I recently tweeted a complaint that out of 69 white wines in my local supermarket there were 17 sauvignon blancs yet not one riesling. It struck a chord on Twitter, with many in the wine industry – winemakers, journalists and restaurateurs – joining in to say that its rarity on retail shelves simply reflects “consumer demand”. So are supermarkets missing a trick?
Sauvignon blanc, particularly that from New Zealand, took the UK market by storm in the early 2000s, backed by massive marketing budgets (Villa Maria and Cloudy Bay are among the world’s largest wine brands), and it’s simple to see its appeal. Refreshing and easy on the palate, sauvignon blanc is grown in huge quantities so is readily available at everyday-drinking prices and, perhaps most importantly, its overall consistency makes it a reliable choice on overwhelmingly long supermarket shelves.
Riesling is rather different. The grape originates from the Rhine region of Germany and decades ago came to us in the form of industrially produced, sickly-sweet wines (think Blue Nun and Black Tower), giving it an unfortunate reputation it’s found hard to shake off.
Now also grown in other cool-climate regions, riesling shares many of sauvignon blanc’s charms – fresh, zesty, aromatic, affordable. But, unlike sauvignon blanc, riesling is made in a variety of styles, from mouth-puckeringly dry to sugary sweet, and it seems that this is where its problem lies. There is often nothing on the label to indicate levels of sweetness so it can come as a bit of a shock once tasted.
Riesling lovers go weak at the knees for the steely freshness and bracing citrus kick of the dry styles, but we also embrace those wines that are more plush and luscious, with peachy ripeness and perhaps a whisper of spice, whose background honeyed sweetness is kept in check with riesling’s characteristically tart tingle on the tongue. These off-dry wines may at first taste too sweet, but they absolutely flourish when matched with chilli heat and fragrant Asian spices in a way that sauvignon blanc certainly doesn’t.
As Bob Campbell, one of New Zealand’s top wine experts, says: “Riesling is the thinking wine drinker’s sauvignon blanc.” Supermarkets will continue to push sauvignon blanc because that’s what we keep buying. So I urge you more adventurous drinkers out there to discover the joys of riesling.
The best riesling wines to try…
Exquisite Collection Clare Valley Riesling 2017, Australia (£6.99, Aldi)
A total bargain and a great introduction to dry riesling. Awash with green apples, lime and grapefruit freshness, it’s lovely to drink alone or try with our preserved lemon, spinach and cherry tomato pilaf.
Mineralstein Riesling 2017, Germany (£9, M&S)
Just off-dry, with a whiff of German ginger biscuits along with tangerine zest and wet stone minerality. Great with our umeboshi tempeh and pineapple kebabs.
Chateau Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling, USA (£12.50, greatwesternwine.co.uk)
Pretty peachy aromatics balanced with a steely leanness and lip-smackingly zippy finish which would be fab with our sweet and sour chicken and pineapple salad.
Mount Edward Morrison Vineyard Riesling 2015, New Zealand (£20.99, dbmwines.co.uk)
Made by Duncan Forsyth, a man so in love with riesling he has the word tattooed on his arm, this is sensational. Full of verve and vibrancy with pleasing notes of toast alongside its pithy citrus backbone. A bullseye match for Thai food and a winner with our king prawns with tamarind and coconut.