A-List Rieslings Top Bordeaux, Cheaper Ones Soothe in Summer

Riesling Grapes
Riesling grapes. The best and most long-lived rieslings come from the great historic vineyards of Germany, and produce wines that range from very dry to extremely sweet. Source: Wines of Germany USA via Bloomberg

The lively, intense, utterly delicious wine I’m swirling in my glass is 89 years old, and it’s a white. Razor-sharp acidity is what preserved this German riesling with the impossible-to-say-in-one-breath name: 1921 Hessische Staatsweinguter Kloster Eberbach Rudesheimer Hinterhaus Rheingau. I checked that spelling, twice.

“Of course, 1921 is one of the two greatest vintages of the last century,” confides bushy-mustached German vintner Reinhard Lowenstein of Heymann-Lowenstein winery in the Mosel region.

He and three other members of the VdP, the oldest national winegrower’s association in the world, brought 19 wines, vintages 1921 to 2009, to New York’s Le Bernardin restaurant to show critics and sommeliers how top rieslings can age and why they were once prized more than the best Bordeaux.

The VdP is Germany’s wine A-list and the organization is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, including a September wine auction featuring a century of rarities in Germany.

While we sip an unforgettable 1945 Schloss Johannisberg Grulack Spatlese from the Rheingau (the other great 20th-century vintage), Lowenstein, in a bright green tie that matches the table centerpiece, explains that the nearly 200 vintner-members agree to follow stricter viticulture regulations than required by German law. In the Pfalz region, more than 50 percent grow grapes organically or biodynamically.

All of them are basking in the latest news about riesling’s recent rise in popularity in the U.S. According to Nielsen Co., in the year ended June, it was the fastest-growing white wine in volume, with sales up 11.5 percent, and in dollars spent.

Cool Rieslings

I’ve been a riesling fan for years. When the temperature hits 90, a bright German bottling with its modest alcohol levels and pinpoint balance between pure fruitiness and tooth-tingling, bone-crunching acidity is what I pour.

The racy, minerally 2008s like Donnhoff Northeimer Dellchen ($35) and just-arriving, richer 2009s, such as Heymann-Lowenstein Uhlen Laubach ($30), are stunning and offer serious quality for modest ($15 to $35) prices.

Many wine lovers think of acidity as a bad thing, but it makes riesling ageworthy, more fragrant and more versatile with just about any food other than red meat. Chef Eric Ripert’s fish cuisine is tailor-made for these wines.

The complex, lime-scented 1997 Karthauserhof Eitelbacher Karthauserhofberg Spatlese dry ($50) brilliantly pointed up the tangy flavors of chef Ripert’s Vietnamese-style hamachi. With seared langoustines, mache and wild mushroom salad with shaved foie gras -- the killer dish of the lunch -- I savored the spicy, vivid 2004 Okonomierat Rebholz Kastanienbusch GG ($70) from Pfalz.

Crispy Bass

Fabulous 1959, 1976, and 1988 rieslings accompanied crispy black bass and bean-sprout risotto. The 1988, a lemony, vibrant Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese Mosel worked best.

If you think German labels are confusing (and you are not alone), hang on. VdP members’ wines from vineyards the organization has classified grand cru carry a logo of stylized grapes and the numeral one, while GG indicates it’s dry.

Despite all the pedigree, German riesling is today’s anti-establishment wine. People still suffer from fear of riesling. I’m convinced it isn’t the impossible-to-decipher Gothic script on the labels or the tall thin bottles that don’t fit into most refrigerators or wine racks. It’s fear of sweetness that make people pull back before buying the bottle. Just so you know: Though they can vary from bone dry to very sweet, the vast majority of German rieslings do not taste sweet because of the counterbalance of zingy acidity.

Total Immersion

New York’s most dedicated riesling fanatic is acidhound Paul Grieco, the goateed wine director and co-owner of New York’s Hearth Restaurant and wine bars Terroir E.Vill. and Terroir Tribeca. His method for attacking fear of riesling? Aggressive immersion.

For the third summer, the only whites poured by the glass at his wine bars are rieslings. No familiar chardonnay. No popular bland pinot grigio. Grieco is out to convert, to change lives, hearts and minds.

I missed his sold-out riesling rock concert at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory featuring “four bands chosen for their high acidity, elegant concentration of fruit and incredible sense of place.” Only riesling was poured.

“I’m trying to show it can be a rock and roll drink, that it’s not your father’s wine,” he says.

There are still 7 days left of New York’s First Annual Riesling Bar Crawl, and Terroir’s Summer of Riesling lasts until Sept. 22. The stellar 2009s are starting to appear on retail shelves and cost way less than 2009 Bordeaux futures. There’s plenty of time to be converted. Take the acid test.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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