There's nothing simple about riesling, except for the pure pleasure derived from a glass of it. Many folks pooh-pooh it as a too-sweet, unserious wine, while the verbose labels and arcane terminology often manage to confuse even those who fall under its allure.
But deciphering and demystifying the wines made from this noble grape have become markedly easier. Many German wineries are Americanizing their labels, with brands such as Clean Slate and Balance and classifications such as dry or sweet.
But that doesn't fully explain why U.S. sales of riesling rose 29 percent in 2006. The biggest factor is that consumers like its clean, crisp flavor and food-friendliness. Restaurateurs and home cooks have learned that there is no more versatile wine for pairing,
For example, La Belle Vie's widely lauded wine list includes 17 rieslngs (and 11 chardonnays). "It can be a simple quaffer or fabulously complex," said sommelier Bill Summerville, "and the range allows for a great diversity of pairings."
Where it's grown: Germany and the neighboring French region of Alsace are riesling's home base. It was Napa's most widely grown white grape before Prohibition and is regaining a small foothold in the cooler hillsides of California. But rielsing generally has found greater expression to the north: Washington, New York's Finger Lakes region and even in Minnesota. Australia, Canada (where it usually is used for ice wine), Austria, New Zealand and eastern Europe have produced some nice versions.
What it tastes like: The nose is more floral and minerally than fruity (with an occasional petrol odor in older rieslings). But it packs the palate with peach, apricot, apple and pear flavors, plus a bit of spice and a slatelike, acidic backbone in even the sweetest iterations. Bonus: It's lower in alcohol than almost all other wines.
How to figure out sweetness levels: Well, the Germans aren't inclined to make anything simple, but in general, wines labeled Kabinett are dry or semisweet; Spatlese ("late harvest") tend to be a bit sweeter; Auslese ("select harvest"), while Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese are dessert wines. More from the infernal Hessian glossary: trocken (dry), halbtracken (half-dry) and lieblich (fruity).
What it goes with: It runs a pretty broad gamut -- lighter Asian dishes (Indian, Thai or Chinese), white meats and sauces, sauerkraut and other German foods. Summerville currently is pairing a Dr. Loosen Spatlese with chef Tim McKee's Taleggio Agnollotti with Hazelnut Emulsion and Heirloom Beets. "The slight sweetness dances with rich nuttiness of the taleggio and the slight saltiness of the hazelnut emulsion," he said.
What brands to try: Newbies might consider something from Washington -- Chateau Ste. Michelle, Snoqualmie or Bonny Doon's Pacific Rim (which contains a jolt of German riesling to add acidity) -- or maybe Winehaven's version from Minnesota. Trefethen and Navarro make very nice California rieslings, and Trimbach's offerings from Alsace are great moderately priced introductions. At the next level up, look for Dr. Loosen, a brand that pops up on great wines from Germany, rieslings from the Finger Lakes region or the Chateau Ste. Michelle collaboration Eroica.
Or just ask the next time you're at a restaurant with a sharp wine manager. Sommeliers' eyes tend to light up when customers ask them about rieslings.
"I am trying to get my hands on some older rieslings," said Summerville, "as they age well due to the cool climate they're brought up in and the potential for high acid and great fruit. Also, they are unique and different, and we love that."