The Rising Riesling Revival Resurrection

Thoughts on Riesling, “tastemakers”, the casual wine drinker. And why the three ne’er shall meet.

I don’t think that Riesling has ever really been popular.

Sure, it’s been cool, in between bouts of being shunned or shamed… but it’s never been popular.
And by that, I mean, it has never been the wine of choice (or even in the top three) in any major wine market outside of its homeland of Germany. And this seems strange, because it’s almost impossible to find a wine critic, prosumer or sommelier, who will not readily tell you that the Riesling grape is capable of producing some of the most arresting and memorable wine experiences on the planet. They’ll go even further to say that it also offers some of the best value of any white wines on the planet. But as you’ll see, all the waving, frothing and splashing goes largely unnoticed by the global wine consumer.


And so, because I can’t help myself, this article is really just me joining in with the frothing and the gushing. Fortunately for you, you’re in a position where you choose how much you suffer with me. You can either:
a) follow the flow of this piece; wading through my angsty wonderings about why the collective “think tank” of the wine world’s most brilliant brains and voices – sometimes referred to as “tastemakers” are so utterly impotent to sway consumer behaviour… OR
b) you can skip to the reviews, and read my thoughts on some Stellenbosch Rieslings; some of which I find to be enormously exciting, and others of which are nice to drink.

Option A: The Vinous Stairmaster of Doom

Thoughts for the patient waders

For those with a penchant for context, it may help to know that Riesling has been touted by critics as the next best thing for decades, only to perpetually lose its place in the limelight queue.
It’s as if it’s stuck on a hellish, vinous StairMaster that appears to promise elevation, but delivers only exhaustion.
Back in 2004, the Wall Street Journal was saying things like, “Hey Guys, Riesling used to really suck, but it’s good now. It deserves more attention.”
In 2008, a pleased-as-punch Jancis Robinson proclaimed that Riesling was “out of the doldrums at last.” And that it was more popular than she “had ever known.”  In 2012, in South Africa, Hartenberg Estate launched the “Riesling Rocks” Festival. And in 2014 and 2015 alone, a quick Google search of the term “Riesling Revival” would have yielded results from Decanter, Stuart Pigott, The New York Times, The Independent, and more gushings from Admittedly, this is partially down to every copywriter ever having ample ardor for alliteration, but it wasn’t just the writers who were getting stuck in.
In 2016, a new creature slipped quietly into mainstream consciousness – the hipster sommelier – and began preaching to diners in London, San Francisco, New York, and Melbourne about the good news of the Riesling resurrection. Sadly, hipster sommeliers and wine writers alike exist solely for a small but passionate audience that already knows what we’re going to say, and readily agrees. Consumer habits remain unchanged.

Far from the madding crowd

But ignoring market forces (which is often what wine folk do best), Riesling-obsessed viticulturists and winemakers have been quietly going about the business. Doing the things. The result of their faithful drudgery is that the quality of Riesling – on a global scale – is better than it’s ever been. A combination of climate change, viticultural enlightenment, and technological advances has effectively eradicated much of the undrinkable swill that used to define the grape at the bottom end of the quality scale.
And at the top end, Germany’s most prized Riesling appellations (like the Mosel, Pfalz and Rheingau) are finding their increasingly warmer summertimes are enabling a level of fruit ripeness and resultant complexity in the final wine that wasn’t possible in previous, colder, decades (Pfalz winemaker Christoph Hammel describes Germany as, “one of the winners of climate change” in this regard).
Conversely, in New Zealand, viticulturists have isolated the region’s unusually high solar radiation levels as a barrier to high quality riesling. So they, in turn, have begun employing shade cloth, adjusting canopy management, and selecting more sheltered sites to deliver cleaner, more pristine bottlings than ever before. Which, of course, means that if critics, writers and sommeliers were earnest in their exhortations a decade ago, today’s wine communicators have put ourselves on the brink of a sincerity aneurysm in our efforts to get people to try these modern bottlings of the grape.

Riesling: An analogy for South African Wine

Then again, we’re on the brink just from trying to get people to engage with South African wine in general…so when you look at the two ideas side by side, it would seem that Riesling as a grape serves as a delightful little cultivific analogy for South Africa as the eighth largest producer of wine in the world:
  • A long and chequered history.
  • An unfortunate modern re-entry to the international market.
  • A dramatic increase in quality in the last 20 years.
  • Adored by critics the world over.
  • Unknown to the mainstream.

“When you look at the two ideas side by side, it would seem that Riesling as a grape serves as a delightful little cultivific analogy for South African wine in general…”

Riesling In South Africa

Zooming out…and then back in again

From a macro-view, Riesling might give the impression of taking a step up – quantitatively at least. Germany has grown its Riesling plantings by roughly 8% since 2009, and the global plantings have grown  by about 13% from roughly 49,000ha in 2004, up to 55,000ha in 2021. But then Australia – the world’s second biggest riesling producer – has seen its exports volume halve in the last 10 years. So, even at the macro-level, the StairMaster theme continues. In a similar vein, round about when Hartenberg was planning their Riesling Rocks Festival, back in 2012, South Africa’s national vineyard had roughly 211 hectares of Riesling, but just over a decade later, this portion has shrunk to roughly 120ha.
In South Africa, Riesling has been vinified and bottled at least since the 1940s. With Nederberg leading the way back then. In more recent times, Stellenbosch and Elgin have been the two regions producing the best examples of the grape, with producers like Saurwein (Elgin) Paul Cluver (Elgin), Moya Meaker (Elgin), Hartenberg (Stellenbosch), and Jordan (Stellenbosch) delivering the finest examples. My selection today is not a podium, but rather three very different expressions that communicate the combination of dynamism and classicism that is being beautifully expressed between established producers, and newcomers alike.

Option B: The Reviews

Three quite disparate Stellenbosch Rieslings 

Jordan Real McCoy Riesling 2022

One of the purest, cleanest, crispest bottlings I’ve tasted in ages. The explosive clear-cut elements of Granny Smith apple and lime marmalade are almost enough to induce synesthesia. Adding detail around the aforementioned core, there are complications of bees wax, seville orange rind, and riper mandarin. The apple and lime acidity slices longer than a taxidermist hacking at an anaconda. The tail is also notably textured, with elements of meyer lemon pith and apple skin.
Sourced largely from Jordan Estate in the Stellenbosch Kloof at an altitude of 300m. With some additional parcels from Elgin.
Alcohol 12.5%. | Total Acid: 7.4g/l | Residual Sugar: 7.3g/l

A classic, laser-like 93 pts

Van Wyk Family Wines Riesling 2021

A delightful left turn both in its viticulture and its profile. Might upset Riesling fascists.
The fruit is sourced from a south-west facing Stellenbosch vineyard planted in 1982. The trellising can best be described as an “elevated bushvine”, running along a single wire just above the ground.
The quite intense vanguard offers a fascinating mix of the more classic marmalade, lemon blossom, peach preserve, and a hint of kerosene, alongside less riesling-common garnishes of fennel, & nougat. That complex intro amply frames the vibrant palate of bright seville orange  & nectarine. A gentle touch of oak of nutmeg on the tail.
Wine of Origin Stellenbosch. Whole-bunch pressed. Spontaneous fermentation. The final wine is made up of a combination of amphorae- and barrel-fermented parcels, with 14% being a back-blended, barrel-fermented 2020 component.
Alcohol 13.0% | Total Acid 6.6g/l | Residual Sugar 1.8g/litre

A new-wave, left-field 93 points.

Delheim / Hammel Staying Alive Riesling 2022

A joint venture between Pfalz winemaker Christoph Hammel and Delheim winemaker Roelof Lotriet. The colab adds a delightful fascination to the project, but also a sense of slight disconnect. Hammel, for his part, brought a fairly classic German approach to Riesling (he seemed to want an earlier pick, high acid, and a stainless steel tank fermentation. Lotriet, in turn, was concerned that the high levels of “riesling acidity” would alienate the South African palate. He actively sought to reduce that perception.
The end result is a fresh, quite primary bottling, with plenty of clean, clear fruit (white peach, a touch of pineapple, some grapey muscat notes) laid over a pleasant textural leesy, base. The sadist in me did crave a little more “zing”, though.
The wine is produced entirely from estate fruit, grown on Delheim in Stellenbosch. The grapes were given 24-hour skin-contact, pressed, and then settled for five hours. They were then wracked into another tank, cooled down to 2 degrees celsius, and held at that temperature for six weeks while stabilization occurred. The juice was innoculated with a yeast called 1895C, which had been isolated from a bottle of Swiss wine discovered on a ship that sunk in 1895.
Portions of the wine were fermented in concrete tanks (Lotriet’s influence) while other components were barrel-fermented in old oak barrels, finished with acacia heads (more Hammel maverick).
Alcohol 13.5% | Total Acid 6.7g | Residual Sugar 4g

An easy-drinking 90 pts

Three More South African Rieslings worth exploring

#238 Thelema Riesling 2018

watch video

#267 Hartenberg Tenacity Riesling 2019

watch video

#201 Pounding Grape ‘Fairies in the Garden’ 2020

watch video