Varietal Spotlight: Riesling
How do I love Riesling? Let me count the ways! It can be a very elegant and refreshing wine, even though it’s sometimes considered a beginner wine because it’s often sweeter than other whites. It’s a classic starter wine for new drinkers because you can find very sweet Rieslings and work your way towards the dry Rieslings. Not all Rieslings are sweet; it really all depends on what style of Riesling the winemaker is trying to make. Rieslings in the European style (as in, barely sweet or not sweet at all) are all the rage in Washington right now.
What is Riesling?
Riesling is a white grape varietal that originated in Germany. The Rhine region of Germany is still famous for its dry Rieslings, as is the Alsace region of France (the one that was French, then German, then French…etc, etc, etc). Rieslings can be very sweet, somewhat sweet, or not at all sweet, depending on the style; they also have a natural tartness that makes it a very refreshing wine and balances well with any sweetness.
Why is Riesling sweet?
Not all Riesling is sweet, but it is often made to be sweeter than other white varietals. During the winemaking process, a winemaker can stop the fermentation before all the sugar converts into alcohol, so the wine retains some sweetness. Riesling, in particular, makes a great sweeter wine because the natural acidity of the grape stands up to the heaviness of the sugar; you can still have a sweeter Riesling with a light, refreshing flavor.
Riesling is almost never aged in barrels; I certainly have never had a Riesling that’s been in oak. Mostly, winemakers use stainless steel tanks to hold Riesling. Occasionally, it’s aged in cement “barrels” or “eggs”. Stainless steel or cement gives white wines a crisper, fruitier taste.
How do you tell if it’s sweet or not?
Most Riesling labels will designate “dry”, “off-dry” or “sweet” somewhere; try looking at the back label. Dry will mean that it has no sugar left at all; off-dry means that it has a little sweetness to it, and sweet is pretty obvious.
What do you pair Riesling with?
Rieslings on the sweeter end pair beautifully with sharp or salty cheeses. I think blue cheeses and sweet Rieslings are a match made in heaven; if you have a sweet Riesling, throw a cheese party! Ask everyone to bring a different kind of cheese to try with the Riesling and choose your favorite out of all the matches.
Off-dry Rieslings are great with spicy foods; I love the red curry soup at the local Thai place with an off-dry Riesling. The slight sweetness of the Riesling offsets the spiciness of the curry, and the natural acidity of the wine cuts through the creaminess of curry; it’s a pairing you’d be crazy not to try.
Dry Rieslings pair with pretty much anything! The acidity makes it really versatile, and it will stand up to bigger dishes without really overwhelming blander meals. Dishes I would eat with a dry Riesling: Broccoli salad with miso dressing, stir fry, fondue with roasted vegetables, duck à l’orange; salmon with a creamy sauce; seafood fettucine alfredo. Really, the question is what dishes WOULDN’T I eat with a dry Riesling? The answer to that, of course, is steak. Save the steak for big red wines.
Go out and pop open a bottle of Riesling! What are your favorite Rieslings? Tell us in the comments!