A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Riesling Column

Coming this Thursday in the Bowling Green (OH) Sentinel-Tribune:

Let’s just admit it: nobody does Riesling better than Germany. German Rieslings can be so utterly pure, so clean, that drinking them is like “drinking the tears of angels,” as one of our cheekier friends recently put it.

And that’s exactly what German winemakers want. While Rieslings from a region like France’s Alsace might tend toward richness and full body, German winemakers revel in the mouthwatering crispness, sleek minerality, and tart green apple and pear flavors that they see as the grape’s most compelling expression.

Though tart, however, many German Rieslings also have a touch of sweetness, which explains their reputation as cloying, saccharine wines better suited for pouring on pancakes than drinking. But this reputation is undeserved, for two reasons. First, many German Rieslings are quite dry, though these can admittedly be hard to find in grocery stores. Second, great sweet German Rieslings inevitably boast such precise, lightning-tinged acidity that their sweetness, far from being overwrought, is all that keeps them from bolting out of the glass, resulting in a wine so perfectly suspended between sweet and tart, rich and gossamer, that it almost levitates in your mouth.

Finding a good German Riesling, moreover, isn’t terribly difficult. You need only follow some simple guidelines (assuming, of course, you’re not near a computer with which you can find all you need to know online). First, look for wines with “QmP” on the label. This stands for “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat,” or “quality wine with special attributes,” and this group of wines marks Germany’s highest classification. (QbA wines—“Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet,” or “quality wine from a specific region”—can also be good, though they will tend to be more hit-or-miss.) Second, look at the alcohol level printed on the label. Lower alcohol (8-10%) generally means sweeter wine, since less sugar was metabolized into alcohol during fermentation. (Knowing a wine’s level of sweetness may not tell you much about its quality, but it can tell you how it will match up with your palate.) You can also look to a further set of terms for guidance: QmP wines are subdivided, from least to most ripe, into the categories Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese. Just be careful here, since, until you get to the Beerenauslese level, wine from very ripe grapes can still taste dry if all the sugar is allowed to be converted during fermentation, which is why alcohol levels can be helpful guides. And, finally, if you’re at a real wine shop, never be afraid to ask for help.

While we could say more about German Riesling, we hope we’ve at least piqued your curiosity enough to convince you to try a few. Not every bottle will taste like angels’ tears, but if one even comes close, you will never look at Riesling the same way again. Hallelujah.


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