Guide to Riesling: Sommeliers Share Their Picks

By Linnea Covington  |  November 15, 2013
Credit: Linnea Covington

For a long time Riesling has been waylaid into a zone of misunderstood wines, but as more sommeliers are embracing it on their menus and educating their guests, this refreshing white has started to make waves. “The number one misconception about Riesling is that it’s always sweet,” says Joe Quinn, the wine director at Proof in Washington DC. In fact, he says, the majority of Riesling around the world has no sugar left after fermentation, it’s only a handful that retain a fruity quality that makes them more saccharine on the palate.

The major Riesling growing regions include Germany, Alsace in France, Austria and the New York’s Finger Lakes area. The characteristics of this glorious white grape include green apple, petrol, a rounded sweetness and many maintain a bright acidity, which makes it a perfect companion for pairing with rich and/or spicy foods. However, the most brilliant thing about Riesling, says Quinn, is its ability to showcase the terroir of its origins. “It’s one of the grapes that we refer to as being transparent,” he says. “It reflects, in a vivid way, the place it’s grown.” With that, Quinn, along with two other sommeliers, shares his favorite Rieslings and how they pair with their restaurant’s menu.

  • “The flavor profile depends on where the wine is from,” says Quinn over the phone. To pick the Rieslings on the wine list at Proof, he makes sure that they are best examples of terroir he can find. “If it’s from the Finger Lakes, we want it to be distinctive so you know it can’t be from anywhere else in New York, and ditto that with the German regions, and ditto with the great regions in Austria.”

    While these three Riesling regions are some of the most prevalent, one of Quinn’s favorite wines comes from Piedmont in Italy, and is made by Vajra. “This is not the first place one thinks of for a great Riesling, but this family decided to plant the grape in this hallowed Nebbiolo territory,” says Quinn. “They were kind of searching for a really special white wine and they planted Riesling.” The result is a dry, lean, white peach wine with floral hints that, in Quinn’s words, prove, “totally stunning and unexpected.” On the menu, and the bottle for that matter, it’s called Langhe Bianco due to labeling laws, but rest assured says Quinn, there is pure Riesling inside. He suggests ordering this bottle to go with Berkshire pork chop. “It’s fantastic with the Riesling because the wine has the body to stand up to the meat, and acidity blasts through the fatty richness to clean it away.”

  • Credit: Linnea Covington

    Another Riesling Quinn favors hales from Ravines Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes, an area he has been getting excited about. “It’s becoming a great place for wine and the Riesling there is really coming in as being truly distinctive, and moving up to be a world class wine.” Ravines is located off Seneca Lake on a limestone slope at the Argetsinger Vineyard, and thus far Quinn says, the 2009 vintage might just be America’s greatest Riesling, at least from what he has tasted. “It’s bright and has a green apple charterer with lime, and then a layer of floral and spice nuances,” says Quinn. “I think I wrote ‘kaleidoscope’ on the first tasting note since it has a lot of flavors and aromas flashing by.” To pair it, Quinn chose the whipped Pennsylvania goats milk cheese that gets served with clover honey, thyme, rosemary, and tasty flat bread to scoop it all up with.

  • Credit: Proof

    One of Quinn’s most prized providers it the Diel family that run the Goldloch vineyard. On Proof’s menu, they serve the 2002 Schlossgut Diel Dorsheimer Goldloch Riesling Kabinett, which Quinn pairs with fresh day boat scallop in a beet emulsion. “The kiss of sweetness in this Riesling helps amplify the sweetness in the scallops, and they play really well,” he says, adding that the wine remains powerful and complex with honey, peach and nectarine. This wine also bashes another misconception Quinn finds people have about Riesling, the one where it’s thought best to drink the wine young. “The great ones can age forever,” he says, like the aforementioned one, which, he added still has a lot of life in it. “Beautiful old Riesling is like nothing else in the world.”

  • Credit: Anne Petersen

    Next, we spoke with Chaylee Priete, the sommelier of The Slanted Door in San Francisco, who also has a vast Riesling list to go with the modern Vietnamese food served there. “It is the perfect food pairing wine for our cuisine which can be delicate and light and fresh or sweet and spicy,” she says. “They run the gamut from bone dry to a significant amount of residual sugar, but the main thing they all have in common is the presence of significant acid.” This acid helps cut the spice in dishes like the mesquite grilled pork belly with gingered tamarind sauce or the wood oven-roasted clams with fresh chilies. “We tend to use the dry Rieslings to begin the meal,” says Priete, suggesting a pairing between the Eva Fricke Qba Riesling 2012 and the raw bar. “It helps to clean the palate and enliven the vibrancy of dishes such as our spring rolls with fresh mint or our green papaya salad.”

  • Credit: The Slanted Door

    As the meal progresses to the fish and meat courses, Priete looks for Rieslings with a bit more complexity and some structure. For this, she chooses the M. Froehlich Eschendorfer Lump Grosse Gewachs Riesling 2010 or a bottle of the Hirsch ‘Gaisberg’ Riesling 2006 from Austria to go with the oven roasted whole branzino or a the stir fried lobster in tamarind sauce. “As the dishes get richer and eventually spicier and sweeter, we move into Rieslings with some residual sugar,” she says. Next up Priete brings out a Kabinett like the 2009 Hexamer ‘Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg from the Nahe in Germany, which she says cuts through the richness of the grilled Berkshire pork chop and marries perfectly with the accompanying Pink Lady apples.

  • Credit: Joe Fisher

    Finally, once the clay pot course surfaces, Priete suggests a lovely German Spatlese such as the 2011 Dönnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck. “So many people say Spatlese is too sweet, but they do not understand that as your food gets sweeter and spicier, a dry wine begins to taste bitter and too acidic,” the wine director says. “What we are talking about is matching the levels of sweetness, but with a wine that has piercing acidity that keeps the whole experience in balance.” In fact, on the menu under German Rieslings you can find a quote that they got from the wine importer Terry Theise, which says, “Sweet like an apple not like a Twinkie." Meaning, says Priete, that this Riesling has a fresh and clean sweetness that makes the dish complete.

  • Credit: Mark Silva

    Another die hard Riesling fan is found in Sebastian Zutant, sommelier at The Red Hen, an Italian-American restaurant in Washington D.C. “I love Riesling and I love it from many places,” the Zutant says. Like Quinn, one of Zutant’s favorite regions is the Finger Lakes, and from there, he likes Herman Weimer’s dry Riesling. “It has all the fruit and floral notes one would expect from a Riesling with hardly any residual sugar,” he says. “It’s very versatile and works well with many foods.” For example the grilled octopus with shelling beans, fried capers, and romanesco, which they are currently offering on the menu. “I love the idea of putting a fruit forward wine with intense flavors like smoke and brine,” says Zutant. “The capers have this pickle quality that plays off the sweet fruit of the Riesling very well, a salty sweet kind of thing.”

  • Zutant also enjoys Austrian Rieslings, like the 2012 Brundylmayer Riesling Kamptaler Terrassen. “This wine is traditionally bone dry, but still maintains the Riesling characteristics,” he says. “It is steely, like the inside of a crustacean.” This is why Zutant pairs this vino with a their caramelized scallops, because, he says the natural sweetness and fresh briny quality of the seafood plays well with the rich fruit of this wine. The dish also comes with bacon and Brussels sprouts, which Zutant says marries lovingly with the herbal and mineral qualities of this particular bottle.

    So, take a page from these sommeliers vast menu of Rieslings and give it a go at home or on your next night out on the town. Perhaps, like Joe Quinn, you too will fall in love with this grape. “For me it’s a thrilling tension, that fruity gentle sweetness and then a racy acidity toward the finish,” Quinn says, adding that, out of all the wines, if he had to pick one variety, Riesling would be it.