There aren’t many places where whites are exposed to more prejudice than any other colour, but wine is one. Red grapes are rarely the victim of sweeping stereotyping – yes, everyone who has seen the film Sideways knows that Pinot Noir is a sensitive little critter, but most amateurs haven’t extrapolated a whole character profile from that. In any case, Paul Giamatti was singing a paean to the stuff, so any received ideas are likely to be positive. If not, never mind: anything that helps hoi polloi lay off red burgundy is fine by me. Supply is limited and I have only so many drinking hours in the day.
For some reason, white grapes get a descriptor slapped on them and that’s that. It’s ironic really, because the most frequently planted international white varieties are often planted precisely because of their adaptability. Also, if you think about it, the idea that two Chardonnays from different hemispheres are similar makes a nonsense of terroir – the notion that a wine tastes of where it comes from. But people don’t think about it – and who can blame them? If they wanted a discussion of soil types, they’d pick up a geology journal, not a bottle.
So, Sauvignon Blanc gets tagged the “gooseberry” grape; Chardonnay is herded into the “rich, vanilla” ghetto – and Riesling is only allowed to be sweet. Life is easier and poorer, as it generally is when simplified. There is, of course, a waft of truth here – but what about the mineral Chardonnays of Chablis, or the aromatic Pouilly-Fumé Sauvignons? And, while I love sweet Rieslings and also those with just the lick of sugar that so wonderfully sets off the quantities of crushed chilli I like to deploy at every possible opportunity, the dry ones are my favourites.
I like to claim I don’t have a sweet tooth, although what I mean – as I discovered when I gave up drinking for a month once (and never again) – is that I love sugar but prefer it fermented. Dry Riesling, citrus but never screechingly acidic, perfumed without being cloying, flavourful yet low in alcohol, is a people-pleaser that is never bland: it’s like the anti-pinot grigio. I tend to drink the driest ones as aperitifs – Petaluma and Grosset from Clare Valley, South Australia are favourites – and the slightly sweeter kind with Asian food.
Recently, I ate at Anna Hansen’s superb restaurant, the Modern Pantry in London; she’s a Canadian-born Kiwi who cooks Pacific Rim fusion, so Riesling, adaptable as any immigrant, is perfect for her. It enhances such easy wine matches as a seared king oyster mushroom, yuzu, kimchee and manouri dumpling, although I preferred an off-dry Bernkasteler Badstube 2010 (from Mosel in Germany, one of the world’s best Riesling regions) to their suggestion, Albert Mann 2009, a dry Alsatian Riesling: garlic loves a little sweetness.
I played swapsies throughout dinner, and had a great time working out whether guinea fowl with smoked anchovy dressing better suited a 2010 Riesling from Eden Valley, Australia or a 2008 from Marlborough, New Zealand (I say the former.)
There is a complicated classification system but just remember that trocken means dry (but halbtrocken is off-dry) and that some of the sweets, particularly anything labelled beerenauslese or eiswein, are very sweet. Then I recommend finding a good BYO Asian restaurant, taking some of the lighter styles down and arguing your heads off over which goes with what. The best time you can have with your clothes on. And you won’t even feel bad in the morning, which isn’t always the case with fun, clothed or otherwise.