However, I’ve often felt that the problem with Riesling is that it wears too many hats. When we look to Germany, we find an entire classification system with dry (Trocken) to off-dry (Feinherb) and a number of other designations beyond and in between. It’s worth knowing the differences, but don’t let yourself become too obsessed. There’s simply too much and too many variations. In my opinion, the designation Kabinett is one of the most enjoyable styles for a broad range of palates. They usually have a hint of sweetness often balanced perfectly by acidity. They are great with a broad range of foods and remain fresh and clean through the finish.
It’s also important to remember that Riesling doesn’t begin and end with Germany. In fact, Riesling is especially well-known for its ability to show a sense of place. In each region you’ll find a new expression that challenges you to dig deeper. Look beyond Germany to Alsace, Austria, Australia, New Zealand and the United States for a kaleidoscope of different expressions. I’ve tried to include a number of wines and styles from different regions and I found it hard not to keep going.
Photo courtesy of shutterstock
German: Trocken (Dry)
There is a growing trend in Germany to make more dry Riesling. Although I don’t agree with taking the spotlight completely off the wonderful off-dry wines I’ve grown to love, I can’t argue that many producers are making stunning dry table wines. This is one of them.
I was very happy to find this gem of a recipe to pair with dry Riesling; Mixed Shellfish en Papillote. En Papillote translates to “in parchment.” It’s an amazing way to cook fish and shellfish that every home chef should know as it retains all the flavor and aromatics of the dish and unleashes them only when the bag is opened. Putting this next to an aromatic Riesling is a perfect match on the nose and the palate.
2009 Weingut Fritz Keller Riesling Qualitätswein trocken - The nose showed lemon, slate dust and sweet butter. On the palate, it was dry yet showed a full, plush body with citrus, peach and herbal notes. The remarkably fresh finish showed grapefruit and lasted for over a minute. This is a must-have bottle of Riesling.
It’s important to remember that in Germany the classification Spätlese has more to do with the level of ripeness than it does with the level of residual sugar. In this case, you’ll find a balancing act of sweetness versus acidity that is truly stunning. However, you can’t think of this as a sweet wine because its balance continues to refresh the palate.
There’s nothing I like better with an off-dry Riesling than Thai foods and curries. In this case we get the best of both worlds. Orange Roughy on Rice with Thai-Spiced Coconut Sauce is an excellent complement. Don’t be afraid of either the wine or the food overpowering the other. This pairing works because of the hint of sweetness versus the hint of spice and the brisk acidity versus the rich textures of the coconut sauce.
2009 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese - The nose showed grapefruit, slate dust, floral stems and hints of coconut. On the palate, I found a gorgeous balance of sweetness versus acidity with honey, minerals and light yet mouth-filling lemon. The finish was long and mouthwatering with intense citrus on the mid-palate.
Riesling used to be the most planted white grape in Australia until it was ousted by trendier grapes. What’s left are a smaller number of producers that take great pride in their vineyards and their wines. Riesling in Australia tends to be leaner yet with piercing acidity and focused fruit.
As for the food, one of the most common preparations I’ll use for my dinner table during the week is sauteed chicken. It’s relatively easy to prepare and much healthier than many alternatives. It also pairs perfectly with lighter-bodied Riesling. Chicken Sauteed with Apples takes things to a whole other level as the apple and onions provide a complement of flavors for the wine.
2008 Grosset Riesling Springvale Watervale - The nose was gorgeous and pure, showing grapefruit and lemon rinds with wet stone, woodsy funk and hints of green grass. On the palate, it was focused and intense with cleansing acidity, mouthwatering citrus fruits and sour apple that lasted well through the staying and refreshing finish.
USA, The Finger Lakes
I will admit that I had my doubts, but as I began to taste more and more Riesling from the Finger Lakes, I began to realize that all the hype was warranted. The Finger Lakes region is truly turning out some stunning examples and the Atwater Vineyards Riesling turned out to be one of my top wines. When thinking of what to pair with this wine, I realized that my options were wide open due to its balance and ripe fruit. So I went with a classic Riesling pairing: Scallops.
Seared Scallops with Warm Fruit Salsa was the perfect match. The buttery scallops, offset by a pan sear and complemented by the fruit salsa, were already enough to thrill the senses. However, with one taste of the Atwater Riesling, I could tell I had made a great choice. It provided a contrast of flavors and cleansing acidity while bringing out more of the fruit flavors from the salsa. It was one of my favorite pairings in recent memory.
2010 Atwater Vineyards Riesling Dry - The nose showed lemon pith, peach, salty grating cheese, minerals and wet stones. On the palate, it was crisp with a citrusy acidic bite and flavors of green apple and lemon. I found great balance here with the perfect mix of ripe fruit and mouthwatering acidity. The finish was clean and crisp with a lingering note of tart apple and lemon.
New Zealand may be one of the younger Riesling-producing regions, but it has certainly gained a lot of momentum in a short time. The region is perfect for cool climate varieties and Riesling is thriving there.
When tasting this wine and deciding what to pair with it, the answer came to me quickly; a smoked ham. Ham is a perfect companion to any Riesling that has a hint of sweetness. A baked Smithfield Ham with Bourbon, Honey, and Pecan Glaze fit the bill perfectly. Smithfield hams, from Virginia, are known for their formidable smoky and salty flavors. When mixed with a sweet glaze or off-dry Riesling, you’ll have a match made in heaven.
* This recipe would also be great with a German Spatlese.
2009 Felton Road Riesling - The nose was reserved showing wet stone, a hint of funk and floral notes. On the palate, it was juicy with balanced acidity and a forward kiss of sweetness with a distinct flavor of lemon curd. The finish lasted long with sweet & sour lemon notes lingering on the palate.
USA, Columbia Valley
Riesling production is on the rise in Washington state, with Chateau Ste. Michelle at the forefront of production. You can’t deny that even on such a large scale, this is one of the best values in domestic Riesling. Their dry Riesling paired well with crab cakes, so I dug a little deeper to find a recipe that would really take it to another level.
Cayenne-Spiked Crab Cakes did the trick. The heat from the cayenne pepper doesn’t make this a hot dish, it simply gives it the balance it needs to offset the sweet crab meat. When you add a sip of dry Riesling to the mix, the entire combination explodes on the palate.
2010 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Dry - The nose was pleasant and soft with white peach, lime, mineral and stone. On the palate, it was juicy yet tart with a slight effervescence ushering in flavors of lemon peel, minerals and herbal notes. The finish was fresh and retained this wine’s lemony, pithy flavors. All in all, it was a very enjoyable wine at a great price.