This column concerns my first (and still greatest) wine love, Riesling. I’ve even written a “Riesling Manifesto” (available on my blog), whose very title invokes the combination of political fervor and personal passion that informs my relationship to this grape.

The first decent German Riesling I tasted changed me forever. It was unlike any wine I’d ever tasted, yet at the same time it expressed the very essence of wine. That juxtaposition – the otherworldliness and the just-rightness – continues to fascinate me. The famous Zen master D.T. Suzuki, asked what enlightenment feels like, replied, “Much like ordinary everyday experience, only a quarter-inch off the ground.” That’s what Riesling is: wine, slightly less bound by gravity.

Tuesday was the official start of the Summer of Riesling 2011. Summer of Riesling was begun in 2008 by Paul Grieco, the now-legendary “general and manager” of a terrific New York City restaurant, Hearth, as well as the inimitable Terroir wine bars. Grieco’s frustration that too many general wine drinkers were indifferent to Riesling’s virtues led him to declare that Terroir would serve no wines by the glass that entire summer other than Riesling.

Deliberately provocative and economically risky, Summer of Riesling nonetheless worked, which simply means more wine drinkers drank Riesling and were happy. SoR has grown since then, but in 2011 it’s going national. Restaurants across the country with brave sommeliers (ahem, none in Portland – a subject I’ll explore later this summer) have committed to more Riesling glass pours. I will write about Riesling all summer. If those sommeliers get fired or you flood the Letters section with exasperated missives, we may take up arms.

Actually, Riesling lovers don’t ever take up arms. We’re a peaceful bunch, and the wine itself has trained us in the arts of delicacy, balance, civility and grace.

I have so much to say about Riesling (again: manifesto is online!), but here are some objective qualities: crystalline purity of flavors, unmasked by oak and other cellar-based manipulations; direct transmission of terroir so that the minerals and fragility of usually vertiginous vineyards are immediately apparent; delicacy; ageability (decades, easily); breadth of palate (acidity and sweetness in Astaire/Rogers high-drama harmony); wide spectrum of profiles (from desert-dry to dessert-sweet; from lean and ethereal to immensely structured); low alcohol, usually, which means food-friendly, versatile and exerting a calming rather than depressing effect on the drinker.

Subjectively, most people find in Riesling simply more poetry, more heartfelt pleasure, more imagination and dream than in other wines. For the food our culture prizes (complex flavor interactions; veggie-heavy; Asian influences; etc.), there’s also an unparalleled affinity with meals. However, if you’re just hanging out, nothing provides more joy than a nice glass of Mosel Kabinett.

Germany is the spiritual home of Riesling, although Alsace and Austria produce exquisite Rieslings but with different orientations. There are also small pockets of the New World that turn out valuable, respectful, unique expressions of Riesling. I will touch on all of these this summer, but the first stop is Germany. (Indeed, within Summer of Riesling, July has been designated Summer of German Riesling.)

What I write here may pique your curiosity, but you’ll go no further. You’ll find it theoretically interesting but you won’t act; you won’t taste the wine.

That’s depressing, but also kind of liberating. It means prices will remain comparatively low, and the scene will retain its oxygenated secret-society vibe. Because Riesling is one of the world’s longest-aging grapes (white or red), I’ll continue to be selfishly able to buy wines for $17 to $30 that will, over decades, become some of the most splendid earthly objects imaginable.

(Try that with a $25 Cabernet, or see how much a first-growth Bordeaux costs. For that matter, how much will it cost to collect paintings you’ll enjoy looking at 25 or even 12 years from now?)

Yeah, if you persist in your ignorance or aversion, I will, snobbily, have more room to explore without continually bumping into wine tourists. But if you relent, I’ll have more compatriots – or even, I daresay, friends.

So here’s the deal. Between now and next week, take a gamble on one of the following wines. If you don’t like it, you’re out $17. If you do like it, you just bought a life-change for cheap. (By the way, the 2010s are coming soon, and are wonderful; for now, enjoy the ’09s.)

Darting Durkheimer Nonnengarten Kabinett 2009, Pfalz (SoPo), $17 (1 liter): Gingery, pear-y, spicy, spacious, addictive.

Leitz “Dragonstone” 2009, Rheingau (SoPo), $17: More minty-fresh and herbal. Leitz endows his wines with fascinating textures: There’s a fibrous, meshy thing here, an electric clinging.

If you want to pay less for something still good though not as interesting, try the Urban Riesling (Central), HighDef Riesling (SoPo) or the Essence Riesling (Nappi). Each is made by a gifted, no-short-cuts producer, and sells for $11.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]