Tuesday, September 15, 2009

All Riesling is Sweet, Right?

When I say the word "riesling" what is the first thing that comes to mind? If you are like most people, your first reaction is "sweet". Other folks might think of the stuff in a blue bottle they stole out of Granny's liquor cabinet. Wine geeks probably say "acidity". I would like to take a couple of paragraphs to write about what is quite possibly the greatest white wine-making grape in the world. Native to Germany, Riesling is one of those grapes that can take on just about any form. It can be anywhere from bone dry to cloyingly sweet, light and airy to syrupy, watery and flavorless to deep, dark, and concentrated, and can cost anywhere from $3 to well into the $1000's per bottle.
The riesling that most people think of is from Germany, which is where a majority of the quality juice is produced. The wines from there, in a very general and over-simplified sense, tend to be a touch fruit-forward, showing apricot and lemon candy flavors with a dose of slate and minerality. I won't go into the fine details of reading a German wine label, but I do want to address some terms. In the QmP wines (the top level), you will see the terms Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, or Trockenbeerenauslese (also called TBA). Simply put, this is just a term that indicates the ripeness level of the grape at harvest. They loosely translate into the sweetness level of the wine (going from the driest style (kabinett) to the sweetest style (TBA), however this doesn't have to be the case. Remember, sweetness in wine depends on the sugar level at harvest, and how much of that sugar was fermented out to create alcohol. There are plenty of spatlese level rieslings out there that have been fermented completely dry. Confused? Sorry, I digress. The one common thing that you will see in Riesling, no matter where it is from, is acidity. This is a high-acid grape that in its finest forms can literally age for decades. I have had the chance to drink old rieslings, and some are absolutely stunning.
Germany isn't the only place that makes this wonderful grape. Just look to some of the cooler growing places in the world, as Riesling doesn't do well in heat. Here in the old U S of A, there are some wonderful versions coming out of New York State, Washington, and Oregon. They tend to be a touch sweet, with low alcohol contents, and really pleasant to drink. I also like the almost bone-dry wines that come from the Clare Valley in Australia. These are always easily identifiable in blind tastings because they have a distinct lime note to them. They can also get a note of "petrol" to them- think of the smell on your hands after you fill your gas tank, but in a good way. Many Germans get this too- JJ Prum is known for it. Finally, there are really cool, drier versions coming out of New Zealand and South Africa.

One thing that I love about riesling is how utilitarian it is. It goes great just drinking a cool glass after work, and can match a huge variety of foods. In the last couple of weeks, I have drank riesling with cajun pasta, bratwursts, and Chinese takeout. In fact, most of the foods that you would drink a light beer or margarita with will generally take well to an off-dry riesling.

The trick to rieslings is to just start buying some. The labels are confusing, and have big German words on them, but don't be scared. I will address this soon enough.

Today's suggestion- go out and buy two bottles of Riesling- one from America (try Chateau St. Michelle), and one from Germany (look for Monchhof), and try them side by side. Let me know the similarities and the differences that you see in them.

Until next time, Cheers!

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