Sunday, April 8, 2007

Riesling Über Alles

One thing I quickly learned as I began to interview sommeliers was that, in private, they all did like I did: drank Riesling. Toward the end of every interview, I asked—as much for my personal information as for the article—what their favorite wine was. Almost without variation, they answered Riesling—the German kind or the Alsatian, or both. They loved and prized it, thought people who preferred big Cabs and Zins chumps.

I've learned since that a quick way into the heart of a wine director or wine store owner was to zero in on the riesling collection. It's almost code for saying: "I know my wine, you can talk to me." I've gotten a lot of inside dope by expressing my preference for this noble grape.

Recently, I wrote about the phenomenon in a column for Culture and Travel magazine. I'm reprinting the column here, since Culture and Travel doesn't yet have an internet link to full articles. I'm also printed a previous unediting version—slightly different from the published version—which I prefer.


By Robert Simonson

Not very long ago, I walked into Crush, the sleek, oenophile’s dream of a wine shop on E. 57th Street in Manhattan. Breezing past the general stock, I headed for the glassed-in room that contains the rare and expensive bottles. Inside was a jovial clerk, with a Kangol cap and a ginger-colored goatee. Giving him a nod, I bypassed the big reds of France and California, which occupied the front of the room, and walked to the small store of classic Rieslings tucked away in the back. The clerk gave me a knowing grin. “Oh,” he said, “you like the good stuff.”

Would-be wine experts across America labor under the delusion that, by calling out for an old Bordeaux or name Burgundy, they are impressing the sommelier with their acumen and good taste. In truth, that wine director is probably stifling a yawn. The secret to stirring the spirit of the man in the cellar rests in one word: Riesling.

The noble white grape—the pride of Germany and Alsace; the criminally underappreciated glory of the wine world; the anti-Chardonnay—has made me many an instantaneous comrade over the years. It’s won me discounts at wine stores, a second glass on the house, and earfuls of inside information. But moreover, it’s earned me instant bonafides as a knowledgeable inbiber. Anyone can bellow out Petrus, Gaja or Screaming Eagle. It take a man of character to pronounce Karthauserhof Eitelsbacher Auslese.

“It’s more a wine professionals’ wine, than a consumer’s wine,” observed Robert Bohr, the sommelier and co-owner of Cru, the vino-centric restaurant off Washington Square. Though the focus of Cru’s novel-length list is Burgundy, Bohr—like a good 75 percent of his occupational brethren—names Riesling as his first choice when uncorking in private.
When a diner sits down at Cru and asks what they have in the way of a Riesling, Bohr’s conclusion is: “They’re very smart or they’re in the restaurant business.” What follows is the royal treatment.
“We shower them with affection. We comment on their intelligence and compliment their wisdom.”

Bohr is not alone in favoring Riesling-loving clientele. “Oh, I like him. I like him a lot,” said “21” Club wine director Phil Pratt of the Riesling man. “Once you get into the flow of the evening, you’re selling all these big-bodied, powerful wines. That’s great, but it kind of beats you up. You see, I taste everything I open. When someone orders a Riesling, it’s like starting the day all over.”

What does Riesling have that experts love it so much? Well, in a word, everything. The swoon-inducing fruit can evoke sources ranging from peach to citrus and what’s known in wine circles as petrol. This riot of flavor is grounded by a strong minerality, and balanced by the best acidity in the business (zippy, racy and taut are the adjectives typically employed). All this, plus a low alcohol content, owing to the northerly climes in which the grape thrives, make it a superlative food wine. Cabaret Sauvignon will crush all but the heartiest meats, but one would be hard pressed to find a meal a Riesling wouldn’t compliment.

Riesling is also a superb conduit of that elusive thing: terroir. “You can go to two different towns in Alsace, a half a mile apart, and get two different expressions of the Riesling,” said Philippe Marchal, a sommelier at Daniel and an Alsace native. Finally, the clincher: it’s cheap. The best Rieslings in the world can be had for under $50; just plain excellent ones for under $30; and lovely quaffers for a measly sawbuck.

One would think, for all that, Riesling should be on top of the world. Well, is once was. A century ago, it was prized more than old first growth Bordeaux. But a flood of poorer German wines tainted the country’s reputation. “When people learn about wine, they start with sweet wine,” theorized Pratt. “And sometimes they start with Blue Nun, which is a really sweet wine, and they assume that’s Riesling.”

Though the grape is vinified every way, from dry (trocken) to off-dry (halbtrocken) to the decadently syrupy (the justly famous dessert wines), it’s the sweet varieties that people most readily identify as the soul of Riesling. And since American consumers have been taught to find gravity only in dry wines, this has hurt. Add to this the intimidating, umlaut-heavy labeling, and the initially bewildering assortment of quality levels (ranging from the dry Kabinett to the botrytized heaven of a Trockenbeerenauslese) and Riesling is a perennial loser on the American market, despite critics’ constant cries that the grape’s day is just around the corner.

While we wait for that day, enjoy the secret and use it to your advantage. Next time you open a wine list or enter a wine shop, say Riesling and get your ego rewarded. “It’s the perfect way to show you’re more intelligent than you probably are,” joked Bohr. Then drink the Riesling for reward number two.

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