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.)

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.


Terry Theise interview on Riesling, Grower Champagne and more

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Couldn’t quite embed the video interview with Terry on this blog, but check it out on my Facebook profile. Seventeen minutes of pure inspiration and instruction.

Terry Theise, the only wine guy you need to know about

November 29, 2010 § 5 Comments

Terry Theise, lemme count the frickin’ ways.

Please, y’all, remember that Terry Theise will be in Portland, Maine on December 7, signing copies of his book at Rabelais from 3-5 p.m., and then hosting a wine dinner at Bar Lola at 6:30 p.m.

From Portland Press Herald, December 1, 2010

This is simultaneously the hardest and easiest column for me to write. Easy because it concerns Terry Theise, my personal wine hero (and writing hero, and life hero), and I have waited a long time for the opportunity to write publicly about him. Hard because the stakes are so high: If I fail to convince you to form a long-term relationship with Theise’s work, then I wonder why I speak about wine at all.

If you love wine for its particulars but also for its metaphors; if you cherish delicacy, beauty, clarity and harmony over bravado and impact; if you agree at least partially that wine is ultimately not really about wine but is rather just one particularly useful pathway to the transcendent, then you too may come to view Theise as your Guide.

It’s due to Theise more than any other single person – his crystalline palate; his unyielding devotion to his winemakers as humans; his passionate, rambunctious, irreverent essays in his own wine catalogs and now in a book, Reading Between the Wines – that most of us know the first thing about German and Austrian wines, not to mention have come to appreciate Riesling as the most beautiful and complex grape on Earth. Theise has also exposed the corporate culture of the international Champagne market and pointed the way to grower-made Champagne (or as he calls it, “farmer fizz”).

He represents, powerfully, for the sensitive sensualist in all of us: “There aren’t a lot of emotional introverts getting the word out,” he told me. “It’s important to applaud that quiet, delicate temperament and encourage that sort of person – to say, ‘Your perspective is incredibly important.’” This from a guy who says he’s “most of the time thinking about sex, baseball and rock-n-roll.” Most of us who read Theise (as you can online, or by buying his book) adopt a kind of WWTTD-bracelet approach to life.

Although he has one of the finer palates in the world, he’s unconcerned with analyzing wines to death. “Most people think only what they’re supposed to think about wine,” he told me. “They treat wine like their life, as something that needs to be wrestled to the ground. We’re constantly being showered with beauty, but we affect an indifference to it that takes greater effort than would be required to just let it in.”

Worse even than indifference is adherence to preconceptions, which afflicts so many wine consumers when they encounter sweetness. Some Rieslings are perfectly dry (like the outrageous value Leitz Einz Zwei Dry “3”, $15), but a misconception persists that a touch of sweetness is anything other than life- and food-affirming. How to dispel this? “It’s hard, but my only real advice is to make yourself into a pure, blank receiver.” His wines beg us to meet them with our full array of sensual receptivity in the moment, rather than a scorecard.

“I approach this as an aesthete,” he said, but he’s an earthy one. His wines can be pounding-your-hands-on-the-steering-wheel-pop-song like the Gysler Silvaner 2009 ($14 liter) or quietly majestic like Dönnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($25). They can be lusty, waxy and lipsmacking like the Gysler Scheurebe 2009 ($17 liter), or spacious, oxygenated and spicy like the Darting Dürkheimer Nonnengarten Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($17 liter).

They can educate: Berger Zweigelt 2009 ($14 liter) shows the significance of integrity over concentration, as it combines dense red fruit and prosciutto without any squeeze-in-there-guys cloying or whump. Or they can seduce and sizzle: Messmer Spatburgunder ($19 liter) shows why so many of us are hooked on German Pinot Noir, wrapped as this is in silk, smoke and sand.

For Thanksgiving I provided an array of the above wines as well as some others from Theise. I didn’t push it or gush over the wines unless someone asked, and they were there among other bottles people had brought: California Pinots costing twice as much, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Burgundy. The Theise wines disappeared the fastest. For all their soul, all their distinctiveness, all the care that went into their making and their selection, they’re above all delicious and approachable. “Not every wine needs to rock our world,” Theise told me after a long conversation about world-rocking wines. “Just laugh when you’re tickled and let it all be fun.”

All Theise wines are distributed in Maine by SoPo Wine Company. Some are tremendous bargains (note the liter bottles above), others are quite pricey and lead to Theise’s palace of wisdom. For access to these, he suggests drinking less (more attentively): “If you spend $45 a week on three bottles, try spending that on two. Or sometimes, one.”

Awww, isn’t that sweet?

October 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bestill my heart, Eric Asimov’s wine column in this week’s New York Times is about Spätlese Rieslings. There’s not much for me to add to it here; just read the damn thing. His central point is the one we’re all sick and tired of repeating: People are unreasonably afraid of sweetness in wine, holding wine to a foolish double standard they don’t apply to their food (duck? squash? scallops? root veggies?), soda, beer or even wine (California Pinot noir, anyone? Viognier?). When sweetness is balanced as well with such braced, taut acidity as is well-made German Riesling, there is no more transcendent experience in wine. Serious.

Also, note that about half of the wines Asimov and crew recommend are imported by one of my all-time heroes (not wine heroes: life heroes), Terry Theise. Terry will grace our fair city (Portland, Maine) in December, signing copies of his crucial new book, Reading Between the Vines, at Rabelais, and hosting a dinner at Bar Lola.

If you plan on celebrating Thanksgiving this year, that’s all the more reason for you to get into Rieslings. A couple of years ago I wrote a still-relevant “manifesto” of sorts, about Riesling, that has proven helpful for some people. Let me know if you want a copy.

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