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Don't fear the Riesling

The Grape of Germany Might Seduce You If You Give It a Chance

Here's the conundrum. On the one hand, we've got a city full of Deutschophiles. Folks who not only worship the brat, but who will eagerly scarf down heaping platefuls of wienerschnitzel and sauerbraten and any other German food you place in front of them. These folks will also gladly sample German beer till their heads swim. Where they draw the line is at German wine.

Erica Christ, longtime bar manager at the Black Forest, Minneapolis's oldest German restaurant, understands this reluctance. She says most people tend to shy away from Riesling (which she calls "the grape of Germany") because they think it'll be something like grape-flavored Shasta, without the fizz. That's not the case, she says.

"The easy way to characterize Riesling is sweetness balanced with acidity," she says. "It makes the wines very accessible. They're very fresh-tasting and they go well with food. You can get a medium-bodied Riesling that you could have with a beef stroganoff."

Stroganoff with white wine?

Sure, says Christ--the acidity of the wine is the perfect foil for a dense, creamy dish.

But even if you wanted to order a German red to go with your rouladen, you couldn't. Not by the bottle, anyway. "There's not that many good [red wines] to start with, and if they make decent ones they just stay in Germany," says Christ. "They're hard to get." By the glass, she does offer Spätburgunder from Allendorf, which she describes as a late-ripening clone of Pinot Noir.

Christ makes out the wine list once a year, after she tastes her distributor's selection. She's been to Germany for a wine seminar, which she says is one of the reasons she understands the immensely complicated ("Byzantine," she calls it) terminology of German wines. That and because she's worked at the Black Forest for 14 years and she's the daughter of the owners.

"It's organized along harvest," she explained. "Kabinett is the first designation; that's a regular harvest wine. It's light-bodied and sort of acidic. Then there's Spätlese. That's harvested a week to 10 days later. Then Auslese. Which means, literally, picked out, left out. That's 7 to 10 days later. [Then] you have to pick around rotten grapes."

Further designations apply to grapes picked even later--until the grapes are in the state called noble rot.

Each winemaker has to send the wine for testing every year in order to be granted one of the above designations, says Christ. "It's very tightly controlled. They don't want anything going out of Germany that doesn't reflect well on Germany. [The wines] have to meet minimum quality standards. The wine cannot go below or it doesn't get to say what it wants to say [on the label]."

Because of the complexity of the German system, Christ has found that having her servers become familiar with a few wines works better than asking them to memorize descriptions of every wine on the list. "They pitch a couple wines that they can describe really well, instead of trying to get the whole list under their belt," she says. "If the server likes it, they can sell it much better."

The wines are all within a narrow price range: $20 to 40. "That's the range of customer we have, for one thing," says Christ. "I could go up on a higher end but I probably wouldn't sell as many."

She doesn't fault her customers for that. "When I go out to eat, for the most part, I'm not going to spend more than $30 on a bottle of wine," she admits.

That said, she does urge diners to buy bottles instead of wine by the glass: They'll get a better wine, she says, for just a few dollars more. Those willing to splurge on the expensive wines here can actually wind up with the best deal of all. Because she wants those wines to stay within sight of the rest of the list, Christ doesn't mark them up as much as she does a less costly wine.

The 1999 Schloss Johannisberg ($38) is one of those-and one Christ wouldn't even have been able to get but for her Chicago distributor, who found some that had been produced under a second label.

Another find is the 2004 Ürziger Würtzgarten ($36). The grape is grown on red volcanic clay, says Christ, and it has a flavor like nothing else. "Wines grown 10 feet away taste totally different," she says. "It's sort of half way to a Gewürtztraminer."

She suggests tasting it alongside a more traditional Riesling: "It's a nice experiment."

But to do that, you'd have to order a bottle.

Michael the Lionhearted

Vincent's Sommelier Explains How to Get Over That Whole French Wine Thing

To break the rules, first you must know the rules. This must be Michael Quinn Jr.'s motto, though he never said as much. But he talks about wine with the irreverent glee of a hacker describing his first break-in, and with not a trace of the solemnity you'd expect from the sommelier of a top-flight downtown French restaurant.

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