The most noble grape – on display and in competition

It was a weekend of riesling (both local and foreign) in Cape Town – which can’t be bad. Saturday was the Riesling Festival held at and around the Roundhouse Restaurant just over Kloof Nek on the Camps Bay side – so there were great views for those who lifted their noses from their glasses. Half a dozen of the very finest of German’s and Austria’s wine producers(and Portugal made a handsome statement too, in fact)  were there, together with a few importers showing their wares. And some of the best locals, too, bravely asserting their ambitions alongside.

It was a great achievement, this festival – the brainchild of Joerg Pfuetzner, who is doing so much for riesling in this country, and, directly through the superb range of wines he imports through his Riesling Club, for riesling lovers. The better-off ones, at least – while great riesling remains remarkably underpriced compared with the equivalent chardonnays, it is not cheap.

But worth it. There might be argument over whether riesling is the finest of the white grapes, but there is little doubt that it is the most versatile of the noble varieties (perhaps only chenin blanc can compete): it can make superb wines from light, scarcely ripe, bone-dry versions all the way up to the most luscious of sweet wines. And through all the generosity of aroma and flavour, it reveals soil and climate and vintage: when the winemaking is as simple, straighforward and unobtrusive as it should be, there is a transparency to riesling which is half its glory.

Of more relevance than the foreign tastings, perhaps, to most local winelovers, was the competition organised by the local producer group, the Just Riesling Association. It’s been quite a while, I think, since Wine mag abandoned riesling as a category that it considered worth judging – not enough commercial appeal, I suppose – so this was a rare coming together of many of the Cape’s rieslings. The six foreign winemakers were joined by six local judges at Cellars Hohenort Hotel, for a 9.30a.m. Sunday start (early to start tippling, yes, but we had a seminar and tasting given by the visitors to follow – it proved, incidentally, to be a fascinating and richly rewarding affair).

Sadly, there are not many local producers of riesling any more (about twenty), and I’d guess not all of them entered, so we had only 26 wines to judge, in three groups: dry (under 10 grams per litre of residual sugar), off-dry, and sweet (mostly luscious Noble Late Harvests). Most were from recent vintages (2005-2008), but there were a few older ones in the sweet class – including a pretty impressive 1991. Frankly, they were a pretty mixed bunch, I found, with one or two good wines in each category, and a few undeniably poor ones: 2007 rieslings, even from a warmish climate, should surely not already have a marked “petrol” character.

I thought the best showing was from the sweet wines – but I remember a visiting German winemaker telling me some years back, when I’d offered to gather some local examples of riesling for him, that he was only interested in trying the drier styles: if someone can make a good dry wine, he said, he’ll take it on trust that they’ll be able to make a good sweet wine. The opposite, clearly, was not the case – and in fact it’s true that delicious sweetness can hide plenty of fundamental problems. Nonetheless, I thought the sweet wines on our line up were the best, with a good balance of richness, flavour and fresh acidity. The 1991 (it turned out to be from De Wetshof) was still in very good shape, with no strong petrolly notes, which was impressive; it was the second ranking of the sweet wines.

I asked some of the foreign winemaker-judges for their impressions afterwards. Extraordinarily perhaps (or perhaps not) they didn’t agree with each other at all. Ernest Loosen (one of the great Mosel winemakers, from the house of Dr Loosen) seemed fairly impressed overall, and thought many of the wines “pretty attractive”, especially the sweeter ones. He generally missed that elusive, hard-to-explain “mineral” quality, though, and thought that the drier styles were lacking in a sense of direction, and needed more work. He did like some of the “greenish”, more sauvignon blanc-related examples, however.

Egon Müller, famous for his Scharzhofberg wines from the northerly Saar River region (though he also showed an Australian wine and a Slovakian wine at the Saturday festival), most liked the middling-sweet group. The sweet wines, he said, mostly lacked balance, showing a sweet-sour character he didn’t care for. But he appreciated the diversity of the wines overall, compared with the uniform style that the Australian show system tends to impose on the wines there. He was worried about the clumsy acidification of some of the wines.

Dirk Niepoort, from the famous Port house in Portugal’s Douro Valley, is not a first-time visitor to the Cape – he’s making a few wines in Eben Sadie’s cellar, including a port-style wine – and doesn’t mince his words. He didn’t like the majority of the wines: riesling in the Cape lacks true riesling character, he finds; there is none of the “singing expression” of the grape, and most of the wines lack the fine delicacy of riesling at its best. But he too tended to prefer the drier end of what was on show.

They haven’t announced an overall winner, but the Paul Cluver Estate triumphed in both the drier and sweeter categories, with their 2008 Weisser Riesling and 2008 Weisser Riesling Noble Late Harvest respectively. In the middle category the winner was Jordan’s 2006.

The Cluver double-triumph was maybe easy to anticipate, given a halfway-decent judging job. Andries Burger has shown himself to be the most sensitive crafter of riesling in the country, and this Elgin property regularly turns out immensely palatable, elegant dryish rieslings which develop well for a good few years, as well as one of the best Noble Late Harvest wines in the country, of any variety (riesling gives Andries a head start, of course!), which have been widely acclaimed internationally.

Fortunately we have a few passionate riesling-lovers among our winemakers and estate owners, who will continue attempting to meet the challenge of raising the standard of local rieslings. Probably we need more experiments with new clonal material, and to concentrate our efforts in the cooler areas to achieve that singing zing of riesling freshness allied with those incomparable, subtly haunting aromatics.

Email links: The Just Riesling Association
Joerg Pfuetzner at The Riesling Club

Later addition:

And the overall winner is…

Paul Cluver Weisser Riesling Noble Late Harvest 2008

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