On Germany’s western border, where the Moselle River meanders past the ruddy sandstone cliffs of Trier toward its confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz, rise the steep shale-and-slate-covered slopes of the Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz wine-growing regions. Here, on horizontally terraced vineyards staked to the ground, thrive the light-skinned, aromatic Riesling grapes that produce some of the world’s most unappreciated and underrated wines.
Unfortunately, Riesling suffers from an image problem. In the 1970s, the proliferation of sugary, unsophisticated Liebfraumilchs like Blue Nun branded all German wines with the stigma of cloying sweetness, helping drive public taste toward drier whites like Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc. The damage was done.
But the truth is that Germans and Austrians prefer their Rieslings dry — and bone-dry, at that. Rieslings are lusciously versatile, spanning the gamut from dry to sweet, and light to full-bodied. Their low alcohol levels make them remarkably food-friendly, as does their stunning balance of steely acidity and residual sugar. In the glass, intensely aromatic bouquets of apple, peach, and pear harmonize with nuances of flowers, citrus and tropical fruit, and the palate showcases the minerality of the grapes’ native soils.
To be sure, deciphering the Riesling classification system does require a bit of an education. German wine is broadly assigned one of two major classifications: "table" wine or "quality" wine. Table wines (Tafelwein and Landwein) are light-styled, inexpensive, and almost never exported. Quality wines likewise have two broad categories: Qualitätswein bestimmer Anbaugebiete (less expensive wines ranging from dry to semi-sweet); and Prädikatswein (top-tier wines rated according to grape ripeness and sweetness level).
Riesling pairs well with many foods from hearty meats and sauces, to lighter appetizers, to spicy Asian or Mexican dishes (and, with an eye on the approaching holidays, Riesling shines with turkey, mashed potatoes, and dressing!)