Ask any Sommelier or winemaker in Nova Scotia what their favourite white wine is, and it's a good bet they'll say riesling. Some might say it's their favourite wine, period.
There's something special about Germany's most noble grape that elicits this response. Riesling has beautiful lime, lemon, apple and/or peach notes, plus pretty white flowers and sometimes honey...all things that make it a perfect wine for spring.
It is a so-called aromatic variety, along with gewurztraminer, muscat and viognier. These grapes have more naturally occurring aromatic compounds than less complex cousins such as chardonnay. This is why they are generally unoaked or lightly oaked, and the use of malolactic fermentation, which gives soft creamy notes to wine, is mostly avoided. This wine is fine without the winemaker screwing with it.
What really sets it apart from other aromatic grapes, though, are its acidity and minerality. A good riesling, whether from its ancestral home in Germany or anywhere else around the globe, has an appealing wet stone minerality on the nose. With age, many top rieslings develop a more complex mineral nose described as diesel, petroleum or paraffin. New drinkers are sometimes caught off-guard by this, thinking it's a defect, but experienced riesling aficionados practically require it.
To many novice wine drinkers, riesling is a sappy sweet German white preferred by old ladies. This is due to the large volume of bad quality wine, including Liebfraumilch, that flowed out of Germany after the war. Remember your folks drinking Blue Nun or Black Tower? While these wines are better today, they were originally sweet schlock for the masses, lacking riesling's signature acid.
Germans drink mainly dry wine, but their wineries rely on exporting sweet stuff to North America. We haven't matured as a riesling market, but we're starting to clue in.
One exciting aspect of this new maturity is the availability of great Nova Scotia riesling, even if it is in small quantities. Gina Haverstock, winemaker at Gaspereau Vineyards, built a reputation for riesling, with medals in 2007 and 2006 vintages at national Canadian competitions. Her highly anticipated 2008 will be released early summer, and pre-release tastings indicate another crisp, citrus/green apple and mineral infused success. It is very small production, only 52 cases, unavailable in restaurants and priced dearly at over $20 a 500 ml bottle.
Gaspereau planted more riesling at the highest elevated section of their sharply sloped vineyards, with other traditional European varieites, but it remains a small part of white production, after Seyval Blanc, Muscat and L'Acadie.
Other Nova Scotia wineries grow riesling, like St. Famille, which blended it with Vidal Blanc, and Bear River, but it's too risky to build a business on, because international grapes like riesling are more tender and less hardy than established Nova Scotia varieties.
Kim Strickland from Gaspereau winery said all her vitis vinifera grapes were hit hard this winter. "They can survive temperatures of -20C for a day or two, but when you get four, five or six days, they can't survive. The primary buds freeze and die. We hit -28C in our vineyard this winter."
Stickland heard through the grapevine that other wineries had similar difficulties, so if 2009 will be a lean year, best move fast to snag the 2008. Nova Scotia riesling is as rare as it is special.
Craig Pinhey is a certified beer judge and sommelier. Read his top five riesling picks for spring online at thecoast.ca.
While you are waiting for the 2008 Rieslings from Nova Scotia to appear, you can check out five of Craig Pinhey's favourite Rieslings that are available in Halifax:
1. Te Mania, New Zealand, $21.05 at Premier Wine & Spirits
- fresh, mineral and lime driven, with great acid
2. Lingenfelder Bird Label, Pfalz, Germany, QbA, $17.35 at NSLC
- off-dry, floral, ripe apple, with a long finish
3. Thirty Bench, Niagara, Ontario, $22.44 at NSLC Port of Wines, Bayer's Lake
- dry, lemon-lime and mineral nose, with fresh acidic finish
4. 1999 Dr ZenZen Riesling Spatlese, Moselle, $19.99 at NSLC
- this honey and apple tinged beauty with a long finish shows how Riesling ages wonderfully
5. Cono Sur Riesling, Chile, $11.99 at NSLC
- off-dry, citrus, tastes well above its price