After centuries of being the belle of the ball, it seems the world's most noble white wine is now a wallflower. Though experts all but shout Riesling’s praises from the rooftops, the American public turns a deaf ear, still preferring the familiar charms of Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Give it a try, folks. It's bright acidity and outstanding fruit profile make it wonderful alone, but pair it with an Easter Ham, and you, too, will be screaming its name.
What's so great about Riesling, anyway? Well for one thing, it's bursting with terrior. It expresses the soil and air of a location like no other grape in the world, yet it’s never so transparent that it loses its own distinctive character. In fact, this grape is a powerhouse of vivid flavors. No matter where Riesling is grown, or how it is vinified, the tell tale aromas of apricot, peach and mineral shine through. Add to that it's uncanny ability to improve with age (think pleasing petrol), and you can see why Riesling was the most sought after wine for generations.
Though grown throughout the world, one cannot separate Riesling from its native Germany. Without a doubt, some of the best examples come from the Mutherland; in fact, they are a well suited pair. Riesling’s hardwood stems, late budding flowers, and early ripening grapes allow it to thrive in the cold climate. Meanwhile, Germany's steadfast ingenuity and dedication have created vineyards that maximize every ray of sun so that the grapes can ripen even in the most unlikeliest of places. Indeed, the Mosel Saar Ruwer, arguably home to the finest wines, is a study in aspect and elevation. The Germans prize ripeness so much that the highest quality wines (QmP) are categorized by it. Ripeness levels are determined by must weight or sugar content at harvest, and every label lists it right along side grape variety and location. For the non-German speaking public, these may prove a bit confusing. Here are some basic definitions:
Kabinett: The lightest of the quality wines. Riper than table wine, but picked at normal harvest. Can be dry “trocken” or off-dry “halbtrocken”
Spatlese: Late harvest. Typically a bit sweet, but can be dry.
Auslese: Late harvest of selected bunches. May have noble rot or “edelfaule”. Rarely dry.
Beerenauslese: Late harvest of hand selected grapes. Typically has noble rot; almost always sweet.
Trockenbeerenauslese: Late harvest of grapes strongly effected by noble rot. The "trocken" prefix refers to the shriveled apperance of the grapes, not dryness of wines which are, indeed, quite sweet.
Eiswien: Grapes harvested after freezing on the vine. Very prized, rich and sweet.
Though Germany creates many lovely dry wines, its greatest Rieslings are a delicate balance of residual sugar, bracing acidity and expressive terroir. The wines of Alsace, just across the Rhine river, could not provide a sharper contrast if it were half way across the world. The wines are full-bodied, bone dry, and designed to enhance the rich cuisine. Perfectly situated near Frances Vogeses mountains, the climate, though fairly northern, boasts long, warm, dry autumns. These stellar growing conditions, combined with an intense variety of soils, create very distinctive wines that are often imitated but never duplicated anywhere else.
Happily, the rest of the world’s growers appreciate Riesling a bit more than consumers, because it is by no means confined to Europe. Many countries, including the US produce Rieslings in a variety of styles. One of the greatest new world regions is right here in New York. So bake that ham and pop open a Riesling. Here are a few favorites.
Salmon Run Riesling, Finger Lakes New York 2005 $14: Floral, apple, peach and citrus. A hint of sweetness adds body and balance.
Darting Riesling Kabinett, Pfalz, Germany 2005 $16: Ripe and round with a great balance of fruit and acidity. Nice minerality.
Cousino Macul Riesling, Maipo Valley, Chile 2004 $9: Dry, bright, racy with tangerine, peach and mineral flavors. Outstanding with rich, spicy fare.
Hugel Riesling, Alsace France, 2004 $18: A lovely wine from one of Alsace’s greatest producers. Floral, fruity and bone dry.
Hopler Riesling, Burgenland, Austria, 2005 $21: Dry, crisp with mineral notes from the granite soils of this family estate. Light with a lingering finish.
J&H Strub Riesling Kabinett, Rheinhessen, Germany, 2004 $19: Medium-bodied with classic flavors of apricot and minerals. Grown in vineyards that date to Roman times.
Meulenhof Wehlener Sonnenurh Riesling Spatlese, Mosel, Germany, 2004: Ripe peach with an elegant spiciness. A bracing acidity keeps the luscious sweetness in a delicate balance.