Surprised by Riesling

A few years back, I took my first sip of riesling. 

I was astounded.

No, not so much because of its bright acidity or sharp, fresh bite—though I’m sure both were present. Rather, because I had never expected to like it.

At the time, my novice knowledge of wine led me to believe that all rieslings were sweet, not to mention my belief that “real wine drinkers” didn’t drink sweet wines (of course, both are incorrect).

In short, I loved the riesling. And it changed my life.

The wine was actually rather dry, which contributed to its appeal, but the larger takeaway for me that evening was not that I had a new vineyard, grape, and vintage to add to a shopping list. I walked away with a complete paradigm shift.

You know how there are two types of coffee drinkers? (Those who drink it black and those who use cream and/or sugar?) To say nothing of that fallacy, that’s how I felt about red and white (especially sweet white) wines. At that point (in my mind), only chardonnay and maybe a few pinot grigios could be considered acceptable for the serious drinker of (red) wine.

How wrong I was.

This idea reminds me of a wonderful little book by Elaine Scarry called On Beauty and Being Just. One of her main points is that it is possible for us to misjudge beauty. We may consider something to be ugly, or at least not beautiful, when it is in fact beautiful. She gives the example of palm trees as such a misjudgment in her own story. While reading her book, I thought of oboes. (Anyone who survived elementary and middle school band will understand what I mean.) When I heard an oboe concerto on classical radio in college, my mind was blown. I now adore oboes.

My preconceptions about rieslings were similar. I had already decided that the wine was not worth liking, not able to be liked, even ought not be liked (at least not so much as cabernet sauvignon), at least if I was going to be “serious” about wine . . . and this was all based on folly and inexperienced prejudice. Once I tasted, my eyes were opened. 

Hm. “Taste and see . . . .”

On a more pragmatic level, I learned two things thanks to my experience that evening:

First, not all rieslings are created equal. They come in a range from sweet to dry, with everything in-between (semi-sweet, off-dry, etc.)

Second, even sweet wines have their place. Though I myself prefer dry wines, I would certainly not pair a dry red wine with most desserts. The chocolate and red wine pairing you hear so much about? Actually, its not a great idea unless you’re having a sweet red wine such as the fortified red, Port. (The creaminess and sweetness of the chocolate makes dry reds taste dull, bitter, and overly tannic, and the wine doesn’t necessarily do many favors for the chocolate either.) Just because we like something (e.g., dry red wine) does not make it a fantastic accoutrement to whatever we may happen to fancy (say, spicy Thai food or ice cream).

But on a more important note, I learned something more essential that evening. I learned not to be so quick to judge something I had never experienced firsthand. Too often we make judgments based on assumptions we receive from various, largely non-reliable sources: hearsay, random junk on the internet, self-promoted fancies, and what have you.

Dry riesling is amazing. In fact, it may be the most versatile food-pairing wine there is. But don’t take my word for it—take the journey and find out for yourself.

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