The VinoVore Column

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You Want Me to Put What in my Glass?   
A Guide to the Myths Surrounding Riesling

By Mark Card

That’s right, I said Riesling. Now, I know when I mention this particular grape, many of you will surely recoil in shock and horror. How could I dare suggest anyone buy Riesling?

I’m not only suggesting you drink it – I insist. If you’re not drinking Riesling, you’re missing out in a very big way.

Why? Well, to be honest, most people think they know more about Riesling than they really do. It’s surrounded by several myths.

Riesling myth 1 – All Riesling is sweet

In truth, Riesling is one of the most versatile grapes used to make wine. It can be made into dessert, sweet, semi-sweet or bone-dry wines. Worldwide, most Rieslings are dry.

Just how dry? In fact, most Rieslings – even the sweet ones – have less that’s right, I said less) sugar in them than Chardonnay. How can this be, you ask? Riesling has such fruit flavor to it that it fools your brain into thinking sweet.

If you’re the typical Riesling fan, you already know the sweet, peach and apricot flavors you find in the wine. So what flavors can you expect in dry Rieslings? There are four primary flavor characteristics to the wine: fruit, acidity, herbs and minerality. Here’s what you can expect from each of the dimensions of dry Riesling.

Fruit – The Riesling grape is loaded with fruit, but dry Rieslings will yield up different fruit flavors than sweet ones. You might experience any of these fruit flavors: grapefruit, lime, quince, litchi, apple and peach.

Herbs – Not all Rieslings will have herbal characteristics, but you might experience some of these flavors. Herbal flavors might include new mown hay, grass and mint. You can also get notes of spiciness here. These flavors will be quite subtle, so concentrate.

Acidity – Acidity plays an important role in Rieslings, but it’s not really a flavor per se. You know that great crisp texture you sometimes get in white wine? That comes from acidity. Acid is also a very important counterweight to the fruit flavors in a wine. If a wine has too much fruit and not enough acid, it will either taste too sweet or taste flabby. Acid allows Rieslings to be aged a very long time, but we’ll discuss that later.

Minerality – One of the characteristics of Riesling that sets it apart from other white wines is a distinct mineral flavor. Some of the mineral flavors you may experience in Rieslings are: slate, quartz, wet stones, graphite and flint. One sign of quality Riesling is a gentle aroma of petrol. Don’t be afraid of these flavors – they seem strange, but they beautifully match the other elements you find in the wines.

Want to make sure you’re getting dry Riesling? Here are some tips.

If you are buying German, look for the word “trocken” on the label. This is the German word for dry. You might not always find this on the front label, though. Always check the back of the bottle.

Many German winemakers are now using the English word “dry,” to make the wines more accessible to the American wine enthusiast. Using this word is on the increase in German wine labels.

Know what producers and countries make dry Rieslings. Generally speaking, Rieslings from Australia, Austria and Alsace, France will always be dry. In Germany, you may get both styles from the same producers, so check the labels or ask someone in the wine department.

Riesling myth 2 - Riesling is made only in Germany

Because Riesling is so versatile, it’s one of the most popular grapes in the world. It does well both in warm and cool climates. It requires little sunlight to ripen, but does well in sunny climates, too. As a result, Riesling
is not only grown in the Old World (Germany, Austria, France and Italy) but also in the new world (New York, California, Oregon, Washington, Canada, Chile, Australia and New Zealand).

But wait – there’s a bonus! As most people don’t really understand just how well-made Rieslings are, they’re also a great bargain.

Riesling myth 3 – Riesling is a white wine and won’t improve with age

White wines with higher acid content can age very well. Even the lightest of Rieslings will improve over 4 to 6 years from their release and can last 15 years. Good luck doing that with a California Chardonnay! At the ripest classifications, Rieslings will improve for 12-15 years, fading after 35 years. That’s longer than most red wines.

Riesling myth 4 – Riesling is only good as a dessert wine

This couldn’t be more wrong. Riesling, with its rich fruit and bracing acidity, is quite possibly the best food wine in the world. The acidity in the wine will slice through creamy, rich or buttery foods like a scalpel. It’s a natural match with seafood and dishes with fruit in them. Next time you’re tempted to have a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay with a summery dish, try a Riesling instead. You’ll be amazed at the result.