“Do you like Kipling?” the bookish man asks the pretty young woman in a caption on the world’s bestselling postcard ever. Response: “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled!” Could there be mileage in this sort of “-ing” wordplay, I wonder, for riesling? This most magical of white grape varieties could do with a bit of help, beloved as it is by cognoscenti around the world but oddly ignored by most others.
More than six million copies of Donald McGill’s saucy postcard were sold in pre-email days. It is a number surely vastly greater than the number of bottles of riesling downed in South Africa’s wine-drinking history — and the hectarage has shrunk in this century, despite some rather delicious, elegant wines being made, ranging from dry to intensely sweet.
I am talking of proper riesling — the kind that, until 2010, locally had to call itself weisser or Rhine riesling, although the authorities allowed an inferior interloper – cruchen blanc – to appropriate the unprefixed name. Do not ask why — the answer, of course, involves money and power – just join the producers of the serious stuff in being glad that things have changed. Now any wine simply called “riesling” must be made of the proper grapes – “the Real McCoy”, as Jordan has taken to subtitling its own version.
Jordan was one of the producers at a pleasant little festival called “Riesling rocks!” at Hartenberg Estate in Stellenbosch recently. Its 2011 was one of the most pleasing wines there. It is effectively dry – softened by a poised and near-imperceptible sweetness, with flavours of dried fruit and a refreshing crispness, and more succulently subtle than most sauvignon blancs and the flavours more interesting. At R79 a bottle, it is a good buy if you operate at that spending level. And if you can bear to keep it, it should improve each year for at least the next half-decade. Riesling rockers were granted sips from 2004 and 2005 and both were lovely.
Most of the wines the 300 to 400 visitors sipped under the Hartenberg oaks were at least R10 cheaper than the Jordan — and some just as delicious. My other favourites on the day – I would be delighted to have a caseful of any of them — came from a surprisingly wide range of origins. A fragrant, slightly smoky-toasty and happily fresh De Wetshof came from a small vineyard in the Robertson Hills, for example, the classic Paul Cluver from cooler Elgin, a charming, just-dry Thelema from Stellenbosch, as well as a more linear but not severe Klein Constantia.
Something of a new riesling star is young Howard Booysen, who has no vineyards of his own but clearly some good contacts for sourcing his two versions of the great grape. Pegasus 2011, from Stellenbosch fruit, is great value at about R56. It is fruitily dry, fresh and quite steely, but an unproblematical pleasure to drink and will go well with a wide range of food. The Howard Booysen Riesling 2010 – pricey, but more aspirational than outrageous at R135 – is definitely off-dry and great for sipping or with spicy food. It is not as delicate as its Germanic models, but impressive in its perfumed, flavourful intensity — citrus and peach among the early complexity — and probably even more compelling in a few years’ time.
The real point is this, naughty people – if you have never riesled, it is time to start.