What accounts for riesling's glories, and for their neglect among wine drinkers? The grape naturally has a combination of sweetness and high acidity, which makes a delectable combination in the glass. Think of bunches of soft drink grapes, Sprite perhaps, hanging on a vine: most of us love the balance of sugar and acid, and would regard a natural product like that as a wonder. Exactly so with riesling. Rieslings are also low in alcohol, so they remain refreshing, crisp, and bright whereas more potent wines like chardonnays seem thicker-bodied and apt either to overwhelm a meal or to induce sleepiness (or both) after a glass or two. Rieslings have vivid lemon-cake-and-clove aromas and burst with fruity, apple-pear flavors, which make a dry riesling especially such a sparkling and satisfying accompaniment to food.
The adjective often used in connection with riesling is "racy." This makes sense on an instinctive level, but it is hard to put into other, more solid words. Speed, lightness, quickness all come to mind with the word "racy," and it may be that the word makes best sense when you try to apply it to your memories of other white wines. Chardonnay, racy? No. Pinot grigio -- no. Sauvignon blanc, not exactly -- white zinfandel, no. Riesling -- somehow, yes.
Try it ... but here we encounter riesling's problem. It's woefully underappreciated. People often won't try it, and for this wine writers blame the wine's reputation as unfailingly and boringly sweet. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible says that this reputation was fully deserved in the years after World War II, when German producers made oceans of sugary rieslings to appeal to the taste of American soldiers occupying Germany, and to the taste even of the German public, who were starved for sweets because sugar had been rationed during the war. Jancis Robinson in How to Taste says that some German winemakers kept churning out the sweet stuff, out of a pure cynical desire to make money, for decades after.
Things have long since changed, and now Germany does put out an endless array of rieslings including the dry and even the really bone-dry; but as my old favorite Willie Gluckstern hollers in The Wine Avenger, a dry riesling is not therefore the correct One, its appearance constituting our sign from heaven that now it's okay to try It. The riesling grape has a sweetness whose balance with acidity makes the delight of the wine. Many foods and, indeed, any cooking process is going to add sweetness to what we taste -- toast is caramelized bread, a seared steak is caramelized meat -- and we don't turn away with a shudder from either taste experience.
The circumstances under which riesling comes to perfection, the perfection of acid-sugar balance and that elusive "raciness," are a part of the wonder. Riesling is quite the snow princess. It grows farther north of the equator than any other noble grape. In fact Germany, and we are talking about southwest Germany, marks the northermost limit of viticulture anywhere. Riesling's favored regions lie at the same latitude as Mongolia and Newfoundland (Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible). Grapes can only survive here when they are planted on the south-facing hillsides of river valleys, where the river itself moderates the cold weather, cold air runs down and away from the vines, and the southern exposure catches as much summer sun as possible. The ripening process is downright tortuous, and acidity in the grape is never a problem (imagine biting into a nice, hard little unripe anything. Eeew.) Riesling's natural sugar levels come to the rescue in the making of the final, palatable product, especially in warm sunny years when the killing frosts of autumn may be postponed so long that a grower may go through his vineyards more than once, harvesting a second or a third time or -- keeping his fingers crossed -- maybe even a fourth or a fifth. With each harvest, the grapes will be just that bit riper, and will make just that bit fuller, richer, more acid-balanced wine.