The jewel in the crown of any growing region where it may thrive (and like Pinot Noir, that is a narrow range of places), Riesling is the world's finest white wine grape. Okay, in the interest of equanimity, it is arguably the world's finest white wine grape. Certainly it is responsible for the finest white wines in the cool-climate regions of three of the world's great wine-growing countries--Austria, Germany, and France.
Riesling has suffered at the hands of bad wines made in its name, and suffers still from a bottle shape that also reminds consumers ineluctably of that too-sweet wine that they thought they had left behind. Over the years of rehabilitation, Riesling has proven that--while great--it is certainly not for everyone, and it is still fabulously unfashionable in the minds of drinkers who haven't yet been willing to let go of what they "know" and approach Riesling without prejudice.
Misunderstood though it may be, this statement cannot be gainsaid: based on the kaleidoscopic flavors it can present, along with the incredible sense of fathomlessness (if you want this to be a more dispassionate statement, you may substitute "along with numerous indescribable qualities") it can achieve, whether bone dry or super-sweet, a well-made Riesling has no peer. I'll give Chenin Blanc a close second, a grape is possibly even less fashionable than Riesling lately (given the rate with which Chenin is being pulled up in South Africa).
Riesling has a soaring aroma and intense flavors, and usually a lower alcoholic content, especially in Germany, where after fermentation, unfermented grape juice (usually called süssreserve) is added to the wine in order to balance out the high acids that are routine in the cool-climates of the Mosel River and its tributaries, the Ruwer and Saar Rivers. Alcohol levels of 8% are the norm, but in Austria and Alsace, the wines are much more potent at 12%. They are also generally made in a dry style.
I have poured many a BONE DRY Riesling to customers who will insist that it is sweet after they've tasted it. This happens less often if I can pour it in a blind-tasting. That it continues to happen even in a neutral setting is attributable to the simultaneous purity and depth of fruit inherent to Riesling that Chardonnay, for example, doesn't have. Tasters expecting the relatively fruit-poor expressions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and to a certain extent Pinot Grigio, will no doubt perceive sweetness in a dry Riesling. The irony is that a dry Riesling almost surely possesses less sugar than any of these others.
Food and Wine Harmony
Riesling is among the most useful of wines at the table. Residual sugar is, up to certain limits--a non-issue. Savory food tends to like sugar mixed-in, making Riesling an obvious choice for a mellifluous pairing. It would almost be better to say what it DOES NOT go well with, as that is a much shorter list. Some obvious choices, though, are:
Dry: Asian cuisine, beef (can be a revelation!), cheese, chicken, Choucroute, ham, duck, goose, onion tart, rabbit, salmon, trout
Off Dry: apples, Asian cuisine, chicken, crab, mild curry, roast duck, fish, fruit and fruit sauces, pork, smoked salmon, scallops, roast turkey, Vietnamese food
Sweet: dessert (except chocolate, depending on the wine), foie gras
Unless you want to go deep with Riesling, you may safely stop here without missing a thing.
The natural disposition of Riesling is so fine--provided it is planted in the proper regions--that it can continue to ripen for many weeks after initial ripeness is attained. The natural relationship between the grape's sugars and acids can be maintained while the grape has an opportunity to develop more flavors. This is seen most clearly in Germany, with designations for different ripeness levels that are dictated in several cases by the number of days between harvest (i.e., Kabinett wines may be picked no earlier than two weeks after the first picking of the basic "Qualitätswein")
Riesling from Alsace is not particularly similar to German Riesling, though occasional similarities can be seen with the Trocken (dry) Rieslings from the Pfalz in Germany. German Riesling, especially those from the Mosel area are low in alcohol and can seem to be born out of the ether.
Riesling is a particularly hardy vine, and this is especially helpful in cooler wine regions where other grape varieties might succumb to frost damage. Riesling's springtime bud-break is later than most, and ripening comes earlier than other famous varieties, but achieving full-ripeness in cooler regions can stretch well into Autumn--late October or even late November.
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