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Blond-headed Stepchild

By Debra Meiburg MW

Undervalued, misunderstood and neglected? Open a bottle of Riesling. Poor, noble Riesling, arguably the finest white wine in the world, has been overlooked for years.

For centuries Riesling reigned supreme, but in recent years this shy wine has been overshadowed by blockbuster Chardonnays. Such a shame. Chardonnay’s often-heavy oak handling and full-blown fruit overpowers delicate dishes, whereas Riesling is exceptionally food friendly and is just the ticket for fish, light meats and veggies.

Riesling is Germany’s pride and few outsiders have managed to match German Riesling’s finesse. Australia, Canada and upstate New York are regions receiving international acclaim for their efforts.

The name Riesling is thought by some to mean “hard wood,” though there is much debate about the origin of the name. The heartiness of the vine’s wood protects it from the shocks of chilly weather. While Germany’s nippy climate is marginal for most grapes, its cool growing season allows Riesling’s subtle, elegant fruit to evolve at a slow pace. Versatile Riesling can be labeled as dry, semi-dry or late harvest. In Germany, Riesling is also made into a sparkling wine, called Sekt. Don’t pronounce that one with food in your mouth.

Riesling’s tartness or higher acidity makes it one of the few white wines that keeps for years. With subtle peach, honey and citrus aromas and a tart clean palate, this wine will continue to evolve for 5-8 years, at least. Like all wines, Riesling takes on new flavors as it ages. While petrol or gasoline aromas sound unappealing, they are a hallmark of fine quality Riesling, so don’t drive away.

Never left out of the wine scene, France also produces top class Riesling in a region called Alsace. Riesling produced in temperate Alsace will always have higher alcohol levels and less obvious floral or fruity flavors than neighboring German production. Trimbach Riesling is an excellent example of Alsatian style, with subtle citrus flavors and just a hint of petrol age.

When American and Australian winemakers first planted Riesling vines in their soils, many of them elected to call the grape Johannisburg Riesling instead of plain old Riesling. Schloss Johannisberg is an old German monastery famous for its fine Riesling.

In 1776, the same year upstart Yanks declared American Independence, the monks at Schloss Johannisberg reported their first discovery of a phenomenon called noble rot. Presumably there is no relation between the two events. Noble rot, or botrytis cinerea, is a fungus that can be the joy or the scourge of a vineyard. Under the right conditions, grapes affected by noble rot will produce rich, long-lived sweet wines.

The most famous Riesling affected by noble rot is known as Trockenbeerenauslese. If a seven-syllable word is too much exercise, try Dr. Loosen, Auslese (ows-lay-zeh). With honey, floral and, yes, mild noble rot flavors, it makes a luscious aperitif. Or, serve with an after-dinner course featuring a salty cheese, such as Appenzeller. This wine is impossible to undervalue, misunderstand or neglect. So don’t.

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