Welcome to Wine of the Week, a new series in which Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley recommends a delicious bottle that you should be drinking right now. Recently, she highlighted festive sparkling wines for New Year’s Eve. Check back for a new installment every Wednesday.
Riesling gets a bad rap, and I understand why. The two characteristics most commonly associated with it are sweetness and a gasoline flavor — not exactly an appetizing combination.
But it’s one of those if-you-know-you-know things: Riesling is among the world’s most complex wines. When it’s great, it can deliver the sort of deep pleasure that is rare to find in a beverage.
And while there are plenty of bad examples of sickly sweet Riesling, sugar is in fact one of the Riesling winemaker’s most important tools. A little bit of sweetness can often be an essential part of a balanced Riesling.
To taste a prime example of this delicate balance, try Brooks Winery’s 2018 Willamette Valley Riesling, from Oregon. At $24, it’s not much more expensive than the down-market Rieslings that might have turned you off from the category — but tastes a whole lot better.
Like any good Riesling, the wine is extremely expressive on the nose — they call Riesling an “aromatic white” for a reason — and reminds me of Goya peach nectar, with a strong fragrance of honeysuckle. Yes, there is a little bit of that gasoline smell too (“petrol” is the preferred term in most wine circles), which many Riesling lovers, including me, have developed a strong taste for. There’s something musky and intoxicating about it. .
The Brooks 2018 Willamette Valley has 5.8 grams per liter residual sugar, which refers to the amount of sugar left unfermented. Is that a lot of residual sugar? Yes and no. Most drinkers can perceive residual sugar above a threshold of about 2 or 3 grams per liter, though you may find wines on supermarket shelves with up to 10 grams per liter that attempt to pass themselves off as “dry.”
In Riesling, however, the calculation is always a little bit different from other grape varieties, because Riesling naturally has such high acidity. Retaining a bit of sweetness is often necessary to make a Riesling taste palatable; if left bone-dry, it might taste unpleasantly sour, like biting into a lemon. There are plenty of fully dry Rieslings that taste balanced, but the point is that the matrix of balance can be idiosyncratic from wine to wine.
Brooks, along with many Riesling producers around the world, uses a scale created by the International Riesling Foundation that takes into account residual sugar and acidity in order to give customers some expectation of how sweet the wine will present. The 2018 Willamette Valley Riesling falls very close to absolute dryness on the scale.
I perceive some sweetness in this wine, but it’s a welcome sweetness. Countering it is a pronounced, piercing acidity that pulses across the tongue like an electric current. The wine’s modest residual sugar amplifies the flavors of melon, apricot and pear, making the fruits taste riper and dripping with juice. It’s not a dessert wine; drink it with dinner. Pork chops would be great.
Buy it from Brooks’ website or at Fig & Thistle, K&L, Whole Foods, Wine.com and Oakland Yard.
Brooks Riesling Willamette Valley 2018 ($24, 14%)
Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Esther_mobley