My life in Riesling, with Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, David Motion and Stuart Pigott

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Thursday night was the Riesling Fellowship dinner at Vintner’s Hall. It quite grand – gentlemen were required to wear jackets and ties. [Aside: whenever I attend a wine trade event in a suit it is amazing the number of people who come up and complement me, as well as expressing surprise that I should be dressed smartly. I suspect they find it impossible to believe I am capable of appearing in a presentable manner. Or perhaps it is because my usual standard of dress is just so poor.] A small tasting was followed by dinner, but in between there was a seminar titled ‘My Life in Riesling’, during which four Riesling notables gave a short speech about how they came to love Riesling and presented a favourite wine.

Jancis Robinson
Jancis began by sharing how her first Riesling experience wasn’t actually Riesling. It was a Lutomer Riesling that her grandmother shared with her when Jancis was a young teenager, over lunch in Somerset. Later, at Oxford University, she made friends with a girl whose father was a Devon doctor with a wine cellar. This was the late 1960s and Jancis would go with her friend to GT Jones and her pal would point out that green bottle was Mosel and brown bottle was Hock. Her first proper experience of Riesling was via a boyfriend whose father was a German professor of law with a holiday house at Interlaken in Switzerland. While everyone else drank beer, he would withdraw a nice bottle of German Riesling from a wooden chest. ‘This first drew to my attention that German Riesling was great,’ shared Jancis. She’s very happy that German Riesling is now so varied.

Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett 2003 Mosel, Germany
Tasted blind. Very intense nose of apricot, citrus, peach and wax. Viscous, fine, linear palate with wonderful notes of citrus, honey and melon notes. Off dry, with amazing precision and power. I really like the texture and generosity, with some herb and wax complexity. This is stunning. 95/100

 

David Motion
David first got his taste for alcohol aged 8 at an Aunt’s wedding, back in 1967. But his wine awakening was German. His mother hailed from Germany, so they holidayed there as a family. Aged 14, in Baden, he was allowed to taste the wine, and it dawned on him that a wine from one part of the hill tasted different from a wine from another. Fast forward to the 1980s and David began to have some success as a record producer. He started buying wine from Lay & Wheeler: JJ Prum Rieslings often found their way into mixed cases. David’s career progressed and he began writing music. This generated some spare cash, and he decided to use it to try to buy an income. So he bought the local wine shop (The Winery). Within a year he realized it was impossible to survive by buying wine from the UK (with the agent’s margin, there wasn’t enough left for him)  and so switched to direct importing. The customers stayed with him on this journey, fortunately. David says that he ‘was haunted by Riesling,’ and wanted to sell German Riesling through the shop. He went on a buying trip, and bought 75% sweet Riesling, 25% dry, with a view to using the dry wines to act as a bridge helping customers to graduate to sweet Riesling. But he found that the dry wines sold and the sweet wines didn’t. ‘Ever since then we’ve just been doing the dry ones,’ he reveals. ‘Our message is that German Riesling is dry. There’s a new generation who have no history with German wine, and a dwindling generation of Brits who hold prejudices from the 1960s and 1970s, but they can be swung too. We are pushing at an open door now.’ The range at The Winery is 100% direct import, and it’s one-third German. Of that, 75% is dry Riesling, 24% is Spatburgunder, and 1% is sweet Riesling. He imports German wines from 47 growers, from seven regions.

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Bischel Binger Scharlachberg Riesling Trocken 2012 Rheinhessen, Germany
Very fine, fresh, linear and pure with structured citrus fruit. Real finesse here. It is tight but it has lovely pear and melon freshness with good precision. There’s a hint of honey, too. Very stylish. 93/100 (£27.99 The Winery)

 

Hugh Johnson
Hugh Johnson began by recalling a time when, in the 1950s and 1960s, Riesling was the number one white wine. ‘All grand dinners started with Hock or Mosel,’ he says. ‘We didn’t think about dry or sweet, we were thinking about them in terms of balance.’ The great and the good loved Riesling. What went wrong? Hugh puts it down to the 1971 wine law. ‘Government sabotage is what did-in German wine.’ When he complained about this to the German authorities, they said, ‘Johnson, you are an elitist.’ ‘Yes, in France they call it quality,’ was his reply. ‘I was depressed by seeing the downhill progress of my favourite grape’. Hugh is not really a fan of the dry German Rieslings, and complains about the ‘whoring after dry white wines,’ which he sees as a problem. ‘Why make a dry white wine that you could make from any number of grapes?’ He also thinks that people confuse the two ends of the market and quoted Goethe: the rich want the best wine and the poor want lots of wine. ‘We think we are educating people about wine when we say that there is a great deal at Waitrose, but there is a lot more to wine than this.’

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Bürklin Wolf Forster Jesuitengarten Riesling Trocken 2001 Pfalz, Germany
Very fine and fresh with some waxy notes alongside the citrus and pear fruit, with fresh lemon and herb notes. It clearly has some age, but it’s still quite taut. There’s a bit of sweetness here but it comes across as dry, with crystalline fruits and some grapefruit character. A wine with real finesse. 94/100

 

Stuart Piggott
Stuart’s first experience of Riesling was when he was a language exchange partner at the age of 15, and stayed with a family in German. The father of the family took him to a refrigerator stuffed full of wine and beer, and said the magic words, ‘self service’. He liked what he drank. ‘Wine connects people,’ says Stuart. ‘We share an experience.’ It connects us to the place it comes from and the people who made it. Beyond this, he maintains, it connects us with history. The wine he showed was from a Nahe vineyard (Kupfergrube) planted in 1902 with convict labour, and Stuart says that it connects us with those people. He recalls standing in the tasting room of this estate on a sunny morning in 1984, which was then the Nahe state winery, with wine merchant Philip Eyres, who had taken Stuart on a buying trip. ‘Kupfergrube wines are etched into my memory and when I taste this wine it brings back all those memories,’ says Stuart. He was mentored by Philip Eyres, who had visited Hamburg in 1946 as a young man of 20. Hamburg was almost entirely destroyed by a firebombing raid in 1943 in which 40 000 civilians are thought to have lost their lives. ‘Philip’s enduring love of German wines came out of his time in Germany,’ says Stuart, describing his commitment to selling German Riesling as a ‘kind of reparation.’

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Gut Hermannsberg Schlossbockelheimer Kupfergrube GG 2012 Nahe, Germany
Complex with notes of herbs, nuts and wax, as well as tangerine and lemon fruit. Dry and tangy with some pithy notes and lovely lemony fruit. Pure and linear with keen acidity and real finesse. 92/100

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3 comments to My life in Riesling, with Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, David Motion and Stuart Pigott

  • Would love to see Hugh talk about wine in person. Sigh.

  • mahmoud ali

    One of my favourite varieties , from anyplace in the world , though I do have a soft spot for German Rieslings. In my neck of the woods it wasn’t me who deserted German Rieslings, if was the markert that deserted me. It’s getting better over here but the selection is slim and many are expensive .

  • Yes I love the Riesling from all around the world.
    But the German ones are the best. For me.

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