Riesling and Barbecue
James Frey, owner of Trisaetum Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, surprised me when we met for lunch at Wexler’s, a new restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District that specializes in barbecue. He brought a bottle of his new Riesling to drink with the food.
Few winemakers would embrace the idea of drinking their wine with barbecue, especially those who focus on high-end refined wines such as Pinot Noir and Riesling. But Frey had confidence that his Trisaetum Riesling Willamette Valley 2008, which sells for $24 and won’t be released until next month, would be up to the task.
To be sure, Wexler’s is not your ordinary Q. Owner Matt Wexler and chef Charlie Kleinman (recently of Fifth Floor and currently of Fish and Farm in San Francisco’s theater district) put an upscale spin on long-smoked meat. The meat and poultry come from the same organic farms as at other top restaurants here, and the preparations are a bit more chefly than the plates of smoked beast, potato salad and white bread at your typical barbecue joint.
On the other hand, the food has some heft. Even at lunch, when the fare runs to sandwiches, the seasoning is not shy. The BBQ Brisket Bánh Mi layers tender beef with cilantro and a creamy sauce spiked with Fresno chiles on a crusty roll, a nice play on the Vietnamese sandwiches ubiquitous in this city’s Asian neighborhoods. The pulled lamb sandwich, doused with watermelon vinegar, also had some chile bite. And our appetizer of smoked chicken wings, seasoned with a more complex version of the Tabasco used on Buffalo wings, would normally call for beer.
Not only did the delicate off-dry Riesling lose nothing in washing down these flavors, it showed different faces with each dish. The wings made it feel more delicate and emphasized the wine's citrusy side. The lamb brought out some apricot and, despite being the spiciest dish, the beef made the best match, making the wine feel more mature and complex.
Oregon is best-known for its Pinot Noirs and has long promoted Pinot Gris as its go-to white. But Riesling has always had a place, and Frey believes in it. “Riesling is doing well for us,” Frey said. “It’s doing so well we’re making more of it every year.”
Trisaetum only opened its doors in 2007, and focuses on grapes from its own vineyards in the Ribbon Ridge and the Yamhill-Carlton AVAs. For 2008, the winery made three Rieslings: this one, a second bottling that’s slightly drier and a late-harvest style. For 2009, a fourth bottling was added, totally dry.
The spätlese-style bottling sells especially well in the tasting room. “The trick is not say it’s sweet,” Frey admits. “If I present it as ‘lightly sweet,’ people won’t like it. But if I say it’s ‘off-dry,’ they love it.”
Sweet may be a dirty word to some wine drinkers, but it’s the sweetness that made the wine work so well with this food. Rule of thumb: the hotter the food, the sweeter the wine should be. The reason is that spicy food accentuates a wine’s acid and alcohol structure. Light and sweet complements best.