Tim Atkin | Master of Wine

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26th Oct 2015

For the love of Riesling?

by Andrea Frost

 

Oscar Wilde

Why more people don’t like Riesling has baffled wine minds and Riesling champions for decades. And not just baffled, but broken hearts, tested wills and challenged the intellects of those who love the variety. No matter how many conferences, seminars and symposiums are dedicated to the virtues of Riesling, the wine drinking public has never quite embraced the aromatic white wine adored by so many wine geeks.

As I tasted my way through thirty international Rieslings at the Riesling DownUnder Symposium in Melbourne earlier this year, it occurred to me that the reason more people don’t love Riesling may lie not in the wine’s attributes but in ideas of beauty. It’s no wonder we’re confused; the nature of beauty has challenged thinkers and drinkers for centuries.

On paper and palate, Riesling is a compelling proposition. Viticulturally, it thrives on the icy slopes of Germany to the warmer hillsides of the Clare Valley, and many countries in between. It is relatively simple to make, it’s easy to pronounce, it offers exceptional value and it goes well with most cuisines.

To taste, Riesling offers a galaxy of aromas ranging from pretty florals, fruity notes to a steely minerality so overt you’d swear you were drinking a cocktail of crushed rocks. Riesling’s capacity to reflect the site on which it is grown and to age as gracefully as some red wines makes it one of the great varieties in fine wine circles.

Recent examples I’ve tasted support all of these qualities. The 2015 Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling is so enlivening it’s like someone vaporised spring and squirted it right onto your palate – lively sherbet, lime and lemon with bracing acid shimmering underneath. A bracket of Jim Barry The Florita Rieslings showed a consistent story of delicate florals, citrus notes and unswerving purity and drive. A line up of 2013s from iconic Mosel producer J.J. Prum had such electricity they set the landscape for the entire day. Pristine, austere, racy, perfumed, angular, aromatic, enduring; everything they say is great about Riesling.

No wonder its lack of uptake causes despair. On paper, Riesling seems perfect.

But I can’t help but wonder if these qualities are part of the problem: the virtues trumpeted as reasons to love Riesling are admirable, even spectacular, but not beautiful. Expecting people to fall in love with Riesling’s angularity, austerity, acidity, delicacy and purity, in the same way they might Chardonnay’s voluptuousness, generosity and complexity, is like asking people to love Tokyo’s shrilling high-speed intensity in the same way they might Florence’s sensual abundance. Riesling’s sensory landscape reminds me of a young mountain without the millions of years of weathering and softening – all angles and sharp edges. It is spectacular, even breathtaking. It evokes a sense of awe, but it unsettles us by having no sense of relief. I was engaged as I tasted the 30 wines, but not necessarily moved.

Contributing to the confusion about Riesling’s lack of adoration from the masses is the fact that ideas of beauty are not generally discussed in the parliament of wine. The focus is on rational attributes – technical, viticultural, varietal typicity, ageing potential, and quality. The fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine states Riesling “could claim to be the finest white grape variety in the world on the basis of the longevity of its wines and their ability to transmit the characteristics of a vineyard.” But these are intellectual ideas, not sensory ones. And our reactions to beauty, which are more sensual and emotional than many care to admit, occur somewhere deep in our personal abyss that intellect can’t access and reason doesn’t get a look in.

Neurobiologist António Damásio has written widely on the topic. Simplified, Damásio claims that emotions are a key driver in our rational decision making even if we’re not aware of it. As he writes in The Feeling of What Happens: “What could be more difficult to know than to know how we know?”

Applying this to Riesling, while our well-educated wine minds reason that Riesling is an exceptional wine (Austere! Acid line! Ageing potential! Terroir!), our subconscious and emotions, the real engine room for what we love, are programmed for something else (abundance, sensuality, feeling, pleasure). Just as a list of someone’s traits does not control our heart’s reactions to them, the same can be said of wine. As French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote: “the heart has reasons that reason does not know at all.”

In wine, as in life, head and hearts are not always in sync. Even still, every wine colleague I asked was adamant Riesling is beautiful, even though none can explain why others don’t think so. So how to account for the glassy eyed dreaminess that comes over Riesling lovers when asked to explain Riesling’s beauty while they talk about rocks and high acidity? Perhaps because they have both head and heart engaged. To know that a wine can transmit a landscape, age for decades and engage the senses does amplify a wine’s appeal. For Riesling lovers, the combination makes the wine interesting and beautiful, and therefore something to be adored.

Maybe Riesling would make more sense if the discussion were expanded to include ideas of beauty as well as technical properties. As well as sharing the joys of Riesling, it might well open doors to other pleasures in wine. After all, the great aesthete Oscar Wilde called aesthetics “The science of the beautiful”, not the science of the technical. Whether beauty is sensory, intellectual or a combination of the two, whether it exists in the wine or in our minds, are questions that have challenged the great minds for centuries, and I don’t think they will be resolved anytime soon. Judging by the current debates I think the same can be said of Riesling. Which as we have seen, might well be part of its charm.

Photo of Oscar Wilde © Shutterstock

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