Wines of the Month


Season's Rieslings

What, no article about sparkling wines for the holidays? Nope. By now, just about every wine magazine and website has an article recommending the best choices of bubbly for your holiday celebrations, and in my opinion, that's plenty of coverage. Even in a holiday-filled month like December, there are lots of nights when you won't want to drink sparkling wine, and you'll be looking for something a little different to drink with dinner. I'd like to suggest some good dry Rieslings.

If I had to limit myself to white wines made from one grape variety (and I hope I never do), I'd probably choose Riesling. Why? No offense to fans of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Gris, or any of the other great varieties, but I can't think of a single grape which performs so admirably in such a wide range of styles and conditions. Riesling can be sparkling or still. It can range from bone dry to decadently sweet, as well as from feather light to rich and full-bodied. And it can taste great from its fresh, youthful days to its old age, reaching a golden maturity when many other wines would have long since been dead.

My first love in Riesling was the light, sweet wines of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region of Germany. Low in alcohol, but big in flavor, these wines can be remarkably easy to drink. I'll have to admit that in the past, I haven't been a big fan of the new movement in Germany toward the production of drier wines. The first ones I tried seemed to be unbalanced, with high alcohol and often tending toward a bitter aftertaste. Besides, the producers in Alsace do such a good job of producing dry Rieslings that I didn't see the need for another source, particularly at the expense of the semi-sweet wines I (still) love to drink. However, recently I've tasted some wines which have started to change my mind. There are some excellent dry Rieslings coming out of Germany these days, and there are some very good ones from more exotic locations -- such as Australia and New Zealand -- as well.

After trying the extremely easy-drinking semi-sweet German wines, dry Riesling can seem like a bit of an acquired taste. People like sugar; why else would there be such a big business in candy and soft drinks? Without the crutch of residual sugar, Riesling's typically racy acidity becomes more apparent. If you taste a dry Riesling after a sweet one, it can seem tart and lean (of course, the same would be true for any other grape). So why drink dry Riesling? That's like asking "Why drink any dry wine?" Sweet wines certainly have their place in life, but sometimes you want to drink something that doesn't have any sugar to coat your mouth and deaden your taste buds. With the abundance of flavors in Riesling wines, you may not even miss the residual sugar.

In my experience, dry Rieslings complement a wide variety of foods. Rarely treated with much oak, Riesling's acidity and sharply delineated flavors seem to enhance foods from appetizers through the main course (and, of course, there are plenty of sweet Rieslings for dessert). I eat a lot of Asian and Asian-influenced foods, which many people find to be a tough match for wine. I don't have that problem, because in my experience, Riesling is delicate enough not to overpower the lighter preparations, but assertive enough to stand up to the flavorings (though with recipes which include hot peppers, sweeter Rieslings work better). Actually, it seems more difficult to find a terrible food match for Riesling than a good one.

So where should you look for good dry Rieslings? Well, as I said before, the first place I always look is Alsace. However, there are plenty of good dry Rieslings from other regions, including Germany, Austria, Australia and New Zealand. You may notice that I've left out the United States, because I have not yet had a good dry Riesling from the USA which can stand up to any of the European wines, though I do hold out some hope for the cooler growing regions in the future.

As usual, I've included a few tasting notes to help get you in the mood for some Riesling. And after all that noise about not doing a sparkling wine article, the first tasting note of the month is on (you guessed it) a sparkling wine...

Kurt Darting Riesling Sekt b. A. Extra Trocken Pfalz NV (AP 5 160 346 07 95) -- A true bargain of a bubbly ("Sekt" is the German name for sparkling wine). Although this is a non-vintage wine, the German system of AP numbers lets us know that it was bottled in 1995 (the last two digits of the AP number) and that it was the seventh shipment (the next-to-last two digits) of Darting's Sekt b. A. Extra Trocken that year. The expressive, but still refined, nose of minerals, lemon, and grapefruit get you off to a good start. Plenty of bubbles, though they are a bit larger than those found in Champagne. In the mouth, there is an initial mushroomy/metallic tang which disappears in a couple of minutes, leaving you with generous flavors of lemon, grapefruit, minerals, cola, and perhaps a hint of cherry. Plenty of acidity keeps the flavors in check, and makes the wine more elegant. Finishes long and lemony with good acidity, and a definite taste of cherry at the end. Quite dry, with 12% alcohol, this bottle is more like a "Brut" than an "Extra Dry" French or American sparkling wine. No, this isn't Krug, but it is an awesome value for a sparkling wine at $7.99 (on sale).

Pikes Riesling Clare Valley '98 -- Riesling from South Australia? Yes, and a good one, too. Lemon, grapefruit and cola aromas rise out of the glass, hinting at the generous grapefruit, lemon, cola, and apple flavors you're about to experience. A long finish which unfortunately turns slightly tart, with lemon and grapefruit flavors dominating. Good concentration and plenty of acidity hints that it may have the ability to age a few years. Not as good as the best from Alsace, but competes well in its $15 price range.

Domaine Weinbach Riesling Schlossberg Alsace Grand Cru '92 -- I couldn't have an article about dry Riesling without something from Alsace... The Schlossberg vineyard became the first Alsace Grand Cru in 1975, and is known for its Riesling. Plenty of minerals, cola, grapefruit and a slight hint of petrol greet your nose. Your tongue finds a hint of grapefruit flavor, along with lemon, stones and cola. Minerals & cola seem to be the focus here, though there is plenty of fruit. At the end, you taste a honeyed citrus note and more minerals on the long finish. Not as concentrated as I might have expected, but balanced and elegant. Drinking well now.

Muller-Catoir Riesling Spätlese Trocken Haardter-Herzog Pfalz '95 -- A huge nose which springs out of the glass, showering you with aromas of grapefruit, lemon, cola and honey. This quite dry wine has a lush mouthfeel, revealing many layers of flavor, starting with lemon and grapefruit, then showing honeyed apple, cola and mineral nuances. A long, concentrated finish of apple, grapefruit and minerals. With its thirst-quenching acidity, this wine shows much better with food, and was a great match with a slightly spicy ham-based soup. Muller-Catoir makes me believe in the future of German Trocken Rieslings and this one will only get better with some bottle age.

As always, comments are welcome.

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Copyright 1999 by Marcel Lachenmann.