Wine Club: Savour that petrol aroma

Riesling ripens perfectly in the sunshine of New Zealand
Riesling ripens perfectly in the sunshine of New Zealand
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Riesling doesn’t deserve its dodgy reputation, writes Christine Austin, so fill up for an easy-priced taste of summer.

Last summer I remember getting through cases of Sauvignon Blanc as my Australian friend set her feet under my table and her suitcases in my spare room for several weeks. I’m not complaining. We have a reciprocal arrangement that means I can swap a UK winter for a Melbourne summer at the drop of a hat. She even lets me borrow her car to go exploring vineyards so long as I bring a few bottles back from various visits.

This year her trip to the UK was brief and far too early to indulge in long evenings sipping wine in the garden, so my Sauvignons have been fairly safe. However, another corner of my collection has been targeted by various visitors over the past few weeks.

Riesling has been one of the surprises of the summer. Maybe it is because I have been cooking in a lighter style, with lots of fresh vegetables, fish and spices that Riesling has seemed the most appropriate choice. But I must admit that I rarely introduce the wine with a flourish. There is no faster way to dampen the enthusiasm of a drinker than with the words: “Let me pour you a glass of Riesling.”

Why this should be is a mystery. It is difficult to fathom why the name of a grape can cause a dinner guest to reach out and cover their glass but like most prejudices it is founded on hearsay rather than real experience. Riesling still carries the baggage of poor practices from decades ago, and while no-one can remember exactly what those wines were like, they aren’t going to try anything that sounds like them, just in case.

So I have been sneaking Riesling into glasses and letting half the contents be sipped and savoured before asking: “What do you think of the wine?” The comments have been remarkable, all along the lines of: “This is delicious, it goes so well with the food. What is it?”

I have been careful in my choice of Rieslings, making sure they come from the New World of this grape, namely Australia and New Zealand where the grapes ripen fully and the wines have good body and depth of flavour. In most cases the wines are dry or almost dry, and the acidity that runs through a Riesling is so racy and lively that it counteracts any sliver of remaining sweetness. In fact, that edge of sweetness can even be an asset when matching to some foods.

One of the first Rieslings to impress was Pewsey Vale Contours 2005, from Eden Valley in Australia (£20 for 2007 vintage available from Hanging Ditch, Manchester). It comes from a vineyard first planted with Riesling in 1847 by Englishman Joseph Gilbert, which went on to produce wines that were praised by judges of the day. Rescued from dilapidation in the 1960s, the vineyard was replanted and now produces a single-estate Riesling wine. As the name suggests the vines are planted in rows around the contours of the slope where high elevation and stiff breezes keep temperatures down while ripening periods are long. Closed with a screw cap nine years ago and allowed to mature and develop complexity before release, the 2005 wine was in perfect condition and gleamed in the glass, mid-gold with hints of green. The aroma had the classic whiff of petrol, but this isn’t the smell you get at a modern petrol station. It is the kind of petrol-soaked concrete of an old-style garage that might look more in place in an episode of Heartbeat. Layered on top of those aromas were lime and lemon and a shot of floral notes. The palate was rounded, slightly oily with searing fresh acidity, yet ending harmonious and balanced. I had teamed this with a salmon and prawn stir-fry, where chilli, ginger and sesame oil added bite to the flavours. The combination was terrific and the bottle was almost empty before I told my guests what the wine was.

Scallops, pan fried with lime and chilli were on the menu when I poured glasses of Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2011 from Clare Valley, Australia (£26.40, Field & Fawcett, York) for a lunch in the garden with friends. Riesling takes time to develop that petrol aroma so this young wine had not yet started that journey. In fact, Grosset’s wines rarely develop heavy petrol characters. Jeff Grosset makes wines that act like a cold shower for the taste buds, all lime and minerality with a precise structure and finish. Once again the wine was enjoyed first and questions asked later. This experiment was beginning to be fun.

Over the last few weeks I have poured several more Rieslings with fish, stir-fries, salads and charcuterie, but always with sunshine.

Yealands Riesling 2011 from Marlborough in New Zealand (£13.99, Latitude Wines, Leeds) was brisk with citrus flavours, just developing some floral complexity. I followed it with Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Awatere Valley Riesling (£8.50) made by the same team at Yealands and was surprised at the difference between the two wines. The Sainsbury’s version was brighter, zestier and with just an edge of sweetness that lifted the palate. This is terrific summer drinking value.

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2010 from Waipara, New Zealand (£15.95, Field & Fawcett, York) was full in style with definite honeysuckle aromas, followed by stone fruit, lime-streaked acidity and that hint of sweetness which was perfectly balanced by the plum sauce and Chinese stir-fry on the plate.

Villa Maria Private Bin Riesling 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand (£9.99, Waitrose) also showed well. This brand is so widely available it is easy to become blind to the sheer quality behind the Villa Maria label. This one in particular gathers up zesty lime and green apple flavours and it made a refreshing aperitif in sunshine.

If you haven’t tried a Riesling for quite a while, maybe now is the time to pick one off the shelf. There are some great summer-drinking flavours out there and the value is fantastic.