When people ask me “what’s your favorite wine,” I often check the time and respond; “you mean right now?” Truth be told, one of my favorite wines of all times is Riesling. This baffles some people, as the general misconception about Riesling is that it is a guilty pleasure, akin to admitting that you like reading US magazine or lounging around in a Snuggie. Well, I don’t (and won’t) own a Snuggie ever, but I do own a lot of Riesling and read US Weekly every time I get on a plane!
My hope is that one day, everyone will understand that Riesling is one of the greatest grapes on the earth, capable of incredible stylistic variety and the expression of terroir. It can also pair with anything at the dinner table, or just about anything – I have yet to meet a food that can’t find a partner in Riesling. From morning doughnuts to the cheese plate to evening desserts, the only flavor that might give this grape a run for its money is chocolate. Sommeliers know this, and tend to devote entire sections of their wine lists to the grape. Check out the list at Gramercy Tavern or Jean-Georges or Tribeca Grill the next time you’re there – you’ll see the slavish devotion to Riesling in black and white. Just try going to Nobu, Fatty Crab or Momofuku and not seeing Riesling all over the wine list.
Why don’t more people give it a try? Here are a few reasons why everyone should pick up a bottle or 2 the next time you’re wine shopping (at Maslow 6, naturally):
- Riesling has incredible stylistic variety – from crisp and sparkling (Sekt) to tooth-achingly sweet (TBA), this grape covers the gamut.
- They are often dry – or tröcken. Tröcken Rieslings can be dry and fruity, like biting into a granny smith apple, or can be dry and very minerally, like licking a bare rock with a squeeze of lime and a kiss of apricot. Some of my favorite tröcken Rieslings are from the southern parts of Germany (the Pfalz or Nahe), and the regions/countries that begin in “A” – Alsace, Austria, and Australia. German Rieslings will be labeled as tröcken, while with the “A’s”, dryness is a given.
- The sweet ones have incredible balancing acidity! Ever try a sour patch candy? A well-made sweet Riesling has the same balance of sweet and sour. There’s nothing better with foods that have a touch of sweetness and a kick of acid (which, frankly, is most foods – even ketchup). Try a bottle of off-dry Riesling the next time you order any exotic take out – it’s bound to be a match made in heaven. It’s also great with ‘special-sauced’ Big Macs and sweet and spicy barbeque. Really!
- It only sounds complicated. What’s hard is the language – German! What were they thinking?
- Weird words you need to know: Tröcken = dry; Halbtröcken = half-dry (these seem pretty dry on the tongue).
- Alcohol levels can also be a clue to dryness, the lower it is, the sweeter the wine.
- A few more weird words to look for – Smaragd, Federspeil and Steinfeder. Gesundheit! These are ripeness levels in one particular region of Austria, the Wachau. What do they mean to you? Smaragd wines are dry, and pretty full-bodied, with a good amount (about 12.5% or more) of alcohol. Federspiel are dry and lighter in body (11.5-12.5% abv), while Steinfeder is dry, and the lightest of all, clocking in at 11.5% abv max.
- Any word that ends in “er” on a German wine label means that it is from that place. It is usually a town, followed by a vineyard, but it can often be found with the vintage as well. For example, Urziger Wurzgarten. A wine with this on the label is from the town of Urzig and the Wurzgarten, or spice garden, vineyard. A vintage may be written as 1999er, meaning it is from the 1999 vintage (a stellar one, by the way).
- “Fruity” and “Sweet” are 2 entirely different things. Sweet means that there’s actually sugar in the wine, while a Fruity wine can be totally dry, but give the impression of sweetness through exotically fruity flavors like mango, pineapple and ripe apples. Fruity styles are great for pairing with foods that have little to no sweetness, while the sweet styles pair with foods that have a touch of sweetness, like Hawaiian pineapple and pork pizza or sweet ‘n sour chicken. This is making me thirsty!!
- Sweet Rieslings are not just for dessert. The range of sweetness spans from just barely sweet to the toothache variety. Try a Kabinett or Spatlese (late harvested) Riesling with your Thai take out, Spatlese or Auslese (special harvest) with a plate of cheeses, and Eiswein, Beerenauslese (BA – special berry selection) or Tröckenbeerenauslese (TBA – special dried berry selection) with sweet desserts (and intensely flavored cheeses, too).
- You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value for stocking your cellar. How many bottles of Bordeaux can you stock your cellar with for under $75/bottle? This price will bring you hundreds of Rieslings worth cellaring. Most Riesling is drunk while it is young, but with the acidity (and sometimes sugar), it is a prime candidate for lying down and enjoying later.
If I could, I’d have a whole store devoted to Riesling – or at least a wing of a store. As it is, I stocked Maslow 6 with some favorites; some young, some old, some sweet, some dry, some fruity, some minerally…all of them pleasure providers. Here are a few to try on your next visit:
The dry: (wines to pair with river fishes, especially trout and catfish, or sausages and pork chops with sauerkraut)
Högl Terrassen Spitzergraben Riesling Federspeil 2008, Wachau, Austria
Donabaum ‘Offenberg’ Riesling Smaragd 2006, Wachau, Austria
Neumayer Riesling ‘Rothenbart’ 2007, Traisental, Austrai
Sybille Kuntz Riesling Tröcken 2007, Mosel, Germany
Robert Weil Estate Troken 2008, Rheingau, Germany
The off-dry: (Barbeque Pork, Duck a l’Orange, and Pad Thai wines)
Chateau Lafayette Reneau Riesling Semi-Dry 2008, Seneca Lake, New York Finger Lakes
Anthony Road Riesling Semi-Sweet 2008, Seneca Lake, New York Finger Lakes
Robert Weil Riesling Kabinett Halbtröcken 2008, Rheingau, Germany
Monchof Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2008, Mosel, Germany
Zilliken ‘Saarburger Rausch’ Riesling Kabinett 2000, Mosel, Germany
Becker Riesling ‘Laissez Faire’ 2007, Pfalz, Germany
For the cheese plate:
Shafer-Frohlich ‘Bockenauer Felseneck’ Riesling Spatlese 2008, Nahe, Germany
Zilliken ‘Saarburger Rausch’ Riesling Spatlese 1992, Mosel, Germany
Zilliken ‘Saarburger Rausch’ Riesling Spatlese 1993, Mosel, Germany
Zilliken ‘Saarburger Rausch’ Riesling Spatlese 1989, Mosel, Germany
Robert Weil ‘Kiedricher Grafenberg’ Riesling Spatlese 2008, Rheingau, Germany
Von Buhl ‘Forster Jesuitengarten’ Riesling Spatlese 2008, Pfalz, Germany
Von Hovel ‘Oberemmeler Hutte’ Riesling Auslese 2006, Mosel, Germany
When you’re done trying all these, go out and try a nice Chardonnay with a plate of sauerkraut. I dare you to!!! Then comment on how it went.