We were entering uncharted territory; who can remember a comprehensive tasting of South African riesling – ever? Our goal was nothing less than Rieslings from every local producer (eventually for the sake of keeping the event to two days, Noble Late Harvests were left for lunch only)
Can riesling be so under-appreciated when we tracked down 36 current producers some making more than one? A few others dabbled with the variety in the past.
Why Riesling? Daryl Balfour started the ball rolling when, sometime in spring 2020, he commented how Jessica Saurwein’s Chi Riesling excited him about South African rieslings’ development. When he’s not photographing wildlife, Daryl pursues his other passion, wine; no surprise his thoughts didn’t lie idle. As a fellow riesling enthusiast and based in the Cape rather than Nelspruit, my role was clearly practical.
Riesling has never received the respect it deserves here. Whenever it was introduced to these shores, and there’s as much debate over that as with many other varieties, by the 1940s Johann Graue was producing rieslings at Nederburg (see Phillida Brooke Simons’ Nederburg The First Two Hundred Years). Until 2010, riesling was obliged to take either Rhine or Weisser as a qualifier to differentiate it from Cape Riesling or, more correctly, Crouchen.
The 2000s began South Africa’s modern golden age; the youngsters, carrying no baggage of the past, were busy creating wines according to their own styles and standards. Serious producers of riesling wanted that rightful name returned. Paul Cluver and Gary Jordan of the eponymous wineries as well as Lowell Jooste, then owner of Klein Constantia, lobbied the authorities for change with support from other riesling fans. Their lobbying paid off: from 2010 vintage, riesling has been allowed; Cape riesling has had to take its proper name, crouchen.
This acknowledgement of riesling stimulated renewed interest in quality; quantity will always remain niche. Riesling currently covers 126 hectares, just .14% of our 92 000 ha under vine; a tiny area that is widely, if thinly, spread over the winelands from Outeniqua to Breedekloof. Its heartland lies in Elgin, a seemingly natural home for the 26.5 ha, as we discovered at #rieslingrising, the event that culminated in Daryl’s musing on Jessica’s Chi Riesling.
Thanks to Ken Forrester, 18 riesling enthusiasts assembled at 96 Winery Road on 21st and 22nd May (most attended both days) to taste and discuss riesling in South Africa.
For context but not comparison, four international rieslings introduced the event (the full list with flights from both days is included at the end); the Trimbach and J J Prum especially underlined ageability as an important quality factor. Tension and tautness, like the tightest wire on the piano, are part of ageability; think low pH, high acid and balanced residual sugar. ‘Don’t taste analysis’, I requested before the tasting; often a wine technically off-dry tastes drier thanks to that core tension.
Spioenkop’s Koen Roose told the audience among his requirements for quality riesling are a cold environment, allowing slow development in small bunches with more expression grown on vines where vigour is restrained. ‘Also important is harvesting around 18 to 21 Balling with a low pH, mine comes in around 2.9 pH’ added Jessica Saurwein. Ripeness and spontaneous fermentation were mentioned as important for true riesling character. ‘Pick ripe and do nothing,’ is Leon Coetzee of The Fledge & Co’s advice.
Where wines didn’t hit that tightrope tension, the acid appears looser, the wines less integrated, especially noticeable in lower acid wines.
The intention of #RieslingRising was an exploration not a judgemental event nor a competition. There were marked differences between what were considered excellent rieslings, those that should age with benefit (‘One should expect at least 15 years,’ is restaurateur, Harald Bresselschmidt’s view) and others of sound riesling character but of a more commercial style. Lime, spice and, in some, a little terpene are most often noted flavours.
If there was doubt about Harald’s 15 year ageability span, even in some of the highly-regarded examples, there was one wine that amazed all who tasted it with lunch. Ruiterbosch Mountain Cuvée Rhine Riesling 1992 came from vineyards planted above Mossel Bay by Danie and his son, Carel Nel of Boplaas. Sadly, weather and logistics resulted in them being pulled up after a few years, but this riesling was testament to both site and winemaking
Other than Elgin, only Stellenbosch and Darling mustered enough rieslings for a dedicated flight, two in Stellenbosch’s case. Long-time and well-regarded producers, Thelema, Jordan and Hartenberg (especially 2013) proved their consistency and the validity of their specific terroirs; due to demand for The Real McCoy, Jordan does incorporate a little fruit from both Elgin and Hemel en Aarde. Darling was more difficult to pin down; different fruit expressions and good drinking is probably the best summary.
Most regions outside of Elgin and Stellenbosch have just one producer; there can be little conclusion as to riesling’s future there. That said, there was appreciation for Herold from Outeniqua and La Vierge from Hemel en Aarde Ridge.
Quality is but one aspect of a riesling renaissance, marketing is vital. The good news is that, thanks to this event, the Riesling Association is being revived. Francois Haasbroek suggested riesling needs regional championing, as happens in Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia. Elgin should stand up here.
What riesling doesn’t need is the same approach as chenin blanc and some of the artificial prices asked. As Ken Forrester reminded us, for every seven bottles of sauvignon blanc, one bottle of chenin is sold. People don’t ask for riesling automatically in restaurants, Harald noted, but they do enjoy it when part of a tasting menu. One of riesling’s assets, whether dry or with some residual sugar, is its compatibility with many foods, as proved by Ken’s Riesling-inspired three-course menu after the tasting.
If enjoyment and discussion were criteria for success, then #rieslingrising succeeded. Let’s hope the momentum continues.
Day One Flight One – INTERNATIONAL
- Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2018 Australia TA 6.4 RS 0,9 g/l
- Framingham Classic Riesling 2018 Marlborough New Zealand TA 7.1 NO RS listed
- Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2017 Alsace France Dry
- Joh. Jos. Prüm Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlese 2015
Flight Two – ELGIN
- Minimalist ExperiMENTAL 2019 WO Elgin TA 7.58 RS 1.86 g/l
- Francois Haasbroek Riesling 2016 WO Elgin TA 7.6 RS 1.5 g/l
- Lothian Vineyards Riesling 2018 Limited Release WO Elgin
TA 7 RS 2.00 g/l
- Spioenkop Riesling 2011 WO Elgin TA 8 RS 4.9 g/l
Flight Three – STELLENBOSCH
- Van Wyk Family Vineyards Riesling NV WO Stellenbosch TA 6.3 RS 1.00 g/l
- Neethlingshof Estate Ode to Nature Riesling 2018 WO Stellenbosch
TA 5.2 RS 3.3 g/l
- Hartenberg Estate Riesling 2013 WO Stellenbosch TA 5.9 3.5 g/l
- Hartenberg Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.1 RS 6.2 g/l
Flight Four – ELGIN
- Catherine Marshall Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 6.4 g/l
- Saurwein Chi Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7 RS 7.8 g/l
- Vrede en Lust Early Mist Riesling 2017 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 9.4 g/l
- BLANKbottle Hinterhofkabuff 2012 WO Elgin TA 5.88 RS 13.97 g/l
Flight Five – COOLER REGIONS
- La Vierge Last Temptation Riesling 2016 WO Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge
TA 6.5 RS 2.5 g/l
- Klein Constantia Estate Rhine Riesling 2009 WO Constantia
TA 7 RS 4.1 g/l
- Klein Constantia Estate Riesling 2016 WO Constantia TA 6.1 RS 6.3 g/l
- Nitida Riesling 2020 WO Durbanville TA 7.3 RS 9.3 g/l
Day Two Flight One – ELGIN
- Oak Valley Stone & Steel Riesling 2019 WO Elgin TA 6.7 RS 4.1 g/l
- The Fledge & Co Riesling 2018 WO Elgin TA 6.8 RS 4.7 g/l
- Meinert The German Job Riesling 2016 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 4.9 g/l
- Sutherland Riesling 2019 WO Elgin TA 6.7 RS 5.2 g/l
Flight Two – DARLING
- Illimis 2017 Riesling WO Darling TA 6.6 RS 1.5 g/l
- Cape Collective Riesling 2018 WO Darling TA 6.8 RS 4.5 g/l
- Groote Post Riesling 2019 WO Darling TA 7.2 RS 9.7 g/l
- Fairview Darling Riesling 2020 WO Darling TA 5.5 RS 11.2 g/l
Flight Three – STELLENBOSCH
- Remhoogte Free To Be Weisser Riesling 2019 WO Stellenbosch
TA 5.5 RS 5.2 g/l
- Jordan The Real McCoy Riesling 2019 WO Western Cape TA 7 RS 7.7 g/l
- Thelema Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.9 RS 7.3 g/l
- Thelema Rhine Riesling 2009 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.6 RS 10.7 g/l
Flight Four – OTHER REGIONS
- Herold Weisser Riesling 2019 WO Outeniqua TA 7.9 RS 2.4 g/l
- De Wetshof Estate Riesling 2013 WO Robertson TA 7.3 RS 9 g/l
- De Wetshof Estate Rhine Riesling 2007 WO Robertson TA 5.7 RS 17.2 g/l
- Bergsig Estate Weisser Riesling 2020 WO Breedekloof TA 6.4 RS 7.3 g/l
Flight Five – SWEETER STYLES
- Paul Cluver Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7.4 RS 16.44 g/l
- Woolworths Paul Cluver Ferricrete Riesling 2018 WO Elgin
TA 7.9 RS 19.6 g/l
- Paul Cluver Riesling Close Encounter 2016 WO Elgin TA 9.3 RS 37.9 g/l
- Hartenberg Occasional Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 7.64 RS 20 g/l