One of the world’s most versatile wines, riesling is grown in regions around the globe and is increasing in popularity among winemakers and consumers alike – especially in New World countries like New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada. As a cool-climate grape, it can be grown in many areas where the climate is not conducive to growing other varieties.
Joyfully aromatic, food friendly and filled with personality, riesling wines deftly reflect the unique terroir of its region and vineyard. Made in a wide range of styles, it is no wonder that this wine is a favourite of chefs, sommeliers and wine professionals.
It’s unclear as to where riesling was first born, but most believe that it hails from Germany in the regions near the Rhine River. The grape was documented as early as the 1400s, and as producers moved their vines up steep slopes into poor soils over time, riesling boomed.
By the turn of the 20th century, riesling was the king of white wines and often served by royalty around the world. It’s seen its ups and downs since then, but its popularity is steadfast in Canada, where the grape thrives in all of the key wine-producing provinces, but especially so in Ontario and British Columbia (Quebec and Nova Scotia are the other two).
With its cool-weather climate, Ontario enjoys a special status as one of the few regions in the New World where riesling is a signature variety. In fact, it accounts for 17 percent of Ontario’s total annual production, with more than 96 wineries producing an annual average of 400,000 cases of riesling, some with vineyards that are now more than 30 years old.
The Okanagan in British Columbia is one of the world’s most northerly wine regions, with a latitude that is comparable to those in France’s Alsace, Germany’s Mosel and Rheingau, and Austria’s Wachau – regions that arguably produce the world’s best rieslings. Many vineyards in BC benefit from large diurnal temperature shifts, which is the difference between the warmest temperature in the day to the coolest temperature at night. Riesling loves this because cool nights enable growers to maintain riesling’s hallmark acidity.
Although it is often consumed young, riesling wines have high acidity and can last and improve in the bottle for decades. Over the course of aging, the wine often develops a chemical compound known as TDN. High concentrations of this compound impart an almost petrol-like aroma. While it might sound off-putting, wine enthusiasts view the petrol aroma as a hallmark of high-quality aged riesling.
In its younger form, riesling is known for expressive fruity, floral notes. Depending on where the grapes are grown, the fruit character can range from bright citrus to luscious stone fruits and pineapple. Jasmine and citrus blossom are common floral descriptors, while it’s not uncommon to also pick up honey, beeswax, ginger, minerality and that signature petrol note.
Within Canada, riesling can be made bone dry, off dry, lusciously sweet, or everything in between. It’s often used for producing Icewine, specifically in Niagara, and riesling Icewine is widely considered to be the most prized of the Icewine varietals. Its naturally high acidity is the perfect foil for the style’s high sugar levels. The best examples are super aromatic, crisp and refreshing, focused and intense, with a mouth-watering acidity that makes you thirsty for more.
Below are eight examples of expertly-crafted Canadian riesling – four each from Ontario and British Columbia – proving that one does not necessarily need to go beyond Canada’s borders to find delicious and collectible examples of this grand variety.
Cave Spring 2017 ‘CSV’ Riesling
Known as Canada’s preeminent riesling producer, Cave Spring has forged an international name, and this particular expression has become a staple on wine lists throughout all of Canada. Crafted from the finest parcels at their estate in Jordan, Ontario, this dry, complex riesling embodies Cave Spring’s highest commitment to quality and authenticity. The nose is complex, with aromas of wet stone, grapefruit, pear, honeycomb and ginger. Medium bodied and seamless, the palate is creamy up front with a rich, dense and mineral middle offering ripe orange, pear, honeyed almonds and spice. Riesling is always fashionable with spicy homemade foods but try this one with Ontario trout with dill sauce. ($29.95)
Martin’s Lane 2016 ‘Naramata Ranch’ Riesling
This single vineyard riesling comes from vines that sit on red granite and volcanic, silty soil. According to winemaker Shane Munn, “The Okanagan is a very unique and dynamic place to grow and make riesling. The soils are challenging.” The style here is off-dry, textured and complex. Munn pushes the skin contact more (to around 48 hours) and uses more alternative vessels (1,250L German oak and ceramic for the fermentation and elevage). The results are phenomenal, with tantalizing floral and wet stone aromas that lead to tangy and savoury flavours of tangerine, lemon and minerality on the palate. Definitely a step up in price from most, but the reward is absolute. ($55)
Thirty Bench 2017 ‘Wild Cask’ Riesling
Crafting world-renowned wines for over 25 years now, Thirty Bench has firmly placed itself among some of Canada’s finest wineries. The winery sits on one of the most important pieces of vineyard real estate in the country. In fact, this was a trailblazing property first planted to riesling in 1980. Winemaker Emma Garner oozes with pride over these vines, saying “our small lot riesling portfolio are an excellent representation of terroir. The wines are made in the same way yet all taste completely different! The only real notable difference is the soil in which they are grown. This ‘Wild Cask’ offering is fermented with wild yeasts in neutral wood puncheons and held in bottle for a year. It’s medium-bodied and off-dry with a very textured mouthfeel and intriguing aromas of wet stone, lemon, pear and green apple. Refreshing mineral notes and pineapple linger on the finish. ($29.95)
CedarCreek 2019 Platinum ‘Block 3’ Riesling
One of the original eight wineries in British Columbia, CedarCreek makes three different rieslings from their home vineyard on the eastern shores of Okanagan Lake. This Platinum Block 3 Riesling is sourced from a single block planted in 1991. Fermented in stainless steel and some oak foudres (large oak vessels), this is rich and remarkably textured. Lime zest, wet stone, nectarine, dried apricot and lemon blossom. It’s got wonderful complexity with beautiful acidity that lingers on and on. ($30)
Tawse 2018 ‘Quarry Road Vineyard’ Riesling
This riesling is from the clay and limestone rich Quarry Road Estate vineyard, planted in 2007, and it has quickly become one of Ontario’s finest examples of terroir-expressive riesling. Certified organic and biodynamic, the nose of this 2018 vintage is delightful, consisting of fresh green apple and honey, with the quintessential, yet delicate petrol character. The palate is ripe with flavours of mandarin and citrus zest, which are complemented by a creamy mouthfeel, a spark of minerality, and a crisp finish. This riesling really sings, encouraging a second glass with ease. ($24.95)
Tantalus 2018 ‘Old Vines’ Riesling
As indicated on the label, this riesling is from old vines, and in fact, they’re some of the oldest in all of BC, planted in 1978. A wine made with the intent to show off its incredible sense of place, this is an interesting and elegant riesling, full of complexity and intense flavours. It pours pale yellow in the glass and emits tantalizing floral aromas, along with lime zest, ripe orange, pineapple and freshly picked herbs. The palate is intensely focused and mineral driven, which speaks to the single vineyard block these grapes are grown on. Bold flavours of tropical fruits with fresh lime and pear are complemented by wet stone and bursts of petrol. Although contemplative and delicious now, this wine’s long cellaring capability will reward those who can stand to wait 5-10 more years. ($35)
Hidden Bench 2017 ‘Estate’ Riesling
This is 100 percent organically certified and estate grown riesling from the winery’s Locust Lane, Felseck and Rosomel vineyards – sites with plantings that range from late 1970s through to late 2000s – which lends to this being quite a complex wine. The nose has beautiful peach and floral notes. The palate is bright with apple and pear, minerality and balanced acidity. It’s wonderfully textured with a lovely finish. Drink or hold mid-term. ($24.95)
Mission Hill 2018 ‘Reserve’ Riesling
What I enjoy most about a quality riesling is the ability for it to translate its terroir, thus becoming more than just a one-dimensional wine that tastes sweet. Sure, there’s more residual sugar in riesling, but we’re not supposed to mind it – or even notice it much – if it’s made well. This reserve riesling presents a medium body with multi-layered and complex notes of citrus and orange peel, pear, apple and very refreshing wet stone and minerality. It’s fresh and mouth bursting, yet crisp and cutting, and the finish is excellent. ($24.75)