Willie Gluckstern is a man with a mission. As a New York restaurant consultant and the author of a guidebook called The Wine Avenger, Gluckstern has spent the better part of a decade crusading on behalf of Riesling, the dominant German varietal that has been cruelly stereotyped on American shores as tasting sweeter than Katie Couric dipped in caramel. "All grapes are not created equal," Gluckstern says. "There's an acid-sugar balance in great Riesling that you won't find in any other grape." Stubborn U.S. diners have mostly ignored him and gone on sipping their Chardonnay.
Things are finally changing. Riesling importers have seen increases of nearly 30% over the past year, and a recent Food Arts poll revealed Rieslings are the top-selling bottles at some of the country's trendiest restaurants, including Aureole and Danube in New York City, and Fifth Floor in San Francisco. New Rieslings from Australia, California and the Alsace region of France are vying for attention alongside the better-known German varieties. Riesling, believe it or not, is in.
In Germany, Riesling grows along the imposing hillsides of the Mosel and Rhine rivers, at latitudes at which grape cultivation is difficult under the best conditions and downright impossible in bad ones. It's that struggle for survival that gives the German variety its edge. The grape can be harvested late to make the syrupy sweet wines Americans are averse to, or picked early for dry Chardonnay imitations. Epicures prefer the middle ground, in which the wine has a delicate floral scent, low alcohol content, a light, fruity sweetness at the front and a slightly acid aftertaste that cleanses the palate and cuts through fats and proteins. "There's absolutely no better wine with food," says Gluckstern.
In fact, the Riesling renaissance began in the kitchen. A new breed of creative chefs has taken hold in American restaurants, and they're encouraging customers to try different combinations. "Riesling offers the most opportunities for synergistic food and wine pairings," says Rocco DiSpirito, 33, the chef at New York's Union Pacific. DiSpirito matches specific dishes with wine by the glass--like skate and Indian lime pickle puree with a Nigel Halbtrocken Riesling--to bring out the best in both. "You just can't do as much with oaky Chardonnays and the 14% alcohol Cabernets that people are accustomed to. Those wines don't leave a lot of room for food."
With prices that rarely top $20 for even the best bottles, Rieslings have become hot sellers at some wine stores--if you can find them in stock. The German government doesn't fund wine promotion, putting vintners at a major competitive disadvantage in the quest for shelf space. The wineries are tiny, family-owned affairs, a circumstance that does plenty for the charm factor but little for the marketing budget. For Rieslings that do make their way to wine merchants, the customer can find another obstacle: deciphering the label. The average Joe looking to expand his horizons has to stare down imposing Teutonic words like Trockenbeerenauslese, literally "dried selected overripe berries." "To read the labels, you just need a few keys," says Carol Sullivan of the German Wine Information Bureau. "You just need to understand what those words mean." In other words, you need to speak German.