Hey folks, welcome back to the Tasting Room! For our 2021 inaugural addition to the A Guide to Pairing series, we’re going to look at one of our absolutely favorite white wine grapes, Riesling!
In theory, this content would be more appropriate for March 13th of the year, celebrated as Riesling’s birthday, but seeing as we closed out last year with our absolute favorite red, Côtes du Rhône, it only seemed apropos to start this year with the white we fawn over the most.
That said, on we go!
A bit about Riesling:
- A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Riesling originated in the Alsace region of what was Germany at the time, now annexed to France. Although the locals still speak German, they will tell you to your face they are French, through and through, with great pride
- Riesling’s complete parental lineage is still not fully known, but one definite parent grape is Gouais Blanc, which means Riesling is related to Chardonnay, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Firmint, and Gamay as a notable shortlist (in fact, there are roughly 80 grapes known today to owe lineage to Gouais Blanc through DNA testing)
- The earliest documentation of varietal sales dates back to 1435 when a German Baron bought 6 wine vines, one of which happened to be Riesling
- Riesling is a global grape today. Riesling is grown on almost every continent (Antarctica being the only one unplanted – obviously), and even in places you may not think; Japan has 19 acres planted. If you have cool weather, lots of sun, and a rocky hillside with great drainage, it could be a home for Riesling
That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):
We Americans associate (generally speaking) Riesling with being a sweet grape. That is due to the demand in the American market being driven by sweet representations of the grape, however in Germany and other parts of Europe, Riesling is vinified dry, or Troken, sometimes being more akin to a flower-y, light Sauvignon Blanc. Dry representation are available in the US both produced here and by way of imports from Europe, so if it doesn’t specify Troken on the label or state “Dry Riesling” it’s best to assume it will be off-dry to fully sweet (we’ll point here to assist in the German labeling and how it translates to sweetness).
Due to the wide array of dry to sweet expressions, the sky’s the limit for pairing, but you’ll want to know what’s in the bottle first! As a general rule of thumb, dry to sweet, Riesling showcases high acidity as a grape, jasmine flowers, honeycomb, honeysuckle, apricots, apples, peach, and lemon flavors and aromas, in addition to the defining “petrol-like” quality and excellent minerality the grape is famous for.
Thinking of classic combinations, sweet and spicy come to mind first, so any sweet styling would be welcome alongside spicy foods where the wine tempers the spice of the dish on the palate. Sweet and sour is another classic flavor combination, so sour dishes and sauces would do well by any sweet styling of Riesling. Bittersweet is another classic flavor combo, so once again, any bitter dish is best served with a sweet style of Riesling.
Regarding dry styled Riesling, the uplifted, flower-y, pretty Riesling expression in combination with high acidity and generally lower alcohol makes for a great palate cleanser to wash away rich fats and beautiful top-end notes that accent savory flavors excellently.
As we mentioned before, it’s imperative you know what is in your Riesling bottle, either by way of label recognition, or our favorite method – trying a bottle yourself first, before you take the dive into showing up at the next gathering with a Riesling to pair with the food fare.
Compare AND contrast:
Anyone following this series knows by this point, if the wine has “flavors of…” then it will pair nicely with like flavors; lemon flavor in the wine goes with a dish flavored with or by lemons, so we’ll just move past saying apricots pair well with a Riesling with apricot flavors.
The best way to approach the contrasting flavor pairings is going to be by Riesling sweetness level, we’ll go dry to fully sweet in this case.
Dry Riesling: Excellent with sashimi and sushi as its high acidity can melt away the fats of the raw fish on the palate while the fruit and flower notes accent the oceanic flavors carried through by raw fish. If you want to keep it real German, Cheese Spaetzle is another excellent item for dry-styled Riesling to pair with. Vietnamese Bun dishes (plates or bowls of warm protein over cold noodles – essentially a noodle salad) work very well with Dry Riesling as the protein is generally a touch sweet from the ginger/lemongrass marinade and cleansed between bites by the wine while accenting the more floral tones from the dish itself. Most forms of (non-spicy) shrimp salad are great with a Dry Riesling, as well as Chicken salads of many shapes and sizes (traditional dill/mayo based chicken salad, grilled sesame chicken salad, straight up grilled chicken served chilled over any base salad, asian chopped chicken salad, etc.). Other proteins worthy of note would be turkey and crab, either being excellent with Riesling as alternatives to chicken and other fish preparations in dishes.
Off-Dry Riesling: One great thing about Riesling is the ability to be both lightly sweet while still remaining quite vibrant. For these styles of Riesling, we recommend shifting your pairing focus to more fuller-flavored dishes that begin to introduce some spice. Pork should begin to be brought up in the Riesling conversation that this sweetness level; Braised Ham, Pork Chops in chili sauce of any nature (best accentuated by jasmine rice to play up the jasmine aromatics in the Riesling). Chinese Moo Shu dishes are also excellent when paired with off-dry stylings of Riesling (Moo Shu Pork, Moo Shu Chicken, Moo Shu Shrimp, just to name a few). Traditional BBQ sauce grilled shrimp (peel and eat preferred) also go incredibly well with this sweetness level of Riesling. And when thinking of salads, slaws or side dishes, onions, apples, fennel, jalapeños, and bacon all work very well in many forms with an Off-Dry Riesling.
Sweet, fuller bodied Riesling: When stepping into the realm of sweet Riesling, one should remember that there is still a striking minerality that carries through, still allowing balance to the wine that keeps it from being cloyingly sweet. This is the level of Riesling that when produced in excellent quality with a deft winemaker, can age beautifully, sometimes up to 25 years – which is insane to think about when speaking about white wines. This is the type of Riesling that screams for spicy foods. Thai, Indian, Chinese dishes with the spice amped up are a perfect fit for this type of Riesling. For anyone cooking gumbo with spicy sausage, this is your wine of choice for pairing to play up the spices while tempering the spiciness of the dish. Poached salmon with horseradish is another excellent pairing for a Riesling of this sweetness. Basically, if it has heat, this is the way to go. Heat aside, mild cow’s milk-based cheeses are another excellent pairing for a sweet Riesling – nothing too “stinky” as the cheese will over power the delicate floral components of the wine, but keep it mild, and you’re all good to go. Carrots, eggplant, and carmelized onions are great vegetable options to go with a Riesling of this nature as well, but let’s not forget the bitter vegetable champ, brussel sprouts – an amazing pairing with sweet Riesling (a bittersweet combo to die for).
Late Harvest Riesling (Ice Wine/Eiswein): Dessert, any shape and size, will go great with Late Harvest Riesling. That said, adding fruit compotes or jams/jellies in your dessert will go great alongside this style of Riesling. The general rule of thumb for dessert pairings are the wine must be as sweet as or sweeter than the dish. You’d be hard pressed to find a dessert sweeter than this type of wine, so really, anything goes, and that is excellent versatility in our book.
Riesling and tacos. Street tacos, fish tacos, fancy tacos, fusion tacos, soft shell, hard shell, any array of salsa and/or guacamole to top them, chips and salsa on the side, you name it. Taco night is synonymous with Riesling night in our homes, now, hopefully, it will be for your’s as well!
So there you have it, our guide for pairing Riesling.
How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for Riesling in the comments below.