If you doubted that Riesling is the best white wine on Earth, Stuart Pigott has written a book making his feelings emphatically known. Like a great Riesling, it is a title of precision and clarity: Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story. After reading Pigott's book (sent to me by the publisher), which spans the story of Riesling from numerous regions, countries, and continents, I sent some questions his way. From the puzzling world of wine labels and sweetness (perceived or not), Stuart sheds light on Riesling in all its forms and origins.
“Best White Wine on Earth” is how you describe Riesling. For the skeptics or uninitiated, what’s the most compelling reason for Riesling being our planet’s top white wine? Has anyone begged to differ and tried to make the case for another grape?
The enormous diversity of good and great wines produced from the Riesling grape - from bone-dry to honey sweet and from feather-light to ton-heavy, every shade between these extremes and every conceivable combination of these factors - compared with this Chardonnay (medium to full-bodied, with or without oak) and most other white grapes look one-sided. However great some Chardonnays are, as a whole the wines of this grape are grossly over-rated. Only Chenin Blanc comes close to approaching Riesling's diversity of greatness.
When it comes to Austrian Riesling, you single out Vienna critics wanting “lavish scale and power”, wines with plenty of body but lacking in balance. Will the impact of global warming mean this style will become the rule rather the exception? How do you counter this trend?
There are many things which a winegrower can do in the vineyard to put the brakes on sugar-formation (for example, plucking leaves at the top of the canopy late in the ripening season), but the most important method is to pick less over-ripe grapes. That's a lesson some Austrian winegrowers need to learn. I think they's forgotten about the fresh and lively side of Riesling in their pursuit of ever greater ripeness. Is a course correction under way? We'll have to wait and see how 2014 turns out to see.
Riesling from Alsace can be frustrating because it’s hard to tell if you’re going to get something light, rich, dry, with some sweetness, or a combination of traits. Especially if the bottle doesn’t have the IRF taste profile on the back label. How can you tell what your wine will be like without having to pull the cork?
Actually Alsace Rieslings have moved back in the dry direction in recent years, particularly at the top producers (some of whom look back on the previous decade as time they made some mistakes). However, with all Rieslings it's pretty simple. If it says 13% or more alcohol on the label it is going to be more or less dry, even in Alsace.
How has generational change at German wineries had an impact on Riesling?
It's effect has been many-sided, changing things as diverse as the way young German winegrowers see their profession as a creative one with enormous possibilities, to the way younger consumers view Rieslings without the prejudice that it is a sweet and cheap wine. That's very much what's driving Rieslings return to mainstream acceptance.
People still equate German Riesling with sweetness. What would you like to tell them about the prevalence and enjoyment of dry German Riesling?
Here in the US, as in many other markets, awareness of dry German Rieslings is low, because most of the imported wines are not dry. That is slowly changing and I would suggest to anyone who enjoys dry white wine to try a few dry and medium-dry Rieslings (due to the high acidity 2% RS can taste quite dry in Riesling). many of those I meet who do this are very surprised by how much they enjoy the wines.
Labeling changes and additions in the last couple years have made German Riesling more confusing, not less. What are some tips for navigating the minefield that is the wine label?
This is a somm myth. Somms want to understand all the wine laws back to front, and often mistake this knowledge for understanding the wines themselves. If you look at the labels of German Riesling on the shelves in the US, then the great majority of them have not become more complex. The rules for the GG (Grosses Gewächs) top dry wines did change, but this is a small segment of the market, and let's face it "GG" is as easy to remember as the "RR" of Rolls Royce.
I’ve lived in Washington State for the last ten years. Can you give me a State of the Riesling Address? What does the future hold?
There now is United States of Riesling, which there wasn't at the turn of the century. By this I mean the sales of domestic Rieslings grew very considerably as did the production and the proportion of the wines that are good to great. America is now the 2nd largest Riesling producer following Germany, having overtaken Australia and France (now 3rd and 4th respectively). Without all that I couldn't have written BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH - The Riesling Story!