Rieslings rock for Oktoberfest

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Lake & Sumter Style Magazine.

Forget raising a stein of dark beer. Try a crisp German riesling instead for a lighter approach to Oktoberfest.

This month’s Saluté is all about changing steadfast opinions — in a pleasant way. My wine world was rocked when I participated in a recent online seminar about German rieslings. I was so adamant about my dislike for excessively sweet wines that I didn’t even buy the recommended wines for the tastings.

Before the seminar was over, however, my curiosity was piqued about this very misunderstood varietal. And, apparently, I was not alone. A number of folks remembered their 1970s encounters with the syrupy Liebfraumilch and said “no thanks” when they heard German wine was the seminar topic.

Riesling wines from Germany’s Mosel River Valley were once more expensive and renowned than French Bordeaux. Over the years, rieslings lost favor with some wine aficionados, but lately they are resurging in popularity. Many connoisseurs describe the varietal as the “aristocrat” of white wines, because of its crisp, juicy, and distinctive mineral taste. Rieslings also pair extremely well with foods that are not always considered wine-friendly — such as spicy Asian or Cajun dishes.

After hearing about the underrated qualities of the varietal from the virtual wine experts, I put together a real-world tasting panel of fellow oenophiles — some who love all rieslings and others who would give up drinking wine if all they could buy were sweet wines. The rules were simple: the wines had to be German rieslings; they had to be readily available in Central Florida, and everyone had to have an open mind.

Why German rieslings? Germany is the motherland for riesling, and the German grape is considered par excellence, according to German wine expert and author Stuart Pigott. Many other wine regions produce outstanding rieslings, but they are inevitably compared to the German labels.

Rieslings range from bone dry to dessert sweet, and it is not always easy to know which one you are buying. A few German terms you may see on some bottles can help: spätlese, medium-sweet; auslese, sweet with full body; halbtrocken, half-dry; and troken, dry. An even better guide is the International Riesling Foundation’s (IRF) Taste Profile, which many wineries now print on back labels to help consumers know what they are buying. Wineries determine the degree of sweetness according to a set of technical guidelines and reflect it on the IRF dry-to-sweet scale.

During my real-world tasting, we sampled six German rieslings. Three were outstanding examples of what connoisseur Pigott would describe as a “miraculous collision of lightness and intensity.” They were crisp, juicy, sometimes flowery, and balanced with a distinctive acidity.

A 2008 Loosen Brothers from the Mosel region was nicely balanced and tangy with slight mango and apricot flavors. Wine Spectator rated the 2009 vintage of this Riesling in its top 100 wines and gave it a 90 rating. The best surprise was the $12 price tag.

Another favorite was the 2011 Schloss Vollrads from the Rheingau region. Although this wine was described as medium-sweet on the label, it was still sweeter than I normally drink. The golden apple flavors, however, paired very well with spicy Asian pot stickers. Rated 88 by Wine Spectator, the wine retails for about $17.

Although unrated, the 2010 Clean Slate from the Mosel region was the popular choice for ‘wine of the evening’ during my real-world tasting. “This is what riesling should be all about,” said one of my guests. Another added, “You could learn to drink wine with this one.”

The wine’s name is derived from the vineyard’s thin slate stones, which are considered to be a critical factor in Clean Slate’s perfect balance. Essential for ripening grapes in the cool climate, the slates impart slight mineral flavors and help develop the fresh peach and crisp lime taste. Clean Slate sells from $10 to $19, depending on the retailer.

Celebrating Oktoberfest often includes raising a stein of dark German beer, but a riesling can be just as festive and delicious without all those calories. And as the Germans say, “Prost!”

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