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Taking the dry side of Riesling

ASPEN – Still here and still kicking, after 72 hours of the 2011 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, aka Glitter Gulch.

Spending a hour Sunday while restaurant owner and beverage director (“I don’t consider myself a sommelier”) Paul Grieco of New York City’s Hearth, Terroir and Terroir Tribeca restaurant explained the whys of dry Riesling was another lesson in my ever-continuing wine education.

I first heard Grieco share his love for Riesling at an earlier F&W Classic and again this year he shared the same fervor for this lovely grape, which he celebrates at his restaurants and wine bar, selling 150 Rieslings by the bottle and 30 different Rieslings by the glass. He also is a key player in the International Riesling Foundation and this summer is celebrating the 2011 Summer of Reisling.

There are restaurants all over the country participating but only one in Colorado, the Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in Greenwood Village. Too bad there is nothing local, since the Grand Valley and the North Fork Valley produce the best Rieslings in Colorado.

But on to Paul Grieco, who this year decided to approach dry Rieslings, maybe the least understood of the Rieslings.

“Our problem with getting people to drink Riesling is we always give them an out,” said Grieco, meaning beverage directors and somms tend to offer other whites, notably Chardonnay, to customers initially hesitant to order a Riesling.

Paul Grieco at 2011 F&W Classic Aspen

Paul Grieco, co-owner and beverage director (sommelier) at the Hearth, Terroir and Terroir Tribeca restaurants in New York City, explains the finer points of a German wine label during his seminar Sunday on dry Rieslings during the 2011 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Check out the 'Riesling" tattoo on his arm.

“I don’t want to give you an out,” he said, flashing his right forearm where the world “Riesling” was tattooed (don’t worry, it’s a wash-off tattoo). “At my restaurant, I don’t give you a choice, you drink Riesling.”

During his all-too-brief seminar Sunday titled “Riesling: The Dry Side,” Grieco said a wine needs several properties to be a great wine. The list includes complexity, balance, delicacy, longevity, a sense of place and, well, “yummy.”

“Does it make you smile?” he asked. “A great wine should bring a smile to your face when you drink it.”

A sense of place, which the French and others label as terroir, is particularly evident in great Rieslings because the grape is so “transparent,” Grieco said. “Nothing obscures the vineyard from coming through in the glass.”

Pouring samples from Germany, Alsace and Austria, Grieco talked us through the different regions and explained the complexities of a German wine label, which turn out to be surprisingly easy to read.

“German labels are perfect, you know exactly what’s in the bottle,” Grieco had us repeating to ourselves.

As his was a seminar on the finer points of dry Rieslings (those with 8 grams or less per liter of residual sugar), Grieco immediately made it clear that balance between acidity and sweetness was key to any Riesling’s greatness. That’s why semi-sweet (also called off-dry) or sweet Rieslings aren’t too cloying or syrupy if the acid/RS level is in balance.

Just in case you forgot, residual sugar refers to the sugar left in the wine after fermentation. Knowing this, you can judge how sweet a wine will be. Jeff Siegel (Wine Curmudgeon) has an interesting post here.

“Are Rieslings inherently sweet?” he asked. “Of course not. Ninety percent of Rieslings are dry. But we often taste sweetness and forget to taste the acidity.”

Grieco said that while growing up in Canada, one of his childhood dreams was of someday driving the ice-clearing Zamboni machine used during breaks in a hockey match to smooth and resurface the rink.

“Acidity in wine is like a Zamboni,” Grieco affirmed. “It clears the palate, leaving a clean sheet.”
The wines we tasted, all of which had the needed characteristics to be considered great, included:
– Dr. F Weins-Prum 2009 Riesling Spatlese Trocken, Mosel, Germany;
– Leitz 2009 Riesling Trocken Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg “Alte Reben,” Rheingau, Germ.;
– Rebholz 2007 Okonomierat Riesling Spatlese Trocken :Vom Muschelkalk,” Pfalz, Germ.
– Nikolaihof 1999 Riesling Steinriesler, Wachau, Austria;
– Hugel 2005 Riesling “Hugel” Jubilee, Alsace;
– Henschke 2007 Riesling, Julius, Eden Valley Australia.

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