Could Riesling's image problem be the Germans' fault? They were the ones who cultivated the grape from wild vines a millennium or so ago--and then confused us with a tide of sweet jug wines that bear about as much relation to the real thing as carbonated plonk does to Champagne. Or could the culprits be the Californians, who have never given this grape its due? Riesling is not only lower in alcohol than a typical California Chardonnay but also--depending on the style--drier, more aromatic, more food loving. "The top young sommeliers around the country have gotten passionate about Riesling," says importer Terry Theise. Fred Price of New York City's Union Pacific concurs: "We sommeliers get bored very easily, and great Riesling is never boring."
Style The classical divide in Riesling is between the lighter and more "cerebral" German wines that balance sweetness and acidity, and the fuller-bodied Alsatians. A German might call the Alsace wines obvious; an Alsace winemaker would argue that the austere trocken German style provides less pleasure. Actually, there is a wealth of styles within Germany, from the steely wines grown on the blue-slate slopes of the Mosel to the flamboyant wines of the Pfalz.
Ageworthiness A light-bodied, basically dry 1893 Riesling from Germany's Schloss Schönborn that I tasted in 1999 (Schönborn's 650th anniversary!) was still complex and perfumed. Obviously only the greatest wineries could pull off such a feat, but my point is that these seemingly ethereal wines have more structure and flavor than first meets the palate. A well-made Alsace Riesling can easily improve for 10 to 15 years, a grand cru from a strong vintage for 25-plus. Dessert-style sweet Rieslings can be nearly immortal.
New Locations Fine Rieslings are made outside of Alsace and Germany, notably in Australia, where smaller-scale producers like Grosset, Pikes, Jasper Hill, Henschke and Leeuwin Estate are turning out excellent wines. There are also lovely examples from Austria and northern Italian vineyards in Trentino and Alto Adige. North America has some good Rieslings from cool-climate vineyards in New York, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. And while California makes some respectable examples, I can't think of one I'd spend my money on.5 Great Rieslings
1999 Lingenfelder Bird Label Riesling Pfalz ($11)
This juicy, succulent wine, with its fresh aromas of peach and cherry, hints at this producer's gorgeous, pricier bottlings. Bonus: The bottle lacks all the usual German wine label clutter.
1999 Selbach-Oster Riesling Kabinett Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($15)
From the vertigo-inducing slopes of the Mosel, this subtle, lime-and-peach inflected wine is fairly light-bodied but has a surprising depth of flavor.
1999 Marc Kreydenweiss Riesling Andlau ($20)
From a biodynamic estate in Alsace that takes organic viticulture a step further, this is a lovely, soft, sippable wine.
2000 Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling Columbia Valley ($18)
The international partners that produced this wine are Washington State juggernaut Chateau Ste. Michelle and Mosel star winemaker Ernst Loosen. This second vintage is rich, viscous and mildly off-dry.
1999 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling Margaret River ($22)
From the far west coast of Oz, this full-bodied but refined Riesling delivers a mouthful of bright fruit with enough acidity to give it a fair amount of zip.