches Asian-style food very well

But there was light at the other end of the tunnel. New world growers made dry rieslings which turned out to match spicy Asian-style food very well, then climate change helped make it possible to make seriously good dry wine in the traditional cool vineyards of Germany. That had always been possible in the balmier climate of Alsace. Finally the northern vineyards had some excellent vintages in 1990, 1995 and many subsequently. Dry riesling has now proved itself emphatically in its original home. The fruitier levels which balance fresh fruit acidity with sweetness, developing ethereal bouquet and living for decades, though less than 10% alcohol, remain controversial with people like my wife who says she does not like sweet whites, but that leaves all the more for those of us who do.

Browse our range of rieslings from around the world

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