A Riesling Renaissance

June 19, 2019

If there were ever an onomatopoeic grape in the big, wide world of wine, it is handsdown Riesling. Come on, say it. Rieeeeessssslinggggg. It sounds … tingly. Refreshing. Zingy. Breezy, even. And you know what? That’s exactly what it tastes like, too. So why does everyone treat it like a candy sucker stuck to a floor mat? Well, not everyone—and maybe not much longer. 

For pretty much all sommeliers worth their salt, Riesling is Darling #1. Why? It’s nature’s perfect little dinner date—generally low in alcohol, with electric food-friendly acid beyond your wildest lightningbolt dreams, and it comes in a range of styles like the ultimate well-stocked wardrobe, from light and crisp to luscious and smoky.

There’s an awful lot to adore in those tall, skinny, supermodelesque bottles of beloved Bacchus juice. “The first wine I tried that was inspirational and sort of took hold of my soul was the 1976 J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese. It was relatively early in my wine drinking days—I was about 20— and my palate was still learning but also accepting of wines with residual sugar; but the fact was that the wine didn’t just stop there—the acid kicked in. And its length and purity of being stopped me and made me pay attention,” says sommelier and oneman Riesling rabblerouser Paul Grieco, who co-owns Hearth restaurant and the trio of quirky, inspiring wine bars: Terroir, Terroir Tribeca, and Terroir Murray Hill. “Twentyfive years later, I’m still remembering this wine. That says something.”

Indeed it does. Rieslings, at their best and brightest, do tend to be intensely memorable because they hit multiple senses in an utterly eye-opening manner. The sight of their beautifully bright hue; the incredible aromatics of everything from flowers to minerals to succulent pear or ginger or citrus; their touch on your tongue, so zippy with laserlike acidity translating into something dancingly light or lusciously mouth-filling; and the flavors, which can range from austere to orchard-ripe. But that’s the secret— that elusive, much touted word in wine: balance. Yes, some styles of Riesling have off-dry to downright sweet flavors. But most of the time, even with the sweetest of the sweet—what you might see on a German label as auslese or beerenauslese or that rollercoaster ride of a wine title trockenbeerenauslese— Rieslings still have this bright, linear current of electricity zipping through them, keeping the wines utterly buoyant and leaving your palate dry after all is swallowed and done. This grape has deep roots in Germany, but late-ripening Riesling has found itself a pretty good home in other parts of the world, too.

 “We revere Old World Riesling, of course, those from Germany and Austria and Alsace,” says Grieco. “But I’m also stoked about the New World and those expressions. The Finger Lakes is a world-class venue to grow world-class Riesling. There’s the Niagara Peninsula, Australia, New Zealand. I’m overjoyed by it all. “Maybe my heart and soul will say, ‘Paul, don’t you want to go back to that ’76 Prüm?’ Maybe so, but as my Riesling world has expanded, I’m just as intrigued by [aged Rieslings] from Victoria [Australia]. Or the Cave Spring 2008 [from the Niagara Peninsula]. Or the Hermann Wiemer Late Harvest Riesling 2009—which is the greatest Riesling produced ever in North America. It’s extraordinary.” Truly, Riesling wears a different dress for every dance. The cool climate Rieslings of Germany’s fine Mosel region take on fresh apple-orchard aromas and the kind of acid levels that make the juice dance in your mouth. In warmer regions, like Alsace, France; Austria; or even the Clare Valley in Australia, the aromas turn peachy, sometimes with a zesty lime quality to them.

And the Finger Lakes? Be prepared to sigh over the honeysuckle and floral notes, with bits of orchard fruit and even some zesty grapefruit qualities, all with a backbone of acid that makes you sit up, smack your lips, and say, “Oh hey, what’s for dinner?” If all that makes you lick your lips in eager anticipation—and worry about the stock of your local boutique shop—don’t panic. There may well be more Rieslings coming to a glass near you. In the summer of 2008, Grieco decided that the only way to get wine lovers to drink more Riesling was to, well, force them. “As a beverage director, I would go to a table and suggest a Riesling for their dinner, but all I’d hear was ‘I don’t drink that because it’s sweet.’ From hearing that so many times, I wanted to make some converts. I was going to have to force you to have it if you were going to engage me in conversation,” he says.

For the 91 days of summer 2008, Grieco offered a radical plan: Riesling, and Riesling only, by the glass in each of his wine bars and at Hearth, too. No Chardonnay. No Pinot Grigio. No Gruner. And you know what? It worked. Since then, the Summer of Riesling has expanded all around the country, with about 500 restaurants and wine bars participating coast to coast for summer 2012. There has also been a parallel movement through the International Riesling Foundation to educate drinkers on the sweetness levels. Their biggest contribution: a simple, yet wildly effective taste scale that goes on the back of wine labels so consumers can figure out what to expect from the bottle. “It’s all about trying to re-jig the conversation of wine. You know what we say about Riesling [at Terroir]? When you drink it, you will be a better person. I believe that!” Grieco laughs. “How can you not drink a glass of Riesling, with its complexity and delicacy and balance and yumminess and sense of place, and not feel more in tune with yourself and those around you? It’s a glorious drink but there’s something demanding about it, too—it makes you pay attention, but as soon as it’s on your palate, you smile. You can’t help it. You have joy coursing through your veins.”

Five Fabulous Rieslings

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of this summery varietal is … variety. Grown all around the world, Riesling assumes different personalities reflective of the region where it is produced. From Alsace in France to the Columbia River Valley to the rugged lands Down Under, Darling #1 is sure to surprise.

1. Finger Lakes. 2008 Ravines Argetsinger: Bone dry. Crisply, bracingly, cracker dry. Lick-a-rock dry. Please-bring-me-to-dinner dry, but with delicate notes of fresh herbs and honeysuckle, with a peach-pit, almost green-olive briny finish that makes you smack your lips for more, more, more.

2. 2011 Grosset Clare Valley ‘Polish Hill’: Heady summer flowers and dribbles of nectarine and pear juice fill your mouth, but this lean and lovely Riesling still manages to keep a bit of buttoned-up austerity to its body and serene but long finish.

3. Germany. 2009 J.J. Prum Auslese Mosel Bernkasteler Badstube: Racehorse acidity gallops through your mouth with a saddle full of Granny Smith apples and honeydew melon on its back, while the long, luxurious finish leaves you with a little spice and white pepper to think on. If you’re looking to age some Riesling, this isn’t a bad place to start.

4. 2008 Albert Boxler Alsace, Grand Cru Sommerberg “e,” Alsace: Light on its frisky, floral feet but with a great, grounded minerality that keeps this wine from running away with its basket of ripe stone fruit.

5. Washington State. 2010 Chateau Ste. Michele and Dr. Loosen Eroica Columbia ValleyThe result of a partnership between Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michele and the famous Mosel Riesling producer, Dr. Loosen, offers great squeezes of tangerine and lime, aromas of orange blossom and zippy minerality.