My older sister Kiera’s wine preferences have long been the butt of many family jokes. Ever since she began drinking wine, she has only gravitated towards exceptionally sweet selections, often requiring us to purchase a separate bottle that meets her sugar quota. Alas, after several years of poking fun at Kiera, one of her go-to varietals has grown to become one of my favorite white wines: Riesling.
While it is easy for some people to write off Riesling as simply fruit juice, Riesling can actually produce some of the most versatile and complex white wines in the world. You can find phenomenal Rieslings that are bone-dry, super sugary or anywhere in between. Today, I’m tasting two Rieslings that fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Both will satisfy sweet-toothed sippers like my sister, but also skeptics with their electrifying acidity and beautiful clarity.
Riesling is a cold climate grape that most famously makes its home in Germany. In my last column, I discussed the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system, where wines are classified by quality and region. Although most of the wine world replicates the French model, in Germany, they do things a bit differently. German wines of the highest caliber, labeled Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (quality wine with attribute), are further subdivided based on the ripeness level of the grapes during harvest.
There are three divisions that any Riesling-lover should know: kabinett, spätlese, and auslese. Kabinett wines are usually the most light-bodied, and come from the first grapes to be picked during harvest. Spätlese, meaning late harvest, designates wines made from slightly older grapes, often bearing a tinge of sweetness. Auslese, or select harvest, indicates wines produced from the ripest grapes, often not harvested until late autumn. Because grapes gain higher sugar concentration as they ripen, the sweetest wines will typically come from the grapes that stay on the vines the longest. Nevertheless, sugar and alcohol levels are inversely proportional. So, winemakers can produce drier wines from riper grapes, but they will bear higher alcohol content.
I’m starting off with a most classic German Riesling, Weingut Alfred Merkelbach’s 2012 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett. Coming from the celebrated Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, this Riesling boasts a refreshing acidity, balanced with enough sugar to appease my sister. For those of you who are afraid of sweet wines, this kabinett is a great gateway. The wine offers a hint of honey and petrol on the nose, followed by a riveting display of lemon, pear and green apple on the palate. A touch of sweetness lingers on the tongue, providing a delightful finish year round.
The second Riesling I’m drinking comes from a place much closer to home, our neighbor New York. New York State enjoys a centuries-old history of American winemaking, offering outstanding wines often at a more student-friendly price-point than California. The Finger Lakes region in upstate New York is Riesling territory, and today I’m trying Silver Thread’s 2012 Semi-dry Riesling. Slightly darker in hue, this Riesling offers a similar bouquet to the Merkelbach, smelling of beeswax and honey. But, that’s where the comparison ends, as the Silver Thread greets the palate with highly floral notes countered with a gorgeous minerality. The wine exits with a dash of lavender and spice, reminiscent of Alsatian Rieslings.
Riesling is also an incredibly food-friendly varietal, proving a wonderful addition to almost any dinner table. One of the more recent trends among oenophiles is to pair Riesling with Chinese food, as the wine’s racy acidity can hold its own against spicy Asian flavors. And although many equate white wine with warmer weather, Riesling is actually an excellent choice for the winter months as well. Riesling pairs beautifully with fried foods, making it a perfect partner for latkes, but it will also happily accompany any Christmas ham.
Cheers to a Riesling-filled holiday season!
Both the Alfred Merkelbach “Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett” 2012 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwar, Germany) $20 and the Silver Thread “Semi-dry Riesling” 2012 (Finger Lakes, New York) $20 are available for purchase at The Wine Thief (181 Crown Street, New Haven).