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Vignoles, a white grape also known as Ravat 51
Refreshing Riesling
Hudson Valley RieslingThe Hudson Valleys beautiful river, shorelines and mountains have led some to call our valley Americas Rhineland. Portions of the valley have similar geological rock formations of shale, slate, and schist under well-drained clay soils that are similar to those found in the wine producing areas of the Rhine Valley. In those regions of the Rhine Valley, the dry and dessert wines produced by the noble Riesling grape reign supreme. It only makes sense that more Riesling should be planted here in the Hudson Valley.

The grape Riesling, also known as Johannisberg Riesling or White Riesling, originatedor was at least first identified in Germany as early as the tenth century and definitely by the fifteenth century. Riesling is a white vinifera grape vine that was identified by local growers, propagated, and then distributed to other local growers. Like Chardonnay, it is adaptable to many different types of soils, but unlike Chardonnay, it tends to retain its floral varietal wine flavors and structure when it is grown in cool climate areas such as Germany, the Hudson Valley or the Finger Lakes.

Riesling is a moderately vigorous growing variety whose yield is more dependent on growing conditions than most other grape varieties. Its bud break is late, so spring frost damage is rare. Rieslings cylindrical, conical and compact clusters are small to medium-small in size, with small round berries. The berries can be clear green to golden yellow in color.

There are several scores of Riesling clones or sibling plants that are being used to produce wine in Germany and the Finger Lakesregions which specialize in growing Riesling. Many of these Riesling clones have not been systematically tested in the Hudson Valley, but include Clones 90, 198, 239 and 356. Each of these clones offers the winemaker different bouquet and flavor profiles, balance and structure, in addition to how they grow in the field.

Rieslings can be made into dry, semi-dry, sweet, and very sweet dessert wines. Unlike many other wine grapes, Riesling develops its fruity aromas at relative low sugar levels of 17 brix. So if a more lean Riesling is being made, the variety can be picked as early as late September or early October with lower sugars, to produce dry, austere Rieslings. For the grower, this is important because if the season is late due to cold or rain, Rieslings can be picked at 17 to 19 brix and still be made into a quality wine that has varietal flavors. Due to its high acidity and possible low sugar content, Riesling can also be successfully made into sparkling wines.

No matter what type of Riesling is made, it tends to be a distinctly varietal wine that is aromatic, forward, fruity, spicy, and very flowery. Hence, it lends itself to stainless and glass aging, and not wood aging. However, I have heard of wine makers who have aged the wine in lighter woods, such as beech wood, with positive results. Overall, it is not as versatile as the Chardonnay or Seyval Blanc grape in the cellar. However, Riesling does have a cost advantage over Chardonnay in its production. This is because Riesling does not need wood aging nor malolatic fermentation and thus can be ready for sale by the May following its harvest.

In dry and semi-dry Rieslings, you will find that its crisp high acid is balanced by its big, forward, floral fragrant smells and flavors of white peaches, citrus, pineapples, green apples, lime/lime peel, melons and dried flowers, with hints of honey, spice, and herbs, that finishes clean with a minerally aftertaste. The substantial body of these wines is minerally, like flint, with herbal tastes of pine resin or juniper berries similar to that found in gin that has a greasy taste. With all that said, Riesling has a solid palate weight to balance all of that fruit and acid.

Sweet or dessert Rieslings and ice wines are produced by letting the grapes hang on the vine until the fourth week of October or later. As the grapes hang on the vine, they get sweeter and sweeter, as the water evaporates and the berries become more like raisins. In a few select years, ice wines can also be made. Ice wines are made when the grapes actually freeze early in the morning. The grapes are harvested while frozen and pressed so that only the sweetest juice is extracted, as the water in the berries is frozen. For ice wines, having brix levels of 50 are not uncommon.

Common descriptors for sweet Rieslings are that they have very big aromatic flavors of ripe apricots, peaches and pineapples, honey, oranges, and orange rinds (similar to that found in the liquor Grand Marnier). All of this big opulent fruit is balanced by the heavy, rich viscosity of the wine and its unnoticed high acid due to its high sugar content. As Rieslings get sweeter and more viscous, the flinty/minerally body and taste tends to go away and is replaced by the acids and tastes found in raw honey. Not to diminish the appeal of these dessert Rieslings, but similar flavors can be had with dessert and ice wines made from Vignoles, and sometimes Vidal.

Rieslings made in the Hudson Valley are quality wines that can be widely obtained at affordable prices. Most wineries here offer at least one wine made from Riesling, be it a dry, semi-dry or dessert wine style.

Articles are adapted from the forthcoming book Grapes of the Hudson Valley by J. Stephen Casscles. In future issues of Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, well continue to feature additional excerpts from this definitive work on regional varietals culled from decades of the authors tasting notes and personal experience.

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