What says summer more than a platter of hot, just-off-the-grill chicken legs slathered in smoky, spicy barbecue sauce and paired with a chilled bottle or two of a crisp white wine? Make that white a riesling. You'll get a dry, lively flavor that can take the saucy heat and an intriguing aroma.
Riesling is one of the most versatile food wines ever created, the pros all agree. You can pour it with everything from Thai green curry chicken to trout in a French mushroom cream sauce. But the American public has largely raised its communal nose at the variety, going instead for chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and pinot grigios.
I suspect there are a number of reasons:
1. The riesling grape has its roots in Germany, which for many can conjure up nightmares of tongue-twisting German wine names rendered in heavy Gothic script.
2. Riesling can range from bone dry to very sweet. Most folks fear all rieslings are sweet. Personally, that doesn't bother me. A little (or a lot) of honeyed sweetness can make this spicy, fruity wine explode with countless layers of flavor — apricot, pineapple, mango and peach. But if you don't want the sweet, you don't have to have it.
3. Don't look for the grassy tang of a sauvignon blanc or the buttery plushness of a chardonnay. Rieslings are distinct, original. You have to be a bit daring to try them. The good thing is, because rieslings haven't been very popular in the American market, you can get a lot of quality bang for your buck.
Interestingly, all of this could be changing.
Statistics from The Nielsen Co. show riesling has been the fastest-growing white wine sold, both in the number of bottles and dollars spent, over the last year (ending June 26).
Nielsen reports volume sales up 11.5 percent; only pinot noir, a red, scored a greater increase.
Meanwhile, a trade group called Wines of Germany has teamed up with the European Union to promote riesling from Germany, Austria and France. They're sponsoring the sixth annual Riesling Week this week involving restaurateurs and retailers in five major cities across the country: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas and Miami. (Go to destinationriesling.com for details.)
What this says to me is simple: Try a riesling today. It's summer, and living is easy. Dare to experiment.
Scoring the wines
The tasting panel sampled nine rieslings from Washington, a state with a growing riesling rep. The wine was paired with chicken legs brushed with plenty of spicy barbecue sauce. Final scores reflect how well the wine worked with the drumsticks.
2007 Pacific Rim Wallula Vineyard, Columbia Valley: This biodynamic wine was a winner on its own and paired with chicken. The nose is like tropical flowers plushed with mango. The flavor is lively, with notes of pear and apple. Subtle honey accent is balanced by good acidity. The food-wine pairing is energetic; each is enhanced. ✭✭✭ $19
2008 Eroica, Columbia Valley: A joint project of Chateau Ste. Michelle and the famed German winery, Dr. Loosen, this wine has a wondrously complex aroma. It's heady with notes of incense, white pepper and pear. The flavor offers a lemon-lime spritz on the tongue, followed by touches of ripe pear and a creamy minerality. Voluptuous mouth feel. The wine enlivens the chicken. ✭✭ $25
2008 Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions, Columbia Valley: Tied for second place with the Eroica,this white has a minerally nose with touches of grape and jasmine. The flavor is subtle: Pear, green apple, with a Jolly Rancher tartness on the finish. The barbecue sauce makes the wine seem more voluptuous. ✭✭ $14
2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle "Dry Riesling", Columbia Valley: One of the few rieslings out there to actually call itself "dry" on the label, this wine has a citrusy kick, followed by plenty of tart apple flavor. The wine and chicken interact well. ✭✭ $9
2007 Buried Cane: Look for subtle touches of pear, green apple and eucalyptus. The nose is minerally. The barbecue sauce seems spicier with the wine. ✭✭ $14
2007 Monson Family Estates Stonecap, Columbia Valley: A white with a floral quality to both flavor and aroma, but there's an underlying acidity to provide balance. Good match with the chicken. ✭✭ $12
2008 Seven Hills, Columbia Valley: A herbaceous nose translates into something of a grassy flavor. Yet, there's enough soft fruit here to work well with the chicken in barbecue sauce. If anything, the wine tastes sweeter with the chicken. ✭✭ $14
2009 Cupcake Vineyards, Columbia Valley: Notes of lychee, violets and wet stone can be found in the aroma. The flavor balances a creamy mouthfeel with tangy acidity; green apple flavor. The barbecue sauce cuts the wine's tartness. ✭✭ $9
2008 Mercer, Yakima Valley: Lots of mineral notes to this wine, with touch of ripe pear and lemon. Very spicy nose. Wine neither helps or hinders the chicken. ✭✭ $14
Wine ratings: ✭✭✭✭ excellent; ✭✭✭ very good; ✭✭ good; ✭ fair; none: poor.
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.