I’ve just poured a glass of white wine for a friend. I told him what it was as I served it—perhaps a tactical error. It is a German riesling labeled “Trocken,” a classification that means it is so dry it can make your mouth feel like it’s a quart low. It’s an extraordinary wine, with fine balance and beautiful aroma. So now he sniffs. He swirls. He sniffs again. He takes a sip. Hmmm...he took his time, so maybe we’re on the same page. Wrong. “This is sweet,” he states rather emphatically. Er...no, it’s not, I want to say. But I don’t correct him, because riesling is one of those wines that we think we know something about a priori, our peripheral understanding of it translating to “all riesling is sweet.” This is usually based on the testimony of someone we assumed knew a thing or two about wine, or a tragic memory of the saccharine dreck we bought at convenience stores when we were underage. But wine can be so complicated (and therefore threatening), that when we find something we think we know, we cling to it tenaciously. And if you are holding on so tightly, how can you tango? It would be a shame to miss out on a dance with riesling.As long as it is balanced, riesling is delicious in any guise, from dry to sweet. At the higher (and colder) latitudes in Germany, grapes mature with very high acidity; in general, this means that sugar remains in the wine to provide balance. You might try one of my favorites, the Messmer 2008 Muschelkalk Riesling Kabinett ($17), which is so beautiful, spicy, savory, and sweet all at once, that it is a wonder of balance and grace. In Alsace and Austria, where the regional climates are warmer, the grape’s acids tend to be lower, so dry riesling is most common. In this style, I absolutely love the citrusy, Earl Grey qualities driving the muscular Salomon 2005 Riesling Steinterrassen ($15) from Austria.
Sure, any of the world’s great grape varieties can yield a wine that is obviously impressive—from the first whiff of sun-ripened fruit to the aftertaste that lingers on the palate long after the last sip, you can enumerate its many charms. But rare is the variety that also can produce wine that you sense is great, even though it may be difficult to describe beyond the straightforward elements. Like trying to intellectualize love, riesling is one of these. This can be unsettling, and is perhaps a reason why it is not a wine for the masses. You try to figure it out—peering straight into the depths of this elixir that has you entranced—but you can’t quite see it. Yes, it has perfectly formed fruit and a suggestive, intimate aroma. And, ohhhh that finish...it’s Wagnerian in its length, yet it is delicate and sensuous. These things do make great wine, but that’s not it...there is something else....Then, as you look away, you see its light, and you realize that it’s all around you, surrounding you, illuminating you. Now that’s a dance partner.
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