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A T-shirt by the singer Pink says: "If you don't like Riesling, you're a fucking idiot." But as food accompaniments, wines of the variety are usually considered difficult. Hamburg master sommelier Stefanie Hehn proves otherwise with her pairing tips from young to mature.

A look at the statistics shows the importance of Riesling for German viticulture. Just under a quarter of the cultivated area is planted with Riesling, nowhere else in the world is more of it grown. Romania follows in second place by a wide margin, with the USA in third place ahead of France.

Germany's leading grape variety was first documented in writing in the 15th century, but was probably already planted on the Rhine by the Romans. Since then it has shaped German viticulture, experienced glory and glamour, was traded with the most expensive wines in the world, experienced the dramatic fall into sweetish-cheap banality and in recent decades has returned to the circle of great wines. Riesling masters all varieties from noble sweet to "bone dry" and tastes just as good young as it does long matured. It also offers an aromatic and stylistic diversity that always reflects its origin. This wealth of styles and flavours makes Riesling a universal food companion - if you understand what it has to offer.

Since 2017, Stefanie Hehn has been the head sommelier at Hamburg's luxury hotel The Fontenay, where she is responsible for the entire wine concept - from the starred Lakeside restaurant with chef Julian Stowasser to the Fontenay Bar. More than 400 wines are on her wine list, an international selection with accents on Germany and France. Stefanie Hehn was the second woman from Germany to pass the Master Sommelier exam in November 2020.

"You can drink Riesling through the whole menu"

It fits: The acidity of the Riesling plays with the fat of the tartare
© 123rf

"If you don't feel like drinking a lot of different wines, you can drink a high-quality Riesling through the whole menu," she explains of its appeal as a food companion. "Over the evening, the wine changes with the air as well as the rising temperature - adapting to the food like a chameleon, provided the acidity is not too low in the process." However, many guests are often very cautious with her, and milder wines often turn out to be too boring to be suitable as food accompaniments. "The problem is often rather that at Riesling even the estate wines are opened too young - and the acidity is not yet well integrated at that time."

In addition to the acidity, Stefanie Hehn sees the complex aromas of Riesling as an attractive accompaniment to food: "It has floral notes, even jasmine, but also many herbal aromas, which can also be found in extremes such as coriander, as well as vegetables such as fennel," the sommelière enthuses. Depending on the ripeness, everything from unripe hazelnuts to nougat can be tasted. "I don't even want to talk about petrol when it comes to ripe Riesling, there is so much more to be found in it: from peach to dried apricot. You can discover super much in Riesling. It's not as striking as Gewürztraminer or Sauvignon Blanc, but it still belongs more to the intensely aromatic grape varieties."

Stefanie Hehn has appreciated its qualities, from light Kabinett to dry, opulent Spätlese, at least since her time in the now closed starred restaurant Burg Schwarzenstein in the Rheingau. There she put together complete Riesling menus and adapted the content of the Riesling wines to the progressive menu courses. "You can use a Riesling Kabinett like a champagne. With its freshness and acidity, it is wonderfully animating for starters and light dishes ", she enthuses.

From primary aromas to petrol tones

Asparagus and morels are excellent combinations with Riesling
© OEWM - Ulli Kohl

Minerality and animating acidity, citrus fruit and herbs are among the varietal aromas that a Riesling displays in its first years of life. Stefanie Hehn recommends, for example, a Wagyu tartare with wild herb salad and crème fraîche, accompanied by some caviar. "At the beginning of a menu, I want to show the animating qualities of Riesling," explains the sommelière. The floral and citrus aromas support the aroma of the tartare, the acidity breaks up the high fat content of the meat and lends lightness to the combination. "Fat and acid are always a good combination," Hehn emphasises. Even during the asparagus season, the native Franconian therefore occasionally gives preference to Riesling over the Franconian classic Silvaner: "If you serve a Hollandaise sauce with the asparagus, a Riesling with not too low acidity is a good choice."

If the Riesling is getting on in years, the floral notes lose their intensity, ripe fruit comes to the fore, but also increasingly nutty and first fine mushroom notes. "A dish with morels and herb foam goes well with this wine," recommends Stefanie Hehn. "The wine is still fresh, but also already a bit spicier, so you're more likely to find coriander seeds instead of greens." The dishes can also be a little more "grown-up and serious", with braised fennel, for example, or even with subtle roasted aromas. "The acidity in the wine is now more mature and no longer so much in the foreground," explains the master sommelière. How the wine develops, however, also depends on the work and philosophy of the winery. Some Riesling wines are still much more characterised by secondary aromas than others, even after ten years.

Ripe Riesling and French black pudding

A matured Riesling may be served with sea bass with vegetables
© 123rf

With increasing age, the Riesling not only changes its aroma, but also its colour: "It makes guests totally curious when we serve ten-year-old Grosse Gewächse." The darkened colour is often an expression of the change in taste: "The smell of vineyard peach turns into a small, shrivelled apricot in the end." Only when petrol is the overriding smell do many fans find it difficult at first.

And what does she recommend with such wines?

"Dishes with a lot of blood are welcome. For example, etouffée pigeon with boudin noir, the French blood sausage, goes great with it. The higher the extract in the wine, the sweeter the dish can be. So dishes with Madeira sauce are also welcome." In addition, mature, dry Rieslings are excellent with game: "We have little fat in it, so it's an advantage that the acid in the wine is already esterified. Venison in particular is a nice combination with ripe Riesling. Accompanied by a hazelnut risotto and a sauce that is not overly concentrated - that makes you really happy," Stefanie Hehn enthuses.

Sweet to the taste Riesling with Dry Aged Beef

Dry aged beef to Riesling? But yes - if it is ripe and residually sweet.
© 123rf

Her wine list at Lakeside includes German Rieslings as well as wines from overseas. From Australia's Eden Valley come the Rieslings of Pewsey Vale, who always market their current vintage together with a ten-year matured museum reserve called "The Contours". "The winery uses Rheingau clones that grow at higher altitudes on red-lying rock. The Contours can be paired like a Grosses Gewächse, for example with a skin-roasted loup de mer with artichoke, peppers and Hollandaise sauce. These Rieslings mature similarly to Viognier and go well with the roasted flavours of the fish - but also with the artichoke, which is otherwise rather difficult to combine."

Finally, a swing into the sweet realm: because with a Dry Aged Beef, mature wines with nice residual sweetness are a surprisingly interesting combination. "The ripe acidity adds some freshness to the fat from the meat, and the nutty and ripe flavours match the ripe flavours of the meat," says Stefanie Hehn. "The contrast of the savoury dish with the ripe sweetness of the wine creates a unique taste." In principle, not quite dry Riesling wines are often a good choice as a food accompaniment, she says. The sweetness of the wine clearly enhances the taste of the meat. "This also works wonderfully with other dishes. A mature Auslese with truffles is a really nice combination."

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