An epic tasting experience of this versatile, expressive, and aromatic German white wine varietal.
From Cabernet Sauvignon to Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa and particularly the Western Cape has become the cultivator of an entire alphabet’s worth of wine grape varietals. One of the lesser-known colours within this rainbow spectrum is the German white wine varietal of Riesling. This ignorance, thanks to what is being called the “Riesling Revival”, the first of a series of Riesling tastings, is thankfully set to change. And the two women championing this movement are superlatively talented winemakers Catherine Marshall and Jessica Saurwein, both of whom craft boutique, namesake wine ranges.
Catherine Marshall is a veteran of the wine industry, producing reverentially lauded vintages of Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc, while Jessica Saurwein’s award-littered “Nom” Pinot Noir is so devastatingly delicious, you’d be forgiven for ignoring your date at the dinner table after cracking open a bottle. Both winemakers, however, have an unwavering passion for Riesling, and a conviction that this “Queen of Grapes” produces the most expressive, aromatic, and food-friendly white wines available in South Africa and indeed the world.
Knowing next to nothing about Riesling and eager to learn at the hands of the most knowledgeable people in the industry, I arrived at Lavinia Cellars in Stellenbosch, the home of Catherine Marshall Wines, Jessica Saurwein, and the Riesling Revival series of tastings.
Meet the grape: an introduction to Riesling
The day kicked off with an introduction to Riesling, a white grape varietal, which originated in the Rhine region of southwestern Germany. This aromatic grape cultivar, which thrives in cooler climates, displays a flowery, almost perfumed nose, as well as high acidity and is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines that are seldom oaked.
“If farmed and made well, Riesling is one of the greatest varieties of white wine in the world, in terms of flavour profile,” began Catherine Marshall. “It has excellent longevity for a white wine and it’s very expressive geographically with soil, site, and climate showing up incredibly well in the flavour and aromatic profiles of the wine, owing to its monoturpine and turpenoid characteristics.”
Riesling also generally has low alcohol content, is known for its bracingly fresh acidity, particularly in those from Germany, and can be made with all levels of sweetness. But perhaps Riesling’s greatest claim to fame is its potent aromatic properties, which are 10 to 15 times higher than that of any other white wine variety. In other words, Riesling has a powerful nose, the precise profile of which varies depending on terroir and origin.
Riesling roots: where in the world do we find the Queen of Grapes?
The Germans are the foremost producers of Riesling, not only in volume and variety, but also in quality; they have, after all, been doing it for centuries. A large acreage of land bordering the Rhine River and its tributaries in southwestern Germany is carpeted in Riesling vineyards, with the Rheingau, Mosel-Saar Ruwer, Rheinhessen, Württemberg, and a smattering of other virtually unpronounceable names being notable Riesling-producing regions.
Alsace in France (where your Alsatian pooch originates) is another famous Riesling producing region found on the Rhine River plain in northeastern France. Historically caught in an immense tug of war between Germany and France, Alsace has suffered from tremendous identity crises over the centuries. And while France eventually won the battle, the culture here (and the wine, obviously) remains a delightful blend of the two.
Further afield, producers in South Australia’s Clare and Eden Valley (neighbouring the famous Barossa Valley) have jumped on the Riesling bandwagon. The varietal is also grown in Austria, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Croatia, Luxembourg, Russia, Argentina, Chile, Ontario (Canada), New Zealand, California, Washington State, and finally – and most significantly to the group gathered at Lavinia Cellars on this utterly gorgeous spring day – the cool and verdant Elgin Valley in the Western Cape of South Africa.
The pudding and the proof to be found therein
With beguiling tales of history, geography, and chemistry under our belts, we moved on to our practicum in Riesling – a sweeping tasting experience that included Jessica Saurwein and Catherine Marshall’s creations, as well as some iconic examples from around the world. From the Eden and Clare Valleys in Australia to the Mosel in Germany and Alsace in France, we travelled the length and breadth of the world’s most iconic Riesling appellations. In total, we sampled a staggering 14-15 different Rieslings, a few too many to describe in any detail here. As such, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a wholly subjective highlights reel of our Riesling Revival experience.
Highlights reel: most memorable Rieslings tasted
Niepoort/Kettern Falkenberg Riesling 2016 – “From vineyards in the western Mosel village of Piesport, Germany, the 2016 Mosel Riesling Falkenberg has a very clear, fresh, and delicately slatey nose of white ripe fruits and cold stones. Lush and piquant, with a salty freshness and remarkable finesse, this is a lithe but tensioned dry Riesling bottled with 11% alcohol. The finish is long, pure, and salty, absolutely refreshing and highly delicate.” Thank you, Wine Cellar Fine Wine Merchants for the erudite tasting notes.
Personally, I found the Falkenberg to exhibit a sharp, almost confronting acidity – perceived as a lemony tartness – but what clinched it for me was the wine’s exceptional expressive nose of rose geranium, citrus, and gunflint.
Catherine Marshall Riesling 2019 – From the Kogelberg Biosphere in the Elgin Valley, Catherine Marshall’s 2019 Riesling exudes sweet yet persistent, bright, fresh limes, crisp apples, and white flower perfume. The brisk acidity is well balanced and supported by expressive fruit with spicy undertones.
To me, this off-dry Riesling was a childhood summer’s day bottled. Where I grew up in Hout Bay, there were lush Jasmine bushes growing right outside my bedroom window and that same fragrance simply exploded from the glass. In fact, so heavily perfumed was Catherine’s extraordinary Riesling that one could quite plausibly dab it behind the ears and on the wrists and go out for dinner smelling like a summer garden.
Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2014 – For almost 400 years (since 1626), the Trimbach family in Alsace, France has represented the exceptional terroirs and fine wines of the region. The Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2014 is the product of rigorously selected grapes from the Ribeauvillé region and is a bone-dry wine with a nose of white peach, acacia blossom, lemon zest, and gunmetal.
The lattermost descriptive might sound laughable but this is precisely why the Trimbach made my highlight reel. One sniff of this Riesling and I was transported to a sooty rail yard, the sharp, flinty, and metallic smell of railway tracks and trains in my nostrils. Tasted side-by-side with Catherine Marshall’s heady jasmine and honey-suckle scented 2019 Riesling, the comparison drove home that fundamental truth about Riesling: that it is the most aromatic of all the white wines and acutely expressive of terroir.
Saurwein “Chi” Riesling 2019 – Jessica Saurwein’s 2019 Riesling is made from grapes sourced from the same Elgin vineyard as Catherine Marshall’s Riesling and yet the two were remarkably different. The wine’s heavily perfumed floral nose of citrus, fynbos, rose geranium, apple blossom, and white stone fruit was followed by a zesty, fruity palate of citrus peel and lemon sherbet. Delicious and dangerously moreish!
There were many, many, many other Rieslings that we tasted this day that fully deserve a spot on this highlights reel but I do feel the point has been successfully made, and that is that Riesling is incredibly distinctive yet anything but uniform! (Also, your boss will probably start noticing that you haven’t typed anything in a while).
Riesling brought to life
I was hoping for an education and, boy, was I educated. Prior to our lovely tasting experience at Lavinia Cellars, I regarded Riesling as a light style white wine that was typically a little too sweet for my palate, which has somehow become slavishly devoted to tannin. Afterwards, I left with a profound appreciation for this German varietal and the alchemy that goes on in Jessica Saurwein’s and Catherine Marshall’s cellars when they transform their Elgin Valley grapes into this queen of white wines. My eyes have been opened and Riesling brought to life!
Catherine Marshall Wines: www.cmwines.co.za
Jessica Saurwein: www.saurwein.co.za
Address: Lavinia Cellars, Polkadraai Road, Stellenbosch
This article was originally written for Southern Vines, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa.