A few weeks ago I was hanging out at the Total Wine tasting bar on a wintry night when a gentleman walked by and was asked if he would like to try a glass of wine. The poor unsuspecting soul replied that he didn’t like wine. There are few challenges I like better in this world then helping someone understand that “wine” is not a single drink, or grape, or flavor. There are more than 10,000 grapes that can be used to make wine, and depending on how they are grown and how they are made, they can taste completely different. I told him all this in my scarily enthusiastic way as he warily sought an escape route from the table. Then, I put it all on the line- I told him, “I tried Budweiser in college, hated it and thought it meant I hated beer!” Suddenly he stood up straight and said “That’s crazy- there are all kinds of beers with different tastes!” And I had him- He tasted 4 wines and went home with two bottles of a fantastic California Cabernet Sauvignon that is aged in bourbon barrels. A job well done.
My first realization of how different a single wine grape variety can taste so different depending on producer came at a wine tasting about 4 years ago. I was passing a table where a vendor had 14 bottles of wine lined up and was asked if I wanted to try a Riesling. I immediately thanked him but replied that I don’t like sweet wine. He gave me a look that said “Game On” and began telling me how not all Riesling is sweet. What followed were 20 minutes that changed my whole perception of wine.
Riesling is a white grape that originated in the Rhine Valley in Europe. Depending on how it is made, it has flavors of apple, peach, apricot and citrus. A defining characteristic of Riesling for you blind tasters, is the smell of petrol in the wine.
Riesling is also well known for its super strong acidity. This acidity gives Riesling another distinct characteristic- it is one of the few wines, especially white wines, that age for very long times. In fact, the oldest drinkable wine in the world at this time is Riesling. Finest and Rarest tells the story:
The city of Bremen owns the famous Ratskeller or town hall, underneath which is a legendary cellar known as the Schatzkammer (treasury cellar). In here are 12 very large elaborately carved casks of wine dating from the 17th and 18th century, named after the 12 Apostles. The oldest dates from 1653, but the wine is no longer drinkable. The most famous is the Judas cask, containing Rudesheim wine of the 1727 vintage, by repute the greatest vintage of the 18th century. Wine from this cask has never been sold, but periodically very small quantities have been bottled as civic gifts from the Bremen municipality to important dignitaries, visiting heads of state, royalty etc. When any wine has been drawn off like this, the cask (about 3000 litres + in capacity) has been topped up with young Rudesheim wine of the finest quality. In this way the barrel has been refreshed, as the old wine
feeds on the sugars in the younger one. But only a handful of half bottles have ever been drawn off at one time, and so this top-up wine only constitutes a tiny percentage of the overall volume, the vast bulk of which is still the original 1727.
This is, quite simply, the oldest drinkable wine in existence.
So, if Riesling is so acidic, why are most bottles of Riesling sold in the US so sweet? Because US palates prefer sweet to dry. Prior to WWII, most Riesling was made to be very dry. However, US wine consumers liked sweet wines and in the 1970’s these consumers began buying larger quantities of sweet wine like White Zinfandel (cringe). (I am sure all of us who grew up watching television in the 1980’s remember Reunite and those beautiful Gallo commercials. Unfortunately I do have to thank White Zinfandel for getting Americans to actually try wine, which helped locations like Napa Valley get started growing grapes and making wines that eventually became world class.) German Riesling producers took note of American tastes and began making sweet Riesling wine that appealed to consumers- wines that went from sweet to very sweet to “say goodbye to your donut” sweet.
And thus even today, Riesling in the US is assumed to be a very sweet wine. And this isn’t all bad! Sweet wines pair great with spicy food. If you are eating rich, spicy Thai, Chinese or Indian food, a sweet Riesling will balance that spiciness and create a gorgeous experience. Plus, there are people who cannot tolerate bitter flavors. I have a friend who doesn’t like beer, coffee, nuts- nothing bitter and yet she does like super sweet Riesling wines.
However as American wine tastes have expanded over the last few decades, dry and very dry Rieslings are gaining a following in the US. My friend at the Riesling table had lined up his bottles from various producers in a line from “make your teeth hurt” sweet to bone dry. He gave me a taste of the bone dry and I have never forgotten the moment the apple and citrus sprang on my tongue. The wine was so vibrant and bright it made me smile. It tasted like the moment you jump into a cool lake on a hot summers day….just…wonderful! In addition, the vendor brought out a sparkling Riesling that was dry, extremely fizzy and yet had beautiful tastes of apple and peaches. The Riesling I love comes from the Alsace region of what is now France and is known for their dry apple and citrus flavors.
Whenever I hear someone tell me they don’t like wine I flash back to that wonderful moment. Wine is not one thing, one taste. Wine is an art form. It starts with a grape variety, is developed by where the grape is grown under what conditions, is tailored by the artistry of a wine maker, and then left to become its own in a bottle. Wine is amazing.
(Oh, last thing- for those of you keeping score at home, Chuck’s thesis is up to 56 pages….and growing. It’s like a baby- it grows a little everyday! :))