- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Riesling is reviving. Not too long ago, most American wine drinkers wanted nothing to do with Riesling, thinking it cheap and sickly. More and more people have begun embracing it, and sales over the past three years have risen by nearly 60 percent, making Riesling the fastest-growing white wine in the country.

It has been a long road back, and to be honest, Riesling’s recovery is just beginning. Yes, sales are up, but the varietal still accounts for just about 2 percent of all the wine sold in American shops.

Riesling has gained a coterie of devoted admirers, but that sort of group is by definition small and select.

A hundred years ago, Rieslings ranked among the world’s most coveted wines. Then the varietal fell on hard times. Two world wars involving its historic homeland, Germany, coupled with a series of shortsighted marketing campaigns, muddled the wine’s image. No matter that it came in a range of styles, consumers almost automatically came to identify it as old-fashioned and sappy. Riesling has been cultivated in Germany since the 15th century or earlier.

In July, a three-day symposium called the Riesling Rendezvous drew an international who’s who of vintners and enthusiasts to Woodinville, Wash. The event was sponsored jointly by Ernst Loosen, a well-regarded German Riesling specialist, and Chateau Ste. Michelle, the varietal’s largest American producer. In addition to a series of impressive tastings, it featured a good deal of discussion (including a panel that I moderated) focused on how to keep the revival going.

Riesling confuses many consumers because of its diversity, something that paradoxically also constitutes its great appeal. No other varietal comes in such a wide array of styles. That makes Riesling wonderfully versatile and adaptable when sipped on its own and when paired with food. It also makes buying Riesling more baffling than, say, buying chardonnay or pinot grigio, white wines that offer a much narrower range of flavors.

Part, but only part, of the problem involves sugar, because Rieslings range from bone dry to decadently sweet. A new organization called the International Riesling Foundation is proposing a four- or five-point scale, something like the system used on menus in Thai restaurants to indicate the level of heat in a particular dish. The difficulty is that one person’s semisweet can be another person’s very sweet (and yet another’s almost dry) and scientific measurements of sugar prove unreliable indicators.

No matter, sweet, dry or anywhere in between, a good Riesling will be distinguished by one thing - “balance, balance, balance,” as Pierre Trimbach from Maison Trimbach in France’s Alsace region put it. With Riesling, the key measure involves the interplay of fruit and acid. Too much of one and the wine will seem sappy. Too much of the other and it will taste tart.

Terry Thiese, one of the leading importers of Austrian and German Rieslings, insisted: “Sugar by itself is irrelevant. All that matters is if a wine tastes too sweet or not sweet enough.” The most impressive aspect of the Riesling Rendezvous was the wide array of exciting wines coming from many different places. Germany remains the wine’s mother country, but its American revival is being led by quality wines made literally all over the grape-growing globe.

I tasted many more excellent wines over the symposium’s three days than I have room to name, but here are 10 favorites, representing a wide range of styles and approximate prices. I’m listing them from driest to sweetest (though I am not including any pure dessert wines) with the understanding that my perception of sweetness may not match yours.

Henschke “Julius” Eden Valley South Australia 2006, $25. Bright and tangy, this wine definitely will wake up your palate.

Maison Trimbach “Cuvee Frederic-Emile” Alsace France 2002, $50. Very classy, complex and compelling, and just ready to drink at six years old.

Selbach “Fish Label” Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany 2006, $15. A super value, this is the wine to try if you think German Riesling has to be sweet.

Jacob’s Creek “Reserve” Barossa Valley South Australia 2007, $15. Full of lime and lift, with great length.

Felton Road Central Otago New Zealand 2006, $26. A bit richer than most Rieslings on the dry side of the scale, but still showing superior balance.

Chateau Ste. Michelle “Dry” Columbia Valley Washington 2006, $12. The best value at the symposium. People couldn’t believe the price tag when it was revealed.

Cave Spring Niagara Peninsula Canada 2006, $14. Light and lithe, with a haunting hint of honey in the finish.

Dr. Loosen Graacher Kabinett Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Germany 2006, $27. Think peaches and cream, but with an ethereal lightness.

Hirsch Gaisberg Kamptal Austria 2006, $45. Richly perfumed and opulent, full of panache, but still very harmonious.

Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Spatlese Nahe Valley Germany 2006, $55. Sumptuous, even succulent, but beautifully proportioned, so supremely refreshing.

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