Matching Riesling to some favourite foods

Most people who love wine, love Riesling. Some of us even buck the trend and love German Riesling. For many, though, the joys of Kabinett and Feinherb remain a mystery. So what better way, I thought, of uncovering the delights of German wines than by doing a little food and wine matching exercise?

I was joined in my kitchen a week or so ago by the Guardian’s Victoria Moore. Together, we tasted around 26 bottles of German Rieslings from a variety of regions, vintages and levels of residual sugar in order to eliminate half of them before moving on to the main challenge. And then the real work began: we tucked into six very varied dishes in an attempt to try and find the best matches for each one.

The first dish was one of my current passions (it’s something I discovered while working on recipes for my blog, – there, got the shameless plug in). I marinate quail in a mixture of olive oil and ras-el-hanout, a Moroccan blend of spices that often includes cumin, rose petals, chilli powder and cinnamon, before roasting them. They’re spicy, but not so much so that you get the chilli burn of a Thai curry.

xThe two wines that worked best with the dish were Ernst Loosen’s Erdener Treppchen, Mosel 2006 (£10.99, Marks & Spencer) and Heyman-Lowenstein’s Schiefferterassen, Mosel 2006 (£17.95, Berry Brothers & Rudd). The general rule was that you need wines with a fair amount of ripe fruit and a bit of sweetness (both wines were off-dry) in order to stand up to the spiciness of the dish – but you didn’t want so much fruit and sweetness that the wines overwhelmed the food. Right: Ernie Loosen atop the Erdener Treppchen vineyard.We then moved on to slices of smoked goose with caramelised apples. Two general principles emerged here. One was that if you’re dealing with the smoked goose by itself rather than with the apple slices – perhaps if you sliced it into a salad – the best kind of wine would be one with a good deal of minerality to balance out the smoky flavours. In fact, the wine that worked best had almost been eliminated in the early round, for being rather austere: Prinz’s Trocken 2006 from the Rheingau (£8.99, The Winery). Factor in the sweetness of the caramelised apples, though, and you need something like the Dr Loosen Urziger Wurtzgarten, Mosel 2006 (£11.99, Waitrose).

The wine didn’t have much impact when teamed with the goose alone, but in combination with the sweet apples, the wine’s spicy apple and pear character came to the fore to create a long, harmonious marriage between dish and wine.

xWe then tucked into a Keralan prawn curry, where coconut milk and the sharp tang of tamarind tempered the spice. Once again, we found two wines to match the dish, Selbach-Oster’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, Mosel 2005 (£11.95, Berry Brothers & Rudd) and the St Urbanshof Ockfener Bockstein Spatlese Feinherb 2005 (£17.20, The Wine Barn). Rather surprisingly the thing the two wines had in common when tasted by themselves was that they were both rather restrained and delicate, with a strong streak of minerality.

I probably wouldn’t have picked either of them off the page as being the wines to work with the dish, but they both had the underlying structure and balance to cope with the complex, earthy spice of the curry as well as its coconutty sweetness.

xA dish of simply grilled lemon sole came next and, once again, the restrained minerality of the St Urbanshof shone. It was the only wine with the delicacy not to overwhelm the fish, and its gently off-dry character brought out the sweetness in the fish itself. It was the match of the day, and I was gutted to discover later that the Wine Barn has almost sold out of its allocation of the wine. However, the good news is that the 2006 vintage is on its way in and should do the job with aplomb.Flagging slightly, the next dish was the only one we bought in: a Thai seafood salad. We were so disappointed by its lack of zesty lemongrass and chilli flavours (not to mention the limpness of the salad itself) that we decided to pass. My best guess in terms of finding a match to a really zippy, aromatic Thai salad would be that a wine with a fair amount of residual sugar and lots of ripe peach and citrus fruit would have been the ideal match, but it was a theory that I was never to prove (not that day, at least).

And so we came to the last dish on our list: a wild mushroom risotto. The idea had been to match it with a couple of older Rieslings I’d been sent, but they proved to be too sweet for the dish – and both, despite being in their early teens, had too much primary fruit rather than the earthy, mushroomy tertiary aromas I’d been hoping for. Perhaps a drier Riesling might have worked better, maybe an older Riesling would have been just the thing. Or perhaps we’d reached a frontier beyond which Riesling cannot go.

Maybe one day I’ll find out.