The Magic of an Aged Auslese

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Consider yourself warned. Go ahead and try those young, dry Rieslings. Delicious as they are, however, they may just turn out to be gateway wines, leading to all kinds of Riesling cravings. One particularly enticing style that is often overlooked is Auslese, which Eric Asimov calls one of “the greatest wines that nobody drinks.”

One of the reasons this style is so under appreciated is that no one is ever sure what to expect. Will it be dry or sweet? How sweet? What do you pair it with? As described in my earlier post Germany’s best wines (Prädikatswein) are categorized according to the ripeness of the grapes when picked, ranging in sugar levels from kabinett to trockenbeerenauslese. Auslese wines fall somewhere in the middle and are made from fully ripe, specially selected, sometimes lightly botrytized grapes. Regardless of sugar levels, Riesling’s searing acidity and ample fruit flavors make all of these styles age worthy, often for decades, and therein lies its magic. The wine’s fresh fruit flavors recede and integrate with the minerality, which comes to the fore along with the classic petrol notes. The sweetness softens, while the acidity keeps the wine fresh. The result is a harmonious, balanced, exquisite wine.

Those of us without the foresight (or awareness) back in the early 90s to sock away German Rieslings need to rely on those that did. Here in New York, some retailers such as Chambers Street and Crush have stocks of older vintages. I found two auslesen from 1993 that represent this style’s range of expression.

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At one end of the spectrum was this auslese by Weingut Schwaab-Kiebel. Made from grapes grown and hand picked in the famed Erdener Treppchen vineyard, a steep, south-facing slope in the mid-Mosel, the wine is vinified in the traditional 1000 liter fuders. This wine was completely captivating with its notes of apple, honeysuckle, and petrol, the signature scent of an aged Riesling. More surprising was its ability to pull off seemingly contradictory feats. How could it manage to be both creamy and finely chiseled at the same time? Such is the allure of aged Rieslings.

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Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken thought to age their wines themselves and only last year released their 1993 auslese. Zilliken is based in the cool corner of the Saar River, a tributary of the Mosel, and is one of the top producers in the region. Most of their 11 ha of vineyards are in the famous, top-tiered Saarburger Rausch, where the grapes from this wine originated. It’s an area more exposed to cold easterly winds, which gives their wines a certain steeliness. What stands out for this wine is the bright lemon color, which you would not expect from a wine entering its third decade. The aromas are predominantly of ripe red apple and pear with a slight hint of petrol. It’s just off dry, with a deep concentration of fresh fruit, but is surprisingly light and delicate. After I let the wine sit open to the air for a few hours it settled into itself, with all the elements fully integrating and the petrol, mineral notes moving more to the fore.

With their bright acidity, Rieslings are one of the most complimentary wines to have with food. Too, a hint of sweetness softens the heat in many spicy Asian dishes. The Schwaab-Kiebel would be wonderful with a creamy, soft-rind cheese, but is so utterly delicious, I’d just drink it all on its own. The Zilliken, on the other hand has a silky, refined elegance that would make it a perfect accompaniment to lighter fare, such as a smoked trout salad.

Food Pairings

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Cheese is a natural match for a slightly sweet wine. In the same way that quince paste and Manchego or fig jam and blue cheese work well together, sweet and salty are a natural pair. Winnimere from The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont won the Best in Show at last year’s annual American Cheese Society Conference. It’s made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, wrapped in spruce bark from a Vermont farm and washed in a lambic-style beer from the nearby Hill Farmstead Brewery. The best way to eat it is by slicing the top off and scooping out the creamy, gooey cheese with a spoon. A Vacherin Mont d’Or, (when in season around the holidays) or an Époisses would also be beautiful. 

Another great option is Hook’s Cheese from Mineral Point, Wisconsin made headlines in 2009 when it released a 15-year-old cheddar, which at the time was the oldest cheese sold to the public. Even at $50 a pound, it was a hit and sold out quickly. They’ve released a batch every year since, and there’s talk of releasing a 20-year-old cheddar next year. My fingers crossed. The 15-year cheddar is pretty spectacular. It’s so crumbly that slicing is futile. You end up eating little boulders that fall off the block, and they just melt in your mouth. The texture is surprisingly creamy and smooth with little bits of crunchy calcium lactate crystals. It’s only slightly younger than the wine but packed with so much flavor the wine only barely stands up to it.