The great riesling

by Michael Cooper / 12 January, 2012
If you never drink riesling, you’re missing out on one of the greatest white wines of all.
If you are visiting New York during the northern summer, drop in at one of Paul Grieco’s Terroir wine bars in downtown Manhattan. If you are thirsting for a glass of white wine, however, don’t bother asking for sauvignon blanc, pinot gris or chardonnay. As the New York Times put it: “In their stead, you can order riesling, riesling, or, if those didn’t appeal, riesling.”

The “Summer of Riesling” promotion, arriving here this month, was launched by Grieco in 2008, when his customers suddenly found the only white wines available by the glass were riesling. Summer of Riesling has since grown into a nationwide affair in the US, involving over 150 top restaurants in 20 states in a celebration that lasts three months, complete with special T-shirts, buttons, window stickers and riesling arm tattoos (temporary, water-based marks).

Grieco – whose name rhymes with echo – is a Canadian whose grandfather and father ran a landmark Toronto restaurant, La Scala. After a trip to Italy stirred Grieco’s interest in wine, he worked at La Scala, then shifted to New York, working as a waiter, sommelier and restaurant manager. He stood out, recalls a former employer, for his “fierce work ethic and vivid attire”.

Grieco, 45, is infatuated with riesling. Truly great wines, he believes, express terroir. “What do I mean by terroir? It’s a sense of place. It’s what you grow and where you grow it and even the history of the land. Riesling produces the greatest wines on the planet. Riesling is totally transparent; it gives absolute voice to the place it’s grown.”

With his exclusive focus on riesling, Grieco admits he is departing from the traditional relationship between a ­restaurateur and his customers. “I’m taking a somewhat inhospitable view. Let’s be honest, I’m forcing it down your throat.”

Now he’s coming here, not to bully you into drinking riesling, but to encourage you to try it. New Zealand’s first Summer of Riesling involves numerous wineries, restaurants, wine bars and retailers, and Grieco himself is arriving on January 21.

The driving forces behind the local initiative are Angela Clifford, a Waipara-based wine marketer (“Riesling Girl”), and Duncan Forsyth, co-owner of Mount Edward Winery in Central Otago (“Riesling Guy”). “We love this variety and we’re constantly frustrated by the lack of understanding about what makes it so special,” says Clifford. “Winemakers love it; the trade loves it; we just want more consumers to choose riesling.”

Riesling barely registers on the wine sales charts in supermarkets here, accounting for about 1% of the dollar turnover. Overseas criticism of New Zealand rieslings doesn’t help the cause. Decanter declared last July, after tasting 134 wines from both countries, that Australian riesling is “head and shoulders above New Zealand”.

The UK judges complained that New Zealand rieslings were “too inconsistent … disjointed and often too sweet”. Yet Lawson’s Dry Hills Marlborough Riesling 2008 won the trophies for Best Aromatic Wine and Best White Table Wine at the 2011 Sydney International Wine Competition.

Some leading wine retailers are sceptical that Summer of Riesling will boost the variety’s popularity. “Good luck to them,” one shrugged. “I’ve currently got about 80 rieslings on my shelves,” declared another. “In terms of sales, I should have 15.”

Waipara (especially) and Central Otago both harvested bumper grape crops in 2011, so the regions’ growers need to work harder to promote their favourite white wine. But if you never drink riesling, you are missing out on one of the greatest white wines of all. Riesling has a magical ability to produce intense, age-worthy wines from bone-dry to honey-sweet.

At last year’s Royal Easter Show Wine Awards, a new “heritage” class celebrated wines that flourish with age. Entrants were invited to submit three vintages of an individual wine. The winner, based on its 2010, 2007 and 2004 vintages, was Hunter’s Marlborough Riesling.
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