Riesling Now. Really.

At a sweltering outdoor party this past weekend I watched, somewhat covertly, as 50 or so guests reached into a huge cooler-on-wheels, plunged their hands into the ice-water bath, and selected bottles of white wine that appealed to them. As the guy who selected, deposited and restocked most of those bottles throughout the party, I was keenly aware that the tall, slender, “shoulderless” bottles—otherwise known and recognized as Riesling bottles—remained the least-chosen bottles. Over and over I watched people reach in, pull out a Riesling, recognize the bottle shape, and drop it right back into the ice bath. Was I disappointed? A little. Was I surprised? Not at all, really.

It’s been nearly 25 years since I became a sommelier, learning from some of the greatest wine stewards in New York City everything I could possibly memorize about practically every grape on the planet. What I realized then, and have continued to witness throughout my career is the complete disconnect between those who love it and those who hate it (or at least think they do). In the culinary world there is nothing but admiration, if not downright adulation, for the Riesling grape. In fact, there is a joke among wine professionals that goes like this: How do you spell sommelier? R-I-E-S-L-I-N-G. And yet, when I mention Riesling to everyday wine lovers, or watch them peruse a wine list, shop at a wine store, or reach into the ice bucket, the vast majority will pass up the Riesling as if it’s a knee-jerk reaction. 

“How do you spell sommelier? R-I-E-S-L-I-N-G.”

“There are also some funky aromas … that are both utterly distinctive and weird, and exactly what enthusiasts love about these wines.”

Some of us are old enough to remember how this happened. Others seem to have inherited this predilection, as if by osmosis. There was a time when the only Rieslings available, outside of fancy restaurants and high-end retailers, were low-cost Liebfraumilch (German for, “Maiden’s Milk”), a cheap, sweet table wine, whose labels often depicted nuns in blue habits or electrified cats. They’re still around, and they, along with most Rieslings priced under $10, should be avoided no matter how tempting their prices. 

The reason so many sommeliers love Riesling is because of its range of aromas (honey, ginger, citrus blossoms) and flavors (think: peach, apricot, pineapple, pear, apple, Meyer lemon, lime). There are also some funky aromas, particularly oily, “petrol” (aka diesel fuel) aromas that are both utterly distinctive and weird, and exactly what enthusiasts love about these wines. Finally, the best examples manage to be refreshingly high in acidity, with a plush mouthfeel, and a distinct minerality that few other white wines possess. 

The problem is terminology. Germany is the historic homeland of great Riesling (though it grows quite well elsewhere), but the terminology they use on labels is maddening. Wines are categorized by sweetness (or lack of), because the range available spans tooth-achingly dry to tooth-achingly sweet, and various styles in between. When faced with selecting from a group of German wines, I’d highly recommend asking the sommelier at the restaurant or a salesperson at the wine shop to explain what each style means in terms of what’s available. You might surprise yourself and actually like something “off-dry,” even though you would never drink something that’s sweet by choice. That’s the beauty of Riesling; even styles that are very sweet still manage to pack in enough acidity to balance out a good deal of sweetness. That’s why the darling style of chefs and somms is “Spälese,” an off-dry German classification that pairs beautifully with a wide range of food. Off-dry Riesling is also the perfect foil to spicy foods, which is why we in the biz say, “to beat the heat, go sweet.” Even sweeter German styles include Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). 

“You might surprise yourself and actually like something “off-dry,” even though you would never drink something that’s sweet by choice.”

Dry Rieslings from Germany are labeled “Qualitätswein Trocken.” No other countries use these terms, but several make delicious dry Riesling, including Alsace (France), and Australia (especially from Clare Valley and Eden Valley. In the U.S., look from dry styles (sometimes labeled “Dry”) from both Washington State and New York State.

Back at the party, I started to offer dry Riesling to guests whose glasses were empty. Not surprisingly, once they tasted it, they were pleasantly surprised, even though they thought they ‘hated’ Riesling.