Western Rieslings warrant cracking the code

May picks

Riesling-friendly recipes

Funny how we "discover" a wine every now and then. A decade agoit was Merlot, until, with one movie ticket last fall, we learnedthat no serious wine drinker would stoop to that variety; PinotNoir was the thing.

Lately I've been offered Riesling at every turn. It's an oldgrape with a great reputation everywhere but here. The French andAustrians make noble versions. But Germany produces the wine inspades; their Rieslings have long been models for makers worldwide.The trouble is, until recently, we've modeled them ratherbadly.

This great white wine―with orchard-fresh flavors of stonefruit, citrus, apples, and minerals―is made in many styles,from bone dry to very sweet. Alsatian and Austrian Rieslings tendtoward the former. The Germans―never short on precision (mylast name gives me a point of reference)―have no less thanfive designated levels of ripeness for Riesling that looselycorrelate to sweetness: Kabinett, Auslese, Spätlese, and soon. You can know from the label what you're getting into.

Here, confusion reigns―dangerous, just as we're emerging fromRiesling mediocrity. Recently I asked a server how sweet a Rieslingon the wine list was. "How sweet do you like them?" he countered. Isettled on dryish, appreciating that trend among Western makers."This one would be way too sweet for you, then," he declared, andsteered me toward a different variety altogether (a wine I knew wassweet). Feeling mutinous, I took my chances on the Riesling, aTrefethen from the Napa Valley. It was beautiful―and labeleddry, I found out later.

A fact-finding mission to Beverages & More―where Rieslingnow has a section all its own―confirmed the problem: It'svery hard to tell from labels and shelf talkers how sweet a WesternRiesling is. There are clues, though. Phrases like "soft pearflavors ... easy to sip on a summer afternoon" give a heads-up thatthere's probably a little sugar there.

Many BevMo bottles later, however, I realized that sugar is notthe problem. (Although we have a problem with it in this country.Sweet wines are "chick wines" to many―their loss.) It's whenthere's no acid, no backbone, that one sip of the wine becomes onetoo many. Look for the word "crisp": That's what you want in aRiesling, dry or sweet. A good clerk should also be able tonavigate the styles for you.

A great food wine

While it's true that many early Rieslings in this country werewretchedly flabby, given enough crisp acid, earthy minerals, andintense fruit, Riesling, from dry to sweet, is just about the bestfood wine in the world.

The range of foods I've heard suggested with the wine is wild:blue cheese, crab, ham, sushi, sausages, eggplant sandwiches,chicken satay, corned beef, Tex-Mex ... we checked out all thesematches and more, and the advice is sound. No, inspired. Take alook at our favorite Riesling-friendlyrecipes. I love a barely sweet one with fried chicken.JoinSunset's wine club: www.sunset.com/wineclub

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