Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rock the Rieslings, Part 1: An Overview

If Mitt Romney (pictured at left) drank, his wine would be Riesling, ever so versatile. Not sure about his fellow diners. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.


AH, Riesling.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: dry, sweet, steely, fruity, biting, smooth and every way in between.

One of the most versatile varietals ever – how can anyone describing the wine do justice to the grape?

Most varietals do not present great versatility in flavors. Imagine a dessert Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance. What about a spicy Chardonnay? Ever sample a citrus-filled Pinot Noir? Now witness a wine that can take on seemingly conflicting hues. That's the magic of Riesling: the myriad ways to combine the grape's natural sweetness and minerality with a floral fruitiness.

Let me translate: Ever bite into an apple that somehow seemed to taste of flowers? Now wash all that down with Evian (mineral water) sporting a twist of lemon. Any one of those four flavors can dominate – or balance out – in a Riesling: fruity, floral, minerality, citrus.

Tweak the sugar content or the acidity and the wine spans the range from bone-dry aperitif, to something to quaff alone or with beef, to a fine dessert wine.

Do the math: four basic flavors, a range of sweetness and acidity, and every permutation in between – that's how many ways to love Riesling. Word to the wise: Though Rieslings are a singular varietal, approach them as more of a classification of wines, for there is no one singular style.

Rieslings: Little-to-No Respect
If Rieslings are so fabulous and so versatile that there is at least one to suit any taste, why aren’t they more celebrated? Why aren’t they more popular outside of Germany, Austria and Eastern France?

Part of the issue is relatively low production. Unlike the so-called “typical” wine-growing regions that share the same parallel from France and Spain to Australia, Rieslings prefer what most others varietals do not. No dry and hot climes for them; wet and cold make Rieslings happy, when the mold mostly leaves them alone. Quality Rieslings are therefore a low-yielding crop. By virtue of sheer production, Rieslings go outnumbered.

Another issue, to put it somewhat delicately, is an “odor problem.” Uncork a bottle and inhale – urgh, reminiscence of the gas station right under the nose. Sometime the scent is strong (a petrol or oily nose) and sometimes the barest hint breezes by.

Like Epoisses, Riesling is the delicious "stinky cheese" of wine. Photo from

Sometimes there’s no scent at all, and then the true Riesling lovers bristle at being denied this telltale pleasure. But expecting to taste florals and fruities and minerality and sweetness only to be met with engine oil can be offputting.

Advice: Oh, suck it up and drink. Most cheeses smell bad, if you think about it, and most cheeses taste great. Riesling is the stinky cheese of wines. Get the glass past the nose. Open up, pour down the hatch, and then judge the grape – but not before.

Since Rieslings have more shades, hues and varieties than Mitt Romney's political positions, finding the right one can be a daunting undertaking. One approach is simply to pick a bottle and drink, record the sensations, pick another, and so on. The unfortunate side effect of this sustained approach is a desiccated liver.

To save your liver and avoid traipsing haphazardly through cases of Rieslings, follow a few steps to be discussed next week.

Next Up: How to find the Riesling for YOU


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