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Dry Riesling and the Contemplation of God
The three most popular white wines around the world are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. But who that you know drinks Riesling? I remember loving me some late-harvest Riesling back in my college days as I first began trying wine, but I soon gave it up. Poured it down the sink when friends gifted it. It was just too sweet. Much later, I discovered dry Riesling.
Conventional wisdom says Riesling is a sweet, cloying wine, full of flavor, good with Asian food, but too sweet for everyday drinking. But conventional wisdom has not caught up with the new dry Rieslings. These wines offer the friendly and fruity bouquet of the sweet version but are electrifying and stunning whites full of dimensions about which Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc can only dream.
It was around this time of the year that I first discovered Riesling could be dry. Autumn chilled the air. The colors were peaking in upstate New York. Back in the day, I used to visit a customer in Rochester and then get a rental car and drive down to Manhattan to see another customer. My trips were timed to coincide with the splendorous fall colors of Upstate.
Rochester is a conservative town in the northwest corner of New York State with an excellent university and history in science. Kodak was the big business there in the 70s and 80s, employing some of America’s finest engineers. Though the hundred-year-old company didn’t keep up with the digital age and ended up in bankruptcy in 2012, its work in photographic film surpassed all others. I miss physical photographs!
I digress. Perhaps I was vaguely aware of wines from New York—the odd one in the wine store. It was my business customer who insisted I go to a winery outside Rochester to taste some ice wine, and this got me exploring. It didn’t take much.
I found the ice wine at the charming winery on the southern outskirts of town to be quite delicious, and I bought a bottle to share with family at Christmas. It was sweet, but it also had vim and vigor that took one outdoors to the raking of leaves on the fast-freezing lawn. Summer had been distilled into a rich and enlivening essence that would brighten any intimate holiday party around the fireplace. And the bracing chill in the mouth, the fresh sweetness of ripe summer and early fall did deliver that year. Here’s to the joy of being human!
On this, my first trip through the state, I stopped 20 miles outside Rochester to walk around an old New York town I had heard about in my youth, Palmyra. It was the birthplace of Joseph Smith. The Hill Cummorah, famed for housing the “gold plates” that would be the cornerstone of Mormon doctrine, was a mosaic of yellows and reds. For us visitors, being in New York is to connect with American history.
It was just me, the car, my imagination, and the wine trail. The next stop was at the old downtown of Seneca at the top of its namesake lake. New York State wine country lives on the shores of long slender lakes. The old buildings in this historic downtown almost appeared in black and white, a surreal feeling that lasted at the large winery south of town with a gorgeous chateau located on the hill just above the top of the lake. The historical elegance brought thoughts of running into Theodore Roosevelt and Edith Wharton. The pleasure of exploring a new country is that any place will do just fine. The wine was okay, and I was on my way.
I stopped at a smaller place. The wines got better. Then I pulled into the Hermann Wiemer Winery. The sign may have mentioned something about its history—I can’t remember now—for some reason, I pulled in. When out wine tasting, we feel our way.
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These wines were excellent. Fresh, crisp, deep. The woman serving at the tasting bar reminded me of a good friend in college. Was she the only one around? It was near closing time. The sun hung low. A few golden leaves blew in the rustic room on the lake breeze coming from the barn door. We chatted about this and that—some pretty good this and that—and after a couple of these wines, I was ready to move to upstate New York. She was pulling the wines out of a small refrigerator and now poured a semi-dry riesling. Delicious. An added sophistication and thoughts of the past made this wine much better than the sweet Riesling and Gewurztraminer. These wines were taking me back to childhood. The cold feel of the basketball tossed to me by my brothers; my mother calling us in for the night to the safety of the house. College days on a red and yellow campus. Afternoons with the 17th Century English poets.
The dry Riesling came next. Perfection. Apples and peaches from summer glistened on the nose, the finish dry and intellectual, a country gigue in between. This was a wine that sent chills down my spine. Hermann Wiemer was a German who pioneered winemaking in the area back in the 60s. It was he, more than any other, who was responsible for the style of white wines in the Finger Lakes. And they were known for the semi and dry Riesling. I had a vision of the wine in Germany that I had been missing. (A few years later, I would be in Germany realizing that vision. Riesling is part of life there, particularly in Rheingau—a district on the Rhine River that so inspired German poets and composers—where it is the daily wine, just as Cabernet Sauvignon is found in Bordeaux and Pinot Noir in Burgundy.)
My server in the quiet tasting room disappeared—she had a phone call, and I overheard her conversation following up on the family stories she had been telling—so I wandered out through the barn door with my glass. The gravel was covered with maple and ash. It was getting dark. A voice came from nowhere, “Ya, come on over.” I followed it into the winery and found an aged but tall and strong-boned man holding a large hose five inches in diameter under his right arm, pouring juice into a tub.
“I’m Hermann,” he said with a thick accent. Then he began telling me specifics of winemaking I don’t now remember. What I do recall is that he took my glass and dipped it into the tub of quite dark juice. "This year’s Riesling," he said. I will never forget it.
Folks who don’t drink may jest at my connection with the great fermented juice of the vine.
And drinkers may think I’m overly sensitive. For me, wine is a fundamental part of life. I agree with the British philosopher and author of I Drink, Therefore I Am, Roger Scruton, that there is a distinction between intoxication and drunkenness. Scruton says wine is different than other alcoholic drinks, that intoxication is a state of consciousness, while drunkenness is a state much nearer to unconsciousness. Wine is meant to produce a loosening and free-flowing state of consciousness.
To justify his absolute love for wine, Scruton goes on in the book to discuss the great minds of history who found that there is truth in wine. Plato sets one of his greatest Socratic dialogues in a Symposium, the ritual event among ancient Greeks of discussing philosophical topics while drinking wine after dinner. Scruton also points to the sacrament of the Catholics. Even the Muslim philosopher Avicenna found insights into the nature of God with a good glass of wine.
Avicenna is famous for putting forth what is called a “contingency argument” for the existence of the monotheistic God, which runs something like this. There exist contingent things in the world, such as you and I. Consider the set of all contingent things — does it have a cause? Since something cannot come from nothing, the set of all contingent things must have a cause. But such a cause couldn’t be contingent, or else it would be included in the set to begin with. The only option left is to posit a cause that is itself necessary.
Being necessary, rather than contingent, this cause would be something that cannot not exist. Since it is eternal, it follows that it must be outside of time, because being in time entails corruption, or tending toward non-being. Avicenna derived more divine attributes from the original argument and came to what has been known as the monotheistic god — Yahweh, God the Father, or Allah.
Riesling is the most common varietal grown in Germany. It is thought that the varietal originated in Rheingau in the 16th century. But it may also have come from the Wachau region of Austria where there is a small stream and village called Ritzling. In America, Riesling has been the go-to wine of the Finger Lakes area since the mid-1850s and is now beginning to trend with winemakers on the West Coast.
The varietal is superbly aromatic, displaying flowery, an almost perfumed bouquet and high acidity, which gives the wine its electrifying flavor. I often get some slight petrol note on the nose, which apparently is highly sought after by experienced drinkers. I do understand that it may put off the novice. The wine is typically served pure and seldom oaked. Riesling is highly “terroir-expressive,” meaning that its character is greatly influenced by its place of origin. No longer suffering under the misapprehension that Riesling is categorically sweet, American drinkers are finally ready to discover one of the world’s most historic and culturally significant wines.
I recommend pairing it with a Haydn string quartet. Haydn was Kapellmeister to the wealthy Esterhazy family, whose estate lay east of Vienna in Austria’s wine region. His music captures the lively, elegant, and country-boisterous nature of Riesling and its birthplace. If you’re not familiar with the quartets, try the first one, in G minor.
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