Rieslings are among the world’s great wines, sharing many of the qualities that great wines from other regions of the world have: high prices, long aging and sublime taste. So why do rieslings have such a poor reputation with U.S. wine drinkers? Which is pretty poor, considering that Nielsen reports that we drink three times more white zinfandel than we do riesling.
There are two main reasons for riesling’s neglect. Until the past couple of years, most of the riesling for sale in the U.S. was German, and much of that was of indifferent quality. But the quality of riesling that’s available these days has improved dramatically. We’re not only getting better German wines, but U.S. riesling can be stunningly good. In fact, riesling from places like New York, Michigan and Washington is one of the best-kept secrets of the wine world.
The other reason? Many rieslings are sweet, and Americans have long been taught that sweet wine means bad wine. Which is our loss, since sweet is not a bad thing with riesling. The sweetness occurs naturally, and not as a bag of sugar. In this, the sweetness is part of the wine, something that is balanced by the fruitiness and acidity. And not all rieslings are sweet — they come in varying degrees of dryness, and some are as dry as chardonnay. The leading producers, knowing the challenge they face, have started to label riesling by sweetness, so that it’s easy to tell a dry wine from a sweet one.
In this, riesling is summertime wine — low in alcohol, fruity and relaxing. It’s almost always food friendly, and especially with grilled and boiled seafood, spicy cuisine like Tex-Mex and Thai, and even pork. These rieslings will get you started:
• Pacific Rim Dry Riesling ($10). This Washington state wine has a hint of sweetness, apricot fruit, some minerality and pleasant acidity, It’s not complicated, but is a good example of what dry riesling can be.
• Robert Mondavi Private Reserve Riesling ($11). This is what corporate wine should aspire to: It’s varietally correct, and though it’s sweet, it’s supposed to be. The sweetness isn’t there to cover up a flaw.
•Hugel Riesling “Hugel” ($20). The Alsatian Hugel is a top riesling producer, and this dry wine shows why. Look for green apples, peaches and a bit of what is always described as petrol.
Ask the wine guy?
I’m always hearing about acidity in wine, and especially riesling. What is it?
The acidity in wine happens naturally (though sometimes the winemaker has to help it along). Think of how a tomato can be sweet and acidic at the same time. Pleasing acidity gives the wine a crisp or fresh taste; unpleasant acidity is described as sour.
With your wine
Chicken with riesling
This is as about as easy as chicken and wine gets, and it’s equally as tasty as much fancier dishes that require more work. All you need is a cut-up chicken, lots of onions, and garlic. And, of course, riesling. Serve the wine you cook with for dinner.
Serves four, takes about 90 minutes (adapted from Mark Bittman)
- 1 whole chicken, cut into serving pieces with skin removed
- 1 1/2 lb onions, sliced
- 1 1/2 to 2 c riesling (not sweet)
- 1 Tbsp chopped garlic
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Salt and pepper the chicken and brown it in the olive oil over medium heat, about 3 minutes a side.
2. Remove the chicken from the pan, add more olive oil if necessary and add the onions, salt and pepper. Cook for 15 or 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften. Add the garlic, stir and then add the wine, and bring to a boil.
3. Put the chicken back in the pan and bury it in the onions. Turn heat to low and cover. Cook until chicken is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. You can turn the chicken pieces over midway through cooking and add more wine if the dish seems dry. Serve over rice or noodles.