If you share the opinion of many wine drinkers that winter is a red season, to match the transition from summer salad-eating to those heavier, hotter soups and stews that get us through the cold, dark nights, consider adding wines from a white varietal, riesling, to your menu.
Noted for their high acidity and spicy aromas, wines from this grape can cut through the fat of pork or duck dishes, handle the heat of Asian foods, and generally lift the gloom of seasonal affective disorder.
If you have an aversion to the idea of drinking wines from riesling grapes, it’s probably due to some bad experiences with rank little liebfraumilchs that you drank as entry-level wines. Although it’s true that riesling dominated German wine making from the 15th century (and Alsace from the 17th) until World War II, viticultural practices in Germany changed focus from quality to quantity after the war, and many vineyards there were replanted with high-yielding sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau grapes. Blended with riesling and sweetened with suss-reserve (preserved grape juice), these wines gave riesling a bad name. Furthermore, the American consumer has been confounded by incomprehensible labels that give misleading information about the one aspect that consumers need to know most in order to pair the wines with a meal—sweetness.
Recently, as riesling producers worldwide have worked to improve the quality of their wines, many of them have been making drier and drier wines. With finer fruit, they don’t need to hide the grape’s essential flavors behind sugar.
Nonetheless, consumers still expect these wines to be sweet. To combat this assumption, an international association of producers, the International Riesling Foundation (IRF), has created a “Riesling Taste Profile,” a graph on a wine label, from dry to sweet, that will make it easier for consumers to predict the taste they can expect from a particular bottle of riesling.
It helps to know how dry or sweet a wine is, but the perception of sweetness has more to do with the entire dynamic of sugar, alcohol, acidity and pH than with actual sugar content alone. For example, even with relatively little sugar, Long Island rieslings tend to be plush and approachable. The maritime climate here extends our ripening season, increasing quantities of acid-buffering potassium in the fruit, raising the pH and making the wines soft on the palate.
Among the best are the rieslings of Paumanok Vineyards (whose co-owner, Ursula Massoud, hails from a German riesling producing family), of Peconic Bay Vineyards, made by Greg Gove, and of the Grapes of Roth, 2007. The latter is the first riesling Roman Roth, the winemaker at Wolffer Estate, has made under his own brand since coming to L.I. from Germany in 1992. Mr. Roth used fruit sourced from a young vineyard in Greenport, a relatively cool zone of the North Fork.
Up north in the Finger Lakes, riesling has become the “signature wine” of that chilly region, where several skilled vintners have managed to coax it to ripe fruition on the best sites (particularly on the west-facing slopes of Seneca Lake, known sardonically as the “banana belt”).
Some of these winemakers have been behind the move to promote and better-define riesling. On a recent trip to the Finger Lakes, I saw the intense dedication to this grape of the region’s leading producers. Anyone rating the Lakes’ rieslings has to start at the top—for reasons of history, reputation, and actual quality—with the wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank. Now produced by the Frank family’s third generation, these wines are currently made by an international coterie of winemakers. They unfailingly show brilliant, dynamic fruit.
For those (like me) with a taste for truly dry riesling, Ravines Wine Cellars delivers huge flavor; firm, refined acidity; and surprising delicacy. King Ferry’s Treleaven dry riesling is lean and textured; Fox Run’s has true varietal minerality, while Sheldrake Point’s is lush and pretty.
Moving up another degree of sweetness, Standing Stone makes an outstandingly opulent, textured riesling. On Canandaigua Lake, but also sourcing grapes from Seneca Lake, Heron Hill makes nine different, brilliantly distinctive rieslings every year, with brave disregard for the economics of tiny yields. The owner, John Ingle, says it well: “Riesling should be stimulating, refreshing, as well as satisfying.”
Red Newt, Anthony Road, Lakewood, Shaw, Hunt Country, Lamoreaux Landing, and Glenora are other leading producers of fine rieslings. Most of them sell and ship directly from their wineries.
It might be fun, one of these winter nights, to do a little comparative tasting of your own with a few of the aforementioned wines from the Finger Lakes and Long Island. Throw in a couple of distinctive Alsatian examples, like the sky rocket-fresh Pierre Sparr ’07 Riesling, or Lucien Albrecht’s plush and spicy 2006 Reserve. You’ll warm up fast.