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.
Dry• Jacob’s Creek Wines 2012 South Eastern Australia Riesling ($8): Made with .36 percent residual sugar, which approaches the threshold of detectable sweetness for most people, the Jacob’s Creek is a soft and floral starter riesling that provides an inexpensive way for the wary to see that the varietal can be made dry.
• Jacob’s Creek Wines 2012 Barossa Reserve Riesling ($14): Another Australian bargain, its plump peach fruit vibrant with a core of minerality, finishing with the kind of persistence commonly found only in rieslings at twice this price.
• Mudhouse 2012 Waipara Valley Riesling ($25): Not sure if this is readily available in the Sacramento area, but it should be, given its distribution by the large import house Pasternak. At the Los Angeles International, it was the most exotic and complex of the rieslings in the dry category, and was a unanimous choice for gold among our four judges. It also ultimately was elected best of class.
Off-dry/medium-sweet• Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Columbia Valley Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling ($18): A rich yet spirited interpretation of riesling, its juicy peachiness offset with an electric acidity that keeps its sugar from becoming sticky.
• J. Lohr Vineyards 2012 Monterey Bay Mist Riesling ($10): Yes, it has 2 percent residual sugar, but the grapes were grown in cool Monterey County, which explains its lift and elegance, resulting in a riesling that tastes more dry than sweet. It won gold at both Riverside and Los Angeles.
• Sweet Turning Leaf Vineyards California Riesling ($8): Yes, this is one of those old-school rieslings, decidedly sweet and soft, but with an expansive, applelike fruitiness that makes it an ideal poolside sipper.
• Trinchero Family Estates Wine Cube 2012 California Riesling ($17 per 3-liter box at Target stores): Friendly and unassuming, but loaded with enough compelling fruit and snappy acidity to be voted the best riesling in the state at this year’s California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.
• Be. Radiant 2011 California Riesling ($9): A release from Treasury Wines, this fat yet energetic and faithful riesling got a gold in the medium-sweet class at Los Angeles. It’s plenty sweet, but its fruit also is complicated by alluring notes of herbs and slate.
• Girly Girl Wines 2011 Columbia Valley Riesling ($13): Now this is the kind of riesling Americans have come to expect and avoid. With 5.5 percent residual sugar, it’s really sweet. But thanks to its lean build and high acidity, it isn’t at all plump and awkward. It was so refreshing and well-balanced, in fact, that it was our best of class in the “sweet” class of rieslings at Los Angeles.
• Blufeld 2011 Mosel Riesling ($11): A rarity in a couple of respects. It’s the only German riesling to win a gold medal at Los Angeles. It’s also one of the few with the “Riesling Taste Profile” on its back label (“medium sweet.”) With 6 percent residual sugar it tastes sweeter than that. However, it is packed with riesling character, coming off with refreshing suggestions of nectarines and peaches.