Funny how we "discover" a wine every now and then. A decade ago it was Merlot, until, with one movie ticket last fall, we learned that no serious wine drinker would stoop to that variety; Pinot Noir was the thing.
Lately I've been offered Riesling at every turn. It's an old grape with a great reputation everywhere but here. The French and Austrians make noble versions. But Germany produces the wine in spades; their Rieslings have long been models for makers worldwide. The trouble is, until recently, we've modeled them rather badly.
This great white wine―with orchard-fresh flavors of stone fruit, citrus, apples, and minerals―is made in many styles, from bone dry to very sweet. Alsatian and Austrian Rieslings tend toward the former. The Germans―never short on precision (my last name gives me a point of reference)―have no less than five designated levels of ripeness for Riesling that loosely correlate to sweetness: Kabinett, Auslese, Spätlese, and so on. You can know from the label what you're getting into.
Here, confusion reigns―dangerous, just as we're emerging from Riesling mediocrity. Recently I asked a server how sweet a Riesling on the wine list was. "How sweet do you like them?" he countered. I settled on dryish, appreciating that trend among Western makers. "This one would be way too sweet for you, then," he declared, and steered me toward a different variety altogether (a wine I knew was sweet). Feeling mutinous, I took my chances on the Riesling, a Trefethen from the Napa Valley. It was beautiful―and labeled dry, I found out later.
A fact-finding mission to Beverages & More―where Riesling now has a section all its own―confirmed the problem: It's very hard to tell from labels and shelf talkers how sweet a Western Riesling is. There are clues, though. Phrases like "soft pear flavors ... easy to sip on a summer afternoon" give a heads-up that there's probably a little sugar there.
Many BevMo bottles later, however, I realized that sugar is not the problem. (Although we have a problem with it in this country. Sweet wines are "chick wines" to many―their loss.) It's when there's no acid, no backbone, that one sip of the wine becomes one too many. Look for the word "crisp": That's what you want in a Riesling, dry or sweet. A good clerk should also be able to navigate the styles for you.
A great food wine
While it's true that many early Rieslings in this country were wretchedly flabby, given enough crisp acid, earthy minerals, and intense fruit, Riesling, from dry to sweet, is just about the best food 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 these matches and more, and the advice is sound. No, inspired. Take a look at our favorite Riesling-friendly recipes. I love a barely sweet one with fried chicken.Join Sunset's wine club: www.sunset.com/wineclub