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Not all riesling is sweet, and 4 more things to know about the versatile white wine


Riesling is arguably the most misunderstood wine. Sommeliers, wine writers, people who spend too much of their disposable income on wine, tend to love it. And yet, “I don’t like riesling — it’s too sweet,” is a common refrain from casual wine drinkers, whenever I rave about it.

That’s understandable. Generations of Americans favored sweet wine, and riesling fit the bill. Whether inexpensive plonk from Germany or generic white wine from California, we drank lots of it. But somewhere along the way, we learned that “dry” wine is supposed to be better. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc eclipsed riesling in U.S. vineyards and American imaginations.

Today there’s a bit of a riesling renaissance in the United States. Riesling shines in certain regions, such as New York’s Finger Lakes, Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula and Washington state’s Columbia Valley. Some dedicated winemakers are crafting exceptional riesling in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and there are a few notable holdouts in California.

Here are five things to know about riesling and to encourage you to explore this exciting wine.

1. They are NOT all sweet!

Riesling is a versatile wine, because it can be racy and bone dry, unctuous and sweet, and everything in between. That’s why consumers can be confused — we don’t know what we’re buying unless the label tells us. And it doesn’t, usually. But there are clues.

Rieslings from Austria, Australia and New Zealand are almost always dry, and the rare dessert wines are usually marked as such. Dry German rieslings may be labeled as “trocken,” and the top bottlings called Erste Lage or Grosses Gewachs are always dry. U.S. wineries may make a range of styles. These may be labeled as Dry or Semi-Dry, to indicate moderate sweetness, which I prefer to call fruitiness. Ripe fruit, after all, tastes sweet.

Or the back label may sport a scale indicating Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet or Sweet. This scale was developed by a group or wineries called the International Riesling Foundation, and it’s a little more complex than it sounds. A wine’s perceptible sweetness is not just a question of how much sugar is left in the wine after fermentation. The IRF scale factors in sugar, acidity and the wine’s pH level to give us an indication of how sweet or dry the wine will taste.

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2. Riesling is a great food wine.

A food-wine pairing maxim pitches sweeter wine with spicy Asian foods, because the sugar in the wine moderates the food’s heat. Riesling fits that, especially a semi-dry version. But the wine’s key is really its fruitiness and acidity, a combination that equal versatility.

“Riesling can be made in many different styles, from low to high alcohol, from dry, to off-dry and then the many dessert styles,” says Stu Smith, winemaker at Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain. Smith-Madrone planted its riesling vineyard in 1972 and is now celebrated as one of the few riesling holdouts in the land of cabernet sauvignon. “It goes with just about any food, meat, soup or cuisine — or all by itself.”

Riesling is great with smoked fish, salads, curries, even braised beef — one of my most memorable meals was beef braised in Riesling, with spaetzle. It may have helped that I was in Germany, of course. And if you buy a bottle that turns out to be too sweet for your taste, save it for a salty cheese or dessert.

3. Riesling is a megaphone for terroir.

A conversation with a German winemaker can turn into a dizzying discourse on how a riesling from a vineyard on blue slate soils tastes different from one grown on red slate. But you don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate riesling’s ability to express its origins.

In cool climates, such as New York’s Finger Lakes and Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula, riesling takes on a lean, racy profile. Warmer climes such as the Columbia Valley in Washington state or Napa Valley give riesling a richer body, with riper fruit flavors.

But there are differences, and U.S. riesling is especially exciting now, as winemakers explore its different expressions. Rieslings from Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes tend to have a delicate texture with an accent of lime zest, while ones from nearby Keuka Lake are richer. Brooks winery makes more than 20 rieslings, including several single-vineyard bottlings, that vividly demonstrate the terroirs and microclimates of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

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4. Riesling ages well.

Wine lovers who are still collectors should keep a stash of riesling in their cellars. We tend to consider white wines at their peak just a year or two after the vintage, but riesling’s acidity gives it a potential for long life.

“Why do I keep making riesling?” Smith asks. “Because I love drinking it while it’s young, and savor it when it’s aged.”

5. They are NOT all sweet!

Delicious riesling is grown in many areas throughout the United States. Here are five from some of the top areas. Our greatest value of the week is the Barnard Griffin Riesling 2017 from Washington state’s Columbia Valley, a nice instance of what this region does with the grape. We also have a stellar bottle from the Finger Lakes, a Napa Valley holdout against cabernet sauvignon, and two nice examples from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Dave McIntyre


Barnard Griffin Riesling 2017

(2.5 stars)

Columbia Valley, Wash., $12

Washington state’s Columbia Valley tends to showcase a ripe, fruity profile of riesling. This lovely bottling from Barnard Griffin is exemplary, with peach and a hint of mango, as well as some lime and orange zest to lend tension and keep the wine in balance. Bravo! Alcohol by volume: 12.2 percent. (Other favorite Washington rieslings: Eroica, Efeste, Poet’s Leap.)

Distributed by Winebow: Available in the District at Rodman’s, Union Kitchen Grocery. Available in Maryland at Absolutely Wine or Spirits in Columbia, Beer, Wine & Co., Bradley Food & Beverage and Georgetown Square Wine and Beer in Bethesda, Bel Pre Bel Pre Beer & Wine and Fenwick Beer and Wine in Silver Spring, Bethesda Co-Op in Cabin John, Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, Hop N Grape in North Bethesda.

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard Dry Riesling 2017

(3 stars)

Seneca Lake, N.Y., $22

This wine, from one of the pioneer wineries along Seneca Lake in Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, never disappoints. It weaves a filigree of lime zest, apricot and peach across the palate; think of that feeling when you try on something that fits as if it was tailor-made for you. ABV: 12 percent. (Other favorite Finger Lakes rieslings: Anthony Road, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Keuka Spring, Ravines, Red Tail Ridge.)

Distributed by Bacchus in the District and Maryland, Hop & Wine in Virginia: Available in the District at Ace Beverage, Cork Wine Bar and Market, MacArthur Beverages, Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Bel Air Liquors in Bel Air, Crescent Beer & Wine in Bowie, Fishpaws Marketplace in Arnold, Friendship Wine & Liquor in Abingdon, Wine Source in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Arrowine and Cheese in Arlington, La Fromagerie and Planet Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria, Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview), Wegmans (Woodbridge).

Smith-Madrone Riesling 2016

(3 stars)

Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, Calif., $32

Napa Valley is the land of cabernet, but Smith-Madrone, on Spring Mountain at the valley’s northern end, steadfastly maintains some of its higher-elevation vineyards with riesling. And riesling fans know its quality is reliably outstanding. The 2016 offers flavors of ripe peach and apricot, with a dash of wild herbs, and a mouth-filling texture that refuses to quit. ABV: 12.8 percent. (Other favorite California producers: Calder, Navarro, Thomas Fogarty.)

Distributed by DOPS: Available in the District at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill. Available in Maryland at State Line Liquors in Elkton, Vineyards Elite in Pikesville. Available in Virginia at Balducci’s (Reston).

Brooks Riesling 2017

(2.5 stars)

Willamette Valley, Ore., $22

Brooks makes a lovely array of single-vineyard rieslings from throughout Oregon’s Willamette Valley, each expressive of its site and available primarily direct from the winery. This Willamette Valley bottling gets some distribution in the market. It’s dry, with an appealing fruitiness that suggests apricot and peach at the peak of ripeness. ABV: 12.5 percent. (Other favorite Oregon producers: Chehalem, Elk Cove, Ribbon Ridge, Trisaetum.)

Distributed by Winebow: Available in the District at Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Bel Pre Bel Pre Beer & Wine in Silver Spring, Bradley Food & Beverage, Beer, Wine & Co. and Georgetown Square Wine and Beer in Bethesda, Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, Hop N Grape in North Bethesda, House of Liquors in Westminster, the Perfect Pour in Elkridge.

Bryn Mawr Vineyards Estate Riesling 2017

(2 stars)

Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Ore., $26

Flavors of quince, green apple, jasmine and a hint of mineral oil (my term for the petrol or diesel character riesling sometimes has) give this wine a classic riesling profile. It also has a lovely texture that will pair well with heartier dishes such as roast poultry or braised meats. ABV: 12.5 percent.

Distributed by Global Wines: Available in the District at D’Vines, MacArthur Beverages, Metro Wine & Spirits, Wagshal’s Deli, S&R Liquors. Available in Maryland at Crescent Beer & Wine in Bowie, in Gaithersburg, Georgetown Square Wine and Beer in Bethesda.

Availability information is based on distributor records. Wines might not be in stock at every listed store and might be sold at additional stores. Prices are approximate. Check to verify availability, or ask a favorite wine store to order through a distributor.

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