If you think sweet when you think of Riesling, you're right, but only half right. In the classic German style, Riesling tastes more sweet than dry, but across the border in Alsace, France, the wine becomes arid in the extreme. Here in Virginia, the tradition seems to be a blend of the two with a preference for the flinty, mineral taste of Alsace.
We blind-tasted 11 Virginia Rieslings. While two were surprising disappointments, and one tended toward German halbtrocken, or medium-sweet wine, the remaining eight demonstrated complexity and control as their flavors progressed from crisp, sharp opening statements, through citrus, pineapple or pear midpalates, to very dry, almost smoky, conclusions.
On points, our panel favorite was the Oasis Semi-Dry Virginia Riesling 1997 (91 points) golden color, deep earthy mineral nose, and a lively grapefruit zing that awakens your taste buds, yet calms down quickly enough to remain in control and well-balanced overall.
In a three-way tie for second were: Dominion Wine Cellars Johannisburg Riesling 1998 (86 points) floral with hints of pineapple and spruce and a dry finish; Willowcroft Riesling 1998 (86 points) light in color, creamy in feel and a little sweeter overall with a gentle transition to a smoky finish; Chateau Morrisette Our Dog Blue (86 points) a bright, clean halbtrocken blend of Viognier and Riesling. This one's a sipper.
On the drier side of things, Barboursville Virginia Riesling 1998 (83 points) provides plenty of pucker subtle and well-balanced with notes of apricot and caramel and a smoky finish.
For the record, not all the dry wines said so on the label, and we were unable to distinguish any significant taste difference between the designations "dry" and "semi-dry" on those that did. Some wineries add to the confusion with the designation "off-dry." Our conclusion: the information is superfluous.
Also worth a mention is that the word "Johannisburg" on the label refers not to a style of Riesling but to a particular variety of the grape. Most of the Riesling in the store is Johannisburg, whether it says so or not.
Finally, though hardly a flaw, it is worth noting that the characteristics of these Virginia Rieslings and most Alsace-style Rieslings tend to make them easier to enjoy with food than on their own. What to serve? Try full-flavored or spicy Mediterranean dishes or even a good stir-fry.
The Riesling Index
Virginia Rieslings in order of tasting. Prices are those charged at the winery.
Naked Mountain Riesling 1998 (83), $12 light, tart, firm nose, most of the flavor is delivered early.
Rockbridge White Riesling 1998 (82), $10 (semi-dry); concentrated and herbal with slow-burn taste to smoky finish.
Barboursville Riesling 1998 (83), $10 well-balanced and subtle, fruity, full and ripe.
Oasis Riesling 1997 (91), $18 (semi-dry); best of the lot; sharp, mineral and lemon balanced with slight sweetness.
Rapidan River Semi-Dry Riesling 1998 (82), $9.95 smooth and balanced but a little thin overall.
Dominion Wine Cellars 1998 Johannisburg Riesling (86), $10 complex, fully aromatic with notes of juniper berry and spruce, pineapple and melon flavors and very dry.
Rapidan River Dry Riesling 1998 (82), $9.95 mineral nose, a little woody, with slightly lemon finish.
Willowcroft Riesling 1998 (86), $9.81 fruity aroma, finishes bigger than it starts with smoke and citrus.
Chateau Morrisette Our Dog Blue (86), $9 a nonvintage "white table wine" blend of Riesling and Viognier. As a Riesling, more like the middle-sweet German halbtrocken; smells like peaches, tastes like peaches.
Patrick Getlein is a wine columnist and consultant in Richmond. His monthly column features panel reviews of Virginia wines by variety. Send your comments and suggestions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Style Weekly, 1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220.
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