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Photograph by Traci Hukill
Riesling to Live: John Locke cradles a bottle of Nikolaihof Riesling Smaragd, a biodynamic example of Austria's most celebrated wine.

The Other White Wine

Not too tart, not too sweet, riesling is better than just right

By Christina Waters

CALL IT Blue Nun burnout or Liebfraumilch fatigue, but somehow Americans formed the stereotype of riesling wines as cloying, sweet, unimaginative and uncool. It was, until a few decades ago, the tipple of the clueless: once tasted, it was rarely sampled again. In short, riesling couldn't get respect outside of (a) Germany, (b) Austria or (c) rarified enclaves (e.g., Manhattan, Beverly Hills) of well-heeled winos. Yet this is all so wrong.

Hauntingly floral, radiant with acidity, almost playful in its balance of notes, tones and perfumes, riesling is a connoisseur's dream. Here is a grape that yields light years of complexity and minerality, mounted on a filigree of alcohol levels so low--from 9 to 12 percent--that the wine can literally be consumed all day long. Loaded with terroir character, the grape expresses itself through a slipstream of ethereal vintages made from Planet Earth's most northern vineyards. It's been made for well over 1,000 years, and Thomas Jefferson was a big fan. Only Americans stubbornly devoted to high-alcohol, lavishly oaked chardonnays find riesling a puzzling exotic.

Maybe it's all that propaganda about riesling being sweet. At first sip, it announces itself, perhaps in a trick of oral perception, as "off-dry." And yes, some Austrian or German late-harvest beauties vie with sauternes for honey-drenched dessert wine celebrity. The grape's complex character--a mineral center, like rocks after a summer rain--is embraced with amazing lusciousness that can read, at first sip, as "sweet." Yet it follows through with kundalini persistence into something that defies neat categories.

This mercurial aspect is what more and more wine lovers esteem in the great grape of the Rhine and the Moselle. Over 20 percent of the wine grapes grown in Germany are riesling, even more in France's Alsace. Can the folks that gave us Gutenberg and bratwurst be so wrong? The cool climates and long, long ripening time of riesling vineyards help to concentrate a depth and musical orchestration of flavors a sauvignon blanc can only dream of attaining.

I asked John Locke, wine educator at Soif, why more wine bar mavens aren't demanding riesling. And his response was that there was, until fairly recently, a whole lot of bad riesling out there. He pours a taste of 2007 Zöbing Hirsch from Austria, alongside a 1998 Weller-Lehnert Piesporter Kabinett. From springtime to autumn in two opulent sips. Turns out there are many very good rieslings now available to Americans. What happened?

Two words, says Locke: Terry Theise. Theise, a celebrated wine writer, evangelist and marketer, "has been working for 25 years to change perceptions. He not only has a cause, he also represents a great lineup of wines." (Theise's amazing 2009 catalog of rieslings is at at

Locke also reminded me about the food pairings possible with riesling, stuff you just can't do with massive, oak-laden, tropically fruited chards. Cheeses, pork ribs, duck confit, Soif's fresh tomato soup with Dungeness crab, for example. Riesling loves to be drunk young, and its ability to last well into the 100-year mark is legendary. When chardonnay overload strikes, go out and discover something in the key of riesling. Be prepared to be, well, enlightened.

A Wine to Love
Birichino Malvasia Bianca--
briskly energetic, light alcohol,
supple with jasmine, minerals
and lime. $13 at Soif.

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