Riesling’s Multiple Personalities

One of the challenges of successful food-and-wine pairing is that there are no absolutes.

For instance, one of the more commonly referenced combinations is Pinot Noir with salmon. Probably 95 percent of the time, that’s a safe bet.

But what if that salmon were prepared with a black pepper crust? The spiciness of the seasoning would overpower the fruit flavors of the Pinot, rendering the wine comparatively flavorless.

Among white wines, the two varietals most commonly cited as “food friendly” are Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Happily, nearly all bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc pair nicely with various types of seafood—from barbecued shrimp to seared scallops, and from Dungeness crab to fried clams.

But “blanket statements” don’t work with Riesling because winemakers craft it in a variety of styles, from bone dry to very sweet. Although many that find their way onto wine lists at fine restaurants are dry, some are not. And it’s the sugar level in the wine that determines, by and large, the appropriate food partner.

In Germany, where the variety is king, queen, prince and princess all rolled into one, Riesling wines are designated both by quality and sweetness level. If you’d like to learn more about the German system, the German Wine Estates website provides a good primer.

Let’s begin with the bone-dry renditions—whether from Germany, the United States or elsewhere—as they are the most food-friendly and versatile.

These wines embody characteristics that have been described as steely, minerally and citrusy, depending largely upon where the grapes are grown. Because of their taut acidity, they seemingly sing when consumed with food.

What type of food? Except for red meats and dishes with red sauces, the possibilities are almost limitless: oysters, feta cheese, Chinese food, Tex-Mex fare, stuffed olives, sliced fresh tomatoes, veal, chicken with soy sauce…and we could go on.

Then there are the off-dry renditions of Riesling—those that are slightly sweet in the mouth thanks to the 1 or 2 percent residual sugar in the cuvee.

Off-dry does not equate with super-sweet. Typically, the fruit flavors of the wine simply shine more brightly. It can be like biting into a perfectly ripe peach; you’ll experience sweetness, but not necessarily taste sugar.

This is a perfect style of wine to serve on Easter or Thanksgiving…or anytime the main course is ham or a similarly salty dish. Off-dry Riesling also is a great choice when serving a cheese tray with multiple selections.

Sweet Riesling can function as dessert on its own, and also pairs beautifully with fruit-driven desserts such as a peach cobbler with whipped cream, or apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Versatile? You bet. You just need to know what type of Riesling you’re pouring, and you can experience a food-and-wine pairing you’ll long remember.

In a good way.

Do you have a particular dish or type of food that you enjoy with Riesling? Share your personal pairing preference in the comments box below.

Tomorrow: Our countdown of the Top 10 Wine Songs of All-Time continues with the No. 7 song.

Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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