Saturday, April 18, 2009

Salty Riesling?

This wine was salty... hm, hm... saline is the more appropriate "positive" term, I'm told. Positive, because at a wine dinner of at least a dozen high-end wine lover's wines, this came out of nowhere to steal the show.

My regular readers already know how much I appreciate Riesling, but so far it has always been one with some sweetness (Kabinett or Spatlese level) necessary in order to extinguish the heat of Sichuan cuisine that I usually pair German Rieslings with.

But this dinner on Wednesday night of April 15 featured halibut with beans for course #1, and beef bourguignon for course #2, preceded by cheese and olives. Naturally, it was going to be whites for aperitifs and halibut, and reds for the beef. Starting off with Champagne, and following up with Condrieu, Cote-du-Rhone blanc, white Hermitage from Guigal, and Chateuneuf-du-Pape blanc from Vieux Telegraphe, somewhere along the way the host pulled out a Kallfelz Rielsing, with the following longer description: Kallfelz 2001 Merler Kongslay Terrassen Riesling Auslese trocken Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. That's a mouthful! A Riesling lover would right away notice the unusual portion of the name - too little words in the middle: "Auslese" and "trocken". Meaning "late harvest", "dry". Normally, as German Rieslings progress from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese, they get progressively sweeter. While technically these represent levels of ripeness rather than sweetness, those are usually synonymous... but not always. The sweetness works so well in Rieslings because of their naturally high acidity that balances out the sugar - still, Auslese is practically a dessert wine. "Trocken" means dry (i.e. not sweet)! A contraction!?

You remove the sweetness, you may get a very sour wine. More than that, because Rieslings are also very minerally, due to the soils they grow in, you remove the sweetness, and if the fruit is not strong, you can get a soapy stony wine.

The first sniff of the wine was alluring - everything I come to expect in Auslese's late harvest grapes - with beautiful sweetness on the nose, that with 8 years of age lost its straightforward sugary edge, and promised a meld with acid, fragrance of sweet pungent flowers, and depth of flavor of candied dry fruits. The first sip of the wine was a contradiction indeed... Honeyed citrus, lush texture, depth and concentration, and SALTINESS(!!!) in place of sweetness.

The realization came slowly, as did the appreciation. As people around the table took turns, nods followed. "Trocken" - dry! How would honey with orange squeezed on it taste if it were not sweet?!!! Now add the minerality typical in a German Riesling (especially from the cooler Mosel region) and you have something unique and provocative. What is salt if not a mineral? So it makes perfect sense that when minerality asserts itself without the blanket of sweetness, one might get salt. The proof came when some of us proceeded to pair this Riesling with salt-cured olives and it worked! As the word spread around the table, this bottle emptied faster than all other more expensive and more highly regarded bottlings, and when the host told us that this had cost him about $10 (a few years back), we were blown away, just to learn further that "trocken" wines are quite a bit more popular in Germany than in the US, where consumers have a sweet tooth, and normally find unusual wines discomforting or outright confusing. Interestingly, turns out "confusing" is not always a bad word, but rather a doorway to provoke one's mind, to force one out of one's comfort zone, and in this case to lead to higher learning and appreciation of the marvels that wine offers if one is willing to try.


Todd said...

Interesting, I was just commenting about a week ago that a wine tasted like salty lemons (sort of a preserved lemon taste). It was a Wolffer Estate Reserve Chardonnay from Long Island. I was too embarrassed to use the term salty though and reverted to the safer, but less interesting term, "minerality." Next time, I won't hesitate.

Anthony said...

I just got a bottle of Riesling from St. James Winery and after reading this article, you can really distinguish the mild salty notes, or "minerality" as Todd said.

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