Wine to Dine
Way back in the seventies (from what I've heard) when Americans were still calling Chardonnay "Pinot Chardonnay," many a refrigerator usually held wines with names like Blue Nun, Piesporter and Liebfraumilch.
Sadly, the stigma of sweet and cheap has lingered for decades regarding these brands. When you say 'German wine' to many people, it's these three wines that frequently pop to mind. Though the Riesling grape is sometimes used in their production, this category of wine has little to do with a true Riesling.
The Riesling (pronounced reeezling) grape, also known as Johannisberg Riesling, White Riesling, Weisser Riesling, Rheinriesling and Riesling Renano, has been grown in Germany's Rhine and Mosel Valleys since the 14th century.
It is the most planted grape in the Rhine Valley: people who talk about a 'Rhine Wine' are talking about a Riesling. It has also been the dominant grape in France's Alsace region, and these two countries have come to define how a Riesling should be grown and produced.
One distinguishing fact about the Riesling grape is that it can produce wines across the entire spectrum of style, from a dusty dry, almost flinty, to a magnificent sweet nectar. Riesling superiority over other grapes stems from its late ripening cycle, allowing it the time to extract the minerals and trace elements in the soil, giving full expression to the terroir. Everything the vine has experienced in the vineyard can be sensed in a single glass of wine.
While it is true that other wines can express terroir with uncanny precision, their character is often altered by oak treatment, especially in red wines. This isn't the case with Riesling, where new oak plays no part in its production, though European winemakers sometimes will use older, neutral oak in 1,000 liter oval casks to finish the wine. The typical low alcohol level of Riesling also helps to allow the nuances of the vineyard to be expressed.
Styles of Riesling
Riesling is usually produced in three distinct styles: dry, half dry, and sweet. Picking the grapes early, when the sugar content is low, results in a crisp, fruity aromatic wine that is low in alcohol. If you wait a bit longer to harvest, the sugar levels rise slightly and you produce a semi-dry Riesling. If the harvest is late in the season when the berries have fully ripened, the sugar content is high, resulting in the classic 'sweet' Riesling with complex bouquets.
During the 20th century, planting of Riesling spread from the Old World to wine regions in the northern and southern hemispheres. However, with few exceptions the wines produced lack the unique character expressed by the conditions in the Mosel and Rhine Valleys.
There, the cooler climate allows the grape to ripen over an extended growing period and the predominantly slate soils impart a mineral component to the wine. Still, a number of North American and Australian producers are committed to creating high-quality Riesling.
New World Rieslings
In the U.S., Riesling has seen a renaissance in New York State's Finger Lakes Region, Washington, and Oregon. The cooler climate and slate soils of the Finger Lakes Region come close to the conditions in Germany, but Washington State is the largest producer of Riesling at this time, thanks to one winery - Chateau Ste. Michelle - currently bottling 200,000 cases of Riesling annually.
Surprisingly, Australia is now at the forefront of the Riesling revival, being known worldwide for the purity of its Rieslings. These bold and aggressive 'down-under' producers are setting the new world standard for the best dry versions of the varietal.
Their wines offer unique regional characteristics and their aggressive marketing efforts are sure to elevate Riesling awareness in the United States. The Clare Valley in South Australia is the source for most of Australia's best Riesling.
Dining with Riesling
Riesling is perhaps the most versatile food wine in the world. Where Chardonnay often slaps food, Riesling caresses it. Its marvelous acidity cuts through the flavor of rich cream sauces and softer delicate cheeses. It also matches well with meat dishes, poultry dishes and most seafood and shellfish. Riesling is also perfect for pairing with spicy Oriental or Cajun dishes. For salty foods in general the sweetness or fruitiness of Riesling is a match made in Heaven.
Since today's cooking tends to focus more on sauces, or herbs and spices, Riesling wines work well to accentuate these flavors. Therefore, by identifying the overriding taste component of a particular dish, you can generally choose the ideal Riesling wine style to accompany the taste.