One Man, 40 Rieslings
Dissecting a misunderstood grape, one bottle at a time
There's an argument to be made for Riesling, and it's made on a regular basis. It goes something like this: Riesling is great, it's flexible and it's food friendly, with wines ranging from dry to syrupy sweet, so there's something for everyone to like. This has been the argument of the day for years now. Trouble is Riesling still finds resistance in the marketplace.
There's an argument to explain that as well. It’s the same argument that I’ve often posited as an explanation of Shiraz's market shortcomings. It goes something like this: the reason people don't buy Shiraz is because they are confused by it; since it’s made in so many different styles, a buyer doesn't always know what they're gonna get.
So variety is supposedly a selling point for one wine while it's one of the fundamental problems for another. This sounds like it speaks more of the mindset of those who talk about wine than any marketplace truism.
Riesling’s True Potential
Here's something else that both Syrah and Riesling share: a lot of wine that is fine, but just doesn't wow me. In fact Riesling seems like a wine that often fails to wow me. For me, it's the sugar, that crutch, so easily making a wine taste "good," so hard to make it “feel” good. What I mean is that while most wines tend to be easily described in two dimensions, structure and flavor, the third dimension—texture—really comes into play with sweet wines.
Perhaps that's why I can be a sucker for dry Riesling, not necessarily bone dry Rieslings, but dry enough to be neither sweet nor heavy in the mouth. Once the sugar in a wine becomes noticeable, it really takes a fine hand in the vineyard and in the cellar to produce a wine where the acid balance is such that you get an exciting sweet/tart experience on the palate.
Even if you hit that sweet/tart sweet spot, you're still not out of the woods with these wines; you still need to be able to produce a wine where the sweetness doesn't obscure the nuance and terroir of the wines. And that is the problem with Riesling; too many producers aren't able to keep the wines exciting and lively in the mouth while revealing the full potential of the grape.
This is a bit heretical in the wine world. I’m supposed to be telling you that Riesling is great, the next big thing. And of course a lot of Riesling is great; the trouble is a lot of Riesling is also pretty ordinary, and it can be confusing to try and figure out what you're getting when you buy a bottle. This handy guide to deciphering German wine labels can help with that last point, though there's just not much to do about the first.
The truth is that while little truly bad wine is being sold these days, there are plenty of wines that meet some minimum standards but do little more. For most people, these are gateway wines. White Zinfandel is a great example, a wine that served to introduce millions to wine while never being taken seriously among the cognoscenti. It just may be that Riesling has assumed some of the heavy lifting on that front.
There are pros and cons to taking point in the wine world. Yes, millions try you first, but it's not as though people were clamoring for a better White Zin after they grew bored of their first. No, they moved on. There was an understanding that sweet little White Zin was the training wheels; once you're ready to ditch them, you don't look for another set.
Riesling has become the training wheels, and people are still prepared to move on from sweet wines once those training wheels come off. Add to that the fact that the wines being used in training, while perfectly fine, are often uninspiring and barely hint at the true potential of Riesling, and you have a perfect storm for the abandonment of the grape.
A Fresh Take on Riesling
Why have I bothered with all this you're asking? Just an attempt to reframe the discussion about Riesling. Riesling has not fulfilled its full potential in the marketplace, not because it's sweet or difficult to understand (those play a role), but rather because often as not it’s uninspiring and drinkers don't return to it because they crave some variety.
So what? That’s another good question, and one that brings me to the point. We should be celebrating Riesling’s diversity, not its shortcomings. One of the byproducts of the marketplace resistance it faces is particularly attractive pricing. You can find some really great Riesling well priced between $15 and $30 or so. We should be trying them, and not just the great Rieslings of Germany and Austria I might add, but also those from Oregon, Australia and all places in between.
One last piece of the Riesling puzzle: there seems to be an unusual snobbery when it comes to Riesling. There are many people out there who turn their noses at anything but German and perhaps Austrian Riesling. Certainly, there are some grapes that really do excel in a very small region of the world, but Riesling is not one of them.
There are great rieslings around the globe, in myriad styles, and while I will admit that the best German versions are tops in my book, so many outperform other wines at their price points that one really has to wonder why they haven’t grabbed hold of a bigger market share. The dry Australian versions are also fabulous, and the world’s sweeter styles, when that acid/sugar balance is right, are sufficiently attractive for their early fruit that maybe we shouldn't be overly concerned with their limited terroir. Just drink them young and enjoy them.
There are several standout wines here, making for a robust top 10 list, but at the same time there were over 40 wines tasted for this article, and some that missed the top are 10 worth a look due to their attractive price-to-quality ratios.