Back in April, I had the honor of emceeing Taste of Atlanta’s Best Sommelier Contest at Del Frisco’s Grille in Atlanta. The four finalists, Christopher Boyette (Restaurant Eugene), Patrick Guilfoil (Woodfire Grill), Ryan Reardon (Bella Italia) and Brian White (The Ritz Carlton Downtown), competed admirably and brought honor to their respective dining establishments.
And while I’d like to regale White with oodles of kudos for winning, that’s not exactly what I want to talk about this week. As part of the competition, the sommeliers were asked to make pairings for the menu created by Del Frisco’s chef, A.J. Buchanio. One of his courses was a tuna tartar taco with avocado and spicy mayonnaise. Two of the four finalists picked a German riesling for this light, summery dish. They had dozens of wines from around the world to choose from, yet they went with the riesling, a stellar choice on my scorecard.
But let’s be honest here, who that is reading these words right now would plunk down 40 bucks for a German riesling the next time they dine out? If not for the confident encouragement by experts like Boyette, Guilfoil, Reardon and White, not many would experience the delights of these wines.
Before I get to why wine guys like these see the beauty of German riesling, let’s address the beastly side of this wine.
No doubt about it, labels sell (or don’t sell) wine. Winemakers who put complicated or unfriendly marks on their labels do so at their own peril. Most Americans find German wine labels pretty perilous. Whether it’s the old school Sütterlin script, the multisyllabic words or drab ink drawings of ancient villages, these labels are anything but approachable.
Image is another problem. I dare you to go up to a co-worker—as long as your co-worker is not a competition-level sommelier—and ask him or her what’s the first word they think of when you say “riesling.” Nine out of 10 times, they’ll say “sweet.”
OK, people, repeat after me: “All rieslings are not sweet.” Are there rieslings out there that are sweet? Yes. Trockenbeerenauslese (there are those fun multisyllabic words again) wines are some of the most exciting and sweet dessert wines in the world. Are there insipid, cheap, lightly sweet rieslings out there? Again, yes. These are the exceptions, however.
As the Best Sommelier contestants will tell you, well-made, high-quality German rieslings offer balance, finesse, complexity and food compatibility not found in wines from many other regions. Unfortunately, we can’t all have a sommelier sitting on our shoulder encouraging us to be unafraid of rieslings when it comes time to order a wine.
So why did half of the finalists pick a German riesling for the raw tuna course?
There are several. The first that comes to my mind is alcohol. Many German rieslings are under 12 percent alcohol (the wine I review this week has merely 10 percent). The 56 guests/spectators at the competition had four courses and four wines parade before them that night. That’s a lot of alcohol, especially if you want to pair the steak course with a California cab and its 15 percent alcohol—which several of the competitors did.
Raw foods and spicy foods can clash with many wines, especially tannic red wines or wines low in acidity. As a grape, riesling is blessed with lots of natural acidity, which can brighten up a food’s flavors. Raw tuna can actually gain a berry-like, fruity quality when matched with a crisp white, like riesling. Also, the zippy, tart, citrus notes can counterbalance a dish’s fiery notes, like those in the spicy mayonnaise.
I don’t know about those four out of five dentists who recommend one toothpaste over another, but two out of four sommeliers agree: German rieslings can brighten up any wine dinner.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog