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What's Wrong With Riesling? Nothing That a Little Information Won't Fix

September 15, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

The last time I attended a dinner at which a bottle of Riesling was served with one of the courses was two years ago. I selected the wines for that dinner party.

The time before that, when Riesling was served at a dinner party, was about 1982. On that occasion, I was asked to assist with the selection of wines, and it was I who suggested the wine.

What I'm trying to say here is that in the last six years, no one I know has selected a bottle of Riesling to serve with food. And in the many years I have been a wine lover I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times this grape variety has been served with food other than dessert.

And since I like Riesling with food, I'm surprised more people haven't discovered the match.

The other day, John and Janet Trefethen of the Napa Valley winery that bears their name staged a cook-off to see which foods best went with their dry Riesling, which annually is one of the most attractive in the state. The winner, a Far East-leaning chicken dumpling sort of concoction, won by only a shade over six other excellent matches.

The point was thus made: The classic Johannisberg Riesling grape variety, when made into a relatively or completely dry wine, produces a beverage of incomparable quality that does, surprising as it may seem to some people, go with food.

German Wine Sales in U.S.

That prompted me to call Rudi Wiest, an importer of fine German Rieslings (Cellars International of Carlsbad, Calif.), to find out what's happening with German wine sales. Since almost all German wines sold in the United States are Rieslings, and since Wiest handles one of the top lines, I figured he would be a good barometer of Americans' interest in Riesling.

"Oh," he said with a moan, "they are so hard to sell." Well, tell me something I don't already know, Rudi.

Not that there's anything wrong with these wines. Quite the contrary, so many of them are exceptional it's amazing they sell slowly here. But there is a reason they haven't done well in the market, and Wiest has seen this problem, too, and he is addressing it.

In the past, German wines were labeled with ornate labels containing multisyllabic words in German that were not only long but supposedly helped you understand the wine better. But what good is it to you if you see the phrase Weingut Okonomeirat August E. Anheuser Niederhauser Hermannshohle Trockenbeerenauslese Eiswein Qualitatswein mit Pradikat Erzeugerabfullung on a label? Will that help you decide if the wine will go with your sole Mornay?

More importantly, will that obfuscating phrase even tell you if the wine is sweet or dry? It will if you know a bit of German or if you know wine, but the average person is going to have a devil of a time with that tongue-tripper.

Wine labeling laws in Germany require such information be on these bottles, so the sweeter German wines will continue to have these complex terms. But Wiest has found that he can demystify one level of German wine, that of the QbA --wines that are not as sweet as dessert wines, and also cheaper.

Labels for Dry Wine

QbA is an acronym for a lengthy German term that means "quality wine from specific areas"--but it has been the use of specific area names on labels that caused part of the confusion. To make them simpler, easier to read and less threatening, Wiest has obtained approval from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to use labels that say, merely, the name of the producer, and the word dry when the wine is literally or nearly bone dry.

Wiest calls this new approach to German wine labeling the Estate Riesling program, and it is a major step forward for simplifying the complex and clumsy-appearing rat's nest of words strewn hither and thither on the labels of German wines. And after all, if you're buying a $6 bottle of wine, you don't want to have to take a Berlitz course to figure out what the label says.

I have tasted a range of Wiest's Estate Rieslings and have found most of them excellent value and, most importantly, most of them work very well with food. And best of all, the most expensive of them has a suggested retail price of $9.25, meaning restaurants can offer such wines between $13 and $15, make a full markup, and provide a unique experience.

The average price of the dozen Estate Riesling wines being imported is $6.50.

What the Estate Riesling concept offers, Wiest says, is wine from grapes grown on the producer's estate and made in a drier style, intended to be served with food. And since the name of the producer is what counts, the consumer should have more confidence in them since Wiest brings in only top-quality producers' wines.

"A hundred years ago, the most expensive wines in the world were dry German Rieslings," said Stuart Piggott the other day at lunch.

Piggott is an Englishman who is in the process of moving to Germany. His soon-to-be-published book, "Life After Liebfraumilch," is about the complex question of making and marketing German wines.

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