Riesling is the world's most versatile and food-friendly grape variety, but it is woefully misunderstood and often ignored by wine consumers. It can be a stylistic chameleon—from very dry to tooth-meltingly sweet, making it difficult for the novice consumer to decide whether he or she likes it.
Rarely is the sweetness level of the wine evident on the label, so ask your local wine shop for guidance. Here are three Rieslings that represent various stages of sweetness.
Trocken is German for "dry," and is one instance where the label does tell you what to expect, like the Kühling-Gillot "Qvinterra" Riesling Trocken 2009 ($17, Bacchus Importers Ltd.). Crisp peaches, snappy pear, and zingy citrus notes finish in a sleek, dry, mineral-driven aftertaste that begs for creamy cheeses and rich sauces. It has all the power of oaky Chardonnay but none of the heaviness.
I love the label for "Kung Fu Girl" Riesling 2010 ($14, The Country Vintner) because it is representative of this wine from Washington state—a petite girl capable of sweetness but also clearly ready to fight. The hallmark Riesling flavors of peach and light melon are elevated by some sweetness, making the wine an ideal mate for Asian food. But there's a nervy acidity on the finish to keep it refreshing and quenching. Rieslings with this kind of balance (that is, tipped slightly to the sweet side) are the "sweet" spot for versatility.
Mönchhof Mosel "Slate" Riesling Spätlese 2007 ($20, Potomac Selections) is the sweetest wine of the group and also the broadest. It practically bursts on the palate with a juicy tsunami of peach, apricot, tangerine, honeysuckle, and, yes, slate. The last aspect reminds me of summer rain on the slate sidewalk of my youth. It's just the right amount of bass note to support all the treble of the fruit and sugar in the wine. Fantastic as an aperitif, this wine will excel with spicy food, dishes served with fruit salsas or chutneys, and even with fresh fruit.