As soon as you mention that the wine is a Riesling, you usually get one of two reactions: “I don’
t really care for sweet wines” or “I love sweet wines”. What most of your fellow diners are
remembering are the simple wines like Liebfraumilch Blue Nun, Havemeyer Piesporter
Goldtröpfchen or Zeller Schwarz Katz. The initial wave of German wines into the United States
weren’t very complex and because America’s wine palate wasn’t established, most imports were
on the sweeter side (remember Riunite… on ice, that’s nice). At the time, these imports were
simply trying to wean the American palate off of beer. Along with the wines of that noted
Frenchman, Paul Masson I too, had my initial wine encounter with Blue Nun. I’m not ashamed
to admit that my hors doeuvres of choice with Blue Nun was Hickory Farms Summer Sausage
(along with Heidi Chang spinning those jazz LPs).
It’s all German to Me
Here’s a crash course in basic German wine labels 101. Why am I concentrating on German
wines? Well, Riesling thrives in cold weather like that found in Germany though certain Central
Coast regions in the Golden State gets near-German growing conditions as well as parts of
Oregon and Washington. As domestic wines all have English labels, you need no translation for
domestic varieties and though German imports are also printed in Roman characters, you might
as well be reading Arabic.
The first thing to look for is Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete or QbA. This basically is
like an “Estate” bottled wine from a defined region. The next thing to look for is grape ripeness
or Qualitätswein mit Pradikät also known as QmP. These are labeled as Kabinett, Spatlese,
Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein. To ensure that you’ve purchased a wine
of high quality, you can also look for VDP with an eagle logo on the wine cap.
Kabinett is the basic quality designation that only one of 13 specified wine growing regions were
used and that minimum sugar and alcohol levels were attained. Kabinett wines are usually less
than $30 those most are less than $20. They should be your introduction to the “real” wines of
Next up is the Spatlese or late picked grapes. These wines are usually a little more complex than
Kabinett wines since they’ve been given additional time to develop more sugar and more
importantly, more physiological aging in the grape. This produces more complex flavor
sensations in the finished wine. Spatleses usually cost from $25 to $50 though most are in the
$25 to $35 range.
Ausleses are selected bunches of late harvested grapes which means that the finished wine would
be like a concentrated Spatlese, if you will. Only the best bunches of late harvest grapes are used.
Due to the complexity and concentration of Ausleses, these wines can even pair with rich
poultry liver dishes. They usually will cost from $30 to $60 per bottle.
One step up from Auslese is the venerated Beerenauslese or BA. These are late harvest grapes (like
Spatlese) but instead of selecting only the ripest bunches (like Auslese); these are only produced
from individually selected grapes! Therefore, if an Auslese is like a concentrated Spatlese, then a
Beerenauslese is like a concentrated Auslese. And correspondingly, these jewels usually set you
back at least $100 – and that’s only for a half bottle.
Finally, the Trockenbeerenauslese or TBAs are late harvest grapes that have been attacked by the
mold Bortrytis cinerea or edelfaule in German. This mold makes grapes look disgustingly inedible
and most people would leave the grapes with the compost pile. What the mold does is remove
water from each grape so that the sugars, acids and flavors are concentrated! It’s the same mold
that produces the dessert wines of Sauternes and in California, Far Niente’s Dolce. What would
possess someone to make wine from a grape that you wouldn’t want to throw down your
garbage disposal much less drink? Well, someone also had to be brave enough to eat natto that
very first time. Don’t ask how much these gems cost, upwards of $400 for a half bottle though
a winery’s annual production could easily fit in your car trunk.
There is also Eiswein but its production is a little different. Eisweins are produced from at least
Kabinett quality grapes though in certain years, they naturally freeze on the vine. These grapes
are harvested and crushed while still frozen. Because water freezes before sugar and acids,
Eisweins are very concentrated in their sugar and acid components though they may not be as
complex as BAs and TBAs.
By tradition, Rieslings from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer are bottled in elongated green bottles
whereas Rieslings from the Rhine are bottled in elongated brown bottles.
A Mini Alsatian Primer
Right between the Rhine river and Germany to the east and the Vosges mountains to the west
lies the French wine appellation of Alsace. Since geographically, this region resembles Germany
more than France, it’s not surprising that the same grape varietals also are propagated in this
extreme French region, including Riesling. The biggest difference lies in the vinification of the
grape after harvesting. Whereas German Rieslings tend be sweeter and lower in alcohol, Alsatian
Rieslings are usually dry wines – though with the same fruit qualities – and they usually contain
more alcohol. They are also described as being heartier and mouth filling versus their German
What about Domestic Riesling?
Since California doesn’t usually attain the same climatic conditions as Germany or Alsace, most
of the better renditions are specifically late harvested bottlings that are marketed as dessert
wines. The simple Rieslings in California do make great syrups for poaching pears.
Chateau Ste Michelle in Washington has partnered with Dr Loosen of Germany to produce their
Eroica label of Riesling for roughly $20 which is very good. Their single berry (equivalent to the
Beerenauslese of Germany) bottles fetch at least $200 for a half bottle on the open market… if
you can find any. I have never tasted one much less seen a bottle so I can’t vouch for their
What to eat with Riesling?
The first cuisine that comes to mind is Asian, Southeast-Asian and Pacific Rim cooking. When
enjoying a cuisine that carries a healthy dose of chili heat, what you look for in a wine is
something with a touch of sweetness and a low dose of alcohol since alcohol intensifies that
chili burn. Riesling. With the tropical fruit flavors found in Pacific Rim cuisine, you look for
complementary flavors of mango, litchi, lime, pineapple along with fragrant flower aromas in
the wine. Again Riesling. Or a rich wok fried pork with sweet peppers or sweet prawns in sweet
and sour. Pair that with a mouth filling wine with fragrant fruit and balancing acidity. Ergo
The key to pairing Riesling is matching the sweetness, acidity and richness of the wine to your
specific dish. Say you want a rich, mouth filling wine with a touch of sweetness. Try an aged
Spatlese or Auslese where time has tempered some of the residual sugars to a mouth filling rich
baked fruit, caramel sweetness. If you want those fragrant tropical fruits, choose a young
Kabinett or Spatlese that still is retains its Carmen Miranda fruit basket of lively flavors. If you’re
looking for a touch of sweetness and fruit, look for either German Halb-Trocken or Trocken
which means off-dry and dry. The Halb-Trocken wines ferment more of the sugar to alcohol but
also retain enough perceptible sweetness in the finished wine – perfect wines for Asian cuisine.
When purchasing domestic Riesling, look for “off-dry” of “half-dry” which means the same
thing as Halb-Trocken. And if you want all of those great fruity, fragrant aromas but none of
the sugar purchase either Alsatian Riesling for richer, full body versions or “Dry” domestic
The Gochiso’s Short List of Riesling
Less than $20 Less than $40 Sky’s the Limit
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim J.J. Prum Auslese Gunderloch BA or TBA
V. Sattui Off Dry Fritz Haag Spatlese Fritz Haag BA or TBA
Chateau Ste Michelle Eroica Bert Simon Gold Cap Robert Weil BA or TBA
Not Just for Dessert