Many years ago, when I was first discovering wine, I attended a seminar that the esteemed Alsatian proprietor Hubert Trimbach introduced with the emphatic proclamation, “You Americans think Chardonnay is the world’s greatest white grape. It’s actually Riesling!” To my inexperienced palate the idea sounded so outlandish that I laughed at what I took to be Monsieur Trimbach’s joke. Luckily I was seated in the rear of the room, because I soon realized that the more experienced sommeliers in attendance were bent over their papers scribbling notes in earnest. Not that anyone cared, but I pretended to have just been clearing my throat.
Riesling versus Chardonnay? It remains an open question. But to this day I continue to be astonished by the dramatic rainbow of expressions that Riesling can flaunt, and I must admit, it’s among the first categories I search out on a wine list. Not only because I love Riesling, but to me it’s somewhat of a wine list litmus test, separating “the men versus the boys.” Riesling is not wildly popular and the differences among the various styles are easily misunderstood, but profitability and marketing challenges aside, a serious restaurant should still carry enough good ones to tempt you. Why? No wine starts a meal better, and none is more compatible with so many vastly different culinary preparations.
This is the season for Riesling. With ripe bright citrus and stone fruit flavors, low alcohol, palate-enlivening acid, minerality (if you choose wisely) and an overall refreshing palate profile, Riesling has “summer” written all over it. So what is the problem? Many people equate Riesling with Sweet, and Sweet with Unsophisticated, and isn’t it so much more fashionable and easy to drink a dry Rose or a Sauvignon Blanc? So, here are the facts: Riesling can be sweet, to one degree or another, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with sugar, as long as it’s balanced with appropriate levels of acidity. End of discussion. In fact, there’s a lot right with wines that balance sweetness and acid, particularly to accompany spicy dishes, or those that have sauces or side dishes incorporating ripe, fruity, or slightly sweet ingredients.
The following Rieslings available at various Legal locations in Massachusetts, are listed in ascending order, from driest to sweetest. They are all personal favorites.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht “Herrenweg de Turckheim,” Alsace, 2014. Alsace is the home of quintessential dry Riesling, and fellow Master of Wine Olivier Humbrecht is among the world’s premier oenologists. The Herrenweg vineyard (or the “Road of the soldiers”) in Turckheim is a slightly warmer terroir than surrounding sites, with sandy, pebbly, clay silt soils, that in Olivier’s hands makes a beautifully aromatic, lemony apple-accented wine with a lingering peach pit mineral note. It’s expansive on the palate and magical with lemon caper sole.
Trimbach “Cuvée M,” Alsace, 2008: The aforementioned house of Trimbach, now in its 13th generation as proprietors, makes absolutely steely, bone dry Riesling of precision and purity. This originates from pedigreed 40+ year old vines planted on hilly south facing slopes at the Grand Cru vineyard of Mandelberg, one of the cold region’s warmest sites. It’s crisp and brilliantly fresh. After nine years? This is one of Riesling’s other remarkable attributes: an ability to improve in the bottle, developing finesse and bouquet, not for years but actually decades. Ideally matched with trout.
Hermann J. Wiemer, Finger Lakes, 2015: Upstate New York? Without question among the finest places in the US for Riesling, which enjoys an elongated moderately cool growing season. This one from the shores of Lake Seneca mirrors some of the minerality of the Alsatians, but with more floral, lime and apricot notes, and a bit more sharpness and breadth on the palate. An all-purpose Riesling, great with white fish fillets.
Von Kesselstatt Scharzhofberger Kabinett, Mosel, 2015: From the cool climate Saar in Riesling’s heartland, the Mosel region of Germany, this is a wine with delicacy, minerality and a profusion of white flowers. It’s dryish, but with subtle sweet notes discernible as well. 2015 is already a legendary vintage in Germany, and the openness of this wine is striking, considering that Scharzhofbergers are often tight and closed in aroma during infancy. From grapes grown on slate rock soil at 1,000 feet elevations, this one exhibits white peach, floral and citrus notes that speak of the garden. On the palate its fresh apple and pineapple flavors are irresistible. Great as a starter or with scallop dishes. Because of the difficulty in marketing wines with long unpronounceable names, this and other German Rieslings available today constitute what I consider the bargains of the year.
Dr. Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten “Fischerei” Spätlese, Mosel, 2015. Another great 2015, this Middle Mosel Spatlese originates on ungrafted, old vines in the Grosses Gewächs (Grand Cru) rated Würzgarten (“spice garden”) vineyard. The soils here in the Fischerei parcel are weathered red slate, more reminiscent of the Rheingau than Mosel. The wine is richly honeyed, with nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger scents. The lush tropical fruit flavors are lively enough to stand up to our Thai Calamari or Bang Bang Cauliflower.
Among some other wines to watch for: Paul Anheuser Schlossböckelheimer Köningsfels Kabinett, Nahe, 2016 (another real tongue-twister, medium sweet); JJ Karp Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett, Mosel, 2016 (crisp, racy, medium dry with orange and honey); and Dr. Heyden Oppenheimer Sackträger Auslese, Rheinhessen, 2015 (a luscious dessert nectar, so well balanced it will calm our spiciest seafood preparations).
Rieslings are about pure pleasure, but they are also intriguing and complex in flavor. Unlike many other great and noble wines though, they’re so direct in appeal that they’re almost guaranteed to make you smile.
Try some of these and enjoy the rest of your summer!
Sandy Block, Master of Wine