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.


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:


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.


Like a Kid in a Sweetshop at RAW

Two things resounded for me from the 2015 RAW fair: 1) the generally high standard of natural wines now on offer and 2) the alarming number of young blokes wearing the same blue workman’s blazer – so many that it almost came as a surprise when I looked down and saw that I wasn’t wearing one.

RAW is truly the hipster’s wine fair, housed within the whitewashed warehouse walls of the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, it teems with egregious facial hair, tight trousers and tattoos, and lording it through it all is what you might call the wine hipster’s deity, the Sicilian amphora winemaker Gabrio Bini, unmissable with his silky, snow-white locks and moustache, lilac-tinted glasses and psychedelic shirt.

Bini is no mere fashion icon, though. His wines, which were guzzled up long before the wines of the rest of the 100+ winemakers at the fair (similar story for the wines of Frank Cornelissen and Elisabetta Foradori), are extraordinary creations: long skin-maceration in amphora which are buried in the soil for several months at a stretch. The resulting wines have a structure and spicy exoticism that is rarely found anywhere else. They aren’t cheap, but demand for the wines of this flamboyant silver fox clearly outstrips supply.

RAW definitely seems to be creating more of a buzz among young wine drinkers with every passing year. It’s been my favourite fair from the very first time I attended; I can still remember how bedazzled I was by the variety of flavours and aromas in these wines.

These are experiences that can shape a passion for wine, so the growing popularity of the RAW fair is something the organisers should be proud of. Thanks and congratulations to Isabelle Legeron and her team.

Here are my highlights from this year, based on the usual, inevitably selective, sampling. I wonder, in passing, if there’s something delirium-inducing about tasting for three hours under that hothouse roof. Maybe it was just the wine…

Seresin pinot noirs (all of them): Seresin is a biodynamic estate in Marlborough, NZ. I’m not at all keen on their sauvignon, but their pinots have a poise and elegance and fruit-oak balance that’s quite special. (Available through Armit Wines)

Ezibusisweni Chenin Blanc 2012: Angus Mcintosh is a cattle farmer in Stellenbosch. He makes amazing biltong. He also has some chenin blanc vines, from which he makes a very limited supply of this outstanding wine:

20150518_141749This is biodynamically farmed chenin, very small-scale. The grapes are basket-pressed and barrel-fermented and then aged for up to two years. Wild yeast, no additives, no racking, no topping up, no fining or filtering. I tried the 2012-14 – all very lovely but the 2012 was definitely the best: apricoty, bready, even caramely, yet still fruity and fresh. The straw wine on the left of the picture is from 2009 and is also absolutely wonderful. We’re going to have to go to Stellenbosch to enjoy it though because, so far, no one imports it. Damn shame.

Om Oliver Moragues Possessió D’Om 2014: A Mallorcan red made from indigenous manto negro grapes grown on clay-limestone soil. Similar to a pinot in fruit profile but with a bit more tannic structure. Lovely bright fruit and a mineral streak. They make a couple with oak as well but I think they mask the fruit too much. Not yet imported.

Vignaioli Contra Soarda Marzemino. These are Contra Soarda‘s wines:

20150518_152830 (1)They’re made from grapes grown on volcanic soil on a hillside just outside Bassano del Grappa, where vines and olive trees have been grown for centuries. They use mainly indigenous grapes (marzemino nero, plus the white vespaiolo), grapes are gravity-fed into the winery, wild yeasts are used for fermentation and there is no filtering. This red has such bright fruit and mineral tension. I love it. I love all their wines, actually – their merlot included. (Available from The Winemakers Club)

Cà del Vent Franciacorta Brut Blanc de Blanc Pas Operé 2011: Every year I seek out the Cà del Vent table to taste their gorgeous franciacorta.


This stuff isn’t cheap, but I’d rather drink it than most champagnes I can think of. So fresh and vital, yet with depth and complexity. Stunning sparkling wine. (Available from The Winemakers Club)

Cupano: Lionel Cousin is a charming whitebearded Frenchman who makes wine in Montalcino, Tuscany. His 2006 Brunello reminded me of a 20 or 30-year-old Pomerol. Amazing stuff. His 2008 and 2009 were also memorable: so earthy and complex. He also makes some wonderful Supertuscans. (Available from Swig)

Le Clos de la Meslerie Vouvray: Peter Hahn is an American romantic making Vouvray chenin blanc. His first vintage, in 2008, was picked out by the standard-setting Revue du Vin de France as one of the country’s best 100 wines and he’s been going from strength to strength since then. (Available from
Domaine Jean-Philippe Padié Fleur de Cailloux 2014:
This is an outstanding white, a blend of grenache blanc, grenache gris and macabeu – but nothing like the intense, boozy whites I am used to from Roussillon. This has a lightness and minerality that puts me more in mind of the cooler climes of the Loire. I could drink this all day, as indeed, one of these days, I will. (Available from Swig)

What’s in a glass?

It took me a while to grasp something that I now treat as gospel: that if you have a bottle of good wine, you really should drink it from the right sort of glass.

Drinking a wine whose whole point is to beguile you with its nuanced favours and aromas from a tea mug, a tumbler, a jar or any other sort of inappropriately shaped vessel would be like listening to dubstep through your mobile phone speaker, or reading Ulysses in Cantonese.

It was the Chef and Sommelier Open Up glass they use at the RAW fair that put me right. I ‘borrowed’ a couple after the first fair (boozed-up, sorry, won’t do it again) and have never looked back.

They have the flat base which means the largest possible surface area of the wine is exposed to oxygen, which means more of the volatile flavour molecules can be released. These glasses are excellent for all types of wine – red, white, sparkling, they will all show very well.

Champagnes and other sparkling wines, by the way, do not require flutes. The reason flutes are popular is that they show off the bubbles. If, however, you’re more interested in the wine’s aroma, the same principle that applies to still wines obtains here: it’s about having a bowl whose shape catches as much of the wine’s aroma as possible.

If you want to play around and find your fancy, you could buy glasses designed for specific types of wine. Glassware companies like Riedel, Spiegelau and Zalto make such glasses.

I’ve tried all three. I think Riedel is a class above: elegant but sturdy and substantial. Spiegelau is also good, if a bit less elegant. Zalto is an odd one to me – so delicate and brittle-seeming, with a stem so wafer-thin that it’s almost like it isn’t there (although Zalto acolytes will say that’s sort of the point).

Zalto is definitely the trendy new glass on the block, but whenever I hold a Zalto glass I feel as if I’m going to break it. I should in fairness say, though, that when I complained to Daniel Primack, Zalto’s main representative in the UK, about this, he pointed out that his restaurant clients had reported around a 30% decrease in breakages after converting to Zalto.

What makes the glass so important? In my experience, several things…

With white wines (except those that are so rich and complex that you don’t chill them) you want a glass that’s easy to hold by the stem, because you don’t want the heat from your fingers to warm the wine. Big tulip glasses full of wine are awkward to hold by the stems; longer, leaner ones less so.

Glasses for red wines vary quite a lot. Riedel has more than a dozen different glasses depending on which grape the wine you’re drinking is made from and even which part of the world the wine comes from.

The rationale behind such variety is that the different bowl shapes of these glasses control the flow of wine on to your tongue in different ways. Riedel argues that your tongue senses sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and umami in different areas, based on a tongue taste map that looks like this:


and that the glasses will emphasise the good and mute the less good characteristics in a given type of wine.

So, for example, a Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass

riedel bordeaux glass

is shaped the way it is because, says Riedel, ‘the shape directs the flow of wine on to the zone of the tongue which perceives sweetness, thus accentuating the fruit and de-emphasising the bitter qualities of the tannin’.

This is, by and large, bollocks. The tongue taste map idea was debunked by Nature nearly a decade ago, while the idea that all Bordeaux wines are of a sweetness that makes them distinct from other red wines is similarly testicular.

Nevertheless, the Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass is my favourite glass. I use it for all types of red wine; usually for whites as well. It’s that lovely, big, flavour-catching bowl that does it.

Whatever your particular glassware aesthetic may be, find a good glass, treasure it, caress it, read it romantic poetry in the small hours of the night; your wine drinking experience will be immeasurably better for it.


The Finest Wines Available to Humanity V: Suertes del Marqués Trenzado

To Tenerife, then, for the latest Finest Wine… And refreshing it is to be able to associate this Canary Island with fine wine rather than Brits abroad and Sexy Beast suntans.

Suertes del Marqués is a small, family-run winery in the Valle de la Orotava in Tenerife. The soil here is basically volcanic, like on Etna, with more clay the closer to the coast you go.  Trenzado is made from grapes from five different plots located in different parts of the valley.

The word ‘Trenzado’ means ‘braided’ and refers to the unique cordon vine training system used. The wine is made mainly from Listan Blanco (aka Palomino) and Pedro Ximénex – both grapes more commonly associated with sherry.

For vinification, all the grapes are destemmed, then about 40% of them (so skins included) are transferred to concrete tanks for fermentation; about 60% are pressed and the juice is transferred to French oak barrels.

Fermentation happens naturally with wild yeasts and no sulphur is added until bottling. There’s no racking either. Winemakers often choose not to rack because ageing on the lees (yeast residue) can help to develop flavour and ‘body’ in a wine.

Lees-ageing is also helpful for minimal-intervention (‘natural’) winemakers because certain enzymes released during lees ageing prevent oxidation which is, more or less, a wine’s death.

The result in the case of Trenzado is particularly interesting. The wine is very striking on the nose, obviously well-made, focused, rich, layered and with lingering flavour.

Apart from a fresh, light, slightly salty fruit, there’s a clear smell of just-struck match. I’m thinking of this sort of match:


Why would a wine smell like a Cook’s match? Because of a chemical process called reduction. Reduction is basically the opposite of oxidation – chemical reactions that occur in an anaerobic environment rather than an aerobic one, and which create certain volatile smell compounds grouped as sulphides.

Whereas oxidation is irreversible, reduction can be reversed simply by exposing the wine to oxygen – swirling in a glass will usually be enough. Another way to reverse it, and to make your friends think that you’re some kind of wine sorcerer, is to drop a copper coin into the glass. The copper will react with the reduced wine and any reductive smells (can be sulphur/struck-match, can be burnt rubber, can even be cooked vegetables) will vanish.

Coming back to the Trenzado, what’s interesting with this wine is that it is deliberately made in a reductive fashion. This is partly because of the winemaker’s minimal-intervention principles, but also because, with certain grapes, in certain conditions, it makes for a more interesting wine.

When I first tried the Trenzado, I was immediately put off by the reductive element, but there was such a nice wine behind the struck-match aroma that I went back for more. And then more. Eventually I started to like that smell and to enjoy the way it interacted with the other aromas in the glass. Other associations than Cook’s matches began to form – salty popcorn for instance.

So now I love the stuff.


The Vine Collective at E17 Art Trail

If you’ve come here wanting to know about the Vine Collective, good – you’re very welcome.

Here’s what the Vine Collective is, and is doing…

The Vine Collective is me, Darren Smith, and the marvellous Kirsteen McNish. I work in wine and organise events where I sell good natural, organic and biodynamic wine. Kirsteen comes from the wacky world of arts consultancy and has done loads of good work organising arts festivals, including the Richmond Literature festival.

We collaborated for an successful wine/food/performance event at L’Entrepot in Hackney Downs late last year, called Hackney with a Twist.  That event involved lots of wine drinking, John Keats, stuffed pumpkins, the dark and wonderful Shelly Love, the gutter romanticist Michael Smith and loads of other stuff too verbal to mention.

We enjoyed that and since then we’ve been wanting to find a special venue in E17 where artists to perform. Blackhorse Workshop was the obvious choice.

So, on Friday June 12 from 8pm-11.30pm, we’re inviting you to join us at Blackhorse Workshop, E17, for a special curated event of poetry, book-readings, live music sessions and DJ sets, all lubricated by a selection of natural, organic and biodynamic wines, and locally brewed ales. Oh and some good British cheeses. 

Our launch night takes place in the home of practising artists and craftspeople within the striking industrial architecture of Blackhorse Workshop (now a whole year old!). Our aim is to plant roots in this flowering space and create a regular performance event – always with interesting wines available.

We’re doing this as part of the annual E17 Art Trail, whose theme for 2015 is storytelling. So we will be telling stories through a variety of artists and musicians, encouraging you to share your Friday night with us and toast all that’s wonderful about East London’s places and people.

We are proud to announce our first ever line-up at Blackhorse Studios. Drumroll, please:

– Poet and comedian Rob Auton (here’s Rob’s film about yellow)

– Psychogeographical author Gareth Rees (

– Writer and broadcaster Michael Smith (Giro Playboy/Unreal City/Culture Show; here’s a trailer for Michael’s film, Unreal City)

– Faber New Poet Will Burns

The Cat’s Knickers with a rare live set

All this and a special DJ Set from Leo Smee (Chrome Hoof). This is a line-up we are sure will keep you entertained over the course of the night.

The theme of Art Trail this year is storytelling, and just as all our performers have weird and wonderful stories tell, so do our wines. I’ve carefully selects a range of great wines all made according to the same ‘natural’ ethos – ie, small-scale producers farming organically or biodynamically, practicing minimal-intervention viniculture (wild yeast fermentations, minimal sulphur, no fining or filtering), to produce wines that are as natural as possible and full of life and goodness.

We’ll also have some locally brewed ale and lovely British cheeses from the East London Cheeseboard.

Come and join us for the merrymaking and storytelling, on a night that we hope will whet your appetite for more at this new creative destination. You can book a ticket here.

When? Friday June 12, 8pm-11.30pm

Where? Blackhorse Workshop: – 1-2 Sutherland Road Path, Walthamstow, E17 6BX

Why? Because you want to.

Nearest Tube: Blackhorse Road, a 10 minute walk or 158 Bus to Waltham Forest College stop (see Blackhorse Workshop sign to Sutherland Path). Limited parking.

Cool Keith

I do wish that you were still on the telly

Giving me giggles from brain to belly

Chastising Clive and being a b’stard

Making a mess of a French piperade

A glug for the pot and two slurps for me

On me, Clive, you arsehole, on me, on me!

The genre’s much shitter since you departed

The cooks all glossy and meringue-hearted

The televisual equivalent of MSG

Everything clean and safe and twee

Christ, you’re missed, you drunken wonder,

The cook who tore the world asunder

The cook who’d accept nothing less

Than 12 types of fish in his bouille-baisse

Who’d blithely knock back, as the cameras ran,

A ’99 Gevrey-Chambertin

You were much of madness and more of sin,

To you, Keith, I raise my glass, cin cin!