It’s only a matter Riesling
I recently visited several of Germany’s major wine areas including the Mosel, Rheingau, Nahe and Rheinpfalz regions.
Vintners there produce wines from a variety of grapes including Sylvaner, Rülander, Müller-Thurgau and Spatburgunder, but nothing epitomizes German wines like Riesling.
I like Riesling. I have discovered that recently, so I feel like a novice wine drinker poking down labyrinthine alleyways, discovering the confusing world that is wine.
But when I started mentioning Riesling to other wine drinkers, they too often looked at me quizzically, suggesting I might as well drink white-Zin.
That prejudice wasn’t always the case. Indeed, Riesling was considered one of the four “noble grape” varieties of Europe along with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. A hundred years ago, the best German Rieslings sold for the same or even higher prices than the equivalent wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux.
In spite of a well-exercised sweet tooth, many American wine drinkers eschew sweet wines. And no wine is more associated with being sweet, or has fallen more from grace, than Riesling.
Germany, at least in America, has not helped her own cause, filling the market with inferior, sweet-styled Liebfraumilch like Black Tower or Blue Nun ” although neither one is actually produced from Riesling grapes. Plus, while some German wine labels might be pretty, they also can be very confusing.
A fine, dry Riesling
Many people mistakenly believe that all Rieslings are sweet, but not the one that started me on my Riesling odyssey.
It was a 2002 Langwerth Von Simmern Riesling from Germany’s Rheingau region. It cost about $10. It was the combination of citrus, lime and mineral flavors, its razor-sharp acidity and dry finish that blew me away. It was light and delicate, while offering both clarity of flavor and an astonishing amount of intensity.
It was a refreshing change from so many of California’s high-alcohol, heavily oaked Chardonnays; a pas de deux compared to a defensive lineman’s quarterback sack.
I wanted to see the dizzyingly steep, slate-covered hills of the Mosel River and the charming towns that dotted its banks.
Bernkastel is the heart of that river’s wine region. Over the millennia the river, flowing from France’s Vosges Mountains to where it meets the Rhine at Koblenz, twists like a sidewinder, sometimes almost reaching back on itself. Wherever it met the resistance of the slate covered hillsides, it carved a new direction.
As the Mosel River turns, the best vineyards hop from side to side, seeking the southern exposure necessary to harness the warming rays of the sun reflecting off the water. The Mosel is the world’s northernmost wine region of importance, the equivalent latitude of about 200 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota. It is remarkable that grapes ripen there at all.
Bernkastel is a cobblestoned town of half-timbered houses and narrow alleys. Bernkasteler Doctor, one of Germany’s most famous vineyards, climbs the steep hills at town’s edge. Standing in that vineyard high above the town, overlooking the slate rooftops and medieval spires with the river glimmering below, was for me the heady stuff of the color-plated coffee table wine books.
Many individual producers offer wine tasting right in Bernkastel, but a place across the river in Kues ” the Vinothek in an old, underground wine cellar ” offered the best opportunity to taste the wines of the region.
For about $20, you can taste hundreds of wines. Unlike a formal tasting bar where you have to ask, at Vinothek you walk around at your own pace, pouring the wines for yourself. They also have information about each of the producers. It was a marvelous opportunity to taste a lot of Mosel wines in an enchanting setting.
Sweet, dry and in-between
Perhaps the single most confusing issue relating to German wines is the question of dryness or sweetness.
Most wines fall into either the “Qualitätswein” (QbA) or the “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat” (QmP) categories, depending on the sweetness of the grapes at harvest. The higher-quality QmP wines further subdivide into “Kabinett,” “Spätlese” (late harvest), “Auslese” (selected harvest), “Beerenaulese” (select harvest berries), “Trockenbeerenaulese” (dry berry select harvest) and “Eiswein” (ice wine). The higher the category, the sweeter the grapes must be at harvest.
I thought the increasing levels of sugar at harvest automatically translated into increasingly sweet wines in the bottle. Not so. The Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese categories all can be dry, medium dry or sweet, depending on the winemaker and harvest conditions.
Look for the words “trocken” (dry) or “halbtrocken” (half-dry) as indicators of the sweetness level. I quickly recognized that the wine’s alcohol level gives another important clue. An Auslese with 8 percent alcohol guarantees residual, unfermented grape sugar in the bottle. An Auslese with 11 percent or 12 percent alcohol is much more likely to be fermented dry.
One of the hallmarks of German Rieslings is the interplay between luscious sweetness and startling acidity. You might prefer yours sweeter, while I prefer mine dry. Alcohol is as good a clue as any as to which are which. The designations of Beerenaulese and above always are sweet and famous for it.
Rheingau’s crisp wines
As we continued our journey downstream towards the Rhine the banks of the Mosel River became so steep I couldn’t imagine how someone could even pick the grapes without tumbling down the hill.
At one particularly steep stretch of river, growers employed a series of monorails that wind up the hillsides carrying workers or grape baskets. The whole thing had the hair-raising look of an amusement park ride. It’s easy to understand why farming costs are four or five times higher on the Mosel than the more gently rolling hillsides of the Rhine.
At Koblenz where the Mosel meets the Rhine, we turned south, heading upriver.
For most of the Rhine’s 800-plus mile journey from the Alps to the North Sea, it flows in a fairly direct northern line. But at Mainz, it takes a peculiar right turn, and for about 20 miles, it flows due west towards Rüdesheim. This new direction once again offers the vineyards on the right side of the river that all-important southern exposure which ripens grapes at a northern latitude.
This 20-mile stretch known as the Rheingau is home to many more of Germany’s most famous vineyards. Unfortunately I found no equivalent Vinothek. I did however make a point of visiting the Langwerth Von Simmern Winery in Eltville, and tasted through several deliciously dry, crisp Rieslings.
If you prefer dry wines, this is an adventure worth exploring ” but you’ll be hard pressed to find quality German wines here. K & L Wines in the Bay Area has a good selection at varying price points. Widely available American Rieslings such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest or Robert Mondavi tend to be on the sweeter side. But two California dry Rieslings worthy of a search are Claiborne & Churchill from the San Luis Obispo area and Madrona Vineyards Dry Riesling from, believe it or not, El Dorado County.
Once you start looking you will find a few here and there.
Are they worth the search? Melanie started on this trip drinking only red wines and no whites at all, much less Riesling. At the end, she was chirping in, “Let’s get this one instead of that one.”
Now that’s praise indeed!
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California state-certified wine judge. He can be reached by at firstname.lastname@example.org or 913-3703.
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