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Hip and Apropos—Riesling Rediscovered

by Randal Caparoso

In the beginning, for many a boomer, there was Riesling. That is to say, the first truly fine wine many of us grew to appreciate after being weaned off of Cold Duck, Blue Nun, Mateus, Lambrusco, Chenin Blanc, and other sweet wines popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

The authentic German Rieslings that we drank—bearing noble names like Doktor, Goldtröpfchen, Sonnenuhr, Vollrads, Johannisberg, and Scharzhofberg—may have been just as sweet as Blue Nun and Mateus, but tastes were simpler then. All we wanted was something soft, airy, and nectar-like, and German Riesling were the ultimate expression of that.

Then, with the introduction of the $9 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, we fell into a deep end. Fine wine suddenly became a game: the bigger, more prestigious and pricey, the better. $35 Château Montelena and Peter Michael Chardonnays led us to $75 Turley Zinfandels, $100 Beringer Private Reserves, and $500 Screaming Eagles. What happened? Bonny Doon's winemaker/proprietor, Randall Grahm, blames it all on the popularity of Chardonnay. He calls the grape the "Vintichrist—a symbol of our degeneration into cholesterol-infused mania."

I don't think Chardonnays, or Turley Zinfandels and Napa Valley Cabernets, are inherently evil. But I sure do miss the days when wine drinking was simpler. When, like eating quiche and driving Bugs, we could still boast about enjoying a great Riesling Spätlese from Piesporter Goldtröpfchen. It's a shame, says Grahm, that Riesling today is perceived as the "nerdiest possible grape" when, in fact, it is the "very hippest."
But maybe the times are a'changing once more. I heard one of Mr. Dylan's songs on television the other night; his wasted, sandpaper chords obfuscating an ad for lingerie on some wickedly sleek, elastic female bodies. Geekiness is also in—skinny guy shirts, goggle glasses, ill parted or sheep scissors shorn hair… strange days indeed.

There could very well be some room, once again, in our hearts for Riesling. Even for real men, and women who like them that way. There certainly seems to be some signs of energy from the wine producing community besides Mr. Grahm. In his most recent newsletter, Harry Peterson-Nedry of Oregon's Chehalem Vineyards goes absolutely primate in his description of the grape:

"Riesling is a dancer, a Mia Hamm, a lithely elegant Audrey Hepburn or firmly aristocratic Katherine Hepburn," says Peterson-Nedry.
Like the world of grace, manners, reserve and contemplation, Riesling has been neglected, deferred to a competition of wines made in macho proportions, wines on steroids like oak and alcohol and extract."

Give 'em hell, Harry. If anything, the finest Rieslings are the direct opposite of "steroid" pumped Chardonnays and Cabernets. The best are light, delicate, wickedly sleek, often cuttingly dry and just as often meltingly sweet, yet almost always brightly acidic, even nervy. A tale of two Hepburns, as it were.

So why drink Riesling today? Twenty years ago we drank Riesling precisely because of its inherently sweet nature; and the very best of that style, of course, always came from the Germany, where the cool climate (the coldest in the world for growing grapes) gives the natural acidity necessary to balance wines with residual sugar.

But the fact of the matter is that during the past twenty years over 90 percent of Germany's Rieslings have been produced more in the dry style—bottled as trocken ("dry") or halbtocken ("half-dry)—similar to the style of Riesling traditionally produced in France's Alsace region. Why? Because people in Germany, and much of the rest of the world, now prefer it that way; particularly to go with their increasingly internationalized taste in food.

Five years ago, when I first visited Bernkastel-Kues on the Moselle River, I found it almost ironic when I asked Johannes Selbach (owner of the Selbach-Oster winery) which restaurant I should go to for the best selection of local wines, he said, "Why, that would be the Indian restaurant near the center of town."

Even in the fairy tale wine country towns, Germany is much more than sauerkraut, liver dumplings, and blood sausages. Is Riesling the greatest single white wine for food? If you go by the tried-and-true premise that intrinsically balanced wines of any type tend to go better with food, it may very well be. No, Riesling cannot leap tall buildings (or at least, tall orders of foods) in a single bound. But it is Riesling's naturally fresh, lithe, vibrant balance of acidity and fruitiness that tend to make it an easy match with the oft-times fatty, sweet, soured foods of traditional Germany.

It is for the same reason that Riesling easily matches many of the globally styled foods we enjoy today that were once perceived as "impossible" wine matches: hot curries, chile laced sauces, sweet/sour barbecues, salty soy sauce dips, herby vinaigrettes, and umami intense vegetables (such as mushrooms, seaweeds, and vine ripened tomatoes) and meats (especially raw fish and slow cooked "other white" meats). Again for the same reason, Riesling is especially apropos in contemporary restaurants driven by classically trained, but multi-cultural inspired, chefs who almost invariably incorporate ingredients that give hot, sour, salty, sweet and even bitter sensations. Why? These are the restaurants we enjoy the most!

Balance of acidity, lightness, and food versatility are not the only qualities of classic Rieslings. The perpetually lush, peaches-and-cream fruitiness of Riesling is as fresh and soft to the palate as a proverbial spring day. In other words, Riesling is as much a wine for all times and all tastes as for all kinds of foods.

So have I perked your interest? Since most of us are now accustomed to more or less dry wines, the best place to begin, or rediscover, the joys of Riesling are with the trocken or halbtrocken bottlings from Germany. Very often the labels will say Dry Riesling, Half-Dry Riesling, or even just "Riesling." You'll have to trust me—since some of my best friends are the nerdy types who should know—when I tell you to look for the following producers, with their regions of origin in parenthesis (weingut simply means "winery"):

• Weingut Dr. Burklin-Wolf (Pfalz)
• Weingut Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan (Pfalz)
• Weingut Pfeffingen (Pfalz)
• Weingut Georg Breuer (Rheingau)
• Weingut Robert Weil (Rheingau)
• Schloss Vollrads (Rheingau)
• Weingut Franz Kunstler (Rheingau)
• Staatsweingut Assmannshausen (Rheingau)
• Weingut Gunderloch (Rheinhessen)
• Weingut von Hovel (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)
• Weingut Dr. Loosen (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)
• Weingut Forstmeister Gelz-Zilliken (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)

The dry Rieslings of Alsace in France tend to be fuller, less fruity and acidic than those of Germany, but are nonetheless pure and penetratingly scented in the classic style of the grape. Some of the finest French producers:

• Domaine Ostertag
• F.E. Trimbach
• Kuentz-Bas
• Domaine Weinbach
• Andre Kientzler
• Albert Boxler

The pickings are a lot slimmer, but there are a few perfectly fine (especially for the price) dry or off-dry style Rieslings produced in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Look for the following:

• Chehalem Vineyards (Oregon)
• Pacific Rim (by California's Bonny Doon, blending Washington St., California and German grapes)
• Trefethen (strong value from this Napa Valley winery)
• Leeuwin Estate (Margaret River, Australia)
• Kim Crawford (New Zealand)

This is more than a good start. Find out for yourself why Riesling could very well redefine your sense of hip and culinary sophistication, if not self.

Randal Caparoso


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