Over the weekend, I had a culinary orgasm. It lasted four hours, and occurred in a dark corner of a restaurant. Amid a roomful of people, I blissfully consumed eight extraordinary dishes married with perfect wines. While basking in the beauty of this rather long, exultant moment, one thing struck me—the underbelly of sweetness in many of the wines, from the sparkling to the reds. Then the elegant, fragrant master arrived, Riesling, proving it still has what it takes.
Long accepted by food and wine snobs as the wine to drink with food, Riesling gets no respect from the people. Snubbed almost as often as White Zinfandel, Riesling's sweetness serves as both its downfall and saving grace. Drink the sweet ones alone, and the sugar sometimes overwhelms you, but drink one with food, and exciting things happen—especially if you have a plate of spicy curry or a chile-infused dish in front of you.
But dry Rieslings can seduce you, too. The crisp, subtle fruit in dry Rieslings ranges from baked apples to tangy grapefruit, pairing well with seafood in light, citrus sauces, delicate cheeses, salads with acidic dressing, and any food that might be difficult to pair with wine. Somehow, Riesling, with its ability to make friends easily with the acerbic as well as the agreeable, becomes the life of the party.
The Riesling grape prefers cool weather, so look for the best ones to come from Germany, Austria, France's Alsace, southern Australia, Washington, New York and Canada. Notably good values (under $12) are coming from Australia and Washington, but Germany is wising—or lightening—up, providing better values than ever before.
In the stores, you'll find Riesling labeled in several different forms, especially on German bottles. The drier versions are termed Kabinett and Trocken, but Spatlese and Auslese enter into the sweeter realm (try anything with a longer name—like Beerenauslese—and you're in for a sugar smackdown). Expect Rieslings from France's Alsatian region to be bone dry, while sweetness levels vary in those from Australia and the United States. If the label doesn't say "late harvest"—which means the grapes stay on the vine longer to concentrate their sugars—the sugar will be pretty tame.
With a bit of experimentation and creativity, and with Riesling in the mix, anyone can achieve the evasive culinary orgasm. But beware: You might need a cigarette afterward.
Selbach 2001 Dry Riesling Mosel. $10. Refreshing enough for those who deify dry, with honeysuckle and apricot emerging. Even some crisp grapefruit in there.
Jacob's Creek 2003 Riesling Reserve South Australia. $13. Smells like you want to wear it, with pretty floral aromas, followed by luscious pear and crisp lemon. Impressive Riesling at a great price.
Hirsch Zsbing Riesling 2000 Kamptal Austria. $11. Clean, crisp, lime with a zingy, clingy aftertaste of peach. Very dry. Fantastic food wine, but also pretty damn tasty alone.
Hogue Cellars 2003 Johannisberg Riesling Columbia Valley. $10. From Washington comes a wine that tastes so much like Welch's white grape juice, I had to look at the label again. Nice, sweet, honeylike lingering finish. Crowd pleaser.
Columbia Winery 2003 Cellarmaster's Riesling Columbia Valley. $10. Rich with honey-dipped pears and roasted apple tart. Plenty of sweetness, but it's not overbearing. Great price.
Dr. H. Thanisch 2002 Riesling Kabinett Bernkasteler Badstube Mosel. $14. The long, sultry finish equals the long name. Silky with flowery honeysuckle and honeydew melon. Some sugar present, but it's so balanced, you'll love it.