BEHIND THE BOTTLE: Sweet, But Not Too Much So

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2007 Grapes of Roth Riesling, $24

Yes, it’s the grape of wine-geeks the world over. Wine lovers that have tired of super ripe, oaky, high-alcohol “New World” wine, eventually turn to the sprightly, refreshing, complex and delightful riesling. The Oxford Companion to Wine calls it a contender for “the finest white grape variety in the world,” noting “the longevity of its wines” and “their ability to transmit the characteristics of a vineyard without losing riesling’s own inimitable style.”

Despite such fondness, the common perception that riesling is a sweet wine has caused many winemakers to “make a statement” by making an aggressively dry riesling.

This is a mistake, says Long Island winemaker Roman Roth. The point of riesling is balance. And in his first effort at riesling under his own label, the Grapes of Roth, Roth feels he nailed it.

The wine has 14 percent residual sugar, which puts it on the low end of sweet. But riesling is a high-acid grape—a natural counterpoint to sweetness—and because of the ripeness Roth got in 2007 the fruit is intense. Also typical of riesling is low alcohol— this wine has 9.6 percent. Altogether these balancing factors lead most drinkers to perceive it as dry. But the sugar will help the wine do what riesling does best: get better as it ages for years.

To get that moderate level of sweetness, Roth stopped the fermentation before all the sugar was converted to alcohol, and then to tweak it, he added “sweet reserve,” fresh grape juice reserved from the pressing before fermentation. Sweet reserve is used regularly in Europe’s cooler climes, especially in Roth’s home country of Germany, where it is called süssreserve, but unless someone says otherwise, Roth’s the first to use it on Long Island.

He’s also the first to make riesling from Split Rock Vineyard in Greenport on Long Island’s North Fork, owned by the Kontokosta family. Roth had been looking for the last eight or nine years before he found the fruit he wanted to make his cuvée. “I jumped at it,” he says.

Because riesling is a late ripener, it can be difficult to grow, but Split Rock’s site, north of the intersection of Routes 48 and 25, and the fact that it’s one of the easternmost vineyards on the East End, accommodates the grape. The cooling effect of Long Island Sound helps keep the vines from being too vigorous. That results in small
berries, and a high skin-to-fruit ratio that gives a lot of skin flavor, more varietal character and more intensity, says Roth.

“The low vigor pushed toward ripeness,” he says, “but because it’s east, there’s more acidity. You get a dynamic between the two. It gives this riesling a lot of playfulness and vibrancy.”

Which helps it stand up to flavorful food. Like a rice and curry from Sri Lanka, Roth’s wife’s homeland, or a pad Thai from Thailand or a biriyani from Indian.

The wine also benefits from the outstanding 2007 vintage, when the growing season started early and ended late with days and days of hot, dry weather in between.

You can open a bottle of the 2007 now, and appreciate the slatey and petrol aromas typical of German riesling and the juicy, ripe fruit with lime and pear on the palate that ripe riesling can sometimes achieve. Or you can hoard some—Roth has 10 cases in his basement—to see how rich it becomes with age.

Only 270 cases of the ’07 were made, and Roth expects to sell out before the 2008 is released Memorial Day weekend. Although 2008 was a difficult growing year, with more rain and mold to combat, Roth likes his second vintage just as well. And so, presumably, does his mother, Rosa, who is pictured on the wine’s label. “She was crying when she first saw it,” says Roth.

And smiling when she drank it.

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