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Riesling: Give It a Chance

Riesling belongs among the elite of white wine grapes. They run the range from completely dry to intensely sweet. The amiable character of riesling pleases wine novices while still offering sophisticated appeal to those with wider experience.

Despite its clear claim to greatness, riesling suffers poor PR. We can blame the German wine industry, where riesling dominates. There, we said it. In attempting to inform the consumer, the Germans said too much.

German wine labels used to convey the town, specific vineyard, and vintage of the wine, the vat it came from (really!), and more. And it did so using hard to read Gothic script. People felt overwhelmed by the information.

In addition, the Germans used legally-defined but confusing terms to suggest the wine’s quality. This system works for the German market, but elsewhere, like in the U.S., German wine labels have proven mystifying.

Kabinett, for instance, literally means cabinet in German. On a label, it means that the wine came from a good harvest. The idea being that the producer might reserve it in a cabinet for personal use. Not exactly intuitive for the uninitiated.

To make matters worse, Germans speak German. The German penchant for bundling words into bigger ones puts off many who do not speak the tongue. The Germans call their most prized sweet wine Trockenbeerenauslese. That impressive mouthful translates as “dried berry, select harvest”. It means that growers selected grapes by the berry, choosing the most intensely ripe fruit, raisins really. Wines from such grapes are indeed impressive mouthfuls, fully capable of standing next to the finest Sauternes, or any other great sweet wine.

Happily, the German wine industry has wised up and simplified their labels. They also focus more on drier wines. As illustration, here is a store favorite:

  • Dr L Riesling ($11.99/bottle), a classic in the slightly sweet style. Riesling rarely receives oak aging because it needs none. You taste here the complexity of different fruit tones. Alcohol is refreshingly low. Bright acidity balances what sugar remains in the wine, likely no more than in your favorite chardonnay. With such specs, the wine pairs well with fish and chicken, besides being perfect by itself.

Washington state producer Chateau Ste Michelle produces three textbook riesling of varying sweetness but straight-on appeal:

  • Dry Riesling ($11.99/bottle) is indeed dry, but not austere. Intended as a food wine, it serves nicely as an aperitif, as well. Low in alcohol and delicious, like most riesling, the wine shows best when chilled.
  • Riesling ($11.99/bottle) offers some sweetness, about as much as the Dr Loosen. It shares a similar freshness and ingratiating appeal. A touch of tropical fruit adds to the apple-like flavors.
  •  Harvest Select ($11.99/bottle), clearly sweet at 4% residual sugar, fits nicely in all sipping situations, or try it with light cheeses and other nibbles.

Extending the Riesling spectrum further, here is one from Alsace, in Northeast France. This unique enclave almost exclusively produces white wine, with riesling being arguably the most highly regard. Except for the rare and expensive late harvest wines, Alsace wines are bone dry. That does not mean austere. With their generous flavors and spicy zest, Alsace wines pair exquisitely with a wide range of cuisine.

  • Riesling, Willm ($13.99/bottle). The apple freshness typical of riesling shines through. Fuller in body than the aforementioned wines, its fruit component carries suggestions of flowers and spice. Its crisp structure and mouthfilling flavors match with any fish or poultry dish, and any cheese.

Armed with this information, you have some riesling to try.