Saturday, August 11, 2012

What I'm drinking now

We’re in the thick of summer now and all this sweltering heat and hot wind calls for something cool and refreshing to drink. When I unwind, I like a glass of wine, and though reds are great when you want comfort and soothing, the heat really calls for something crisp, clean and white.

One of my favorite wines lately is Riesling, a white grape variety which originated in the Rhine River region of Germany, where my family is from. According to Wikipedia, Riesling “is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery, almost perfumed, aromas as well as high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling white wines. Riesling wines are usually varietally pure and are seldom oaked. Riesling is usually included in the "top three" white wine varieties together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is a variety which is highly "terroir-expressive", meaning that the character of Riesling wines is clearly influenced by the wine's place of origin.”

For many years, Riesling was the most grown variety in Germany and in the French region of Alsace. But it is also grown in other parts of the world. There are significant plantings in Austria, the Czech Republic, Luxemburg, northern Italy, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, South Africa, China and the Ukraine. It is most commonly grown in colder regions.

Riesling is best consumed when young, as it makes a fruity and aromatic wine. Aromas of green or other apples, grapefruit, peach, gooseberry, honey, rose blossom or cut green grass are common. However, Riesling’s naturally acidity and range of flavors also makes it suitable for extended aging. Sweet Riesling wines, such as the German Trockenbeerenauslese, are especially good for cellaring since the high sugar content provides for additional preservation.  Some of these have oldies have been enjoyed 100 years after bottling!

The most expensive wines made from Riesling are late harvest dessert wines, produced by letting the grapes hang on the vines well past normal picking time. Through evaporation caused by the fungus Botrytis cinerea (“noble rot”) or by freezing, as in the case of ice wine, the remaining liquid is concentrated and the resulting wine offers richer layers on the palate. 

In the late 19th Century German immigrants to the United States brought with them Riesling vines and were first planted in New York. Plantings appeared in California by 1857 and followed into Washington in 1871. Today, unfortunately, Riesling grapes in California lag far behind Chardonnay in popularity, although late harvest dessert wines are becoming increasingly more so. Both regular Rieslings, as well as late harvest Rieslings, make excellent choices for summertime sipping.

In the summer, I enjoy what my mother likes to make on hot days: a Weinschorle. I mix equal parts Riesling and plain sparkling mineral water for a refreshing and cooling treat on a hot summer day.

Riesling is a versatile wine for pairing with food because of its balance of sugar and acidity. It can be paired with white fish or pork, the drier ones go well with chicken dishes, and the sweeter ones are some of the few wines that can stand up to the stronger flavors and spices of Thai and Chinese cuisine.

Ideally, Late Harvest Rieslings should be served somewhat chilled and paired with cheese, fruit and nuts on lazy summer afternoons. After which, you can nap in your hammock. Or they can be enjoyed together after a meal, as the French do.

If you are new to this wine, try experimenting. Grab a Riesling each from Germany, France, Washington, California or even New York, and see if you can spot differences in what the soils from each of those areas contributed to the wine. The good thing about drinking this varietal is that you can easily find bottles under $10 that are excellent. Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington is the worldwide leader in the production of Riesling wines by volume and they are good. You might try other Washingtonians such as Hogue or Columbia Crest, which are also nice. From California, try Pacific Rim Sweet Riesling or the J Lohr White Riesling Bay Mist, and from Germany try Dr. Heidemanns Riesling or Dr. Loosen or anything called Piesporter Michelsberg. From France, you can't beat Trimbach Riesling. Go to your neighborhood wine shop and ask for recommendations based on whether you like your wine sweet or more dry. They can steer you in the right direction.

Speaking of wine shops, I have a new one near me called “Total Wine”. It’s a great store. I like it better than BevMo because they seem to carry more. Tastings and other upcoming in-store events are posted online at But don’t overlook your neighborhood wine shop - that small place that offers a personal touch to the wine tasting experience. It’s a great place to hang out with friends or make new ones.

Enjoy your next bottle of Riesling. Zum wohl (to your health)!

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