The last riesling

It’s a sad story, as the title suggests. There are many such sad stories about riesling. It was hounded to include the qualifier ‘Rhine’ or ‘Weisser’ to differentiate it from ‘Cape Riesling’, an imposter if ever there was one. Eventually, riesling producers and fans won the day, when real riesling was permitted to be labelled without any unnecessary qualifiers. Although no Cape Riesling (or synonym, crouchen) is listed in the Platter index*, Theuniskraal in Tulbagh still produces probably the only extant varietal, commercial example. (*correction; there are three Cape Rieslings listed in the Index: Osbloed & Hildenbrand as well as Theuniskraal).

Sad stories for riesling used to be good news for fans of the variety; the wines didn’t sell or at least not with any speed, meaning the currently available vintage could often be four or five years old; that little edge of maturity is what aficionados seek and riesling can deliver, thanks to its naturally high acid. A whiff or two of botrytis brings even more interest but back in the day, few went bone dry; a little residual sugar – 10-12 grams/litre – encouraged complexity and a better alcohol balance.

Buitenverwachting vineyards and Manor House

But when you love Mosel riesling, with its irresistible delicacy and low alcohol, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to attempt a similar style locally. Hermann Kirschbaum, long-time winemaker but now Estate Manager at beautiful Buitenverwachting in Constantia, was one Mosel fan who took on the challenge. Most of the farm’s Rhine Rieslings clocked in around 10% alcohol with thrilling acid tension and varying residual sugar levels, depending on the vintage, but drier rather than sweeter. Sadly, they were not appreciated by the wider wine-buying public. For them, Buitenverwachting is the source of some of South Africa’s best sauvignon blanc, a reputation secured since the first vintage.

Eventually, the decision had to be made of what to do with the riesling vineyard, which was on some of the farm’s best soils.

Hermann’s handwritten label. Love bottle colour.
Beautiful Mosel-style bottle

Lars Maack, co-owner of Buitenverwachting, explains the decision to uproot the vineyard. ‘The vines were actually getting better and better with advancing age, but unfortunately the demand and price we could achieve was not on the same level as with our sauvignon blanc. I also wanted to focus Buitenverwachting on a smaller range of wines and with the riesling sitting on one of our best soils, it was inevitable to replant the block with sauvignon blanc.’

Maack hastens to add they remain passionate about riesling; ‘but we are better off purchasing great rieslings from around d the world instead of producing it ourselves.’
The last riesling vintage was 2009; I had the pleasure of reviewing it, along with the rest of the Buitenverwachting range, in Platter 2011.

‘Rhine Riesling **** 09 ‘last vtge, sob!’ cries Hermann K, uneconomical vineyard uprooted. Departs on high note; zest, elegant lime, green apple nuances lifted by 3.9 g/l sugar ..’
Hermann has one of those faces which can look extremely sad when the occasion demands, so you can imagine this last riesling drew an extremely sorrowful look.

He might’ve been less sorrowful at how it performed ten years on. As pale and brilliant in colour as it is delicate and exhilarating. Will-o-the-wisp spiced lemon and lime flavours – now you see them, now you don’t – brushed by refreshing acid, race to a, literally, breathtaking finish.

 

Would I have guessed it’s ten year old? No; there was very little sense of development, despite the disappearance of those green apples. A great wine? No, but a delightful reminder of what is possible with riesling in the Cape.

Despite his sorrow at the loss of his beloved riesling, Hermann should be pleased others have taken up the challenge of drier, lower alcohol rieslings, with a positive response from a growing number of appreciative winelovers.

6 thoughts on “The last riesling

  1. Sad indeed. KC uprooted their Riesling some time ago to plant more Sauv Blanc – shouldn’t really mention SB in polite society. Understandable commercial decision but great loss to Cape’s wine’s panoply.

    1. Yes Remington, and Groot Constantia before them. I think it’s more a business decision than anything else. If it was about passion, one would think that all three these producers could at least have left a small patch of Riesling vines. Then sell smaller volumes at a higher price. There are enough Riesling fans to enable them to sell small volumes, especially if we’re talking proper Constantia Riesling from comparatively old vines. I drank a bottle of 2009 Villiera, Woolies version – apologies to Tim James, if he happens to read this 🙂 – last weekend and a 2009 Hartenberg during this week. They might not be from the Mosel or even Constantia or Elgin, but they were really cheap back in the day and they provided much pleasure a decade later, especially considering the price.

      1. Yes, a business decision, as Lars admits. Your suggestion of smaller volumes at higher price was the route Klein Constantia took, with success; it’s ironic, but I think the low price most others sold for was a turn off for consumers! Was your Villiera dry or have some rs? I’ve got a Villiera 2001 and 2002 Dry Riesling, which I should try soon. Hartenberg have certainly been pushing their riesling to new levels in recent years with successful results. It seems, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

      2. Hi, Angela. I’m fairly sure that the Villiera was just off-dry. Yes, I don’t think the will is very strong there in Constantia regarding this grape… I think Riesling takes a bit more effort i.t.o. disease control, etc. Substituting it with more Sauvignon to add to the existing lakes of Sauvignon probably makes life easier for the winemaker. Incidentally, I love what some newer producers, like Spioenkop, are doing with dry Riesling, but I’m not convinced at all that everyone should go that way. Groot Constantia’s Rieslings mostly veered on the sweet side of off-dry, often with botrytis, and they aged magnificently for between one and two decades +.

  2. . “Although no Cape Riesling (or synonym, crouchen) is listed in the Platter index,”

    I’ve just got my 2019 Platter and in the back section “This Years Ratings Summarised” on page 599 under the heading Cape Riesling are listed Osbloed, Hildenbrand and Theuniskraal.

    At lunch at a harbourside restaurant in Simonstown I noticed a German couple on the next tabel drinking Theuniskraal Cape Riesling. I asked them how it compared with German Riesling and they said they liked it….

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