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Speaking truth to power: Why I don’t go ape over Riesling



I’ve gotten so tired of geeks talking up the virtues of Riesling that it actually came as a relief when I read Jancis Robinson’s column on her blog yesterday in which she concedes she might “go to my grave” without the masses never properly appreciating the wine she has loved “for roughly 35 years.”

Riesling freaks have been telling us Americans for years that there’s something wrong with us for not loving Riesling. They say that we’re too bloated and superficial to appreciate a wine so subtle and pure as Riesling. They suggest that, if we prefer Chardonnay, we’re a bunch of heathens with no capacity for enjoying nuance.

Every time I read or hear someone like that, something inside me revolts. Of course, being the polite person I am, I don’t really reply. But Jancis’s column—and bless her for writing it—has enabled me to finally speak my mind on this overweaning tendency of the Riesling Drinkers towards arrogance and condescension.

I have had a lot of Riesling in my time, mainly German, often Alsatian and occasionally Australian, and certainly from California. Some of these have been everyday wines; some of them have been expensive. In fact, back in the 1980s, before I was a paid wine writer, I used to shop at the old Connoisseur’s Wines, on Bryant Street in San Francisco, which specialized in German wines. I knew the floor staff, and I still have labels in my tasting diary of some of the Rieslings I drank.

I never fell in love with it, is what I’m saying. Sure, I “got” it. It was usually off-dry, crisp in acidity and incredibly delicate. It often reminded me of water—not because it was bland, but because it was so light and pure and natural. Back then, I didn’t taste blind, so I was always looking for that “garden” quality Hugh Johnson spoke of, not to mention the petrol—and I usually found it. And I appreciated the acidity. I once went to a big tasting at Fort Mason of (I think it was) the 1991 vintage and tasted more than 100 young Rieslings. My gums haven’t been the same since.

So sure, I recognize Riesling’s greatness. It truly is one of the noble white wines of the world. But the reason I never fell head over heels in love with Riesling is precisely because of what Jancis says: It “just has too strong a personality to appeal to consumers to gain global attraction…unlike Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, it has a very powerful flavour…even when it is young…which some people are bound to dislike.”

Good for Jancis for her candid appraisal of reality. She’s the only widely-published wine writer I’ve ever heard admit that there could possibly be something troubling about Riesling. The rest of them sound like it’s the Second Coming, and only those with eyes to see and ears to hear will be admitted to Heaven.

Riesling does have a very powerful taste. People complain about Chardonnay being too much of this and that, but I’ve never had a great Chardonnay that wasn’t at the same time subtle. It’s hard to explain how a rich wine like Chardonnay can be subtle except to use my usual metaphor of certain people whose wardrobe and hair and underlying good bones make them look like a million dollars and yet they still are elegant. George Clooney, perhaps, or Denzel Washington (in the past I would have said Cary Grant). Riesling by contrast is one of those wines whose personality is so overwhelming that you either like it or you don’t.

I don’t want to pick on Riesling, though, so much as reflect on the attitude, among certain wine writers, that you have to be like them in order to appreciate it—and if you don’t, then you’re not like them, which means your taste is questionable. Isn’t this the very elitism we’re trying to get rid of? Besides, it’s important to ask the question, Why haven’t Americans embraced Riesling when all the “important” tastemakers have been ordering them to for years? Jancis once again tumbles into the truth when she quotes a senior U.S. representative of an important German estate to the effect that “sales of both domestic and imported Riesling are now falling and that ‘Riesling remains a one-customer-at-a-time proposition.’” Are the American people stupid for not buying Riesling? Are they just a bunch of yokels who don’t have the sophistication to understand what their betters recommend?

  1. More for me! 🙂

  2. Hi Steve, I think I agree with you about Riesling having too distinct a personality to become as popular as Chardonnay, and I certainly share your feelings about overbearing and elitist wine writers. I personally love Riesling, but only really came to appreciate it after spending several weekends tasting in New York’s Finger Lakes region, where they make world-class Riesling across the spectrum of styles–from very dry to late-harvest and even ice wine. If you ever get the chance to taste out there I would highly recommend it. I live in Oakland now but occasionally find a bottle from the Finger Lakes in one of our lovely local stores.

  3. My sense is that you don’t really “get” Riesling, and neither does Jancis. Powerful is simply not a word I would ever use with Riesling.

    That is, of course, just fine because we all have our likes and dislikes. I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon with a winemaker who goes gaga over unoaked Chardonnay. I confess to not “getting” that category. Sure, there are good examples, but they do not, to my palate, hold a candle to any number of Chardonnays with oak from several continents. I don’t get Gruner either.

    Riesling is not loved, in my view, for its power, but for its purity, its beauty, racy acidity. And, as Joe Roberts has so keenly observed, the bottom line is “More for me”.

  4. Patrick Frank says:

    I’m with you, Steve. I don’t get it either. For two reasons: 1. Food pairings with riesling are complicated; it doesn’t go with foods that I like to eat most. 2. I have an unabashedly CA palate, and riesling has been, well, rather spotty here. Oh yes, I have had some excellent (German) rieslings, but in general it’s just “meh” with me.

  5. Bob Henry says:


    Hiram Simon working out of Oakland (“your home town”) represents the Terry Theise portfolio of German and Austria wines:

    You should wrangle an invite to his trade tastings in the Bay Area. (Los Angeles has a counterpart.)

    In a single afternoon you will be exposed to over 200 wines — from the most bone dry to the most decadently sweet — set out in a thoughtfully “curated” order of presentation.

    If you don’t come away from that experience with a greater appreciation for Riesling (as well as Gruner), then I join The Dude and Charlie in saying “More for me!”

    ~~ Bob

  6. As small Riesling producers, I’ll admit it’s disappointing when folks turn up their noses at Riesling. However, with a little encouragement, they taste our Riesling and 99 times out of 100, we have instant converts. I think, especially in California, that in the past Riesling had a reputation as sweet and insipid. However, I think most Riesling produced now in California is planted in the right places (cool-climate) and is made in a much more balanced style.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    I would be unfair to say that Jancis doesn’t “get” Riesling. Read on . . .

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (December 26, 1999, Page F4ff):

    “Top o’ the Century: The best wines of the 1900s.
    Journey back with us to 1978, 1959, 1945, 1921 . . .”


    By Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine

    I hate having to choose my favorite anything, but because I’m not likely to have to choose the century’s top wines again, here is my list:

    1971 J.J. Prum Auslese “Wehlener Sonnenuhr”

    I love good Mosel Riesling, and this is all the better because it has never been duplicated. New Zealanders do their best, and wine producers in the rest of Germany can offer a host of other attributes, but nowhere else in the world offers this tingle factor. The 1971 was still so young in 1988; the 1947 was just lovely in 1995.

    1976 Trimbach Riesling “Clos Ste. Hune”

    This is one of my all-time favorite wines, no matter what the vintage. The 1990, which seems to have matured quite fast, perhaps thanks to its exceptional body, was a very obvious recent treat, but this is a vintage that also has the potential for a long life in bottle. The same is true of the 1983 and the fabulous 1989, so rich it is all vendange tardive (late harvest).

    [Aside: when I opined in an earlier comment that — in the minds of certain wine critics — some grape varieties cannot attain a “100 point” “perfect” score because they aren’t red, I cited the Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune Riesling from Alsace as an example that should. Nice to see Jancis has an equally high regard for the wine.)

  8. redmond barry says:

    Steve, We wine snobs have no problem viewing the mainstream critics, and practically everybody else, as bloated and superficial.
    Charlie, Some of the old Rheingau estates used to be able to produce powerful, majestic wines . I think Hugh Johnson wrote of the martial harmonies of Steinberger, and having tasted the 1971 and a few before and since, and some Schloss Vollrads and Johanisbergers I know what he meant, but those estates have fallen on hard times . I have not tasted any of the trockens that all the Germans are drinking but I would bet that some, especially from the Rheingau, have that old power.
    Comparisons are suspect always, but I might say Bordeaux, especially at the highest levels, makes me think of Beethoven’s music. Burgundy maybe Mahler or Schubert. Puligny at the Grand Cru level, Brahms. Riesling is Mozart.Bach needs cognac , I think. California Cab these days is Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

  9. I found Jancis’ piece specious. On the one hand, she claims she’s come to terms with the fact that the great mass wine drinkers don’t appreciate Riesling’s virtues, but on the other hand, she puts Riesling back on spotlight with her column. The piece sounds unpretentious with her signature style of smooth story-telling. But after all, it’s a marketing piece, though it is effortless, seamless and circumventive. She’s an ace of her game. Hope it will help break the jinx and keep the global sales of Riesling from the continued plummet.

    Last week, I teased my Dutch friend, who is born and raised in Netherlands and speaks fluent German, by asking her why she doesn’t drink white wine. “Don’t you like German Riesling and Alsatian white?” She told me that she had to go and buy a bottle of white when her friend visited and requested white. “It’s a bottle of Kendall Jackson Riesling, and we liked it”, according to what she said. Well, maybe it’s time for me to revisit Riesling and its virtues.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Jancis has also expressed her admiration for Gruner . . .

    Excerpt from Jancis Robinson, M.W.’s Web Site
    (July 26, 2002):

    “Chardonnay vs. Grüner Veltliner: A Knockout Contest”


    . . . I was asked by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board if I would like to arrange a comparative tasting to see where Austria was standing internationally. I agreed to do this under certain conditions, the first being that I had free choice to choose the wines for the tasting myself . . . The other condition was that it had to be judged by a truly international jury.

    . . .

    The jury consisted of 39 wine journalists and other experienced tasters from 13 different countries. The wines were tasted blind in flights of six and were scored on a 100 point scale, the highest and lowest score not counting. There was also some bottle variation and here only the good bottles were scored.

    First we tasted 18 wines from 1999 and 2000. Here the winner was the 1999 Grüner Veltliner Spiegel Alte Reben from Fred Loimer in Kamptal, ahead of the 2000 Grüner Veltliner Exceptional Reserve from Freie Weingärtner Wachau – probably the world’s best cooperative winery.

    In the third place came the 1999 Chardonnay Monte Bello from Ridge Vineyards, California. [No, that’s not a “typo.” — Bob]

    We then tasted 12 wines from 1995 to 1998. Here the winner (and overall winner of the whole tasting) was the 1997 Grüner Veltliner Ried Lamm from Willi Bründlmayer in Kamptal. I would like to add that it was his 1995 Grüner Veltliner Ried Lamm that was the overall winner four years ago as well.

    In second place came Mondavi’s 1998 Byron Chardonnay Nielson Vineyards followed by another Californian wine that four years ago also showed very well, the 1995 Chardonnay Mer & Soleil from Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards.

    Finally six mature wines from 1990 to 1992 were tasted and the three Austrian wines took all the medal placings. In first place the only Grüner Veltliner in the flight – the 1990 Grüner Veltliner Vinothekfüllung from Weingut Knoll in Wachau. Second place was taken by the 1990 Chardonnay from Weingut Bründlmayer in Kamptal and third place by the 1992 Chardonnay Ratscher Nussberg from Weingut Gross in Styria.

    The stunning result is that six of the seven Grüner Veltliners came in amongst the top eight wines of the tasting. Even more amazing was however the disastrous showing of the Burgundies, all six were in the bottom half and five of these were amongst the bottom eight wines.

    . . . two conclusions can be made from these results:

    The grape Grüner Veltliner can produce wine of world class quality and any serious wine lover who does not know these gems should be buying some as soon as possible while the prices still are as low as they are.

    The second conclusion is that the Burgundian winemakers will have to get their act together, their prices do not reflect in many cases the quality of the wines they produce.

    [Bob’s postscript. I’ve tasted the 1999 Fred Loimer Grüner Veltliner Spiegel Alte Reben at a Hiram Simon-hosted Terry Theise portfolio trade tasting held at an Austrian cuisine restaurant back in 2002? As the Brits would say: “Impeccable breeding.”]

  11. Bob Henry says:

    “Breaking news” that just hit my in-box . .

    From “Why the hell don’t you ever see a 100 point Chablis? (Pt 1/2)”


    Most recent comment:

    Folks we have an update to the dry white wine appreciation state of affairs! Gilman has just rated 2012 Keller’s G-Max Riesling (dry Nahe Riesling) a full 100 points, and it’s sold for equivalent $2000/bottle; read about it here:

  12. Randy Caparoso says:

    Hey, I agree with you, Steve — people like what they like, and they’re not stupid. As we always used to say in the restaurant business: no one willing to shell out $100 for a meal is “stupid” — they are “sir” and “m’am.”

    Still, you are a little harsh on Robinson — and on sommeliers, and many of your colleagues who for years have been strong if shrill proponents of Riesling. The Riesling contingent has a point, even if it falls on largely deaf ears. Encouraging Riesling, to me, is like trying to get people to read James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon — instead, they want to spend their hard earned dollars and leisure moments on that other “James” (E.L., i.e. “Fifty Shades of Grey”), or Dinesh D’Souza (beats me!). Or like the ’60s and ’70s, when we watched Masterpiece Theater whenever we wanted to feel smart, but couldn’t wait to see the next Brady Bunch, Beverly Hillbillies or Mary Tyler Moore Show.

    But seriously: how do you get people to appreciate Riesling? What most of these Riesling proponents don’t seem to understand is that if you want consumers to see your way, you have to put things in the right context for them. I’m from Hawaii, and it’s a well known fact that every sommelier worth his/her salt in the Islands has a “house” Riesling, fashioned by some top German producer or another. Sommeliers, and restaurants, sell a ton of Riesling in Hawaii because it goes great with the East/West, Asian, tropical influenced Hawaiian cuisine presented in the top restaurants there.

    Ergo: if you want people to appreciate Riesling a little more, you have to give them a good reason for it. You can’t just pester them about it. Otherwise, they’ll just gravitate back to what they’re accustomed to — be it White Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or any type of beer.

  13. I host a monthly wine tasting group that is comprised of (mostly) beginning wine drinkers, those who have had some basic experience with drinking wine but not appreciating it much; however, they know that they *want* to know more, so they’ve joined our merry bunch of Wine Rogues in furthering their tastes and palates.

    We’ve been doing countries as a theme the last few months and last Saturday was a Structured Tasting of the Wines of Germany. Since I wanted to show them the breadth and depth of wines from this region, there was only *one* Riesling in the lineup. If any of our bunch (aside from the few “old hands” and some of the others “in the biz”) had any experience with German wines, it was Riesling and they generally knew it as a sweet wine. The single Riesling in the bunch was from JJ Prum, a 2011 Kabinett, and a lively wine it is — great flavors up front, nice mouth feel and that bracing acidity to balance the bit of sugar.

    So with eleven other wines in the bunch (multiple Gruners Veltliner, Gewurz, Pinot Blanc (aka Weisse Burgunder), Sylvaner, a Pinot Noir Rose, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — which was the most popular wine of the night?

    yep — the Riesling.

    Show a wine person the *right* Riesling and I think you will have an appreciative wine fan.

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Americans “profess” to liking (almost exclusively) “dry” white wines.

    But pour them an off-dry wine (could be a German Riesling, could be a Loire Vouvray) and they’ll drain the cup — while asking for more.

  15. Fred Reed says:

    My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Riesling is in a viscous circle.
    Growers can’t get the price for a ton if Riesling that they get for a ton of say, Chardonnay.
    Winemakers are reluctant to put the amount of capital into producing Riesling as they do for (again) say, Chardonnay when the mass market is reluctant to pay more than $15 a bottle for it.
    Again, my opinion, but a $50 bottle of German or Alsatian Riesling is far more appealing than a $50 bottle of Chardonnay.
    I’m not trying to make Chardonnay the villain here, but when I hear “this Chardonnay is the white wine for red wine drinkers” my response is if I want red wine I’ll open a bottle of red. Riesling is about a opposite of red as wine can be and that’s why I tend to reach for a dry, acidic Riesling on a warm evening.

  16. I’m going to second the music analogy. Riesling is like classical music. Sure, I appreciate it’s greatness, but I’d much rather listen to the Avett Brothers during dinner

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Dan Berger is too modest to toot his own horn . . . so I will do it for him.

    Napa Valley Register article (circa 2008):

    “Rating Rieslings”


    Subject: International Riesling Foundation (IRF)

    So Dan, tell us more about IRF . ..

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Seemingly overlooked in this discussion are two attributes of German and Austrian Rieslings:

    1) they don’t go through malolactic fermentation (thereby preserving their green apple-like malic acid characteristic); and
    2) they don’t exhibit an obvious new oak barrel bouquet and flavor.

    An emerging trend in California Chardonnays is unoaked (and sometimes non-malolactic) wines.

    These green apple-like aroma and flavored Chards could become the “segue wine” for Americans trying and embracing trocken and German Kabinett-style Rieslings.

  19. Gabe–Under your analogy, how do you account for Pinot Gris, especially considering you make a damn good one.

  20. Thanks Charlie! I’m honestly very flattered by the compliment.

    So if riesling is classical music, I would describe pinot gris as jazz. They use the same instruments, and while pinot gris doesn’t always have the same depth and richness, it is much more fun to drink. Serious people listen to classical music, and think about it, and talk about it. But when I’m having friends over for dinner, I’m putting on Miles Davis.

  21. Bob Henry says:

    Bill Haydon:

    One European white wine known for crisp acidity and low alcohol is increasingly being made from riper grapes, and clocking in at higher alcohol levels: Vinho Verde.

    Some even surmise the Alvarinho grape variety (a.k.a. Albariño in Spain) is a clone of Riesling.

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpts from the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section
    (August 15, 2008, Page F6ff):

    “Portugal Embraces Modern Style of Vinho Verde”


    By Peter Liem
    Special to The Chronicle

    “One of summer’s most refreshing wines is Vinho Verde, the cool, crisp and zesty white wine from the northwestern corner of Portugal. Usually light in body and low in alcohol, it has a knifelike acidity and a hint of fizz.

    “Today, however, an increasingly wide range of wine styles can be found in the region. . . .

    “More attention is being paid now to individual grape varieties as well as to particular vineyard areas, creating a more diverse array of wines.

    “These efforts have contributed to higher overall quality for the classic, light versions of Vinho Verde. They have also contributed to a subtle shift in style, with top producers increasingly favoring drier, more complex wines made from RIPER grapes.

    . . .

    “But the new focus on ripeness translates into HIGHER ALCOHOL LEVELS. While Vinho Verde has historically averaged around 9 to 10 percent alcohol, most of the best wines today are between 11 and 12 percent, and some wines from designated subregions go up to 12.5 or even 13.”

    . . .

    “As producers experiment, they are taking an increasing interest in individually highlighting the region’s unique grape varieties. A tasting of single-varietal Vinho Verde reveals a diverse array of characters. . . .

    The grape variety attracting the most attention, however, is undoubtedly Alvarinho (known as Albarino just across the border in Spain’s Galicia). Considered to be Vinho Verde’s finest grape, Alvarinho produces the region’s richest, most complex wines. While it can be used for blending in all areas, only in the northern Moncao subregion are vintners allowed to bottle Alvarinho on its own. . . .

    . . .

    “There are some who say that Alvarinho is a clone of Riesling, brought by pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It’s easy to believe this when tasting top examples. . . .”

  22. Randy, you’re right about giving people a reason to like something enough to guy it! I’m not anti-Riesling. I like it, under the right circumstances, whether it’s a fresh, minerally Mosel or an off-dry California. I’m just saying that the Riesling crowd occasionally pushes too hard.

  23. Gabe–With all due respect, I find Miles requires deep concentration, except maybe for some of his earliest works. I will cop to owning virtually all of those disks–in vinyl. Most have had the grooves worn off.

    As for musical analogies, since I am into jazz and not classical, I would say PG is early Brubeck and Riesling is the MJQ. Hope I am not showing my age too badly with those choices.

  24. Charlie,

    I’ve got a modest jazz collection on vinyl myself, so we’re on the same page. And I love the Brubeck comparison to pinot gris (although I’m not familiar with MJQ). Maybe that makes gruner veltliner Dizzy Gillespie?

  25. redmond barry says:

    I suppose this point is already belabored, but I”d say Miles is Johnny Walker Blue and Brubeck a very dry Hendricks martini.

  26. Bob Henry says:


    What’s “vinyl”?

    ~~ Bob

    (Okay, full disclosure: I was a marketing exec here:

  27. Bob Henry says:


    How do you get restaurant diners to embrace Riesling?

    An elegant and money-making solution: have wines-by-the-glass that are preserved by argon gas.

    Open a bottle — any bottle on the wine list — and sample the diner.

    If the sommelier truly wishes to promote Riesling (or any other grape variety or category — even the hotly contested “orange wines” and “natural wines”), then compel the sommelier to “have some skin in the game”: directly address the diner’s risk-aversion by sampling him or her.

    If you recommend it, then stand behind it. And take back the wine if the diner is dissatisfied.

    ~~ Bob

  28. Most of my white wine consumption is Riesling and there are a couple of reasons for this.
    For me (in Australia) the QPR for Riesling is probably the best of all the grape varieties. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I cook a lot of food with asian spices and I find that Riesling stands up better to the heat.
    If I’m not cooking with spice then I’m probably cooking something that goes with red wine.
    I have nothing against Chardonnay I just don’t drink it very much.

  29. Bob Lindquist says:

    Hi Steve – There is no right or wrong answer. Both Riesling and Chardonnay achieve greatness and both achieve mediocrity when not done properly. They each excel with different foods.

    It’s like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I prefer The Beatles, my wife prefers the Stones…I like the Dodgers, she likes the Giants!

  30. CHARDONNAY is Capt James T. Kirk–bold, direct, expressive

    RIESLING is Capt Jean Luc Picard–complex, stylish, sneaks up on you

    PINOT GRIS is Wesley Crusher–simple, enthusiastic, engaging

    GRUNER is Khan–evil, green.

    Oops. Did I give away how I feel about Gruner?

  31. Bob Henry says:


    No soupçon of 1999 Fred Loimer Grüner Veltliner Spiegel Alte Reben for you!

    ~~ Wine Nazi

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