If you ask a sommelier to name her favorite grape, there's a good chance she'll say Riesling.
If you're surprised, then it's probably because you associate Riesling with the sweet, simple German wines of yesteryear, like Blue Nun, Liebfraumilch, and Piesporter. These wines were -- and still are -- affordable and approachable. And they'll always have fans. But they do a disservice to true Riesling.
Fortunately, that could soon change. New York City sommelier and restaurateur Paul Grieco is on a mission to make sure that Americans give Riesling the respect it deserves.
Grieco's crusade began in 2008, when he announced a plan to focus on Riesling all summer long at Terroir Wine Bar in New York City's East Village.
In a "single-minded attempt to get guests to at least try this noble grape," Grieco offered only Riesling as his by-the-glass white wine offering. As he tells it, "the staff was incredulous and the guests suspect, but with 30 different glass pours... we set upon a massive inspirational and educational scheme that was challenging and fun."
His campaign quickly took off.
In 2010, 14 wine bars in New York joined together to create a Riesling Pub Crawl; several well-known Riesling producers visited the city; and Grieco organized a concert where only Riesling was served. Last year, about 200 bars and restaurants across the country took part by hosting events, offering specials, and agreeing to spread the gospel of Riesling.
This summer, the "Summer of Riesling" attracted nearly 500 participants. (To see if anyone is participating in your community, head to www.SummerOfRiesling.com.)
Misconceptions still abound, but consumers are starting to recognize that Riesling is a serious grape. Over the past several years, Riesling sales have steadily risen. And sommeliers are finding that consumers are extremely receptive to the grape.
Riesling's greatest strength is its versatility.
First, there's its geographical diversity.
While its ancestral home is Germany, where Riesling has been grown in the Rhine and Mosel Valleys since the 14th century, it's also the most planted grape in the Alsace region of France. The grape is also experiencing a resurgence in the United States, especially in New York's Finger Lakes. And there are sizeable plantings of Riesling in Austria, New Zealand, and Australia.
There's also its sweetness.
Some Rieslings are syrupy and lusciously sweet -- and work as dessert. Others are bone dry, pairing best with raw fish, subtle cheeses, and other light dishes. Most fall somewhere in between, and are the perfect match for spicy Asian cuisine, like Thai and Indian. All are marked by high acidity, which is why it's such an adaptable food wine. And all are extremely fragrant. It's no wonder why so many sommeliers love Riesling.
Don't ever let Riesling's sweetness trick you into thinking it's not a serious wine.
Sommeliers also evangelize about Riesling because it's so good at capturing terroir, or a wine's sense of place. In part, this is because most Riesling is fermented in stainless steel, so it isn't manipulated through oak aging or other winemaking techniques. The grape is remarkably transparent -- German researchers have found a link between soil type and flavor in Riesling. Riesling grapes sourced from slate vineyards tend to produce wines with citrus aromas, while grapes sourced from limestone vineyards typically result in more tropical fruit aromas.
As Robert Parker, the world's most famous wine critic, recently explained, "If you want to talk about terroir, talk about German Rieslings or Alsace Rieslings, where the wines are naked -- there's no makeup."
Even though Riesling sales have been rising, Grieco and other Riesling proselytizers still have their work cut out -- Riesling accounts for just 5 percent U.S. wine sales. But it's not by accident that Riesling has long been known as the "noblest of the noble grapes." So don't be surprised if the next time you dine out, your waiter steers you towards a glass of Riesling.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.