Riesling Rumble! Bigwigs weigh in!

October 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling 2012, deliciously in the feinherb vein

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling 2012, deliciously in the feinherb vein

Kerfuffle alert. Coincidences are amazing. On the very day when the first of my two successive Portland Press Herald columns on German Riesling was published, the most interesting English-language players in the (yes, small) world of Riesling passion — Terry Theise, Lars Carlberg, Stuart Pigott, David Schildknecht — were duking it out over the very same issues I had taken up: Riesling’s unique talent for holding dryness and sweetness simultaneously, and the future of German Riesling in light of its domestic audience’s apparent preference for fully dry wines.

Another passionate explorer in the Riesling intelligentsia — The New York Times’ Eric Asimov — had a couple of weeks earlier written a necessary column investigating dry Riesling from Germany, and a quotation Theise gave Asimov (about dry Riesling being an “invasive species” in Germany) stirred up a bit of a firestorm with the Briton Pigott.

I subsequently wrote a second article on German Riesling, focusing on the compatibility of its form of sweetness with actual food that we actually eat.

If you’re at all interested in how our present is influenced by the future and influences the past (or, for you traditionalists, vice-versa), it’s a worthwhile, lively debate to follow, which would be easiest for you to do by entering here, on Lars Carlberg’s site , and there’s even more (mind-numbing) back-and-forth here! My own articles are at best a more introductory sort of fill-in.

After a bit of Twitter-based back-and-forth that included me, Lars wrote me to say, in part, “As for traditional Mosel Riesling, you’ll be surprised at the analysis that I found in many 19th-century books. The wines were more often bone dry. The traditional ‘fruity sweet’ style rose up in the post-war years….Mosel wines pre-1950s tended to be more dryish than sweetish. If we go back to the Mosel’s heyday of the late 19th century, the wines were dry, except for the rare Auslesen, which then had discreet sweetness.” I trust him, because I have for a long time read and admired Carlberg’s reports and insights on German wine, and his account last year on what is happening to Kabinett Riesling is comprehensive and undeniable.

Still, as I replied to Carlberg, “I’ll just say that my interest is only secondarily in history/tradition (not not in history/tradition, just secondarily), and primarily in what my own experience tells me is the fullest expression of the grapes. I don’t mean to dismiss the longer view of Mosel wine culture! Just to assert that for me personally the indigenous, unique traits of the Mosel have been most emotionally moving and satisfying in the wines not vinified to utter dryness.”

(I added, “I do get on my high horse in my own writing, sometimes, just because I sense that my audience needs a prod or two to accept [balanced] sweetness as an acceptable aspect of wine.”)

In the end, I think where all of us who love German Riesling converge is in agreeing that the true beauty of this grape from this general place is that it is possible to make exquisite wines across the dryness spectrum. It is not limited! This, more than anything else, is what we ought to say when trying to communicate what is important here. (And I acknowledge my own small failure to say as much, sufficiently clearly, in the articles I wrote.)

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Drinking Riesling always makes me wonder why I’m not always drinking Riesling. At lunch last week at Portland’s first indispensable new restaurant in years, Schulte & Herr, I tasted through a terrific selection of German wines — not just Riesling — that renewed my enthusiasm for how splendidly they accompany seasonal, soulful, lovingly prepared foods of all sorts. And just how damn good they are. Riesling, yes, but also Silvaner and some terrific reds: Pinot Noir, of course, but also Lemberger (what the Austrians call Blaufrankisch). Today’s wine column gets into it.

Bubble bubble, no toil or trouble: sparkling wine at Thanksgiving

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sparkling wine. Yet another phrase to strike fear into the heart of the average wine consumer, and to strike obstreperous pretension into the mouths of countless wine salespeople and sommeliers. We all whine: Why don’t people drink more bubbles? It’s so hard to get folks to buy Farmer Fizz (grower-made Champagne). Quit-cher-beetchin, dude. The stuff is expensive! And doesn’t usually last well into the next day (actually, it often does…but perception = reality).

Anyway, today I write a gentle nudge toward considering sparkling wine for more of your meals, especially for Thanksgiving. What is it about low alcohol, charm, food-flexibility, high acidity merged with subtle sweetness and a generally festive mood that you don’t understand? Actually, forget “understand”; how about like? The focus is on Albert Mann from Alsace, with brief shout-out to Gruet. But the gist is: don’t get caught up in details, just drink effervescent wine!

Leitz ON! Here we go a-Riesling-ing, merrily merrily merrily

September 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

How could you not love the wines of Johannes Leitz? My latest column fails to answer that question. Wines of truth are sometimes a bit grim. Leitz’s are the opposite: open, thrilling, and just kind of…jolly. They’re gutsy and deep-down, with fabric-y textures that I continually find fascinating. These aren’t in the “ethereal” category of Rieslings, but sometimes you just want to strum some major chords and rock.

USA uber alles: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, home-grown

August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest Portland Press Herald wine column focuses an American lens on cool-climate, Germanic grapes such as Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Muller-Thurgau and Gewurztraminer. No, they’re not Donnhof, Weinbach or Diel. They’re proud to be American, but they’re respectful, terroir-based – and delightful – expressions of these most gracious and lovely of all wine grapes.

Is German Pinot Noir (from Mosel) the world’s most popular wine? Yes! Er, I mean: No! But drink their Riesling and dream with me

June 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest Portland Press Herald wine column brings together the world’s two greatest grapes, Riesling and Pinot Noir, from a spectacularly talented winemaker, Konrad Haehn at Freiherr Von Schleinitz in Germany’s northern Mosel Valley. The wines fly a bit under the radar, but they’re singular, delicious and reasonably priced. I write about the Kabinett Riesling and the Pinot Noir, but they do a full line-up of Pradikat Rieslings (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese) as well as the lower-priced VS line which has a Dry and Off-dry style. Try a couple, and then go for the Von Schleinitz (sparkling) Sekt, which is my hands-down favorite sparkling wine in the world and yes I’ve had grower Champagnes. (The Sekt is less complicated than great Champagne, but more fun than most.)

Then, there’s the Von Schleinitz Pinots. The straight-up red is steely but delicate, a pure expression of Mosel slate terroir.  Of Von Schleinitz’s 5-6,000 cases per year total, a tiny sliver of Pinot Noir rosé is made, and then there’s the even-more-limited-production Blanc de Noir (Pinot, with skins removed before any maceration). It’s a mind-blowing magic act of a wine, with the full, suede mouthfeel of a red and the acidic cut of a…well, of a Riesling. Don’t know if you can find it where you live, but ask around…

Von Schleinitz isn’t distributed everywhere in the U.S., though word of their greatness is spreading. By you, if you catch on!

Der Riesling Manifesto

June 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

A couple of years ago I wrote an info screed entitled Der Riesling Manifesto, and posted it in the store where I work. Since then, a number of people have asked for copies. To celebrate the start of Summer of Riesling 2011, I’m now posting the full Manifesto below. In the spirit of Karl Marx, I hope it goes viral!

All summer long, I’ll be writing about Riesling in my Portland Press Herald wine column and elsewhere. YOU ARE POWERLESS TO RESIST.

Also, here are a few other Riesling-based Manifestos available in that there World Wide Web:

Anyway, on to my very own…

Der Riesling Manifesto

(You have nothing to lose but your culinary chains!)

Hey you, don’t pass by the Rieslings! You say you don’t like “sweetness” in your wines. But we don’t quite believe you. Here’s why…

First of all, some Rieslings are bone-dry, with far less sweet in them than many Malbecs, Pinot Noirs and Shirazes. These dry Rieslings match perfectly with all sorts of right-now foods: vinegar-y salads; briny seafood such as shrimp, scallops and bivalves; simple white fish; grilled meats of all sorts; pasta with cream sauces; enchiladas.

On sweetness and food

Non-dry Riesling has a perfect sweetness in it, along with stunningly refreshing acidity. It’s that acidity that transforms these wines into fantastic food partners, rather than cloying, sugary messes. Accompanied by this acidity, a little bit of sweetness in wines is terrific with

  • spicy foods (the combination of low alcohol and some residual sugar does an end-run around the heat, so you can actually taste your food and wine at the same time)
  • strong cheeses (blues, Beemster, smoked cheeses and more)
  • the majority of foods we all eat a lot of the time, which contain a good deal of sweetness in them, like

Veggies, etc.

  • caramelized onions, shallots
  • winter squash
  • sautéed red cabbage with currants and balsamic vinegar
  • grilled or roasted veggies like peppers, zucchini, summer squash, fennel
  • roasted tomatoes
  • carrots, beets and other root vegetables in any form
  • corn, either on the cob or in cornbread, polenta, spoonbread, tamales, tortillas
  • mango salsa, and other semi-exotic fusion-y flavor combos

Animals, etc.

  • bacon! ham! sausage!
  • veal and pork chops, if not aggressively herbed/garlicked
  • chicken wings, with all manner of sauces
  • grilled salmon, char
  • trout (a perfectly sweet fish, especially when stuffed with sautéed leeks and roasted!)
  • eggs — poached on toast or another grain, scrambled, omelets
  • foie gras
  • lamb, believe it or not


  • American” hors d’oeuvres often crying for a subtly sweet, acidic punch, such as dips and spreads, pigs-in-blankets, canapés, etc.
  • honey mustard sauce, teriyaki, barbecue sauce
  • most other glazes for fish or meat
  • coconut milk (and remember that when it’s spicy, as in much Southeast Asian cuisine, Riesling is doubly relevant)

Any of that sound like parts of a good meal? Yeah, I thought so.

Wine for LIFE, not for GETTING BLASTED!

On its own, sipped late at night with friends, on the patio while you’re stoking the grill, or in the kitchen while you chop veggies, Riesling makes you happy to be alive. Any good wine does that, but Riesling’s advantage in such situations is its low alcohol level: there are plenty of times when you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the besotting qualities of wine; you just want to taste something delicious while remaining cogent and upright as the evening wears on. (And get a nice, manageable buzz with less downside!)

Wine for FOOD

Low alcohol is also the Ginger Rogers to food’s Fred Astaire: it accompanies the food rather than competes with it — and like Ginger to Fred, it does everything the food does but backwards and in high heels!

Wine for HARMONY

Most foods have sweetness in them — the type of sweetness that is either obliterated by Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tempranillo (especially in oaked Rioja), Chianti, and Shiraz, or contradicted by Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. For foods with a strong olive-oil-and-garlic orientation, enjoy one of those French, Italian or Spanish varietals (though even in those situations a dry Riesling might be better). But for the majority of your meals and the actual contours of your life, try a Riesling (or Scheurebe or Silvaner, but that’s a different manifesto…) and see what happens.


Best food pairings for everyday wines (Frenched lambchops need not apply)

March 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

From Portland Press Herald, 2 March 2011

Two weeks ago I began a conversation about pairing wine with food, a conversation I’d like to continue today. It’s a conversation, not a set of rules, because as with everything the only real rule is: It depends. We realized long ago, for instance, that the petty fascist who dreamt up “no red wine with fish” must have been so soused on Bordeaux that he never savored the pleasures of Blauburgunder with salmon, Beaujolais with halibut, Blaufrankisch with tuna, or Bourgeuil with tomato-herb fish stew.

So let’s do this calmly, with no pressure and nothing hard-and-fast. There are some general guidelines we might form consensus around, or at least have lively discussions about, recognizing this as the only absolute: Wine is historically an agricultural product, made by people who love food, to accompany their meals and their lives. It’s fine to drink the same wine you know with every meal, but it’s a lot more fun to play around with the possible relationships. Moreover, that’s what wine was made for.

Questions like, “What’s a good red wine for the lamb I’m cooking tonight?” are too easy. Lamb is so earthy, profound and succulent that a better question is which red wine would not go well with it. More casual — and common — meals raise more challenging questions. What if we’re stir-frying a bunch of different vegetables and finishing with dollops of sauce we bought at the Asian market last month, or it’s taco night and everyone at the table has slightly different fillings, or there are chicken breasts or split pea soup or you got take-out?

In all such situations, the best wines are relatively light-bodied and low in alcohol because those are the most flexible, and often with less well-known grapes because those usually come from farmer-based cultures that value simple food just as you do. Below are a couple of principles with a few suggestions. Beyond that, read alcohol levels, don’t fear unfamiliar grape names, and shop wine where you can talk food with a merchant you trust. And tune in for my next column.

Hearty foods want hearty reds…kind of. Beans, braises, sausage, dark sauces have brawny flavors, but two brawns don’t make it right. Non-special-occasion brawn matches best with something persistent yet humble. The best pairings will pick up the big flavors but provide counterpoint in the body and mouthfeel, avoiding murkiness, imbalance and one-dimensionality.
Castello di Meleto Rosso Toscano 2007 ($13, Pine State), mostly Sangiovese with a touch of Merlot, is very earthy, even a little stinky, but terrifically elegant too — a tribute to diligent winemaking that emphasizes low kiloliter-to-vine yields and stainless-steel fermentation.
Don Manuel Villafané Malbec 2008 ($13, Crush) is, um, Malbec for adults. It’s a civilized style, harmonious and restrained, with intense cocoa and baking-spices notes.
Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2006 ($13-14, Pine State), from Sardinia’s indigenous Cannonau varietal, is rustic, equine and briary but surprisingly light-bodied so it stays refreshing.
Ermita San Felices Rioja Crianza 2006 ($13, Devenish) is lively, lighter-style Rioja, with vivid but delicate fruit and unusually food-friendly.

A little sweetness is almost always helpful. I’ve already permanently damaged my larynx screaming about this, but seriously: almost no one truly likes a perfectly dry wine. Wine comes from fruit! Sweetness cuts the heat of spice, complements the sugars elicited by cooking vegetables, usually accompanies lower alcohol levels to befriend more foods, and makes people happy. You just need the sweetness to be offset by acidity, which in well-made wines like these is perfectly done.
Licia Albariño 2007 ($14-15, National). Galicia, Spain’s native varietal is just as aromatic as you want a white to be, but no more so. Classic Albariño oily texture, with big dried-apricot flavor and a fresh-dough sweetness, cut clean by slamming citrus. Very fresh and open-armed, very versatile: Try it with anything heavy in garlic and olive oil, herbs and green veggies.
Fruitière Muscadet “Petit M” 2009 ($12, Central). Muscadet is known as a bracing, rocky and bone-dry white. “Petit M” covers those bases, but adds splendidly integrated sphericity and a bit of fat, which broadens its potential gustatory mates past white fish: baked or fried potatoes, cannelinis, all kinds of salads.
Montinore Borealis Northern White 2008 ($10-11, Nappi), is what Oregon talks about when it talks about yum. A my-kind-of blend of organically grown Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling, this is irresistible, a kind of gateway drug to more complex German and Austrian whites. Crisp but with subtle sweetness and rose petals, this is a great match for coconut curries, Indian dals, spring rolls, sriracha.

What can’t Riesling do? (With recipe for Maine squash and cabbage)

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Whatever it is, I don’t — or don’t need to — know. I’m still buzzing from my latest experience with the Leitz Dragonstone 2008, from the Rheingau. I wrote about it this week in my Portland Press Herald wine column (or see below). Cottony soft, yet with perfect electricity to cut through the fat of winter meals.

Last night was a simple one-pot prep of  sautéed onion and red cabbage with roasted kabocha squash, finished with smoked paprika and Bisson raw cream. On the side was buttermilkcornbread. All the bold-faced ingredients in the preceding paragraph are local Maine foods (not to mention the Kate’s butterMaine cornmealStraw’s eggs I used), proving that eating locally here, in mid-February, is easily done and joyful.

So, all the sweetness of the cooked cabbage, onions and squash was picked up by that Riesling, but then the circus act of the wine’s counterbalancing acidity sliced through the thickness of the squash and pure-fat of the cream. The Dragonstone has a cornmeal flavor element as well, which meshed with the cornbread and did a joyful tango with the smoke of the paprika. After the main course there was a small piece of blue cheese lying around, and darned if the Riesling didn’t match perfectly with that too!

Perhaps the best part was that I could drink as much of this wine as I wanted, given its thrillingly low alcohol level of 8%. I rose from the table invigorated rather than teetering and heading south, and had a perfect blend of calm and focus so I could write. I slept well, too.

Wine pairing 101.5: Tofu, Monastrell, Pasta, Riesling…what else?

February 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

From Portland Press Herald, February 15, 2011

Kind of about tofu, but not really. More about how to pair, with creativity and joy. Part One of…more

An exchange I had recently with a customer at Rosemont Market sticks with me, as often happens when moments don’t go right. I keep replaying the conversation in my mind, amending as I go, wishing I’d said this but not that, etc.

She was glancing at a bottle of Castano Monastrell 2009 ($9, Central), a rear-legs-kicking, gnarly desert-n-tanglewood Spanish red I happen to love (and so will you, if you love peppery, spirited red wines that don’t take no for an answer). At the same time, I was stocking shelves with a different Monastrell, the Atope 2008 ($13, Wicked) – less ornery, playing in a higher key with mint and blueberry prominent, a favorite of mine these days.

We recognized this shared moment with a somewhat uncommon grape, and got to talking. Turns out she’d lived in Almansa, the Atope’s home region, and had happy tales of quaffing Monastrell daily from the village urn at about $3 a bottle. She also had a bag of tofu in her hands, and as she grabbed a bottle of the Atope, I asked how she was planning to cook it to match with that wine.

She literally laughed. “I have no idea. You can’t drink wine with tofu.” With that, she was off to pay, and I started to say, Yes-Wait-Yes, but she laughed again and was gone.

This was what’s known as a teachable moment, and although I missed the opportunity then, I’ll try to re-seize it now. First of all, you can and should drink wine with tofu! There’s wine for everything.

Second, eat lamb, lentils or sausage and hearty greens with either of those Monastrells, and see what happens. Use the flavors and associations of a wine you know to suggest food matches, rather than just putting the wine next to food you happened to cook and crossing your fingers.

Third, the question of what to drink with tofu is as broad as what to drink with pasta. Both, plain, present almost completely neutral flavor profiles, and so what’s important is your preparation, other ingredients and sauces. (Therefore, any wine’s back label that says it’s a “great match for pastas” should be regarded skeptically.)

Simple red wines with a mix of sweet cherry and tongue-tingling acidity – like the Il Morino Sangiovese 2009 ($10, Central) or Capestrano Rosso Piceno 2009 ($10, Pine State) – are perfect if you’re covering pasta with tomato sauce, but with rabbit rag?ou need to drive deeper: Vietti Barbera D’Asti Tre Vigne 2008 ($15, Wicked) is amazing, at once gamey – chewy even – and bright. Pasta with a mushroom-cream sauce would get wrecked by that Sangiovese, but would be exalted by an earthy Pinot Noir or a nutty southern Rhone white that blends Marsanne and Rousanne. Everything, always, depends on the details.

This returns me to the tofu. If you’re beholden to that Monastrell, make your meal conform to it, and do one of these things: rub firm tofu generously with a Cajun spice mix and blacken it; or crust the tofu with ground walnuts and currants before frying; or make a sauce using roasted garlic; or add chipotles; or add bacon.

Best, though, is don’t be beholden to the Monastrell! Find additional wines to love. There’s comfort food and there’s paralysis; recognize the difference. If you prefer your tofu in Thai style, using coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass, a boisterous red wine is ridiculous. Rather, the Leitz Dragonstone 2008 ($17, SoPo), is super vigorous, lusty and open, surefooted and stony, with just enough polenta-y sweetness to offset your tofu’s heat.

But say you’re creating a different kind of Asian heat, more of a Chinese style with star anise, peppercorns and soy? For that, you want something more succulent and plunging. Try the best red wines you’re not drinking, Cru Beaujolais (I’ve written on these before; see my blog for the archive if you want specific suggestions), or the extravagantly terroir-yIndependent Producers Merlot 2008 ($11, Nappi) from Washington state, deep like an Oaxacan mole with cocoa, pumpkin seeds and innumerable other stealthy spices and dried fruits.

Pairing food with wine is endlessly fascinating, and you can do it in a playful, experimental way rather than anything grim and academic. There’s much more to discuss along these lines, but for some reason The Press Herald editors don’t hand me the entire Wednesday paper to play around in (something about world, national and local news, apparently).

For that reason, let’s consider this column Part One of an extended investigation into what wine and food actually have to do with each other. Next installment to come soon, and I’ll try to incorporate any comments and/or questions posted here. Thanks!

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