The Age(ing) of Riesling

Some wine myths deserve to be busted.

Many will know that I have been a long-time fan of Riesling.  If you’ve been (un)lucky enough to walk into shop while we’ve been offering one on tasting you’ve probably already had an earful as to the wonders of Riesling… and I make no secret that I consider it a king among grapes.

For some unknown reason it is still the most underappreciated grapes in New Zealand.  Almost universally adored by winemakers, it still stays out of the heady limelight enjoyed by our mainstay of production (Sauvignon Blanc) and darling of the boutique wine world (Pinot Noir).

So what do I love about this wine.  For starters, it’s an astonishingly versatile grape – the different styles, the wonderful flavours and the subtle textures it can produce, the fact that it can be bone dry, super-sweet and everything in between.  It is also a well-known fact that Riesling can age incredibly well.  Of all the white wines I’ve tasted with years of bottle age, nothing I have had stands up to a well-aged Riesling.

This evening my wife surprised me with a great dinner at home, along with proud presentation of a real treat of a wine.  She had discovered in our cellar a Riesling from Palliser Estate from 2001.  That’s not a typo, this is a locally made Kiwi white wine with 11 years of bottle age.  The forlorn white sticker I had attached to it some years ago instructed me to “drink by 2010”.  Oops.   But hey, what’s 2 years between good friends.

We approached the wine with a slight mix of apprehension and curious excitement.  Has it stood the test of time?  Winemaker Allan Johnson’s note on the bottle is to enjoy young and fresh, but would reward cellaring and enjoy from 2003-2010 (plus).

So what happens to Riesling as it ages?  Most people know that red wine can successfully age gracefully for many years.  The best Bordeaux wines and Burgundies can age over decades.  But a white wine with no oak barrels or tannins in sight?  Riesling usually has a high level of acidity, this can act as a natural preservative of the wine and enable it to age gracefully over time.  The best Rieslings have been known to sit for decades or longer.  But in New Zealand?

Over time, a Riesling will often darken in colour from a pale straw to a more golden hue.  The original fruit forward flavours will soften and be replaced by more subtle and complex characters and aromas.  Often an aged Riesling will have a distinctive petrol hue to it, some consider this a flaw but many more treasure it as a sign of maturity.

The Palliser Riesling is no exception.  It has turned a pale gold, with soft aromas of lemon lime, baked green apple, a hint of lanolin, and a dose of that distinctive petrol.  First taste is a wave of relief, not only is it not spoiled, it is fabulous.  In the mouth is a flood of sensual flavours and textures.  It keeps evolving and changing each time I try it.  I taste the lemon lime that carries through from the nose, a hint of washed riverstone, tart stone fruit and citrus, and a satisfying mouth filling texture.  I would consider it a ‘dry’ style, the acidity is subdued and allows the flavours to shimmer in the mouth.  A long satisfying finish with dried honey, and a fresh minerality.  According to Allan the wine has a touch of botrytis on it that I wouldn’t have guessed from the nose, but it explains the weighty texture and suppleness on the palate.

And the best news?  Katie says we may have another one tucked in the cellar.  I’m tempted to leave it there for another year, or two… do I dare?

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