The Life of Wine

 |  April 26, 2011

Before I bang on about what a brilliant grape Riesling is I would like to answer a question I was asked recently: How do you tell if a bottle of wine is corked? And, if it is, what do you do about it? Right. If it smells wrong and it tastes wrong after the cork is popped, a lot of the time, it’s corked. Humans have the ability to pick up the tiniest fraction of TCA – the contaminant which causes wine taint – in a glass of wine and even the tiniest fraction screws a bottle. It’s not the same as a bottle being tired or old; it’s an immediate pause, just after you’ve taken a sniff or a swig, when you wonder: Is that right? If you have that pause, you’ve probably just experienced taint.

So what to do when this happens? You are absolutely within your rights to send a wine back if it lands on your restaurant table corked. You are paying for it, and if it’s off it should be replaced. Your waiter will probably have a sip and the subsequent facial spasm will confirm that you are correct. The same with shops: no retailer is going to refuse to take back a corked bottle of wine and replace it, unless they welcome poor publicity.

All wine should smell fresh; most of the time fruity. If it smells of cardboard, tastes bitter and reminds you of an old sock, it’s definitely not right. If it tastes even slightly wrong, send it back.

The problem with living in Chiang Mai is that all too often the wine simply tastes wrong because it’s knackered and cooked. Not because it came out of the barrel that way, but because we live in a hot country which still needs to learn that wine hates sunbathing outside storage depots. Wine which has been sitting out on the runway of Chiang Mai airport for hours, or on the back of a truck from Bangkok, and then thrown into a fridge is going to be extremely grumpy when it’s let out of the bottle. But the wine is not tainted, it’s just been abused. It will taste flat, fruitless and often of boiled prunes. Send it back.

So on to Riesling: much like a bottle of wine this grape does not respond well to being interfered with. Once picked, squeezed and fermented Riesling likes be left alone to its own devices. It is probably the white grape which best accentuates the environment in which it has been grown rather than the whims of the wine maker. Unlike Sauvignon Blanc and most Chardonnays, it is a white wine which defies the DYA – drink youngest available – rule and often requires a period of aging. It is also the one white grape which can take on almost any food pairing you throw at it, which makes it an ideal companion for all kinds of Thai cuisine.

Riesling is remarkable for its fabulous aromas – a vase of flowers, a pot of honey, citrus fruits, nuts and a hint of spice. It is pure, clean and bright and is also often low in alcohol, can be bone dry or intensely sweet. It can be light or it can be robust. It is a German grape, and the finest examples are to be found in the Mosel Valley. However, South Australia, South Africa and California are currently producing some very nice efforts.

Choosing a Riesling can appear trickier than it need be because of the German wine labels. Quite simply the longer the term on the label, the sweeter it will be. Although not always the case, the following tends to be true: Kabinett is light bodied, low in alcohol and dry. Spatlese is medium-bodied and off-dry. Auslese is often dry (but can be sweet) and fuller bodied. Beerenauslese has a nice level of acidity and sweetness and Trockenbeerenauslese is most definitely sweet.

Trocken means dry – a useful word to look out for if the German labelling appears a little overwhelming. If the label reads Eiswein, then it is an intensely sweet dessert wine created from grapes which have been allowed to freeze on the vine. So put back that Aussie Chardonnay and the Sauvignon Blanc and reach for a light, refreshing or nectar sweet Riesling. Go on, I dare you.