Tasting Notes: the DRY Riesling Challenge – Niagara to FLX

Riesling grapes on vine
Riesling deliciousness….soon. Photo credit: Cave Spring Vineyard

Before we ‘taste’, let me be clear. I love all styles of Riesling.

That said, it’s fair to say my previous purchase behaviour puts me squarely in the German feinherb camp (~10 – 20 grams/Litre Residual Sugar – RS). Feinherb – for those new to the Riesling game – is a German descriptor for a slightly off-dry/half-dry/ medium-dry/semi-dry style of Riesling (yes, all terms are used).

The word feinherb translates to tart, tangy and delicate (although that definition, like everything else associated with Riesling is up for debate).  Interestingly, the term is often used to describe hoppy German pilsners too.

But my assignment here was to find local DRY Riesling for my friend, Jeff (read my last post for the backstory) so a slightly off-dry/half-dry/ medium-dry/semi-dry/feinherb style of Riesling just won’t work.

For this local challenge, DRY Riesling has been defined as 0-8 g/L RS, although again, Riesling’s sweetness/dryness parameters are up for debate.

The Sweetness Dilemma

Why the debate?

It turns out the DRY/SWEET scale, is regulated in some regions (Alsace < 12 grams/L un-chaptalized,  Germany < 9 grams/L and Austria < 9 grams/L) and not regulated in others. In Europe – where everything about wine is regulated – sweetness levels are determined by a formula that balances RS and acidity. In other words, sweetness and dryness ratings are not just about leftover RS sugar, winemaking balance also comes into play (keeners are welcome to do a deep dive using the links above).

Locally, according to VQA Ontario executive director Laurie Macdonald, Ontario stopped regulating sweetness descriptions in 2010 when the LCBO adopted their own sweetness standards. The goal, she said, was to reduce consumer confusion.

An admirable goal, but you’ll notice below, three different sweetness scales for three different Canadian provinces – – Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec – with no real consensus or uniformity around descriptors or sugar amounts.

Ontario wine sweetness chart from LCBO
Ontario’s LCBO Retail Sweetness Scale
British Columbia wine sweetness chart
British Columbia’s Retail Sweetness Code
Quebec SAQ Wine sweetness chart

So – a few thoughts on the big picture ….

  1. Zoom out on this data and it’s clear why consumers at all ends of the spectrum are SO confused about sugar content and wine: the designations are ambiguous, misleading and literally, all over the map
  2. Generic sweet and dry standards may work for some grapes, but they don’t work for high acid/low pH grapes like Riesling which is produced in a diverse range of styles
  3. A winemaker’s stylistic and structural decisions are overwritten by each of these liquor boards who can’t seem to agree on standardized language around what’s dry, off-dry, sweet and semi-sweet. Maybe it’s time for Canada-wide standardized ingredient labelling?

The International Riesling Foundation has tried to address this sweetness conundrum with a simple, back-of-the-label graphic. Degree of Dryness, they suggest, is ideally calculated by a residual sugar to tartaric acid ratio and then further defined by pH level. Of course, consumers shouldn’t have to be chemists or UC Davis oenology graduates to understand a Riesling’s sweetness offering so they leave it up to winemakers to do the math and identify the rating.

Tom Pennachetti, Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Cave Spring in Niagara’s Beamsville Bench wine region says the scale is too subjective for his liking. “My concern is it’s too open-ended. Producers move that little triangle left or right as though it’s some kind of music synthesizer control for bass and treble. I know other wineries use it but I’m not a fan.”

Also, just because a wine is labeled DRY doesn’t necessarily mean it will seem dry to you

In theory, a DRY Riesling should have no perceptible sweetness (although alcohol and oak can mess with the brain and be interpreted as sweet). Most wine retailers and wine consumers define sweet and dry wine by Residual Sugar ratings alone.  But if you can’t find the RS technical data, another indicator is ABV. If alcohol is 12.5% or higher, the wine will taste DRY; 11 to 12.5% expect some sweetness; if alcohol is even lower – say 8 or 9%, the Riesling will definitely be sweet. Bottom line – the lower the alcohol, the higher the RS. Does that help?

Back to the LOCAL DRY Riesling Challenge….

I tried to find wines from the 2017 vintage where possible – apples-to-apples being the thought process here (recognizing wine character is also determined by vineyard site specifics). 2017 as a vintage gives us a little age, and mostly describes a wet spring/summer and gloriously redeeming warm, sunny fall. According to Johannes Selbach winemaker at Mosel’s celebrated Selbach-Oster, the critical dimension of Riesling ripeness, including phenolics and texture – what he calls “the filling” – comes in the fall season. So, having good weather well into October and the courage to leave the grapes on the vine to fully ripen, is important.

The same acids that make Riesling a perfect food partner, also ensures tremendous age-ability, so buy 2 of whatever it is you’re buying and see if you can resist drinking it for 10 years. A little age on Riesling is known to add weight, honeyed textures, petrol characteristics and those drinking-out-of-a-local-stream mineral notes. Who doesn’t love that?

Winemaker and vineyard manager walking amongst the rows of grapes
Cave Spring Winemaker Angelo Pavan and Vineyard Manager, Gabe Etherington

CAVE SPRING ESTATE RIESLING – 2017, VQA BEAMSVILLE BENCH, NIAGARA ESCARPMENT, 11.5% ABV, 8 g/L RS – $19.95

After tasting this Cave Spring Vineyard glass of deliciousness, I wonder why CSE isn’t our house wine. Hard “buy” reco here!!

Esteemed Cave Spring winemaker Angelo Pavan’s 30+ years of Niagara viticulture and cellar experience shines through here. Jean Michel Comme – formerly of Pontet Canet – described the winemaking process as art, and that’s what this wine is….art.

Cave Spring Estate comes from 20+ year old vines on the limestone rich soils of Niagara’s Beamsville Bench. What distinguishes this wine is the gorgeous palate weight and unctuous lanolin texture, which I’m told is a combination of painstaking sustainable vineyard work, indigenous yeasts, skin contact and lees stirring (battonage).

The nose is beautifully expressive with notes of baked apple, lime, candy floss (yup) and mineral. It’s a dry wine but rich in sweet tangerine, citrus and peach fruit flavours. Sugars and acids are beautifully balanced with a long crisp mineral finish. You know how Riesling can sometimes end on a sour or bitter note? None, nada, rien here….just sublime, fruit and mineral.

Rated: 94 Wine Enthusiast, 92 Wine and Spirits Magazine, 89 Wine Spectator

Cave spring CSV Riesling bottle

CAVE SPRING CSV RIESLING – 2017, VQA BEAMSVILLE BENCH, NIAGARA ESCARPMENT, 11% ABV, 8 g/L RS -$29.95

CSV represents the pinnacle of Cave Spring Vineyards and escarpment terroir. The aromatic depth and delicious complexity of this wine explains the international recognition and awards its received. The CSV has put Cave Spring, Ontario and Canada on the Riesling map.

Handcrafted from 40-year old vines, the nose is both floral and fruity with fresh lime, ripe pineapple and mandarin orange aromas.

The 11% ABV might suggest a light wine, but this is luscious, richly textured and full-bodied with juicy peach, mandarin and marmalade flavours. Generous acidity and extraordinary mineral freshness on the finish confirms this is pure Niagara.

My 8 gram challenge friend, Jeff has put this wine at the top of his Riesling list. Success!!

Rated: 90 Wine Spectator, 94 Wine Align

Vineland Estates Dry Riesling bottle in front of wine entrance

VINELAND ESTATES DRY RIESLING 2017, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, 9% ABV, 10.2 g/L RS – $14.75

This wine obviously lands outside the formal dry conventions established for this ‘challenge” (my bad) but Vineland Estates has a storied past. Alongside Cave Spring, Vineland Estates was instrumental in launching Riesling in Ontario forty years ago.

They’re home to the first Riesling plantings on the Niagara Escarpment bench and home of ‘clone 21B’ originator, Mosel Valley’s Herman Weis. For those who don’t track these things (lol), that’s the Riesling clone found throughout the Niagara Peninsula. Vineland Estates has also created a diverse line of Riesling wines in the Germanic trocken and prädikat styles to showcase the laddered approach to sweetness and terroir range of their Niagara Escarpment vineyards.

The VE Dry Riesling is the wineries entry level wine. The nose is all citrus with a hint of stone fruit, beeswax and petrol. On the palate, a little tease of honeyed sweetness and restrained lemon-lime fruit flavour. There’s a firm streak of limestone minerality at play and the acidity is refreshing and crisp. Light-bodied, nicely balanced and great value from a Niagara Riesling pioneer. (Note – Field F at 11.5g/L RS is also quite delish @ $20.00)

Pearl Morissette bottle

PEARL MORISSETTE 2017 CUVÉE BLACK BALL RIESLING, VQA  12% ABV, 3 g/L/RS – $39.95

From Pearl Morissette’s 19th street vineyard on Twenty Mile Bench. Vineyards were harvested on October 26th, 29th, and 30th, 2017 so grapes benefited from the late summer heat of fall 2017.

The wine is a pale gold and right out of the gates, I get a skin contact, oxidative style.

The nose is floral and fruity with notes of elderflower, marmalade and apricot iced tea. On the palate, flavours include bruised, funky apple, wildflower honey and ripe apricot with a slight caramelized finish. Medium bodied with an oily texture. The cuvée is dry and crisp but it’s missing that taut mineral energy and tension that I expect with a fully dry Riesling.

For me, this wine is reminiscent of a young Marsanne/Roussanne northern Rhone blend. It’s not your usual Riesling but then it’s a low-intervention Pearl Morissette, so the ‘usual’ rules don’t apply.

Full marks to PM for pioneering a bone-dry Niagara Riesling – the only one I know of in the region. BTW – the Black Ball name harkens back to 2014 when partner Francois Morissette took on the VQA certification panel process which consistently rejected his wines for not meeting the tasting standards developed for Ontario Riesling. Clearly his persistence paid off ……

Two winery owners walking amongst the vines
Château des Charmes: Paul Bosc Sr and Paul Bosc Jr Photo credit: Grape Growers of Ontario

CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES – OLD VINES 2015 RIESLING – VQA NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE 12% ABV, 8 g/L RS – $18.95

Grapes for this Château-des-Charmes were harvested October 15, 2015 and sourced from several 1978 estate vineyards in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region including the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation and the softer clay-based soils of the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation.

Sitting right at the edge of our 6 – 8 gram dry challenge, this ‘old vine’ wine strikes a beautiful balance between ripe fruit and bright acidity. I’m getting lime, pear and chamomile notes on the nose with a hint of quince and flinty minerality on the palate. At 8 grams, RS doesn’t contribute discernable sweetness, but adds enough body to provide a silky texture. Or is it the clay????

Love their heritage and sustainable values.

bottle of 13th street Riesling in front of winery

13th STREET – EXPRESSION RIESLING – 2019, VQA Niagara Peninsula, 11.5% ABV, 8 g/L RS – $17.95

A pale straw, low ABV Riesling that positively vibrates with acidic energy. Grapes were sourced from four of 13th Street’s Niagara Peninsula vineyards. Harvest was mid-October 2019.

13th Street now produces three Rieslings – as they showcase winemaker Jean Pierre Colas’s dry know-how (Chablis) and expand their dry and off-dry offerings.

A reductive, matchbox nose here, that slowly gives way to citrus aromas and stony minerality. Restrained flavours of green apple, lemon lime and stone fruit, with a dry steely finish. Brix levels at harvest across all Riesling wines are low. Note to self: next time I’m in Niagara – compare/contrast the full Riesling lineup. 

PONDVIEW – BELLA TERRAWILD FERMENT 2019 RIESLING – VQA FOUR MILE CREEK 12.5% ABV, 1.0 g/L RS – $24.95

Readers on the Ontario Wine Lovers Facebook page flagged this wine for me and mea culpa for missing it in my first posting of DRY Niagara Riesling.

This is another D-lish fruity and floral Riesling that positively vibrates with acidic energy. I felt this one pulsing through my jaw-line which suggests you may want to buy a few for the cellar. The fruit and acidity guarantee this one will age well.

The layers of fruit in this wine are impressive. A beautiful nose of gardenia, peach and sweet lime. On the palate, it’s fruit-forward with ripe flavours of peach, pear, and bin apple. There’s nice palate weight, distinct stony Niagara minerality and a honeyed finish that offers great length.

This Pondview Bella Terra 2019 Riesling just scored 90 points from Decanter, so grab it while you can!

BIG HEAD – DRY RIESLING – 2016, VQA ST. DAVID’S BENCH – KNOTTY VINES VY, 11.9% ABV, 2 g/L RS – $21.00

Another late arrival to our 0 – 8 grams RS ‘DRY’ challenge (thx Ontario Wine Lovers). Grapes are from St. David’s Bench vineyards, a sub-appellation in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region. 2016 was a warm vintage in a sub-appellation that already enjoys the highest sunlight exposure and heat accumulation in Niagara (1,637 GDDS).

Landing somewhere between pale straw and light gold, aromatics include green apple and ripe peach with secondary notes of petrol taking shape.

On the palate it’s citrus through and through with a hint of honey and a mineral weighty mouthfeel. Bone-dry at 2g/L of residual sugar, with lively, refreshing acidity.

Note – Big Head also produces a botrytis-affected, whole cluster Carbonic Riesling ($40) which they ferment with indigenous yeast. It’s also bone dry ❤ g/L with higher alcohol at 13.5% ABV.

Wagner Vineyards bottle being poured

WAGNER VINEYARDS (FINGER LAKES), 2017 DRY RIESLING, ESTATE GROWN, 12.3% ABV, 6 g/L RS – $24.90

The DRY 6 – 8 g/L RS challenge was declared a “local” challenge (by me :), which arguably puts the upstate New York, Finger Lakes wine region (FLX) in the running.

You’ll find Wagner Vineyards on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake – the largest of the 11 Finger Lakes – and three-hours south-east of Niagara. With a closed Canada/US border, however, I had to rely on the LCBO where I discovered this DRY wine as part of a Finger Lakes promotion.

I’ve been on wine excursions to the Finger Lakes twice now, and I must say, the Riesling is pretty darned good. Even cooler is the fact that this Wagner Vineyard Dry wine was the 2017 Riesling of the Year in New York State with Wagner awarded the 2019 Winery of the Year.

This is Wagner’s flagship wine. It’s definitely mineral driven on the nose, with green apple and citrus shining through. The 2017 wet spring and late fall heat spell in Niagara played out in the FLX region, providing well-balanced fruit and bright acidity.

A vibrant mineral core on the palate, with lime peel, green apple and ripe pear. Full bodied. expressive, with a lively, refreshing wet stone finish.

Welcome to Canada!

Rated: 90 Wine Enthusiast, other numerous awards https://wagnervineyards.com/our-story/wine-awards/

Final Thoughts…..

Not a lot of DRY Riesling in Niagara but a good start for my friend!!

I expect there are more DRY Niagara Rieslings that fit the 0-8 g/L RS bandwidth, but these are the ones I discovered (after a lot of searching). Please feel free to let me know if there are others…. I will happily update and add them to the list!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Donna Wilson says:

    Nice mention of the FLX. Would love it if you could tour ALL of our wineries, as every one has at least one or two Rieslings to offer. I believe that’s why we’re even on the map, with more and more wineries being recognized for more than just Rieslings too.
    Our reds of late have won some GOLD medals, so the world has discovered us.. .

    Like

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