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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Riesling rant

Last Friday, 19th June, the German Wine Institute held a tasting of riesling and other wines from Germany in the Westbury Hotel in Dublin. I only tasted a few wines as I was under time pressure, but I was impressed by those I tried. However, during some chat the topic of "I don't drink riesling - it's sweet!" came up and I thought it's about time for a rant.

First, riesling isn't sweet - it's a grape and the wines made from riesling can range from the bone dry to the very luscious in sweetness. Second, what's wrong with sweet wine? I realise that I'm very lucky to have the chance to taste a wide range of wines and styles and to be in a position to develop an understanding of what makes wine so good but I still don't get why people choose to close their minds so readily in relation to certain wine styles e.g. sweet wines and chardonnay, for example.

Just like CJ in Reggie Perrin, I didn't get where I am today by closing my mind - quite the opposite. Doing the MW course forced me to re-evaluate my opinions about many styles of wine so that I am now a fairly catholic taster and drinker. Sweetness - what's it there for? Well, there are three real reasons for making a wine sweet.

The first is a high level of acidity which needs some sugar to balance it out. This can result from certain grapes or wines made in very cool climates where acids might not diminish during ripening even as flavours develop. The second is to make a wine where sweetness is essential e.g. Sauternes or Beerenauslesen etc. These are wines where, by a variety of methods, the amount of sugar in the grape juice is increased through dehydration of the grape, resulting in a wine with noticeable residual sugar. The third is where the wine is not that great and a bit of sweetness makes it palatable.

Let's look at this last case first. Which would you rather drink - a bad wine or a decent but unremarkable sweet wine? You might answer "neither" but not so long ago winemaking technology was such that those were often your only choices for white wines. Nowadays, if you've ever tried Blue Nun or Black Tower or Piat d'Or you'll find that these are simple, fruity, medium-dry wines which are very pleasant to drink. I wonder how many of the "knowledgeable" journalists and critics who bad-mouth these wines have ever tasted them? I do, and quite regularly - one of the benefits of being an educator. They're well-made and do exactly what they say on the tin.

Now, on to riesling. In Alsace it's bone dry but often lean, in Germany it's made dry (-ish) for the local market but often quite sweet for export, in Austria it's usually dry (notwithstanding some lovely exceptions tasted recently - see my last post) and in Australia it's usually very crisp and dry. Which style do I prefer? Well, I find Alsace often too lean, I love sweet Mosel and Rheingau but also the drier styles from Pfalz in Germany, I think the minerally, dry style of Austria is fantastic and I love the crisp lime of Clare Valley as well as the softer floral style of Eden Valley in Australia.

So, is sweetness ever bad? Well, only in the sense that if a wine with little or no real fruit character is being masked by sweetness (or oak, for that matter) then I would consider that the wine is bad, not the sweetness. There are plenty of lovely off-dry or sweet wines - try Torres's San Valentin Blanco which is an off-dry parellada and is gorgeous - easy to drink and fruity. Or, try some of the following, tasted on Friday...

As already mentioned, I didn't have much time so I started with Ben Mason of the Wicklow Wine Company who import the excellent wines from Max Ferd. Richter in the Mosel. These are all good to excellent, with a gorgeous Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese 2008 being one of the highlights. I never got back to taste their auslese but the real find was the Mulheimer Sonnenlay Zeppelinlabel 2008. Not only does it have a lovely label (they're in the main street in Wicklow so call in to see it!) but it was a really fresh, zingy wine. I cant even remember if it's sweet or dry, for what it's worth, but I do remember it as being very good!

Beside them were the wines of Markus Molitor, also from the Mosel, which are not currently imported into Ireland. They had three Trocken wines to taste and then three sweet styles. I found these to be very good indeed, with a lovely intensity of riesling character. Their 2008 Zeltinger Deutschherreberg Auslese was lovely.

Next I tried the wines of Manfred Breit, based in Piesport in the Mosel, also unrepresented in Ireland. He had three trocken wines which were good but his Piesporter Goldtropfchen Spatlese 2008 was very good with lovely ripe apple flavours; surprisingly, it had 77 g/L residual sugar (Auslese Goldkapsel levels) but really didn't seem overdone at all! He also had a lovely, light zippy spatburgunder which, I gather, sells at €8 in Germany - which is really good value here but quite expensive there.

I then headed to the stand of the Burgerspital Weingut Wurzberg. Franken produces quite different styles of wine to other regions of Germany, as well as using the old Bocksbeutel bottle. Here, they had a nice enough dornfelder/trollinger rose, a good, typically mineral and earthy silvaner, some really good rieslings, including an very good Frickenhauser Kapellenberg Auslese but the real star, surprisingly for me, was a really spicy, firm gewurztramier. Normally I don't care too much for GW as it's often blowzy and one-dimensional but this was very good.

Next door was the Schloss Wackerbarth winery from Sachsen, in the former east Germany. This was the first time I had ever tasted any wines from this part of Germany and I was impressed. A good riesling, good grauburgunder (pinot gris) and an interesting traminer. They also had two very good sparklers, both bottle-fermented. Well worth seeking out.

I ended at the Schloss Reinhartshausen of the Rheingau. I thought these were very good with classic Rhengau-style rieslings - pears and apples with smokey slate notes - but also a really good spatburgunder.

So, there you are - stop mixing up poor winemaking with good winemaking; sweetness is neither good nor bad, per se - it all depends on the overall balance and quality of the wine.

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