What is misunderstood?
Really, I think it is important to note that Riesling is often misunderstood in two nearly opposite directions. Both of these misconceptions stem from the grapes reputation for producing sweet wines. To be sure, there are a large number of sweet Rieslings produced. However, one of the beautiful aspects of Riesling is that fantastic wines are available that range from bone dry to syrupy dessert wines that are among the sweetest wines produced anywhere in the world.
All too often wine lovers are missing out on some wonderful wines that exist on the opposite range of their usual tastes on this wonderfully broad spectrum of sweetness. Dry wine lovers poo-poo sweeter Riesling, often believing it is only suitable for “novice” wine drinkers or those with unevolved tastes. Sweet wine lovers, meanwhile, may often be missing an opportunity to gently broaden their tastes to include dry wines.
Whichever camp one may be in, Riesling serves are a perfect “gateway wine” to open up an entire new world of tasty (and food friendly) wines. The key, with Riesling, is its’ high level of acidity. The balance between acid and sugar can vary to almost any degree and be complimentary of each other. Further, in case I haven’t made it clear already, wines are available all over this spectrum. This makes it easy to expand your horizons just a little at a time.
So, here is my challenge my fellow wine lovers of all shapes and sizes. Try a German Spätlese – preferably with some mildly-spicy Thai food on a hot summer night. Enjoy venturing into a whole new world! Cheers! Errrrrr…. or should I say Prost!
What is Riesling?
Riesling is a white grape varietal that first originated in Germany’s Rhine region. Aromatic and flowery to the point of having perfume-like qualities, the grape is characterized by its high levels of acidity that lend to its immense versatility. While commonly thought of as a “sweet” wine, Riesling is actually capable of producing wines which are dry, semi-sweet and sparkling as well. The grape is highly expressive of the region it’s grown in, taking in the terroir as few others can.
Since Riesling is usually not oaked and tends not to be blended with other grapes, it is considered by many to be Germany’s purest expression of white wine.
Expansion Throughout the World
While Riesling is by and large a German grape, its popularity led to plantings throughout the rest of the world over the years. Today, Riesling is considered to be the 20th most grown variety in the world at an impressive 120,000 acres worldwide. Significant plantings can be found in Austria, Italy, Slovakia, New Zealand, Australia and even in California and New York. Because of the grape’s ability to take on nuances of the soil in which it is grown, Rieslings from around the world can vary greatly from one another — especially in sweetness.
Characteristic Flavors of German Riesling
While it’s true that no two Rieslings taste identical to one another, there are a handful of characteristics that the wine is known for regardless of production area. In general, Rieslings tend to showcase high levels of minerality, which tends to give way to flavors of lime, lemon, melon and pineapple. Much of the balance between minerality and tropical flavors can be attributed to the dryness of the wine; drier Rieslings being more mineral-heavy, sweeter Rieslings leaning in the direction of tropicality. Because of the firm acidity found in most Rieslings, it’s possible to age finer varieties of the wine for many years — something not typical of most white wines.
A Food Wine Like No Other
There are countless wines that can pair nicely with food of all kinds, most of which tend to be on the dryer side. Food pairings are where Riesling shines, especially when you consider the wine’s clever balance of sugar and acid. A perfect fish wine, Riesling can also stand up nicely to roast pork or whole-roasted chicken. Where the wine truly shines, however, is in its ability to stand up to some of the world’s boldest cuisine — particularly Thai and Chinese. The spiciness of foods from these regions makes pairing them with wine quite challenging, yet Riesling showcases all of the qualities needed in a complement to Thai and Chinese cuisine.
Benjamin Barrone is a finance and accounting professional located in Chicago, IL. Mr. Barrone most recently served as Director of Finance for Vital Proteins, also located in Chicago, IL. Benjamin (Ben) Barrone enjoys making great food and wine pairings. When it comes to red wine, Ben indicates that his favorite come from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. Best know for their long-lived Barolo and Barbaresco, the region is produces Barbera and Nebbiolo that are more approachable in their youth. Perhaps the best part of these wines is their versatility with food.
Situated in the northwest, Piedmont shares borders with France and Switzerland. The region’s Italian name, Piemonte, translates to foot of the mountains, which is a fitting descriptor for its subalpine location and the fact that it’s surrounded by mountains on three sides—the Alps in the north and west and the Apennines in the south.
There are two distinct winemaking areas in Piedmont. One is northeast of Turin in an area near Lake Maggiore. The other, which is the region’s real heartland, is located southeast of the city in the provinces of Asti, Alessandria, and Cuneo. The highest concentration of vineyards altogether is in the Langhe and the Monferrato hills. This is where the region’s most acclaimed vineyard sites can be found. The land here is strikingly dense with vines. The surface area of some villages, particularly around Barbaresco, is almost entirely planted with curving rows of grapevines.
As a wine region, Piedmont has had enormous success cultivating its own indigenous varieties. Though some international grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are planted here, the region is renowned for its red wines made from grapes like Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto and whites made from Cortese, Arneis, and Moscato
The mountains create a protective barrier around Piedmont and the sub-alpine foothills offer many sunny slopes for planting the region’s most-prized grape. While the sunniest aspects tend to be reserved for Nebbiolo, nearly all of the vineyards in Piedmont are planted on hills ranging in elevation from 150 to 450 meters above sea level. Very few (less than 5 percent) are officially classified as flat. The coolest sites are usually planted with Dolcetto, except in the hills southeast of Asti, where cooler vineyards are reserved for Moscato.
The most famous winemaking area, the Langhe, gets its name from the Latin word for tongue, which aptly describes the long, narrow strip of hills that make up this sub-region. The Langhe is surrounded on three sides by rivers. The Tanaro runs west and north and the Bormida di Spigno to the east.
Soils are typically made up of varying degrees of sedimentary clay, calcareous marl, sandstone, and sand. Those in the Langhe, as well as in the area around Gavi, are rich with limestone. In the Roero, soils are sandier and less calcareous. Variations in soil composition, altitude, and aspect combined with the sub-mountainous landscape contribute to a range of mesoclimates throughout the region.
Overall, Piedmont has a classically continental climate (though the area of Gavi in the southeast experiences some maritime influences from the Mediterranean Sea). The continental climate brings long, hot summers that extend into early autumn. Then temperatures drop quickly for a cool fall and cold winter. Spring is also cool and often rainy.
The area is known for the morning mists and thick fog that roll through the mountains and valleys. It’s commonly believed that the Nebbiolo grape takes its name from la nebbia, the Italian word for fog. In the Langhe, fog helps to prolong Nebbiolo’s ripening season, yielding aromatic wines that are high in acid, alcohol, and tannins with excellent aging potential.
Hail can be a particularly hazardous threat to both the quantity and quality of grapes in Piedmont. In the past, it has caused losses of up to 30 percent of an overall grape harvest. Fortunately, when hail does hit, it typically affects only a few slopes and never the entire Nebbiolo crop.
Benjamin Barrone is an accounting and finance professional in Chicago, IL. He most recently served as Director of Finance for Vital Proteins. In that capacity, he helped build the accounting and finance department and secure Series A financing. Benjamin (Ben) Barrone is passionate about helping startup ventures grow and scale their business. Another passion is food. Mr. Barrone enjoys a wide variety of foods from around the world and is especially interested in the cross-cultural Alsace region located in France and sharing a border with Germany. Alsace is also widely-recognized for their spectacular wines – mostly whites. Riesling, in particular, thrives here. Known for a dry style with racy acidity, some of the best examples worldwide hail from the Alsace region of France.
Riesling is one of the superstars of the world of white wine and one of the four finest varieties grown in the northeastern French region of Alsace. But what makes it so special?
In terms of flavour, Alsatian rieslings are mostly elegant and dry, with floral hints and plenty of fruitiness, and mildly spicy. They are always mouthwatering and remarkably food-friendly wines, and the finest are capable of developing great complexity.
In Alsace, it is the long, dry summers that bring out the citrus, stone-fruit and floral characters of the riesling grape, while the various soil types in and around the villages with the finest terroirs lend a distinct spicy and mineral freshness.
Age also influences the wine’s flavour and aroma. Over time, a sophisticated, complex and honeyed bouquet develops, unequalled by any other grape variety, drawing riesling aficionados like bees to pollen.
So what do you need to know about Alsace riesling? Here’s a primer.
AOC Alsace Riesling
The most accessible and affordable expressions of the grape are sold as AOC Alsace Riesling. These everyday wines go well with simple dishes such as charcuterie, goat cheeses, onion tart, smoked fish and poultry.
They are produced right across the region by family estates large and small as well as in co-operative wineries which rank among the finest in France. Try Le Côte de Rouffach de Muré, an organic wine from the hillsides of the Rouffach region made by the Muré family, who have been wine producers for 12 generations.
AOC Alsace Grand Cru Riesling
The Vosges mountains to the east of the region provide shelter from moist west winds and it is here, on the higher protected slopes, that the classic examples of Alsatian rieslings are grown. These Grand Cru vineyards are subject to laws that stipulate higher levels of ripeness and lower yields (fewer grapes per vine) in order to ensure higher quality wines.
In the granite soils around the villages of Turckheim and Kientzheim, and in the clay soils around Riquewihr, you can find some really glorious Grand Cru rieslings.
These richer, more intense wines deserve to be matched with extra-special cuisine. In the summer months you could serve them with a smörgåsbord of dishes, from cold meats such as roast lamb and chicken to salad niçoise or tabbouleh. In winter, Alsace Grand Cru Riesling is a fine choice for roast chicken, turkey or goose. And it’s a terrific choice for the Christmas table and with seafood dishes.
Perversely, some of the very finest Alsace rieslings are sold not as Grand Cru but under the name of the specific vineyard or “clos” in which they grow. In such cases, the price usually reflects the wine’s exquisite quality. Again, from the Muré family of Rouufach, the Clos Saint Landelin de Muré is a biodynamic wine a delicate nose, fresh palate and strong fruit flavours of lime and apricot.