Master Grape 

Riesling earns raves from wine geeks and Wineaux.

To become a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, one has to learn everything there is to know about the world's major wine-producing regions and be able to blind-identify each region's wines. One must then master the art of wine, beer, and spirits service and absorb minute details about terroir, the finer points of food pairing, the ins and outs of winemaking, spirits distillation, and brewing, and the international regulations governing all of the above. By the time they earn their title, master sommeliers have tasted and judged the quality of thousands upon thousands of the world's finest wines.

So when you meet one, and he tells you his favorite varietal, you listen. When I asked Tim Gaiser, a contributing editor for Fine Cooking magazine and a master sommelier with 20-odd years of experience, the answer was Riesling. Gaiser not only sang its praises; he also noted that many of his peers boast of the place Riesling holds in their cellars.

Not a big Cab, or regal Bordeaux? Not an elegant Pinot, or fragrant Gewürz? No, for wine geeks Riesling trumps these because of how beautifully it expresses a vineyard's terroir — not to mention its versatility (bone-dry to super-sweet late-harvest wines) and its potential for aging well. Lucky for us, its obscurity among the masses keeps its prices within reach.

Alsace and Germany may showcase the grape at its best, but New World locales producing impressive examples of Riesling include South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Washington, Oregon, upstate New York, and California. Recently sampling some under-$10 Rieslings, I stumbled upon one made here in the East Bay — although the 2006 Riverbank Riesling ($9.50) from Livermore Valley's Wente Vineyards sources grapes from Monterey County's Arroyo Seco region. Its light lemon aroma evoked a summer's day, and with its sweet honey taste, I imagined it served ice-cold with spicy Asian food.

Also hailing from Monterey and equally hell-bent on sweetness was the 2006 Mirassou Riesling ($7.99), which had a minerally seashore aroma. I considered this one a teatime wine — not brash enough for day drinking or bold enough for dinner, but perfect for a contented hour in between. With cookies.

Despite its label, the 2007 Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling ($6.99) had a tinge of sweetness; the aroma was very subtle here but overall the wine was nicely balanced. The "Dry Riesling" is one of six Rieslings produced by the Washington state wine behemoth. For a splurge, consider trying the winery's Eroica Riesling ($24.99), born of its partnership with Dr. Ernst Loosen, Germany's answer to Robert Mondavi.

And while we're on the subject ... the next time you lift your glass, consider a toast to Mondavi, who died on May 16 at age 94. Among the Napa Valley legend's many Wineau-friendly maxims: "Drink what you like, and like what you drink."

Words to live by.


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