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Not Too Sweet After All

Riesling: it tends to conjure thoughts of unpronounceable labels and syrupy sweet wine. At a recent tasting of 2002 German Rieslings at William Cross Wine Merchants (2253 Polk), I got some insight into what all those long German words actually mean, and tasted some stellar white wines that were much easier to drink than syrup.

So let's start with the label. For example: Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Kabinett Rheinhessen. Don't even bother trying to say it out loud. Georg Albrecht Schneider is the producer, Niersteiner is the village, and Paterberg is the vineyard. Riesling is obviously the grape while Kabinett refers to the degree of ripeness when the grapes were picked, and Rheinhessen is the larger region of Germany.

Now what about the sweetness? Well it's actually more of a myth that most German wines are sugary sweet. For a while in the 60's and 70's most of the Rieslings that were imported did have some residual sugar, but that's because dry Rieslings are often so bracingly acidic that the average American palate wanted nothing to do with them. Once we became a bit more educated and began to see better German producers come to our shores, we wised up.

But how do you tell how "sweet" it will be? Your first indication is the degree of ripeness, Kabinett and Spatlese being the two most common. Kabinett means the grapes were picked at normal ripeness, while Spatlese indicates that the grapes were "late-harvested," or fully ripened. These words have nothing to do with the actual sugar content; that is indicated by the word Trocken (bone dry) or Halbtrocken (off dry). If neither of these words appear you can assume that there is some residual sugar. The amount of residual sugar is up to the producer, however, although often these wines will still taste dry because Riesling is such an acidic grape.

So where to start? Here are two wines from the William Cross tasting that struck me as good starting points. 2002 Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Kabinett ($11.00) is a nicely ripe wine full of apricot and honey. Because of the perceptible sweetness this Riesling would be a nice companion to spicy Asian cuisine such as chili garlic shrimp.

Again, the 2002 Dr. H Thanisch Bernkastel Graben Kabinett ($15.00) is full flavored with apricot and melon, but there is also a distinct mineral quality like the taste of spring water running off of stones, which gives it a racier quality.

Go ahead, order that kung pao chicken extra hot and forgo the beer; a chilled riesling will quell the burn much better.