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Derbyshire Life "Racy Rieslings"

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Rosie Bainbridge Charts the resurgence of this German classic

As I write we're in the grip of winter, but February is the shortest month. It also has some important dates to celebrate: ShroveTuesday or Pancake Day, Ash Wednesday, Kissing Friday, Chinese New Year (the year of the Tiger) and that day for lovers, St Valentine's Day. On the wine scene Riesling is rapidly emerging as one of the world's new sweethearts.

Riesling is considered by many to be one of the world's best white wine grapes, if not the best. No other wine reflects 'terroir' or place of origin as well, and nowhere more so than in Germany, where ancient granite, slate and sandstone rocks produce wines of great intensity, purity of fruit and minerality, often referred to as 'racy'. Last November I had the chance to renew my love affair with Riesling at a gala dinner and wine tasting in the magnificent manor house of leading Rheingau estate, Balthasar Ress, in Hattenheim, Germany. Hattenheim is a delightful, picturesque, medieval wine village, with narrow streets and half-timbered houses on the bank of the Rhine.We were celebrating 'Glorious Rheingau Days' an annual festival that highlights the wines of the region, this year hosted by the head of the family wine estate, Herr Stephan Ress. It was an opportunity to taste some of Germany's super premium wines of vintages spanning over thirty years, which included a number of fine estate wines, a selection from Wolf Salwey's winery in Kaiserstuhl and one of my favourites served with dessert - a Balthasar Ress 1976 Hattenheim Nussbrunnen Riesling Auslese.

As German vineyards are some of the most northerly in the world (Norway has the record), white wine accounts for about two-thirds of production, and Riesling is Germany's most planted variety, from which all of their best wines are made. A hundred years ago it was on a par in price and popularity with the best Bordeaux and Burgundies, and now, after decades in the doldrums, things are beginning to change again with exports rising in volume and value. One of the reasons for this renewed love affair with Riesling may be its ability to match new challenging food. It is popular with both chefs and sommeliers, as its refreshing acidity cuts through the richness of meats and sauces, and its fruit sweetness and lower alcohol pairs well with mild spicy dishes. The more popular trocken (drier) styles match appetizers, fish, and German/Alsace inspired dishes.

However, sweetness is the key to German quality levels (prädikat), which are, in ascending order: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). Another classification is that of certain superior vineyard sites named Erstes Gewächs or first growth, these are similar to French premier cru.

The off-dry Kabinett and Spätlese are best enjoyed young, from one to two years old, when they are refreshingly fruity and aromatic with hints of apples, grapefruit, peach and honey. However, BA and TBA levels, with finely balanced acidity and rich sweetness, allows for graceful ageing and mellowing over decades, when the youthful, light, lemon-green colours have turned to golden-amber, flavours have become more complex, and there's that tell-tale 'petrolly' aroma (sounds off-putting but tastes delicious) much sought after by Riesling fans.

Although Germany has set the benchmark, don't let that deter you from also trying those produced in other countries such as Alsace, Austria, and Australia. These range in style from light and dry to lusciously sweet. If you're looking for an exciting, versatile, racy wine then Riesling's your match!   

RECOMMENDATIONS: from John Hattersley in Bakewell, 'The Pirie, Tasmanian Riesling has all the New World intensity with all of the Germanic complexity. It's full bodied and aromatic with great depth.' Smiths in Ashbourne, French Wine People in Matlock and Majestic Wines, Derby, also have a great selection.

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