Most bar patrons, in particular those with some wine game in their swirl-and-sip repertoires, do not like to be told what to drink. But what about when booze steering is branded as a playful-yet-didactic nudge in an unforeseen direction? That's what the Summer of Riesling (SoR) — a nationwide promotion encouraging drinkers to embrace the oft-misunderstood Teutonic grape — is all about.
The SoR promotion originates at the New York City wine bar Terroir, where in 2008, owner Paul Grieco decided to overhaul the white portion of his by-the-glass list to feature only Rieslings, commonly known for being (1) German and (2) extremely sweet. We likely have the domestic wine industry's thirst for efficiency to blame for these blanket misconceptions. "Despite its great variability," says Suzanne Winter, who oversees SoR programming on a national level, "it was easier [for importers and merchants] to dictate to consumers that Riesling had but one sweet product and came principally from its country of origin."
While the grape does call Germany's Rhine region home (the country still lays claims to more than half the world's Riesling vines), it has long been cultivated worldwide, from New Zealand and South Africa to Oregon and upstate New York. As far as taste goes: Riesling is both complex by virtue and extremely sensitive to the region in which it's grown, translating to great diversity waiting to be uncorked within the varietal. "Riesling has the mesmerizing power to be both one thing and many things at once, in that the grape illuminates the quality of its terroir in full Technicolor while still tasting undeniably like Riesling," says Winter.
One characteristic true of all Riesling, terroir notwithstanding, is its unusually high level of acidity, which has led to Rieslingheads dubbing themselves "Acidhounds." This aspect appeals to Jill Weber of Jet Wine Bar, a local SoR venue where, like all participating locations, one can find three Rieslings by the glass throughout the summer season. "The wines have a lot of sugar, and because of that they have a lot of acidity, which translates to [Riesling] being a lot more refreshing than other wines," says Weber, who's also working on a series of Riesling-based events. "No matter what [flavors] you might taste, you get this wonderful wash of acidity."
Riesling, which Jon Myerow characterizes as "an underappreciated grape" (his Tria and Biba locations are SoR participants), also has a latent reputation as a powerful pairing wine. "It has such a wide range," says Tria cheese director Sean Faeth, who's sticking a Riesling-friendly washed-rind Abbaye de Tamié on Tria's "Sunday School" menu this weekend. "It can be crisp and mellow or it can be sweet and rich, but it always has a great food backbone."
There are a total of 10 Philly-area bars and restaurants taking up the torch for the SoR, which runs through Sept. 22. For more info and a full list of local participants, head to summerofriesling.com.