By Celia Strong
Really, call me anything you want, but don’t call me late for dinner. (Isn’t that the whole expression?) Truthfully, it’s OK to not even call me for dinner, except when you are planning on having one of my favorite wines. And, considering how late in the year it’s getting to be, all my favorite wines are going to start getting opened way more often. At least with my dinners. And lunches. On days off! And Sunday afternoons. As the weather turns cooler and the holidays get closer, my head really starts to plan my glass (glasses?) of choice with great regularity. And self-imposed urgency. So, call me anything, anytime, but I guess it’s time to start paying attention to this week’s wine.
There is a lot of new stuff to learn this week, starting with where our wine comes from: New Zealand. And, yes, we have discussed New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs multiple times, but this week we look to another variety — Riesling. First, though, let’s review the source.
New Zealand is a southern hemisphere wine country, so we get wines that for their vintage year are six months older than wines from the same vintage in a northern hemisphere country. (A tidbit I always enjoy.) Wine in New Zealand dates back to as early as 1836, when James Busby first started trying to grow vinifera grapes there. The oldest existing vineyard there, established by the French Roman Catholic Church, dates from 1851. The modern history of the New Zealand wine industry, meaning the second half of the 20th Century and since then, was the result of several things — legislation that allowed domestic wines to sell and be served locally, young New Zealanders traveling abroad and coming home with a “wine with dinner” lifestyle, and financial interest in the wine business.
In the 1990’s a well-known British wine critic, Oz Clark, wrote that New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs were “arguably the best in the world.” One winery in particular led the pack: Cloudy Bay. And, as they say, the rest is history. Except, that New Zealand does make more than just Sauvignon Blancs. Other whites, reds and sparkling wines. So, yes, we must broaden our horizons.
Which puts us onto our grape for this week. I know we don’t do Riesling very often, partly because of preconceived notions about it, partly because of the really high prices on many of the good ones and partly because of the huge range of styles and qualities of them all. Riesling, a white grape, originated in the Rhine region of Germany. It is an aromatic variety known for its flowery, perfumy aromas and high acidity. (Strange, high acidity, when so many of us think of Riesling wines as sweeter.) Riesling wines can range from very dry, to semi-sweet, to sweet and dessert wines and even sparkling wines.
In addition to its floral perfume aromas, Riesling has aromas and flavors that include green apples, grapefruit, peach, honey, rose blossoms, green grass and pine trees. It is grown in almost all wine producing countries, with a range of styles coming from each of them. Traditionally, Riesling grows better in cooler areas. And, with its natural high acidity, some of these wines can age for decades. The sweeter dessert wines can age because their underlying acidity holds them together for great lengths of time. (In Germany, there are records of some Riesling wines still drinking well at over 100 years old. Yikes!) Of course, these wines tend to cost more. Surprise!
In New Zealand, Rieslings are grown mostly in the Martinborough area, at the very southern tip of the northern island. (Marlborough, where most of the Sauvignon Blancs are grown, is at the northern tip of the southern island.)
One last detail about our wine for this week. We have to learn about “late harvest.” This is a term that appears on wine labels that means the grapes for that wine were picked later than the majority of grapes for that vintage. By staying on their vines longer, these grapes become riper and riper, develop more sugar and sweeter flavors and, therefore, can make sweeter wines. Also with late harvested grapes, another process can take place. As they hang on their vines, a fungus, called Botrytis cinerea (noble rot), forms on the bunches due to humidity and warmth. This looks sort of like a mold and encases the grapes and the sugary, syrupy pulp inside them. More sugar, less juice — a combination that results in dessert style wines when the grapes are crushed and fermented. In some wine regions and countries, their wine laws determine which wines can be called late harvest. In others, the term on a label usually signifies a dessert wine. Because there is less juice coming from each grape, less wine is available. So, as you would expect, the price goes up. In addition, because most of us don’t want a lot of these wines, half size bottles, 375 milliliters, are more common.
And, now, let’s bring this all together. Cloudy Bay, the great winery that brought New Zealand into the wine industry in the 20th Century, makes a Late Harvest Riesling. Cloudy Bay Vineyards was established in 1985, in the Marlborough area of the country. Besides vineyards that they own, Cloudy Bay also has contracts with quality growers. Between both sources, they get the grapes for our Riesling — a lovely dessert style wine that we have in time for all our special holiday dinners and parties. It is a pale gold color, with honey, nougat, orange blossom and ripe peach aromas. Its flavors add in more with apricots and a piney honeycomb. The grapes for this wine are hand-picked, the best way to control how much botrytis is on each single one. Picked in May of 2008. Southern Hemisphere. The few grapes that were not botrytised maintained the acidity level in the wine. They were all pressed for a long time, overnight, to extract their richness and full flavors. Batches were fermented, in stainless steel tanks, for two months, achieving a perfect balance between sugars and acidity. Aging in French oak barrels for about eight months followed. Bottling was February 2009.
Now, the only issue we have is how to use this delicious wine. Sweeter wines like this, as a general rule, work well with spicy foods, salty foods, very rich foods, and desserts. My thinking is we will be better able to use this one with a salty cheese like a Roquefort or Parmesan, before or after a meal, with some rich foie gras, or with dessert. Pumpkin pie comes to mind. It’s that time of year. But also fruit pies and tarts will all taste better with a really cold, small glass of this. Or a plate of salty cheese and ripe fresh fruits. Or, and this is my new favorite, pumpkin bread pudding. A simple loaf of pumpkin bread made into a bread pudding with some cinnamon and caramel. Really, I tried the wine and the pudding last weekend, and I don’t even like bread pudding — until now. And, I’m sure the wine made that happen.
So, call me anything you want, but try the Cloudy Bay Late Harvest Riesling. And call it delicious! For $24.99. Enjoy.