by Amy UllmanWe know what you are thinking: Riesling: sweet, light, fresh, easy drinking. Think you know Riesling? Think again. Riesling is one of the most misunderstood, maligned grapes in the vinous world. To paraphrase Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Five things, to be exact, all of which we outline below for your drinking edification:Riesling does not need to be sweet. Riesling can range from very dry to quite sweet. Many fall somewhere in the middle and are balanced with bright acidity. The 2010 Trimbach Riesling (one of our favorites) possesses a mere 2 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to a typical Starbucks Cafe Grande Latte at 26.9 grams, like our friends over at Alsace wines (click here for graph). So how do you know if your riesling is due to be sweet or dry before you try it?
Look for the terms Kabinett, Spatlese , Trocken, or Dry: Depending upon the country of origin, sweetness or ripeness levels can be indicated in a number of ways:
Kabinett: There are seven levels of ripeness for grapes within the German wine classification system. These classifications indicate how long these grapes were allowed to mature before they were plucked and pressed into grape juice. The longer the grapes hang, the riper they get. Sometimes they get so ripe they turn to raisins on the vine, producing the type of elixirs that are suitable only with the finest of foie gras or the richest of Tarte Tatins…..It’s not that kind of party. Kabinett wines are light, delicate effervescent and wondrous to behold, oftentimes with that snap crackle pop of acidity that is the hallmark for this grape.
Spatlese: One step up on the German ripeness hierarchy, wines designated Spatlese are richer on the palate, but the only tell-tale hint of sweetness exists at the tip of the tongue, taking a trip of two steps down the palate to tap, at two, on the teeth: Shpayt-lay-zay. These babies are richer and riper but still possess that zesty zeal of sparkling acidity that balances out the effect of any residual sugar.
Trocken: For wines grown outside of the Mosel, there are only two categories to contend with trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (half-dry). Remember the former, not the latter and you will be good to go.
Dry: Often times these wines are only labeled as such as a marketing ploy, by new world wine companies. So what’s a cunning wine lover to do? Proceed to the next rule of thumb.
If you are looking for Riesling on the dryer side, stick to alcohol above 11%: Ripeness in grapes can translate to one of two things in wine: we can convert all of the sugar into alcohol or conserve some of the sugar to conceal the multitude of sins that exists in a poor upbringing. In new world (aka non-European wine) check the Alcohol by Volume (or ABV) to ensure that this grape juice has been thoroughly converted to at least 11% alcohol. Otherwise prepare yourself for at a least spoon-full (or more) of sugar. As an adult I can confirm that it does not go down in a most delightful way.
Riesling does not need to be sweet, it is often savory
So what about Riesling sets the wine geek heart a-racing? Is it that perfect balance of sweet and tart? The storied history? The fact that it can (unlike any other grape in the world) ripen at a latitude above °51? Nope, what makes a wine geek’s heart go all aflutter is it’s propensity for savory rather than sweet characteristics. How savory? Think petroleum, grass, granite, slate. Do those characteristics sound unpleasant? Not at all! This is what lends these wines their complexity, their elegance. It is what differentiates this sweet-tart elixir from mere lemonade.
It is the food friendliest of wines
Contrary to popular belief not all wines are good with food – there are certain requirements for pairing well with food, all of which a good Riesling meets and exceeds:
Touch of sweetness: OK, you got us – sometimes Riesling is sweet. But sometimes that is not a bad thing. That little bite of residual sugar is often what gives Riesling its food friendly profile. It can tame a little spice, provide the perfect contrast for lemon or vinegar based sauces, and, yeah, it kicks ass with dessert.
Low alcohol. Remember the last you ate something blisteringly, mouth scorchingly spicy? What did you sip to soothe that savage beast? A shot of tequila? A martini? Hell no! A glass of something palate-coating, rich, and low in alchohol! Your best bets for spicy fare outside of a crisp refreshing lager is a slug of low alcohol Riesling. The best part is that this means you can drink with impunity – lower alcohol per glass means that you can drink one extra – and happily live to tell the tale.
High acidity makes your mouth water, which makes you hungry, which makes you want to take another bite of food, which makes you thirsty, which makes you take another sip of wine. Lather, rinse, repeat! Plus, like a hot knife through butter, it cuts through the richest and oiliest of dishes with ease.
It is super age worthy
It’s a shame that red wine gets all the credit in this realm. Although Riesling is delicious when consumed young, it has the potential to age for years or even decades. The finest possess golden color, with red highlights, and those savory characteristics become even deeper and more pronounced. Plus, because they are not quite as prestigious, these wines can be found for a deal at the auction block or at finer restaurants in your area.
Although German and Alsatian Rieslings are extraordinary, there are some stellar up and coming regions:Yes, the Rieslings of the Mosel and Alsace are amazing and we have nothing but love. However, there are some underdogs hot on their heels:
Austria: The land of the GruVe Gruner Veltliner, also makes stellar Riesling that is by and large bone dry, but just a touch richer and oilier on the palate (for when you are feeling a bit decadent).
Finger Lakes; Fresh, refined and utterly unexpected: the cold maritime climes of this regions produces killer bone dry Rieslings capable of a ton of depth and complexity.
Australia: Yes, they come from a land down under, and yes, we can hear them thunder: think petrol-doused lemongrass set alight atop a pile of granite. Aussie Rieslings really rock, especially ones from the Clare and Eden Valleys!
So next time you think you find yourself dismissing Riesling as your wine of choice, think again! The summer of Riesling is in full swing, and we have hopefully handled all possible objections in the preceding piece. If you have any more just let us know – we have the Riesling for what ails ya!
Writer Amy Ullman is the irrationally exuberant founder of Wine for Rookies. She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University in 2009 with concentrations in Economics and French. She holds the title of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, and is currently working on her Diploma of Wine and Spirits via the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.