Reconsider the Riesling

Sweet sipping for sophisticated palates
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Here’s a little test to see who’s as old as I am, and who will ’fess up to once drinking wines that might get you laughed out of a fancy restaurant today.

Once upon a time, Americans loved off-​dry wines. Remember Blue Nun? Black Cat? If you drank them in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, you were not alone, as they were among the most popular white wines of the day. Americans new to wine drinking found they liked a little sweetness in their wines, and those German rieslings went down easy.

Today, of course, we’re all very sophisticated about these things and fear that asking for anything other than a big, dry, toasty wine will mark us as hopeless rubes. The mistaken impression is that all rieslings are unctuous and sweet.

But it’s high time to reconsider riesling. This is a tremendously versatile grape, which, depending on how it’s used and where it’s from, can be made into wines that run the gamut from your father’s riesling — inexpensive with a hint of sweetness — to dry and elegant.

Most are high in acid, which sounds alarming, but only means that the wines are crisp and clean, not cloying, and refreshing on the finish.

Rieslings originated in Germany and are now made all over Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Cool climates, as in our Pacific Northwest and New York state, produce wines in the classic style. But there are great values and exciting new rieslings coming from Down Under as well.

Dry, light-​bodied rieslings pair beautifully with the typical white wine foods: seafood, poultry and soups. They won’t overwhelm many dishes, as an oaky or alcoholic chardonnay would. In the same way, they make stimulating aperitifs, as they don’t fatigue the palate like a bigger wine or cocktail.

Slightly heftier, off-​dry rieslings, with a touch more residual sugar balancing the acid, are fantastic with spicy Asian dishes. And they naturally complement anything porky, saucey or sauerkrauty, the German-​style cuisine of their home turf. Their smidge of sweetness is the perfect counter to sour or acidic elements in an entrée.

So maybe we old folks were on to something, pairing our Blue Nun with spare ribs and chow mein (whatever exotic cuisine was available at the time). I urge you to try a modern, more sophisticated riesling with the food you enjoy today.

My favorites are the Americans: Oregon’s Bridgeview Blue Moon (PLCB price $10.99) is crisp and good; Chateau Ste. Michelle, from Washington ($11.99), is the benchmark for domestic off-​dry rieslings; and California’s Firestone ($9.99) is a great value for those just getting their feet wet with riesling. Back East, New York’s Finger Lakes winemakers make some dazzling rieslings. The varieties produced by the winery of Dr. Konstantin Frank, who first brought European winemaking techniques to the region, are justly renowned.

And, despite my patriotic inclinations — the wine list at my restaurant, the Wooden Angel, is all-​American — in the dark of my cellar I will occasionally enjoy the excellent dry Alsatian rieslings produced by Hugel ($19.99) or Trimbach ($17.99).

One word of warning: shopping for these great wines can be a daunting prospect. It’s not always clear from the label whether a given riesling is dry or sweet. German winemakers have an official system classifying their rieslings from “kabinett” (driest) to “trockenbeerenauslese” (sweetest), but good luck remembering those vocabulary words while you’re pushing your cart. I’ve found the specialists at Pennsylvania’s Premium Collection Wine & Spirits stores to be very helpful in sorting them out.

And I’m especially hopeful about plans announced this past summer by the International Riesling Foundation to create a “taste profile” for labels, which participating winemakers will use to rate their wines along a spectrum from dry to sweet, based on the ratio of acid to sugar in the wine. These may appear on labels as soon as 2008 vintage rieslings arrive in stores. Anything that encourages folks to re-​visit this wonderful wine sounds sweet to me.

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