Finicky Riesling grapes on the vine. Photo credit: Mark Vogel, StockFood
Riesling causes a great divide among oenophiles, and those who hate it tend to think—in almost knee-jerk fashion—it’s always sweet.
Although that’s the stereotype, it’s not at all true, says Patrick Watson of Back Label Wine Merchants in New York City. A full “90 percent of the Rieslings in the world outside of Germany are vinified dry,” he told us. (Translation: The grape is not left on the vine so long it develops over-the-top sugar levels, which is part of what produces a sweeter wine.)
The most popular Rieslings hail from Germany, Austria, Alsace, the Finger Lakes region of New York state, and the northwestern United States. It’s a “delicate” grape, says Watson, difficult to grow and transform into a good wine, but when done right it has extraordinary range.
Here are some other things you may not know:
You’ll never get a sweet Riesling from Austria. If you’re reading a label that [comes from] outside of Germany, for the most part, if it says ‘Riesling’ on it,” it will be dry, says Watson.
The lower the ABV, the sweeter the wine. Flip the bottle and peer at the label: “The lower the percentage of alcohol, the higher the natural sugar,” says Watson. “Rieslings that are 8% or 9% alcohol are gonna be on the sweeter side than those that are 12%.”
The Riesling classification system only applies to Germany. The nation classifies Rieslings based on grape ripeness (again, the longer they remain on the vine, the sweeter they tend to be). From driest to sweetest, as critic Eric Asimov wrote and Watson echoed, you’ve got kabinett, spätlese, auslese and beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and eiswein. The wines towards the end of that list are the ones giving Riesling its “sweet” rep.
"Trocken" doesn’t always mean dry. Typically it does, and you’ll often see the word on kabinett wines, but not if it’s a trockenbeerenauslese, which puts it into the sweet wine category, says Watson.
Thai food and burgers alike love Riesling. For Thai and Indian cuisine, Watson goes with “semi-sweet, spätlese-auslese level” wines. Some sweeter Rieslings, however, can cut through a burger’s fattiness: "A juicy burger and a Riesling Auslese is one of the greatest things you can eat; it can stand up to it." With cheese (Watson also owns a pair of cheese shops called Stinky Bklyn), he’d go with dry Riesling.
Here are some of Watson’s favorite Rieslings, and although you should expect to frequently see higher price tags due to the grape’s high-maintenance aspect—”it’s an easy grape to screw up,” he laughs—we weasled six great under-$20 options out of him:
Kimich, Riesling Kabinett Trocken, 2012 $13, has “a zesty green apple Jolly Rancher freshness—beautiful,” says Watson. “Pair with a melon-watermelon-honeydew salad and a funny conversation.”
Ravines, Dry Riesling, 2013, $15 ”This is a little more sophisticated,” says Watson. With its “sort of unctuous texture on the palate” it’s reminiscent of “stone fruits like peach and guava. But it’s dry. I’d go after chicken-rosemary-tarragon, or beer-can chicken, smoked on the grill, Would be awesome.”
Washington State, Milbrandt Vineyards, 2012, $10 Grown where there are “a lot of stones and rocks and sands,” this Columbia Valley dry Riesling has “elements of that, with a very clean, very pretty, mouthwatering consistency,” says Watson. He suggests pairing it with a washed-rind cheese, “something mushroomy with minerality.”
Weingut Hiedler, Austria, 2012, $18 ”In Austria it’ll cost a little more because it’s very difficult to grow grapes and harvest grapes,” says Watson, “but this is one of the last things I would like to have in life. I’d want it with a bowlful of fresh tomatoes, on a rainy summer day, standing out on the porch. It has this touch of viscosity on the palate, a natural butteriness.” And, he reminds us, “the driest Rieslings in the world are from Austria.”
Heinz Nikolai, Michelmark, Kabinett, 2012, $17 Thanks to growing in “limestone and clay, its got a chalkiness, a rich sort of denseness with that blast of residual sugar,” and is “very elegant, just as satiating as it gets,” says Watson. It’s the rare Riesling that stands on its own and doesn’t need food: “Sometimes that’s important, too. Riesling can give you that.”
Im Rosengarten, non-vintage, $12 This “crazy-great deal” of a wine is ”like country wine, table wine, from the Nahe region. That’s got definitely a sweeter side to it, a touch of acidity on the finish that just makes you go back for more.” Pair with “spicy Thai basil fried rice, suckling pig, or grilled whole fish with a spicy sauce and cucumbers. Now you’re talkin’.”