Wine & Spirits
Discover the Complex Charisma of this Versatile White
Riesling has long been a favorite of sommeliers, who tout its versatility with food. Now there are signs that consumers, at long last, are beginning to recognize the grape’s charms.
“I remember when we first opened, it was hard to get people to buy Riesling by the glass, much less the bottle,” says Dennis Lapuyade, co-owner of and wine buyer for César in Berkeley and Oakland. Now, he says, “people are willing to try them.”
Although evidence of a Riesling renaissance in restaurants is largely anecdotal, there are firm numbers indicating that sales in stores are increasing. ACNielsen, which tracks retail sales through scanner data, reports that between November 2003 and August 2006, Riesling sales grew 72 percent in dollar terms and 58 percent in volume. The growth has been most dramatic in imported Riesling, but the picture is positive for California Riesling, too: The number of acres of Riesling planted in the state has nearly doubled in the past decade.
I’ve loved Riesling for years. It’s refreshing and pairs particularly well with Asian dishes that feature exotic spices. “Most wines in the world really don’t work with those kinds of foods,” says Erik d’Azevedo of Paul Marcus Wines in Oakland’s Market Hall. “Rieslings are really the best choice.”
“Riesling is a good wine to experiment with,” adds Lapuyade. And for anyone concerned about the effects of over-consumption, Riesling is the perfect choice. Check the label, but it’s not hard to find versions from Germany and New York’s Finger Lakes region that contain 12 percent alcohol or less. That makes Riesling a welcome elixir for the hot summer months ahead.
One obstacle Riesling has had to contend with is the notion that it’s sweet; and sophisticated drinkers are supposed to prefer dry wines. In fact, Riesling can be made in styles ranging from very dry and austere to extremely sweet and luscious. Most do have at least a little residual sugar, but in the good wines, that is counterbalanced by razor-sharp acidity.
Styles tend to differ depending on where the wine comes from, too. Many German Rieslings are just off-dry, although they can range from dry to very sweet. (Labeling terms like “kabinett” [a drier category] or “auslese” [a sweeter designation] indicate natural sugar content; and you can ask a knowledgeable wine merchant or sommelier for guidance.) Versions from Austria and France’s Alsace region tend to be dry.
Outside of Europe, Australia has carved out a niche for its ripe, complex Rieslings from the Clare and Eden valleys, and the zingy Rieslings from New Zealand’s Marlborough region show promise. Domestically, New York’s Finger Lakes wineries make delicate, tangy Rieslings ranging from dry to off-dry, and Washington state is producing some aromatic, pretty wines. California styles are all over the map, and many of them are unfortunately sweetish and insipid. But a few California vintners are dedicated to high-quality dry or off-dry Rieslings, including Smith-Madrone, Trefethen and Stony Hill in the Napa Valley, and Navarro and Esterlina in Mendocino County. (California wines labeled as Johannisberg Riesling—a term that has been phased out—or white Riesling are true Riesling; wines labeled as grey or emerald Riesling are not.)
For Patrick Pealer, wine director of Citron in Oakland, part of Riesling’s appeal is that it’s so completely different from what most California consumers are used to, especially oaky, buttery Chardonnay. “You crack it open, and it’s not a big butterball; it’s not something that’s going to blow up in your face,” he says. Instead, “you get the bright, floral aromas … the limestone and granite, the flintiness of it. … You can almost taste it before you taste it.”
In the case of German Riesling, he adds, even the appearance of the bottle—the elongated shape, the Teutonic style of the label, and multisyllabic words like “Qualitatswein mit Pradikat”—adds to the sense of discovery. “In a visual sense,” Pealer says, “it’s fun for people to have on the table. … I push it just because I like it so much,” he says.
The value factor doesn’t hurt the wine’s appeal, either. Riesling, says d’Azevedo, is “one of the best values on the market today.” There are numerous good, everyday bottles that retail for $20 or less. And when you get into the more expensive wines, d’Azevedo says, “we’re talking about world-class, truly great wines for well under $50 or $60 a bottle that are comparable to $100 wines” made from other grape varieties.
—By Laurie Daniel