Riesling Masters 2016: the results

Quality across the board was encouragingly high in our latest Global Riesling Masters competition, with producers from the Old and New Worlds impressing with their sweet and dry expressions, finds Rupert Millar.

The Global Riesling Masters has established itself as one of the most popular tastings in the Masters series, not only because of the lingering affection for the variety held by most of the trade, but also because this faith is rewarded by an impressive level of quality and consistency.

“Riesling is always strong, and this was borne out again,” said Jonathan Pedley MW, while Hugo Rose MW agreed it was a “high-quality tasting overall – with few wines rejected or not being awarded a medal. I think the results will show strength at every level; there was a strong showing from countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and Austria.”

The judges were especially positive about the diversity of styles in the dry and sweet categories, the ripe character of the German and Austrian wines from the 2015 vintage, the ‘personality’ of many of the New World wines and the value of wines made at all levels with this variety. Yet, there were also concerns about the perennial problem of levels of sweetness and sulphur in certain wines.

About The Competition

In a crowded wine-competition arena, the drinks business Global Riesling Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the sweetness of the style, the blind-tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin. The best wines were awarded medals that ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine and one Master Sommelier on 24 November at The Dead Doll’s House in London. For more detail on the top-scoring wines, including tasting notes

Overall, two Masters were awarded; fittingly one went to a dry wine and one to a sweet. In the dry camp was an Austrian wine from Kremstal, a 2011 ‘Riesling Privat Senftenberger Pellingen 1 ÖTW’ from Weingut Nigl, and in the sweet corner a 2007 vendanges tardives from Domaine Charles Sparr in Alsace. Both were in their respective £20- £30 brackets.

Austria led the pack in the Gold medal leagues with five; Germany and Australia garnered four apiece, France two and there was one apiece for South Africa and New Zealand. There was a good haul of Silver medals across the board, even if it remained the highest medal colour for entries from the US, Chile and Canada.

RANGE OF STYLES
Perhaps Riesling’s greatest strength is the diverse range of styles it’s capable of producing. Naturally, therefore, it was a key talking point at the tasting, particularly as a lot of the wines didn’t always conform to classical stereotype. Rose mentioned the “old school” and “new wave” but, crucially, pointed out that, “new wave doesn’t always mean New World; there were some from Germany”.

The richer wines from Germany and Austria are a clear consequence of the warm 2015 vintage. Alcohol levels were quite high and the fruit profile was often more tropical and peachy than the citrus and lime one might expect. “Stylistically, there was a trend away from fresh green apple to tropical,” said Roberto Della Pietra.

The judges: (from l-r) Patrick Schmitt MW, Matthew Forster MW, Roberto Della Pietra, Jonathan Pedley MW, Rupert Millar, Hugo Rose MW and Clement Robert MS

“Germany and Austria have certainly benefitted from 2015,” said Pedley, “and because it was such a star vintage a lot of the top wines are gorgeous for drinking now – will they age though?” he pondered. Australia also performed very strongly, and there were a number of lean, rather racy wines – “with bottle age too”, noted a pleased Pedley – that stood in contrast to their riper, often younger, European cousins.

Matthew Forster MW praised the New World wines in particular for their diversity, saying it was clear that producers were “really exploiting” the potential of Riesling. He added: “The tasting showed there’s space for both styles, and I felt some of the Austrian wines were the apogée of that dry, full-on style – and the Australians were very good too.”

Austria and Australia in particular seemed to be the two countries where the judges had favourites, with the New World perhaps having the edge. Rose stated that, generally speaking, he was: “More impressed with the New World than the majority of wines I would call ‘classic’. They had more definition and personality.

“The classics had beautiful balance but perhaps not those other qualities.” Pedley noted he would have liked to have seen a few more Alsatian wines (despite one winning a Master) and Della Pietra commented on the scarcity of Chilean wines.

SWEETNESS AND SULPHUR
Clement Robert MS said he was “more impressed by the sweet wines rather than the dry and Pedley agreed that there were some “very good sweets”, but added there seemed to be something of a qualitative gap in the “medium” category – indeed, there was only one Gold in the category and the number of Bronze medals exceeded the Golds.

What made some of the ‘medium’ wines so hard to judge was the sugar levels were more uneven. Admittedly, the range of category, from 12-45 grams per litre, is broader than most, but nonetheless some seemed closer to dry wines while others might almost have deserved to be in a sweeter category.

Pedley added that it was a neat example of one of the reasons consumers remain so wary of Riesling as they have, “no idea if it will be sweet” – or, at least, how sweet it will be. Even though wines put into the Riesling Masters are categorised by sweetness levels (as well as price), with bands for wines under 4g/l, from 4- 12g/l and more than 45g/l, it is clear that even for the trade it’s not a simple thing to pin down exactly.

What chance then for the consumer? As Pedley summed up, sweet Rieslings are one of the variety’s greatest strengths but also, “its curse”. “Sweetness, but also the ‘egginess’ from sulphur, is what holds Riesling back from consumers,” countered Robert, for whom the issue of the (over-) use of sulphur and filtration is clearly a sore point.

Although he professed to be “impressed by cleaner, more fruit-driven wines”, he still felt quite a few showed the signs of reduction or stripped-out flavours. As he admitted: “You will always find very good Riesling with a lot of sulphur – Egon Müller for example.” Nonetheless, he continued: “It’s still difficult to appreciate sulphured wines.

A lot of winemakers still use too much sulphur and you end up with reductive wines.” There were definitely wines that were “refined and austere”, Pedley noted, but “in a good way”, and he added it was good to see producers from all countries “aiming for that leaner style”.

Patrick Schmitt MW and Jonathan Pedley MW

VALUE FOR MONEY
One aspect of the tasting that was particularly pleasing was the value for money Riesling represents – yet another reason to lament that sweetness levels mean many drinkers still steer clear of it. Forster said that while the, “quality was very high at all levels, wines under £10 show real value for the consumer”. Rose agreed: “We were pleased with many of the lower-priced wines.

They were clean and well made, giving a lot to the consumer. They are not banal wines.” With experience at several Masters tastings now, Pedley declared that the general standard was higher than for other varieties.

Like Forster, he particularly praised wines below £10. “You’ll find Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay at £10 and below that can be dilute and disappointing,” he said. Meanwhile, he added: “The price of top-quality Riesling remains very reasonable. It’s one of the great-value wines.”

The world’s best Rieslings from the Masters 2017

Riesling is beloved by the wine trade, and our latest Riesling Masters showed why. With wonderful expressions from a wide range of countries and regions, there was something to appeal to every palate and budget, writes Patrick Schmitt MW


It has been said before, but if there is one thing that marks out a wine professional, it is a love of Riesling. While consumers will often declare a preference for a particular grape, very few outside the trade tend to pick Riesling as their favourite variety – and this is something the wine industry has found puzzling for decades.

What is it that the sommelier or wine writer adores that the consumer doesn’t – or has yet to discover? Following our Riesling Masters tasting this year, this grape’s traits could be summed up by a combination of two key aspects: it has both personality and precision.

Riesling, when made well, is instantly identifiable, bursting with aromas of lime zest, white peach, sliced apple, and fresh flowers. It may be pale to look at, but it has an intense and distinct character. And it also has a sharp edge – Riesling cuts, rather than covers the palate. It provides a tangy, taut and recognisable sensation.

One wonders whether such features may be alienating consumers? Riesling may simply have too much personality and an overload of cold precision. Perhaps. But it can’t be a lack of quality that’s putting people off. Indeed, like previous Riesling Masters, this competition yielded some of the highest proportions of Gold medals – and, in this latest round, as many as five Masters (which is the very highest accolade of the series, and awarded only to truly outstanding wines).

As one judge, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, said: “Even a rather dismal, rainy day couldn’t dampen enthusiasm for an amazing group of Rieslings.” Notable is the range of sources for highquality Riesling.

Even within Germany, the number of great regions for Riesling is broad. Of course, the Mosel and Rheingau shone, but so too did warmer areas such as Pfalz and Baden. Beyond this nation’s borders, France, with samples from Alsace, showed the quality attainable elsewhere in Europe, with the biodynamic wines of Domaine Schlumberger picking up two Masters, one for a bone-dry style, and a second for a medium-dry grand cru example.

Also hailing from this French region was a Gold medal-winning Riesling from Michel Chapoutier’s Schieferkopf brand – a project started by the famous Rhône-based winemaker in 2006. Austria, as one might expect, also served up some stunning examples, in particular from legendary producer Schloss Gobelsburg, which was awarded a Master for both its dry and sweet Rieslings, proving this country’s capability to make class-leading wines at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum.

Then there were wonderful wines in a range of sweetness levels from the US and Canada, notably samples from Washington State and Niagara in these respective countries.

However, if there was a stand-out nation in the Riesling Masters this year, it was Australia, which has managed to create wines that are for the most part bone dry, but deliver a fruity refreshment with Riesling that is rarely matched elsewhere.

A lime cordial, flint and citrus zest intensity with remarkable consistency were the hallmarks of the great Rieslings from Eden and Clare Valleys, ensuring that these places took home the highest proportion of Golds. And, standing tall among such giants was the St Hugo Riesling from Eden Valley, a wine from Pernod Ricard Australia that shows why this nation (and producer) should be just a famous for its Rieslings as its Chardonnays.

It’s important to note too that such greatness, whether from the Mosel, Pfalz, Alsace, Eden Valley or elsewhere, doesn’t come at an unpalatable cost. These great wines may not be cheap, but they are certainly affordable, leading one to safely believe that Riesling offers the most accessible fine white wine experience available today.

Not only that, but there is no white wine better suited to extended cellaring, as the grape’s low-pH brings remarkable natural stability, allowing the wine to slowly develop layers of honey and toast over time, without shedding its uplifting acidity. Also, interestingly, in the case of the sweet wines, Riesling tastes drier with age – even if the sugar content remains the same.

This ensures that fully mature wines actually take on even greater levels of freshness. And, bearing that in mind, if one is looking for the ideal apéritif, then, as those in the wine trade have done for decades, serve a well-made, old, sweet Riesling. There are few better ways to start an evening, and certainly none that offer superior value for money.

The Judges

The judges: (l-r) Patrick Schmitt MW, Alistair Cooper MW, Victoria Burt MW, Keith Isaac MW,
Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Mark Savage MW and sommelier Caroline Fridolfsson

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