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What to drink this summer 

Like your wine bright and refreshing? Get on the Riesling train

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As it rolled up to the Arches bar at the Olde Pink House on Reynolds Square, the metal shipping container looked like it might contain a fleet of muscular motorcycles, or perhaps a well-kept zoo animal.

When the side door swung open, however, the sleek interior and barstools revealed that this must be the mobile headquarters of the Summer of Riesling, a marketing crusade conceived to promote the delicious multiplicity of what its organizers call “the world’s greatest grape.”

In no time flat, two men with drills transformed the trailer-bound container into an ambient chill space with mirrors and soft lighting. A small group of invitees ascended a few stairs to enter, and once everyone was settled, the pouring began.

Since 2011, Stuart Pigott and Paul Grieco have traveled the country with a small staff, spreading the gospel of Riesling at restaurants and foodie events. They’re not at it to hawk any particular label, but to simply convince sommeliers and customers of the superiority of this white wine originally grown and barreled in Germany’s Rhine Valley.

Often dismissed as cloyingly sweet, Riesling manifests in myriad flavors and has found passionate champions in this pair of professional wine lovers. Pigott is a British wine critic who makes his home in Berlin, writing primarily about the under-sung glory of German wines. (His new book, The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Book, will be released later this month.) His partner-in-wine Grieco served as sommelier at the award-winning Gramercy Tavern and is the co-owner and general manager of the über-popular Hearth in NYC’s East Village.

This year’s 12-day tour took them to gastronomic vortices all along the Eastern seaboard, starting in Key West and trundling through Charleston, Baltimore and Washington, DC before winding up back in Manhattan, where they’ve manning the summer-long campaign through Twitter (@SummerRiesling).

If these gentlemen believe Riesling ought to be at the top of their wine racks, oenophiles might want to listen.

They were preaching to the choir in Savannah, where Connect’s Best of Savannah sommelier Jason Restivo helped draw local palates to the Riesling Road Trip train. Formerly of the Olde Pink House, Restivo now oversees the wine list at Garibaldi’s and has long embraced Riesling as a go-to wine.

“It’s a great surprise—it not just sweet. It’s dry, it’s floral, it’s rich,” he says, adding that its characteristic brightness pairs well with the salty flavor of Southern food. He also offers that Riesling’s relatively low alcohol content makes it an ideal beverage to accompany lunch fare on into the afternoon, as Savannahians do so love to start drinking early in the day.

Still, he understands that it can be an acquired preference. “It’s like collards—it can take time to develop a taste for anything.”

Restivo first became acquainted with the Summer of Riesling via social media and was thrilled when he was contacted to host a stop on the tour.

“When they emailed, I was like ‘Halleuljah!’” he laughs. “It’s a real honor to be included in the hipster wine movements that have sprung up in Birmingham and Charleston.”

No local wine gathering would be complete without Christian Depken, who calls Riesling “the most important wine in the world.” He sells over 40 varieties of it at Le Chai, his charming galerie du vin on the south side of Forsyth Park.

Of the first pouring featuring a super dry 2012 Gunderloch Nackenheim from the Rheinhessen region, he looked triumphant. “See? Not sweet at all.”

An expert on terroir (the effects of climate, geology and geography upon a particular grape), Depken pronounced the minerality and apricot notes of the Gunderloch superb, explaining that “the stony soil of the Rheinhessen makes wines taste sleeker than they actually are.”

It was followed by another dry Riesling, a 2012 Wittmann Westhofener also from the Rheinhessen region, evoking approving murmurs all around.

“It made me want to shuck oysters and eat Saltines,” reports Restivo.

After demonstrating the elegance and aridity of Riesling, Pigott and Greico moved on to a 2012 CH Berres of the Mosel region and a 2012 Prinz von Hessen of Rheingau, both sweeter but still balanced. (Depken invoked the German term for residual sugar content, Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet, better known as QbA.)

Going from dry to sweet is the opposite of what Prime Wine and Spirits distributor Jason Ohmann described as “the Riesling tasting cycle.”

“People will start with the sweet stuff and then go forth into the more complex, structured wines,” described Ohmann. “Then you end up back at sweet again.”

Indeed, the Riesling road trip officially ended with the 2012 Dr. Loosen Spätlese Ürziger Würzgarten, which literally translates into “spice of the garden” and filled the nostrils with a creamy earthiness.

“It made me want to go to Leopold’s and get a sundae,” applauded Restivo, who has been invited to Germany to attend a seminar on the region’s wine industry this July.

The Summer of Riesling trailer definitely shook up a few skeptics that evening. To reward their new converts, Pigott and Greico broke out an unoffical bottle of 1992 Nussbrunnen Schloss Schönborn, a special treat that inspired a hearty toast to Riesling’s honor—neither the first or the last on the junket.

Pigott later wrote on his blog that the “combination of hedonism and professional curiosity at those tastings delighted me. That is really the Riesling Spirit.”

While he and Grieco say that 2014 will be their last whirlwind wine tour, Pigott says he won’t rest until he has convinced the masses of Riesling’s merit: “There’s still plenty of work to be done to inform the many Americans who still think it is just a sweet, foreign beverage!”

Depken summed up Riesling’s diverse gastronomic and oenophilic potential thusly:

“What it comes down to is, how much sweetness do you want?”

cs

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Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

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Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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