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If you’ve found yourself saying, “I don’t like riesling,” chances are you haven’t found the right style — it’s not always sweet. It’s a German grape in origin that has existed for more than 500 years. Countless stories of culture, family, and national history have been affected by the consumption and trade of this grape.
To write a shortcut on what this grape is seems unlikely to achieve all the goals, but it’s worth trying.
Riesling does quite well in cold-climate areas, as the wood of its vines is quite hard. Riesling buds show later in the spring compared to most other popular wine grapes.
This is a large part of why so much riesling is planted in Michigan.
Riesling sweetness ranges from dry to sweet. The bad news is that it is annoyingly difficult to figure out which bottles are which — or may just have a touch of sweetness. Whatever the sugar level is of the riesling in your glass, it’s likely never flabby. There’s usually quite a bid of acid in riesling — it has a similar pH to Mountain Dew, or sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. The fruit tastes tart instead of ripe because of this.
Regions like Alsace in northeastern France, Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia, and Pfalz in Germany lead the way in dry rieslings throughout the world. Alkoomi’s 2016 riesling is typical of Aussie riesling, and delicious. For around $20, the lucky drinker gets a glimpse of what a powerful white wine tastes like that can probably age for 10-15 years.
This wine is dry, floral and bright, and tastes more like fresh red apples and lime. I want to drink this in the summertime.
Dr. Thanisch makes riesling in the region many consider to the be the epicenter of riesling lore: Mosel, Germany. This is a 375-year-old winery. If a winery is older than the United States, I assume it’s doing something right. Mosel is a tiny region in western Germany, with steeped-sloped vineyards hugging the banks of the Mosel river, often with hairpin turns.
Their 2015 Bernkasteler Badstube riesling Kabinett is one of many dependable values that retains character and affordability through decades of production. At about $24, this wine can play in the big leagues of $50 white wines made in Napa or Burgundy.
There is some sugar in this wine, but the acid is searing and makes it feel nothing like a dessert wine. To me, this wine screams peaches and apricots at harvest with a slight funky floral smell, not exactly unusual for Mosel.
Looking at the wordy name of this wine, I can appreciate how impossible it may be to figure out what style of wine this is. There’s a shortcut to this: Kabinett is one of the levels of ripeness of grapes at harvest. From less ripe to more ripe: Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese.
This usually means that Kabinett is the driest of the styles of high-quality wine, but there are exceptions. For one, 2015 was a very warm year in Germany, so the ‘15s are showing more full and ripe compared to a few years before. Also, just because a grape was picked at Spatlese harvest with more sugar in the grapes than Kabinett grapes, doesn’t mean that the winemaker will make it a sweet wine.
The winemaker may decide to ferment nearly all the sugar in those grapes, thereby boosting the alcohol in the wine and also making it drier. If you see “Grosses Gewachs” on a label, that’s essentially what has happened.
Here in Michigan, the labels are easier to understand. We see a lot of “semi-dry,” “dry,” and “sweet” on the bottle. And the consumers have responded by supporting Michigan producers in turn.
At $15, Chateau Grand Traverse’s 2016 “Mich Mash” riesling is stylistically representative of Michigan rieslings. This winery is one of the best in Michigan for the money. These are not world-beating wines, changing the shape of this grape’s history. But who cares? This is a great value. Slightly sweet, and loaded with lemon flavors, Redhaven peaches and green apple. Everything about this wine tells me I need to take a roadtrip to Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas.
Coincidentally, The City of Riesling is an event taking place in Traverse City this weekend, founded by Amanda Danielson (advanced sommelier and proprietor of The Franklin and Trattoria Stella) and Sean O’Keefe (winemaker at Mari Vineyards and Co-Owner of Chateau Grand Traverse). This event may be the best riesling access any Michigander could ask for.
Justin King is an advanced sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and was named Wine & Spirits Magazine 2017 Best New Sommelier. He owns Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt. Google “City of Riesling” and taste the rainbow.