Of all the grape varieties the world has to offer, and there are literally hundreds, perhaps none is more esteemed than Riesling.
Local producers are beginning to have more success with this grape, both in the Willamette Valley and in Washington state. Using fruit from the Yakima Valley, Oregon's O'Reilly's 2002 Riesling ($8.99) is made in a slightly riper, more fruit-driven style, with lots of apricot and peach elements on the nose. Great by itself, this wine has enough acid and body to go well with some spicy noodle dishes or grilled fish.
The Bordeaux region in southwest France has its glorious, powerful cabernets and merlots. Burgundy, in eastern France, has its fickle, elegant pinot noirs. But Germany and northern France are home to some of the most complex, delicious wines produced.
While many no doubt associate Riesling with the sticky-sweet jug wine that led to quick buzzes and bad headaches back in the day, the Riesling I'm talking about is the result of years of tradition and hard work Ñ and some distinct growing conditions.
Riesling's true home is in Germany, primarily the southwestern part of the country, close to the French border. As grape-growing regions go, this one is cooler than most, resulting in wines that are generally leaner and less overtly powerful than the wines of, say, southern France or even California.
Likewise for the French region of Alsace, in the northeastern part of the country, Riesling's other great home.
The wines from these regions differ in style, but all show the characteristics that Riesling is famous for, namely a unique, slatey quality (because of the high mineral content in the soil), low alcohol levels (which make for refreshing wines) and a gorgeous complexity that makes the wines deeply satisfying to novice wine drinkers and temperamental fanatics alike.
Why should you get excited about Riesling? Well, for one thing, it's a fabulous wine to drink with food. Its generally high acidity makes it well-suited to cut through certain sauces, especially those with a little spice, and the fruit notes that it exhibits make it an excellent wine choice for medium-bodied dishes, such as grilled pork.
On a more subtle level, wines made from Riesling grapes are among the best (perhaps the best white wines) at displaying what the French call terroir, which can be translated as 'place,' but is really a term that encompasses the combination of all the factors that make a wine taste the way it does: soil, climate conditions, age of the vineyard, etc.
All wine shows some of its origins in the glass. But inevitably the most satisfying wines taste not like something that might have been made anywhere in the wide wine world, but like a wine that came from one distinct location. This may seem a tad excessive, but trust me, once you taste wines that truly show their roots, other wines can lose some of their luster.
It's true that top Rieslings routinely sell for as much as good Burgundy, but it's not hard to find excellent examples of the wine's charms at reasonable prices. For an excellent, balanced German Riesling, try the Villa Wolf 1998 Riesling ($9.99). It shows classic Riesling minerality and acidity, with notes of lemon and orange zest, along with some of the petrol-like elements that some Rieslings display. The aromas are an acquired taste, and not everyone likes them, but those who do can't get enough.
A good example of Alsatian Riesling, the Kientzler Riesling 2000 Reserve Particuliere ($14.99), shows some slate on the nose, and while not a 'fruity' wine, it has elements of citrus present. The crisp acidity and long, lingering finish make this a great choice for seafood, especially shellfish dishes.