I recently visited the Hall of Heroes in Elkhart. Despite being featured on programs like Toy Hunter and Super Fans, Allen Stewart, the founder/curator, told me the museum is better known outside of Elkhart County than inside, due to all the media exposure.
It occurs to me that Riesling (REEZ-ling) wines may suffer a similar lack of notoriety. If Cabernet Sauvignon is Captain America, Riesling is probably Elongated Man.
So why are Rieslings so misunderstood? The grape is considered as one of the “Big Six” by wine enthusiasts. Many wine critics proclaim it the world’s finest white-wine grape variety, which results in a simultaneously refreshing yet complex wine.
The grape has its origin in Germany, where it’s labeled and classified in an elaborate and evolving system. This methodology came about in response to large quantities of sweet, low-quality wines created in the late 20th century for export, which diminished the country’s wine reputation.
Similarly in California, sweet, blended “Rhine wines” are produced and packaged as jug or box wine. You might logically think Rhine wine is made from Riesling, but that would be incorrect. Amaden Mountain Rhine Wine uses Muscat grapes, while Paul Masson Rhine Castle is comprised of French Colombard and Chenin Blanc.
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Rieslings are one of the most versatile food wines since they range from crisp, bone dry lemon/lime profiles to savory nectarine/apricot flavors that are rich and sweet. Important clues about the bottle contents can frequently be found by reading the labels.
The lower the ABV the drier the wine will be. Rieslings may vary from 7 percent to 14 percent. Also, look for descriptors on the front label like dry (trocken in German), medium/semi/off dry (halbtrocken), medium/semi-sweet or late harvest/ice wine.
Most significantly, in 2008 the International Riesling Foundation developed a voluntary Riesling Taste Profile to help consumers avoid disappointment when expecting one taste and getting another. A linear scale is used on back labels to easily indicate the bottle contents as dry, sweet or in-between.
Having some idea of a Riesling’s level of sweetness will assist you when pairing with food. Here are some possibilities:
- Dry: Quiche Lorraine, sushi, lighter baked/grilled seafood and veggies.
- Medium dry: Thai green curry, herbed duck/pork/chicken and sausages, stir fry and Colby cheese.
- Medium sweet: Spicy Mexican, an Asian dish, Duck a l’Orange, honey baked ham, and Gouda cheese.
- Sweet: Key lime and apple pie, milk chocolates and fruit cake.
A rule of thumb is to not pair a dish sweeter than the wine being served. Otherwise the wine will be bland and off putting with the meal. Also, note that sweetness counterbalances with spiciness.
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So, examine labels and consider a Riesling with a meal this week! You may become a wine superhero to your family and friends.
- While Germany first comes to mind, world class Rieslings are made in Austria, Canada, France, New York, Michigan and Washington, as well as Australia’s Clare and Eden valleys.
- With a shorter season to ripen (less sugar to be fermented into alcohol), the grapes result in lower alcohol wines with higher acidity. It is the latter quality which contributes to Riesling having aging potential for years. In other words, the lower the alcohol content, the longer wine may be cellared, and the more it may improve with time.
- Johannisberg, White and Rhine Riesling are common synonyms not to be confused with Liebfraumilch, Zeller Schwarze Katz and Blue Nun.
- The long, tapered Riesling bottle shape is based on practical reasons from history, when wine was shipped on the Rhine River. At that time, the colored glass protected the contents from sunlight degradation. These practices have evolved into a tradition that is employed today around the world.