Dan Berger

The rebirth of dry Riesling

When you have a passion for a certain wine, others make assumptions about your sanity or overall judgment.

My love in this strange game is Riesling, which has a few pitfalls for my reputation and leaves me kind of defending myself even when no one has specifically accused me of being a little off my rocker.

For example, if you have seen my impassioned pleas for understanding of Rieslings because of their regional distinctiveness, you might take it for an attempt to justify a “misplaced” faith since there are few other wine writers with such a fixation.

“He can’t be serious about loving the wines of the Pfalz,” you might think of me, especially when the Rheingau and the Mosel arguably make “better” Rieslings. (But when it comes to comparing the same varietal from different regions, all conclusions eventually collapse into absurdity.)

Another argument that points to my obviously unbalanced approach is that such an intensity placed behind a single grape might be better understood if that grape were red.

And of course my thesis, in which I admit is biased, seems completely ludicrous to those who dine out on a regular basis and who consider no meal complete without a chunk of beef or other red-wine-oriented dish.

Riesling is almost never considered a companion for food (not even spicy Asian!), notably when so many Americans are still eating Midwest-hardy fare from a four-legged beast that would fail miserably with almost any white wine.

Which is proved pretty much universally by the fact that Riesling is nearly impossible to find on restaurant wine lists - no matter how the cuisine is oriented.

Here the American penchant is for Chardonnay, followed by things as esoteric as white Rhône blends (blands?), Sauvignon Blanc, even Pinot Gris.

So this column is not really an attempt to get nonbelievers to leap into an area they’ve not yet discovered as much as it is to simply look at a recent phenomenon that has yet to be written about by the major wine publications and for good reason.

The rebirth of dry Riesling.

The wine magazines have not written of this because so few have Riesling crazies on their staff (everyone seems to be a Red wine expert) - and those that do like Riesling spend a lot of time cooing and swooning over the richest of the late-harvest styles.

In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the recent mini-surge in Riesling sales has come from the drier sector - in some cases so dry that the wine does not come across to some folks as Riesling-like because, as Aunt Maude knew all too well, “Riesling is sweet, right?”

In fact, the trend toward really dry Riesling is being spurred by a reawakening in Germany that Riesling can be as dry as Chablis even while it is compared with the sweeter versions of the past in the dessert delights that are the only real 100-point candidates among Rieslingites.

I first began to notice the drier styles in Germany during a 2002 visit to the Mosel, when wines from 1997, 1999 and 2001 were being poured.

I noticed the bracing acidity and the almost negligible sweetness.

Some wines were called trocken, the German word for dry, but there were a number of other regional designations (ostensibly vineyard related) that to the initiated meant wines that had no sugar, or darn little.

What was striking about the wines was that they all seemed structured to go with food and were decidedly not for dessert.

I asked a number of German producers if these wines were selling. Almost all of them noted that the rebirth of the dry category was being driven by restaurant sales.

When we got back home, I asked a number of friends who also were sommeliers if they were excited about dry Riesling as well, and several said, “Absolutely!”

Some added, “They’re fabulous with appetizers.”

The implication here is that dry Riesling was not likely to be a trend at casual places (which had few if any appetizers), but more likely in places that had appetizers, i.e, upscale.

Another reason that the “soms” appreciated the completely dry, vineyard-designated Rieslings was that the wines were not inexpensive – high-profit items that their normal clientele didn’t mind paying the freight for as long as the story that came with the bottle was worth telling and retelling.

And one story that was retold were tales of German vintners who stubbornly continued to make the dry style from the 1980s to the 1990s, basically before the Millennial buyers were born! And those wineries suffered until dry was again back in vogue.

The clear message is that the excitement we are seeing for dry-style Riesling seems to be a Millennial-driven phenomenon that adventuresome and savvy soms picked up on a few years ago. And which they are milking.

The wonderful thing here is that German Rieslings typically age beautifully under good storage conditions.

And the benefit for consumers is that a 6- to 10-year-old Riesling is probably better than a just-released baby.

So unlike most other white wines that are less interesting as time goes on, older Rieslings actually are exciting.

As I pointed out earlier, not an awful lot of this material is widely known to consumers, but when dining in a top-rated restaurant with servers in-the-know, some of this information gets passed along, and Millennial wine-buyers just lap this stuff up.

In case you get lucky, 2001 and 2002 were sensational years in German Riesling, and if you can find a bottle from one of those years on a restaurant list, it would be a prize.

Now for even better news: Washington and Oregon, not to mention British Columbia, are making some fabulous dry Rieslings. The same is true in upstate New York, on Michigan’s upper Peninsulas, and even in places previously not even known to make wine at all, such as Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Idaho’s Snake River Valley, and a few other places around the United States.

Is this due entirely to the wine making? Or is it possible that the excitement for Riesling is related to the greatness of the grape?

This story was originally published May 24, 2016 12:00 PM.

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