Riesling: What's in a Name?

Is there a more misunderstood grape variety than riesling? Mention it to most people and you’ll be greeted with a look that exists somewhere between sadness and pity. Oh, it seems to say. You like sweet wine. And probably white zinfandel and cosmos, too.
But as fans of this most profound grape know, and as an SAT student might phrase it, good riesling is to that sweet plonk as Mozart is to William Hung. It has the potential to plumb depths of complexity that other varieties could only dream of achieving. In good years, and when produced by careful winemakers, it’s long-lived. And the value is often remarkable. There’s a reason that Jancis Robinson has said of it: “I think that Riesling is indisputably the greatest white wine grape in the world...” (Of course, she finishes this brave declarative with the following: “...but many people think I am mad.”)
Personally, somewhere around 10% of my personal collection is riesling. What other wine, after all, offers the opportunity for such reliable aging and evolution for such low prices? A $30 Spatlese from a great producer can age for 30 years, an otherwise unheard-of price-to-agability ratio in the world of wine.
The remarkable return on investment that riesling offers was recently reinforced when I tasted a sample of the excellent, breathtakingly affordable Weingut Liebfrauenstift Riesling Trocken 2010 from Valckenberg. (Most people, upon seeing that name, will immediately be brought to mind of the notorious Liebfraumilch, that sweet, simple tipple whose challenge to the intellect exists in perfectly inverse proportion to its challenge to the drinker’s dental health. Fear not: This is not the same thing. For a fantastic explanation of the differences between the two, and a fascinating history of the wines, click over to this link from the excellent winewisdom.com.)
Anyway, this bottling embodied everything that riesling fans enjoy so much in the grape variety. It smelled of crisp, clean honey and lemon and lime, all of them lifted by a lovely herbal note. These led to a bracing mouthful of lemon, grapefruit, and underripe apricot, with steely minerals and a vague tinge of slate. Honeysuckle snuck in on the minerally finish, bringing this addictively well-structured white to a close. As good as this is on its own, it’s even better with delicately fatted foods: Give me a white sausage with this and I’d be thrilled.
(Note: For an excellent accounting of German riesling’s often misunderstood cousin from Alsace, take a look at this article, from last week’s New York Times.)