FOOD & WINE – The Wine World’s Superstar Grapes

Although near-great varietals may attempt to complete, these six grapes remain the most influential and adored around the globe. An oenophile tells why.

by LETTIE TEAGUE, illustrations by  MICHAEL WITTE

Although near-great varietals may attempt to complete, these six grapes remain the most influential and adored around the globe. An oenophile tells why.

There are over 4,000 wine grapes in the world, and almost all of them have more than one name. Malbec, for example, has at least 34. Still, few are worth keeping track of, and even fewer are of world-class consequence. In fact, I put the number of superstar at six. I’m sure that some wine lovers will consider this number too small, while others may argue that a worthy grape got slighted (I’ll bet Merlot drinkers will be leading this charge), or simply that far too many of the six are French. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz and Pinot Nair. But these grapes have proven themselves in every part of the world. They’ve conSistently produced great wines in their countries of origin as well as in many new regions-unlike near-great grapes like Sangiovese and Tempranillo, which have yet to shine in non-native soil. So, six it stays-at least for now.

Riesling

Although some claim Riesling to be the noblest white grape of all, it’s hard to think of another varietal that has suffered a more ignoble treatment at the hands of modern winemakers. In a crime called Liebfraumilch, a torrent of wrenchingly sweet wines was sent forth and mis­ identified as Rieslings. So great was the damage that Riesling is still fighting to reclaim the respect it deserves.

Of course, committed wine drinkers have known all along the great heights this German grape is capable of achieving. And although a full-fledged Riesling revival has yet to occur, Riesling has been rediscovered by a small but passionate cadre of chefs in this country who’ve found in its flowery-steely character a perfect food wine. For Riesling possesses a ample amounts of food-friendly fruit and bracing acidity, as well as a range of flavors and textures more varied than Chardonnay’s. Beginning with its bouquet, which can be delicately floral or dramatically opulent, it can be bone­ dry or gloriously sweet, lively and low in alcohol in its youth or impressively stately in its maturity, for a great Riesling can improve with decades of aging.

Riesling’s most profound expressions are still found in Germany and its neighbors, Alsace and Austria, although Italy, Australia, Washington State and New York State can also produce memorable examples.

GREAT NAMES Germany Bürklin-Wolf, Ernst Loosen, J.J. Prüm. Austria Hirtzberg, Pichler. Alsace Boxler, Hugel, Kredenweiss. WaShington State Chateau Ste. Michelle. Australia Grosset. New York Hermann J. Wiemer. GREAT BUYS Washington State Chateau Ste. Michelle. Australia Pikes Polish Hill River Estate. Germany Christoffel.