10 Reasons you should give riesling another look
By Eric Asimov
No other wine has been the object of such devoted cam- paigning, proselytizing and ardor as riesling. What has been the result of all that fervor? Yawns, mostly.
According to Nielsen, retail sales of riesling in the United States have dropped over the last few years, though they shot up- ward over the first 2 1/2 months of the pandemic, outperforming sales of wine as a whole during that time.
Riesling seems to be one of those wines, like Loire reds, that do not seem to move consumers in the way wine writers as- sume and hope, no matter how impassioned the promise that it takes only one sip to become a convert.
Perhaps it’s confusion: Is riesling sweet? Is it dry? How can you tell? The glory of riesling’s versatility is paradoxically both a strength and a commercial weakness. Its capacity to make com- plex, thrilling dry wines as well as luscious yet refreshing sweet wines is unmatched. But in a world that prefers simple messag- ing, riesling’s spectrum of possibilities may be confounding.
This is compounded by a general fear of sweet wines. For too long in the mid-20th century, riesling was associated with cheap, bland German sweet wines like Blue Nun and Black Tower.
People seem more accepting of dry riesling, which is the predominant style around the world, even in Germany.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to discern which rieslings are dry and which have some degree of sweetness. German rieslings marked “trocken” are always dry, but not all dry German rieslings carry the designation. Some might be marked “grosses gewächs,” indicating a dry wine from a top site, unless it comes from the Rheingau region, where such a wine might be marked “erstes gewächs.” If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask.
Austrian rieslings are almost always dry. Alsatian rieslings, unless they are late-harvest bottlings, ought to be dry. For a time around the beginning of the century, some were bottled with residual sugar and without designation, which could be a rude surprise. But this issue has largely been rectified in the last few years.
Australian rieslings tend to be dry unless marked other- wise. This is also true of U.S. rieslings, most of the time. But oc- casionally I am surprised. If you’re in doubt, it’s worth double- checking with a retailer or sommelier.
Dry or sweet, riesling is among the most transparent of grapes, one that can be grown and produced around the world with distinctive results, assuming it has been planted in the right sort of place, ideally with a cool climate in rocky soils on a slope, the steeper the better.
I love rieslings year-round, but am particularly drawn to them in the spring and early summer, maybe because they are so good with seasonal dishes like asparagus, soft-shell crabs and wild salmon. Rieslings are light and refreshing, and German ones in particular, dry or sweet, are often delicate and low in alcohol, though I have come upon a few surprising bruisers.
In the interest of championing the beauty of riesling, here are 10 moderately priced bottles of dry riesling, roughly $20 to $45, from around the world. Hermann J. Wiemer Seneca Lake Riesling Dry 2018; $19.99
Hermann J. Wiemer, an immigrant from the Mosel Valley, was one of the pioneering modern winemakers in the Finger Lakes and an early proponent of riesling there. Wiemer sold the estate in 2007 to Oskar Bynke and Fred Merwarth, who manages the vineyards and makes the wine. The Wiemer rieslings have always been more floral than mineral. Breathing in this wine is like inhaling a meadow full of flowers. It’s floral on the palate, too, with a touch of fruit and wet stones.
Dreissigacker Rheinhessen Riesling Trocken 2018; $19.99 I tried my first Dreissigacker riesling last year and was won over immediately. The winery’s excellent higher-end rieslings come from several limestone sites in Rheinhessen. This entry-lev- el bottle is from vines grown on loess and loam on gentle slopes. The wine, fermented and aged in stainless steel vats, is rich, fresh and balanced, with great acidity. It’s not particularly complex, but is full of pleasing citrus and mineral flavors. (Schatzi Wines, Milan, New York) Dautel Württemberg Riesling Trocken 2017; $21.96 Christian Dautel is part of a young vanguard that is bring- ing recognition to the Württemberg region in southwestern Ger- many.
Dautel is better known for its red wines, which predomi- nate in Württemberg, but this riesling is a beauty. It’s clear, pure, precise and energetic, with plenty of fruit and stony flavors. It’s made with minimal manipulation, from grapes grown on steep terraced slopes. (Skurnik Wines, New York) Stein Mosel Riesling Kabinett Trocken St. Aldegunder Himmel- reich 2016; $26 Ulrich Stein’s wines are always fascinating. This one, from 75-year-old ungrafted vines, is no exception. It’s brisk and dry, complex, energetic and delicious, with lingering flavors of lime and wet stones. Stein favors steep slate vineyards, and has fought successfully to reclaim some that were abandoned because they were so difficult to work, leading one wine writer, David Schild- knecht, to term him “more a David than a Don Quixote.” (Vom Boden, Brooklyn, New York)
Bründlmayer Kamptal Riesling Terrassen 2018; $26.99 Bründlmayer is one of the best estates in the Kamptal re- gion of Austria, just west of Vienna. This entry-level bottle is a blend from younger vines grown at several different terraced sites. It’s easy to drink, maybe a touch austere in a good way, with aromas and flavors of pressed flowers, apricot and stones. (Skurnik Wines) Heinrich Spindler Pfalz Riesling Trocken Musenhang 2017; $28.96 Many moderately priced rieslings can be extremely pleas- ant, but lack depth and substance. This is not one of them. It’s rich and deep, fresh and incisive, with electric acidity.
The Musenhang vineyard is a cool site high on a slope in the foothills of the Haardt Mountains of southwestern Germany, where the vines are planted on limestone and sandstone. (Schatzi Wines) Koerner Clare Valley Watervale Riesling Gullyview Vineyard 2019; $29.99 Koerner is the vision of two Australian brothers, Damon and Jono Koerner, whose parents owned an old vineyard in Clare Valley, north of Adelaide. Instead of selling off the fruit as their parents had done, they used it to make wine. Now they get grapes from all over Clare and make a wide variety of wines, including this riesling. It’s fresh, with a gravelly texture and fla- vors that offer, as is the case with many Australian rieslings, the distinct impression of lime zest. (Little Peacock, New York) Emrich-Schönleber Nahe Riesling Trocken Mineral 2017; $34.99
This wine, a midrange offer from one of the Nahe region’s leading estates, is called Mineral for a reason. The aromas are floral and herbal, but on the palate it tastes like stone and citrus, with an almost salty tinge. It’s dry and lip-smacking, pure, clear and energetic. (Petit Pois/Sussex Wine Merchant, Moorestown, New Jersey) Keller Rheinhessen Riesling von der Fels 2018; $37.99 Julia and Klaus Peter Keller are among the leading lights of German wine. They make G-Max, one of Germany’s most coveted rieslings and a true cult wine, along with exceptional single-vineyard rieslings, spätburgunders, as pinot noir is known in German, and a host of wines from other grapes. Their entry- level rieslings are excellent, but for my money the best value is Von der Fels, a rich, pure wine with chalky minerality and great clarity and focus. It’s wonderful now, and will be even better with a few years of aging. (Petit Pois/Sussex Wine Merchant) Weiser-Künstler Mosel Riesling Trocken Enkircher Steffensberg 2018; $44.99
This is a fascinating and unusual bone-dry expression of the Mosel Valley. Weiser-Künstler is a small, relatively young es- tate established by Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler in 2005. They have sought out small lots of riesling on ridiculously steep slopes. This bottle, from the Steffensberg vineyard, has an earthy breadth yet feels transparent, as if you are smelling and tasting the vineyard itself. This, too, will benefit from a few years of aging. (Vom Boden)