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Riesling – Germany’s Gift to Chinese Cuisine
To open a bottle of Riesling is to take a walk through a colorful floral scented orchard where pears, peaches, and apricots are in full blossom. The grandeur of this most noble grape is experienced in its luscious honey-colored, floral scented wine. There are those who feel this to be the most esteemed white wine in the world. The styles produced from this grape range from slightly off-dry to a sweet golden amber nectar, which can make even the most casual wine drinker pause and reflect upon the marvelous wine in the glass. Riesling has a unique clarity and depth of flavor, which is often suggestive of pears and apricots. Its crisp and refreshing acidity is almost always surrounded by an effusive floral bouquet. Light body and low alcohol help these fine nuances of flavor to become more apparent.
Under the appropriate conditions of warmth and humidity the Riesling has an almost unique ability to become infected with a fungus called botrytis cinerea or most commonly called “the noble rot.” This condition is one of this wine’s keys to greatness. If the grape is so blessed, its skin will shrivel, lose water, and produce a concentration of sugars and flavors not to be believed. Wines produced from this type of grape are called “late harvest wines.” After maturity these very special grapes are left to rot on the vine, which in turn produces some of the most exquisite dessert wines in the world.
Although grown worldwide, the Riesling does best in the cool climate and harsh soils of Germany. The breeding and elegance of German Riesling, in my opinion, cannot be imitated elsewhere. The best of the wines are grouped into five categories based on the sugar level of the finished wine. The direst, or least amount of sugar, are called Kabinett. This group is off-dry, fruity, crisp, and refreshing. The next group, in order of ascending sweetness, is the Spatlese. It has noticeably more sweetness. The last three groups get their sweetness from the “noble rot.” In increasing sweetness they are Auslese, Berenauslese, and the scarcest, sweetest and most expensive is the Trockenbeerenauslese. These terms indicate select picking, selected late picking and very special late picking, respectively. Bare in mind, not all of the grapes on the vine become infected with botrytis. Those that do are left on the vine after the normal harvest. As you can see, this is a very time consuming, laborious expensive task. These grapes are hand selected, sometimes one at a time.
In the warmer climate of California the varietal flavor is apparent but the wines tend to be fuller and less delicate. The phenomenal California sun is responsible for this. It creates greater levels of sugar, which creates a wine of higher alcohol levels than what is produced in Germany. A comparison between the California and German type of this wine should not be made. Each wine has its own particular character and appropriate position within the dining or social experience. The natural “noble rot” occurs in California but it is rare to find large quantities of these special wines. Wines that are labeled “Selected Late Harvest” will be from grapes that have been left to ripen more thoroughly after the regular harvest. Wines labeled “Botrytis” will have not only been a later harvest wine but will have also been subjected to the “noble rot.” This wine will show greater depth and expense. These wines usually come in half-bottles. The longer it sits on the vine, the better the wine.
In the Alsace region of France, the Riesling shows itself to be more austere, totally dry and has a greater percentage of alcohol than either its German or American cousins. It is in these wines that the varietal flavors reach great intensity and power. Australia, Austria and other parts of Europe have been producing excellent Rieslings, which come close to the Germanic style. It is more than likely, however, that Germany will remain the dominant and best producer of Riesling based wines.
The beauty of Riesling is that it can be enjoyed as a delightful aperitif or with dinner. It can intensify any full flavored dish such as Chinese food or even curried Indian cuisine. Routine roast chicken or simple veal will come alive with a good Kabinett. Riesling is legendary when it comes to desserts. Some are so satisfying that they fulfill the dessert course all alone. But, a slice of pungent cheese or an apricot fruit tart would be better.
So, when experiencing Chinese cuisine there are two things I must have at my table: a glass of Riesling and dinner companions who enjoy good conversation. In vino veritas. In wine there is truth.