The nineteenth German Riesling I tasted on Saturday – for the record, a 2011 Geltz-Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Spätlese – was, like too many of its antecedents, unremarkable: a vaguely tropical fruit nose with perhaps a little ginger ale aroma, then slightly sweet on the tongue, with little definition of taste. Whatever. But the twentieth glass I sampled, the 2003 vintage of the same wine, was one to quit on. The nose was vivid, orange peel, apricot and petrol (think not of a gas station, but perhaps of the peel of some novel citrus that’s just been squeezed into your cocktail), and the wine had peaks and valleys of acidity, spice and sweetness in the mouth. If the 2011 delivers that kind of experience in eight years, then those who pluck down their $50 for a bottle now will have received good value.
The two pours came at the end of the last of the tastings at the four Manhattan wine stores that participated in Rieslingfeier, an event devoted to the grape beloved by both the hipster wine crowd and the traditionalists. The latter love riesling aging potential, its distinctive aromas and its subtlety, the former the seemingly infinite expressions of the grape that a small plot of land can offer.
A wine like the 2003 Geltz-Zilliken offers ample reason for riesling love. There’s something magical about tasting a vintage that’s starting to come into its own against one too young to show much. It’s like witnessing alchemy, or watching a great golfer hit an iron shot to the back of the 16th green at Augusta National and then seeing the ball snake back thirty yards to within a putter’s length of the pin. You realize that the winemaker or golfer thinks in completely different terms than you do and is capable of effecting a thought whose possibility you hadn’t even contemplated.
For all that, the veterans on the Manhattan riesling trail whispered that many of the wines weren’t good values, a critique that extended beyond the rieslings being poured. Some of the entry-level wines meant to be drunk young were indeed head-scratchingly high in price at $25 or more. Perhaps the real value is at the higher end, where prices are quite reasonable compared to white burgundy or ambitious California chardonnays.The lower-end product may also have been hurt by Germans’ preference in the last generation for wines with less residual sugar, which was apparent on Saturday. By the end of the tasting, I felt the acidity of the wines more than I would have liked. A comparison from another tasting showed how much a little sugar can add to a riesling. On Friday, an importer poured the 2011 wines of Hofgut Falkenstein at Chambers Street Wines. One, a trocken, had an intense acidity with little sugar to balance it; the other, a halbtrocken (long story short, more residual sugar than the trocken, or dry), had a much more interesting nose and was livelier on the tongue. I don’t think most Americans would characterize it as sweet. The trocken was not a particularly good value when compared to a a Muscadet from the Loire or an Albarino from Galicia. But the Feinherb – a synonym for halbtrocken meant to avoid that word’s now pernicious implication of sweetness – was distinct from a chenin blanc or a muscat. It demanded some thought and offered some pleasure. A little sugar can go a long way.