Riesling (REEZ-ling)

Riesling is considered by many—possibly even most—wine experts to be the most noble and unique white grape variety in the world. The grape is thought to have originated in the Rheingau region of Germany, probably as one of the offspring of gouais blanc and an unknown father. Great riesling has soaring acidity, an incomparable sense of purity and vividness, plus considerable extract (the nonsoluble substances in wine that add to its flavor). Yet the wine is wonderfully graceful on the palate and has a sense of energy that makes it seem light. Indeed, great riesling is dangerously easy to drink. Given the right soil and winemaking methods, the triad of high acidity, high extract, and relatively low alcohol leads to intensely flavorful wines of ravishing delicacy, transparency, and gracefulness. Riesling’s refined structure is complemented by the mouthwateringly delicate flavors of fresh ripe peaches, apricots, and melons, often pierced with a vibrant mineral quality, like the taste of water running over stones in a mountain stream. More than almost any other white grape, riesling is temperamental about where it is planted. It doesn’t grow well in very warm places, and even in cooler sites, the quality and character of the wine can vary enormously. The most elegant and precise rieslings come from cool to cold climates—Germany, the Alsace region of France, Austria, Slovenia, Canada, and upstate New York. Rieslings from a warmer climate, such as Washington State or California, are sometimes softer, slightly fuller, and can have less precise, less minerally flavors. “Usually” is a key word here. Australia, for example, has a generally warm climate. But in the cooler districts of the Clare and Eden Valleys of Australia, rieslings are usually ethereal, minerally, vibrantly fresh, and as taut as a tightrope. On the topic of dryness and sweetness, it’s not correct to assume that, chances are, any given riesling is probably going to be sweet. Not the case. In fact, most of the rieslings in the world are dry. The exception, of course, are intentionally sweet styles such as beerenauslese (BA) and trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). Admittedly some of the confusion about the sweetness level of riesling happens because the wine is so fruity—i.e. it tastes like fruits, especially peaches and apricots. And in riesling’s case, the taster (you or me) confuses this dramatic fruitiness with sweetness. To help clarify where a riesling stands in terms of the taste perception of sweetness, the International Riesling Foundation (IRF), a global educational initiative, created a “Riesling Taste Profile” chart. The chart, which producers use on the wine’s back label, shows a spectrum from dry to medium dry to medium sweet to fully sweet. It then pinpoints where that wine falls in terms of how sweet or dry the wines tastes. Importantly, producers don’t just guess when it comes to their wine’s sweetness level. The IRF developed sophisticated technical guidelines, including the sugar to acid ratio and the pH of the wine.

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