Riesling: Food-friendly and downright tasty

By Molly Steinbach
For The Taos News
Posted 5/2/19

You may have noticed that riesling crops up quite frequently in this column. There are a number of reasons for this. One, riesling is incredibly food-friendly, with enough body and acidity to stand …

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Riesling: Food-friendly and downright tasty

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You may have noticed that riesling crops up quite frequently in this column. There are a number of reasons for this. One, riesling is incredibly food-friendly, with enough body and acidity to stand up to a wide variety of dishes. Two, I like Riesling. Three, I really like an underdog.

Is riesling an underdog? Of all the grapes from all the regions of the world, I have the most trouble getting bottles of riesling into the hands of wine drinkers. I can more easily sell a Poulsard from the Jura or a Tannat from Uruguay than a riesling from Germany. Partially this is due to what I call the Blue Nun Phenomenon.

Blue Nun--which wasn't actually made of riesling until the last 20 years or so, but rather another German grape, Müller-Thurgau--came to popularity after World War II as an internationally friendly off-dry wine. Its reputation, however, suffered beginning in the 1990s when the brand began to be viewed as outmoded and of poor quality. Since then, though the wine still exists in a number of incarnations, it has become somewhat of a joke.

Either because of Blue Nun, or merely contemporaneously with Blue Nun's fall from popularity, German riesling is often viewed in the United States as at best as inscrutable (there is an awful lot of German on the labels) and at worst sickly and obsolete.

Nothing could be further from the truth. (Okay, the label thing is a bit of a problem, but we'll talk about that later.) In addition to its food-friendliness and downright tastiness, riesling is one of the few white wines that can age gracefully for years, if not decades. It is a chameleon, ranging from bone dry to intensely sweet.

In the beginning, Blue Nun actually had a good idea. The intention of the wine was to circumvent the confusing German labeling system, which is not only in German--a language that tends to have a lot of very long words not easily understood by the nonspeaker--but also reflects rules of wine classification that are not always intuitive.

There are two main classifications of "quality" (their word, not mine) in German wine: Qualitätswein (QbA) and Prädikatswein. Prädikatswein is further divided into six classes, each dictated by the amount of sugar in the grapes when they were harvested. In order from least to most sugar, these classes are: Kabinett, Spätlese (literally late harvest), Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese (the words are getting longer …) and Eiswein. All but the first two levels tend to be on the sweet side. They also tend to be on the expensive side and, in Taos at least, quite difficult to find.

In recent years, many German wine producers have taken a cue from the early success of Blue Nun in targeting international, especially American, wine drinkers and are producing wines without so many longer German words on the label. Most of these wines are of the QbA classification (and as such don't, by law, require as much verbiage, which definitely helps).

One such producer is Dr. Hermann. In addition to a variety of Prädikatsweins, Dr. Hermann makes a QbA simply called "H." The 2016 Dr. Hermann Qualitätswein Mosel "H" ($18/750ml bottle) is ripe with peach and pear on the nose, honeyed on the palate with bright notes of orange zest and a surprising amount of effervescence. It's not complex, but it's thoroughly approachable and perfectly tasty.

Once consumers are lured into trying a German riesling by an accessible QbA such as this, one hopes that they might take a chance on a Prädikatswein where the (perceived) risk may be bigger, but so is the reward.

The 2016 Reichsrat von Buhl Riesling Kabinett Pfalz Armand ($25) walks a happy line between traditional and simplified labeling practices. All the legal stuff is there, but there's no loopy script or confusing verbiage. We can see that it is a Prädikatswein of the Kabinett variety from the Pfalz region. Everything else on the label is just the name of the winery (Reichsrat von Buhl) and of this specific wine (Armand). Easy, right?

The Armand has a delightful depth and breadth of flavors, from fresh apple and pear, to richer lime curd, to a savory almond quality that would make it a perfect companion to cheese. (I drank it with panko-crusted pork chop, and it was pretty delicious with that, too.)

All of this talk of confusing labels should not, however, discourage you from trying a bottle of German Riesling, even if you can't read one word on the label. Indeed, this is where some of the true treasures lie.

The 2013 Max Ferdinand Richter Riesling Spätlese Mosel Wehlener Sonnenuhr ($32) has all the ornate script and profusion of text on its label that has been confusing wine buyers for generations. And the wine inside the bottle is so utterly perfect as to make all that completely irrelevant. By this point you know what most of those words indicate anyway. The only outlier is Wehlener Sonnenuhr, which is merely the name of the vineyard in which the grapes were grown.

Despite the higher sugar level in the grapes at harvest indicated by the term Spätlese, this wine tastes less sweet than the previous two, but with greater intensity of flavor. Ripe apricots burst on the palate, dancing with baking spice and ethereal honeysuckle and lime blossom. The Richter is drinking beautifully now, but could easily age another 15 years.

Do me a favor next time you're shopping for wine. Try a bottle of riesling. Try one with a spectacular amount of undecipherable German words on the label. I think you'll like it. And if you don't, I'll drink it.

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