You can’t convey the importance about Jesus without mentioning the miracle of the resurrection. You can’t fully appreciate Jon Stewart railing against CNN unless you saw him on Crossfire and know that shortly after, Crossfire was cancelled. And while we’re talking about it, it’s also a good thing to know about his deep-seated regard for Bill Hicks.
You can’t understand what’s happening with Syria unless you know that the only Russian military outpost existing outside of Russian boarders is in Syria. You can’t talk about how amazing lobsters are until you talk about how they don’t age. At least not like we, or anything else on earth does. And you can’t talk about Riesling until you talk about how it’s one of the most chemically complicated wines in existence.
That’s right. I started with Jesus and brought it to Riesling. And I took my sweet, sweet time.
“Riesling, with more arrows in its quiver…”
—Tim Patterson, “Cracking Chemistry in Cold Climates”
It was at a conference featuring Master Sommelier Randa Warren that I recall Randa (I think)—seriously, it might not have been Randa; I was drinking and surrounded by chatty and also somewhat-under-the-influence people who know much more about wine than I—saying something like if it weren’t for all the sugar, Riesling would be undrinkable because of all the acid…which isn’t quite true, but it points to a larger…point.
Like most, I’m…like most. And in this case, I was one of those people who frowned upon Riesling. Too sweet, cautioned my inner voice. Bluh.
But this new way of looking at Riesling was all it took to make it interesting to me. That and Warren going into much more detail about just how versatile Riesling is when it comes to pairing with food. While she didn’t delve into the chemistry, others have.
In “Cracking Chemistry in Cold Climates,” wine writer Tim Patterson cites science, and in particular, science intending to answer the question, “What makes Rielsing Riesling?” Phrases like “Riesling aroma chemistry” and “aromatic compounds,” 20-point Scrabble words like terpene (that’s probably more like seven points) and humble acknowledgment of some mystery perfectly captured in this question:
“‘If monoterpenes are what makes Riesling smell like Riesling,’ Sacks [Gavin Sacks from Cornell and co-author of paper he was presenting] said, ‘then why can’t I make a good facsimile of Riesling by blending Pinot Grigio with Muscat, the latter which has 10x the monoterpenes found in Riesling?’”
Seriously, though, why?
Another quote resembling an answer:
“But what struck me (and Sacks) was that in every category of aromatic compounds, Riesling showed up at ‘peri-threshold’ levels – different from the profiles of other aromatic grapes, which tend to specialize. The upshot: Riesling is particularly sensitive to growing conditions and to winemaking, both of which can easily alter the aromatic mix. Riesling, with more arrows in its quiver, has the best shot at complexity. We already knew those two things about Riesling; for me, at least, getting the guided tour of the distinctive chemistry was one of those light-bulb moments.”
Subjectivity plays such a humbling role in wine. We all know that our own noses cannot always be trusted, and we know the wiles of the power of suggestion. I think that’s one of the reasons why, in this particular case of Riesling, having so much “in every category of aromatic compounds” feels like such balm. This wine, down to it’s chemical makeup, is literally more complex. It’s not just me or you; it’s science. Conclusion: Riesling is like a fully loaded, luxury car, and Chardonnay (for example) is closer to a basic economy class car.
What this grape should taste like (Wikipedia):
- Aromas of green or other apples, grapefruit, peach, honey, rose blossom, cut green grass
- If it was milk it would have the body of whole milk. As big, creamy and unctuous as a Chard but much more acidity.
Regarding this specific bottle from Westport Rivers:
- Aromas, like a heady plume so thick you can almost see it, of citrusy floral, melony-apply-pear, all laced with a little mineral and petrol. Yeah, petrol.
Admittedly, it’s been awhile since I’ve had Riesling. I think much of this has to do with my still-lingering associations between Riesling and sweetness. And to be careful, the Riesling I picked up is a semi-dry. Be careful for this distinction; many of the Rieslings you’ll find on the shelves and on wine lists will be the sweet ones, as you probably know.
With eyes wide open, I snatched up this semi-dry Riesling, popped some popcorn and tossed it in Sriracha. With the salt and complicated heat of the Sriracha, I was curious to see if the Riesling did anything amazing. Turns out, it didn’t really. Beer is still my preferred go-to beverage.
The next day, I made myself a fried egg and cheese sandwich on a slice of leftover homemade roasted garlic bread. I also spread a couple of bulbs of roasted garlic. You can’t have enough, right? I also fried the egg in bacon fat. Again, worthy noting, especially when conducting such serious and holy field work.
This pairing with the Riesling really blew my skirt up. Creaminess and minerals seemed to meld themselves together while the richness of the egg yolk, like a supernova, found some sort of presence in the wine. Then a citrusy floral against the roasted garlic flavors took over. A flutter or tingle of acidity scrubbed my palate clean against all that lovely fat (!), sometimes showing a little non-fruit petrol that when done subtly, always makes me marvel.
And let’s talk more about how weird that is. I mean, to smell and taste petrol (a little like band-aids or even like petroleum jelly vapors) and like it? It reminds me of this quote from an old Ally McBeal episode. Ling is arguing in court that the mud wrestling club she owns isn’t degrading but actually empowering the women who work there because at the end of the day these women can say, “even in mud, I look good.” For a semi-dry to dry high quality Riesling (I drank Westport Rivers, but there are certainly many out there that will blow your skirt up in this way), petrol is good. Really, really good.
What’s important to remember is that this isn’t just coincidence or the power of suggestion. As Ron Burgundy says, “It’s science.”