The Society's Tastings & Events team Simon Mason is unashamedly biased when it comes to his favourite grape variety. Here he shares his passion for riesling and highlights its gastronomic potential
Unfairly tainted by the sea of poor quality exports from Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, the reputation of riesling still remains somewhat battered amongst the wine drinking public at large. The associations with sweetness and the tall flute bottle continue to resonate negatively for many. Certainly the distinctive bottles are a rare sight on restaurant tables. Ask those in the wine trade, however, and they will rate riesling amongst their favourite varietals. Jancis Robinson MW no less, hails it as the greatest white grape in the world and many Society members have happily already come round to this way of thinking.
Wines with a pure sense of place
Unlike chardonnay which provides a neutral backdrop for the winemaker to build his structure upon, sometimes with all the sensitivity of a 1960s' town planner, or sauvignon blanc which tours the world like an ageing rock star with endless remixes of its one-hitwonder riff of gooseberry, grass and nettles, riesling is all about the place, the soil, the climate. Marvellously unruffled by cool climates yet tolerant of warmth, riesling can even turn moisture and humidity to its advantage, creating some of the finest botrytised sweet wines in the world. All the while conveying the precise identity and structure of the land on which it was grown. Of course I generalise wildly (and unfairly) but it is true that wise winemakers do little more than facilitate the smoothest possible transition of riesling from vine to vessel, ensuring that along the way, they capture the essence of their particular patch of soil. By generally eschewing malolactic fermentation, new oak, or indeed, blending with other varietals, the best rieslings are pure expressions of their terroir. Perhaps you can tell that I am an enthusiast?
Much more than an aperitif wine
From its spiritual homeland in the Mosel, wines such as The Society's Saar Riesling, produced for us by
Reichsgraaf von Kesselstatt, offer just off-dry sweetness and delicate peach fruit as well as a refreshing core of acidity. A delicious wine for afternoon drinking and, indeed, this is how many rieslings are viewed: light, delicate and perhaps a little frivolous. Fine as an aperitif but once the food comes out, some think that it is time to move on to the more serious players.
This in my view is a mistake. Even a delicate German riesling pairs extremely well with food. The touch of sweetness present in the wine works with foods that often require a fruit sauce – gammon or roast pork for example. The natural high acidity of the riesling cuts through the slightly bland fattiness of the meat, the delicate fruit lifts the flavours and the hint of sweetness offsets the salt of the gammon. It may raise an eyebrow or two but you could do a lot worse than a glass of riesling at your next hog roast – perhaps the Trittenheimer Apotheke Riesling Kabinett 2012 from Josef Schmitt. Off-dry and currently youthful with a delicate floral bouquet, the moderately light 11% alcohol is also to be welcomed.
The same principles of balance and contrast apply when matching German riesling to spiced dishes. A medium Kabinett or Spätlese is a refreshing foil to a gently spiced fish curry wherein the delicate fruit of the wine will balance the delicate flavours of the fish. A dry wine might draw attention to the heat of the spice to the detriment of other flavours but riesling gets it right.
One grape; a myriad of styles
Of course, German riesling runs
a wide range of styles from dry (trocken) through to wonderfully luscious. Even a wine as gloriously sweet as Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 2007 from JJ Prüm retains a balancing and refreshing acidity which makes apple pie or rhubarb crumble such pleasing matches. It is this acidity that makes riesling such a versatile wine to pair with food, allowing it to provide a refreshing balance to rich and heavy sauces but also to provide the tang and zip with Asian dishes.
Just over the border from Germany in Alsace, the wines prove that when in the mood for more hearty, rib-sticking fare, riesling can still provide the accompaniment. The Alsatian classic, choucroute garni, combining as it does the acidity of pickled cabbage, a slight sweetness of juniper and pork and a fair amount of salt is a perfect dish to show off the more structured, steely rieslings of Alsace. At this point I must confess what I suspect may be a mild addiction to choucroute garni so please indulge me if I dedicate a little too much time to this dish. A vibrant match would be the Trimbach's Riesling 2011 - all poise, elegance and finesse but lifting the humble pork dish to something extraordinary. Or, the gloriously full-flavoured and flinty Riesling Grand Cru Saering 2011 from Schlumberger. Perhaps almost too extravagant for pickled cabbage, this, along with many other dry Alsacian rieslings, would also work well with turbot, bass or indeed, dim sum.
Of course on occasion, Alsace riesling can also move from accompaniment to ingredient and again, its acidity and purity of flavour form a minerally backbone on which to hang the rich cream sauce for a filet de sandre or a decadent coq au riesling.
Riesling and spicy food
For all this talk of European riesling, my awakening to the possibilities of serving riesling with food came about sitting in a Thai restaurant in Adelaide some years ago. Until then, I had never really come across the fresh, vibrant and quite strident flavours of lemongrass, kaffir lime, coriander and, of course, plenty of fresh chilli that many Thai dishes offer. Opting for a glass of punchy, limey Clare Valley riesling instead of the ubiquitous Coopers Sparkling Ale (itself excellent in its own way) I found a wine that not only complemented the bolder flavour intensity of Thai food but also added plenty of lemon and lime notes of its own.
Of course, an off-dry riesling (perhaps from Germany) would work with the palm sugar used in many savoury dishes, and indeed, the touch of sweetness would calm the chilli, but personally, I would take advantage of one of the finest vintages of Grosset Polish Hill Riesling, the 2012 from Clare Valley and enjoy it with a bracing Thai salad or perhaps steamed whole seabass with lemongrass, fresh lime juice, Thai pickled garlic and crushed chillies. A combination I guarantee to awaken the most jaded of palates.
Unfashionable and misunderstood it may be, but riesling deserves a place on your dinner table. Fluted bottle and all.