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Riesling for Your Dinner


Some adages are wrong.

Take, for instance, the one that says Riesling is a great aperitif wine and Chardonnay is great with food. Perhaps that was true once, but things have changed in the last decade. Much of California's Chardonnay is now made in an aperitif style--with some sweetness and a load of oak flavor. During that time, German producers have mastered the art of making dry Riesling that pairs with food.

Still, many Americans think of German Riesling as something for before dinner or to drink with dessert, and they miss the great pleasures of a Riesling with food. Moreover, millions are convinced that if the wine says "Chardonnay," it must be great with food.

A few weeks ago I tasted 181 German wines from the 1991 vintage. The tasting convinced me once again that good German wines, with their lower alcohol levels and higher acidity, pair with a wider range of foods than does Chardonnay. This is due to the strong underlying acidity that helps bring out flavors in delicate food in much the way lemon juice enhances sole.

Because 1991 was a year in which a higher percentage of dry wines than usual was made in Germany, many wines match well with seafood. In fact, 1991 is proving to be a good vintage for people who like to match white wines of good acidity with lighter dishes.

A Gewurztraminer I tasted was a great example of this; Durkheimer Abtsfronhof Gewurztraminer Spatlese Trocken from Weingut K. Fitz-Ritter was stunningly spicy and floral with a most intense aroma of lychee nuts and a totally dry taste. It is a dramatic example of how Gewurztraminer, when made totally dry, can outperform a buttery, oaky Chardonnay. Although the word " Spatlese " on the label indicates that it is a slightly sweet wine, the wine is actually bone-dry. It costs $15. (A 1990 Durkheimer Feuerberg from Fitz-Ritter, tasted a week later, was equally delightful.)

Another wine that proved the point was Durkheimer Spielberg Scheurebe Spatlese Trocken from Weingut Walter Hensel ($7.50). Made from the rare Scheurebe grape, it is totally dry in the finish. It has an aroma of peach and pear with a trace of pine.

In the Riesling class, I loved the 1991 Bopparder Hamm Ohlenberg Hochgewachs Halbtrocken (half dry) from Weingut Hermann Volk ($12). This wine had a classic aroma of white peaches, a soft, appealing entry with just the barest trace of sugar and a faint peach pit bitterness in the finish that evaporates with any food.

Here are just a few more of the best 1991 Rieslings I have tasted recently. The wines below are listed from the drier to sweeter versions.

Diensheimer Paterhof Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken, Weingut Bruder Dr. Becker ($13): Sensational fruit in an off-dry wine that still carries a fine, tart finish. Lovely aperitif for those who like tart wine, but should be great with Chinese and Thai food.

Frei-Laubersheimer Fels Auxerrois Spatlese Halbtrocken, Weingut Bernhard ($12): A very spicy wine from the quite rare Auxerrois grape. A lean entry but with generous fruit.

Bopparder Hamm Feuerlay Riesling Auslese Halbtrocken, Weingut Adolf Weingart ($16): A wine with higher alcohol and a trace of sweetness, but with very big flavor and complexity. Should be great with rabbit or duck.

Balduin von Hovel Riesling, QbA, Weingut von Hovel ($8.75): Apples and spice, some bubbles on the tongue (pleasing spritz) with stylish fruit in a simple, easy-to-like wine.

Sichel Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling, QbA, H. Sichel Sohne ($9): Delicious green apple and sweet/sour complexity. A fine example of approachable Riesling.

Niederhauser Klamm Riesling QbA, Weingut Jakob Schneider ($11): Superb wine with fresh apples and pears accented by a note of herbal complexity.

Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Kabinett, Weingut J.H.A. Strub ($10): A bargain considering the huge flavors and complex sweet/tart notes in the finish.

Saarburger Rausch Riesling Spatlese, Weingut Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken ($23): Truly sublime wine with classic Riesling notes and a luscious finish.

Serrig Wurtzburg Riesling Spatlese, Weingut Bert Simon ($12.50): Classy wine with fine fruit and a generous, slightly sweet finish. Flowery and complex.

California Rieslings are not made with the same complexity as the German versions, but they can offer interesting tastes.

One of the driest I have tasted is the 1991 Gainey Vineyard Dry Riesling from Santa Barbara County, with higher alcohol (13.3%), but good floral notes and a totally dry finish.

More minty and slightly sweet is 1991 Callaway; sweeter still with a honeysuckle aroma is 1991 Madrona Vineyard. A Riesling with apple juice notes in the aroma, also slightly sweet, is 1992 Stony Ridge. Also very attractive is the 1992 Dresel's Riesling of Gundlach-Bundschu, with pear notes and an off-dry taste.

One of the traditional classics in dry Riesling, a perfect match for lighter food, is from Trefethen; a softer, picnic-oriented wine is the Soft Riesling from Geyser Peak.

Wine of the Week

1990 Carmen Merlot ($6)-- Carmen, the oldest wine brand in Chile, was introduced to the United States a few weeks ago. Owned by the wealthy Claro family, Carmen has been reformulated and all non-reserve wines now sell for $6. The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are clean and well made and good values, but I prefer the red wines. This Merlot has good varietal character. Wines like these are forcing many wineries in California and France to keep prices for their lower-end varietal wines lower than they'd like. That, in turn, is forcing many smaller firms to upgrade the quality of their $6 varietals and charge more for them.

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