- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Riesling is back. The grape that produces some of the world’s finest white wines sadly fell out of favor with Americans in the 1980s and 1990s but happily is attracting many new admirers today.

The wines, especially those made in a dry fashion, taste better than ever, making this a great time to discover them.

Now is a particularly good time because dry Rieslings can be ideal summer wines. Light and lithe, sometimes ethereally so, good examples also taste bright and bracing, almost nervy.

The interplay of ripe fruit flavor and tense acidity, each element balanced against the other on what seems like a sensory high-ware, makes them wonderfully refreshing — just the right choice on hot, steamy midsummer evenings.

For centuries, Riesling was the world’s most celebrated white grape, the only one capable of producing wines that could fetch prices and praise comparable to the greatest reds. Then came its great fall from favor. Starting in the 1960s, wine drinkers, especially the new generation leading the American wine revival, began to shun it — so much so that, by the advent of the new millennium, it seemed lost in a wine wilderness.

Riesling became such a forlorn exile largely due to wine snobbery. Back then, the market was awash in cheap German wines, Liebfraumilch and the like. Wine lovers who wanted to feel (or appear) sophisticated spurned them, and all Riesling got caught in the backwash. It became viewed as something old-fashioned and sappy, OK for the geriatric set, but not a serious white wine — like, for instance, chardonnay, the white varietal then surging in popularity.

Chardonnay usually yields a completely different type of wine — richer, higher in alcohol, and marked as much by the taste of wood as the flavor of fruit. Yet, while the two varietals may be incompatible if you are making (or selling) wine, they don’t have to be if you’re drinking (or buying) it.

More and more wine lovers today have come to realize that both belong on their dinner table — a place where taste, not snobbery, provides the only legitimate rationale for selection.

Contrary to widespread misconception, wines made from Riesling do not necessarily taste sweet. In fact, more and more of the best examples exhibit a dry character. They certainly exhibit bright fruit flavor, but they are not at all sugary, so they prove very food-friendly.

No matter where it is grown, Riesling needs cool temperatures in order to excel. That explains why, save for largely isolated examples, it has not thrived in many New World wine regions, the vast majority of which have made their reputation with red grapes that benefit from heat.

Dry Rieslings come in three distinct styles, corresponding to three benchmark regions (although some wines do seem to fall somewhere between the different styles). The differences come less from what happens to the grapes in the winery than from what occurs in the vineyard.

In fact, no variety more clearly reflects its growing conditions — the soil, climate, exposure and more. In this regard, Riesling yields wines that are almost transparent. You can taste through them to their origins.

LIGHTEST RIESLINGS

The first style, exemplified by wines from the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer valleys in Germany, is marked by summer fruit flavors, floral aromas, low levels of alcohol, and secondary flavors that hint at stone and slate. These are the lightest Rieslings, and the most evanescent. Crystalline clarity is their great allure.

Precisely because they carry such little alcohol (often under 10 percent), Rieslings in this style are fantastic aperitif wines.

The dry “kabinett” or “trocken” versions also pair well with light fish dishes (trout comes to mind) and all sorts of salads. Their piercing acidity makes them the rare sort of wine that can accompany vinegar-based dressings. German producers who consistently make excellent examples include Fritz Haag, Reinhold Haart, Dr. Loosen, Egon Muller, J.J. Prum, and Selbach-Oster.

The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region lies at the northernmost limit of German viticulture, where grapes truly struggle to ripen. The only other places in the world that produce dry Rieslings in this style are those in which the struggle is equally intense. The Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan and the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York are two such regions relatively close to home. Few wines from either area are sold in Washington, but a delicious one is available from Dr. Konstantin Frank on Keuka Lake in New York.

SECOND STYLE

The second style of dry Riesling is the most common. It is epitomized in Germany by wines from Rheingau and Pfalz, in Austria by wines from Wachau, and in Australia by those from the Clare and Eden valleys. This style displays apple and citrus flavors, a bit more alcohol, and a vaguely chemical note that British connoisseurs call “petrol.” (That may sound strange, but the wines taste and smell delicious.)

Since these wines are weightier than those in the first style, they can accompany a wider range of foods successfully — all sorts of seafood and poultry, smoked fish and meat (they’re great with ham), even light pork and veal dishes.

From Rheingau, look for wines from Franz Kunstler and Josef Leitz; from the warmer Pfalz region, look for those from Kurt Darting and Muller-Catoir. (Again, the dry wines will carry the words “kabinett” and/ or “trocken” on the label.) From Austria, Brundlmayer and Prager stand out seemingly every year. And Australian producers of note include Grosset, Mount Horrocks and Pikes. The Australian renditions typically convey a distinct impression of citrus, especially lime.

In the United States, Washington state’s Columbia Valley can produce excellent wines in this style. Eroica, a joint venture between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen from Germany, leads the way.

FULLER IN BODY

The third style of dry Riesling also hints at “petrol,” but the wines are fuller in body, with crisp apple flavors, a stony undertone, and a touch more alcohol still. This style is most commonly associated with Alsace in France. Alsatian-styled Rieslings, being the most substantial, stand up to the heartiest fare. They pair superbly with roast pork and sausages (witness the Alsatians’ favorite dish, choucroute), poultry (nothing is better with turkey), and all sorts of cheeses. These are in no sense dainty wines. Instead, they offer full-throttle flavor.

Alsace producers who make top-notch dry Riesling year after year include Bott-Geyl, Marcel Deiss, Josmeyer, Domaine Ostertag, and Trimbach. Most connoisseurs agree that the wines from Trimbach’s tiny, walled Clos Ste.-Hune vineyard set the stylistic standard.

Although producers elsewhere in the world aim to succeed with dry wines in this powerful style, few do. In my experience, vintners in Western Australia are more accomplished than most. Their wines are not as powerful, but they display an Alsatian sort of pungency. Frankland Estate, Leeuwin Estate and Plantagenet are personal favorites.

With these and all Rieslings, there is no need to pop the cork right away. Unlike the vast majority of white wines, good Rieslings age very well, gradually becoming more supple and expressive as time softens them. When you find one you like, have no fear about buying it by the case and saving some bottles for future enjoyment.

Another attraction of dry Riesling is price. Although the occasional, small production wine (Trimbach’s Ste.-Hune, for instance) will cost more, few wines from the producers recommended above will cost more than $30, with many being significantly less expensive. Given their ability to age, this means that they rank among the most affordable of the world’s great wines. So this summer, join the Riesling revival and discover — or rediscover — these fantastic warm-weather whites.

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