No doubt, riesling is still the most misunderstood white wine. It’s also probably the most versatile, as I was reminded the other night at a dinner featuring the wines of Pacific Rim in Washington state. The event, at the restaurant 11 Madison Park in New York, started off with something different. “We going to play a little game,” said Nicolals Quillé, winemaker and general manager of Pacific Rim, which produces only riesling and is owned by Randall Grahm, the iconic founder of California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard. “Riesling is a confusing category for a lot of folks,” Quillé went on. “They don’t know if it’s sweet or dry.”
Which brings us back to our game. We were asked to place the five still rieslings Pacific Rim makes on a scale that went from dry to medium dry to medium sweet to sweet. Each glass had a little color-coded sticker on its base. After 5 or 10 minutes of sipping we were ready to discuss the results. No one had any problem identifying the wines on either end of the scale – the 2007 Dry Riesling on one side and, on the other, the 2009 Sweet Riesling and, most notably, the even sweeter 2007 Vin de Glacière, a concentrated and gorgeous “ice wine.” A few people had more trouble deciding which was the sweeter of the two wines in the “medium” range, the 2009 Riesling or the 2008 Organic Riesling. Technically, the organic wine, with a bit more residual sugar, was sweeter by a hair.
The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that there is no single riesling style, despite its reputation among many wine drinkers as a “sweet” wine. The beauty of riesling is that it is made and can be enjoyed in a broad range of styles, depending on preference and food pairing, whether from Washington, Germany, Austria, Alsace, Australia or New York state, to cite some of the better-known regions where the grape is grown.
And our dinner proved the point. There is, for example, no better pairing for a little terrine of foie gras, our starter, than a sweet “dessert” wine such as Pacific Rim’s Vin de Glacièr. With notes of stone fruit, citrus, honey and brown sugar, the wine was actually refreshing with its high level of balancing acidity. While the sweetness enabled it to withstand the richness of the foie gras, the acids made the dish seem less rich than it was. I don’t think there was a morsel left on anyone’s plate.
The Dry Riesling, with its notes of apple, apricot and nut, matched well with poached lobster, but so did the somewhat sweeter wines, demonstrating again that riesling is largely about preference. For me, the most interesting wine was the riesling made from organic grapes, which I enjoyed with both the lobster and a slab of roasted pork tenderloin. Bright and complex with green apple and mint notes, it was the most “textured” of the wines, showing a the most minerality. I found found myself going back to it time and again during the course of the evening.
Toward the end of the dinner, I asked Nicolas Quillé how his business was doing, anticipating a recessionary note in his answer. He revealed that Pacific Rim’s sales were up 40 percent last year. I asked to what he attributed the gain. “A fast-growing varietal, the right price point ($10 to $15 or so) and a focused story.” Which is what? I asked. His answer: “Riesling.”