Cardinal virtues

Church-loving German aristos make a great Riesling

Few German families are as intricately entwined with the history of central Europe as the Schönborns, one of whose scions is currently Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, and a leading figure in the ongoing revival of Catholic theology. Historic estates of the Schönborn family stretched across Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Hungary, reaching as far as Subcarpathian Rus. And their involvement in Church affairs down the ages helped to secure the counter-Reformation from defeat.

The family has also been in the wine business since 1349, and has amassed in the course of the ensuing six and a half centuries an enviable portfolio of vineyards on the Rhine, among them Schloß Schönborn in the Rheingau.

Those educated in the wines known to our parents as Hock (after the village of Hochheim) and to Shakespeare as Rhenish will remember them as delicate, flowery concoctions, with a remarkable ability to stay fresh in the bottle despite a strength of between 7 and 10 per cent. They came in elegant flutes, sporting the names of vineyard parcels as suggestive and perfumed as their wines - Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg or Erbacher Marcobrunn, to name two in Schönborn hands.

All that has changed. The hooligans who have broken into the sanctuary where we winos sipped in reverent silence demand a global product, at global strength, with no frills, clear labels and a rubber stamp from the Eurobores. Such a wine is on offer from Corney & Barrow, a Rheingau Riesling from Schloß Schönborn, which clocks in at 12 per cent, and comes fighting fit from its screwtop bottle, with enough sweetness to defeat a pickled herring and a flowery nose like Auntie. A punchy aperitif and a good swig for Riesling lovers.

The Muscadet-sur-Lie is like the Rheingau Riesling to look at: pale and watery. But it is wholly unlike it in flavour - bone-dry, stony, with a salty aftertaste and almost no nose - like a seashell from which the life has departed. With a dish of moules marinières this would go down a treat: but if it's an aperitif you're after you should buy the Riesling.

Henri Bourgeois's cheerful Pinot Noir is as impressive as ever: ripe, fruity, and beautifully balanced. More than a match for the cheaper Burgundies, this wine is from the Loire Valley's Jardin de France, and is entitled to no better appellation than that of vin du pays.

For lovers of Loire wines, however, the Saumur-Champigny is required drinking. Grown from the Cabernet Franc on brown limestone mixed with red stones. this has a clean, pebbly quality, with a fine peppery nose and an elegant finish, slipping down the tube like a starched archbishop rustling from the room. If you could drink Cardinal Schönborn, he would taste like this.