Riesling is an unheralded, delicious wine that makes a total hit as a wine tasting party. Many novice wine drinkers prefer sweeter-tasting wines, and with great Riesling you can be sweet and sophisticated at the same time! Riesling is a great wine to become familiar with because it pairs amazingly well with food or as a flavorful white on its own. Many delicious and easy-to-find Rieslings can be had for less then $25/bottle. Wunderbar!
Focus on Rieslings from Germany and the Alsace region of France, the two areas of Europe known for elevating this grape to greatness. German Rieslings can be complicated to learn about at first glance, so use this tasting as a way to break it down & demystify this wonderful wine.
Meanwhile, introduce your guests to popular and widely-distributed German & Alsace winemakers at a variety of price points.
Do this tasting in two parts. First, German wine labels are crazy complicated – so turn this to your advantage by having your guests taste three German wines side-by-side: a Kabinett, a Spatlese and an Auslese (in that order). Let them see the labels of these 3 so they can learn. Second, explore the differences in style: German Rieslings tend to be a bit sweeter while Alsace Rieslings tend to be a bit drier. So do a “blind” tasting (disguise the bottles) of 4-5 other Rieslings from Germany & Alsace to let guests learn what style they prefer and to find a favorite which they can look for in the store later.
Part One (in order, one at a time, with labels displayed):
- Joh. Jos. Prum, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, 2007 ($40)
- Joh. Jos. Prum, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese, 2007 ($40)
- Joh. Jos. Prum, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, 2007 ($40)
Part Two (blind tasting):
- “Dr. L” Riesling, Kabinett, Dr. Loosen, Germany, 2008 ($10)
- Hugel Riesling, Alsace, 2008 ($16)
- Trimbach Riesling, Alsace, 2008 ($22)
- Selbach-Oster, Zeltinger Schlossberg, Riesling Spatlese, Germany ($25)
- Domaine Weinbach, “Cuvee St. Catherine,” Alsace, 2007 ($50-60)
We like to start this tasting by teaching your guests how to read those crazy-sounding German wine labels. German winemakers often make several different Riesling wines from the very same vineyard, just by harvesting some grapes earlier, some a bit later, and others much later, and making completely separate wines from each batch! The longer they stay on the vine, the more concentrated and intense the flavors. So the first picked are labeled “Kabinett,” and these are lighter & refreshing. The next harvested are more fuller-flavored “Spatlese,” and later still they pick wines for a more intense, concentrated “Auslese.” An easy way for you to illustrate this is to start your tasting with three wines from the same winemaker, vineyard, and year – we recommend Joh. Jos. Prum as a winemaker and their Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard, which is excellent. Let your guests try them one at a time and notice that the only difference on the label is the word “Kabinett,” “Spatlese” or “Auslese.”
The first part of your tasting may feel a bit formal – though remember, guests enjoy wine tastings where they feel they’ve learned something – so next open it up for a fun “blind” tasting of the remaining wines. We think you should pick one bottle from each of these four popular winemakers: Dr. Loosen (Germany), Hugel (Alsace), Trimbach (Alsace), and Selbach-Oster (Germany). These wines are relatively easy to find, and great “brands” to know. We like Dr. Loosen’s “Dr. L” as a $10 winner, although Dr. Loosen is also one of the most respected makers of German Riesling and makes delicious wines at higher price points. In blind tastings it’s always fun to throw in one that’s expensive; we like the high-end “Cuvee St. Catherine” from Domaine Weinbach, a fantastic winery run by three talented women in Alsace.
The wines in the blind tasting above range from $10-25/bottle except for the splurge wine from Domaine Weinbach. We started the tasting with a very nice horizontal flight of German Rieslings from Joh. Jos. Prum that cost about $40/bottle, but you can certainly find a less expensive trio of wines for the starter portion if you like.
Play up the German angle when you pick the tunes for your event, and let hilarity ensue. When all your guests have arrived, put on Nina’s “99 Luftballoons,” an ‘80s one-hit wonder and a fun blast from the past. Joke that it’s the only #1 German song you could think of. You could even put this on repeat for a while. Follow with Devo’s “Whip It” which sounds German, even if it’s not. Then segue into a few hits by the Scorpions –a legit German rock band! – like “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” “Winds of Change,” and “Send Me an Angel.” All of this will be jovial background music for the first part of your tasting and it’ll put your guests in a relaxed and fun mood for what otherwise could seem a very serious academic review of Germany’s complicated wine labels!
Once you head into the “blind” tasting portion of your party – and we’re not kidding here – download and play David Hasselhoff’s Greatest Hits from iTunes. Make a very big production of this music change – a couple glasses of wine into the event, your guests should find it utterly hilarious that they’re drinking German wines while listening to songs that made the former “Baywatch” and “Knight Rider” star into an improbable pop music icon in Germany. Don’t miss his cover of “Try a Little Tenderness!”
If our recommendation for a tongue-in-cheek romp through Germany’s contribution to ‘80s pop and rock doesn’t suit you or your guests, you could opt instead for a Polka theme for the whole event. It’ll provide jovial German-sounding background music for the entirety of your tasting, and again should be mildly hilarious. If after tasting 5-6 wines a few guests actually break into a polka, all the better. In any case the music is just a sideshow anyway for the great wines and the great company.
For your cheese pairing, we recommend aged Gouda, which we cubed ahead of time and set out with crackers. Riesling is a great food wine but interestingly isn’t one that you think of pairing with a variety of cheeses. Gouda is a great cheese in its own right, comes in many varieties and does complement the flavors of Riesling very nicely. Comte, Edam, Tomme Fermiere d’Alsace or Swiss mountain cheeses would work well too if you wanted to put a cheeseboard together.
Also, use this as an opportunity to educate your guests on how versatile Riesling is as a food-pairing wine. Because of its acidity and relatively high sugar content, Riesling pairs great with Asian dishes, from Chinese takeout to Indian or Thai food. Not all wines are good pairings with spicy food, so this is great to know!
So if you wanted to serve heavy apps with your tasting, play up this angle! You could serve some steamed dumplings from your local Chinese place, order up some beef or chicken satay skewers from your favorite Thai restaurant, and/or put out some samosas from a local Indian restaurant. Of course, German wines will complement German foods as well, so sliced bratwurst or kielbasa with toothpicks would make a great theme-appropriate finger food for this event.
This is a tasting where we strongly recommend going with the well-known, well-distributed winemakers. Frankly, not every wine store has a huge German or Alsace Riesling selection. Hugel, Trimbach, Dr. Loosen, Selbach-Oster et.al. are all widely available, reliably well-made, and are often at very affordable prices. Your guests will thank you later for picking wines that are easy for them to find!
As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you pour them. If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too. Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“tangy,” “too sweet,” “too dry,” “delicious – my favorite!” or “tastes like apples”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale. When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores. Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!). The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner. If you pick the $10 wine, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can easily afford to stock up on your favorite wine! If you preferred the most expensive wine, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob!
Germany is a nation known more for beer than wine, but no other nation achieves such greatness with Riesling. In the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, German Rieslings benefit from the slate in the soil, whcih helps ripen the Riesling grape, which might otherwise struggle to ripen in a region this far north that gets relatively little sunshine.
Alsace is in the northwest corner of France, not far from the German border and seemingly a world away from the great regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire Valley and the Rhone Valley. Alsace is known for white wines and is worth a separate tasting all its own – we’ve had some delicious Pinot Blanc, Gewurtztraminer and white blends from Alsace, in addition to their great Rieslings.
Last fun fact – if you’re looking for a perfect white wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner, look no further than Riesling! The acidity of Riesling makes it food-friendly, but its fruity sweetness makes it robust enough to pair with the creamy but otherwise mild flavors on most Americans’ Thanksgiving Day table. Chardonnay, by contrast, isn’t usually a good Turkey Day choice as the buttery creamy flavors get overwhelmed by your mashed potatoes and gravy. And if you feel (understandably!) that you should serve an American wine on Thanksgiving, Dr. Loosen has a joint venture in Washington that produces a very good and affordable Riesling called “Eroica” that is worth checking out.