Ring all the bells for noble riesling Wine: This often-ignored grape is the most versatile of all and deserves more attention.

February 15, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Let us now all raise our glasses of chardonnay and drink a toast to the most complex, most illustrious, most versatile white-wine grape in all of creation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you -- riesling.

Riesling?

You betcha.

Forget all the hype about chardonnay. That's merely French propaganda. Without a heavy dose of oak flavor, chardonnay seldom produces celestial wine. On its own, chardonnay is a rather bland character.

Riesling needs no seasoning to produce spectacular wines. And where chardonnay is almost exclusively used to produce dry table wines, the noble riesling can excel at every sugar level -- from bone-dry to call-your-dentist sweet.

This tribute to a grape Americans often ignore was inspired by two great dry white wines served with Alsatian choucroute on back-to-back nights over the New Year's holiday.

The first was a 1989 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Brand from Alsace, a wine of such compelling depth, complexity, length, elegance and flavor that it strained the boundaries of a 100-point scale. At an age when most chardonnays are history, this wine was just entering its prime. The second, a 1993 Weingut Brundlmayer Zobinger Heiligenstein Riesling from Austria, was only slightly less magnificent.

(Most Marylanders, alas, will not have the chance to purchase the current vintages of these masterpieces -- at least not legally. Zind-Humbrecht wines can be purchased at Mills Wine and Spirits in Annapolis, but I have never seen Brundlmayer offered here. Both can be purchased through catalogs, but Maryland bans the interstate shipment of wines.)

The effect of tasting such spectacular wines was to jolt me into a search for other exquisite rieslings that could accompany other fine dinners. Dessert rieslings, which get rather expensive, were deferred for another time.

The driest and most delicate rieslings are well suited to accompany shellfish or flounder. Robust dry rieslings match up well with Alsatian and German cuisine. Semi-dry rieslings such as German kabinetts and spatlese go with spicy Asian dishes.

These are some of the gems discovered during a recent foray into the Maryland market:

* 1995 Karlsmuhle "Patheiger" Kaseler Kehrnagel Riesling Spatlese Halbtrocken ($18). This is a wine to die for. It is so beautifully balanced as it skates across the palate with a dry, icy edge. It displays all the flavors of a great Ruwer wine from a top-notch vineyard -- green apple, wet stones, exotic spices and even a hint of raspberry. It's a Terry Theise Estate Selection, which should come as no great surprise to German wine lovers. Try it with plump, sweet scallops.

* 1996 Kurt Darting Durkheimer Nonnengarten Riesling Kabinett ($10, liter). One of the finest white-wine values in the market, this fruit-packed riesling from the Pfalz region grabs you and won't let go. Another Theise selection.

* 1996 Selbach-Oster Riesling Hochgewachs ($11). Pure elegance and intensity mark this Mosel-Saar-Ruwer beauty, which offers classic apple, mineral and peach flavors brought to life by a jolt of refreshing acidity. Theise again.

* 1996 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Schlossberg "Clos des Capucins" ($35). Drinking this wine now is infanticide. It has all the elements of a great dry Alsace riesling, but it really deserves to be aged at least five years. Behind its hard edge, one can detect terrific embryonic flavors and excellent extraction of fruit. Have faith.

* 1995 Karl Erbes Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett ($15). This creamy-smooth wine displays the characteristic strawberry, honey and spice flavors of this famous vineyard, whose name means "spice garden of Urzig." A lively acidity keeps this off-dry wine from becoming cloying.

* 1996 Firestone Vineyard Central Coast Johannisberg Riesling ($7). California rieslings seldom develop the lively acidity that gives the best German wines their structure and zip, but they can be very pleasant, fruity quaffing wines. This is one of the drier California rieslings, but it shows an abundance of peach, melon and spice flavors. And the price is right.

* 1994 Hugel Alsace Riesling ($13). This crisp, mineral-flavored wine was a bit severe when first opened, but blossomed in the glass to reveal a lemony freshness and a smoky quality that are quite appealing. This is definitely a wine to serve with seafood.

* 1996 Jekel Monterey County Johannisberg Riesling "Gravelstone" ($9). This wine, produced by one of the best riesling wineries in California, is one of the drier rieslings produced in the state. It offers appealing flavors of peach, lemon, orange and spices.

* 1995 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($7.49). Tasting like a cross between German and Alsace styles, this inexpensive, widely available wine is an excellent value.

Pub Date: 2/15/98

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