If you had $1 for every time someone told you to pair Riesling with Asian food, would you be…retired? No doubt the two work well together, but why?
Asian food, in general, is spicy and sweet
With the exception of Japanese food or Northern Chinese food (Shanghai), where spice does not make much of an appearance, a lot of other Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Malaysian, Cambodian, Filipino, and Indonesian dishes play with the combination of sweet and spicy.
In comes Riesling with its low alcohol that will not accentuate the spice. As a white wine, it has much lower tannins than red wine that will not fight the spice. (Yes, white wine does have some tannin.)
Riesling also comes in various forms of sweetness that can match the sugar level in a dish. In addition, its high acidity provides a refreshing contrast to the sweet notes.
A classic combination?
Riesling and Asian food often go so well together that it might as well be enshrined as a classic food and wine pairing along with champagne and oysters, cabernet sauvignon and steak, and pinot noir and lamb.
However, we also know there is so much variation to be had within those combinations, depending on the preparation of the dish, terroir, and winemaking techniques.
As a general rule, do pair Riesling with Asian food. (Though this blog seeks to explore pairings beyond the usual suspect.)
If you are going to buy Riesling, here is what you need to know.
German Rieslings Rule
Known as the noble grape, Riesling is the grape that reigns supreme in Germany, where it grows more Riesling than any other wine producing country.
Riesling grapes like cold weather, so the best of them often come from Germany and the Alsace region in France. Other regions that do well with Riesling are the Finger Lakes in New York, Oregon, Canada, New Zealand, and some parts of Australia.
Much of California, on the other hand, is too warm. The grapes end up over-ripening, and they are subsequently made into sweet “late harvest” wine.
In fact, many New World wines have much warmer climates than Europe and have less acidity as a result.
Germany, on the other hand, has been growing Riesling grapes since the 1400s. Its climate is too cool for red grapes, such that they don’t ripen enough.
You will find most German Riesling packaged in green bottles, while other wines will be in brown bottles.
“All German Riesling is Sweet” Stigma
In the 70s and 80s, cheap and very sweet German Rieslings flooded the US market, and poor Riesling developed a reputation for being sweet.
In the 21st century, that unfortunate stigma remains. The truth is that Rieslings vary in sweetness from dry to sweet.
How to Decode German Riesling Labels
Since ripeness is never guaranteed in a cool climate, the Germans put the ripeness level on the wine label. This can be confusing since the words are in German.
This pradikat rating system, established in 1971, indicates the level of sugar in the grapes at harvest, not how much sugar is in the wine. These are categorized in 6 styles.
The Six Styles of German Riesling
- Kabinett: Light and delicate from grapes picked either early or during the main harvest.
- Spatlese: Made from grapes picked later in the harvest. They have ripened longer and have extra sweetness.
- Auslese: Made from extremely ripe grapes that are often infected with the fungus, bortrytis cinerea.
- Eiswein: Made from grapes that have frozen on the vine, hence known as ice wine.
- Beerenauslese: Made from half shriveled grapes that have been completely infected with bortrytis.
- Trockenbeerenauslese: Made from fully shriveled grapes infected with bortrytis. This wine is a rare and hard to find.
If you are after a nonsweet Riesling, look for “trocken” on the label, which means dry. Alternately, try “halbtrocken” which means half dry.
In addition, look at the alcohol level in the wine. If it’s 8-10% alcohol, you can probably assume there is some residual sugar. If the alcohol level is 11% or greater, the wine would likely be in the drier style.
Riesling goes with everything
Riesling does not just pair well with Asian food, it is a food friendly wine in general.
Check out these articles from the Wine Pairing Weekend crew for more tips on pairing German wines with food.
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