This Summer: Return of the Riesling
This Summer: Return of the Riesling
Posted May 30, 2016
I recently enjoyed a Riesling from Dandelion Vineyards, an award-winning producer in Australia – absolutely delicious! Lime and stone (not limestone but lime (citrus) and stone), good minerality, food-friendly acidity, bright flavors. Imagine picking up a round gray stone from a streambed, its edges smoothed from running water – imagine licking it (I hope you are not a germ-o-phobe). That’s kind of what it tastes like – I do not speak from experience, only a vivid sensory imagination. That with a twist of lime on the finish. Super tasty and refreshing and just perfect with food of all cuisines (I had Thai-style tofu to bring out notes of lime leaf, lemongrass and ginger).
Refreshing by nature, Riesling is an ideal wine for year-round drinking and especially for summer. It's made in a dazzling array of styles, so there's a wine for anyone and everyone.
Why don’t more people give Riesling the respect this grape deserves?
Riesling has a storied past and a reputation for being cloyingly sweet. It’s often a hard sell.
To quote Robinson's tome The Oxford Companion to Wine,
Riesling could claim to be the finest white grape variety in the world on the basis of the longevity of its wines and their ability to transmit the characteristics of a vineyard without losing Riesling’s own inimitable style.
Riesling, as a variety, has high natural acidity, which balances residual sweetness. Today’s producers are making great wines, and their offerings run the gamut from super-dry wines with tight acidity to opulent dessert wines.
So, where are they making these amazing wines?
Generally, Riesling does well in cool climates. It is resistant to frost and very cold-hardy. At high latitudes, where summer days are long and nights stay cool, Riesling ripens slowly over a long season and maintains the natural acidity that makes it shine.
Riesling's first home is in Europe – Germany, Austria, part of France. In the United States, Riesling thrives in the cooler-climate states of Washington and New York. Growers in New Zealand and Australia also put out some great offerings.
Go Ahead Germany, Show Us What You Got
According to the trade organization German Wine USA, Germany is home to the largest area of Riesling vineyards in the world, followed by Australia and France. Riesling accounts for almost one quarter of Germany’s total vineyard area.
Germany has a cold climate, too cold, some might think, to grow grapes. Located so far north, Germany has long hours of sunshine during the summer. This sun exposure is what makes Riesling such a star.
German Rieslings are made in a range of styles, from light and dry to rich and sweet.
- Kabinett Rieslings are light-bodied and typically off-dry. Vibrant acidity balances any residual sugar. They are light-alcohol, food-friendly wines and serve well as aperitifs
- Spatlese (which literally means “late vintage”) Rieslings are made from grapes harvested later in the season. They may be fermented dry or made with a touch of sweetness and will be fuller-bodied than Kabinett offerings.
- Auslese translates as “selection.” Winemakers only “select” the ripest, best berries, discarding anything that is rotten, underripe, or otherwise imperfect. These wines are lush with residual sweetness.
- Beerenauslese (which, if you type into Google Translate as two separate words translates to “elite berries”) are typically made from overripe grapes affected by noble rot (Botrytis). This is similar Sauternes (from Bordeaux) or Sélections de Grains Nobles (from Alsace). Producers take great care in selecting berries to make these full-bodied wines.
- Trockenbeerenauslese (which, if you type into Google Translate as three separate words translates to “dry elite berries”) are rich, sweet, and rare (like good life partners). Like beerenauslese, they are made from grapes affected by noble rot (Botrytis). Not only are these grapes diseased, they are also dried out to almost raisins. It takes some great winemaking skills to make amazingly tasty wines out of rotten raisins! And they do it! Totally worthwhile.
- Eiswein, or “ice wine,” is produced from frozen grapes. The grapes are left to freeze on the vine and are harvested and pressed, all while still frozen! Much of the water is left behind as crystals and the basis for this wine is a very rich, sweet, concentrated juice.
When buying German Riesling, the main regions to look for are
- Mosel, located along the river of the same name. Here, grapes are grown on steep south-facing slopes. Mosel is Germany's northernmost region. Its wines are the most delicate and offer refreshing acidity, making them food-friendly and age-worthy.
- Rheingau is south of the Mosel and generally produces richer wines
- Pfalz is the country’s second largest wine region and the southernmost. The warmer climate yields riper berries, so Pfalz Rieslings often showcase notes of stone fruit and even tropical aromas.
It's Just an Expression
Just over the border, the Alsace region of France is an important producer of Riesling. Alsatian Rieslings are typically dry with what tasters call “flinty” notes. Driven by the soil type and other factors of the vineyard’s terroir, Riesling can express minerality unique to the growing site. Like the vineyards of Mosel, those in Alsace are located on steep slopes.
In select vintages, Alsace also offers exceptional dessert wines. Look for Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) or Sélections de Grains Nobles (wine produced from grapes affected by Noble Rot, or Botrytis, if you prefer the scientific name). Though sweet, these wines are elegant and exciting. No one wants to drink pure sugar water (well, maybe some people do…). These wines have outrageous flavor and appropriate acidity.
Another River Region
Austria has limited Riesling acreage, but this grape is responsible for some of the country’s best offerings. Much of Riesling production takes place along the Danube River. Sensing a theme? In Germany, some of the best vineyards are along the Mosel River, Alsace’s vineyards are located along the Rhine, and in Austria along the Danube…hmm…
Like Alsatian Rieslings, Austrian Rieslings are typically dry, with the exception of beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese styles and eiswein. Look out for the terms trocken (dry), halbtrocken (semi-dry), halbsuss (semi-sweet) and suss (sweet).
The New World Brings Their Game
In the United States, Riesling grows well at Northern latitudes, in Washington and Oregon on the west coast and the Finger Lakes of New York on the east.
In Washington, Riesling is the second most widely grown white variety in terms of acreage (6,320 acres), second only to Chardonnay (7,654 acres), according to the Washington Wine trade organization. Some of the best Rieslings in Washington come out of the Columbia Valley.
In the Finger Lakes region, Riesling is the most widely planted variety, with 828.6 acres – this is more than two times the area devoted to the next most widely planted variety Chardonnay at 340.53 acres, according to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. Because of the diversity of soil types in the Finger Lakes, there is a great diversity in Riesling wine styles – wherever it is grown, Riesling is truly expressive of the terroir. Each Finger Lakes producer typically makes two to three styles of Riesling each year. Riesling wines range from dry to dessert and producers often label their wines accordingly.
Down under, Australia and New Zealand produce respectable Rieslings.
In Australia, Riesling wines are typically dry and are produced in cooler regions, such as Eden Valley and Clare Valley. Often these wines have a citrus-y note of lime – like I tasted in the Dandelion Vineyard Riesling from Eden Valley.
In New Zealand, Riesling accounts for only 3% of the white wine area - most is devoted to Sauvignon Blanc - and is grown mostly on the South Island, says New Zealand Wine.
One Size Does Not Fit All
As mentioned previously, Riesling is made in a wide range of styles:
o Late harvest
o Botrytized – Trockenbeerenauslesen in Germany
o Ice Wine
No matter what style, when tasting, try to decide if the wine is balanced – is the acidity extra sharp? Is the sugar cloying or balanced by acidity? I often liken this to determining if lemonade is well-made – you don’t want it to make your tongue feel all slimy afterward, and you don’t want it so tart that it’ll make everyone’s mouths pucker. You want it just right. And when it’s just right, oh how tasty! Now winemaking has a bit more to it than making lemonade but it’s a concept we can all grasp and one you can experiment with in your own kitchen if you have a couple lemons and some sugar around.
Partners in Crime
My amazing writing skills have thoroughly convinced you that Riesling wines are quite delicious…so of course you have to ask, what do you pair with them?
This will depend on the style of wine. Overall, with such bright acidity, Riesling is very food-friendly and uber-versatile. Good thing you can find crowd-pleasers in full liter bottles!
For drier styles, try pork or duck. Wines with bright acidity are perfect partners for fatty meats. Think about what is common on the dinner tables of Germany, Alsace, and Austria. Whenever I recommend pairings, I keep in mind what people eat where the wine was made. It only makes sense that people make wines to pair well with their traditional foods. So, try a Riesling with sauerkraut and sausage, or even with Quiche Lorraine – Lorraine is right next door to Alsace.
For semi-dry styles, try pairing with something spicy, like Thai food. I love that you can also enhance the lime notes in your Thai dish by pairing with a lime-leaning Riesling. However, if you ask Korean-born Jeannie Cho Lee, Master of Wine, she may just accuse you of being a wimp who cannot handle spice. In an interview with Food & Wine magazine, she remarked,
About the only time I pour sweeter wines is with European or North American guests who can’t handle spices… It’s funny: If you go to southern India or Korea or Sichuan province, they’re all drinking red wine. They love intensifying that burning sensation on the tongue with a dose of red wine tannins!
I love something a bit sweet with my spicy dinners. I may just be a wimp then.
Try sweet dessert style Rieslings with blue cheese and other salty cheeses. Alternatively, pair them citrus-based desserts, like lemon squares.
Have a great bottle you want to save for a special occasion? No worries! Great acidity translates to age-ability. The best Rieslings can be cellared for years.
Serve Riesling at your next barbecue, it's especially awesome with sausage. This summer Riesling returns to back decks and boat decks near you. Cheers!
$16.99 per btl
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$14.98 per btl