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Summer is made for Riesling

By Dave Buchanan

It's been another great summer for Riesling.

I’ve been exploring Rieslings since enjoying Paul Grieco's seminar “A Celebration of Riesling” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen a few weeks ago.

Although the seminar was only 45 minutes long, Grieco, a co-owner and wine director of the Hearth Restaurant in New York City, offered quite an education and insights into what many people consider the greatest of white wines.

Apparently many people feel this way. According the Nielsen Company, Riesling had the strongest growth rates for all white wines in the last year.

Rieslings are prized for sipping and their versatility with food, a trait that relies on the wine’s acidity, a key component in a sweet wine.

German Rieslings, especially those from the Mosel-Saar region, are considered among the best in the world, but excellent Rieslings also come from the Alsace region of France, the U.S., Australia, Tasmania and elsewhere.

Hot spots in the U.S. include Washington, Oregon, New York and, of course, Colorado.

That point again was made this spring when Carlson Vineyards’ 2009 Riesling won double gold at the prestigious Eastern International Wine Competition in Watkins Glen, N.Y.

 His Laughing Cat 2009 Gewurztraminer won a silver medal, also, and that's a future Wine of the Week.

The Eastern is the same competition where Carlson’s 2004 Riesling won the World Riesling Cup, besting Rieslings from around the world for the title.

Although German Rieslings often are considered the benchmark for the wine, most Americans struggle with German labels, which are difficult to interpret because German Rieslings are categorized based on their style (levels of dryness) and the grape's ripeness level at harvest, e.g., going from just-ripe Kabinett to Spatlese to Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.

Looking for a dry German Riesling? Look for the words Trocken (dry) or Halbtrocken (half dry, what we'd call semi-sweet or off-dry).

Once you master the German system, it's quite easy to comprehend.

What makes a great Riesling? Or what makes Reisling great, we might put it that way.

According to Grieco, the key attributes are finesse, harmony, complexity, longevity and terroir.

Finesse in part comes from it's relatively low alcohol content, rarely above 13 percent while harmony is the balance between sweetness and acidity, the latter saving a sweet wine from being flabby and also adding longevity to the wine.

Complexity is the multiple layers of flavors in different Rieslings, ranging from white peaches, apricots and pears to Granny Smith apples underlined with hints of floral and minerality.

The latter also is a reflection of the wine’s terroir, and Grieco said Rieslings are like chameleons, "absolutely transparent" when reflecting the terroir.

Which is why rieslings are so wonderful in expressing their region of origin.

"It gives absolute voice to the vineyards it's grown in," Grieco said.

Wine writer Dan Berger, in an article on the Web site for the International Riesling Foundation, said Riesling's versatilty and range of styles from bone dry to sweet may be "both a strength and weakness."

Berger was instrumental in helping the IRF create the Riesling Taste Profile. The profile, which the IRF suggest Riesling makers put on their labels to help consumers know what they are buying, has four categories: Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet.

The profile is a sliding scale, allowing producers to pinpoint the sweetness level of the wines.

“Riesling’s many styles can fit almost any taste preference, but consumers may be put off if they are expecting one taste and get another," Berger said in the article. "The taste profile will enhance Riesling’s strength by letting consumers know the basic taste before they open or even buy the bottle.”

Carlson’s 2009 Riesling also won a silver medal earlier this year in the semi-sweet Riesling division at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

In a recent glass-to-glass tasting against other Rieslings, Carlson’s 2009 Riesling ($12.45 at the vineyard sales room) came out best in terms of harmony and complexity, with enough acidity to balance the sweetness and several different layers of flavors.

He made this wine from all Mesa County grapes, most of which he grows on a couple of acres of almost-30 year old vines near his winery on 35 Road.

“I enjoy the competition,” said Carlson, who a few years ago was entertaining ideas of retiring. “This lets me know where I am, whether I’m still in the game.”

If the popular 2004 vintage was any example, this vintage should sell out soon.


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