Part two of the old koan: If I’m walking in a forest and a tree falls, and I hear it but no one else does, has it made more of a sound than if I hadn’t been there? Sound is vibration received, but don’t I need to recognize that vibration in communion with someone else in order for it to matter? And what if there are other individuals in this forest, and every once in a while each of them hears a tree fall, but no one else is close enough to anyone else to hear the same tree?

Obviously, I’m thinking about riesling. For while I know that other humans wander the riesling forest, I don’t encounter them much. Whenever a stately wine falls in this forest and issues its celestial tones, I hear it, oh do I hearken! But once the vibrations dissipate, I need to ask whether the wine really resounded at all, for with whom might I share it? What did I actually hear? Am I mad?

This is an outlandish introduction, and seems even more off the mark when one considers that riesling is one of the most popular white wine grapes in the world. F’real! Wine geeks love it, even if the cultural love affair of the 2000s has waned somewhat. Lay drinkers order it in restaurants. Self-concerned sophisticates will admit to appreciating a dry Alsatian one (which of course has nothing at all to do with an assumption of French over German cultural authority). Every once in a while someone in a wine shop makes a beeline for the rieslings, though in my experience usually for the cheap, obvious, clumsily sweet ones.

So sure, plenty of people drink riesling. In larger urban hubs than I frequent, they get riesling tattoos. But in my neck of the woods, riesling is not much discussed. In my neck of the woods, riesling needs continually to be presented, fought for, defended, explained. Yes, still. Riesling happens, but invisibly and inaudibly. The hands-down greatest below-$20 white wines in the world (and above-$20), bursting with Van Gogh color and Bach resonance, as under-appreciated in their lifetime as … Van Gogh and Bach.

This is because of sweetness, or more accurately the perception of sweetness, as both flavor sensation (“Ugh, this tastes as terrible as all the delicious sweet foods I adore!”) and cultural trope (“Only sandpaper for this tongue, dah-ling, sweetness is for the peasants”).

Not all riesling is sweet. Not all riesling is sweet. Not all riesling is sweet. In Austria, Australia and France there are many extraordinary riesling wines and barely any are sweet. Even Germany, the ancestral home of riesling, is in the midst of a radical transition from majority sweet rieslings to majority dry. I love dry rieslings. I love dry rieslings. I love dry rieslings.

But my true and deepest love is for rieslings – German rieslings, specifically – that are not quite dry. Nor are they sweet. The rieslings I most adore, the rieslings I will scream about in the following paragraphs just in case you’re somewhere in this same forest and can hear me, are rieslings whose answer to “Is it dry or sweet?” is “Yes.” In a world where binaries are increasingly irrelevant, these rieslings occupy a sort of third gender; they could use any bathroom at all and not upset a soul. They high-wire sweet, tart, mineral, leafy, juicy. They are, to paraphrase Tom Waits, “sharp as a razor, soft as a prayer.” They do everything you want a young wine to do, backwards in high heels.

Great off-dry rieslings hint at sweetness the way an October apple does: suggestively, secretly. Everything you love about simple, pure, balanced foods – a creamy, lime-laced guacamole; honey-lemon tea; sole meunière; an Alpine cheese; a spring roll – all such irreducible, perfect Saint-Exupéry basics – is in these wines. “Off-dry” is a strange but fitting description, and there’s a German word for it, kind of, about which more in a moment.

First, let’s touch on “dry” German riesling. Global climate change has allowed riesling vineyards in Germany – which after all are some of the coolest, most extreme, high-latitude vineyards on Earth – to produce drier wines than in the past. Briefly and over-simply: In general, warmer seasons lead to riper grapes, which can be fermented fully to make dry wines, whereas in the past when cooler seasons didn’t bring grapes to complete ripeness, fermentations were halted so that remaining sugar could offset those grapes’ extremely high acids.

This climatological development has dovetailed with a perception among the mainstream German wine community that an increasing number of internationally informed wine drinkers, both within Germany and without, prefer wines with no perceivable sweetness. Therefore, more and more German rieslings, especially at the upper reaches of price (which are still absurdly low next to wines of comparable quality from other countries), are fully dry.

The wines I’m most excited about, though, are not quite this. They bear the relatively recent German designation of “feinherb,” which literally means … no one knows what it literally means! And no one specifies what it figuratively means, though off-dry is close enough. This is good. The overly complicated German wine hierarchy, including but not limited to the prädikatswein designations of kabinett, spätlese, auslese and so on, are simultaneously too prescriptive (they’re based on must weights) and too vague (some spätlese wines are drier than Sancerres and others sweet enough for dessert).

Feinherb has for the most part replaced the designation “halbtrocken,” which means half-dry and specifies residual sugar volumes of 9-18 grams per liter. Feinherb wines (which, either maddeningly or poetically depending on your disposition, are sometimes labeled as such and sometimes not) are in practice quite close to halbtrocken, though the grams-per-liter sugar volumes can be higher. Perfectly clear, yes?

Just seek off-dry wines, since most truly dry wines are truly too dry, acid and bitterness overly prominent. You actually much prefer off-dry, though you probably haven’t been calling it that. What you enjoy in a slightly oaked chardonnay, fruity pinot grigio, New Zealand sauvignon blanc or even red Côtes-du-Rhône for heaven’s sakes – that touch of fruity charm amid other amenable traits – is given effortlessly, and with infinitely more verve and intrigue, in a feinherb riesling.

The great gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously wrote, “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.” The same ought be said of the discovery of a new feinherb riesling. And now, in spring 2016, the sky is alight, and Maine’s corner of the German riesling forest is flush with new growth. We have before us an astonishingly broad selection of spectacular wines, all under $20. The QPR (quality-price ratio), as the suits call it, is ridonculous.

So much so that I will expend not a single specific adjective on any of the following wines. They are all inspiringly excellent. They are so carefully made, so expressive, that particular tasting notes would be almost offensive. Some are from the Mosel, some the Mittelmosel, some from the more southern Pfalz region. Some are from the 2015 vintage, some are from earlier. It matters – riesling is after all the truest, most vivid communicator of geography, geology and chronology of any grape – but in order for you to begin, it doesn’t matter. These are all perfect, you can afford them, and you will love them. See ya in the forest.

Von Winning “Winnings” Riesling 2015, Pfalz. Doesn’t say “feinherb” but it’s a feinherb. Heart-soaringly charming. $15.

Heinrich Spindler Riesling Trocken 2015, Pfalz. “Trocken” means dry, but at 11.5 percent alcohol this wine has a faint hint of sweetness. Let’s call it the dry side of off-dry. $17.

Sankt Anna Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett Feinherb 2014, Mosel. “Kabinett feinherb” is the usual German thing: overexplained attempt at precision, leading to confusion. Pay little heed. It’s 11 percent alcohol. It’s delicious. $19.

Fritz Haag Riesling Feinherb 2013, Mosel. Older, which is likely the reason it breaks the $20 barrier. Like all of these, it could live another 10 years, easy. $22.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. Contact him at:

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