Beating the riesling drum
Diners in Paul Grieco's wine bar may ask for red, but the New Yorker is savvy when it comes to raising riesling's profile. Photo: Robert Caplin/New York Times
IN LINE AT THE LOCAL WINE SHOP with a bottle of riesling in hand, I felt the presence of someone close to my back.
Two fellow queuers.
''Trocken: Ripe grapes producing super-dry wines lean and taut, like a Kraftwerk song.''
The Summer of Riesling selection at Toorak Cellars, Armadale.
We stood in line, patiently. It was quiet back there. No small talk.
''Kabinett: Perfectly ripe grapes, Nena and her 99 Luftballons … pretty with a glorious, acidic edge.''
Finally, I was served.
''Spatlese: Late-harvest grapes, the Heidi Klum of wines … perfect in every way.''
Then queuer No. 1, a round-faced woman, maybe in her 60s, spoke.
''We were just reading your T-shirt,'' she said with a broad smile. ''It's interesting, isn't it?''
''Eiswein: Grapes frozen on the vine … proof of the existence of God.''
''Yes, it is,'' I replied. Quietly, I was chuffed.
Not only was my 31 Days of German Riesling T-shirt acknowledged but it was commented upon. Maybe the T-shirt would make a difference, inspire the 60s-something woman to go out and buy a bottle of German riesling (maybe a Donnhoff, always an intense experience), indeed any riesling. Or, then again, maybe not.
Ultimately, one T-shirt would probably not make a difference, I decided, unlike the man responsible for it: Paul Grieco.
In 2008, Grieco, owner of the Terroir Wine Bar in New York City, in a bid to win converts to his cause, poured riesling as the only white wine by the glass for the entire summer (all 94 days, as he likes to point out).
''There was no end game, so to speak,'' he notes on his site, summerofriesling.com/wp. He simply wanted to give the grape he loved some much-needed oxygen.
The following year, he expanded upon the concept with a ''bigger beating of the drum''. In 2010, 14 New York City wine bars came on board. And, in 2011, it spread internationally through the efforts of the International Riesling Foundation, with 222 restaurants, wine bars and retailers joining in. Last year, the number rose to 500. At home, an Australian Summer of Riesling was created with the backing of many of the grape's supporters (summerofriesling.com.au).
Grieco is well placed to be the international leader of a movement. A slight, energetic man, a deadringer for a young Trotsky, he has a flair for the flamboyant - he once staged a rock concert where only riesling was served, and in a post-feminist world makes the annual arrival of the German Wine Queen into NYC actually cool, with not a skerrick of the antiquated sexist ritual that it is.
One man can make a difference.
Riesling badly needed the lifesaver he threw its way. The grape is beautiful but complicated. Ask anyone trying to sell it these days. It can be dry and sweet and everything in between. It loves the botrytis mould (not an easy thing to do - most grapes don't), and for every drinker who thrills to its exhilarating acidity (Grieco labels them ''acid hounds'') there is a drinker who doesn't, often vehemently.
Riesling may never regain the heights of popularity in this country that it did in the late 1970s but it deserves to be treated with respect and even, as Summer of Riesling proposes, a lot of fun.
So, with just nine days left, get the T-shirt (there are a few to choose from on summerofriesling.com.au - I'm wearing my Riesling Salvation tee with pride), buy a glass and do yourself a favour …
A world of flavour to discover …
Brundlmayer 2008 Kamptaler Terrassen riesling (Austria)
This riesling gets three big ticks: noted Austrian riesling producer (tick); bright and compelling wine (tick); fair price (tick). Five years old and still zingy. Love the heady fragrance, citrus fruit to the fore and balanced acidity in the driver's seat powering through. Imported by Cellarhand.
Heymann-Lowenstein Schieferterrassen 2011 (Germany)
A big name in German riesling, with a big, complex wine. Daffodil gold in colour, the scent of nougat, orange rind and spice with an expansive group of flavours and textures, this wine is lifted by a sweetness of fruit bringing that quality we all love in riesling: utter drinkability. Imported by Cellarhand.
Kate Hill 2011 riesling (Tasmania)
A great unsung southern Tasmanian riesling: gentle apple blossom aromatics on the nose, fresh-cut apple and ruby grapefruit flavours providing the delicacy, while minerals and firm but not aggressive acidity bring a clean ''snap'' to the finish. A pretty, aromatic wine.
Leo Buring 2010 DW N17 Leonay Eden Valley riesling (South Australia)
A classic Australian riesling maker and style with a core of citrus-lime intensity running deep and long throughout. Still young and coiled, this is the kind of naked riesling that Australia does so well, with emerging fruit and a resolute stamp of what it is and where it is from.
Spy Valley 2012 riesling (New Zealand)
Tired of Marlborough savvy? Try Marlborough riesling, as the region is well suited to the grape. I like the honeysuckle notes and light aromatics on the nose on this young riesling. Winemaker Paul Bourgeois has fermented one-third in oak to ''smooth things out'' (i.e. softening acidity), bringing texture along with a fresh, apple flavour.
Last hurrah …
Just nine days left to get into Summer of Riesling '13.
■ February 19: Frankland Estate riesling masterclass at Toorak Cellars, 18 Beatty Avenue, Armadale, 8-10pm, $30.
■ March 2: Riesling party at Toorak Cellars, 3-8.30pm.
■ Until February 21: Enomatic dedication, eight rieslings on tasting, at the Tasting Table, 1219 High Street, Armadale.
■ Until February 28: Riesling flights at Merricote, 81 High Street, Northcote. Four rieslings on tasting every day.
■ Until February 28: Summer of Riesling five-course riesling degustation at Brooks of Melbourne, 115-117 Collins Street, city.