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Dan Berger on Wine: Riesling: in mysterious ways, it stands apart from all other grapes
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Dan Berger on Wine: Riesling: in mysterious ways, it stands apart from all other grapes

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I wouldn’t call myself an aggressive proselytizer when it comes to Riesling since I love so many other grapes almost as much. And to be equitable, I write about two dozen or more other varietals with almost equal interest.

But to me, Riesling is so special that I find it difficult to be objective when discussing it, especially to people who say they don’t like it. Indeed, what’s not to like about even mediocre Riesling?

It’s a grape like no other. In mysterious ways, it stands apart from all other grapes. I can’t compare it with anything else, and among its greatest attributes are aspects that I believe exceed all other grape varieties:

— Aroma: It’s far more interesting than any other aromatic variety because its aroma usually shows its sense of place, more than most other grapes. Gewürztraminer and Muscat may be easier to identify by scent, but Riesling offers a greater range of varietal and regional descriptors.

— Climate: Because Riesling grows best in cold climates, it often ripens with plenty of acidity at moderate sugars, making it excellent when a sweetness is balanced by tartness – a kind of sweet-sour dynamic.

— Alcohol: Even at low alcohol levels, it can be coaxed to reveal sublime elements that few other white wines can deliver. I’ve had wonderful Rieslings that were 7% alcohol! Think of the benefits!

— Aging potential: Because it tastes so good when young, most people don’t realize it’s probably the most long-lived white wine extant. We’ve tasted them at age 10 (and all the way to age 30.) and they still show fascinatingly.

— Dry to unctuous: As a slightly sweet wine, it appeals to a huge range of wine lovers, from novices to purists. Dry versions also may contain residual sugars, but can work well with food, and sweet versions are viewed by some people as the greatest dessert wines in the world. Bone-dry versions demand food.

— Regionality: Of all the wine-grapes in the world, only a small number customarily display regionality, which helps to define the resulting wines. One could make strong case that this subset of wines is headed by Riesling.

In particular, cold nights (which helps retain high acidity levels) seem necessary for making classically structured Rieslings. Even in areas that get scorching days, cold nights allow Riesling to flourish.

Such is the case in Australia’s Clare and Eden valleys, both of which make some of the world’s most attractive Rieslings. But they differ. Clare wines show more lime, Eden Valley more florals. Both can get brutally hot; both have huge diurnal temperature swings.

Germany, the ancestral home of the variety, has several classic regions. The two most famous are the floral-oriented Mosel (and its smaller subregions Saar and Ruwer), and the majestic Rheingau.

Other German Riesling areas, such as the Pfalz and Nahe, also make archetypal wines of their own, each with subtle distinguishing elements.

Southeast Washington has more than 5,000 acres of Riesling vineyards planted near the cool, vast Columbia River basin. It produces stylishly superb Rieslings, as does Oregon – and not just in the highly regarded north. The southern valleys (Umpqua, Rogue, and Applegate) also make wonderful Rieslings.

I’m also a huge fan of most Canadian wines, both from British Columbia as well as from Ontario, though few of them ever make it into this country. Not only are Canada’s drier Rieslings marvelous, but Canadian dessert Rieslings (such as ice wine) are some of the best anywhere.

(When it becomes feasible to travel again, I heartily recommend a trip to either Canadian wine region to visit and taste – and dine at some of the finest winery restaurants in the world.)

Just about every country that has vineyards in cooler regions produces at least a small quantity of Riesling, and from a regional point of view this makes a lot of sense. This includes Chile, South Africa, Italy, Austria, Russia, Slovenia, and even Uruguay.

In the United States, wonderful and dramatically different styles of Riesling, not to mention intensely exciting quality, may be found in some of the least likely places.

My personal favorite out-of-the-way Riesling region is the picturesque Finger Lakes district of upstate New York, several hours drive from New York City. The lakes help to prevent frost in the winter.

The major credit for Riesling’s success here must go to the late Dr. Konstantin Frank, the adventurous viticultural pioneer who was the first to argue that the Finger Lakes wasn’t just a haven for Native American grapes.

Alas, to get some of New York’s great Rieslings often calls for a thorough search. Few are widely distributed.

It took decades before New York gained its rightful fame for the variety. As recently 2000, you couldn’t give these wines away. But New Yorkers have now discovered the secret and absorb almost every Riesling the Finger Lakes makes.

Other areas that produce reliable Rieslings include one of the most vivid wine scenes of them all, on the twin northern Michigan peninsulas, where the wines are so exciting that they’re difficult to find outside their own area. Other places that make excellent and stylish Rieslings include Ohio, Idaho, Colorado, and even Texas

One of the trickiest aspects of selling Riesling is that historically most Americans have thought of all Rieslings as sweet. This has infuriated those who made them with such perfect balance that they were effectively dry. So the nonprofit trade group International Riesling Foundation (IRF), established in 2007, tried to solve that.

About a decade ago, I created for the IRF technical guidelines for a sweetness scale that is now used around the world on back labels to help consumers learn how dry or sweet the Rieslings are that they’re considering. (www.drinkriesling.com)

It helps consumers find drier Rieslings. The guidelines are flexible so even a wine with as much as 15 grams per liter of sugar that actually tastes dry can be properly identified on the label.

In the last several years, as Asian food restaurants have grown popular, Riesling sales have grown, albeit slowly, partly because it goes so well with Thai food.

Before closing because of virus regulations, SEA Thai Bistro in Santa Rosa offered nearly two dozen Rieslings by the glass. seathaibistrobar.com/restaurants/menu/wine/)

Other West Coast Asian-themed restaurants with sensational Riesling lists include Charles Phan’s famous Vietnamese destination spot in San Francisco, Slanted Door (www.slanteddoor.com) and the classic Seattle place Wild Ginger, which has dozens of German offerings including star producer Dönnhoff (www.wildginger.net).

More about this stellar wine soon.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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