Sommeliers love riesling. The white grape is grown mostly in Germany and Austria as well as Australia and Oregon and might be one of the most misunderstood. Yes, riesling can be sweet, but it can also be complex, dry, and racy, a perfect wine for a hot summer, one that goes well with spicy, fatty foods.
Clint Sloan, sommelier at McCrady's and Husk, remembers his conversion from skeptic to believer. "The best pairing I ever had was at Carolina's. I was eating a cheeseburger with a Riesling Spatlese '06, and it was remarkable. The fat of the burger and the sweet of the wine played off each other perfectly."
He also remembers feasting on spicy Thai food at the legendary Lotus of Siam in Vegas and being amazed at how great the riesling went with it.
"There are three reasons riesling goes well with food," says Sloan. "One, it has a high acidity. Two, it has low alcohol. And three, it has high aromatics."
Sloan recently returned from a trip to Germany and Austria, where he traveled to vineyards and tasted rieslings with a coterie of sommeliers and wine buyers, including Adam Nemirow of FIG, Brad Ball of Social Restaurant and Wine Bar, and Harry Root of Grassroots Wine Distributors. Nemirow had not been to Germany before and says the group, which was put together by Kevin Pike of Micheal Skurnik Imports in New York, all agreed that it was an intense trip.
"We would basically start at 7:30 a.m. and taste through 100 to 150 wines a day," Nemirow says. "People's teeth hurt by the end, there was so much acidity."
The most exciting part for him was seeing a very clear expression of place or terroir. The riesling grape can definitively reflect where it is grown. "Before it was just about acidity and sugar. Now it's about terroir," says Nemirow. "It's amazing to taste that many wines in a row and see how different they can be. Now, it's about picking up those subtle nuances."
FIG, Social, McCrady's, and Husk are all participating in the Summer of Riesling, a nationwide event spearheaded by Paul Grieco at Terroir, a renowned wine bar in New York City that tags itself "the elitist wine bar for everyone." Grieco's first Summer of Riesling happened on a whim in 2008, when he offered riesling as the only white wine available by the glass. It was a bold attempt to raise awareness for the grape, and it worked. He's expanded the concept every year, and this time around, he's branching out across the country, getting his fellow sommeliers to feature flights, tastings, and wines by the glass as a way to spread the gospel.
The Summer of Riesling 2011 kicked off on June 20 and will run through September. In the first two days at FIG, Nemirow says they sold 30 glasses of riesling, a mind-boggling number for an oft-overlooked wine. They might normally sell that in three months combined.
Throughout the summer, Nemirow plans to vary his offerings. Last week, he had Josef Leitz Riesling Kabinett, Alfred Merkelbach Riesling Spätlese, and Hirsch Zobing Riesling. The wines are all very food friendly, and Nemirow recommends pâté with the Merkelbach, any one of the summer salads with the Hirsch Zobing, and Chef Mike Lata's interpretation of schnitzel with the Leitz. While those particular wines might not be on the menu next week, the staff at FIG will be able to make similar recommendations on ways to pair the wine with their menu.
If you are really interested in getting an education in this wine, you might want to stop by Social for one of their flights, which will give you a clear picture of the grape's versatility. Sommelier and owner Brad Ball, who says the trip to Germany and Austria was ridiculously amazing, has two flights of rieslings. The first one is a dry flight with Alsatian, German, and Australian rieslings.
"They are so stylistically different," says Ball, "but the climates are pretty similar, and I think that's the terroir talking."
Ball says the dry rieslings would go best with Social's heirloom tomato salad with housemade ricotta. He also has a "Riesling with Residual" flight, referring to residual sugar. "I hate to use the term sweet," Ball says, expecting it would turn people off to trying it.
The "residual" flight has two Germans and one Oregon riesling, which Ball pairs with Chef Doug Svec's Thai shrimp scampi. Personally, he adds extra Sriracha to spice it up even more. "That flight will go great with anything Asian inspired, like our Banh Mi Breakdown plate."
Across the street at McCrady's, Sloan is taking the Summer of Riesling a step further, offering a riesling Sangria in addition to a pairing option for Chef Sean Brock's tasting menu. He's coupled the Stone Crab, Uni, and Clams with Seaweed, Grilled Cucumber, and Yuzu Dashi with a dry riesling, "Eins Zwei Dry — 3" from Josef Leitz. If you'd rather not splurge on the tasting menu, you can belly up to the bar and get the same wine by the glass for $8 and sip it with the Cherry Point swordfish with summer beets, red Russian kale, nasturtium, and espelette, a highly recommended pairing.
And when you're done with this little wine and food tour of Charleston, you might just find yourself joining the cult of riesling this summer. You'll be hard-pressed to find a reason to dislike this noble grape once you've experienced its remarkable variety.