September 18, 2013

Wine: In praise of Riesling -- and not those disappointing dry ones

By Joe Appel

The heroic NYC-based promoter of interesting wines, Paul Grieco, instituted a promotional campaign several years back called Summer of Riesling. It started as an effort within his Terroir wine bars, to serve only Riesling by the glass all summer. Grieco says he was tired of wine-industry influencers only telling a skeptical public how great Riesling is, so he set out to actually show it.

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S.A. Prum Blue Kabinett 2007 exemplifies the positive effects of maturity on a Mosel Riesling. Eugen Muller Forster Mariengarten Kabinett from the Pfalz region pulls off a perfect balancing act.

Courtesy photo

Summer of Riesling has since become a marketing phenomenon, with incentives for restaurants and shops across the country to focus each summer on the glories of Riesling. Glorious. But the danger with any such promotion is a well-intentioned ghettoization of the object of adoration. Saying that Riesling is the ideal summer wine is like saying Alice Munro is a great female writer. It's true but incomplete.

Riesling is the ideal wine for autumn and winter. This is because it is the ideal wine for food, and in autumn and winter what we do is eat. We eat foods with more sweetness and heft, and so those German Rieslings that reflect this (i.e. not the completely "dry" ones) are best. Fact.

While there's the constant risk of dismissal from dry-wine-hounds (the right wing of Riesling-ignoramuses), German Riesling-with-sweetness is threatened by disparagement from a left wing as well. This left wing is that younger set of oenophiles: experimental, engaged and ever on the lookout for the next cool thing. Riesling was a cool thing a few years ago, according to the unspoken prejudices of this sect, but now there are other cool things: Txakoli, Jura, Arneis, Vitovska, Manzanilla.

As a vinous left-winger myself, I'm happy to be living in a time of such catholic tastes, with increasing availability of previously under-known wines. But wine exploration, as thrilling and even life-altering as it can be, should be a series of expansions, not a series of trends. Just because you used to "be into" Riesling and that allowed you to get into Gruner Veltliner doesn't mean you leave Riesling behind!

And let's be flat-out meritocratically honest here: I love Manzanilla and (some) Vitovska, Gruner and orange wine. (Arneis almost never). But Riesling is better. It is a truly great wine, a noble wine, a timeless wine.

Yet no other great, timeless wine wears its greatness and timelessness so lightly, so charmingly. These are the easiest wines in the world to love, if you enjoy a well-made cocktail, or apples, or sweet potato fries, or pad Thai, or gazpacho, or braised meat, or dessert. All those foods -- and billions more -- have sweetness in them, balanced by something else. The interplay among sweet, sour, spicy and salty is what makes those foods the ones we love. To ask wine to reflect merely three of those four components is ignorant and insulting.

On a recent professional trip to Germany, I visited winery after winery that focused on dry Rieslings. Some were excellent, most fine but disappointing. Not disappointing because the wines were not good, but because a ghost was present, a sign that something living had died. The dry wines mostly told me that they had failed their birthright, not quite fulfilled their potential.

As befits the current attitude in Germany, most of our meals were accompanied by dry wines. But there was one meal that stood out, at the great Zum Krug restaurant in Hattenheim, because of the pairing of one dish with a Spatlese Riesling.

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