The region in which German Riesling grapes are grown is centered on the valleys of the Mosel River, especially along two of the Mosel tributaries, the Ruwer and the Saar. These valleys are far from rolling: The valleys along the Mosel are steep, so much so that they might seem (if they were not already planted with vines) to seem too steep to support viticulture. These hillsides are also relatively steep, which is one of the most important elements in what makes German Rieslings acquire their specific identity. The higher altitude at which the grapes are grown translates into a cooler microclimate for the grapes, which lengthens the period that it takes for the grapes to ripen. This is one of the fundamentals of German Rieslings (Dawson & Molesworth, 2011).
The soil type in the Mosel Valley also affects the taste of the Rieslings produced from the region's grapes. The soil combines several types of slate (including a range of colors from red to blue that incorporate subtle but important chemical differences that get played out in the final taste of the wine). Both the steepness of the hills and the slate-based soil contribute to Rieslings that are considered to be among the purest of the wine variety.
The Mosel Valley has long been considered one of the world's most beautiful river valleys. This region, formerly known as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in honor of its three rivers, is proud of its Riesling wine.
Some of the greatest Rieslings in Germany and in fact in the entire world come from the Mosel Valley. Experts can often identify Mosel Rieslings because of the slate in the local soil, which may impart a taste of flint. Mosel vineyard slopes are among the steepest in the wine-producing world.
They sometimes attain a whopping 70 degrees. The soil is so precious that every spring local workers lug pails of soil up these slopes. This arduous activity temporarily reverses the effect of the rains that wash the soil down every winter. (A Mosel Riesling, 2011)
Mosel Valley Rieslings are also especially marked by the fact that they are slightly sweeter than Rieslings from other parts of the world. The higher sugar content of Mosel Rieslings balances out the high acidity of the varietals from this region, and this balance of sweet and acidic is highly characteristic of Mosel Rieslings (Slinkard, n.d.)
Neighboring Rieslings: The Wines of Alsace
The Rieslings of Alsace share some key characteristics with the Rieslings of the Mosel Valley, which is hardly surprising given that the two wine-growing areas are relatively close to each other geographically. (Of course, Alsace has also changed political masters over the centuries between Germany and France.) The wine-growing region of Alsace is fundamentally affected by the presence of the Rhine, which lies to the east of Alsace. The area is also fundamentally affected in terms of micro-climate by the Vosges Mountains on the east (Price, 2006, p. 16).
The wine region of Alsace inhabits the north-south narrow strip between this mountain range and this river, with the vineyards planted at a moderate altitude. The Vosges Mountains shelter this area in large measure from the effects of marine winds, which produces a local climate that is generally both sunny and relatively dry. There are numerous sites along the base of the mountains that provide key degrees of sun exposure to the vines (Robinson, 2006, p. 14). The growing season is relatively long, with dry fall months that allow the grapes to stay on the vines longer than in other regions with relatively little risk of the grapes being ruined by rainfall.
This sets the Riesling growing style of Alsace apart from strategies pursued in the Mosel, which does not enjoy the same wet-and-dry cycle that exists in Alsace. The Mosel lacks the sheltering effect produced by the Vosges and so the German viticulturists must risk very uncertain weather conditions if they wish to leave their grapes on the vine as long as Alsatian growers do, with the real possibility that they may well lose their entire crops if they make a poor decision about the weather (Robinson, 2006, p. 15).
While climate and soil type both influence the taste of Alsatian Rieslings, there are also aspects of the way in which viticulture is practiced in Alsace that favor certain types of Rieslings over others. There are what might be best described as cultural traditions that are just as important as climate and chemistry that end up creating Rieslings that are "refreshing, not flat and fatiguing" (Asimov, 2011b).
He describes the differences between Mosel and Alsatian Rieslings as follows:
Not to belabor the comparison with German rieslings, but they live in a lacy, ethereal world in which, if the residual sugar is high, the alcohol is low, and with enough acidity the wines are delicate and crystalline. In Alsace, where the wines are much more powerful, even wines with residual sugar can have a lot of alcohol, which makes them feel bigger, sweeter and more voluminous.
Alsatian Rieslings have tended to become sweeter than is generally held to be acceptable for this type of wine. This has resulted primarily from a certain fatalism among the region's vintners:
Among more conscientious producers, efforts to cut back yields to make wines of greater intensity and concentration can result in grapes of profoundly high sugar levels. These producers also believe in intervening as little as possible in the winemaking, so if the fermentation stopped before all the sugar had been converted into alcohol, well, they believed, that's what nature intended. Making the wines dry might have resulted in absurdly high levels of alcohol in any case. You could say these wines ended up sweet with the best of intentions. (Asimov, 2011b)
The Rieslings from Alsace are marked by this tendency towards sweetness, but blended with the mineral tones that arise from the chalky soil, produce wine that can seem to be less sweet than they actually are. Alsatian soils tend toward the alluvial, a soil type that combines a range of nutrients distributed in many different combinations within a small area (Price, 2006, p. 15).
The richness of the soil chemistry and its variability ensure a wide range of tastes and aromas. The physical make-up of the soil benefits the entire wine country because the content of clay in the soil allows water to enter the soil and stay close to the vine's roots in ways that are ideal for health of the vines throughout the entire growing season. (Soils in Alsace, 2008).
In Alsace, the scale of variability in soil composition and conditions is in the range of 100 meters. Hence, if you walk 100 meters in any direction, you will normally find soil conditions that are significantly different in at least one important aspect. It is therefore not surprising that each commune and each hillside is divided into hundreds of named parts. (Geology of the vineyards of Alsace, 2008)
Finger Lakes Rieslings
Wine regions tend to be dedicated either to red or white grapes, although there are of course some regions that mix both. A highly unusual viticultural strategy is to shift from being primarily red to primarily white (or the reverse). But this is close to what has happened in the Finger Lakes wine country, which was until quite recently known only for its production of red wine grapes. However, in the last decade, it has also become the home to a number of Riesling wineries. This is true despite the fact that the region is certainly not the typical Riesling climate and is profoundly different from the ancestral German climate of the oldest Rieslings.
The difficult climate, combined with a diverse combination of soils, makes the Finger Lakes one of the most unusual American wine regions. In the last decade or so, it has begun to show its enormous potential, as a small but growing number of producers makes graceful wines that stand in contrast to prevailing styles from the West Coast. (Asimov, 2011).
The "difficult" climate -- difficult for wine production, that is -- is directly related to the nature of the lakes.
This should hardly be surprising given that the lakes are the most single important environmental and ecological feature of the region. As Asimov (2011) describes the importance of the lakes for viticulture: "The lakes, deep claw marks left in the earth of west-central New York by glaciers moving south from the Hudson Bay, are as much a part of the winemaking culture here as tough vintages like 2001."
Both soil type and climate are central in determining the distinctive features of the Finger Lakes Rieslings. The most important climatological feature is that the significant depth of the lakes serves as a stabilizing force on temperature, a force that "nudges this otherwise inhospitable region to a level of bare tolerance for the fine wine grapes planted on the lakes' slopes" (Asimov, 2011). The depths of the lakes prevents them from freezing…