Issue 30

Rieslings Shine in Wine-Food Parings

Rieslings Shine in Wine-Food Parings

Summer is over, but light, tart, refreshing wines are just as enjoyable on a crisp, cool fall evening. I can think of no better wine to enjoy on a sunny fall afternoon than a clean, fresh and complexly flavorful German Riesling.

Riesling is one of the aristocrats of wine grapes and competes with Chardonnay for the reign as the greatest white wine grape in the world. It consistently produces quality wines in vineyards worldwide. This rugged vine is disease resistant and is able to tolerate a variety of adverse weather conditions.

Although the grape is grown worldwide, Germany and Alsace produce the finest expressions of the varietal. The character of the wine differs greatly in these two countries. Germany produces light, fruity, sweet wines, whereas Alsatian Rieslings are considerably heavier and bone dry. In this discussion, we will limit ourselves to the sweet German style.

The sweetness and quality of the German wine style hinges on the ripeness of the grape. Typical of the punctilious Prussian mentality, the German wine industry breaks wine down into a variety of categories, which makes for a great deal of confusion to the general public. Many people are intimidated by the foreign words printed on the label and resort to purchasing a lower quality California Riesling at a higher price. German wineries have yet to overcome this frustrating marketing problem.

However if you look for only a few key words on the label, you can master the task in selecting a good quality German wine. The first word to look for is Riesling; if this word is not on the label, the wine is more likely made from lesser grape varietals such as Müller-Thurgau or Sylvaner. Next, look for words that represent the three most common subdivisions: Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese. These words can only be used to describe wines made from ripe grapes that have attained a certain minimum sugar level and represent the highest levels of quality of the varietal.

Kabinett wines are made from grapes that are less ripe than the other two designations and consequently are less sweet and of lower quality, Nevertheless, the better wines can be very enjoyable and often times represent very good values.

Wines designated as Spätlese are picked a week or more after the start of the harvest and consequently are at a greater degree of ripeness. The resultant wines are sweeter, more flavorful, and of higher quality than Kabinett wines.

Auslese wines are made from carefully selected bunches of perfectly ripe grapes and accordingly are the sweetest and of the highest quality of the three categories. In most instances, they are also the most expensive of the three.

There are also three outstanding dessert wine categories: Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein. In addition there are two rather dry versions, trocken and halbtrocken. With scary words like these, no wonder there is trepidation in trying to read a German wine label. The dessert wines are very expensive, and the dry wines are uncommonly seen.

German Riesling is structured on a framework of sweetness contrasted with refreshing tartness. In a well-made wine, fruity and floral scents and flavors explode from the glass and linger in the mouth long after the wine has been swallowed.

The wine has a generous profile of exotic scents and flavors. Look for apples, flowers, honey, peaches, quince, orange, passion fruit, citrus, apricots, mango, pineapple, minerals, and spice. Sweetness is precisely balanced by crisp refreshing acidity, so that the wine is never cloyingly sweet or excessively tart.

Alcohol content is surprisingly low and can range from a low of about 7% to a high of about 10%. Alcohol is the major ingredient in a wine that gives it body or weight. Consequently, these wines are refreshingly light in body and very easy to drink.

Although this wine has a penchant for specific styles of food, it can be matched to a wide variety of dishes. Rieslings pair best with sweet and sour foods, sweet foods, and hot spicy dishes. Probably its finest match is to sweet and sour foods. This should not be surprising as the wine itself is sweet and tart.

One of the most important guiding principles in paring wine with food is to match the character of the wine to that of the food. If the food is sweet, the wine should be sweet; if it is tart, the wine should also be tart; if the food is light and delicate, so should the wine be structured; if the food is sophisticated, the wine should be as well, etc.

Sweet is a very powerful taste sensation; it has a tendency to linger on the palate and dominate the other elements of taste. This is the reason that sweet courses are best held to the end of the meal. A sweet dish begs to find some sweetness in the accompanying wine. This creates a bond that ties the wine to the food.

There is, however, one caveat – always keep the sweetness or tartness of the wine greater or equal to that of the dish. The reason for this is that the mind subconsciously compares the sweetness or tartness of the wine against that of the food.

If the dish is sweeter than the wine, tartness in the wine will be accentuated making the wine appear sour and out of balance: the wine will appear lighter and tarter than it actually is. If the dish is has more tartness than the wine, the wine will appear less tart than it actually is and will seem somewhat flat and insipid.

Most German wines will have plenty of tartness. In dishes with minimal sweetness go with a Kabinett; sweeter dishes will call for a Spätlese or Auslese. Asia has traditionally favored the notion of 6 basic taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami (lusciousness), and hot, as in Tabasco. However, the sensation of heat has not been accepted as a “taste” sensation by the culinary establishment in this country.

Excessive spicy heat found in many ethnic dishes is a somewhat difficult element to deal with in matching wine with food. If it is too prominent, you might be better to skip wine and go with another beverage such as beer. However, mild or moderate spicy-hot dishes are a natural match for sweet wines such as German styled Rieslings.

The sweetness in the wine assuages the aggressiveness of spicy heat yet you are still able to enjoy the spicy-hot kick from the food. A word of caution: when you select a sweet wine to match with spicy hot dishes, pick one with relatively low alcohol, because the spicy heat from the dish will add to the alcoholic heat from the wine. Riesling has the advantage of being both sweet and low in alcohol.

As the cuisine of a country evolves around its wines, it should be no surprise that Riesling is a natural match for such German dishes as Sauerbraten, sweet and sour cabbage, and fruit glazed ham. However, this wine is much more versatile, and limiting it to traditional German cuisine would be a mistake.

It is a wonderful match with sweet and sour Chinese dishes and spicy hot Oriental cuisine. Even dishes with very mild sweetness that is intrinsic to the food itself, without the addition of sugar, such as corn, sweet peas, sweet onion, and lobster will find a perfect match with a mildly sweet wine such as a Riesling Kabinett.

Consider the Chinese dish Sweet and Sour Pork. This dish has both sweetness and tartness, which make it a great match for a German Spätlese. In addition to the sweet and sour component of the dish, it is light in body, as is the wine, and it incorporates fruit, such as pineapple, which reflects back to similar fruit flavors in the wine. You couldn’t ask for a better wine food match-up.

The dish Duck a L’Orange, a roast of duck embellished by a sweet orange glaze, will pair wonderfully with a Riesling Spätlese or Auslese. The sweetness in the wine ties to that of the dish, and the fruity flavor of the sauce reflect back to the fruity flavors in the wine. Although the dish is full-bodied, light-bodied Riesling will nevertheless lend itself beautifully to the dish. Light bodied wines can be matched to all weights of foods, whereas heavy wines (such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) can only be matched to full-bodied foods.

Chicken Curry, a mild to moderate spicy hot food will find a German Kabinett or Spätlese to be a perfect match. The spicy heat from the dish is assuaged by the sweetness in the wine, but you can still enjoy the mild pugnacious bite of heat.

The best Rieslings to match with food come from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer district and are usually shipped in green bottles. These are lighter, fresher, and crisper than Rhine wines that are usually shipped in brown bottles.

John Fischer

John Fischer

Dr. John Fischer is a member and two-time president of the Omaha Branch of the International Wine & Food Society, past director of the Nebraska chapter of LADV, and the founding member of the Council Bluffs Branch of the International Wine & Food Society. He teaches a course on matching wine with food at the Institute for the Culinary Arts in Omaha and is the author of the books, “The Evaluation of Wine – A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Wine Tasting” and “Wine and Food – 101.”


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