Article By: Sandy Block, MW
One of the reasons Riesling appeals to us so much more immediately than many other varieties is that it's not an acquired taste: you don't have to search for flavor undertones and subtleties. At the same time they are often present, so the grape also has the potential to excite more experienced palates as well. The reality is that Riesling is among the most transparent of white grapes showing off with precision in its aromas and flavors even minute effects of soil and climate. Every vineyard has the potential to produce a demonstrably different wine (some with demonstrably earthy and mineral-like scents), as does every vintage. In this way the grape is much like Pinot Noir. It also parallels Pinot in the sense that it's fussy about where it should be grown, requiring a very cool climate and long even ripening cycle to show its best. In fact, if there's another Hollywood movie made featuring a trend-setting but moody grape variety, it's a good bet it will be Riesling.
The number one myth about Riesling is that it's sweet. In fact, this is among the most versatile of white grape varieties, capable of producing wine in a bone dry, medium dry, medium sweet, and very sweet style. The decision is the winemaker's. As the French say: vive la difference! But herein lies a problem and an obstacle to even greater consumer acceptance. Unless it's a German Riesling and you know how to read the very precise label information you're looking at, odds are you end up getting a different type of wine than you were bargaining for. In other words, if you're interested in a wine with some sweetness and you buy a bone-dry wine instead, you're not likely to be satisfied. The reverse is obviously true as well. Not that there is anything wrong with sweetness in a wine - other than the fact that some people fear appearing unsophisticated if they're caught drinking a wine that has noticeable quantities of sugar - but as a consumer you should know beforehand so you can plan what you're going to eat with it accordingly. Or at least that's the popular conception. Personally, a Riesling's sugar or lack thereof doesn't faze me because of the vibrant acid the grape usually displays. If a well balanced wine is too sweet for a particular dish or occasion I will just chill it more; if it's a bit dry for the circumstances I'll usually serve it closer to room temperature, which emphasizes whatever sugar is present and pumps up the flavor a bit. What all good Rieslings, from dry to very sweet, should have is a lot of fruit flavor. This is usually the component that will determine how well they match with different food. And with Riesling the range of fruit you will taste is bounteous: from lemon occasionally to every type of apple, pear, apricot, and peach, to more tropical sensations of pineapple, mango and passion fruit. One of the great things about Riesling too is you often get all this at a reasonable price. These are wonderful wines to promote because they pack maximum flavor and are easy to drink but in general you are able to keep the tab to less than $2O per bottle. The following favorites all fall into that price range. They're organized roughly from driest to sweetest and each was tasted in a blind context over the past few months.
Kuentz Bas, Alsace, 2OO4 Leafy, herb-accented and fresh aromas, with a suggestion of spring apple, this wine is fully dry and tart. It's a Riesling for Sauvignon Blanc lovers, although the acids are much more delicate and pure, with less coarseness. Still you will find an appetizing fruit flavor defining the wine on the borderline between lemon and green apple. Tart, clean, green, and lingering, with a strong suggestion of minerals, this is knockout with grilled medium-weight fish (Mahi) lightly accented with herbs, salt and butter. $16
Gisselbrecht, Alsace, 2OO4 This estate wine is also in the classic Alsatian mode: dry and apple-like. It's a bit fleshier and softer than the Kuentz-Bas, in a more moderate style, but highly recommended with the same leafy herbal accents and lemon peel freshness. I think this would be an easier introductory dry Riesling for someone who usually enjoys sweeter wines because of the slightly lower apparent acidity. Goat cheese salads or cold shellfish would be ideal. $16
McWilliams "Hanwood Estate", Southeast Australia, 2OO5 From the catch-all SE Australia appellation, this wine is dry, if not quite as piercing and citric as the above two Alsatians. Acid is lower and alcohol is a touch higher, but this nicely balanced crisp dry wine is very easy drinking, with a hint of melon and ripe apple and a suggestion of lime in the finish. It's a good all purpose Riesling, without some of the thrilling lively flavor impact of the other wines listed here, but a polite well mannered pleasantness that should appeal to all. Lovely with broiled scallops. $11
Brancott, Marlborough New Zealand, 2OO4 Riesling from New Zealand is still relatively underground but they're all good, moderately priced and made in a gentle fruity style all their own. Extra hours of sunshine in Marlborough yield the kind of ripe, apple, melon, and pear aromas that are on display here, but the cool climate keeps the acids high, so there is a tart core of flavor that keeps the barely perceptible sweetness in check. This wine exemplifies what is often so appealing about the genre: it's a three-legged stool of pure refreshing acidity, some sugar and a salad of fruits all balanced together. Enjoy it as an aperitif or with cold smoked trout. $12
Annie's Lane, Clare Valley Australia, 2OO5 This is another one of those appellations you can bank on time after time, although it's largely an untold story. Few consumers, outside of Riesling aficionados, would think of Clare Valley as one of the foremost places to look for anything. The Rieslings are usually outstanding. This one pushes the envelope of sweetness further than most but it carries it off with style. The most popular wine in the blind tasting series, it's balanced just on the edge of sweet and dry, but for many tasters the candied apricot-like fruit flavors definitely tipped it over to the deliciously sugary camp. Lush in texture with vibrant ripe apple, peach and floral scents as well, the strong sharply accented fruit flavors linger for quite some time. This would be outstanding with curried dishes, with chicken served with fruits, or with just about any lobster or crab dish. An added benefit: Annie's Lane is finished off with a Stelvin closure so you never have to wonder about whether it will be corked or not. $13
Covey Run, Columbia Valley Washington, 2OO5 This officially qualifies as a steal. Washington used to be thought of as a potential source for great Riesling, which apparently it is not, but it's a very good source for delicious, straight-ahead fruity sweet Riesling that offers little complexity but lots of sensuous fruit. This wine is fragrant, with apple and apricot scents that are quite appealing, but its most notable feature is its medium sweet fresh fruitiness, lavish acidity and slightly bitter edge which lends balance and interest to the dominant sweet and sour theme. Nothing too challenging here, just chill it down and knock it back, with or without food. Again my favored choice here would be an Asian-inspired dish with a bit of heat and some fruit incorporated into the preparation; hoisin sauces come to mind. $9
G.A. Schneider, Niersteiner Orbel Qba, Rheinhessen Germany, 2OO5 What's a review of Rieslings without a German wine? Schneider is one of the great value estate producers in the Rheinhessen now, and while my tastes usually run to the more tightly structured Mosels, this wine is so appealing in its pure, gentlly textured sweetness, it won me over. Peach and sweet herb aromatics are a bit more understated than the full throttle syrupy, somewhat candied flavors. This is a lush, richly extracted, honey like Riesling with a slight bitter twist in the finish that would work extremely well with very spicy food, with chicken glazed with apple or with any fish served with fruit in the accompaniment or sauce. Provided you like sugar - there's no compromise about this wine: it's very sweet. $13