Sommelier Paul Grieco is so devoted to the white wine grape Riesling that in the summer of 2008 he told patrons of his NYC wine bar Terroir that if they wanted a wine by the glass, they would have to order a Riesling. Apparently, his staff endured some angry cursing from New York Chardonnay addicts, but in the end, his quirky idea was so popular that it has become a regular event. Now known as Summer of Riesling, restaurants across the country and around the world join Grieco in celebrating the grape each summer.
Why on earth would Grieco risk frustrating or, worse yet, losing his patrons by forcing them to try a grape that has long suffered from a reputation for being a cloyingly sweet wine that your parents drank in the seventies? Grieco’s explanation was simple: “If you drink Riesling you will be a better person.”
In our last post, we wrote about the documentary American Wine Story from which we learned that one wine above all others is most likely to produce an epiphany when sipped. Yes, it’s Riesling, dry Riesling to be precise.
Until now, we’ve never given much attention to this varietal. The extent of our pursuits has been limited to an occasional bottle with spicy Thai food, a pairing we highly recommend. But hearing that Riesling was responsible for life changing epiphanies for so many in the wine community and then learning that, in fact, we would become better people for drinking it…well, we couldn’t resist.
For assistance in getting to know the grape, we turned to a highly regarded group we lovingly refer to as The Thirsty Kitten Panel of Experts (The POE, for short). Once before, when suffering from a case of writer’s block, we tweeted a collection of bloggers for help and thus began The POE. Their insights put us back in our creative groove and inspired a fun post on Syrah, one of our favorite grapes (Que Syrah Syrah).
As before, The POE was ready and willing to come to our rescue. In fact, our tweet generated so much enthusiasm we began to wonder if Riesling has some sort of magic in it. Amongst many who know it well, Riesling isn’t simply loved, it’s worshipped. London-based blogger Tim Milford said, “I could wax poetic about Riesling all day!”
First, a few facts for the uninitiated (thank you jancisrobinson.com): Pronounced “Reece-ling,” it is “generally light in alcohol, refreshingly high in fruity natural acidity.” In fact, the acidity plays a key role in keeping the wine’s sugar in check. Riesling is known for its exceptional ability to reflect the terroir in which it was grown and also for aging well. Even at 50 years old Riesling can still have vibrant life and drinkability. Made in sweet, semi-sweet and dry styles, it is the dry Riesling that seems to win so many hearts.
Aromas and flavors mentioned in Riesling tasting notes range from fruits like crisp green apple, lemon, lime, melon, peach, apricot and nectarine; to spice and floral notes, herbs and minerality. On the less appetizing side of the spectrum are sulphur, petroleum, and even rubber hose (yes, rubber hose).
Originating in the German Rhine region, Riesling has also thrived in the nearby French Alsace and in Austria, as well. Amongst new world regions, it is grown in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.
How is it, we wondered, that Riesling has won the devoted affection of so many experts? Renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson calls it one of her “great wine heroes” and says, “This is the wine to drink while writing or reading; it refreshes the palate and sharpens the brain.” (hang on a minute while I take another sip)
To explore the allure of this grape, let’s hear from The POE:
Jeff Kralik (@masi3v), a prolific wine blogger who lives in Philadelphia and writes at The Drunken Cyclist, prefers Riesling from the Alsace, adding that no other region comes close in his estimation. “My favorite pairing,” he said, “would have to be Alsatian food—choucroute and tarte flambée.” We inquired what to sip if we are looking specifically for an epiphany and he recommended finding a Grand Cru (the highest quality classification) from the well regarded Alsatian producer Zind-Humbrecht and acknowledged that a bottle with some age on it could certainly change your life.
Michelle Williams (@Fiery01Red) from Dallas writes the Rockin Red Blog and recommended Domaine Weinbach Schlossberg Alsace Grand Cru. She admitted that while it is difficult to keep from drinking it right away, it is particularly delightful when cellared for a while, noting that it was ranked 8th on Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 list of Top 100 wines to cellar. She blogged recently of an anniversary dinner with her husband, in which they sipped the 2012 Domaine Weinbach. Pairing it with cedar planked salmon, she reported the wine was “elegantly sophisticated…delivering fresh apricots, melons and lemon zest with crushed stone and fresh cut herbs lingering on the back of the palate.” Wine Spectator agrees with Williams, rating it 92 points.
Matthew McCoy (@TheWinoMatt), who lives in Washington state and holds the WSET Level 2 certification (a fancy wine credential), prefers Riesling from the Alsace for its “yummy, viscous and heavily extracted” flavors. He loves all styles of Riesling and his favorite pairing is with Thai food, a man after our own heart. We were particularly charmed by his description of Riesling as a journey. He also made the excellent point that Riesling is a wonderful wine for traditional Thanksgiving fare.
Anthony Davies (@winegeekconfess), who writes Confessions of a Wine Geek from his home base in the United Kingdom, professed his love for “ALL Riesling” but said he is drinking many from Australia these days, particularly from the Clare Valley and Great Southern regions. He is a fan of pairing it with Chinese food and notes that Grosset Polish Hill is his current favorite, which he says has “so much fruit on the nose and palate it’s almost endless.” Coupled with “the delightfully flint-like minerality, beautiful acidity and an almost endless finish and you’ve got the perfect New World Riesling.” Davies’ opinion is seconded by famed wine critic Robert Parker, Jr. who called the wine “the finest riesling I have ever tasted from Australia.”
Tim Milford (@timmilford) from London blogs on food, wine and music and writes periodic posts for Vinspire, a UK drinks blog. He was happy to chime in on “that noblest of noble grapes, Riesling.” In one of his posts for Vinspire, he wrote about a tasting of Riesling by J. J. Prüm, one of the most famous producers in Germany’s Mosel region. He noted that while many German Riesling makers have moved towards the drier style that is more popular today, Prüm has remained committed to the sweeter side, in more traditional German fashion. Yet, he said that “even as the wines got sweeter, the balance of the wines was preserved through the drive of the acidity in them. They really did avoid the trap that some sweeter wines get into when they can become cloying or even unctuous. These were light, charming and refreshing.”
Jeff Burrows (@foodwineclick) is from Minneapolis and writes at FoodWineClick where he delivers mouthwatering photographs (see above) along with wine profiles. Keeping it real, Jeff’s initial reply to our request for favorite pairings was, “This is going to be tough. What pairs well with rubber hose?” We’d be remiss if we didn’t share the point he made which is that some people are not fans of this aspect of Riesling’s aroma. He offered Idiot’s Grace Riesling by Melamoose Wines from Washington for its lean, crisp flavors (and minimal rubber hose) and recommended serving it with pork and tomatillo salsa verde.
To create a tasting of our own, we scurried around town to a variety of local shops hoping to find at least a few of the names mentioned by The POE and specifically searching for the Oregon Riesling from Brooks Wine that had been featured in American Wine Story. A mish-mash of what we found, we arrived at the following line-up: 2010 Brooks (USA-OR), 2012 Ravines (USA-NY), 2010 Trimbach (France-Alsace), 2009 Dr. H. Thanisch (Germany-Mosel), 2007 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht (France-Alsace). There were many options on the shelves in the $10-15 range but we decided to focus on the next tier up, collecting bottles priced from $18 to $35 (though, delightfully, the $35 wine was on sale for $20).
Every single Riesling was very good, with quite a range of flavors exhibited amongst the five wines. The Brooks was lightest and charmed us with its profusion of tart lemon and green apple. The Ravines was clean and elegant, with well integrated and finessed flavors. The Trimbach from Alsace and Dr. H. Thanisch from Mosel were in the mid range of weightiness in our line-up and each showed a characteristic balance of fruit and minerality. The eldest of the bunch, the 2007 Zind-Humbrecht, was the weightiest of the wines, slightly viscous, and though dry, reminded us a bit of cling peaches in syrup.
In the wake of our research, we can’t help but toast to the delicious complexity of Riesling. There is something undeniably appealing about its ability to hold counterpoints harmoniously in a single glass: of sweetness alongside tartness, of stony minerals mingling amiably with flowers and fruit. The fact that it offers delightful surprises even to the most seasoned veterans and ages gracefully for decades makes it almost a role model not just for wine, but for life. Given this magical mojo, how could you not be at least a little bit better for the sipping of it?