Rieslings are among the world’s great wines, sharing many of the qualities that great wines from other regions of the world have: high prices, long aging, and sublime taste. So why do rieslings have such a poor reputation with U.S. wine drinkers? Which is pretty poor, considering that Nielsen reports that we drink three times more white zinfandel than we do riesling.
There are two main reasons for riesling’s neglect. Until the past couple of years, most of the riesling for sale in the U.S. was German, and much of that was of indifferent quality. But the quality of riesling that’s available these days has improved dramatically. We’re not only getting better German wines, but U.S. riesling can be stunningly good. In fact, riesling from places like New York, Michigan and Washington is one of the best-kept secrets of the wine world.
The other reason? Many rieslings are sweet, and Americans have long been taught that sweet wine means bad wine. Which is our loss, since sweet is not a bad thing with riesling. The sweetness occurs naturally, and not like an added bag of sugar. In this, the sweetness is part of the wine, something that is balanced by the fruitiness and acidity. And not all rieslings are sweet -- they come in varying degrees of dryness, and some are as dry as chardonnay. The leading producers, knowing the challenge they face, have started to label riesling by sweetness, so that it’s easy to tell a dry wine from a sweet one. More, after the jump:
Riesling is summertime wine -- low in alcohol, fruity and relaxing. It’s almost always food friendly, and especially with grilled and boiled seafood, spicy cuisine like Tex-Mex and Thai, and even pork. In this, some sweetness is not necessarily a bad thing, and the impressive growth of Chateau Ste. Michelle's $10 riesling is proof of that.
The three rieslings I picked more or less covered the non-German spectrum -- Pacific Rim, a semi-corporate wine from Washington state; a Mondavi grocery store label, and Hugel, a long-time family producer from Alsace. The results?
• Pacific Rim Dry Riesling 2008 ($10, sample): Not sure why the winery sent an older vintage, but it was impressive (especially since Pacific Rim wines can be frustratingly inconsistent in quality). It had a hint of sweetness, apricot fruit, some minerality, and pleasant acidity. The wine isn't complicated, but it is a good example of what dry riesling can be. Hall of Fame candidate.
• Robert Mondavi Private Selection Riesling 2010 ($11, sample): This is what corporate wine should aspire to. It’s varietally correct, and though it’s sweet, it’s supposed to be, and the sweetness isn’t there to cover up a flaw or to mask indifferent winemaking.
• Hugel Riesling "Hugel" 2009 ($20, purchased). This dry riesling helps explain Hugel's reputation. Look for green apples, peaches, and a bit of what is always described as a petrol aroma. This is the kind of riesling to serve people who say they don't like riesling (served blind, of course).