Friday, June 5, 2009

Aging Riesling

The aging potential of Riesling is a discussion that seems to come up over and over on the Internet, even though German Riesling producers proved a long, long time ago that Riesling is not only a noble grape variety, the wine has as much staying power and elegance as many of the best red wine grapes.

Newbie wine critic/bloggers must be forgiven for not knowing the aging potential of Riesling; many of them simply haven’t been around the wine world long enough. But it is heartening to know that bloggers are asking the question. On one New York-centric blog (see link below) the question wasn’t only asked, it was explored over the past few weeks, with bloggers attending Finger Lakes wineries and other venues for a taste of older Rieslings that were cordially drawn from the winery libraries.

My good fortune found me along with a blogger visiting with Fred Frank at Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars (VWC) on Keuka Lake—just a grape’s throw from my home.

Fred lined up ten Rieslings representing a 24-year period. It was quite an experience.

We started with the unreleased 2008 Dry Riesling, as a benchmark new wine that could help us follow wines as they age. Because of its youth, the wine is still austere yet it is beautifully balanced between acidity and fruit, it’s clean and fresh, and its middle structure is held together with a mineral streak common to Keuka Rieslings.

We followed with the 2007 Dry Riesling. Let me stop here and say something both particular and general about Riesling.

Most avid Riesling consumers know of the wine’s capacity to take on a definite petroleum-like aroma as it ages. An Australian, Jonathon Luestner, is working and studying at VWC this year. He finds that Keuka Lake Rieslings don’t seem to take on as powerful a petroleum aroma as their Australian counterparts. When asked why he thinks that is so, Luestner shrugged and replied rhetorically. “Different phenolic structure?”

In any case, the VWC 2007 Dry Riesling gave a hint of petroleum in the aroma. But more pronounced was the smell of lemons. The taste was incredibly full and creamy and underneath it all lay that mineral-like streak connected to Keuka Rieslings. Still, the wine is young.

Things started to get interesting with the 2005 Dry Riesling. It was similar in many ways to the 2007 version, especially its lemony quality and creamy-mineral structure. But I detected no hint of petroleum in the aroma, perhaps giving strength to our Australian friend’s comment.

The bone dry 2001 Reserve Riesling showed a definite change in style, and that was attributed to it having been produced by a different winemaker than the ones producing the more recent VWC wines—in the past few years, the winery has shifted from a one-person winemaking responsibility to a consensus style that assigns one winemaker to oversee an assigned grouping of wines or styles and then a team discusses each wine before it is finished.

With a hint of petroleum aroma, the 2001 Riesling was lean with forward acidity, and a finish with a bite or grip. This wine still needs aging to calm down.

The 1991 Dry Riesling was without doubt the most interesting in the bunch. It wasn’t dominated by petroleum, but it was aromatic, in a butterscotch way. In fact, in the taste its lush, thick body came in layers of butterscotch, minerality, and fruitiness. The winemaker for the 2001 did not produce this wine.

The 1988 Dry Riesling was aromatically subdued, and its structure was more single dimensional, but at 21 years old, the wine was still very much alive. The 1987 Dry showed signs of fading in the slightly oxidized aroma, but its taste was lush and full, with a short finish. Unfortunately, the 1985 Dry was done in by a slightly shriveled cork that allowed leakage, which allowed oxygen to nearly kill the wine; these three vintages were produced by yet another winemaker.

The 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling is a lovely wine, with an herbal lemon balm aroma and a creamy, lush structure. The 1995 Semi-Dry, produced by the same winemaker who gave us the 1991 Dry, had an almost caramel aroma untypical of Riesling, but its creamy structure and trace of mineral in its spine was ever so enjoyable.

It was too bad about the leakage and oxidation of the 1985 Riesling. I’m old enough to remember that vintage—it was my first in the Finger Lakes—and I know it was a good year. Still, tasting these wines proves once more that Riesling can age well when the wine is made well, and that truth holds for the Finger Lakes region just as it holds for Germany.


If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2009. All rights reserved.


  1. Thomas,

    I felt compelled to comment on your Riesling aging post.

    I think it's time for wineries to voluntarily follow standard guide lines for defining dry and semi-dry Riesling. Most of the wines you described clearly fall in the semi-dry category and not dry with R.S. in the neighborhood of 1.5 %. Moreover, it would be helpful if winery owners communicate the actual R.S. of their wines and not only what wine writers, reviewers and competitions want to hear.

    As far as the petroleum character is concerned, it seems to be strongest is warmer vintages such as 91,95,01,05 and 07. This would also explain why a winemaker from warm wine regions would have seen higher levels. I would hesitate to associate this with phenolics as all other wine characteristics also change in warmer vintages.

    Finally, I would like to comment on the so-called winemaking-by-committee approach. It is a concept that has been tried and rejected by most all wine regions throughout the World. Given the nature of winemaking decisions, a vision, a stylistic orientation and a sense of balance is required to establish an identity for interesting wines. I'm talking about interepreting the potential of a given vineyard not of imposing a style in a New-World sense. Winemaking-by-committee only shows up when winery owners are unwilling to give credit to their winemakers and use created anonymity to portray themselves as winemakers.

  2. Morten,

    Just so you understand, other than the fact that I know Riesling has aging potential, in this blog entry I take no position on any of the subjects that you bring up.

    I do welcome your opinion, and of course I disagree with one or two of them. On the petrol, I understand that studies do point to phenolic structure. But I'm sure other studies dispute it.

    On the RS issue: I firmly believe that the wine industry generally takes the wrong approach to that matter. Rather than talk about the wine having this or that level of sugar, it seems much more focused to talk about how the palate reacts to each particular wine and how best to pair that wine with food.

    Most consumers (not the geeks) eyes glaze over when winemakers start talking about RS and ratios of acid to sugar. I have yet to see a label devised that clearly addresses the issue from the consumer's standpoint.

    I think using the word 'dry' as the opposite of 'sweet' should be made a criminal offense... ;)