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This review originally appeared on 205food.com
For the moment, let's accept Stuart Pigott's claim that Riesling is the "best white wine on earth" and focus on the less combative portion of his book's title, "The Riesling Story." Does this book tell the story of Riesling?
For starters, we can say that if this book is a "story," it is not a "history." The very first chapter of the book tells us a couple of important things about Riesling: "Date of Birth: Unkown," "Place of Birth: Unknown." Very little of the following text has much to say about the propagation of the grape, its uses, its cultural importance, or its eventual dispersal around the globe.
Nor is this book a teatise or monograph. It is not a comprehensive or systematic study like Jancis Robinson's "Wine Grapes." There are no tables or charts, nor are any scholarly sources cited.
Although the chapters have titles such as "Riesling Adventure No. 3: Australasia," the book is not a "road trip" book either. Unlike Kermit Lynch's "Adventures on the Wine Route" or Alice Feiring's "The Battle for Wine and Love," there is no linear narrative, quest, or sense of ultimate discovery at the conclusion of the book. Instead, Pigott skips willy-nilly from his teenage language-exchange days (where he is introduced to a refrigerator full of German wine!) to the near-present.
Finally, this is not a travel guide. Much of the book is about the best producers of Riesling and their stories, but there are no addresses, maps, tasting room hours or other information a tourist would require. The complete absence of maps is one of the book's real flaws.
What then, do we have here? Essentially, a more accurate book title might be: "An Explication of the Virtues of Riesling, as told by Stuart Pigott, Most Often Using his Riesling Tasting Notes and Diary." But we do not live in Victorian times, do we?
As you might guess, the structure of this book (like my alternative title) is unwieldy. It has some notable disadvantages. The worst of these disadvantages is that particulars often trump a more general narrative. One might like answers to questions like these: Which countries and regions produce the most Riesling? Where are these regions? Why is Riesling gaining in popularity? How is the Riesling of Australia different from that of the Finger Lakes in New York or other areas? What is it about the Riesling vine that enables it to grow in so many countries throughout the world?
Some of these questions are answered in part. But it requires work of the reader to put the puzzle pieces together. There are some tedious tasting notes to wade through. Some of the producer profiles are interesting but many are not. Facts and figures are in side bars, making it very difficult to compare one country or region to another.
But just as you are about to lay the book aside till another day, something seems to jump out unexpectedly, an interesting "box" or a line of text. Perhaps it is Pigott's description of the role of potassium in "minerality," the fact that Chateau Ste. Michelle is the world's largest Riesling producer, or the sections on Australia, where Pigott shows an uncharacteristic ambivalence toward his favorite wine. It might even be a particularly entertaining tasting note, like this one:
"The floral (hyacith!) and herbal bouquet of the Wallula is incredibly complex; in the mouth, the herbal riff keeps pumping out like the relentless beat of a Pearl Jam song, then the acidity kicks in, pulling the white peach and lemon flavors together at the finish as if tightening the strings of a corset to narrow a woman's (or a man's) waist."
Hyacinths, Pearl Jam and corsets, oh my!
Even if the book is sometimes unwieldy, there is no doubt that Stuart Pigott knows his Riesling. He is clearly an expert. While he commendably refuses to assign any ratings to the wines he talks about, there is a very useful final section of the book, "The Stuart Pigott Riesling Global Top 100." Here he lists his top 100 producers, by wine style ("Dry," "Medium-Dry" etc.), a great resource for Riesling neophytes and even more experienced drinkers.
But let's circle back to the beginning of this review. What about that first part of the book's title, "The Best White Wine on Earth"? Is this hyperbole or a legitimate claim?
Initially, one feels, it is just a pugnacious boast. The best single white wine that has ever been made is a Riesling! Put Riesling and white burgundy in a boxing ring and you know who will come out the champ!
But thankfully, this is not Pigott's argument at all. Nowhere in the book does he claim that Riesling will consistently outscore other types or wine, or that a glass of Beerenauslese will change your life forever. No, his argument is more subtle, more interesting than that.
Riesling is best because it consistently makes fine wine (even great wine) in a large number of places. It can be made in a variety of styles, is rarely an "industrial wine," and can be had at a reasonable cost. It outshines all other wines with food.
If you consider these criteria, and other contenders for the title, it is very hard to disagree. Chardonnay is either very expensive or often (in Pigott's words) "bulls*** Chardonnay" and has limited usefulness at the table. Sauvignon Blanc makes a sea of undistinguished wine and is consistently excellent only in the Loire. There are many other white grapes, of course, but these either make poor wine, are not very good "food wines," or are limited in production and geographic scope.
But Pigott is not content with these substantial claims. He wants to go further. Here is his reaction to the first "Summer of Riesling" festival in New York City, organized by Paul Grieco and Steven Solomon:
"it took me a while to figure out what they'd actually done, which was far more than simply make Riesling look cool. Grieco and Solomon had effectively thrown the entire ratings-based system that had dominated the wine scene for a generation overboard and replaced it with the democratic and inclusive Riesling Spirit. Numerical scores suddenly looked so very late-20th-century, and consumers were being empowered to trust their own palates, experiment, go with the flow...For me, after having followed Riesling's struggle for basic respect for more than a quarter of a century, it was almost too good to believe!"
To Pigott, Riesling is more than just a great grape and a great wine. It is a revolutionary wine. Pigott, Grieco and Solomon are at the head of its vanguard, eager to overthrow Robert Parker and his minions. Riesling is the wine of democracy. It is a vehicle to even the score.
Are you ready to join the revolution? Maybe not. Perhaps you enjoy your white burgundy too much. But even so, a few hours slumming on Planet Riesling can be interesting and fun. There will certainly be some tedious moments there, but some very useful information, surprises, and gaiety too. Stuart Pigott is an interesting host. Give him the time and he may even convert you - or at least get you to make a "donation" to the cause.