Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wine Wednesday: All About Rieslings (OK, Some About Rieslings)

Posted By on Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 8:08 AM

German Rieslings can be intimidating to the average wine consumer. With such a variety of sweetness and dryness levels, it's easy to be surprised by what comes out of the bottle. Plus, the labeling can be a little bit intimidating, what with all the umlauts and 24 letter words describing specific varietals, villages of origin and ripeness. But with a little advanced knowledge, you can shop for Rieslings with confidence for some really spectacular wines that are a refreshing change of pace from your usual oaky Chardonnay or citrusy Pinot Grigio.

Thanks to the Wines of Germany website, all that information is in one place. Although lots of other countries are now manufacturing Rieslings, the best still come from the Mosel region. Certainly, the Alsace area of France is another good choice, but for the most part the less expensive versions from other parts of the world are generally pretty inferior.

Because of its nice balance of acidity and sweetness, Riesling is an extremely food-friendly wine and pairs nicely with fish or white meat. It especially shines through when matched up with the spicy cuisines of Thailand or even Cajun food. Riesling is usually aged in old barrels rather than new oak, so the wine tends to be lighter weight and better suited for food than other oakier whites. The aromas of citrus fruits and florals also makes Riesling a fine choice to drink on its own chilled but not ice cold.

Now about those labels, take a look at this diagram for an easy guide to what all those imposing German words represent. As one would expect from German producers, the labeling and nomenclature system is very rigorous and standardized, so once you start to understand it, you should be good to go. Don't worry about trying to pronounce everything; just memorize your favorite regions and their characteristics and which ripeness level you're looking for.

If you prefer a drier wine, the key word to look for is trocken, or "very dry." The bone-dry nature of these wines pairs well with fish dishes, especially those that are seasoned with lemon. Next up the sweetness scale is halbtrocken, or "half dry." These very versatile wines are excellent for sipping or match up with just about any food that you wouldn't reach for that big Cab to pair with.

Rieslings that are harvested later can achieve very high residual sugar levels and are more suited as dessert wines.

You might see the terms beerenauslese or trockenbeerenauslese on the label to tip you off that these are probably not the most accessible wines for everyone. That and the price tag might steer you away anyway.

To get you started on your German journey, here are three nice typical Rieslings that I have sampled recently.

First is the Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese 2009, a honey-sweet Riesling that is harvested fairly late in the season. Unlike most New World wines where the fashion is to create hotter, higher alcohol wines, this bottle has a mellow 8 percent alcohol by volume.

The resulting wine has a luscious nose of green apple and citrus, and the nicely balanced acidity would hold up to Asian or even Indian food. Class up your takeout with a bottle of this for around 30 bucks.

My second recommendation is easy to spot thanks to its vibrant cobalt blue bottle that looks like it was swiped off of the blue bottle tree in an East Nashville backyard garden.

The 2010 Louis Guntrum Riesling has a slightly higher alcohol content at 9.5 percent, giving it a little more backbone, but still allowing for drinking either with food or as an aperitif.

The aromas of the Guntrum lean more to peaches and apricots, which should make it an excellent partner for summer dining.

At $13-15 per bottle, it's a steal if you can find it.

The third wine that I suggest is Selbach-Oster 2009 Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken. A nice balance between sweet and dry (halbtrocken, remember?) the Selbach-Oster isprobably the best bet of the three as an everyday wine.

With 11 percent ABV, this wine has a mouth-feel more like traditional French and California whites. The nose and flavors still have the expected citrus and floral notes, but there is also an interesting herbal component that makes this wine stand out.

Playing off these herb notes, you could match this wine with some, how should we say it, more challenging cheeses.

Ask Kathleen of the Bloomy Rind for something creamy and earthy to serve either before or after your next dinner party with this excellent $20 wine.

As always, don't be afraid to march up to the counter at your own favorite wine shop and ask anyone for help: "Chamberlain says I should try a Riesling. After reading his column, I still don't know what the heck I want. Help?"

I believe you'll have a lot of fun experimenting to find out what style of Riesling you prefer. Once you figure out your particular favorites, then play around with other producers in that style and region so you can compare the nuances that each offers. It could make for an entertaining summer. ...

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