6 Rieslings to Bring to a Dinner Party
One of the most misunderstood wines is also one of the best for pairing with food
Photography by Jared Sych
Whether you describe it with words such as “flinty,” “mineral,” “crisp,” “lime,” “honey,” “racy,” “floral,” “citric” or even “petrol” (seriously), riesling is a beautiful grape, making some of the greatest wines on the planet, which are also some of the easiest to pair with food.
Everything you need to know about riesling
Although riesling (it’s tempting to pronounce it as REEZ-ling, but it’s REESE-ling) is planted around the world, it is, above all, a Germanic variety. Riesling appeared on the scene around the 15th century, and its likely origin is around the Rhine Valley. Early ripening, the grape favours cooler climates such as Germany, Austria, New Zealand and Canada and, when grown in the right spot, is blessed with the acidity needed to complement its natural sweetness.
In the world of wine, if ever there were a case of guilt by association, it would be the story of riesling. It is hard for some to believe, but, at one time, the rieslings of Germany were some of the most-valued wines out there, noted for their quality, ageablity and overall awesomeness. Like all good things, success spawns imitation and the wine trends moved toward cheaper, sweeter German wines without much substance.
Maybe it was you buying these wines in the 1970s and ’80s, maybe it was your parents, but mass-produced brands like Black Tower and Blue Nun, and cheap German blends like Liebfraumilch, followed by domestic brands such as Hochtaler (oh, yes, it’s Hochtaler) and Schloss Laderheim eventually gave German wines a reputation for being little more than flabby, sugary wines – a reputation still steering consumers away from trying German wines today.
Riesling ranges from dry to dessert styles of wine, but the best also have plenty of acidity, which, among other things, prevents the sweetness from seeming syrupy. Rieslings from Alsace are typically bone-dry, while from other parts of the world they run the gamut of sweetness.
There is a little trick you can use to determine the sugar levels of riesling. Since sugar in grapes is converted to alcohol by yeast, a lower alcohol level indicates more sweetness. In general, a riesling with eight per cent alcohol will be sweeter than one with nine or 10 per cent alcohol.
Understanding the label
While most of us are only mildly confused when it comes to deciphering most European wine labels, reading a German wine label can be daunting. Far too many German wine labels still use medieval fonts, and too many words are completely foreign to our eyes. Trocken means dry, but even that can range significantly, based on the acidity of the wine. Halbtrocken, or “half-dry,” can have sugar levels ranging from 10 to 18 grams of sugar per litre. Most quality German wines will have Qualittswein mit Prdikat, or QmP, somewhere on the label, which indicates the wine is a “quality wine with distinction,” and the wine will then have one of the following grades associated with it.
Get ready for some more German. Here are the classifications in ascending order of potential sweetness and the lateness of the harvest: Kabinett, Sptlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.
How to find a good riesling
As to where good riesling comes from, good bottles are produced in most countries, but, aside from Germany, Canada is my go-to, but so is Alsace, New Zealand and parts of the United States. Riesling should always be served chilled, and sweeter bottles should be very well-chilled. For food pairings, riesling works exceptionally well with Asian or fusion foods, holiday turkey dinners with all the fixings, and sweeter styles are great with desserts.
6 rieslings to bring to a dinner party
Penfolds 2011 Bin 51 Riesling, Eden Valley, Australia
Penfolds is well-known for its reds, its premium chardonnay and now, hopefully, for some riesling. Bright, crisp lemon/lime fruits, lots of mineral and, though quite dry, still has a little richness about it. $30.
Charles Baker 2011 Riesling, Picone Vineyard, Niagara Peninsula, Ont.
With bracing, flinty mineral characters, crisp green apple and lime fruits, there is some real depth on the palate. Finely balanced, it is fairly dry, but with some excellent acidity. A prime wine for aging. $33.
Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan 2012 Jesuitengarten Riesling, Pfalz, Germany
Yes, the price is higher than most, but this is a stunning bottle of wine with honey and apple peel, slate mineral tones and ripe, juicy fruits on the palate, buffered by a sleek, racy acidity. Drink it now, in five years or, if you like, wait 20 more years before pulling the cork. $70.
CedarCreek 2012 Platinum “Block 3” Riesling, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
Made with 21-year-old vines and resulting in a juicy eight-per cent alcohol, the wine evokes Mosel-style riesling to a tee. Abundant mineral tones, crisp lime fruits and perfectly balanced acids tie it all together. I could drink this all night. $29.
JoieFarm 2012 Riesling, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
A sptlese style of riesling, the folks at JoieFarm have made a beauty. It’s pale straw in colour and the wine is tropical fruits, herb and a bare hint of mint leaf. With almost 15 grams of sugar, it’s off-dry, with ripe fruits and some great balance from start to finish. $23.
Villa Maria 2011 Private Bin Riesling, Marlborough, New Zealand
Cool-climate New Zealand is home to many great rieslings, and Villa Maria’s is packed with mineral characters, lime fruit and a hint of petrol. Quite dry on the palate, it’s still very refreshing and should be matched against Thai or fusion cuisine or lighter seafood dishes. $20.
3 great local pairings
Khao San Thai Kitchen: Okanagan Riesling and Salmon Panang Curry
Proving the versatility of riesling with Thai cuisine, the steely acids and citrus fruits of the dry Quail’s Gate Dry Riesling ($42) works in harmony with the diverse flavours of the salmon Panang curry.
Murrieta’s Bar and Grill: Washington State Riesling and Buttermilk Marinated Roast Chicken
With the richness of buttermilk and the plain old deliciousness of fried chicken, the Sleight of Hand “Magician” riesling ($11 by the glass) showing tons of mineral, crisp acids, and a little sweetness for balance, it’s an easy match to make.
Loungeburger: German Riesling and the Inferno Burger
While the inferno burger is a little hot for my tastes, pairing it with a sweeter, off-dry riesling like the classic Dr. L. ($9 for the glass, $31 for the bottle) has the right level of sweetness and lower alcohol to tame your burning taste buds.