I attended my first closed-to-the-public wine tasting last week, in downtown Chicago. Just me, and a co-worker with many years' experience in the wine trade, and thirteen white-draped tables in a private room at an upscale restaurant in the River North neighborhood. We were the first to arrive and unfortunately began with table 13 and worked our way around the room backwards. Later, as more and more people arrived, our mistake caused us to bump into traffic going the right way. After several hours, as we took a break and sat down with some bread and cheese, I had a good look around and then asked my co-worker, "So is the wine industry mostly men?" And he looked at me and nodded.
The wines were almost all German rieslings, perhaps a hundred or more of them. Needless to say, on this interesting Thursday, I learned how to spit like all the other professionals. I do like rieslings, but I know my metabolism. A hundred one-ounce swallows, or even fifty, are going to incapacitate me, especially when my stomach is empty because I've walked off my breakfast going from the train station, into the raging wind tunnel that is Wacker Drive, and then up Clark street to NaHa. I think once or twice I may have bent toward the spit bucket, or even moved it, just when some other wine professional -- usually a man -- was going to launch into it also. Luckily this situation is unique in that they can't scold you. Oops. Sorry.
And my, I do like those sweet rieslings. The sweetness levels, in a German Quality wine "mit Pradikat" (with special characteristics) -- QmP -- go from Kabinett to Spatlese to Auslese to Beerenauslese to Trockenbeerenauslese. In each case, the descriptive tells us how sweet the grapes were at harvest: Kabinett grapes were harvested first, Spatlese gathered during a second harvest, Auslese during a third, and so on. As the wine maker waits and goes through his vineyard a second and third and fourth time, he is taking a risk. The time for the regular harvest, when he pulled in his Kabinett-stage grapes, is past; now he is hoping to find more grapes that are even riper, even sweeter, but not yet ruined by pests or rot or bad weather. By the time he harvests at the beerenauslese stage, he is picking individual grapes ("beere", berries) that are still in good shape. If he can even take grapes at a fifth harvest, he is picking them trockenbeerenauslese, TBA. The individual grapes have turned trocken, dry on the vine, in other words they are raisins. With most of their water content gone, they are extremely sweet. If he lets his grapes freeze and harvests them then, all the water content is caught up and lost through being frozen, and the pure remaining juice will then make the heavenly sweet dessert eiswein.
Many people avoid rieslings because they are sweet, but the wines are so delicious that I can't help but think that those who claim not to like them are simply suffering from the training that Jancis Robinson noted diplomatically in her book How to Taste: "the mass market," she wrote, "has been schooled to feel proud of liking something dry." Maybe we all grow up on such sweet drinks, and wine is so unfamiliar to us, that we think wine -- whatever it is, and whenever we encounter it -- should at least seem different to the taste buds. I've seen people take a taste of riesling, wince, and say, "It tastes like pop." Yes, some rieslings are flaccidly sweet, but the basic tastes of pop, sugar and acid, are not bad in themselves.
And there are dry rieslings. Even the sweetest of them could be fermented dry, if the winemaker liked. I tasted a few among the professionals a week ago -- all these distinguished continentals in suits, and a lanky British gentleman of indeterminate age, very pleasant, looking as if he had stepped out of an Ealing Studios film -- and they left me with that stones-in-the-mouth, tonic water feeling that I first recognized in brut champagne. Ah yes, I thought. So this is "dry." Lovely, if you like that sort of thing. But why not have a riesling?