Summer Wine Review Part 4: The Summer of Riesling
Some of us have been banging on about this for years: Riesling is the King – or, if you prefer, the Queen – of white wines. And yet it’s madly maligned, like it’s some Marie Antoinette of noble grapes. Why? Perhaps because too many people grew up on too much cheap German crap, and they still think Riesling was the grape responsible for all that awful, cloying Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun (even though it was mainly the Müller-Thurgau grape at fault). Yet Riesling is arguably the most versatile of all white grapes; with the possible exception of Chenin Blanc, it’s the only one capable of producing world class wines from driest to the sweetest of forms, with stops at all alluring points in-between.
You know this, of course, because you’ve been reading iJamming! for ten full years now, right (RIGHT?), and you’ll have read my countless posts about the fine Rieslings from New York’s own Finger Lakes (as per this beauty on the left), reviews of the great German and Austrian Rieslings when I’ve been lucky enough to attend industry events, and my occasional observations on how, every time I show up for a BYOB night with my serious wine geek semi-friends, they immediately gravitate to those German and Austrian Rieslings with the intensity of hip-hop DJs at a fire sale of 1960s and 70s break-beat albums.
Now, it seems, finally, the rest of the world is catching up. Or, if not the rest of the world, then perhaps just New York City. Because while I was down and out (at night) in Manhattan and Brooklyn at the end of July, it seemed that Riesling was, well, on everybody’s lips. City Winery was pouring its own production from the Finger Lakes by the glass when I went there for the Channeling Chilton Show. (Admittedly, it was a mildly disappointing glass, characteristic Granny Smith apple and crisp pear flavors, and a pleasant tangerine/nectarine element around the back of the palate, then overtaken by a lingering minerality and stoniness that seemed more a fault than a reflection of terroir.) And I was especially impressed that when I headed down to the Hotel Jane for the Spiritualized show after party, the bar had added Riesling to the usual choices of Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Though I didn’t check out the specifics of the Riesling on hand, I did buy a glass (alright, two of them); it had the lively acidity that makes this grape so refreshing, the grassy citrus notes that sometimes can confuse it with a Sauvignon Blanc, the apple and pear that then distinguish it as Riesling and, in this particular case as with many others, a slight hint of Residual Sugar.
It was also, plainly, low in alcohol, and that’s surely a major reason that Riesling seems to have caught on in New York this summer. When it’s almost a hundred degrees out, and the humidity is just as high, meaning the real-feel temperature is somewhere round that of an oven, in the Sahara, at mid-day, the last thing you should be doing is be knocking back bottles of high-octane Zinfandel or heavily oaked Californian Chardonnay – or, despite it being the best wine in the world, a Châteauneuf du Pape topping out at close to 16% alcohol. Riesling, which in entry-level German form usually hovers around just 10% alcohol, delivers all the fruit you expect in a good wine, the acidic vibrancy too, but crucially, it offers restraint. As Jancis Robinson has long been fond of saying, you can drink it without getting drunk. Well, at least for a while.
That appears to be the message at Terroir, a new (to me) wine bar with locations in both the East Village and Tribeca, currently offering some 25 Rieslings by the glass (see list above) – and, at least as far as white wine is concerned, ONLY Riesling by the glass. It’s an act of bold-faced bravery, mixed with a dash of insanity and an admitted smidgeon of snobbery. Riesling is so damn good, Terroir appears to be insisting, and it comes in such a variety of styles, and such a wide price range, and hey, we’re offering both 3oz tastings and 6oz glasses that, trust us, you won’t want to drink anything else.
Judging by my experience at the East Village location, on 12th Street between 1st and A (see below), the risk appears to be paying off. The bar was packed. Admittedly, that meant only 20 or so people, but all of them drinking white wine had to be, by default, drinking Riesling. And as far as I could tell, none seemed to be complaining. Not about the wine perhaps, though we were all bitching about the air conditioning, which was struggling mightily to cope with the night’s heat, humidity, and the fluctuations in both caused by the constant opening and closing of the front door. That aside, I liked the place. I liked our waitress, friendly and patient even though she clearly didn’t have the knowledge as the one at City Winery the night before. I liked that the bottles of wine were brought to our table to be poured (rather than at the bar), and that they were measured by eyesight, which appeared to be leaning on the generous side. And if I didn’t love the prices, I didn’t have a big problem with them, all things considered: a $6-$7 average for a 3oz pour of an interesting Riesling seemed acceptable – even, or perhaps these days, especially in the East Village.
And I liked the wines themselves. My friend Joe Moryl and I were both extremely taken by the sparkling Jagdschloss Brut 20008 from the Rheingau, which had a delicacy and vivacity you don’t normally find in a champagne at this price ($5.25 for a 3oz taste, almost double for the 6oz). And I was not disappointed by the extravagantly fruity Feinherb Kabinett Knebel 2008 from Winninger Hamm in the Mosel ($6.75), at least not until I tasted the Feinherb 2008 from Von Basserman-Jordan of the Pfalz which was more floral, leaner, more delicate and pure – and cheaper, too, at $5.50. My pal Joe then had a glass of the Federspiel Urgestein Terrasen from FX Pichier in Austria’s Wachau region, which he seemed content with – as he should be, at $8.75. Me, I returned immediately to the Von Basserman-Jordan, whose web site confirms the winery’s history and esteem. (I realize that these brief reviews exemplify German and Austrian Riesling’s key marketing problem – the complicated labeling. Even I did not know, until Joe told me, that Feinherb, for example, is an unofficial byword for semi-dry – a wine with somewhere between 10 and 20 grams of sugar per liter. No wonder that Hotel Jane simply said “Riesling” and left it at that.)
But if I liked the wines, I absolutely loved the 53-page wine list. I’m only parting talking about content here, though rest assured that if you want to drink by the bottle at Terroir this summer, you can enjoy almost every other white grape under the sun, that the choice of reds by the glass numbers 25 or more different grapes, that there are dozens of beers to choose from too, ciders a-plenty, and several elite bottles of wine that stretch into the 4-figure range. No, I’m talking about the fact that this is a wine list list with attitude – from the graffitied front cover (see above) through to the page-long essays of “My Favorite Riesling” by those who apparently know of what they talk, and, especially, the various full page diatribes against people, places and unworthy institutions. There’s a rant about New York City street fairs (“last year we had to put up with 321 street fairs that contributed a big fat zero to New York City life”) and a number of hilarious (if cruel) full page character assassinations. A sample from why Lindsay Lohan needs a glass of Riesling: “Because it will provide you with the absolute clarity necessary to convince you that a life stupidly lived is not a life lived at all.” A sample from why Mel Gibson needs a glass of Riesling: “Because you need to respect women, gays, Latinos, Jews, African Americans – in fact, you need to respect everybody, you Jackass.” I don’t fully agree with the character assassination of President Obama, who I believe is stymied by the forces around him, not by his own lack of conviction, but I do share the concluding sentiment: “Wake up and savor the Riesling! It is a new generation that demands change. And we need it now!”
Will this generation change to Riesling? Well, if they keep pouring those buckets of cheap Pinot Grigio crap in bars from Brooklyn to Bearsville, Williamsburg to Woodstock – and, while we’re at it, and speaking from experience, from London to Manchester – this generation will certainly change to something. And it will as likely change to Riesling as Viognier (too exotic), Grüner Veltliner (too monolithic), Vermentino (too easily confused with Verdicchio and Vernaccia, Verdejo and Verdelho), or Chenin Blanc (though I predict that noble grape’s day will come soon after). As ever, New York may have got a lead on the fashion stakes.