Riesling has had a bit of a comeback, a renaissance if you will. Over the past 30-40 years Riesling has garnished the support of Sommeliers and reclaimed its dominance of German vineyards (Robinson). However, it cannot be characterized as a revolution. Riesling has not garnished the fanfare or even basic understanding that Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc have amongst the average wine consumer. This is important because the grape variety I will write about has, and probably will forever be, in Riesling’s shadow.
One of my favorite pastimes has been reading wine literature with an emphasis on the writings of prior generations. It provides insight on the evolution of a region and it’s evolving perception amongst imbibers. In early examples of German wine literature the authors were battling for the reader to understand the nobility of the Riesling vine. This was in part because there was a clear misunderstanding of the grape on the side of consumers, as seen by even the apparent lack of knowledge on how to even pronounce this seemingly simply name (Robinson).
The authors found that before they could get their readers to appreciate Riesling they had to make sure that we did not drink the wrong Riesling. There were more than a few grapes going under the name Riesling. Until recently Muller-Thurgau was often labeled Riesling x Sylvaner. The grape known as Riesling Italico or Welschriesling is furthermore genetically unrelated to Riesling. It is not even that similar either.
The downside to this enthusiasm for high quality Riesling, was a disdain for anything else being labeled as Riesling.The result was not a course in wine labeling laws, but on the wretched vines taking up useful vineyard space or worse, watering down the Riesling namesake. Without the opportunity to even really try these wines stateside, this vinestock chauvinism was inadvertently the only thing I knew about the wine of which I will now be writing about.
There was a lot of chaos in wine labeling before the standardization brought upon via the European Union. There were a lot of grapes in different regions with local names or worse, copy cat names. Tokaji is a good example. Hungary entering the EU brought the end to the Alsatian Tokay (Pinot Gris) and Friulian Tocai (Friulano or Toi in Veneto). Both were unrelated white wines with no stylistic relation either. This most definitely made sense for consumers and I do not think that the producers were really hurt at all; if anything it brought on a lot of free press.
Monoculture of vines and standardization of products is the norm across the wine world today. Whole vineyards have been converted to an international Chardonnay or simply switched to a “better” industrial clone; Lambrusco being a good example, though the tide is going back a little. In this recent time of selvedge jeans, producers and consumers are running back to see what is left that can be saved. Yet, Welschriesling is stuck in the shadow of a fantastic variety that has yet to get its own time in the sun. If it is hard enough to maintain a Riesling by the glass in a restaurant, a sommelier has many other trendy varietals to put forth before convincing his manager that Welschriesling should shine.
I used to think that this vine was often labeled as Riesling because it may have been close in style to more famous Riesling wines. Though a closer look reveals an even more diverse nomenclature for the vine. This is anything but unusual. What is unusual, is that opposed to other lesser known grapes, such as Muller-Thurgau, Gruner Veltliner or the vast array of Italian vines, the vine in question has yet to receive a recognizable nomenclature. A fact that is sure to irritate producers, wine writers and guarantee confusion among consumers.
The lack of a common identity is most likely the result of inaction from the regions that actually produce this wine. To my knowledge none of the regions that produce Welschriesling have even made a point at claiming the vine as their own. I can only hope that one of the (below) countries or wineries that do grow this vine one day wake up to the fact that they have a sleeping piece of wine journalism in their vineyards. A New York Times article about the battle over the identity or name of this grape is usually enough to push BTG sales. At least one can only hope.
The following are a few examples of the vine in diverse countries and territories:
Austria ~ Welschriesling
The vine goes by many names. The most common, is probably Welschriesling. This may easily be because this was the title most easily pronounced or spelled to an English audience. It also may simply be that writers knew a bit more about Austrian wine (where it receives this name) than Slovenian and Czech wines for that matter. It is mainly grown in the Burgenland. This southern and flatter region of Austria is known for the Reds as well as the production of sparkling Austrian Sekt. I had actually bought this cuvee since it was the only Kosher Austrian wine I had ever seen. A curiosity purchase revealed a rather pleasant wine.
It illustrated the area of the Burgenland, a region that is on the same latitude as Burgundy. It was actually the Burgundian Monks that first brought vines to Austria. They brought and cultivated Chardonnay. In addition, the modern Austrian red varieties are offshoots of Pinot Noir further proposing links to the Monks. Wikipedia says that Welschriesling may have originated in the Champagne region. Could Welschriesling have come to Austria by way of Burgundian monks?
Slovenia ~ Laški Rizling
In Slovenia the vine becomes laški Rizling. The best Slovenian expression I have been lucky enough to taste was at Vinnatur 2016. I tasted the line from Ducal, a winery producing exquisite expressions of both Rieslings. I assumed it had to be the real Riesling since it was simply so good. It had so much internal minerality just trying to explain itself. Both Rieslings had so much electrical power. It reminded me of how after a while, Kamptal Gruner and Riesling will shed their vine identity and display only their terroir. Here I felt the same phenomena. This is when I began to realize that I had misunderstood the grape. The deceased wine writers also misunderstood it. They were comparing bulk blends to Mosel. Here in Slovenia it is grown in the best terroirs. Bottled by itself and allowed to shine. Showing a minerality that reveals itself rather than a copy of what Riesling creates. It is not Riesling and it should not be compared to it. It is like talking about a different genre of music.
Hungary ~ Olaszrizling
If it has not become clear, the vine obviously has a presence is post Austro-Hungarian Empire territories. With that said it is no surprise that there is some of the vine in the land of Hungary. In the Magyar territories it is known as Olaszrizling. I have only had this Hungarian example. As a blend of 7 grapes it may not be the best format for learning about a specific wine. It was fantastic. It paired great with this Goose dish and even had the laser acidity to cut through the foie gras appetizer. I hope to go back to Budapest and find some more of these, and more foie gras, always more foie gras!
Italy ~ Riesling Italico
It is here in Italy that many of the regional appellations that are labeled Riesling actually include Welschriesling as an option. This chaos behind the DOC is very typical of Italian appellations. It is easy to ponder whether this flagrant mislabeling and possible actual misrepresentation has maintained the original negative sentiment noted in this article. In Italy it goes under the name of Riesling Italico, and the OG is known as Riesling Renano. Most of it is grown around Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy. The region is known for producing grapes destined for sparkling wine production, and I assume much of the Riesling Italico ends up going that route. When I first got to Italy, my local supermarket had Martini brand sparkling Riesling. Finding an Italian sparkling Riesling was a like a goldmine for a fan of Sekt and Italian bubbles! The price was low enough as well.
After the purchase and to my dismay, their website revealed that it was 95% Riesling Italico (Martini). My first, inadvertent Welschriesling purchase was a straight up failure. I was left feeling like Riesling Italico sucked, and Martini should not try to make wine.
Fast forward to a year later after having slowly come to understand this vine through the aforementioned examples. I found this immaculate bottle of sparkling Martini, and this time labeled Riesling Italico. I went ahead and got it. Upon opening this possibly 30+ year old sparkling wine I found it to be beyond my expectations. It had integrated and had a touch of dark color but not overt oxidation. A lower level of bubbles of course, but for sure still spumante. The question on the disparate experiences left me questioning what was the dramatic difference in the making of these two wines.
Czech Republic ~ Ryzlink Vlašský
As noted in my past post on Czech wines, the Wine industry of the Czech Republic is based in the southern region of Moravia near Bohemia and Slovakia. It is a very interesting region with a melange of different grapes ranging from the Burgundian varieties and unsurprisingly, cold climate whites such as Muller-Thurgau and Grüner Veltliner. After these last two, Welschriesling is the third most planted white in the region. Milan Nestarec is a charismatic natural winemaker currently putting Czech wines on the map. He produces a rather large array of wines ranging snowglobe still wine under crown cap to bold reds aged for years in barrique. He would be the most likely resource for trying some Moravian Ryzlink Vlašský.
Croatia ~ Graševina.
I have not tasted the Croatian interpretation. It goes under the name of Graševina.
Robinson, Jancis. “Riesling – will it ever catch on?” Riesling – will it ever catch on? . | Articles | Jancis Robinson.com, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. <http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/riesling-will-it-ever-catch-on>.
Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course. Screenplay by Jancis Robinson. Perf. Jancis Robinson. Wellspring Media, March 16, 2004. DVD. Originally watched in 2012 and returned to the video via Youtube for reference.
“Martini & Rossi.” Martini & Rossi- Bacardí Group. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. <http://www.martinierossi.it/scheda_prodotto.aspx?famiglia=martini&prodotto=riesling>.