What’s the Deal With Riesling?

When introducing the subject of dry German rieslings last month, I wondered why so many people say they do not like the wines, whether dry or sweet. After spending the last month drinking them and reading through comments, I confess, not surprisingly, that I’ve come no closer to finding an answer.

One of the reasons I have been curious is that for as long as I’ve loved wine, I’ve loved rieslings. Among the early epiphanies I had with wine in the 1980s was a bottle of lightly sweet riesling, a delicate, shimmering kabinett from Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Gracher Himmelreich vineyard.

I was so excited to learn how lively and refreshing a wine could be, fragile, tense and pulsing with energy. It seemed, as with red Burgundy, another wine I was discovering at the time, to embody the ideal of intensity without weight. Why doesn’t everybody have this same experience?

A silly question, I know. Perception and taste are subjective, and wine experiences are subject to an enormous number of variables.

Wines like that Prüm kabinett are not so easy to find anymore. Climate change has made it easier to ripen grapes in Germany’s top areas for riesling, but it has made it impossible most years to make the sort of feathery kabinetts that I used to prize (though cool, rainy 2021 may be a throwback vintage).

But, unlike in the 1980s, Germany now makes some of the greatest dry rieslings in the world. The three wines I had suggested, Brand Pfalz Riesling Trocken 2021, Dreissigacker Rheinhessen Riesling Trocken 2021 and Georg Breuer Rheingau Estate Lorch 2020, were all good introductory bottles.

The Brand, from that cooler ’21 vintage, was vivacious — stony, earthy and textured with bright, spicy flavors of citrus and ginger. It almost pulsed with energy.

The Dreissigacker, also a ’21, was likewise energetic. It had earthy flavors of citrus, flowers and herbs that persisted long after I had swallowed. It was a quieter wine than the Brand but no less insistent.

The Breuer was a 2020, a warmer, drier year more typical, so far, of the climate change era. It seemed broader, richer and fruitier, with a peachy flavor. It was lively, without the nervous energy of the other two.

The Breuer also had an extra year of aging, and seemed a bit more settled. The other two wines may need a little more time to smooth their jagged edges.

WS of Cologne, Germany, suggested the ’21s needed a few more years of aging to tame their vibrant acidity.

Aside from vintage, the wines came from different places. The Brand, from the northern Pfalz, and the Dreissigacker, from Rheinhessen, both came from loess, loam and limestone soils. The Breuer, from the Rheingau, was from slate soils. I found a lot of beauty in those subtle differences.

Predictably, as with the subject of rieslings in general, these wines were polarizing, judging from the responses. People seemed to like them or dislike them. Sometimes they even changed their minds depending on the day.

Dan Barron of New York drank the Dreissigacker but found it “completely unenjoyable.”

“I’ve tried hard to like bone-dry riesling,” he said. “Fundamentally, I don’t.”

Nonetheless, being the inquisitive sort, he went back to the wine a few nights later. He served it a notch less cool than he had the first time and with salmon salad rather than branzino. He had a diametrically different experience. “It was gutsy and wonderful, I take back everything I said,” he wrote.

Good wine is like that. It will vary depending on the context, maybe not showing itself to full advantage under certain conditions but always ready to redeem itself. That’s why I believe it’s important to withhold judgment about categories of wines based on just a few tries, even if you are convinced that you don’t like a particular bottle.

Readers had their own theories about why people say they don’t like rieslings, dry or sweet. Science Teacher of Illinois suggested that some people might misinterpret the term “dry” as a synonym for a lack of character and flavor.

“Obviously not true,” Science Teacher said, “but maybe more than a few drinkers have had the bad experience of dry rieslings they simply considered boring.”

And Eric of Los Angeles, a former bartender, recalled changing minds by pouring exquisitely balanced sweet rieslings to patrons who told him they did not like sweet wines: “I think ‘sweetness’ is something people are told not to like, but what they really don’t like is bad wine.”

I think he nailed it. Not that people should be compelled to like any particular type of wine, but we all tend to generalize from bad experiences. We might have had a disappointing bottle — it could be riesling or chardonnay, merlot or zinfandel, natural or orange — and, not unreasonably, conclude that we dislike that style.

It’s the fallacy of leaping to a conclusion based on insufficient evidence. If your friend is a poor cook and prepares for you an overcooked piece of fish, do you conclude that you don’t like fish? Or that your friend needs cooking lessons?

Every wine lover would benefit from a reminder to be open-minded. I try to remember this all the time, though I don’t always succeed. One reader, Kristine of Los Angeles, believed not only that she didn’t like riesling but that she didn’t like white wine, period. “I previously found them very acidic and flavorless,” she said.

But, participating in Wine School for the first time with her son and his girlfriend, she drank a 2020 dry riesling from the Rheingau, not as cold as she might have ordinarily served it, and found she enjoyed it. Later, another glass served much colder was closer to the experience she remembered.

“I am sure I had my white wines too cold before,” she concluded, saying she was looking forward to trying riesling again.

I found Kristine’s story inspiring. I hope all wine drinkers will be as receptive to new ideas and new approaches as she was.

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