Long accepted by food and wine snobs as the wine to drink with food, Riesling gets no respect from the People. Riesling, the adaptable, comforting father of white wines, can be all weather, all things to all people, anywhere and everywhere. And it’s finally experiencing a well-deserved renaissance across the country — as quite possibly the world’s most perfect white.
Snubbed almost as often as White Zinfandel, riesling’s reported sweetness serves as its downfall and its saving grace. But riesling is the Sybil of grapes: Its multiple personalities run the flavor gamut from deliciously decadent dessert wines to bone dry and delicate. Those who swig sweet will be pleasantly surprised by the racy crispness of dry rieslings. Those who deify dry might be taken aback by how well the slight sweetness of a German Spätlese goes with spicy food.
Imagine a plate of stewed chicken curry or a sautéed, jalapeno-slathered fish in front of you. Riesling can hang. Its crisp acidity cuts through the richness of sauces and the full-frontal fruit tames spice. The flavors range from baked apples and fresh flowers to tangy grapefruit and lime, pairing well with seafood in citrus sauces, mild cheeses, salads with vinaigrette, and essentially any dish you make. This grape, like an episode of Mad Men, is the perfect balance between acerbic and sweet.
Rumor has it riesling is indigenous to Germany, filling squat jugs as early as the Middle Ages. The grape prefers cool weather, like that of its motherland, and does very well in the “late harvest” and “noble rot” stages of grape maturation (when the fruit stays on the vine in order to concentrate its sugars for dessert wines). The best bottles hail from Germany, Austria, France’s Alsace, Clare Valley in Australia, Columbia Valley in Washington State, New York State and Canada.
In the stores, you’ll find the tall, slender riesling bottles labeled several ways, yet they are all one in the same. White Riesling is the “botanical” name for the grape, but marketing wonks have latched on to the grape’s pseudonym: Johannisberg Riesling. Beyond that, labeling gets exasperatingly confusing. Bottles bearing cryptic, Gothic lettering (read: German) don’t make the purchase decision any easier. For German riesling, the drier versions are termed Kabinett and Trocken, but Spätlese and Auslese enter into the sweeter realm (try anything with a longer name — like Beerenauslese — and you’re in for a cavity-causing, yet delicious smackdown). Wines from France’s Alsatian region typically taste very dry, while sugar levels vary everywhere else. A good rule of thumb to judge sweetness on the label: Check the alcohol level. The higher the alcohol, the drier the wine since all/most of the grape fructose fermented to alcohol. But beware: Don’t judge a wine by its sugar. Many times in high-quality rieslings, the total acidity is so high that the tongue barely perceives it. (read more about the German ripeness labeling system)
Brilliant producers to seek out: S.A. Prum, Pewsey Vale, Dr. Loosen Eroica, Trimbach, Helfrich, Pacific Rim, Bürklin-Wolf, Nigl, Schloss Vollrads, Grosset, and Penfold’s Thomas Hyland.
And if you’re one of the patient folk out there, rieslings also age very well, especially those from Germany. If given the opportunity, snatch up an older one and enjoy its luscious honeyed, caramel goodness. It’s about as good as it gets.
Firestone 2007 Riesling Central Coast (California) This winery makes so many different kinds of wines, it’s like they’re manic. But they do make a tasty riesling. Soft and elegant with ripe white peaches, pineapple, caramel, diesel fuel and a tiny bit of effervescence that makes it interesting. Sw=3. $12. 3.5 stars.
Sweetness (Sw) rating: 1-10. Star rating: 1-5.