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…
– 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.
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.