Saturday kicks off Summer of Riesling, an effort to promote the varietal for the 94 days of summer. And the event is because many associate Riesling, a grape grown all over the world, with sweetness, viscosity, and a syrup-like quality. This breaks my heart. Sure Riesling can be sweet, but it can also be bone dry. I'm talking about biting into a lemon dry. But even dry Rieslings can appear sweet to some and for good reason. Nothing excites our taste buds like sweetness. This is our natural defense system for survival. We need sugar to live, and we are most attuned to that flavor. German Riesling has been struck the hardest when it comes to the assumption of sweetness. So lets focus on Germany and get to the bottom of why Riesling is not only one of the great grape varieties of the world but also what's for lunch.
First of all, it's summer. It's getting hotter by the day in Charleston, and there is nothing better to drink than something that is cold and refreshing. When it comes to alcohol, in the summer months we want to be able to drink for hours as we socialize and kick back outside. That means something that isn't high in alcohol, which is why Riesling is perfect to start sipping during lunch. Aromatically vivacious, Riesling smells of joy and its flavor is vibrant. Plus, it's something you can sip on throughout the day's festivities and never feel like you may wake up on the floor. A typical bottle contains about 10 percent alcohol. This is the beauty of German Riesling.
I know what you are thinking: that's great and all but if the alcohol is low then that must mean the wine is full of sugar and sweet as pie. This can be true but is certainly not always the case. Riesling thrives in cooler climates and thus is naturally higher is acidity. Simplified, the higher the amount of acidity in the wine, the dryer it is. So, if you like a "crisp" white wine then you like a "dry" white wine. But, knowing what German Rieslings are the driest takes a little bit of education. So lets break it down:
As a child, I loved a sweet and juicy plum on a hot summer day. With that said, nothing aggravated me more than having to wait for a plum to become ripe. I learned at an early age that ripeness meant sweetness. If the plum wasn't ripe it was going to be bitter, firm, and certainly not juicy. Wine grapes are the same. The Riesling grape needs to be ripe to contain loads of sugar. So when picking out the right bottle of German Riesling, if you want the flavors to be dry and crisp, you're looking for a bottle of wine that is made from grapes that were picked earlier rather than later. Look for the designation "Kabinett" on the label. This signifies both a wine of quality and grapes that contained less sugar at harvest than designations such as "Spätlese" or "Auslese." If you are looking for a truly dry glass of Riesling then we must talk about its style. In German, trocken means dry, so look for the "Trocken" classification on the label. This term assures that the wine will be crisp and refreshing.
This weekend head to your favorite wine shop and try a few bottles of German Riesling. Talk to someone who works there and tell them you are looking for a refreshing bottle to take to your friend's beach house, party, company get together, or for straight up porch sipping. And if lack of sweetness is your main concern, remember, look for a Riesling Trocken or Kabinett Trocken. You won't be disappointed.
We spoke to a few local restaurants about what Rieslings they're serving right now and here's what they suggested:
Riesling-Spatlese, Alfred Merkelbach, "Urziger Wurzgarten," Mosel,Germany, 2012
"The hauntingly beautiful ripe fruit finishes dry and crisp making it the perfect paring for any dish created with products from the farmers market right now." — Jodi Bronchtein
Social Wine Bar
Ravines out of the Finger Lakes region, upstate New York
"This wine is some of the most serious Riesling produced within the United States. Riesling itself has the distinction of truly showing a sense of place and upstate New York is one of its best representations with Ravines at the forefront." —Brad Ball
Joesf Leitz, Riesling Trocken "Ein Zwei Dry" from Rheingau, Germany
"It is beautifully bright, with refreshing acidic balance and a nice touch of minerality. Perfect sipping on warm summer day." —Scott Shor