I ♥ German Riesling
Or What We Talk About When We Talk About Residual Sugar
Ask any sommelier what his or her favorite grape variety is and chances are German Riesling will be at the top of the list. Ask again what the toughest wine to sell is and you’ll likely get the same answer: Riesling. Why such a huge disconnect? In a word, sugar. Among the general wine-drinking public the perception persists that all German wine is sweet (in fact much of German wine is dry), but more erroneously that sweet equals bad.
I recently pulled out a bottle from the Mosel for a friend, who cast a wary eye at me when she saw the distinctive long, slender bottle. She took a sip, then another, and was genuinely surprised: “Oh, this is good. It isn’t sweet at all.” While some sweet wines are indeed bad, they are bad not because they are sweet but usually because they are unbalanced and simple. This wine was good not because it was dry, but because it had a beautiful concentration of fresh fruit, and the residual sugar present in the wine (yes, there was some) was balanced by a firm streak of acidity.
Acidity is the key when it comes to any wine with residual sugar. It turns out, however, that with German rieslings, I’ve been thinking about this backwards. I’ve always thought of it as sugar needing acid, but in the northern climates of Germany’s wine-growing regions where grapes often struggle to ripen, it’s just the opposite. Riesling is a grape with naturally high acidity, and here, even in summer, the nights can be cool, which means that a lot of that acid sticks around late into the harvest season. It’s this acidity that needs a bit of sugar to soften what otherwise might be some razor sharp edges.
Vineyard site, then, becomes very important. There are excellent Rieslings made in the Rheingau, Pfalz and Nahe, but where Riesling reaches its height in finesse and delicacy is on the steep, south-facing slopes along the snake-like Mosel River. The best vineyards are planted with a southerly aspect, which allows the grapes to capture as much sun as possible, giving them time to develop sugars and concentrated flavors well into November. This confluence of climate and terroir is what makes Rieslings from the top vineyards and top producers in the Mosel so radiant. Whether it’s dry, off dry or sweet, what you get is a harmonious trifecta of fruit, acid and sugar. When made well, they are structured, well-balanced, glorious wines that are incredibly versatile with food. It’s what makes them so revered by sommeliers.
“A German wine label is one of the things life is too short for . . .” Kingsley Amis
With all those umlauts and syllables strung together in long breathless stretches, a German wine label can seem as impenetrable as German existentialist philosophy. They do, however, contain a surprising amount of information. First and foremost, to gauge the sweetness of a wine look for the word trocken for dry, halbtrocken for half-dry, or feinherb for slightly sweeter (although this term has no legal definition, it is often found on labels). Lieblich and Süss are for sweeter wines, but they are rarely used. If none of these terms are on the label, then look for the alcohol level. If the abv is 11 or 12%, the wine is likely to taste dry; if it is lower, expect some sweetness.
Just to make things more complicated, in 2012, the VDP—a group of around 200 top producers who have taken quality assurances into their own hands—gave us a few more terms to decipher. One of their goals is to emphasize and recognize wines by the quality of the vineyard sites (as is done in Burgundy). On newer wine bottles you will see Grosses Gewächs, which means a wine from one of the very best sites, a Grosse Lage. In essence, grand cru wines, and they are always dry. Erste Gewachs wines are the equivalent of premier cru, Ortswein are village wines, while Gutswein are regional. VDP member wines are identified by a band around the bottleneck with the symbol of an eagle clutching a cluster of grapes.
Traditionally, quality wines have been classified by their must weights when they are picked, and these terms are still used. The longer the grapes stay on the vine the heavier the must weights, the greater amount of sugar, and the deeper and richer the flavors. Kabinett grapes are harvested first (these are not allowed for Grosses Gewächs), followed by spätlese (late harvest), and then auslese (selected harvest). Beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese are made from grapes left to dry on the vine and are often affected by botrytis (noble rot). These last two are lusciously sweet dessert wines that can age for decades, while the first three can be made in a range of styles, from dry to sweet.
Although the dry Rieslings can be delicious, it’s the sweet versions of spätlese and auslese, which are made nowhere else in the world that make German wines unlike any other. These wines are often not fermented to dryness and therefore will have some residual sugar (even trocken wines can have up to 9g/L of sugar). Traditionally, however, they weren’t meant to be consumed until they had been aged. Spätlese wines will initially be very fruity and fresh, then shut down and enter an awkward phase. They need at least 10 years to really shine but will be delicious for another 20. Auslesen need a couple of decades, but will last for at least half a century. Over time, the intensity of the ripe fruit fades, allowing the minerality to come through. The acidity and sugar amounts technically remain the same but their edges soften and they become more integrated. What remains is a leaner, more complex, spectacular wine. They pair well with roasted game, such as duck, ham, smoked trout and cheese.
As with any other wine region the key to finding good wine is knowing who the good producers are. Recently, a group of top winemakers were in New York for Rieslingfeier, an annual event to promote top quality German Rieslings. I attended a seminar hosted by Stuart Spigott, a wine writer based in Berlin whose book The Best White Wine on Earth –The Riesling Story is coming out this summer. Four notable producers from the Mosel and Rheingau poured their wines, and although most were dry (and fantastic), their other wines are worth seeking out. Whether dry or sweet, these are producers worth knowing about.
Karthäuserhof is one of the most highly regarded estates in Germany and, unusually, is a single vineyard. Located along the Ruwer River, a tributary off the southern part of the Mosel, the vineyard comprises 19 ha of blue Devonian slate. The estate is known for its finely made Rieslings, though it also makes a small amount of Pinot Blanc and sparking wines. Evidence of winemaking in the area can be traced back to the Romans, but it was the Carthusian monks in the 1300s who brought acclaim to these wines. Today’s winemaker Christian Vogt brought two trocken wines from 2012. While both had 8 g/L of sugar these wines tasted bone dry and had a quite pronounced minerality to them.
Weingut Peter Lauer has at its helm, Florian Lauer, a fifth-generation winemaker, who is one of the rising stars in the Mosel. Lauer has 8 ha of Riesling along the Saar River, off the southern part of the Mosel. It is slightly cooler and the wines in general have a steelier, chiseled edge to them. One of the most famous of Lauer’s vineyards is Ayler Kupp. It is also quite sizeable, and different parts have different soil, microclimates and sun exposure. Lauer believes in letting the grapes express the terroir so he harvests, vinifies and bottles these parcels separately. He also eschews the pradikat classification (kabinett, spätlese, auslese), Instead you will see Fass numbers, indicating wine from a specific parcel. He also likes to indicate the exact location so you’ll fine “Unterstenbersch” (the bottom), Stirn (the top) and Kern (mid slope) appended to the vineyard name. He uses native yeasts and will let the wine rest on its lees for six months. The wines we tasted were also from 2012. The Ayler Kupp “Unterstenberg” has 12 g/L of RS, and was richer and creamier than the Karthauserhofs, it still tasted dry. The Ayler Kupp “Stirn” had 30 g/L of RS and was merely off dry. Absolutely delicious.
Clemens Busch, the eponymous owner of Weingut Clemens Busch, is a bit of a rock star in the Mosel. Jerry Garcia perhaps, in that he farms his 25 ha in the mid-mosel biodynamically, and he has a devoted following. In the cool folds of the Mosel this means he must climb the steep slopes every ten days to apply an herbal tea to fight fungal disease. He too believes in the expression of individual terroir and picks, ferments and bottles each of his parcels separately. Bottles are labeled with their respective parcels: Fahrlay, Falkenlay, Raffes, Rothenpfad and Marienburg. The wines are generally richer, fuller bodied with a striking minerality.
Weingut Leitz is one of the top producers in the Rheingau, where winemaker Johannes Leitz has been making wine since he was 21. The vineyards were his playground while growing up, but once he was old enough, he took over from his mother who’d been at the helm since his father died in 1965. Leitz manages nearly 40 ha of vineyards in the western part of the Rheingau where the soil consists of slate and quartzite. Leitz often picks his grapes late and lets them macerate on the skins for 36 hours. He will then often ferment them dry. We tasted the 2006 Rudesheimer Berg Rottland Alte Reben, which was a big, bold, full-bodied wine with racy acidity and tasted of ripe tropical fruits (pineapple) and lemon. The 2009 Rudesheimer Berg Kaisersteinfels was crisp and dry, very precise with mineral and petrol notes.