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Even if it did not go particularly well with my dinner, I could not stop drinking it. With a different dish, it might have tasted as dry as it did with no food. Alone, it had richness, acidity and a saline flavour that balanced out any hint of sweetness. That changed with food.

A mystifying American riesling from Graham Tatomer

07/09/2018 - 05:50

WITH riesling, the line between dry and not-dry can be awfully fine.

This was the leading takeaway from the last month of drinking American rieslings. One wine, the Ravines Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2015 indeed turned out to be dry. The second, the Teutonic Willamette Valley Riesling 2016, had a moderate but discernible level of sweetness to it. And the third? I don't mind saying I was a bit mystified.

This was the Tatomer Santa Barbara County Kick-on Ranch Riesling 2015. It was a bigger wine than the other two: richer in texture and higher in alcohol (at 13.5 per cent compared with about 12.5 for the others), yet lip-smacking and refreshing, with tightly coiled acidity and a floral, herbal, mineral flavor that I found delicious.

The wine seemed dry when I first tasted it. But then I paired it with a meal: pork chops topped with a sauce of cooked fresh tomatoes and a little garlic, with sautéed peppers and onions on the side. With the meal, the wine seemed unexpectedly bright at first, and then a bit sweet.

Was it the food? Cooked ripe tomatoes can seem sweet. Caramelised onions do for sure. The dish seemed to enhance the sweetness of the Teutonic (which was already apparent in the tasting), but it did not make the Ravines taste sweet. What was it about the Tatomer?

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Not that languid summer meals need concern themselves with wine riddles. But when the interest is piqued, we can't help but go with it.

What does it mean to call any wine dry or sweet? Common sense would tell us that a wine would be considered dry if yeast during fermentation consumed all the sugar in the grape juice, converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide as a byproduct. But what is common sense to wine?

In fact, a small amount of residual sugar often remains in wine naturally, even when the yeast are permitted to gobble up all they can. That bit of sugar can affect the wine differently depending on a host of other factors, like the level of acidity in the wine as well as the alcohol content.

Producers sometimes provide technical details of their wines, including grams of residual sugar per litre, or total acidity per liter, but these numbers can be difficult to interpret. In general, a wine is considered dry if it has less than 4 grams of residual sugar per liter, but that technical definition may not convey how the wine will actually be experienced.

Like unruly children, good wine refuses to conform to strict definitions of behavior. Bottles with quite a bit of residual sugar can taste dry, while others with less residual sugar may leave the impression of sweetness.

Rieslings and chenin blancs are among the few white grapes versatile enough to make captivating dry wines and luscious sweet wines. Why? Because these grapes come with ample supplies of natural acidity, which allows even the sweetest wines to be refreshing rather than cloying.

Even so, consumers who select wines by mood and menu planning have a right to be annoyed if they cannot anticipate the character of a wine. For this reason, precise labelling is important. Alsace, for example, recognized it had a problem with consumers because wines that were expected to be dry turned out not only to be sweet but often unbalanced.

Vouvray traditionally labels its wines sec, or dry, and demi-sec, or moderately sweet. Both styles are wonderful. But sometimes wines labelled sec can be noticeably sweet ("tendre" in the local parlance). Balanced, yes, but unexpected.

Among our three American rieslings, only Ravines had the courtesy to describe its sweetness level on the label, "Dry Riesling." Teutonic noted on its website that the 2017 Willamette Valley riesling is "off dry" (a way of connoting sweetness without using the dreaded word). It said the same of the 2016 vintage we drank when it was current, yet makes no mention of this on the bottle itself. The mystifying Tatomer offered no clue on the bottle or on the website.

I decided to check in with the proprietor, Graham Tatomer. I knew that he was influenced by the time he had spent in the Wachau region of Austria, where the dry rieslings sometimes include grapes afflicted with botrytis, a mold known as the noble rot, which adds depth, dimension and flavor to some of the world's greatest sweet wines.

In humid years, grapes with botrytis are sometimes included in dry white wines like Burgundy, for example, or Wachau riesling, adding richness, flavors like beeswax and a slight perception of sweetness. Tatomer does use a percentage of grapes with botrytis in his Vandenberg riesling cuvée. I wondered if the Kick-on might have been made with similarly afflicted grapes.

Tatomer told me by email that the grapes in the 2015 Kick-on had a minimal amount of botrytis, but that the wine had 7.73 grams of residual sugar per liter, which would technically make it "off dry," to use Teutonic's term.

"This is the highest it has ever been, but not by much," he said. "I aim for the wine to have between 5 and 7 grams."

For the record, I loved all three wines, and the way they each expressed a different style of riesling. Year after year, I find the Ravines to be an excellent representative of the cool-climate, dry style of the Finger Lakes. It smelled like flowers and pebbles, and it had a wonderful texture.

If you like this style, I would urge you to seek out Ravines' single-vineyard Argetsinger riesling, which is an amplified, deeper and more intense wine. I recently drank a 2009 Argetsinger, which at nine years of age was maybe the best American riesling I've ever had.

The Teutonic was a fine Willamette Valley representation of a German kabinett-style riesling, moderately sweet and very refreshing, with a wet-rock minerality. It was richer, however, than the sheer, delicate wines you might find from the Mosel region of Germany.

The Tatomer continues to mystify. Even if it did not go particularly well with my dinner, I could not stop drinking it. With a different dish, it might have tasted as dry as it did with no food. Alone, it had richness, acidity and a saline flavour that balanced out any hint of sweetness. That changed with food.

"Sometimes I am really perplexed by which foods this wine pairs with or against," Tatomer said. NYTIMES