The Summer of Riesling

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in: Drinking

If there is one thing I can assume about you, dear reader, it’s that you’re thirsty. You’re reading a wine column after all, an activity that tends to induce one of two things (the other being sleep). For a wine lover, thirst is a hair-trigger state, prompted less by physical need than by a kind of rote anticipation, a curiosity, such that when you read about wine, see a bottle, spot someone with a glass, a Pavlovian reaction takes hold, beginning with the autonomic — elevated levels of salivation — and ending with the rhetorical, as in the question “I wonder what that tastes like?”

A summertime standard

In summer, the thirsty resort to high-acid whites of a certain willowy contour, and this year the fashion is to look no further than riesling. In fact a boisterous celebration of its virtues is under way in restaurants nationwide, spearheaded by New York sommelier, provocateur and “Acid Overlord” Paul Grieco: It’s called “The Summer of Riesling,” and if you’re with him, I’m sure you’re hoping it’s endless.

To gauge by the press it receives, the praise from the world’s wine experts, riesling should have conquered the wine world by now like some strapping Teutonic warrior. Loved by many and purchased by few, it’s cultivated with increasing regularity by winegrowers who throw it into the ground because they love to drink it, forgetting, in their zeal, that one day they’ll have to sell it. And for a variety that’s more intellectual than visceral, more feminine than masculine, more receptive than penetrating, more pliant than powerful, that isn’t an easy feat.

An outdated perception

In fact many U.S. consumers remain fickle toward riesling, still believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the wines are sweet. Some are. But many more are not, or are so finely balanced you’d never notice — and few grape varieties are as adept in slaking thirst.

For anyone needing proof of dryness, look to Australia. The bracing, limpid wines sourced in the Eden and Clare Valleys from Pewsey Vale, Kilikanoon, Penfold’s, Henschke, Pikes and Grosset, are fiercely lean, dry as talc and almost confrontational in their angular citrusy line, as if the wines were infused with lime pith and dissolved minerals. It can seem, at least to me, that quenching thirst with such vehicles is like scratching an itch with a straight pin, but maybe it’s more about the thrill — and for the seriously parched, it’s hard to imagine a better antidote.

Where Australian versions are frequently high-pitched, the rieslings of New Zealand are merely cool; the added hang time afforded by lower latitudes may allow for a bit of palate breadth rendering the wines a tad richer, more appley, less penetrating but still with plenty of snap. In fact they bear a modest resemblance to the other white the country excels in, sauvignon blanc, possessing at times a lean herbaceous bite. Seek out wines from Spy Valley, Huia or Pegasus Bay to see what I mean.

American rieslings on the rise

Domestic riesling, largely made in a dry style, is still climbing in popularity and recognition; great strides have been made in the wines of the Northwest, Washington in particular, which easily leads the country, and much of the rest of the world, in production. The best of them, — Eroica, Poet’s Leap, and Pacific Rim’s single vineyard bottlings — possess a kind of uncomplicated American forthrightness, a purity of expression that seems clear-cut, undemanding — and in terms of thirst, completely satisfying.

Oregon, too, has come up in riesling acreage; and the good ones, from Brooks, Chehalem, and Lemelson, feel ever so slightly richer, juicier than their neighbors to the north. For American riesling however, it is hard to surpass the subtly brilliant wines of New York state, whose thrilling freshness, especially in its dry wines, are perhaps the most electrified of the lot. The dry wines of Hermann Wiemer, of the Ravines, Anthony Road and Tierce are perhaps the most Germanic of domestic versions, in their lean attenuated line, their freshness and in their elusive, centerless, shimmering energy.

The lure of German rieslings

Of course these are the newbies on the riesling front; its standard bearers have occupied the slopes of continental Europe for millennia. To speak of Germanic rieslings — Alsatian, German, Austrian bottlings — is to encounter the most diverse segment of riesling’s already diverse spectrum of expression. For the sake of thirst, let’s concentrate on the word “trocken” (dry) which appears on German bottlings with increasing frequency as the country adjusts its wine-making styles to the demands of the world’s consumers — and, being German, they do so with precision and aplomb.

If the acidity in a typical German riesling is a fast-moving stream on the palate, the acidity in a trocken wine is shot through a hose, the acids springy and tense, coursing through the layers of peach, Asian pear, green apple and lemon flavor. With their energy, trocken wines — those of Carl von Schubert’s Maximin Grunhauser, August Kesseler, Helmut Donnhoff, Robert Weil, others — are a briefer experience, but are frequently thrilling in their focus and harmony.

Alsace, the nether-region between France and Germany, is sort of a place of nether-rieslings. The best of them, from producers such as Deiss, Weinbach, Dirler-Cadé, can achieve a kind of golden warmth comparable to chardonnay in the Côte d’Or, while remaining fiercely pure, mouthwatering, and so brilliant they seem shot with light.

The modest added warmth of their more southerly location gives rieslings from Austria a touch more amplitude than their continental counterparts. They’re generally drier, firmer, more focused and resolute than German bottlings, with acidity that feels like an exposed wire, beneath a deeply felt ripeness, what importer Terry Theise calls a secret sweetness, ” … a sweetness that seems to hide from you, though you’re sure it’s there. But if you look straight at it, poof, it’s gone.”

To me, dear reader, that sounds like a state of desire much like thirst, which goes to the heart of why the Summer of Riesling can be a Summer of Love.


Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photo: An array of rieslings. Credit: Patrick Comiskey

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