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Riesling and Fire
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed November 1, 2001. For more information go to

I have never fully understood why German Riesling isn't a runaway best-seller, particularly in the U.S., where many people drink sweet soft drinks by the tank-car load. Riesling seems to have all the ingredients for success: it's made from one of the most noble of wine grapes, and - particularly at the ripeness level that the Germans call "Kabinett" - it's light, fresh, low in calories, easy to quaff and slightly sweet, with fresh-fruit sugar nicely balanced by refreshing acidity. You could call it a soft drink for adults!

Frankly, though, even though I preach this sermon, I'm as bad as most everyone else: I talk a good Riesling game, but I actually reach out for a German wine no more than a few times each year.

I'm not sure where the problem lies. Maybe it's the complicated labels, or memories of the cheap Liebfraumilch that we considered sophisticated stuff back in the '70s. Or maybe it's just that we've grown so accustomed to the dry, tart style of the French and Italian varieties and their New World counterparts that we find German wines distinctly and disturbingly different.

But here's one more good reason to pull the cork from a Riesling: When you've got something hot and spicy on the table, from Mexican or Cajun fare to fiery curries, Szechwanese cuisine, or a tasty treat from Vietnam or Thailand, a fruity, off-dry Riesling seems to make a happy match where few other wines will work.

I love hot food, but I rarely accompany it with dry table wines because, in my experience, the combination of dry wine and hot chile peppers turns pleasure into pain. But substitute a Riesling for that Merlot or Chardonnay, and suddenly your curry sings with the wine. Soft fruit and light sweetness seem to ameliorate the heat, and the relatively low alcohol level of Kabinetts (today's featured wine was only 8 percent) seems to avoid that unpleasant "burn."


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