ONE of my most enjoyable jobs is teaching wine at schools and the first question I like to ask students is what wines they like to drink. The almost automatic answer is pinot grigio. When you take your first steps in wine, there are fewer easier or blander wines to drink, so the response is hardly surprising. Most of them still add sugar to their tea and coffee.
The next step up the ladder is chardonnay. Chardonnay is one of the great crowd-pleasers and its relative neutral aromas and affinity with oak allow it to adapt well to many different dishes. Besides, chardonnay is the source of wines from the most basic and commercial to some of the greatest white wines in the world: white Burgundy.
A taste of riesling may not create such an instant bond of friendship. It has naturally higher acidity, which may at first taste sharp or tart. But don't let that deceive or disappoint you. If chardonnay is the queen of white grapes, riesling is the king. It's demanding, full of verve, personality and variety. If you give riesling the loyalty it commands and deserves, sooner or later its acquired taste will repay you by opening the gates to the kingdom of white wine.
As Jancis Robinson MW says in her new book, "Wine Grapes," co-authored with Julia Harding MW and José Vouillamoz, "Riesling is one of the world's great wine grapes, capable of making particularly geographically expressive and long-lived wines at all sweetness levels." What other grape can make that claim? None.
Riesling is Germany's greatest gift to the wine world. It's the only great wine grape in fact to have spread its wings in countless regions around the world that isn't French in origin. Riesling is not even allowed in France, except for Alsace, which was once German.
Riesling is an aromatic variety that bursts with exotic citrus, spicy and floral aromas and comprises myriad fruit flavors from apple to peach to lemon, lime and grapefruit.
It is widely planted throughout the classic regions of Germany and is generally considered to reach its apex, although not exclusively so, in the Mosel, the Rheingau, The Pfalz and parts of the Rheinhessen. It clings to steep slopes and loves hardy, poor terrain, rewarding its long-suffering growers with wines of intense aroma and concentration.
Apart from its demanding nature, one of the reasons why riesling has been less popular than it deserves to be, in my view at least, is because of the many prejudices against it.
The first is that it is often linked in the mind with the lesser varieties that sound similar. Olasz riesling, w?lschriesling, riesling italico and laski rizling all belong to the same lesser varietal grouping and all have tarred German riesling, quite unjustly, with their own inferior brush.
Secondly, riesling has suffered from the image of German wine created by Liebfraumilch, the sugary and dilute German blend in brands such as Black Tower, Blue Nun and cheap supermarket own-label wines.
Finally, it has historically been characterized as sweet, especially in the UK, when its true range of styles can vary from bone dry through off-dry and medium sweet all the way to lusciously rich.
Riesling is a late-ripening grape variety and because its vine's wood is relatively hard, it needs to be planted in sites where it can ripen fully. When it does ripen, it often does so at relatively low alcohol levels, particularly if some residual sugar is left in the wine. The famous featherweight kabinett, sp?tlese and auslese styles from the Mosel Valley in Germany for instance can be fully ripe, and full-flavored, at just 7-8 8 percent, or half the alcoholic content of an Australian shiraz or Californian zinfandel. Not surprisingly these styles are appreciated for their delicacy.
Yet thanks to big improvements in the German vineyards and cellar, along with climate change, Germany is now successfully producing the world's best dry rieslings.
From the Mosel, through the Rheingau, the Rheinhessen and Rheinpfalz, dry riesling varies considerably in style from the lean and austere to the rich and exotic, but there's no doubting the new quality from the likes of Schafer-Frohlich, Wittmann, D?nnhof, Ernst Loosen and JJ Prüm, among others.