When it’s sticky out, as it is in New York right now, my thoughts turn naturally to Riesling — the grape native to Germany that Americans have been on the verge of embracing for decades.
I’m not totally sure why people still shy away from them — they’re absolutely fantastic and will change your perception of what wine can be. Riesling is probably the white varietal capable of the most complexity in the glass, besting even the traditional King of Whites, Chardonnay. But calling it complex makes it sound like work. On the contrary: Riesling does the work for you. No effort is required to appreciate its quite distinctive appeal. The nose is famously flowery, peachy, spicy, and eye-opening, and flavors of fresh apricot up the ante. Frequently it can even evoke what the Brits call “petrol” (yup, gasoline — it’s a lot better than it sounds). And as good Rieslings age, these Baroque sensations get even more intense, if you can believe it.
If that doesn’t convince you, here are some tips that might help.
1. For starters, stick to Germany, the Alsace region of France, and Austria. There are some good Rieslings from other parts of the world, and you should check them out eventually, but they all want to be what wines from these traditional world-class areas already are. Riesling is a finicky grape that likes a very cool climate, and most places are simply too warm for it. (This is one of the many reasons that global warming terrifies me — the gradual eradication of the world’s best Riesling zones.)
2. Read up. The labels of Rieslings from Germany are famously intimidating with their long German words and Gothic script, but they also have a ton of information on them. If you take time to learn what the terms mean (trocken means dry, etc.), you’ll be setting yourself up for great experiences. But focusing too much on the labels would also be a mistake: Because of oddities in the German classification system, you won’t always be able to predict what’s in the bottle based on the terms. So take a risk and try a few that have different information on the bottles. The variety will astound you.
3. You think you don’t like sweet wines. But actually you do. There’s no other way to put it: Most people are convinced that sweet wine is bad and uncool, and that they therefore shouldn’t like it, but most of those same folks gravitate toward sweetness in everything else they put in their mouths. Sophisticated sweetness — not the specious type found in cheap Chardonnay from large companies — is an element of true complexity and age-ability. And it tastes really good. Not all Rieslings are sweet — some are bone-dry — but when it's done right, as in the sweetest German Rieslings, labeled auslese, beerenauslese, and trockenbeerenauslese, the sugar deepens and intensifies the fruit flavors and the finish. Which doesn’t mean you’ll want a glass with breakfast: There’s a time and a place for these wines, such as along with certain foods (foie gras! cheeses!) or as a dessert-in-a-glass.
4. Glassware matters. My French wine snob friend Michael was convinced he didn’t like Rieslings, but then I took him to dinner with George Riedel, the tenth generation head of the industry-leading Austrian glassmaking firm. Riedel poured a top wine from the Rheingau region in Germany into one of his special Riesling glasses, designed specifically to concentrate and enhance Riesling’s bouquet, and Michael put his nose inside. He became a fan of the grape right then and there. Technically, good glassware always matters, but the issue is acute with a varietal that distinguishes itself with a beguiling nose. Riedel glasses are pricey, but if you were to buy just one special type, I’d make it Riesling.
5. Rieslings are the greatest food matching wine ever, whatever glass you drink them from. As great as Cabernet Sauvignon is, it doesn’t match that well with most foods; you’re pretty much talking steak and lamb here. On the other hand, dry Riesling pairs beautifully with almost anything, except the traditional big red wine matches. It’s like having a really fascinating guest at your dinner party.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.