Liquids: Riesling

It started out as a relaxed, civilized meal with five friends in the Soirée Room at UpStairs on the Square. Then the waiter gave us the wine list and all hell broke loose. I innocently suggested we whet our palates with a bottle of one of my favorite rieslings, Egon Muller’s plum-and-apple-scented Scharzhofberger Spätlese.

“No—too fruity for the starter,” protested one friend. “Wouldn’t that be better with something spicy?” asked another. “Let’s pair it with some cheese after dinner,” somebody else suggested. Barked another: “No, save the riesling for dessert.” “Riesling is dessert,” quipped the Last of the Mohicans.

Sound confusing? It was, and that’s because riesling is a wine so versatile and produced in so many styles that it could be paired with practically any—and every—course of a meal. Sound ideal? Then why aren’t you drinking it?

Probably because you think that rieslings are usually sweet. Well, you’re right, but only half right because they’re dry, too. I’m going to up the ante here and guess that the last time you tasted riesling the label featured either an electrified cat or a benevolent nun. Remember? Sure you do. But those sweet, insipid cheapos are the equivalent of German wine coolers. Germany also makes many styles of top-notch wine from this grape. In fact, riesling is considered perhaps Germany’s greatest contribution to the wine world and today is grown not only in Germany’s Mosel and Rhine regions, but also with great success in France’s Alsace region, Austria, and northern Italy. It’s also grown throughout the New World, but few regions can match the overall quality of Germany and Alsace when it comes to riesling.

Back to the sweetness issue that is at the heart of most riesling discussions (if not well-intentioned dinners with friends): The notion of sweetness is born in Germany, where wines are not rated by where they’re grown but—because of the cold northern climate—by the ripeness of the grapes at the time they’re picked, which determines their natural sugar content. The more sugar, the higher the quality of the wine. This sweetness, however, is balanced by high acidity, making the wines eminently food-friendly—especially German rieslings. Wines labeled “Kabinett” and “Spätlese” represent the driest categories of German wine.

Generally speaking, rieslings range from the fruity, delicate, and aromatic to the more structured, austere, and full-bodied to the sweet and viscous dessert nectars. Yes, they’re that versatile. Riesling offers unmatched elegance and depth. Unlike any other white wine, it grows more subtle and complex as it ages. The best rieslings have a certain minerality that comes from where they’re grown. This makes for interesting comparisons when tasting rieslings from all over the world—especially with food. Speaking of which, the old adage “red with meat” is nonsense when it comes to riesling. It may be a white wine, but a fine Alsatian riesling has the power and the complexity to match almost any red.

Which is why, back at UpStairs on the Square, I asked wine director Lorenzo Savona to referee our riesling ruckus. Savona told us to keep in mind that riesling’s sweetness plays off savory flavors, and its acidity piques the appetite. “That balance makes it one of the best food wines,” he says.

Which wines would he pair with which dish? “Our Monday Club menu features a chicken fricassee that’s perfect with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Eroica [$40 for a bottle],” Savona says. “It has a rich, creamy velouté, and the acidity of Eroica lifts the dish, while the sweetness of the dish balances the savory nature.” On the Soirée Room menu, Savona likes to pair chef Amanda Lydon’s squab with chestnut-orange stuffing with the aforementioned Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Spätlese ($60 for a bottle), saying the dish “demands” riesling, which matches the gaminess with the pear and other fruit qualities of the wine. “And it’s not going to fight with the stuffing,” Savona adds. “It’s a dance of styles, and you can appreciate their not overwhelming each other.” With—or for—dessert, Savona suggests a sweet, peach-nectary Dr. Loosen Erdener Pralat Auslese ($79 for a half bottle). Yum.

At Turner Fisheries, Alsace is suddenly big, general manager Paul Segesdi says. Especially with oysters. “We do an oyster flight of six, from lightest to fullest—Kumamoto, Willapa Bay, Chatham, Belon, Blue Point, and Wellfleet—and the Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling [$28 for a half bottle] goes perfectly with all of them.” Really? “Really. It handles the brininess well. Wellfleet is actually the briniest of the six, and the acidity of the riesling and the salt of the Wellfleet balance each other. Together, they equal crispness.”

Blue Ginger general manager Ben Hiza pairs riesling with chef Ming Tsai’s spicy but complex Asian creations. “I appreciate riesling tremendously—it goes well with our food,” says Hiza. “We have an Indonesian curry pasta that’s heavy on coconut and spicy, and that goes well with a riesling like Gunderloch Riesling Kabinett [$7.50 per glass, $30 for a bottle].”

How does it handle heat? “The acidic composition of riesling works as a palate cleanser and calms the chilies in our dishes,” says Hiza. Well, not entirely. More riesling, please. Hurry!