October 30, 2008


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Critical darling
Why Riesling is like the Freaks and Geeks of wine

By Tim Protzman food@hippopress.com

You’ve heard this one before. “It’s the best show on TV you’re NOT watching.” Usually it’s in connection with some critically acclaimed series that just hasn’t caught on in the TV hinterland.

And usually it means an Emmy nomination and cancellation. Some of my favorite shows have gone that way. But then, I’m a professional critic. Sometimes I wear all black and go out to see a film, not a movie. So perhaps my taste in television is wrong. And every show I’ve grown attached to in the last 10 years has been cancelled. I’m sweeps week poison.

Last night there was a package waiting when I got home. We get a lot of packages. Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s mine or my neighbor’s. My middle neighbor gets tons of stuff from Macy’s Shop at Home. My lower neighbor gets CDs, musical instruments and prescriptions. Once I brought his package in and thought it was a set of maracas. It turned out to be Lipitor, but it had a groovy beat. My package was wine. Sent by the vineyard for sampling. It wasn’t expensive, but when I opened it and took the first sip I was pleased.

This is the best wine we’re NOT drinking, I thought in my overclichéd little mind. And it was a white.

This varietal doesn’t even appear on the Top 50 Best Selling Wines on the New Hampshire Liquor Commission Web site. But that’s not surprising. What is surprising is that once they taste it, many old chardonnay hands wholeheartedly embrace it as the new grape messiah.

One reason we aren’t drinking it is that its ancestral home is in Germany, Alsace and Luxembourg. We don’t import a whole lot of wine from there. And the wine we do import is often mass produced and mass marketed. And wines from Germany make up just 4 percent of the total wine imports to the U.S. Chile, Australia, Italy and even New Zealand send us more. But once you taste a crisp Riesling, you’re hooked.

Why Riesling? Crisp acidity. A touch of food-friendly sweetness. Lower alcohol content. Juicy ripe pear and apple fruit. Butterscotch, melon and Juicy Fruit gum flavors. These draw us to it. Even at its worst — no crisp flavors, sickly sweet sugar and stale beer texture — Riesling holds up better than a rowdy cheap chardonnay or a flabby, sloppy pinot grigio. It’s hard to make a bad Riesling — although I have seen and tasted it happen. Usually bad Rieslings have an artificial quality like those Imitation Sour Apple Lollipops your bank gives you when you’re a good boy in line. They’re sickly sweet and have a musty aftertaste.

The nice thing about Riesling is that a $10.99 bottle is pretty much top of the line for everyday drinking. There are expensive German imports that can run you $40 a bottle. I’d prefer to try a $15 Australian Riesling. They’re a touch less sweet and present a bit more alcohol, but the beauty of the grape shines through. Rosemount Estate is a safe bet.

The Riesling that kicked my urge back in was a humble Woodbridge, the second label of Robert Mondavi. The AVA on the bottle was California. The fact sheet told me the wine was a 77 percent Riesling, 23 percent Muscat blend from Monterey, Lodi and North Coast grapes. It went well with salad and with leftover manicotti. I liked the finish, even though it was sweeter than I’m used to because it had no tannins and no alcoholic after burn.  Riesling pretty much put Champagne out of my mind and launched me on a run of white wine, which I drink far less than red. I’ll be tasting Riesling and Semillon, chenin blanc, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc more frequently in the next few weeks because they’re different, affordable and often delicious, which is a word I don’t use very often in context with wine.

Here’s the list:

• 2007 Woodbridge Riesling ($6.99) A bargain! Yummy! (See above.) This is my new house wine, it’s that good! 

• 2005 Duckhorn Paraduxx Red Wine ($44.99) A 64% Zinfandel, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc blend from the Duckhorn Winery. I bought this because the clerk said it was “highly allocated” and it was hard to obtain. Wished it were a tad harder. Big tannins, no structure and a bit of boozy after burn. Perhaps in a few years it will settle down.

• 2005 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre ($23.49) Pascal Jolivet is one of the newer producers who are shaking up the Loire Valley. The region used to be big on tourism and mediocre on wine. Now the opposite is true. You can only visit so many Chateaus. This wine had a finish for miles. Crisp and dry with well-balanced acids that finish in lemon grass and willow flavors. Delicate bouquet with melon, apple and mushroom scents. Definitely a Buy More rating.

• 2005 Agua de Piedra Malbec ($9.99) From Mendoza, Argentina. It came in a giant oversized bottle that fooled me into thinking maybe I was getting 1,000 milliliters instead of 750. The wine was decent for the price, but not worth going out of your way for. I liked the nascent structure and the spicy richness of the Malbec. A refreshing change, but not something I’d run out and buy a case of.

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