Saturday, May 19, 2007

Wine School! (Class #8 -- Riesling)

Riesling -- the crowd pleaser.

In my CinWeekly interview, I mentioned Riesling as my favorite wine of the moment. I mentioned it's "the most flexible," meaning one can find a Riesling to pair with almost anything. Since I love to cook and love to eat even more -- it's a natural.

I wasn't a big fan of whites for a long time. I'd drink them, sure -- and it was nice to have something cold around the house, but I chilled them almost to freezing and basically used like light beer. Once I started learning about wine, I grew to tolerate them. I thought most were too tart or too oaky. I discovered good Riesling and my eyes opened. Riesling was my gateway white.

Among U.S. wine drinkers, "Riesling" meant "syrupy-sweet German wine" for a very long time. As I discussed in my Riesling column, that's an unfortunate stereotype. While the grape is of German origin and the most expensive Rieslings are dessert wines -- the majority of decent Riesling out there isn't going to pucker your mouth. If you'd like a primer on deciphering Riesling, refer to the "Raise Your Riesling Steins" entry and you'll get a good idea.

For our tasting, I decided I'd try to put my advice to first hand application. On my birthday, I did a wine tasting for my family. The cast of characters:

  • My father and mother -- neither of whom are big drinkers. They have the occasional glass of wine, but rarely have any around the house.
  • My sister and brother-in-law -- also occasional wine drinkers, but the usual drink of choice at their place is Michelob Ultra.
  • The Sweet Partner in Crime.
  • My 95 year old grandmother who almost never drinks -- except for an occasional glass of Manischewitz.
They were faced with:
  • Pierre Sparr 2004 Riesling (France) -- $11-14
  • J & H.A. Strub 2005 Riesling Kabinett (Germany) -- $13-15
  • Salmon Run 2005 Riesling (New York) -- $11-14

I'd rather my party did most of the talking.

We started with the Sparr. My grandmother's initial comment was "This is sour. I like sweet wines." My mom and sister thought "bitter apple" was a good description of it. The most colorful description was from my brother in law: "It's kind of got an odor in your mouth. It tastes like…I'd say…rubbing alcohol smells. Not that I drink rubbing alcohol or anything."

Rieslings like the Sparr from in the Alsace region are traditionally very dry. Part of this is due to the terroir, but most Alsatian wines are in this style. French Rieslings also improve with a little age, so this wine would have been very different after two or three more years. These wines have some fruit to them, but they're generally much more acidic than other Rieslings. I remembered Alsatian wines generally go well with shellfish. We still had some shrimp cocktail from lunch, so away we went. The wine's acidity worked extremely well with the shrimp. Everyone liked it. I'd imagine this would be a great choice at a raw bar.

Next, the Salmon Run. My grandmother liked this one "better than the first one." My brother-in-law thought it was "pleasant" and he said it "didn't have any nasty taste." My mother said it was a wine you could easily "drink too much of on a sunny day." My dad said only, "Fuller, fruitier." My sister said it was "tangy, but sweet."

American Rieslings tend to be middle-of-the-road. While they're not quite sweet enough to handle heavy food, they are good everyday wines. Most of the U.S. Rieslings you'll see will be from California, but the Finger Lakes region of New York is now cranking out some very good versions. Finger Lakes Rieslings generally have enough acidity to handle a broad variety of foods, and they're very easy to drink. If you're going to a party and don't know what to bring, this is a safe bet. With this particular wine, you'll get a lot of pear and apple flavor and a long, smooth finish.

Finally, the Strub. A German Riesling Kabinett tends to be on the sweet side. My grandmother indicated the wine "smelled and tastes sweet." My brother in law said the body tastes "like when you eat a bunch of sweet candy…you get that thick taste in your mouth." My mother thought it would be too heavy for food. My sister said it tasted like pears. My father reclined, saying little, contemplative. Perhaps the accumulated effect of wine, cognac, and Kahlua got to him.

This wine is very German. It would go very well with traditional Rhine-style cooking. Spaetzle, beef & pork sausages, and sauerkraut would be a natural pairing. It could also accompany anything spicy. Thai, Indian, Chinese, Mexican -- any of them would work well. As the SPinC put it: "Anything that would go with beer would go with this."

So ends our tour of the big six. A friend of mine contacted me a couple of months ago -- he told me about the "century club," a group of people who pride themselves on tasting 100 different varietals. I think that's a noble goal, but let's be honest. Unless you've got a lot of time and money, probably 90% of the wines you drink on a regular basis will fall into one of these six.

I hope you've enjoyed this, picked up some good information, and you'll feel a little more comfortable when faced with a wine list. I invite you to share of your own observations in the comments.

Cheers, everyone!

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