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June 1, 2016updated 02 Nov 2022 10:48am

Magisterial and Insightful: A Trocken-full Story of Riesling’s Unique Appeal

Why do people continue writing books about Riesling? There are at least five books on my shelf all dedicated to this one grape variety, either extolling the virtues of its endless versatility or re-announcing a much-vaunted and ever-imminent Riesling renaissance. Perhaps it is Riesling’s polarity, the very gulf between the devotion and disdain it elicits, that compels Riesling lovers to write. As an utter Riesling nut myself, I have come to the conclusion that Riesling remains a minority sport, an obsession for acid freaks with fairly advanced, adult tastes. We are a well-dispersed, diverse, international, and sizable minority. It is thus that I welcome John Winthrop Haeger’s Riesling Rediscovered, coming at the subject from the new angle of dryness, as a magisterial and insightful addition to the canon.

Haeger’s is a scholarly tome, perhaps not for the casual reader, and he sets himself three tasks at the outset: “First, I seek to interrogate as precisely as possible what sets Riesling apart from other white wine grape varieties. Second, I re-examine the history of Riesling as a variety […]. Third, I focus on the idiom of Riesling – dry — that is simultaneously dominant worldwide and least known in North America.” Very importantly, he continues to say: “I explore what must happen, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, to produce a very good Riesling with little or no perceptible sugar. Emphatically, such Riesling is not made simply by ensuring that fermentations consume most of all of the grapes’ sugar; on the contrary, it requires farming for flavors and a new definition of ripeness, one that does not depend primarily on sugar to balance acidity.” Alas, even someone as academic as Haeger cannot rid himself entirely of the tiniest amount of missionary zeal: “Riesling carries more stylistic baggage than any other major international variety,” he concedes, only to state: “Riesling goes undiscovered by millions of wine drinkers […] who are unaware that greater organoleptic pleasure awaits them with dry Riesling if only they could control their fear of tall, flute-shaped bottles.”

Taking nothing for granted

Haeger’s first inquiry takes in market positioning, consumer perception, and varietal characteristics. Nothing is taken for granted. Not only does he explore acidity in Riesling and its complex interaction with residual sugar, he also states what others often forget: Riesling “originated in a cold period of European climate history when seriously underripe vintages were common […] incomplete ripeness was often exacerbated by crop loads that were too high and by unfamiliarity with viticultural practices that could have managed cold vintages more successfully.” This is also true for Champagne’s past. See how necessity turned into virtue there. But Haeger also takes us into the heady, aromatic world of terpenes and norisoprenoids, concluding that “Riesling occupies a sweet spot in this complex aromatic space […] blessed with enough […] to be both interesting and distinctive, and enough variety to display a wide range of aromatic personalities without crossing the line where terpene ‘load’ is off-putting” — viz Gewu¨rztraminer. Instead of repeating what others blithely state, Haeger questions if Riesling is, as so often touted, really more expressive of site than other varieties and cites the very latest research, which is fascinating but inconclusive; even the color of topsoil “changes the wavelength of reflected light in different ways, affecting enzymatic activity in the berries,” resulting in different flavor profiles. Haeger also reports that viticultural practices such as fertilization and irrigation have a significant impact on aroma composition, again skewing the notion of terroir and reinforcing yet again that the variables in winemaking are so numerous that establishing direct causal links between flavor expressions and their origin is always fraught.

Riesling’s culture and history

His chapter “A History of Riesling, Reviewed and Amended” is exemplary. It makes a fascinating read because it places Riesling within a proper socio-economic, cultural, political, and paleo-climatic context. He is emphatic that all strands of research must be taken into account: “Documents, which were the wine historian’s first recourse before varietal fingerprinting was developed, are now the second. But in truth the two must be exploited in tandem.” Thus he first makes the case for Riesling’s likely origin: [I]t is in northeastern France and astride the linguistic divide [between France and Germany] that both Gouais and Savagnin [the first identified as a parent of Riesling, the latter as having a sibling relationship] show the greatest genetic diversity and the most numerous surviving progeny, which makes that area the most likely candidate for Riesling’s birthplace.” He goes on to dissect and analyze Riesling’s generally accepted history. Rather than pouncing on early mentions of what may or may not have been Riesling, Haeger makes a thoughtful case, meticulously separating assumptions from fact, exposing in the process some theories that have long masqueraded as truth through reiteration and repeated citation. He does this precisely by placing the available historic documentation in its proper context. He emphasizes how modern our “varietal” thinking is and how unreliable varietal mentions were in a Europe of non-standardized spellings. His probing and questioning reveal a scholar’s curiosity and quest for real understanding. Haeger traces cultural shifts: In the High Middle Ages, he says, “wine was an interregional commercial product as well as a regional commodity business, and Northern European wines were sold well beyond local markets. Via Hanseatic merchants based in Frankfurt and Cologne, wine from the Rhine and its tributaries was sold as far afield as the Low Countries, England, and the Baltic states.” From the 16th century, when “the social, economic and viticultural histories of German-speaking and far western Europe substantially diverged,” via the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, to the 18th century, when “German towns remained small compared to French towns, reflecting the absence of central authority; German markets remained small, too, reflecting the demise of the Hanseatic merchants as interregional brokers.” However, “in the wake of the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars, German-speaking Europe became almost everything it had not been since the High Middle Ages”: An increasing population became ever more urbanized, agriculture was characterized by progress, and viticulture became an area of prestige, classification, and research, paving the way for Riesling’s heyday in the 19th century. Haeger then travels back in time through historic documents, concluding that “None of these early mentions [of Riesling] is useful to the wine historian desirous of understanding how and why individual grape varieties emerged from medieval anonymity, whether what was called Riesling in 1435 or 1464 or 1490 was plausibly the same as what went by the Riesling name in later centuries.” It is with admirable candor that he states: “Unfortunately […] both promissory notes and account books are notoriously terse and laconic genres, and neither was intended to document wine history.”

Dry to sweet and back

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The next history Haeger unravels with equal aplomb and thoroughness is that of dryness and sweetness. Again, he does so by establishing and working within a broad but firm historic context, proceeding always with academic caution: “[T]he preponderance of evidence suggests that conventionally fermented and relatively dry wines remained the Rhine’s main product throughout the late medieval and early modern periods and probably after World War I.” He describes how wine’s transition from local consumer good to tradeable commodity required stability. This was not achieved by fortification but by long élevage in barrel with numerous rackings, a tradition still evident in Germany in the 1920s, resulting in dry, dry-ish, and off-dry wines, but not in outright sweetness. Sweet wines from botrytized grapes, such as TBAs, coexisted and were made only in years when the conditions were conducive. The advent of much sweeter styles seems to have come about between the 1920s and 1940s; sterile bottling was developed in Bad Kreuznach (Nahe) in 1926, but Haeger cautions: “The sweetish wines of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s actually posed no greater risk of refermentation than the dryish, but usually not completely dry, wines of earlier decades. Both contained enough unfermented sugar to referment […] if […] viable yeast had remained in the finished wine, which it did not, owing to long élevage, multiple rackings and additions of sulfur. The idea that the impulse toward sweeter wines was caused by the availability of sterile bottling, or even established it as its beginning, is misguided technological determinism.” The cool climate of the late 19th and early 20th century and changing consumer tastes, especially after World War II, seem to have been more significant factors for the increased sweetness in Germany’s Rieslings. By the late 1970s, observes Haeger, “the relative dryness of German wines in the 19th and early 20th centuries was forgotten. Germany, Riesling, and sweet wine became synonymous, however imprecise the equation was in fact.” He goes on to chronicle the reversal of the trend, the so-called Trockenwelle (dry wave) of the late 1980s and early 1990s that, surprisingly, still eludes so many.

Haeger next tackles Riesling’s vinification and again, as thorough and refreshing as ever, refuses to accept received wisdom as fact on subjects such as pressing, clarification, yeasts, fermentation, malolactic conversion, and aging on lees. In his chapter on clones, which appeals particularly to the geek in me, Haeger has done some valuable detective work. Haeger then outlines Riesling’s “habitats” — first in Western Europe, then in northern America, in astonishing geographic, geological, climatic, and historical detail. Laudably, he does so with a completely open and ever-questioning academic mind-set. This concludes the first part of the book.

Trusted and valuable

The second part is dedicated to 89 Riesling sites in Europe and North America and the growers who cultivate Riesling there. Haeger says they are “not a list of the ‘best’ Riesling sites or even a list of personal favorites. Every one has, however, produced at least a few vintages of very good dry Riesling in the hands of at least one maker. […] Taken together, these sites constitute a good picture of the present state of the art.” His regret at not also covering Riesling sites in the southern hemisphere is sincerely expressed. What might appear to be glaring omissions — like the mythical Scharzhofberg — become fully understandable when one remembers Haeger’s professed “dry” angle.

What makes the book so encompassing, informative, and relevant is that Haeger has avoided focusing on viticulture or enology or economy in isolation, and has instead looked at all of them in their historic and contemporary scientific and socio-cultural context. To his enormous and eternal credit he does not restrict himself to Anglophone sources. There is no way this review can do justice to the detail in this work, even if I do not agree on all counts, or the huge amount of diligence, exploration, and scholarship that have gone into creating it. Haeger says, “When Riesling is made dry, the variety’s profile is especially precise, bright, tense, and lively. Riesling tastes of many things, depending on where it was grown, but no other wine in the world tastes like Riesling.” Not everyone loves Riesling, but those of us who do will find our passion articulately explained and expressed in Haeger’s book. Riesling Rediscovered will be my trusted and valuable companion on countless Riesling explorations.

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