Frontier Psychiatrist

100 Rieslings in One Day

Posted on: May 16, 2012

Riesling: Grape of the Gods

Last week, I tried more than 100 German Rieslings in one day. How is this possible? The short answer is highly functioning alcoholism cleverly disguised as gainful employment based on an advanced knowledge of the great and varied fermented grape juices of the world.  I am a buyer slash salesman for a wine shop in Manhattan. One of the perks of my job is the ability to leave work in the middle of the day and go to places where I normally wouldn’t be welcomed to taste and evaluate wines for purchase. On the day in question, a trade organization for the Wines of Germany put on a grand show in Tribeca featuring the stellar 2011 vintage. It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it.

Before we go any further, let’s clear up a few things about Riesling.  Forget what you heard, Riesling is one of the great grapes of the world, with a wide range of styles and quality levels. Riesling can be crap sugar water in blue bottles or single-vineyard God-Juice capable of ageing for a century.  It can be so dry and mineral as to be nigh overwhelming to the senses (trocken) or dessert wine (Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenausle, Eiswein), or somewhere in-between (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese). Grown in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, California, Oregon, Hungary, Slovenia and China, it’s the ideal pairing for any kind of fish, ham, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, or Szechuan food. It was  a favorite of the tsars and 200 years ago, if you walked into the best restaurant in London, it would have been the most expensive bottle on the menu.

Good Riesling, for me, is akin to drinking joy.  There is a more than bearable lightness coupled with precision, hidden power and quiet depth.  Add a touch of sweetness and you’re left with something like a perfect spring day when the sun is strong enough to warm the skin but the remembrance of winter is still on the wind.  Summer lies somewhere in the future, with all the potential it brings, but for now you’re content to simply exist in a crisp, clean moment and, my, isn’t it sweet?

Pardon my poetry but good wine reflects its place (the French call it “terroir”) and its people so I beg you not to brush aside as pretension the rhapsodic reaction to the bottled soul of culture.  Wines, like dogs, reflect their masters and German Riesling is no exception.  They are efficient wines, too acidic for some, capable of great power yet never flamboyant.  They are some of the longest-lived white wines in the world yet currently out of fashion.  When they are dry, they can be mean and unyielding but with a touch or more of sweetness, they brighten and sing.

All of this was on display at the German Riesling tasting I attended last week.  2011 is a fantastic vintage (for those keeping score at home, 2007, 2005 and 2001 also qualify as fantastic with the 2010 only losing out because the drier wines are not that good).  To reiterate, we’re talking about the good stuff here (though great vintages raise all boats so if you see a cheap 2011, it’ll be better than it should be).  By “Good Stuff” I mean single vineyard Riesling grown and vinified by caring, dedicated farmer/winemakers, many of whom are the umpteeth generation to make Riesling on estates their families have owned since before the Plague was a big problem.  For instance, you might be confused and intimidated, if you saw this label:

Dr. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spatlese 2011

Then you would reach deep inside yourself and realize Dr. Thanisch is the producer; Bernkastel is the town; Badstube is the vineyard; Riesling is the grape; Spatlese is the sweetness level and 2011 is the vintage. Not maddeningly complicated at all, but specific for a reason.  In a world where food ingredients and coffee are traced with Portlandian specificity, why would a great wine not tell you where it was from and what you can expect from the taste?  Spatlese is a term which refers to the amount of sugar left in the bottle.  It’s a hierarchy.  Trocken has absolutely no sugar; Haltrocken has just a smidge; Kabinett has a noticeable sweetness but not a lot; Spatlese has definite sweetness; Auslese is very sweet.  Halbtrocken and Kabinett are best drunk within the first five years of the vintage but Trocken, Spatlese and Auslese are built to age.

Paul Grieco is the owner of Terroir, a triad of truly amazing winebars in New York City and also this year’s recipient of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer and Spirits Professional (sort of the Nobel Prize for Booze People).  He is also the originator of The Summer of Riesling, an international celebration designed to raise awareness of this most misunderstood grape.  For the last several years, he has been kind enough to host The Long Night of Riesling, a charity tasting benefiting Help Us Hope, a wonderful charity that exists to fight AIDS in South Africa.  This was one of the more remarkable tastings I’ve ever attended.

There was a hundred Rieslings set out on a table, many of them pre-dating the 21st century, nearly all of them five years or older.  Something truly remarkable happens to Riesling as it gets older.  The sweetness which might have been overwhelming in the wine’s youth mellows with time and the hidden depths reveal themselves. You’re left with a wine which is light yet complex, precise yet rounded.   You can drink a whole glass without noticing but it’s hard to forget the taste.  For those keeping score, I loved the 1994s but 95 and 90 were very good and, again, 2001 might be the greatest German Riesling vintage we’ll ever experience.

Someone once told me, “Old German Riesling is where wine geeks go to die.” At the time, I didn’t understand.  Now, I do.  I am lucky enough to have tasted some of the great examples of nearly every wine region known to man and if I had to pick one type of wine to drink for the rest of my life, it would German Riesling with some bottle age.  In fact, I almost once got evicted because I was buying so much old German Riesling off the Internet.

So, 100 Rieslings in one day.  Could I taste much at the end of it?  Nope.  Was I pretty drunk?  Definitely.  Did I have a wicked hangover the next day?  Damn right.  If someone asked me if I was up to the challenge of doing 200, would I jump at the chance?  Absolutely.

Jared Thomas is an author and scriptwriter living in Brooklyn. His works include The Street Dreams of Electric Youth, The Last Amesha, and Gre & The Devil. He recently wrote about The Avengers and the most anticipated geek movies of 2012.  

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5 Responses to "100 Rieslings in One Day"

I am incredibly jealous of this experience. I’ve made riesling in Waipara Valley, New Zealand and in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and am completely enamored with this king of white wine grapes.

What a great job you have! I would like to see what happens if I leave in the middle of my workday to go drink wine 🙂 (though I’m guessing it’s a “no-no” working at a Catholic university)

Courtney Hosny

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