Apart from rosé, is there any wine more universally misunderstood and underappreciated than riesling? There simply aren't enough column inches allotted us to spout off the multitude of reasons this varietal is one of only three whites worthy of being classified as a "noble" grape, but its year-round drinkability, epic range of expression and unique ability to pair with foods of nearly any origin are a few we can throw out to get you started. You'd think all of those accolades would translate into a near-constant consumption of riesling on your part, but no. Because just like rosé, less savvy sippers have lumped riesling into that most unfortunate category of wines -- Wines We Are Slightly Freaked Out About.
As with many things in life, our fear and uncertainty about wine stems usually from a simple lack of information, which is only further exacerbated by a set of faulty assumptions. What we can assert is that if you've ever enjoyed a glass of white wine, there's a riesling out there that you will love. So, how to overcome your resistance to this utterly irresistible wine? By drinking it, of course. We've done you the favor of tasting through an array of rieslings that range across the board in price, provenance and pair-ability and selected the four that will officially have you on board Team Riesling. Read on to have every one of your previously unassailable objections to this perfect-for-fall wine officially dismantled.
1. Rieslings are way too sweet. It's true -- riesling inherently can be sweeter than other varietals, depending on where they're from and how they're made. The thing to remember is that what might register in a lesser wine as a cloyingly high level of residual sugar is often more than offset by loads of joyful acidity and steely minerality. If you're not still not convinced, you have only to sample an Old World riesling (Alsace or Germany) next to one from the New World (say, Washington State) and you'll soon be enlightened. Having said that, it's key to get present to the fact that what initially might register on your palate as "sweetness" would perhaps better be identified as "fruitiness" - as in the juicy, honeyed nectar-like flavor you get when sinking your teeth into perfect nectarine. Rule of thumb: Rieslings with a higher alcohol percentage of higher than 11 percent will seem less sweet than those with lower alcohol levels (11 percent or lower). On German bottles, terms like "Spätlese trocken" or "Kabinett trocken" refer to drier manifestations of these wines. So check the label before buying for a sneak peek of what's inside.
2. You can't drink riesling after Labor Day -- it's a summertime white. We couldn't differ with this misguided viewpoint more. You'd agree that apples and pears are staples of the harvest season table, yes? Well, riesling is the wine world equivalent of those two quintessential fall flavor profiles, laden as they tend to be with the essence of juicy, sweet-tartness and/or exotic spices. Venture into a riesling from the Pfalz region of Germany, for example, and you'll be treated to a rich, medium-bodied wine featuring a complex, mineral-driven backbone topped off with brilliant bursts of Meyer lemony acidity. And as long as we're discussing Old World expressions of the varietal, we'd go as far as to say the older and spendier the bottle -- say, vintages between 2004 and 2008 and costing upwards of $20 -- the more likely the wine to taste richer and more distinctly appropriate for fall.
3. Riesling only goes well with Asian dishes. Even though we'd promptly chow down on a meal that featured a plate of pad thai and a glass of this oh-so-crave-able varietal, that assertion makes about as much sense as saying that Champagne is only fit for drinking on New Year's Eve. We submit that riesling is as versatile a grape as you might ever stumble upon, working its magic equally well with dishes as dissimilar as foie gras and fried chicken. The very fruit-based sweetness and higher acidity levels we've just discussed make for some of the most swoon-worthy and inspired food pairings you might ever get lucky enough to binge on. Five particularly riesling-ready (and likely to show up on many a fall menu) dishes include: anything with bacon, seared sea scallops, butternut squash risotto, a Brie-topped burger, or cider-braised pork chops nestled on a bed of braised red cabbage. Hungry (or better said, thirsty for a glass of riesling) yet?
Here are four of our favorite bottles to try:
Bassermann-Jordan Riesling Kabinett Pfalz 2009 ($19): Leads with a nose full of limestone, follows with a mouthful of lemon zest and clover honey. Classic Pfalz profile and infinitely drinkable.
Knipser Laumersheimer Kapellenberg Riesling Kabinett Trocken 2007 ($20): Tasted bigger than we expected, offering incredibly layered flavors of Asian pear, pineapple, and lots of minerality. Utterly fantastic.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 'Eroica' Riesling 2010 ($20): The ideal companion for a Sunday dinner of roast pork loin and goat cheese-stuffed figs. 'Nuff said.
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Badger Mountain NSA Riesling 2009 ($13): Perfect weeknight riesling to sip after a particularly trying day at the office. Straightforward stone fruit and a lovely honeycomb flavor.