I recently had the wonderful experience of attending a Riesling tasting party at the home of a good friend and knowledgeable wine aficionado. This was not a curated tasting. This was a bring-a couple-of-bottles-of-Riesling tasting. There were 4 couples and together we sampled 8 Rieslings—imported and domestic.
Disclaimer: Tasting 8 of any kind of wine is a lot. I don’t recommend it as a practice. Five is my preferred number. So, when you taste 8 wines, you have to be very intentional and careful if you really want to give each wine a fair evaluation.
Of all the wines we could taste, why Riesling? I can’t speak for the other guests, but for me, it was intended to broaden my understanding of this often-misunderstood varietal. I’m one of those perpetual students of wine who can tell you anything you want to know about a Riesling, and yet I’d rarely ever tasted one. I think as we approach holiday season, we are more eager to try something different—something beyond a Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Of all the wines you can take to a party, Rieslings make the absolute best hostess gifts.
Riesling belongs to one of the oldest grape varietals originating in Germany in 1435. Riesling is the most important grape variety in Germany and is widely planted in wine regions across the country. The three most prominent wine-growing regions of Germany are Mosel, Rheingau, and Pfalz. Get a wine from any of these regions and it will probably be delicious.
Riesling grape vines have a thicker bark than most making it ideal for growing in cooler climates. Riesling is definitely a cool climate grape and does well where the air is cool and dry, but sunny enough to allow the sugars and aromatic flavors to develop slowly.
Riesling typically has a lower alcohol content than most varietals, which is great if you’re sampling 8 of them! Really, though, starting a party with a dry Riesling and appetizers, or ending it with a sweet Riesling and dessert works really well—especially if you’re serving a dinner wine that may have a higher ABV (alcohol by volume).
Riesling are well known for helping to clear the palette after a spicy meal. Many sommeliers recommend pairing Rieslings with a spicy Chinese or Thai food. Here in New Mexico, we know Riesling also works well with our spicy Mexican dishes—especially red chile.
It can be used to make dry, semi-sweet, or sweet white wines. This is one of Rieslings biggest claims to fame, although also one of the primary reasons that Riesling is globally misunderstood. There is a low-quality, sweetened German wine called Liebfraumilch and somehow Riesling has been incorrectly linked to this wine although there is no relationship whatsoever. A sweet Riesling dessert wine will carry itself with grace and dignity. The aromatic quality and acidity of a good Riesling will shine through regardless of the style.
Our Eight Rieslings
Among the eight Rieslings we tasted, there were two from Mosel, Germany; two from Washington’s Columbia Valley, one from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and three from New Mexico. We tasted from dry to sweet and spent a good deal of time commenting on each wine and trying it with some of the different foods that had been provided. Below are the wines we drank and my evaluation of each one. I’ve also noted the average price point of each wine—and there were some big surprises when it came to price.
From Dry to Sweet…
Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler Single Vineyard Dry Riesling 2019: About half of the people in our group came back to this wine as their favorite. Sourced from a single vineyard in Mosel Germany—one of the world’s most important Riesling regions—this wine was purchased for only $18 at Total Wine. Dr. Heidemanns is well balanced, fruit forward, and finishes with a lengthy acidity. I really liked the minerality in this wine that gave it a crisp refreshing taste that lingered. Some in my group mentioned a hint of smokiness with peach and apricot flavors. Overall, a very good wine.
Markus Molitor 2019 Alte Reben. I absolutely loved this Riesling that also touts Mosel on the label. Neither of the Rieslings we tried were of the highest quality Mosel has to offer, but this wine was $25 and I thought it was superior to the other. It had the fresh notes of tree fruits with an emphasis on pear flavor. I loved the crisp minerality and the lively acidity. It was a well-balanced, medium-bodied and I detected notes of honey and lime. This is an outstanding wine.
Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Valley 2020 One of the oldest and largest commercial wineries in the United States, Chateau Ste Michelle has the secret sauce when it comes to making high quality, accessible wines. Most of their commercial varieties are found in the aisles of Walmart, and the prices are low enough to make a wine aficionado suspicious. I’ll just say it. Despite my occasional tendency to be a wine snob, I’ve never had a bad bottle of anything with Chateau Ste Michelle on the label. This delicious dry Riesling was only $12 and it was very competitive against the wines from Mosel, Germany. Bold tree fruits with a crisp lemony acidity and a subtle earthiness reflects the character of the Columbia Valley in Washington State. There is no doubt this is an American wine—and that is a compliment! Slightly drier than most “dry” Rieslings made this a winner for me. A very good wine!
Wines of the San Juan Dry Riesling. The first of our 3 New Mexico wines. Labeled a “dry” Riesling, it really is more off dry. Wines of the San Juan are way up north with a climate perfectly suited for growing Riesling. This wine is great for drinking into the fall and winter. The crisp apple and pear notes are softened with a subtle wisp of Jasmine. The high acidity gives off notes of grapefruit. It is a good wine with an $18 price tag.
Brooks Ara Riesling 2019 from the Willamette Valley in Oregon is outstanding! It has bold tree fruits accented with herbs, baking spices, and lemon rind notes. The wine is dry, but perfectly balanced. It’s totally worth the $38.00 label. This is a popular wine. You can find it for less, but don’t be surprised if the price is as high a $45.00.
Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Valley 2020—Semi sweet. This $8 bottle is the semi-sweet version of the dry Ste Michelle note above. The sweetness is not at all overpowering and it remains well balanced with the characteristic acidity of Riesling. A good wine.
Jaramillo 2021, Belen, New Mexico. My readers know of my affinity for anything with a Jaramillo label on it and the Riesling did not disappoint. The Jaramillo 2021 version is a semi-sweet wine with fruity sweetness with notes of passionfruit, nectarine, and lychee. The wine is a very good, well-balanced wine with a crisp acidity. It is extremely smooth and highly addictive. $24 in the tasting room and on-line.
Mesa Vista just released this 2020 version of their sweet Riesling. For all my fans who were waiting for the “sweet” recommendation, this will hit your holiday sweet spot. Mesa Vista’s $20 Riesling is more full-bodied than expected, but that is what makes it feel richer and smoother. I could do with a little more acidity, but, with that said, I can put my personal preferences aside long enough to say, this is an acceptable wine that will work with many, many holiday dishes and will please all but the driest of palates.
Stay tuned for posts about New Mexico’s Taos-area wineries and winemakers who excel in the Riesling-making department. The holiday season is a long one–too long to spend drinking sparkling wines everyday. Run out and grab a couple of bottles of Riesling or, better yet, order from a New Mexico winery.
I’d love to hear what you’re drinking this season! Leave a comment or send me an email and let me know.
Until next time…