We all know that somms love Riesling the way cats love catnip. So the chance to taste great examples from opposite ends of the world was not to be missed.
For our Masters of Riesling tasting, we had managed to gather Jean-Frédéric Hugel from Hugel in Alsace, and Louisa Rose from Pewsey Vale in the Eden Valley to talk us through some of their key wines. Our members got to taste, compare – and get stuck into some of the hottest issues of the day, in what turned out to be a fascinating deep-dive into a complex variety.
About the wineries
Hugel is one of the oldest wineries in France – and probably one of the oldest continuously-run family businesses anywhere in the world. It started in 1639 and, with Jean-Frédéric at the helm, is currently on its 13th generation.
The company is based in the stunning medieval walled town of Riquewihr, in the heart of Alsace, completely surrounded by vines.
‘It’s a viticultural town,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘Alsace is like Burgundy, but even more condensed.’
A long, narrow region with a complex, mixed-up geology, it has, Jean-Frédéric admits, taken the growers 2000 years to work out how the different soils and orientations affect the character of the grapes.Some 13 varieties are permitted, but Riesling remains the king.
‘It’s a terroir sponge,’ he says. ‘It has a unique ability to express terroir, which explains why there are so many more poor ones on the market – there are many more poor terroirs than there are great ones.’
Pewsey’s history might not be as long as that of Hugel, but it’s impressive nonetheless. First planted in 1847 it is one of the oldest vineyards in Australia.
Joseph Gilbert, an English settler, named it after his home town. Riesling was just one of several varieties he planted – he also tried Cabernet, Gouais Blanc and Verdelho – but it quickly became obvious that it was the variety that worked best in this area.
The Eden Valley is to the East of the Barossa, up on a range of hills. While the Barossa is at around 200m of altitude, with deep soils, the Eden Valley is around 500m up with very poor rocky soil full of mica, quartz and schist.
Temperatures rarely get above the low-30s, though during a heat spike they might climb to 35 degrees C. It’s typically two degrees cooler than the Barossa during the day, but 5-10 degrees cooler than the valley at night. Temperatures can get below 10 degrees C once the sun goes down – a diurnal shift of over 20 degrees C.
‘Cold nights are one of the keys to growing great Riesling,’ says Louisa Rose, who has been making the Pewsey Vale wines for 25 years. ‘You protect the acidity and get those beautiful persistent aromatics.’
Famille Hugel Classic Riesling 2019
The idea of this wine is to show ‘an Alsace archetype of wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘To make the best AOC Riesling in Alsace.’ It comes from a variety of soil types, from sandstone and granite to clay and limestone.
Climate change has altered the character of this wine in the space of two generations. ‘My grandfather’s generation thought that 9 degrees potential alcohol was ripe,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘They used to have to chaptalize a lot.’ The local sugar refinery, he said, has just closed down because nobody uses it any more.
This is from a tricky vintage of heatwaves and rain storms, and volumes are low. Though taken overall, the growing season was long and cool. Like all the Hugel wines it’s closed with a DIAM cork, of which more later.
Grossi Laüe Riesling 2012
Grossi Laüe (pronounced Grossi Loy) translates as ‘great vineyard’ in Alsace dialect. This wine is put together from a series of plots on the Schoenenbourg grand cru. One of the most sought-after locations in Alsace, its 35 degree slopes and southerly aspect have made it a great site for Riesling for hundreds of years.
‘Riesling is a late-ripening grape, and these are mostly cool, marly soils,’ explained Jean-Frédéric, so you need the maximum sun exposure.’
Because of the marly soils and southerly exposure, typically, the Schoenenbourg gives wines that are quite rich and velvety compared to, say, a Schlossberg or Mosel Riesling.
Typically, the Grossi Laüe is more ‘forward’ than the Schoelhammer, and perhaps because of this Adrian Fornal saw it as a good partner with ‘grilled lobster with garlic parsley butter.’
Schoelhammer Riesling 2010
The Schoelhammer (pronounced ‘shell hammer’) comes from a single organically-farmed vineyard in the heart of the Schoenenbourg. Always a favourite site of the family, they first decided to make it as a single-vineyard wine in 2007.
‘It’s in the sweet spot for the Schoenenbourg where there’s a bit more clay,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘It’s very late ripening, and naturally low yielding. The vines look like they are working.’
Though the Schoelhammer and the Grossi Laüe were not from the same vintage, Jean-Frédéric said that the stylistic variations that our tasters noted between them were more driven by their different terroirs than their ages.
‘The Schoelhammer is a longer-lived wine that evolves at a slower pace,’ he explained. Artyom Celegato agreed, saying it was less expressive on the nose but an ‘absolute winner’ on the palate with a ‘great mouthfeel and a velvety finish.’
Konstantinos Nestoridis kept his food match local, saying he felt it would be great with cod, Alsace bacon and cream.
Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2020
If you think vintage variation isn’t important in Australia, then think again. This wine came from a dry winter, windy spring (which affected flowering) and a cooler than average summer. The result was a concentrated, elegant expression of Riesling.
‘Total acidity is only in the low- to mid-6s. But the pH is really quite low – 2.8 or 2.9 is common,’ said Louisa Rose. ‘So you get that lovely soft acidity, but then the minerality coming across the palate.’ She cited flavours of limes, white flowers and dried rosemary.
Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2015, Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2010
The Contours wine comes from a specific site within the Pewsey Vale vineyard. The rows of vines here are planted in undulating waves that follow the contours of the land (hence the name). The soil is no different to any of the rest of the Pewsey Vale vineyard, but its south facing exposure is unique.
‘Most of our vineyards face north, towards the sun,’ says Louisa Rose. ‘But this one faces away from it.’ The result, she says, is a wine that is ‘more refined – lemons rather than limes, and slightly more acidity.’
The plan behind the Contours Rieslings was always to cellar them and release them as aged wines. 2015 is the current release – but the 2010 shows just how wonderfully, and gently, they age. In this they may be helped by their screwcap closure (again, more on this later).
The vineyard is biodynamically farmed and certified.
‘The Contours taste like they are wines of the place,’ said Louisa. ‘The winemaking decision that I make is when to pick the grapes, but before and after that the vineyard really does everything on its own. Even the yeasts come from the vineyard.’
‘Most of the time people say a wine is too young, so I have no issues in selling a mature Riesling,’ said Davide Renna, while Harry Cooper pointed out that, since his venue was moving on to veal next month, aged Riesling could be a good match.
Emanuel Pesqueira went down the seafood route. ‘Ten year old Riesling is perfect with grilled limpets served with lemon butter,’ he said.
Petrol, decanting and screwcaps – Riesling’s big issues answered!
The tasting also generated some discussion on other key Riesling topics, which should help us all better understand the grape’s particuliarities.
The petrol question…
‘Should aged Riesling taste of petrol or is it a winemaking fault,’ asked Davide Renna. ‘And if so is there anything you can do to stop it?
‘We don’t even ask ourselves the question,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘Trying to create it or mitigate against it would be using a winemaking trick, so it would not be what we’d consider a terroir wine. Whether it appears or not is up to the vineyard. But it’s going to come at some stage in an older Riesling. If you don’t like it, I’d recommend drinking it young. In a Schoenenbourg, for example, it might appear after five years, but be gone by the time it’s 20.’
Louisa, meanwhile, disliked the term ‘petrol’. We’re all about clean, green viticulture, so to use a term from the petrochemical industry seems wrong!’ she said. ‘We talk about toast and sage-oil, lemon grass… flavours like that.’
She said that there is, however, a character you can see in Riesling that does smell like what you’d put in your car, and that was a winemaking fault. ‘It comes from underripe grapes with very green flavours in the skins that have been damaged – perhaps by sunburn. Those flavours in a wine become quite oily and unattractive.’
Decanting – should you or shouldn’t you..?
‘It’s the same as for any wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘If it’s already at an advanced age it would destroy it. If it still has some ageing ahead of it decanting is going to magnify it.’
‘I decant just about everything,’ said Louisa. ‘I love the theatre of it, but decanting also gives Riesling an opportunity to wake up and come to life. I haven’t met too many that aren’t immediately better following decanting.’
Screwcap v Cork
‘This will be a fight between the northern and southern hemisphere,’ joked Jean-Frédéric. He could see the reliability advantages of screwcap compared to natural cork, and admitted that they had had problems with the latter in the past. ‘We’d taste ten bottles and they’d be ten different wines!’ he said. As a result, they ‘walked away from a natural cork and towards Diam [reconstituted cork]. We got no bottle variation and no cork taint.’
The Pewsey Vale Rieslings were all screwcapped from the 1970s onwards, which was very unusual at the time. And clearly too unusual for the world’s sommeliers who struggled to accept it! The first Contours wine (1995) was screwcapped, and by the time it was released five years later, other regions – and countries had adopted the closure, making it easier to sell. ‘It’s the perfect seal for Rieslings whether as young wines or aged,’ said Louisa.
The Rheingau is close to my heart. Frankfurt is where I was allowed to manage my very first wine list as a sommelier, and from there I was able to visit the prestige vineyards and producers based around the famous villages along the Rhine River.
Once you cross the Schiersteiner Brücke from the south and turn left, a route packed with history and tradition opens up in front of you.
From Eltville in the east to Rüdesheim in the west, this is one of the most famous 20km stretches in the German wine world: the home to such A-list vineyards as Schlossberg, Nussbrunnen, Gräfenberg, Berg Schlossberg and Höllenberg.
The reason for this is simple. Most of the time, the Rhein flows from south to north. But here it briefly turns through 90 degrees to run east to west. This means that the Rheingau’s vineyards have a full southern exposure and are protected by the hills of the Taunus mountain range to the north.
The Rhine River has a warming effect during the night but also maintains a constant temperature during the ripening phase.
Don’t forget, we are at 50 degrees north here. This is still a cool wine region and grapes sometimes struggle to ripen fully.
All About Riesling
The Rheingau is Riesling. Fact. There is some Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and good Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) on the west-facing, slate soils of Assmanshausen when the river makes a turn back to the north.
But 80% of the Rheingau is planted to the White Queen.
Though some of the country’s best Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausles come from here, the wines generally tend towards the dry style.
Soils change constantly, from slate in Assmannshausen, to quartzite in Rüdesheim, and löss/clay soil in the centre of the region and on the top of the hills. The slopes are steep and can quickly climb to almost 350m above the river.
Located above the village of Kiedrich the Gräfenberg is owned almost exclusively by Weingut Robert Weil, which has 9.7ha of its 10.5ha. Only two other producers take grapes from here.
It is famous for wine of higher, sweeter qualities such as Beerenauslese, Trockenberenauslese and Eiswein. But what people don’t know is that it also produces some of the best dry Rieslings, from fresh crisp Gutswein, through the delicious Kiedricher up to Grand Cru (Großes Gewächs – usually known as GG) quality.
For GG, low yield, 40hl/ha is a standard, the use of large Stück (1200l) or Doppelstück (2400l), mostly old casks, is a given.
As the vines became older, the Riesling in some smaller parcels of the Grafenberg vineyard stood out, for giving wines with more complexity, flavour intensity and the character.
Home of Monte Vacano
One such ‘special’ parcel was the Gräfenberg-Lay in the north-west, very close to the Turmberg. The soil here is predominantly slate, called Phylliteschiefer, which is spread throughout the Gräfenberg but has a higher content in this parcel. The vines on this 0.5ha parcel are now 40-60 years old.
And this is the home of a special new launch from the Robert Weil winery: Monte Vacano.
Named after the founder’s wife (she was a descendant of the Vacano family in Lombardy) 100 years ago, it used to be made just for the family. After the 1922 vintage it was incorporated into the regular GG Gräfenberg.
But Wilhelm Weil decided to revisit his family’s traditions and bottle the 2018.
Wild-fermented, and matured for 24 months on its lees in large traditional Stück, the Monte Vacano comes 100% from the Lay parcel of the Gräfenberg. Production is tiny – there are only 1200 bottles (plus a few magnums and one double-magnum) – and prices are around the €130 mark.
On the 6th of March at the VDP Rheingau Reserve Auction, one 12l bottle 2018 was under the hammer for an incredible €18,000. The Magnum got auctioned off at 520€.
This new arrival is not cheap. But it is a genuinely exciting arrival on Germany’s fine wine scene – innovative and experimental. And I really hope that this will inspire other Rheingau producers to follow Wilhelm Weil and his team – to respect the region’s traditions while still trying to do something different.
Without a doubt the question that I get asked the most in life is “what is your favourite wine?”. I’m sure it’s the same for many of you. Of course, we all know that there is no “one best” wine, and that our answer will depend on occasions, moods and food.
That being said, I do have one constant – an affinity for the wines of the country I grew up in: Canada. I like the Syrahs and Merlots from British Columbia; the steely Rieslings and meaty Cabernet Francs from Ontario.
When I came to London as a sommelier 10 years ago, people were only talking about icewine. Nobody had even tasted a still Canadian wine. Now it’s quite the opposite, people don’t want to drink sweet wines and particularly not icewine because it is so extraordinarily sweet.
Because of this many sommeliers do not get the opportunity to taste very much icewine. And when they do its rarely against other icewines. Ironically, Canada has worked hard to shake its “icewine only” image but is now in danger of losing it all together.
This would be a tragedy. The icewines of the Niagara peninsula in Ontario are very special. They are among the great sweet wines of the world and as a profession we need to give this category of wine a better look.
These are beautifully crafted wines that are made with a sense of terroir. Maybe not a terroir in the traditional sense where you can taste the slate and limestone but they showcase richness and concentration that is quintessentially Canadian.
The heat of the Canadian summer gives sugar levels that could never be achieved in Germany or Austria, while the moderating effect of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie gives freshness to these massive stickies that is natural and unparalleled even within the other regions of Canada.
What really separates the Niagara peninsula from other sweet wine regions of the world is the diversity, both varietally and stylistically. There’s everything from Roussane to Tempranillo, and any vitis vinifera variety is allowed to be used in icewine production. Hybrids are not allowed apart from Vidal.
The fact that Canada is a new world region that doesn’t have tradition to adhere to is one of its most charming and, ironically, defining characters. Each variety keeps its character and makes such individually interesting wines, many of which you will never see elsewhere.
The main three varieties used are Riesling, Vidal and Cabernet Franc. Most wineries will make at least two of these but again the stylistic differences are huge.
Riesling is still king as far as I am concerned. These are the only icewines that benefit from aging and actually develop more complex notes and aromas while retaining their balance of sugar and acids. Riesling also has the ability to showcase minerality in icewine and that is just not the case with any other varietal.
Vidal is by far the most planted varietal for icewine, and there is good reason for this. Apart from being hardy to the harshness of the Canadian climate Vidal has very thick skins that help it keep rot at bay. This makes for higher yields in a notoriously low yielding category – a real incentive for growers. And in Niagara there are a lot of growers.
Most wineries do not use 100% estate grown fruit. So when the farmers are the ones choosing what gets planted… of course the safe bet will win out much of the time.
We often think of sweet wines as being very-long lived, but actually this is not the case for most icewines. Vidal, especially, needs to be drunk in its youth as the freshness and vitality that we love it for dissipates and is not replaced with the most interesting secondary or tertiary characteristics.
Cabernet Franc is a relatively new variety to the icewine party. This grape is a bit polarizing in the winemaking community. Often the acidity is not as bright as it could be and the delicate red berry notes border on or above cloying. This needs a very skilled hand to give it personality and a delicacy.
The first red graped icewines were more of an afterthought. Unsold grapes were left on the vines to freeze with a view to hopefully turning a profit in the winter. Malbec, Shiraz and Pinot Noir are all popular.
Apart from the different varieties, there are many styles of icewine that will have a producer’s touch. The most obvious is the addition of barrel aging. Weight is so important and the use of older barrels to add a touch more complexity and richness to a fruit forward style works really well. Rarely will you have an icewine where the woody notes are actually apparent in the wine.
Icewine is a wine that is made in the vineyard and in the winery equally. So much of the production needs to be closely monitored in the vineyards. The grapes are netted and propane cannons are used to keep the birds at bay as the winter slowly creeps in. On top of that, freezing winds can take much of a crop leaving growers with as little as 10% of the grapes they could have harvested in October.
December to January is when the grapes are usually picked and the largest stylistic choice to the wine is made. When the grapes freeze for the first time, the cell wall of the skin starts to break down. This will slowly allow the grape juice to start to oxidize. It is important to remember that the lakes that border the Niagara peninsula moderate the area and keep it quite warm in comparison to the rest of Canada. Large parts of winter may be above freezing temperatures and definitely above the -8 degrees needed for legal harvesting of the grapes .
Berries picked early in the season after the first freeze will usually be a bit one-dimensional with an emphasis on honey and bright tropical fruits. Farmers will sometimes pick early to avoid any further loss of crop.
But leaving the grapes on the vine for subsequent freezes, allows the grapes to go through a ‘freeze-thaw-freeze’ cycle that adds a lot of complexity to the grapes and gives toffee, caramel, cotton candy notes.
It’s a tricky balancing act though. The more freezes and thaws that a grape goes through the riskier it is, since it increases the risk of rot. And many of the wines made in January after subsequent freezes are absolutely massive wines with huge sugar levels and confected sugar notes. Choosing when to harvest and after how many freezes and thaws really is the defining factor when it comes to making your style of icewine.
It’s expensive. Here’s why
What most people don’t realize is that icewine cannot be made on a yearly basis from the same vines. When the vines hold on to their berries late into the winter they do not go dormant as they are supposed to. They still continue to give energy to the berries and this will stress the vines out as it disrupts their normal lifecycle. It can take years for a vine to recover from this and vineyards planted for icewine have to be used once every three or four years only for ice wine production.
This has given rise to a large amount of blending in Ontario. Vidal is highly sought after for icewine but not for table wine production where it’s decidedly average. So do the maths. Making icewine only every four years from your vineyard can be tough when you sell your crop the other three years for a pittance, especially if you have something that isn’t desirable as a table wine at all, like Vidal.
This is something that needs to be taken into account when we talk about the price of these great wines. We think of icewine as expensive and it is, but when you start to account for all the variables it is actually a very well-priced product and gives a lot of value.
The wines of Canada have come a very far way (literally and figuratively) in a very short period of time. It seems hard to find a wine list without a token Canadian wine on it these days. I hope that as Canadian wines continue their climb out of obscurity and into the mainstream we do not lose sight of what a treasure icewines are. Let us not lose sight of these great wines that put Canada on the wine map of the world.
Four producers to LOOK OUT FOR
Currently seeking importer
Their Riesling Icewine is consistently one of my favourites. Much lighter and leaner in every way from a lot of the larger producers, these wines are elegant and feminine without having to show off. They age well over a 20 to 30 year period as well.
These guys made the first Vidal icewine in 1984 and it is still the benchmark for the variety today. This wine is structured and luscious with tropical fruit salad acacia honey notes that last for days.
Currently seeking importer
Their Cabernet Franc Icewine is a fantastic example of this sometimes overlooked variety. Delicate and spicy with seductive garden berries and bright acids that balance it all out.
Along with Inniskillin these guys have very good examples of barrel-aged ice wines, the old casks giving added butterscotch and caramel notes.
The professional journey in hospitality is rarely straightforward. You can begin as a sommelier and end up running a hotel, or start by pulling corks and polishing glasses, and end up as a world-beating bartender.
Take Giovanni Ferlito.
It might be hard to believe, but the current head of wine and beverages at the Ritz Hotel began as a bartender at the Hard Rock Café in his home town of Catania. His main influence was not Gerard Basset or Paolo Basso, but Tom Cruise in Cocktail.
The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out how he got to where he is now, and who and what has inspired him on his amazing journey.
You said you came into wine ‘sideways’ – tell us a bit about your journey
After Hard Rock Café I worked for a big Italian resort company, Valtur. That job took me all over the world and I made my way up to Bar Manager, then F&B Manager. It was an opportunity to understand the whole hospitality operation, to know a bit of everything about costs and leadership.
When did you come to the UK?
In 2010. I planned to continue as an F&B Manager, but the problem was that my English at the time meant that I wasn’t even able to do an interview! It was really, really poor.
So you started to study, I guess?
Yes. I would have taken any job just to pay my studies. I knew a lot about hospitality, spirits and cocktails, and I’d taken a few wine courses, but I wasn’t a real professional sommelier. I sent out a few applications, and got a call from Locanda Locatelli. Virgilio Gennaro was the head sommelier, but it was really funny. He did the interview in English, even though we were from the same part of Italy. He really wanted to put some pressure on me, to see my potential.
And was that what lit the wine spark for you?
It was my first experience as a sommelier, but I wasn’t yet sure that it was going to be my new career. I was just learning something new. It’s Virgilio’s fault that I’m in wine. He was so passionate about it, and he transferred that passion into me.
Where did you go from there?
To Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. I found another passionate wine lover with great charisma as my boss: Hugues Lepin. And I though that’s the person I want to work with – I want to learn everything from him. Then it was clear that I wanted to do wine.’
Do you think qualifications are an essential part of wine education?
It depends. It’s important to take courses, but something that is non-negotiable is that you have to have passion. You might have the knowledge, but if you don’t have the passion you won’t be able to share it with your guests. Hugues Lepin, for instance, has no qualifications at all. But if you speak to him he knows the producers, the soils, the stories, everything. You can learn more from someone like him than taking WSET Level 3. For someone at my level you’d probably already expect that I am a Master Sommelier or have a Diploma, but in fact I started my Diploma last year.
How do you go about working with your suppliers?
I’m a big fan of building the relationship with the suppliers, rather than just looking at pure contract. My job would be much easier if I just worked with ten suppliers, signing contracts based on retros and volumes, but it would lack dynamism and uniqueness. With wine we have 20 main suppliers, and we work with another 15. I’m more interested in the story behind each product than the retro stock they might be offering.
What do you love most about the job?
The variety. It’s like being an entrepreneur – I need to do a bit of everything. I need to be on the floor, but there’s a lot of work to do behind the scenes too. I’m lucky to have a strong team – I couldn’t do this on my own. I delegate a lot.
What are your favourite wine styles?
In general I’m interested in the expression of the terroir, and I like diversity. I prefer wines made with indigenous varieties – a Nero di Troia from Puglia, for instance, or a Lacrima di Morro d’Alba from the Marche. And I love Germany. I really appreciate Riesling.
And what excites you about being part of The Sommelier Collective?
I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge and transferring my passion to youngsters in the hospitality industry – and to be able to talk to my peers. There’s nothing else in our industry that brings all the sommeliers under one roof.