Bone dry and mineral-tinged or unctuous and dessert-like, it’s never been a sweeter time for riesling.
The highly aromatic, über acidic white varietal is classic, consistent and arguably a little confusing. Riesling can be super sweet, decidedly dry and everything in-between.
Its aroma and flavor profile runs the gamut from stone fruits such as apricot to actual stones like flint. And wine professionals seemingly can’t get enough of it, with summer promotions and pairing dinners aplenty extolling its virtues.
Perhaps the only issue for restaurants selling the variety is the lingering perception that all riesling is sweet. Sure, there are luscious examples made in Germany and elsewhere, but these bottles don’t define the entire category.
Anjoleena Griffin-Holst, corporate beverage director of Table 301, a Greenville, SC-based operator of seven concepts, likes to conduct an experiment with guests. She encourages the waitstaff to offer a taste of Table 301’s Heinz Eifel kabinett riesling from Mosel, Germany, along with a taste of its Vouvray. “It surprises the guest to see that chenin blanc surpasses the residual sugar level of the Heinz Eifel,” she says.
Keep on Trocken
Millennial consumers in particular tend to be adventurous and thirsty for knowledge about riesling, including emerging regions and producers. Many are also savvy enough to know that German offerings labeled “trocken” are dry.
Table 301 restaurant Soby, for instance, offers the 2014 Dönnhoff trocken riesling from Nahe, Germany, for $55 a bottle.
Julian Mayor, head sommelier for the 172-seat Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., notes that when guests discover trocken riesling, “you can see their eyes light up, and you know that they’ll remember to look for [trocken] when they’re searching for a dry white wine.” Bourbon Steak features the 2014 Robert Weil trocken riesling from the Rheingau ($60 a bottle) and the 2008 Sybille Kuntz trocken riesling from the Mosel ($40 a bottle.)
Bump up the sugar level just a tad, and Mayor says you get easy-drinking kabinett riesling, such as the 2012 Meulenhof Erdener Treppchen kabinett riesling ($49 a bottle), with “pretty sweetness that integrates well with the fruit flavor.”
The 2012 Niersteiner Paterberg Spätlese Riesling ($79 a bottle), is “for those who like a fuller body with intense sweetness more similar to candied apricots,” Mayor says.
He admits that long village names on the wine labels and the varying sweetness levels can make German riesling seem daunting, but offers up some advice. “Try different things, but focus on what you like; you’ll be surprised how quickly all those crazy details become not too confusing.”
How Sweet It Isn’t
Since there is a range within each German category’s sweetness level, one producer’s kabinett may be another’s spätlese, but Ed Manetta has a little trick to figure out what’s going to be inside the bottle.
“The higher the alcohol content, the drier the riesling; the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the riesling,” explains the wine director for Cucina Enoteca in Irvine, CA.
“It doesn’t work 100% of the time,” Manetta notes, “but generally if you’re deciding between an 8% and a 12%, the 8% will be much sweeter, and the one that’s 12% has a good chance of being bone dry.”
Sugar in wine is potential alcohol; when a wine is fermented dry, all of its sugar converts to alcohol, resulting in a dry style. For sweeter wines, fermentation is halted, resulting in a wine with a lower ABV and some residual sugar.
Cucina Enoteca is part of the Urban Kitchen Group, which operates five concepts in San Diego. Its workhorse riesling is Dr. Hermann kabinett riesling ($28 a bottle), a single-vineyard wine from Germany’s Mosel Valley.
“It is a classically styled riesling that has that sweet and sour play, where the sweetness and tangy acidity are in a constant tug of war,” Manetta says.
Sweeter is the Dr. F. Weins Prum Auslese riesling ($60 a bottle) from the Erdener Pralat vineyard. “Honeysuckle, peach and apricot flavors are all over it, with some lime zest streaming through the sweetness,” Manetta adds.
The “A“ Team
Though it’s adjacent to Germany and its wines tend to be incorrectly lumped into the same style, Mayor points out that Austria actually produces riesling that is quite different from that of its northwest neighbor. “I often find guests are very surprised when they try an Austrian riesling and see how dry and full-bodied it can be,” he notes.
Bourbon Steak carries eight Austrian rieslings by the glass, including the 2010 Loimer Lenz riesling ($56 a bottle) from Kamptal and the 2012 Nigl Dornleiten ($76 a bottle) from Kremstal.
At the 134-seat modern steakhouse Stake Chophouse in Coronado, CA, beverage director Greg Majors also looks to Austria to pique dry wine-loving palates. He likes the 2013 Weingut Bründlmayer Steinmassel riesling ($70 a bottle) and the 2011 Weingut Knoll Ried Loibenberg Smaragd riesling ($105 a bottle).
“The striking acidity and minerality of these super-vibrant wines and their bone dry finish does wonders for dispelling the notion that all riesling is sweet,” says Tony Norton. The assistant general manager/wine buyer for the 235-seat restaurant High Cotton in Charleston, SC, likes to sneak one on menus at wine dinners or paired events, such as the 2011 W. Bründlemayer Kamptaler Terrassen ($54 a bottle) from the country’s Kamptal region.
Guests’ initial dismay turns to pleasant surprise when they realize it’s a dry, highly pairable wine.
In fact, Norton has a tip to remember which regions produce dry riesling. “Looking for dry? Remembers the A’s. Alsace, Australia and especially Austria will usually fit the bill.”
One winery that’s consistently produced dry Alsatian riesling (since 1626) is Trimbach. Steven McDonald, sommelier/wine director of the 200-seat Pappa Bros. Steakhouse at the Houston Galleria, offers the 2013 Trimbach riesling ($15 a glass, $60 a bottle), which is “bone dry and refreshing, with an overall crisp, citrus-driven style.”
Griffin-Hoist also enjoys introducing people to Alsatian riesling. “The weight and texture are fuller than those from Germany, and the sweetness levels help invite the guest to reconsider riesling as a great white to pair with food.” Soby’s has the 2012 Boxler riesling from Alsace for $85 a bottle and the 2012 5 Boxler “Grand Cru Summerberg” riesling for $170 a bottle.
Other regions are emerging as standouts for riesling, such as New York’s Finger Lakes. “This region is exciting right now because of a younger generation bringing in worldly influences,” explains McDonald.
“Along with new investment and the knowledge going into it, this region is definitely one to watch,” he adds. McDonald plans to offer rieslings from Finger Lakes producers including Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hermann J. Wiemer and Ravines Wine Cellars.
Majors cites the Finger Lakes’ Seneca Lake region in particular, which he says boasts a terrain and climate similar to Germany’s Mosel and Ruwer regions. He has the 2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Dry riesling ($14 a bottle) and the 2015 Anthony Road Yellow Dog Vineyard ($40 a bottle) on the list at Stake Chophouse.
Oregon, long known for its pinot noir, is now getting into the aromatic white grape game as well. “The riesling coming out of here has just enough sweetness to satisfy [its] reputation, without being too sweet,” says McDonald.
He carries the 2011 Brooks Ara Riesling ($58 a bottle), and the 2013 Brooks Bois Joli ($50 a bottle.)
Norton agrees, saying Oregon is “able to produce rieslings with nearly the same range of styles as Germany and maintain a similar freshness and vibrancy.” Plus, their bracing acidity acts as a preservative: The wines can age a long time, which coaxes out secondary and tertiary aromas like stone and petrol.
A Powerful Food Partner
Riesling has always been viewed by wine professionals as a powerhouse when it comes to pairing with food. “Well-made riesling is always brimming with acidity and usually crystalline in its purity, so it is a perfect accompaniment to myriad dishes,” says Jennifer Knowles, wine director for the 50-seat Plume Restaurant at The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“Wines with lower alcohol and some residual sugar calm the heat and bring focus to the other nuances of a [spicy] dish,” she points out, while the very dry versions wash away the richness of cuisine with higher salt and fat contents.
“As with all wine, you want to either compare or contrast the flavor,” says Griffin-Hoist. Hard, salty cheese served with a fruit compote or fresh honeycomb will be both foiled and complemented by riesling; ditto for the saltiness in pork dishes. “Old riesling will surprise you and can be enjoyed with charcuterie,” she says; it’s also amazing with Asian cuisine like Japanese, Chinese or Indian food.
“With its wide range of styles and mouthwatering acidity, riesling is arguably one of, if not the most, food friendly wines out there,” says Norton. He likes dry styles with buttermilk fried oysters or a seafood tower, any kabinett rieslings for brunch dishes and spätlese with spicy andouille in shrimp and grits.
Above all, riesling just might be the perfect wine, says Knowles, even if you are pairing it with nothing more than a patio and some friends.
“I think that the fact that riesling is so incredibly versatile and can be made in so many extraordinary styles has just offered more choices than you would see with any other grape.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area.