How sweet it is! Riesling may frighten a wine novice as misconceptions run rampant when it comes to this fine wine. But let’s not be confused between big fruits and sweetness. Sweet does not necessarily equal sugary, and not all rieslings are even sweet. Push aside these negative perceptions, and discover a complex, delicate, and elegant white wine that expresses the unique characteristics of its growing regions.
Riesling is known as the darling of most sommeliers as it is a very versatile wine, and has emerged as one of the most collectible wines. It is food-friendly with good acidity to balance out fat in foods, while clean enough to pair with lighter foods or withstand spicy Asian dishes. Riesling also is one of the most aromatic grape varieties, with a bouquet of nectarine, pear, honeycomb and even petroleum.
Riesling originates from the Rhine region in Germany, where it reaches its finest expression. It is a pure grape in that it truly expresses the ‘terroir’ in which it is grown, and seldom sees oak-aging. Due to its sugar and acidity levels, it is a wine that will age a long time. Rieslings are made in all styles, from bone-dry to sweet dessert wines, and take on different characteristics, depending where it is grown.
Let’s sniff, swirl, and taste:
2009 Bauer Haus Auslese, Rheinhessen, Germany
Color: Golden straw
Aroma: Honey, ripe pear, apricot and melon
Taste: See above notes, also a nice, lush mouth feel and forward fruits like dried fruits and mango; clean, lingering finish
This wine has some age, so the color has deepened to golden straw. The acidity level is lower and has developed a touch of petroleum notes.
Alsace: It is warmer here than in Germany, and they make a fuller-style riesling with higher alcohol and acidity that is not as searing as the Germans. Approximately one-fifth of Alsace vineyards are planted to riesling, and is one of the noble grapes plated in their prestigious Grand Cru vineyards.
Australia: One would not think of riesling in Australia because it is so hot; however, there are a few cooler pockets/regions where this grapes flourishes. Clare Valley and Eden Valley have excelled with red soil over limestone and shale to produce notes of honeyed citrus, along with petroleum. The grapes are much thicker-skinned to withstand warmer temperatures.
New Zealand: Riesling has a relatively short history here, and has favored this cooler climate in Malborough. Also Central Otago, on the southern end of the South Island, is having success with riesling.
Austria: Gruner veltliner is the grape we think of most when it comes to Austria, but riesling is the second most-planted grape, producing mainly dry-style rieslings that are fairly lush. The Wachau is one of it most notable growing regions.
United States: The Pacific Northwest in Washington and Oregon is where this grape excels. It is made dry to sweeter, and is known for tropical fruit notes balanced with mineral and acid to produce nice complex wines. New York Finger Lakes also has some nice rieslings that are lighter in style than the Northwest. Here, it also is made into the much sought-after ice wine.
Riesling is grown in most parts of the world now. Many producers are adopting the International Riesling Foundation sweetness scale found more increasingly on the back of riesling labels. This should help educate the consumer that would typically assume the wine is sweet.
Tasting Tip: Sweetness vs. fruit: When tasting wine, notice how the wine finishes. It may start off with lots of upfront fruit in the mouth like Riesling, but then finishes much drier with acidity cleaning the palate.
Wine Recommendation: Riesling is one of the most versatile and food-friendly wines in the world, so there likely is a style to suit everyone’s taste. If you prefer dry wine, try a riesling from Austria or Washington State. When pairing riesling with food, in general, pair lighter crisper rieslings with more delicate foods such as fish, and more substantial rieslings with bigger and spicier flavors.
Certified Sommelier Stanley Browne is the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves, Downtown at the MX and in Edwardsville.