Winemaker Helmut Dönnhoff once said: “Great riesling is like a very large orchestra playing very quietly.”
Chardonnay, whether boom box blasting or chamber music, has become synonymous with “a glass of white wine.” But riesling, versatile and vibrant, subtle and seductive, is the richest competitor and earns the description, too. Start tasting.
Riesling brings you the flinty, minerally, beauties of Alsace and a broad range of classifications from Germany. The cliché that attaches to riesling is that it’s just a sweet wine. And, at its apex, riesling does yield majestic dessert wines. Yet, its often associated with Blue Nun and Black Tower.
Alsatian riesling, from northwestern France, uncorks full, dry, refreshing and is ideal from aperitif throughout dinner. Try the multifaceted wine with cured meats, sausages and sauerkraut, pâté, smoked fish, crabcakes, even game. It’s less floral that most German rieslings. Top Alsatian producers include Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Josmeyer, Albert Mann, Leon Beyer, Weinbach, Schlumberger, Kreydenweiss and Hugel.
German wines are classified according to quality and degree of ripeness. The progression from dry to sweet is Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. And then there’s Eiswein.
Kabinett wines are comparatively light and dry to off-dry; Spätlese wines, richer and often sweeter than Kabinett. Auslese refers to hand-picked grapes that are sweeter, with some botrytis cinerea, edenfaule or “noble rot.” Beerenauslese takes in raisiny grapes with botrytis cinerea. Trockenbeerenauslese means overripe, very concentrated grapes, on the vine and almost dry. Eiswein comes from grapes that have been frozen on the vine. They’re pressed before they thaw.
Eiswein complements desserts; Trockenbeerenauslese, tropical fruit, caramel, and, yes, blue cheese; Beerenauslese is a match for pies, peaches, apples and caramel. Auslese goes with shellfish, lush cheeses, light meats; Spätlese, spicy and smoked fare, shellfish and poultry; and and Kabinett wines complement everything from Thai cuisine to Chinese, chicken to pork, sushi to garlicky fare.
Look for the wines of Dönnhoff, Joh. Jos. Prüm, Egon Müller, Dr. Loosen, Selbach-Oster, Schloss Vollrads, and Van Volxem.
Austria, Australia, South Africa and the United States produce some standout rieslings. Domestically, sample rieslings from Washington state and the Finger Lakes wineries, On Long Island, Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue produces very satisfying dry and semi-dry riesling, as do The Grapes of Roth in Sagaponack, and Raphael in Peconic.