German Rieslings: Precision can be confusing

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | june 2019

I once took a tour of the Mercedes Benz factory in Stuttgart, Germany (btw, there is no flag or cross high above Stuttgart only the large, illuminated, rotating, Mercedes symbol) and was amazed at how much engineering went into their cars; but that engineering precision also went into the language and customs of this most prosperous European nation. Unfortunately, preciseness when applied to an ever-changing natural product like wine, leads to a lot of confusion. In fact, the first time I walked into a wine store devoted to German wines (Sandberg Market on North Clark in Chicago) I was as bewildered as a donkey staring at a new gate. To begin with, there's the grape itself; not all German wines are made with Riesling. Then there's the bottle color, level of ripeness, location, estate and vintage years. And of course, there is the language; words like Qualitätswein, Gutsabfüllungand Trockenbeerenauslesewere just a mouthful of letters to me when I first got interested in Riesling. Believe it or not, all this information is on the label of a German Riesling. Knowing how to read the label will give you the confidence to make an informed choice the next time you purchase what I think are among the best wines in the world.

Let's start with the bottle. German wines and the French wines of the Alsace region are bottled in flutes. They are tall and slender but hold 750 milliliters. Generally speaking, if the bottle is green, the wine is from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. If the bottle is brown, the wine is from the Rheingau region. Both regions are along the Mosel and Rhein rivers respectively. I know, you've seen German wines that are in blue bottles. The owners of the Blue Nun wines decided to use blue bottles to make their product stand out like the Blue Nun wine stood out in the 1990s (it worked).

The rivers that delineate the different regions are significant as well. The Mosel comes through France into Luxembourg, then enters Germany near Trier, once the effective capital of the Roman Empire. On the other side of the city, it is joined by the rivers Saar and Ruwer. It is their side valleys, rather than the mainstream, that have the first great Mosel vineyards.

The Rheingau is the region that established Germany's reputation for world-class white wines in the early 19th century. A compact region, it lies on the right bank of the Rhine during the 20 miles it flows from east to west from Wiesbaden to Bingen. Most of its vineyards lie on gentle slopes with southerly exposure that are well protected by the mass of the Taunus Mountains.

The Riesling grape dominates Germany's wine crop with 20.8 percent, but Muller Thurgau is not far behind with 13.7 percent. The best wines are made with Riesling, but Muller-Thurgau wines can be light refreshing summer quenchers. The first thing to look for on a German wine label is the word Qualitätswein bestimmer Anbaugebiete (QbA) or “quality wine from a designated region." This differentiates the wine from Qualitätswein mit Pradikat (QmP) or “quality wine with special attributes." The later indicates superior wines, whereas QbA not so much. This is an important distinction and only the best German wines are labeled QmP.

Once past this hurdle, the levels of ripeness are indicated by a series of designations. Until the 1990s, most German wines were sweet, low-alcohol wines, but they were and are some of the finest wines in the world. Germany realized, as the wine boom of the 1980s developed, that there was an increasing demand for bone dry wines that gave the impression to diet-conscious drinkers that the wines were less fattening (like the movement toward “Lite" beers during that same period). The wine community also saw a decrease in sales of traditional wines, so they established the Trockendesignation. Trockenis the German word for dry. Wines designated as Trockenhave minimal amounts of residual sugar. By German law no more than nine grams of sugar per liter of wine. Ironically in the 19th century, before sterile filtration was invented, all German wines were fermented to dryness in order to deplete all the grape sugar (a necessity in those days to avoid spoilage). A wine label with Trockenon it indicates a dry wine.

Kabinettis the next level of ripeness. The word Kabinettmeans Cabinet and refers to the fact that this wine, because of its quality should be stored in a special place like a wine cabinet (a 19th-century reference which implies a wine cellar). The Riesling grapes for this wine are fully ripe from the main harvest (main harvest will mean something later). Typically, this wine is semi-sweet with crisp acidity. This wine is my favorite wine to serve with broiled Lake Michigan Whitefish, but sadly the Kabinettwine is becoming rarer because of global warming, which tends to push the ripeness into the next category. Oregon, New Zealand and Eden Valley in Australia produce comparable versions ofKabinett,thankfully.

The classic definition ofSpätleseis late harvest. In the past, when outstanding vintages were anticipated, certain blocks of grapes were held back from the main harvest at least seven days after full ripening in order to make Spätlesewines because these wines commanded a better price. This is where the difference occurs between the main harvest and late harvests. These wines are typically fuller bodied than Kabinett. Today with global warming as a factor in many years, most of the harvest isSpätlese.

The Auslese term means “select harvest"and refers to the fact that very ripe hand-selected bunches are picked for this wine. At each level of increased ripeness, the level of risk to the farmer increases as well. A late-season rainstorm or freeze can wipe out the harvest or in the case of a freeze, push the grapes into another category. As an organic farmer raising vegetables for local restaurants, I can sympathize with the tremendous risk taken every year by these wineries. I remember one stormy June day not long ago when I stood in my garage and watched one-inch hail completely strip a half-acre of heirloom tomato plants in five minutes. The prices of these wines definitely reflect that risk as well as the heartbreak of trying to create these elite wines.

Beerenauslese(BA) means “select berries." In exceptional years, where long slow autumns and “Indian" summers create super-ripe grapes, individual grapes are picked out of bunches and fermented to create wines that are so rare and in such small quantities that they are usually bottled in 375 ml. bottles. These wines are very expensive and can take decades for full development. The grapes for these wines often have started to rot. They are afflicted with a special kind of mold called Botrytis cinerea. The mold consumes the water in the grape leaving an unctuous liquid that is sweet yet still retains enough acidity to make the wine palatable. Tasting one of these wines should be on every wine lover's “bucket list."

Trockenbeerenauslese(TBA) is the finest and rarest of all the German Riesling. The term Trockendoesn't refer to the wine itself but rather the grapes, which have lost almost all of their moisture. In this instance the grape looks like a moldy raisin. The wine tastes of caramel and honeyed apricots but still retains the acidity that makes this wine almost eternal. Most of these wines are kept and sold in Germany. They were once administered to kings and queens on their deathbeds as a last effort to revive them. What a great way to exit this world, with Trockenbeerenauslese on your lips!

Now that you know the different types of wine, it is helpful to know how to judge the quality of any of these particular wines. One of the first is to know the definition of the German word Erzeugerabfüllung,which means bottled by the producer. This word on the label means that only the proprietors' grapes were used to make the wine. This term can be used by co-ops as well. The wordGutsabfüllung is stricter and applies to estate wines.

Another term Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter(VDP)is the ultimate sign of quality. This is a private association that rates German wines by quality of the finished product. Look for the black German eagle insignia on the label and also the Gross Lagelogo on wines from classified vineyards. A VDP wine is usually a good bet. As they say “A little learning …" Good luck with your quest to find these sublime wines. One taste and you'll know you've hit the jackpot.

Banner image: "Grass between rows of vines" by WineCounty Media is licensed CC BY 2.0.

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