When people think about wine made from the Riesling grape, often two thoughts come to mind. One, sweetness; and two, Germany, its rolling hills and millennia-old vineyards with aristocratic estates.
Welcome to the Riesling revolution. Not only is dry Riesling one of the most lip-smackingly mineral, complex, delicious, and terroir-expressive wines out there, beloved by sommeliers, but an upstart generation of winemakers in Germany and beyond is taking the grape in an exciting new direction. In Upstate New York's Finger Lakes region, for example, small and family-run wineries started producing high-quality Riesling shortly after the 1976 Winery Act allowed grape growers to actually vinify and bottle their own juice. Now, top restaurants around the country carry Finger Lakes wines right alongside the best from the Rheingau, one of Germany’s top wine areas.
There is much praise due to sweet Riesling, but for affordable and versatile bottles, dry is the way to go. Wine experts often credit Riesling as a particularly terroir-expressive grape, which means that it conveys aspects of the vineyard from which it comes, such as soil type. German Rieslings are known to have a nose full of "petrol," notes that bring depth, and flavors of citrus and stonefruit are common on the palate, with searing acidity and minerality being the hallmarks of an excellent Riesling wine from anywhere.
... an upstart generation of winemakers in Germany and beyond is taking the grape in an exciting new direction.
Riesling-loving Americans owe thanks to one man: Konstantin Frank, a Ukranian who immigrated to the U.S. in 1951 and, holding a PhD in Viticulture (focused on cold-climate grape growing), hoped to start growing European grapevines, also known as vitis vinifera. When experts told him that vitis vinifera wouldn’t grow in New York, where Frank had settled, he persevered, and worked with French Champagne producer Charles Fournier to perfect the grafting technique. They eventually succeeded in planting wild grape vines in New York soil, helping to prevent a pest called phylloxera that is attracted to American rootstock. Today, his great-granddaughter Meaghan Frank runs the Frank family winery, and the wine culture in the Finger Lakes has flourished tenfold.
But the Finger Lakes are still beset with challenges, weather being one of them. Firstly, it's very cold; but more problematically, the region’s humidity prevents grape growers from working organically because wetness invites mold, which can destroy a vine crop. Nevertheless, winemakers are increasingly finding ways to improve their techniques.
For Kris Matthewson at Bellwether Wine Cellars, which came onto the market in 2013 and is known for its fresh and lively Riesling, this means allowing spontaneous fermentation, with wild yeasts, whenever possible. In the majority of winemaking, commercial yeasts are added to jumpstart fermentation and ensure it happens in a timely fashion. But yeasts live naturally in our environment, literally everywhere, and some winemakers prefer to allow those ambient yeasts to ferment their grape juice. But these yeasts can be unpredictable (taking a very long time, or not finish at all, resulting in a wine with residual sugar)—and make fermentation more of a gamble..
"I just love Riesling," says Matthewson, who is 33, tattooed, and often wears black t-shirts. "I love how different it can be, depending on where it’s grown and who’s making it. The way it’s made in Germany in particular, I really love. And that’s really what Bellwether is trying to be, like an old-school Germany winery, especially the Rheingau. I think that’s close to what we can do in the Finger Lakes."
Matthewson, who grew up in the Finger Lakes and worked at various local wineries through college, first learned about spontaneous fermentation during visits to New York City. He tasted Riesling bottles from winemakers like Clemens Busch in the Mosel, and Domaine Ostertag in Alsace, and was inspired to strive for better winemaking in Upstate New York. When he married a woman whose parents had a hard cider production facility, he started his own label there, but adopted the name they already had, Bellwether. "Bellwether is a male sheep in a flock of female sheep, so it’s the leader of the flock," explains Matthewson. "It’s someone forward-thinking, an industry leader."
There is much praise due to sweet Riesling, but for affordable and versatile bottles, dry is the way to go.
But where Matthewson draws the line in terms of minimalist winemaking is with his use of the preservative sulfur. Riesling is notorious for needing sulfur in order to produce a stable wine, and Matthewson was even told by the winemaker at Koehler-Ruprecht, a respected German estate, that he needed to triple his sulfur use. So, he doesn’t hesitate to use the preservative in his cellar.
Back across the pond, in Riesling’s homeland, the grape is being redefined by young producers, particularly a group called "Message in a Bottle," who are devoted to organic farming and improving vineyard practices by reducing yields, which generates less wine but at higher quality levels. These young winemakers are also building on a movement their parents began, to classify German wines according to the vineyard status (through what’s known as the VdP system), as opposed to sweetness level. So, increasingly on bottles, one will see where the grapes are from—rather than when they were picked. This is a Burgundian approach, and signals a renewed appreciation of terroir, and a stylistic shift toward dry winemaking rather than sweet styles.
The details can seem complicated, but the main point is this: dry Riesling is delicious with pork, pasta, chicken, and cheese. A bottle can transform drastically after sitting open for 15 to 20 minutes, especially if it has a few years of age. But young bottles are great, too. Below, five outstanding Rieslings to find.
Riesling Bottles to Try:
Producer: Georg Breuer
From: Rheingau, Germany
The Breuer winery in the Rheingau is so tiny that workers have to remove all fermentation equipment when it’s time to bottle the wine. But this is a case where size does not matter; these wines are beautiful, elegant, fresh, and lively. Current winemaker Theresa Breuer’s father was very active in the Rheingau’s quality revolution, pushing for recognition of top vineyards; she is now extending his focus on quality winemaking with a terroir-driven approach to the vineyards, and minimalism in the winery. "Rüdesheim" is from Breuer’s top vineyards, overlooking the Rhine river; some oak (between 30 to 60 percent depending on the vintage) is used to add body to the wine, which displays fresh, lemony notes, and ample acidity. This wine will age well.
Producer: Dr. Konstantin Frank
From: Finger Lakes, New York
Germany has a strong tradition of sparkling Riesling, which they call "Sekt."And the Konstantin Frank winery has devoted an entire program to making bubbly wines through the traditional fermentation style known as Méthode Champenoise. Konstantin Frank makes vintage as well as non-vintage sparkling wines, but the one you want for a simple guzzler—whether at lunch, at a festive occasion or hanging out late-night with friends— is "Célèbre." It is fresh, crisp, clean, easy to drink, and a great price.
Producer: Eva Fricke
From: Rheingau, Germany
Eva Fricke is an independent winemaker in the Rheingau who fell in love with vineyard work in South Africa, then over time became a self-taught winemaker. Her Kiedrich blend comes from two vineyard sites, Kiedricher Wasseros and Kiedricher Sandgrub, which are on the same slope, where slate and sandy soils containing loess and limestone—hallmarks of Rheingau terroir—lend the wine its sleek minerality. The 2014 vintage was spontaneously fermented and yields a wine that's beautifully mineral and acidic, with lemon zest and chalk on the nose, a palate full of stonefruit and grapefruit, plus excellent body and a long powerful finish.
Producer: Bellwether Cellars
Wine: A&D Vineyard, Wild Ferment
From: Finger Lakers, New York
"Wild Ferment" is Kris Matthewson’s experimental wine, and it is definitely one of his most delicious bottles. During the five month fermentation, Matthewson did what the French call battonage, which means punching down the lees (consisting of dead grape skins and yeasts) to lend the juice creaminess and body. The wine, made from the grapes of one vineyard on Keuka Lake—near where Matthewson grew up—is unrefined and unfiltered, received a minimal dose of sulfur, and saw no oak. It has a fresh, bright, and cheerful nose, stonefruit and citrus on the palate, and a mineral finish.
Wine: Le Dragon
From: Alsace, France
Alsatian Riesling is considered to be weightier and rounder than its German (or Austrian) counterpart. And the above bottle is no exception. This wine, grown on an estate with five generations of winemaking, comes from 50-year-old biodynamic vines. It is complex and needs a little time to open up (not uncommon for Riesling). After about twenty minutes, its character starts to emerge: flowers and smokiness on the nose, stones and sand on the palate, and an acidic, mineral, smoky finish. Other top biodynamic Alsatian Riesling producers to try include Domaine Ostertag (Kris Matthewson’s inspiration), Christian Binner, Pierre Frick, Albert Mann, and Zind-Humbrecht.