It happened again just the other day. An acquaintance was raving of her fondness for pinot grigio. When I suggested diplomatically that a more captivating and more vigorous white wine for summer drinking would be riesling, she exclaimed, “Yeow, riesling. They’re so sweet!”
Here we are, well into the 21st century and riesling still is saddled with that 20th century bias. Granted, some rieslings are sweet. But the riesling spectrum is wide and varied. There are plenty of dry rieslings on the market. What’s more, while many rieslings are called medium-dry or semi-sweet, their sugar is so counterbalanced by stimulating acidity that they aren’t at all cloying. By and large, they can come off tasting less sweet and much more vital than a lot of chardonnays that are widely perceived as dry.
Several years ago the International Riesling Foundation came up with the “Riesling Taste Profile,” a simple graphic back label to let browsing consumers know where the wine inside the bottle falls on a scale from “dry” to “sweet.” Today the foundation claims the scale is used on 30 million bottles of riesling. Good luck trying to find one.
This year, much to my delight, I’ve been assigned to panels judging riesling at several wine competitions. A trip last fall to Germany and my experience at subsequent wine competitions reinforced my feeling that riesling deserves its standing as one of the world’s few truly noble grapes and wines.
What makes it so? Aside from its distinction and vigor, riesling reflects its place of origin more profoundly than most varieties. Secondly, though a white wine, it ages like a red, gaining complexity and richness with years in a cellar. Third, it excels in the three characteristics that make some wines superbly versatile at the table — fruit, build and acidity.
At last fall’s tasting in Weisbaden in southwestern Germany I tasted 83 rieslings from estates. All were from the highly acclaimed vintage of 2011. I became especially smitten with the strapping and diverse rieslings of Rheingau with flavors from apples and limes to hazelnuts and chestnuts. Their structures almost invariably were solid, acidity razory and finishes exceptionally long. A surprising number carried whiffs of autumnal leaf fires, or a thin trail of rare pipe tobacco smoke. Most were dry; those that weren’t generally were delicately sweet, not at all sticky.
But German rieslings aren’t especially easy to find along our West Coast outside of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, though Corti Brothers in Sacramento generally stocks an ample supply.
Don’t despair, however. Several other fine-wine regions are turning out respectable rieslings, including several close to Sacramento.
For years Madrona Vineyards in El Dorado County, Jekel Vineyards in Monterey County, Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino County and a few producers in the Napa Valley — Smith-Madrone, Trefethen, Stony Hill — have developed devoted followings for their dry takes on the varietal.
This spring, the panel on which I sat at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition judged 85 rieslings in four classes arranged from bone dry to intensely sweet. Twenty-seven were in the dry category. We gave nine of them gold medals, an exceptionally high percentage for any class of wine.
Not a single one was from Germany. Instead, they tended to come from New World wine regions establishing a reputation for rieslings of character and agility, most notably the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. But in the Sacramento, area rieslings from those areas are almost as difficult to find as rieslings from Germany.
At the Riverside International Wine Competition, our panel judged the “medium-sweet” class of rieslings, 31 of them. We gave seven gold medals, again a fairly high proportion. Again, the field seemed dominated by Finger Lakes rieslings.
At the San Francisco International Wine Competition, seven of the 16 candidates nominated for best white wine were rieslings. They ranged in sweetness from dry to 5 percent residual sugar. The one chosen in the sweepstakes round as the best riesling subsequently was elected the best white wine — an odd bird but consistent winner on the competition circuit: the limey, balanced, persistent and off-dry Wollersheim Winery 2012 American Riesling ($9).
Wollersheim, a Wisconsin winery, used grapes grown in Washington state, thus the broad “American” appellation on the label.
Here are several impressive rieslings, chosen because of the pleasure they deliver and because they should be relatively easy to find in the Sacramento area.