Every wine professional, always and everywhere, adores Riesling. (It is possible to make such a claim because it is true.) So why doesn’t everyone else? In fact, so why do so few others?
The World’s Greatest White Wine
Winemakers, wine writers, cooks high and low, serious amateurs—people in the know about what makes a grape great—cannot slurp enough of Riesling’s purity of delivery, its juicy flavors or super-taut acidity, the latter quality its best feature at table.
Dry, sweet, German, Australian, Austrian, it does not matter—many call Riesling the world’s greatest white wine. But certainly not the world’s most popular—that would be Chardonnay—just the world’s greatest.
What do the pros know that the Joes don’t?
They know that Riesling is not the flaccid, mawkishly sweet swill that once paraded through American wine shops under the names Liebfraumilch, say, or Zeller Schwarze Katz (wines in which, truth be told, little Riesling was to be found).
They know that in order to enjoy Riesling, a wine lover need not be required to read—much less decipher—a label that says, for example: “Hospitien Serriger Schloss Saarfelser Schlossberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.”*
They know that Riesling ages longer—and with greater flowering—than any other white wine. They know that no wine but Riesling can accompany—successfully—foods as diverse as smoked fish, vinaigrettes, spicy Indian curries, cream sauces, savory pastries and moderately sweet desserts.
They know that Riesling, more than any other white wine grape, reflects its terroir without losing its crystalline character as Riesling—so that Riesling from Whelen along the Mosel always tastes of minerals, and Riesling from Traben Trabach, of cold steel; that Riesling from an Alsace Grand Cru is rich and wine-y, and Riesling from the Clare Valley in Australia tastes of lime and that its acidity is like licking the edge of a razor.
They know that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Riesling cost more and was more highly prized than the reds of Bordeaux (primarily because, due to its acidity and extract, it could age for decades).
And they know, most of all, and somewhat sadly, that Riesling is not Chardonnay—for good and bad. It doesn’t take well, as Chardonnay does, to the sweet deliciousness of oak. It doesn’t overcrop and remain acceptably tasty. It isn’t rich and fat and broad in the mouth. Pit against the ubiquitous Chardonnay, Riesling, in short, loses the Sexy Wine Olympics.
What It Will Do For You
Which is too bad—but only another chance for Riesling to strut its stuff. Once experienced, good Riesling is hard to forget, even if you’re married to Montrachet.
Riesling combines, so electrically, a vibrating acidity with an enormous range of fruity flavors: lime, lemon, green apple, white peach, quince; or when very ripe, apricot, pineapple or nectarine, honey, marzipan or warm shortbread; with botrytis cinerea, the noble mold, it tastes of dried apricots, honey, almonds or golden raisins.
Many folk believe that Rieslings are all sweet. In fact, few are.
Sure, 30 years ago, when America woke up to wine, a covey of nuns in blue brought us all we knew about Riesling via German wine—and the news was sweet.
But that’s an old—very old—story. By and large, today’s German wines are dry. Plus, they’re so delicious and versatile at the table that anyone serious about dining, once having tasted them with food, is stricken with addiction for them. And note, when Germans dine, they drink their dry wines.
But when Riesling is sweet, how sweet it is. Winemakers can make Riesling sweet by arresting fermentation (and leaving unfermented fructose, more fruity-flavored and delicious than the earlier-fermented glucose) or by adding what’s called süssreserve (the “sweet reserve”), unfermented Riesling juice, a method that adds back in a lot of boring glucose.
Or winemakers, in conjunction with a beneficent harvest, can leave Riesling grapes to hang on the vine, to develop and enrichen their flavors and fatten their ripe sweetness. Then, picked at successively riper degrees of sweetness and richness, these late-harvest wines become some of Riesling’s greatest, most alluring and ravishing achievements.
Pairing Riesling with food means taking into account what style or type of Riesling is inside the bottle: dry, off-dry, lean and tight, or rich and full. (Very sweet Rieslings are in a food world of their own.)
Remember, more than anything, that Riesling’s acidity is a wonderful match for any food that is salty (examples: oysters, cured meats and fish; olives, feta cheese, Asian dishes with soy) or acidic foods (examples: tomatoes, pickles and capers; any citrus, say on fish).
Off-dry or medium-sweet Riesling is delicious with foods that contain a little sweetness themselves, such as fruit salsa, caramelized or roasted root vegetables, any food with added sugar (or honey) and many berry or fruit dishes or desserts.
Very sweet Rieslings are best served by themselves. About the sweetest level of Riesling that will work with most desserts is auslese.
*Translation: A (German) wine made from ripe Riesling grapes from the 2002 vintage, from the hillside vineyards of the Castle Saarfels, in the town of Serrig, along the river Saar, made by the United Hospices (in Trier). Whew.
~ Bill St John