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Riesling, Changeling

The favorite new white comes from every corner, in styles from dry to sweet. How to choose?

Fine Cooking Issue 98
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Riesling is coming off a bad rep. It used to be thought of as a wine for beginners—a simple, sweet, easydrinking German white. Those who drank it admitted to their liking only sheepishly. (It’s a shame, really, because a well-crafted sweet Riesling was and is a wonderful thing.)

Fast forward a few years. Now, Riesling is the fastest growing white wine in the American marketplace and has been for nearly two years. So why this explosive growth in Riesling’s popularity?

I have a theory. Riesling, a grape with multiple personalities (an unsettling trait in people, but rather likeable in wine), is appealing because it’s a changeling of a wine, made from a malleable grape capable of all levels of sweetness and style. With Riesling, it’s always possible to discover something new, and its flexibility is the key to its charm.

True to its terroir

These days, Riesling heralds from many lands (not just Germany) and exhibits more styles than ever before. France, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, North America,  South America, and South Africa—not to mention Italy and southeastern Europe—are just a few of the countries and regions now growing this impressionable grape.

Depending on where it’s from, Riesling can be juicy, floral, earthy, tangy, tart, or fruity. Don’t be surprised to taste or smell lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, peaches, nectarines, apricots, apples, pears, melons, bananas, papayas, mangos, or pineapples—the list goes on. Sometimes Riesling is sweet; sometimes it’s dry. Just as often it’s something in between.

To really understand the range of Rieslings, consider trying bottles along the spectrum of dry to fruity.

Apart from Riesling’s different flavor profiles, the wine’s styles are as varied as its home countries: There are crisp and racy New Zealand versions; pungent, aromatic Aussie Rieslings; soft and delicate ones from New York and Michigan; powerful, dry Rieslings from Alsace and Austria. These enter a marketplace already confused by the myriad styles of German Rieslings, from lemon-lime tangy to pancake-syrup sweet.

Rieslings grown on the slate soils of some German and Alsatian vineyards smell intensely of honey, minerals, and beeswax (the Germans call the aroma firne). Far away in Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys, similar slate soils provide many of the same smells.

Other Riesling vineyards in Germany, Alsace, and Austria might have fewer slate rocks and express few of those notes. Rather, limestone, granite, alluvial, and volcanic soils bring their own flavors and aromas, each adding a distinct layer to Riesling’s complex brew.

Lacy to racy, crisp to coy

Just as personality is dependent on terroir, so is a wine’s potency. Alcohol levels in wine depend on how ripe the grapes are at crush. The warmer the climate, the riper the grapes and the more alcoholic the resulting wine. In the middle of Germany’s relatively cool Mosel River Valley, Riesling has a lacy delicacy from very low alcohol levels (less than 10 percent). No other grape is as interesting at such timid levels. Rieslings in Austria and Alsace are often much bolder, with 14 percent alcohol or more. America’s West Coast Rieslings are somewhere in between; Michigan and New York’s versions, as well as New Zealand’s, tend to be lower in alcohol, similar to Germany’s.

To top it all off , Riesling labels don’t help matters. German wine labels can be as confusing as an Umberto Eco plot synopsis. Sweetness information is scarce, though that may be changing.

A worldwide group of Riesling producers, under the rubric of the International Riesling Foundation, has devised a back label that provides some guidance. Participating wineries (producers everywhere have either signed up or are watching closely) will include a Riesling taste profile on their labels,and their wines will be designated as dry, medium dry, medium sweet, or sweet. With this new clarity, maybe some folks who haven’t yet fallen in love with the grape will join the Riesling rush.

Riesling reconsidered

Its popularity may be on the rise, but who exactly is draining these Riesling bottles dry? It doesn’t seem to be conservative wine buyers, who, put off by Riesling’s reputation as a sweet wine, overlook its potential. It’s got to be the foodies, chefs, and wine writers (yours truly included) who have been insisting for years that the grape has been wrongly dismissed. After all, just because Riesling is easy to enjoy doesn’t mean we should look down on it. Does great wine have to be difficult to drink?

Wine experts and chefs alike have long championed the Riesling grape for its flexibility and compatibility with a wide variety of cuisines. The tart-sweet nature of many Rieslings explains the grape’s ability to pair well with food, especially spicy dishes that benefit from a touch of fruit or sweetness. Its gentle demeanor doesn’t overwhelm lighter foods like shellfish (oysters and clams in particular), grilled fish, and pork, which can be overpowered by or even taste slightly bitter with bigger, more buttery whites like Chardonnay.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to grill someone for pouring a Chardonnay with shellfish, roast beef, or anything else for that matter. But with robust growth, new countries, adventurous drinkers, chefs, and wine writers on Riesling’s side, it seems clear that its Sybil-like nature is not a bad thing. Perhaps Riesling’s many personalities—sweet, dry, fruity, soft, bold, intense, mild—have a little something for everyone.


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