Most rieslings, even those that are dry, have some sweetness. But since it occurs naturally, and not as added sugar or high fructose corn syrup or a winemaking trick, it's not overwhelming and unpleasant.
In fact, in the best rieslings, the sweetness – even in the most sweet – is balanced by the fruitiness and acidity of the wine. There are some top-flight German rieslings that combine a wonderful lemon freshness with low alcohol and sweetness; drinking them is about as much fun as wine gets (as my old pal Cody Upton, who shared a bottle with me on a 100-plus Dallas afternoon can attest).
The good news is that riesling is making significant progress in overcoming this resistance. Chateau Ste. Michelle, the giant Washington state producer, has scored financial success with its $10 grocery store riesling, which you can order in a strange restaurant and it will be OK. The Wine Curmudgeon has mostly been partial to Pacific Rim’s various rieslings, which can be a step up from Chateau Ste. Michelle and are almost as widely available.
In addition, the International Riesling Federation, a consortium of producers and like-minded sorts, has worked diligently to improve the way riesling is labeled. The group uses terms like dry and sweet, a huge improvement over the old German system, which uses terms like auslese and spatlese.
More about riesling, including a variety of wines to try, after the jump:
Fine rieslings are made all over the world – not only in the traditional spots like Germany and the French region of Alsace, but in Australia, New York, Michigan and Colorado. The key to buying balanced riesling, as opposed to riesling that’s just sweet, is to check the alcohol level. If it’s higher than 12 percent or so, the wine likely has some sort of sugar added.
These rieslings will get you started in understanding and appreciating the grape:
• Bogle Riesling 2010 ($10, purchased): This wine shows why I like Bogle’s efforts so much. It's varietally correct, with some lime fruit and just enough sweetness to be riesling. In this, it has more balance than almost every other riesling as this price.
• Guy Drew Vineyards Riesling 2011 ($16, sample): This Colorado wine is quite interesting -- some lemongrass, a lot of acid, and a fair amount of residual sugar that’s barely noticeable because of all the acid. As such, it’s an excellent example of terroir, high altitude grapes, and balance.
• Chateau Tanunda Riesling 2011 ($15, sample): Before shiraz, Australia made riesling, and the Tanunda is a classic Aussie effort. It’s dry at 11 1/2 percent alcohol, with lots of petrol on the nose and reasonably subtle lemon-lime fruit. Very nicely done.
• Domaine Rieflé Riesling Steinert 2007 ($42, sample): This Alsatian wine is quite different from most, and should appeal to anyone who likes riesling, feels adventurous and wants to splurge. It features an almost olive oil aroma and herbal taste.