WBW #4: New World Riesling
December 01, 2004

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The Folly Of Youth

I wasn't always bullish on white wines.  A few years ago, I could be downright hostile. Chardonnay and White Burgundy I treated with grudging respect (any white wine that was worth putting a little oak on couldn't be all that bad, I thought), but anything that might remind one of lemons or grapefruit I held in suspicion, and anything off-dry I outright scorned.  Oh, I didn't deny that these styles had their place; something to drink with white fish, for instance (in the case of the former), and perhaps spicy Asian cuisine (in the case of the latter).  So I did what any reasonable wine drinker would do -- I drank beer with my Chinese take-out and avoided eating fish altogether.

Riesling I shunned in particular.  I think it's because the first wine I drank regularly (back in my undergraduate days, so you know I had plenty of it) was a cheap  domestic Riesling.  It was some time before I realized just how bad it was: cloying, flabby, ridiculous...I soon fell in with a pack of Sonoma Cabernets and never looked back.

The Road To Damascus

I used to persecute white wine drinkers with some fervor.  At best, I felt, they -- like the wines they drank -- lacked seriousness.  At worst?  Sallow-tongued Fresca-drinkers.  After one tasting session at which I mentioned to an acquaintance -- let's call him Ananias -- that his German Riesling might be best consumed while wearing a pretty white cotton summer dress but that I wondered what he wore in the winter, he gave me a suggestion.  Well, he made two suggestions, really, but the first one was very unflattering and I ignored it.

The second, however, proved to be very enlightening.  He told me about a wine importer on Pier 19 (in San Francisco) named Dee Vine Wines that specialized in German imports.  Their periodic tastings were, he claimed, can't-miss events, and one was happening the following weekend.  If came away from the tasting without thoroughly enjoying the wines, he said, I could make all the derisive comments I wanted to.

My comrades in arms and I were very confused when we arrived at Pier 19.  Fisherman's Wharf it ain't -- this looks like a working Pier.  It's a giant, dark, dank warehouse.  The security guard at the entrance looked at us with the wary eye of a man who has learned the hard way not to trust anyone who doesn't have three days' beard growth and a tattoo of an anchor.  "You here for the WINE TASTING?" he spat.

We were directed to a section a few hundred feet back that contained -- you guessed it -- a wine store, at the front of which were three tables supporting thirty five buckets of ice between them.  For a mere $15 we tasted everything from Kabinetten to Trockenbeerenauslesen, some of the latter of which were going for well over $100 for a 375 mL bottle.  Those were fantastic, I must admit, but it was the Spatlesen that really grabbed me.  All the richness of a late harvest wine, all of the approachability that a little of sugar can give, perfectly balanced against the steely minerality and citrus of a cold weather white wine.  Then throw in the mix just a hint -- sometimes more -- of some funkiness that Ananias had described as "petrol".  I now understood what he meant.  I was hooked.

My road to Damascus wound up being the Embarcadero.  That visit changed the way I drink wine.   Oh, I still love my reds, don't get me wrong.  But these days I think nothing of cracking open a bottle of white wine instead.  Also I am humbler now.  And I am no longer afraid to eat fish.

And while my tastes have since broadened to include other great wines such as White Burgundy, Gruner Veltliner, and even Albarino, my favorite white wine in the world is still a good Spatlese, and I don't feel as though I must cross-dress to enjoy it.

New World Riesling?

All that having been said, I was pretty skeptical of the whole "New World Riesling" thing.  I guess I still have ancestral memories of that fatty, sweet, cheap California Riesling I drank in college.  But I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to see what the rest of the world is doing with the grape these days.  But I still planned to compare it to my favorite Mosels and Rheingaus, where it would no doubt fail to shine.

I didn't have a chance to make it to the wine store before the weekend, however, but as I was cooking a late Thanksgiving meal for friends, I had one of them pick up something for me.  He doesn't know much about wine, but I had him relay my preferences and circumstances to the wine store staff, and ask them to give me "something interesting".

What I got was indeed unexpected -- an ice wine from Chateau Ste Michelle.  I read the back:  40 brix at harvest, 29% residual sugar.  I thought I was in for a flaccid, insipid, sickly-sweet experience.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

2003 Chateau Ste. Michelle Reserve Columbia Valley White Riesling Ice Wine   ($25, 375 mL)

This clean, sensuous wine is what a grapefruit would be if a grapefruit were erotic.  It is honeyed without cloying, and substantial without feeling heavy.  Its significant sugar levels are wrestled just into balance by its acid content, resulting in a wine that manages to be both sublime and accessible.  Unabashedly New World in style, there is only the merest touch of petrol character to hint at what might have been (or might yet be, with a few years of bottle age).   The tasty finish lasts and lasts.

December 1, 2004 in best, wine | Permalink


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I can certainly relate...I've been a "red only" guy for years...often shunning those who swill white wine like it's coca-cola...

Great post...and thanks for participating.

Maybe I can convince you to host WBW yourself sometime?

Posted by: Lenn at Dec 3, 2004 10:47:05 AM