Mosel Riesling: Like the Juice of Crushed Slate

Not that you can get juice from crushed slate, but the image definitely evokes the focused, flinty character of rieslings from the Mosel.

In this most northerly of wine regions (it’s at 50° latitude; the latitudinal range for wine growing is 28°-50°) the bits of slate that litter the vineyards store the sun’s heat, transferring the energy to vines which would otherwise lose the will during the cold night hours. The Mosel river itself also helps to nourish the vines, reflecting the sun on to the slopes and providing that extra bit of warmth that encourages the vines along.

And what about those slopes:

Bremmer Calmont

 

‘Steep’ barely covers it. Look across the river at certain vineyard blocks and they look vertical . The Bremmer Calmont (Bremm is the town, Calmont the vineyard. This is a naming system you will come to recognise if you drink Mosel wines) vineyard on the bow of the river between Trier and Koblenz is the steepest in Europe. At 67 degrees, it has the same gradient as the tougher sections of the Matterhorn. Just being able to stand in vineyards like this would seem impossible without harnesses, carabiners and crampons – but farming them?

Terracing is essential on such vertiginous sites, but even then bad things can happen. The guide on my trip told me the last tragic accident was three years ago, when a winemaker who was replanting a particularly steep vineyard site fell off his tractor and somehow impaled himself on a vine-training pole. His family continues to make wine in the same region.

People have been braving these inhospitable sites for 2,000 years, since the Romans ruled the western world. Nearby Trier was a major Roman city and much of the wine made in the Mosel was transported down the river for consumption there. Archaeological discoveries of a Roman wine press that dates back to 400 AD (making it the largest wine press ever found north of the Alps) indicate the scale of the industry then. Indeed it’s thought that the vineyard area in the Middle Mosel sites of Piesport and Neumagen-Dhron during the Roman era was just as big as it is today.

What’s the wine like?

What can you expect from Mosel riesling? It is a very special combination of high acidity, low alcohol and laser-focused minerality. When you taste one of these wines, you know about it. Such finesse, such clear definition, such invigorating freshness. And because the alcohol is low, you can drink a lot without getting messy. I regard this as a huge plus point.

What about Mosel riesling’s famed ‘minerality’? Does the slate show in the flavour of the wine? It may appear to, but no, not literally. Though terroir romantics would have us believe otherwise, there is no known mechanism for the transfer of mineral flavours from soil to finished wine. Besides which slate doesn’t taste of anything. Having said that, there’s something going on that gives Mosel rieslings their unmistakeable, mouthwatering, mineral feel.

Some wine people think that it’s a relative absence of fruitiness which we read as a mineral, even faintly salty, quality in the wine. It’s also been suggested that it’s something to do with sulphur compounds produced during fermentation. Others still argue that certain nutrients in water held deep in a soil – sodium and potassium-containing ones – are drawn up through the roots and transfer to the fruit.

There are even suggestions that the mineral-salty feel in certain wines it attributable to a fungus, a gossamer-fine network of mycorrhizae which attaches itself to vine roots and exists in a marvellous symbiotic relationship with them, transmitting messages like synapses in a brain and helping them to distribute water and nutrients evenly throughout the whole vine system.

Studies are being conducted that should get to the bottom of this terroir mystery before much longer. Until then, if you want to know more about it, I recommend you read what wine writer and former plant biologist Jamie Goode has to say about it.

The best Mosel rieslings from my trip:

I spent two days travelling along the Mosel river and tried a wide range of rieslings from different vineyard sites in the company of local wine writers, Mosel specialists and the winemakers themselves. These are the best wines tasted during my trip. I’ve made a note of those wineries I know to be biodynamic or natural, and have included links to UK retailers/importers where known.

Weingut Sybille Kuntz (Lieser, Mosel, available from OW Loeb)
Maximin Grünhauser (Grunhaus, Ruwer, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Meulenhof (Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Haart (Piesport, Mosel)
Weingut Markus Molitor (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from Bibendum)
Weingut AJ Adam (Dhron, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Van Volxem (natural, Viltingen, Saar, available from Howard Ripley)
Weingut Clemens Busch (biodynamic, Zell, Mosel, available from David Bowler)
Weingut zur Römerkelter (biodynamic, Maring-Noviand, Mosel, available from Vintage Roots)
Weingut Zilliken (Saarburg, Saar, available from OW Loeb)
Weingut Knebel (Winningen, Mosel, available from Flint Wines)
Weinhof Herrenberg (Schoden, Saar, available from The Winery UK)
Staffelter Hof (Kröv, Mosel)
Weingut SA Prüm (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Hain (Piesport, Mosel, available from Tanners Wine)
Weingut Bastgen (Bernkastel, Mosel)
Weingut Melsheimer (biodynamic, Reil, Mosel, available from The Winery UK)

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An Introduction to German Wine (Especially Riesling)

I’m just back from Germany where I’ve been travelling through the Mosel and Ahr valleys to taste as much German riesling and pinot noir as I could. I’m going to write three blog posts based on the trip starting with this one, a general introduction to German wine and its main grape, riesling. Then I’ll write one on Mosel riesling (which is the best riesling in the world) and one about Ahr pinot noir…

Germany makes some of the best wines on the planet. It has done for centuries. Not enough people know this.

I wrote about German wine’s persistent image problem – one that’s basically down to Blue Nun and complicated labels like this…

german wine label

– after a wine press trip to Rhinehessen, Nahe and Pfalz last July. That was a baking hot few days for which I forgot to pack any appropriate clothing, so I spent four days disintegrating in 30C heat in black denim jeans. But the wines, particularly the rieslings – taut and mineral in Nahe; fuller with more ‘meat on the bones’ in the warmer Pfalz – made it all okay.

Riesling is sometimes referred to as a ‘noble’ grape – one of six along with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. This indicates its potential for producing wines of the high quality and ageworthiness wherever in the world it is grown.

And wherever in the world its grown, riesling is unmistakable: high in acidity, with lime, grapefruit, peach and (especially sweet styles) pineapple fruit notes, often with hints of honeysuckle and, in the more complex and developed ones, resiny essential oils, ginger, peppery spice, even petrol (that’s actually quite common).

It is almost never oaked, and rarely undergoes malolactic fermentation (which converts sharp, zingy malic acid to softer, ’rounder’ lactic), so you can always expect a mouthwatering, primary-fruit freshness from a riesling, and its high acidity means it will stay drinkable for a decades. The oldest I’ve had were from the 1970s, but pre-war bottles still have a near-miraculous freshness about them.

Although its also a defining grape of Alsace and there are plantings all over the world, from Chile to Australia, German rieslings are, to quote Tina Turner, simply the best – that is, they are the ones with the greatest finesse and character. It has been this way for a long, long time. For centuries royal households have insisted on having German rieslings in their cellars; auction records from the early 20th century show that German riesling was at the time the most highly prized wine in the world, commanding a price three times higher than any first-growth Bordeaux.

Labels…

The labelling of German wines can be confusing. But this is how it basically works: when it comes to quality wine (as opposed to basic table wine), the nomenclature is based on grape ripeness, measured in degrees Oechsle.

First you have ‘Qualitätswein’. This will be the most basic wine of a reputable estate and can be made up from grapes from any of the estate’s vineyard sites. These grapes will have been the first to be harvested.

Then you have a system known as ‘Prädikat’, which is upheld by a group of about 200 of Germany’s best wineries known collectively as the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP). When you’re looking for a good-quality German wine, look for this symbol on the cap of the bottle:

VDP_logo

The first level of this Prädikat system is ‘kabinett’. Kabinett wine is a level up from qualitatswein and traditionally off-dry – ie, it’s possible to detect a hint of sweetness, though often it’s completely dry. The name ‘kabinett’, incidentally, comes from a time when monks made wine and kept their best supplies in a special store, or cabinet, in the cellar.

Next comes ‘spätlese’ (which means ‘late harvest’). Here the grapes will be picked a little later than for kabinett, and so will have more ripeness, more sugar. They may have also begun to be affected by noble rot. Spätlese wines are usually a touch sweeter than kabinett but are sometimes fermented to fully dry, and may have a slightly higher level of alcohol. (Alcohol is always low for Mosel rieslings, incidentally, which gives them that unique combination of grapey sweetness, racy acidity and low alcohol which means you can drink them all night and still feel pretty sprightly at the end of it.)

Then you have ‘auslese’. Here the grapes are riper still, with more sugar in the grapes, and a greater proportion of the grape having been affected by noble rot. Then you have the properly sweet, dessert style, which can only be made during the best vintages, and which require a high level of care and selection of the grapes. First there is ‘beerenauslese’. Then there is the syrupy, intense and astoundingly expensive ‘trockenbeerenauslese’, which is made from individually selected, completely botrytised (raisined) grapes. As an example of its level of refinement, around 1,000,000 of these grapes are needed to make around 400l of wine.

Finally there is ‘eiswein’, where the grapes are left on the vines until well after the first frost, when they’re fully botrytised. They are pressed while frozen, which extracts the intense, sugary juice while leaving the water content behind. Like trockenbeerenauslese wine, eiswein is very expensive and only it’s only possible to produce it in excellent vintages. Also as with trockenbeerenauslese, it’s really, really lovely.

The prädikat system applies to any white grape, but the one you’ll find it applied to more than any other is riesling, which is by far Germany’s most celebrated.

If you’re put off by the idea of sweetness in wine, remember that riesling has very high acidity, so the sugar in, say, a spätlese or auslese is not going to make the wine taste especially sweet; rather its interaction with the acidity will create a wonderful, mouthwatering dynamism in the mouth. These wines are as fresh and vibrant as can be; they are anything but cloying.

Riesling and food…

While riesling not very well represented on supermarket shelves, wine pros love it. Ask a sommelier her favourite white grape and more often than not the answer will be riesling. This isn’t because its recherché or vogueishly weird, but because it’s so distinctive and so versatile, fantastic to drink on its own or to pair with a wonderfully wide variety of food styles.

Scandinavia is one of the biggest export markets for German wine. Think of typical Nordic foods: smoked and salted fish, berries, herbs, very clean, often delicate, flavours; think, as a pairing, the younger, leaner, more mineral rieslings of the upper Rhine – Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau.

German rieslings are one of the only genuinely good pairings for Asian and South-East Asian food, most having the requisite low alcohol, firm acidity and refreshing character to marry with the spicy, sweet-sour and umami flavours of cooking from this part of the world. Steamed dim sum or sashimi? Try the same sort of riesling as for the Nordic foods mentioned above. Thai red or green curry? Try a young spätlese riesling to cut through the cream but carry the sweetness.

Older vintages of ripe rieslings, such as auslese, even go well with game, such as venison, when it’s accompanied by fruity sauces. Oysters are even an option, especially for older vintages from regions known for their salty, mineral styles, like the Mosel.

Best vintages…

As a rule of thumb, since 2000 the odd years have been good, even years not as good (high acidity, less fruit), with the exception of 2012 which was very good. 2014 was difficult with a marked problem with fruit flies and rot. Estates had to select their grapes very carefully and yields were relatively low, especially in the lower Mosel.  This vintage produced a lighter style of wine, generally.

In 2013 yields were poor again but the wines that were produced had more intense flavour than the 2014s. Both 2001 and 2005 were excellent vintages with very ripe fruit, while 2009 was also good. According to some producers, 2011 was the best vintage since 2000. Prior to this, the standout vintage – one of the best of the century – was 1990.

So there you go. Seek these wines out. Riesling is a wonderful grape and Germany produces the best examples of it. Within Germany there is one place that outshines any other in production of it and that’s the Mosel – the subject for my next post.

What does German wine mean to you?

What’s going on with the UK wine-buying public and German wine? Why such reticence? Riesling is one of the noble grapes. Sommeliers love it. It’s gorgeous on its own or with a huge range of foods. Grüner veltliner is a lean-white-wine lover’s dream, as crisp and clean as a – well it’s beyond simile. German pinot noir is some of the best in the world. Singingly smooth and fruity with great structure. Gorgeous, man. So why the balls does Germany almost always wallow in some dusty recess of the wine shop with the ‘rest of Europe’? What is that all about?

Is it the dismissive assumption that ‘Ah, it’s all just riesling, isn’t it?’

Is it a Blue Nun thing?

Is it a sausage thing?

Is it a labelling thing – all those long, indecipherable portmanteaus like‘trockenbeerenauslese’? (You’ve got to love the audacity of the German language, by the way, when ‘Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft’ counts as a legitimate single word.)

Let’s have a little look at each of these reasons for our pitiable – and it is pitiable – neglect of Die Deutsche Weine in turn.

‘Ah, it’s all just riesling, isn’t it?’

Well, no. There’s a lot of riesling about (really, really good riesling from Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Nahe and Pfalz), but there’s much more going on. Lesser known white grapes after riesling and müller-thurgau (the two most-planted in Germany) include weissburgunder and grauburgunder (aka pinot blanc and gris), gewürztraminer, silvaner and scheurebe; lesser known reds include frühburgunder, St Laurent, dornfelder, portugieser and schwarzriesling (aka pinot meunier, one of the champagne grapes).

The wine regions of this part of Germany tend to have their specialism: Ahr loves pinot noir, in Baden it’s burgunders of all types and Franken is known for powerful, earthy silvaners. Yes, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz are biased towards riesling, but even with this single varietal, there is dramatic variation thanks to the regions’ many different soils. Look to Nahe, for example, for a more lean, mineral style and to Pfalz for rieslings with ‘more meat on the bones’.

It’s worth noting, too, that Germany is the world’s third-biggest producer of pinot noir. Pinot from Ahr (Kreuzberg, Jean Stodden and Nelles, for example) or Franken (Fürst, Fürst Lowenstein) counts as some of the best outside of Burgundy.

So no, it’s not all riesling…

Old habits

Blue Nun is a brand of Liebfraumilch, a sort of semi-sweet wine made mainly from the Müller-Thurgau (aka rivaner) grape. It became very popular in the UK towards the end of our Gastronomic Dark Age (around 30 years ago) – the age of ‘meat paste’, Angel Delight and Smash.

Now Germans don’t drink Liebfraumilch. It’s always been made for export. Why they thought a sickly, semi-sweet white wine sold in garish blue bottles would appeal over here, who knows, but with few other options we lapped it up.

Those dark days are gone, but it looks like Blue Nun has done a job of distorting our perception of German wine. People must still worry that the German wine they see on the shelf is going to be sweet.

We have to get past this. German winemaking is about considerably more than Liebfraumilch. Winemakers in these regions know that nowadays we like crisp, crystalline dry whites, and they make them in glorious abundance.

Wurst case scenario

Sausage, sausage, sausage. Could it be that the lack of an exciting associated food culture – compared with Italy, France or Spain, for instance – leaves us fussy Masterchef types cold when it comes to buying German wines? It’s possible. On my recent trip to Rheinhessen, Nahe and Pfalz, huge plates of sausage, sauerkraut and liver dumplings did feature heavily – even at the height of summer. They’re tasty, and very much complemented by a full-bodied riesling, but I can see how, to some people, they’re not a very inspiring gastronomic proposition.

This needn’t discourage though. One of the most interesting insights I took away from my trip was that German riesling is possibly the most versatile wine there is. Its naturally high acidity and unusually broad range of flavour profiles, depending on where it’s been made, mean it will complement many different foods…

Scandinavia is one of the biggest export markets for German wine. Think of the typical Nordic foods: smoked and salted fish, berries, herbs, very clean, often delicate, flavours; think, as a pairing, the younger, leaner, more mineral rieslings of the upper Rhine – Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau.

German wines are also noted as a pairing for Asian and South-East Asian food, most having the requisite low alcohol, firm acidity and refreshing character to stand up to the spicy, sweet-sour and umami flavours of this part of the world. Steamed dim sum or sashimi? Try a crisp, dry riesling or weissburgunder from Nahe, Rheingau or Mosel. Stir-fry with black bean sauce, sir? You could do worse than a fruity Ahr spätburgunder. Coconut-based spicy curry, madame? Try an off-dry, late-harvest (Spätlese) riesling to cut through the cream but carry the sweetness. Simples.

Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft und so weiter…

Ah, yes, labels. German wine labels are often cited as some of the most incomprehensible. But don’t despair. Once you know what to look out for, you’re fine. Honest.

First things first: ‘weiswein’ means white wine, ‘rotwein’ means red wine. ‘Trocken’ means dry,‘halbtrocken’ means medium-dry/off-dry.

The best-quality German wine is called ‘prädikatwein’. Prädikatwein has various levels depending on the ripeness of the grapes. ‘Kabinett’ is the entry level for quality German wines. By default kabinett wines are semi-sweet, but more and more often these days they’re dry (in which case the label will usually say ‘kabinett trocken’).

Above kabinett you have ‘spätlese’ (late harvest), ‘auslese’ (select harvest), ‘beerenauslese’ (select berry harvest), ‘trockenbeerenauslese’ (select dry berry harvest) and ‘eiswein’ (where the grapes have been left to ripen on the vine so long that winter has come along and frozen them; they’re pressed in this frozen, intensely sweet state).

Generally, the wine gets sweeter the further up the scale (though strictly speaking the scale is of ripeness rather than sweetness) you go, but some winemakers still make dry styles of spätlese and auslese wine – they’re just rarer and more expensive.

Helpfully or unhelpfully, depending on your point of view, Germany also has the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP), the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates. VDP wines are top of the tops. All 200-odd members of this association produce wine according to stricter rules than those set out by German wine law. Consequently their wines are more highly prized. Almost all VDP wines are organic or biodynamic. Look out for the VDP logo of a stylised eagle clutching a bunch of grapes on the label. If it has the eagle, you know you’re on to a winner.

Beyond Blue Nun
German wine has always been of a high quality, though the German people still account for the vast majority of fine wine consumption. That is changing, however, as a new generation of winemakers, who have grown up in a more PR-orientated and technologically sophisticated age, take centre-stage.

In Deidersheim in the heart of Pfalz, where chancellor Kohl used to bring Mrs Thatcher to thrash out foreign policy issues over saumagen and a glass of riesling, a group of enterprising young winemakers have set up an organisation called Wine Changes. They are intent on giving German wine an image makeover.

This group has emerged largely from family-run wineries that have been making wine for generations. But whereas their parents and grandparents worked in competition with one another, Wine Changes members have adopted a collaborative approach, which they see as they best way to promote the region.

The plan is already working. Wine Changes comprises 12 member wineries, five of which currently export to the UK. These young winemakers are definitely more attuned to what consumers want. Generally, the first thing they do when they have taken control of the winery is convert to organic or biodynamic production; they prefer stainless steel to barrel ageing, and longer, cooler fermentations that bring out the grape varietal character better; they’re also keen to find ways around the labyrinth of German wine labelling.

That German wine will win favour with newer generations of wine drinkers in the UK is, to me, beyond question. It may take a little time for the labelling farrago to sort itself out; it may take a little time for groups like Wine Changes to establish themselves in a big new market like ours; it may even take more time to exorcise the demon of Blue Nun; but the riesling revolution is already under way it won’t be too long before German wines emerge from the dusty recesses and are presented as the bloody brilliant wines they are.

I travelled to Nahe, Rheinhessen and Palatinate courtesy of the German Wine Institute.

This is an edit of an article originally written for iLoveMyGrub.com.