We’re not saying that Riesling pairs with every type of food out there -- but that’s pretty close to being a true statement. Think of it as the friend who knows how to get along with all your friends, then think of all your friends as edible.
To better understand the subtleties of Riesling’s pairing prowess, we spoke to some serious wine experts from around the country: manager of Terroir on the Highline Paul Grieco in New York, Brian Grandison, master sommelier and head sommelier at Hakkasan Miami, June Rodil, master sommelier and beverage director at McGuire Moorman Hospitality in Austin, Cappie Peete, certified sommelier and director of beverage & education at Neighborhood Dining Group in Charleston, and finally, sommelier Matthew Kaner, wine director of Bar Covell and Augustine Wine Bar in LA.
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Its acidity is the key to its adaptability
When a wine is looking to shack up with a particular dish, acidity is its wingman. It can hold its own against the spicy kick of Indian food. It can soften the appearance of acid in a dish, so it’ll help balance against the puckering tartness of lemon chicken. It can also cut right through the savory, fatty elements in a creamy carbonara. The acidity is what helps cleanse your palate in between bites -- and Riesling has the highest acidity of any white grape -- making it the perfect white to pair with food.
Brian says: “The acid adds a zing. If you have a herb crusted flavor with lemon in there, that can kind of cover up some of the lemon. When you taste it with the Riesling, some of that acidity will hit with the lemon in the chicken and elevate it quite a bit. High acidity is going to actually wash your palate and get you ready for the next bite of food.”
Its sheer variety means it complements (almost) anything
Get ready for this -- Riesling isn’t just a sweet wine. Rather, it occupies every zone in the dry-to-sweet spectrum, which gives it a greater pairing potential. And there are a host of reasons that factor into why there are so many different types of Riesling. The timing of picking any grape matters, but the effect of waiting or harvesting early is way more dramatic with Riesling because it shows off its aromatics more so than another wine. Harvest early, and you get fruity aromatic tartness in a glass reminiscent of a citrus fruit like lemon or grapefruit. Wait a little bit longer and you get a semi-sweet wine, with hints of orchard fruits like apples or peaches. Even longer than that, and you can figure out the rest.
Where the grape was picked can result in a host of different flavors as well, and that’s true of any wine. But with Riesling it matters more, because it’s one of those wines that shows off its terroir better than most others because of its lightness due to the way it was fermented. So the sheer variety of Rieslings allows you to taste the result of different soils and climates all over the world. In its home country of Germany alone, there are 13 wine growing regions with varying soil types and climates that produce a wide range of Riesling styles -- and tastes -- due to this variety of terroir. Colder regions, for example, produce Riesling from grapes that ripen more slowly and are richer with their innate, fruity presence more apparent.
The factors continue to add up: what condition is the soil in which the vines were grown? What kind of climate exists in the region? Are the vines grown on steep drainage, on a steep mountainside? Does the area get a good amount of sunshine? Does frost come early, do the grapes bud early? Put all that together, and you can get anything from a seriously dry Riesling to a sweet variety -- and they all play well with food in their own different ways.
Brian says: “People order a variety of different things and they want to blend them together, so we really need a wine that can hold up to five spice garlic, chili oil, mushrooms. Riesling is one of those wines that because of its acidity and the balance of fruit -- it really helps bring good balance to the table. That’s the main thing when you have so many people sharing dishes -- you need something super versatile.”
Its low alcohol content prevents the food from being overpowered
Low alcohol content is a key factor in a wine’s ability to pair. It helps especially when you’re going to town on, say, some seriously hot Singaporean Chili Crab. A higher-alcohol wine would just exacerbate the heat and leave you with that “ahhh my tongue and throat are on fire” feeling, robbing you of the pleasure of realizing just how wonderfully your food goes with your wine.
The low ABV also means the alcohol won’t become the main centerpiece of your meal. In contrast with Riesling, a higher-alcohol wine can overpower the food as well as cause you to feel fuller and more fatigued as you continue to eat.
Cappie says: “A lot of times you’re really weighed down by that steak or feeling like your palate is fatigued because of high alcohol wine; [Riesling] brightens it all up. A lot of people get into their heads that because it’s a white wine it’s going to be limited to lighter foods but when you put it with pulled pork, or any of the other rich southern cuisine, its elevated acidity hits on all the notes, especially if that particular Riesling has a touch of residual sugar.”
Rieslings are super aromatic
Smell is a big part of taste, and Riesling won’t let you forget it. Its fruitiness makes it one of the most aromatic wines around, mostly because its fermentation takes place in steel barrels, which brings out the taste of fruit rather than the heavy taste of an oak barrel. The fruity notes depend on terroir and the timing of the picking, resulting in notes of orchard fruits like peaches or apples, or citrus like lime or grapefruit. Any herbs in your dish -- from ginger to basil to turmeric -- will be accentuated thanks to Riesling’s aromatic fruitiness. But again, there’s versatility: fruitiness doesn’t have to mean it’s sweet -- you can have a dry, fruity wine, all the better to help complement and balance any spiciness.
Matthew says: “Fruity is not akin to sweet, though you can have a wine that’s fruity and sweet. Think about what happens when a grape gets a longer time to download the information from the vines. As their sweetness is rising fruit qualities are also maturing. Sweetness is a texture whereas fruitiness is a scent or a flavor. Think of ‘a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Sugar has texture, it’s something you feel. You can smell or taste fruitiness, but you experience sweetness, or the lack of sweetness.”
You can always find perfect balance
The most important thing to remember when balancing wine with food is to find the food’s dominant component, then play off it. Start by looking at the alcohol level of your Riesling in order to determine its weight (how the texture of the wine feels on your mouth).
The lower the alcohol, the higher the sugar, which makes the wine weightier in texture, which is enough to stand up to a heavier dish. It sounds a little contradictory, doesn’t it? We’ve been going on and on about how light and easily pairable Riesling is, and here we are talking about how it’s weighty enough to hold its own against a heavy dish. But the key here is to keep in mind that the Riesling with the highest alcohol content is still going to have a much lower ABV than another type of wine, just like a lower alcohol content Riesling will be weighty in comparison to other Rieslings, but will never be a heavy as a red.
“Unpacking” your meal helps you decide how you want to balance your dish with your wine. Is your dish predominantly light -- a simple sushi roll, or an oyster? Is it predominantly heavy -- a rich, cream based dish? Does the bitterness of the arugula in your salad overpower the tanginess of the vinaigrette?
When you’ve figured out the dominant component, ask yourself whether you want to point out the similarities between food and wine, e.g. highly acidic wine with a highly acidic food like lime-doused ceviche. Or do you want to play them off each other, by, for instance, pairing a sweeter Riesling with salty fried chicken? Provided you follow these basic pairing principles, going with Riesling means the world is yours. And so is the chicken.
Cappie says: “The acidity comes into play big time there. It acts as a balance. It’s like adding lemon juice to fried fish. It adds that bite. Instead of your mouth feeling weighed down by the fat of the food and feeling like it’s coated, it comes in and cleans it all up and gets you ready for the next bite. And by doing so enhances the flavor of the next bite because your mouth is refreshed and ready to try something else.”
June says: “Whenever you’re trying to find the balance the pairing you want to balance the weight of the wine with the weight of the food. The perception of sugar will give weight to the wine so a Riesling that is off dry or sweeter is actually a great pairing with a heavier dish because they both have those elements of weight to them to give them balance.”