Nothing says "wine geek" like a passion for riesling. It's the grape that makes bona fide connoisseurs go wobbly in the knees and break into iambic pentameter. Great reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy may anchor the cellars of the rich and famous, but ask the average sommelier, the restaurant professional who genuinely knows her stuff, to name the greatest grape in the world and chances are good she'll roll up her sleeve to reveal a riesling-cluster tattoo on her arm. Better still, she might pour you a free glass - that's how much sommeliers love the stuff. Riesling lovers aren't here to impress us; they're here to convert us.
What sets riesling apart from most other great grape varieties and styles of wine is not merely complexity. Many great bottles possess that. It's the fact that riesling also - unlike, say, Bordeaux and most Burgundy - is virtually always aged in tanks rather than oak barrels. There are no extraneous vanilla or toasty flavours in the delicate white wine, just the pure essence of the soil and climate telegraphed through the grape. Riesling is the wine that looks best naked.
Stone fruits and minerals are the hallmarks of most great rieslings, especially those from the grape's spiritual homeland, Germany. Often, though not always, you can detect sweetness, but the sugar tends to be balanced by crisp acidity when made right. And unlike most other white wines, good riesling often cellars well, developing nuances of petrol, roasted nuts and a Sherry-like tang.
Perhaps one big reason so many sommeliers love riesling is that they can actually afford it to drink it often. Great examples can often be had for under $25 - not something you can say about Bordeaux, Burgundy or Napa cabernet.
Today's release at Vintages stores in Ontario shines the spotlight on a few good examples from Germany. My favourite is Balthasar Ress Riesling Spaetlese 1997 from the Rheingau ($21.95, No. 160762). It's 13 years old, which makes is a steal at the price. Make no mistake, it's sweet, with a syrupy texture and rich essence of apricot and honey. But balance comes from zippy, citrus-like acidity and that classic Sherry tingle. It would be splendid with a cheese course or smoked fish.
Becker-Steinhauer Riesling Kabinett 2008 from the Mosel ($15.95, No. 161786) tastes drier than the Balthasar, though there's considerable sugar in the bottle. Concentrated, with a sweet core of peach and apple, it finishes medium-dry with a hint of slate. Try it with spicy Asian dishes.
RK Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling 2008 from the Mosel ($14.95, No. 733296) is slightly sweeter than off-dry, with peachy fruit, pinpoint acidity and a stone-like finish. It would make a fine aperitif.
Josef Kollmann Vinum Germania Number One Riesling 2008 ($12.95, No. 161745) also hails from the Mosel, delivering apricot, citrus and the slightest hint of mineral on the medium-dry finish. Good value. Try it with grilled pork chops.
From Number One to No. 99. Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Estate Series Cabernet Merlot 2007 ($19.95, No. 128652) is a brilliant red for the money from the Great One's Niagara winery. It's got the elegant poise of a good red Bordeaux, with a creamy, dense core of ripe fruit and a savoury essence of herbs, spices and minerals. Wayne should be proud to serve this to his wine-collector NHL pals. You and I will have to settle with rare beef as a dining partner.
My top red pick of the Vintages release is Paitin Sori Barbaresco 2006 from Piedmont in Italy ($34.95, No. 106591). Approachable now, this cellar-worthy selection should deliver dividends for up to 10 more years. It's bone-dry, with a deliciously earthy, truffle-like essence underpinned by ripe cherry, tobacco and espresso. Perfect for braised red meats.
Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 ($89.95, No. 711317) is the latest release of one of the great collectible French reds. From a great vintage in the southern Rhone Valley, it's austere at the moment but should open up with five to seven years of age and blossom in about 15. Decant it if you plan to pop the cork soon, and throw a big piece of red meat its way.
From the same producer in the same region comes a relative bargain, Perrin & Fils L'Andéol Rasteau 2007 ($19.95, No. 976845). Full-bodied and concentrated, it's brimming with dark-skinned fruit and chocolate, framed by a bitter, spicy edge. Great for lamb.
And if you want to zero in on the bargain red of the release, here it is: Etim Seleccion 2007 ($15, No. 681346). From the Montsant district in northeast Catalonia, this Spanish blend of carignan and syrah unloads a blast of plum- and cherry-like fruit laced with notes of iron, earth and mineral. The tannins are dry and astringent. Decant it if you can, and serve it with red meat.