Rieslings Rising

The versatile white wines of Germany are enjoying a new golden age, but Martin Filler wonders if global warming—and the higher sugar levels it produces—will lead to a postmillennial meltdown.

It’s a commonplace verging on cliche with wine professionals (but so true none­theless): German Rieslings are not only among the most food-friendly of wines but they also offer some of the best values on today’s ferociously competitive global market. We’re not talking Two Buck Chuck here, but for $20 or less—even accounting for the punishing euro-to-dollar exchange rate—you can find a host of German Rieslings that are absolutely mar­velous. And if you are determined to spend big, the country’s late-harvest Rieslings are, drop for golden drop, some of the most ex­­pen­sive and rewarding wines in the world.

I emphasized national origin intentionally because I believe, after years of diligent, bibulous research, that the only truly outstanding Riesling cuvées are German. I’ve tasted numerous American Rieslings and found them uniformly awful—flabby, cloying. One recent West Coast pretender I sampled had an aftertaste so reminiscent of lighter fluid that I poured the rest of the bottle down the drain forthwith. I’m not at all impressed by Rieslings from Germany’s neighbor Austria, and I think the Australians should just stop trying. Many grape varieties have been transplanted internationally with often startling success, sometimes exceeding results in the vines’ place of origin; to my mind Riesling is not among them.

Counter-terroirists claim that it is nonsense to in­­sist that geology profoundly affects the taste of certain grapes, pointing out that there’s no powdered rock in a glass of wine. Still, I can find no other explanation for why only the Rieslings of Germany, principally those grown in its Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau regions, possess that inimitable backbone of minerality which, in my opinion, puts the indigenous Weiswein (the German word for any generic white wine) head and shoulders above all foreign competition in its balance between lush fruit and flinty mineral. "The lightness, pu­­rity, freshness, and adaptability of German Rieslings make them incomparable as far as I’m concerned," states Terry Theise, the American importer (working in partnership with Michael Skurnik Wines of Syosset, New York) who should be dubbed Herr Ries­ling for his impassioned two-decade campaign to win a rightful following here for this underappreciated variety.

Long stigmatized by mass-market bottlings such as Blue Nun and Zeller Schwarze Katz, better-quality Rieslings have been enjoying what Theise calls a mini-renaissance over the past five years. "There are two new client bases for Riesling in the United States," he explains, "the new young wine drinkers who come to it spontaneously and don’t think it’s uncool, and knowledgeable middle-aged drinkers who find it graceful, light, and unmanipulated—an increasing rarity with wines these days."

As now demonstrated with depressing regularity, many present-day wines could have been made anywhere, cleverly crafted to appeal to globalized taste buds more attuned to Coke than Côtes du Rhône. If massive, high-alcohol, fruit-bomb reds are what the new high-end market supposedly wants, too many vintners are willing to alter their distinc­tive local style to compete. Happily, some mystery of chemistry has prevented Rieslings from reaching heights of perfection anyplace but in Germany, although the diligent im­­provement of winemaking there has been one of the least heralded components of the country’s postwar Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).

At the turn of the 20th century, no aristocratic English dinner was complete without hock—the British nickname for German white wine—to accompany the obligatory fish course. World War I, however, made it practically treasonous to serve German wines in the UK and the States, and Riesling never regained its previous foreign favor. After World War II the ravaged German wine industry went shortsightedly down-market, pouring forth watery, overly sweet whites epitomized by the once-ubiquitous Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, a favorite of genteel winos too fancy for Gallo Muscatel. (Dur­ing one rumored incident, Judy Garland was pulled off a hotel window ledge in Philadelphia in 1961 brandishing a bottle of Blue Nun—no marketer’s ideal of product placement.)

It wasn’t until the end of the millennium that the growing sophistication of American wine lovers led to a renewed appreciation of Riesling, thanks in part to the new vogue for Asian fusion cuisine. Crisp, mineral-rich Rieslings stood up to those spicy foods better than the period’s overly oaked California Chardonnays. Things really began to take off with Germany’s landmark 2001 vintage, uniformly acclaimed as the greatest in 25 years. The harvest was copious, vintners were more skilled than their immediate forebears, but most of all it was 2001’s blazingly hot summer that did the trick, raising the sugar level of the grapes and enhancing the wines’ depth and richness.

Though you’re unlikely to find back-vintage Rieslings at retail, they do appear at specialty dealers with a commitment to the grape, including the Chelsea Wine Vault and the Wine Shop in New York. One of my favorite Web sites, Wineaccess.com, recently listed no fewer than 20 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer whites from 2001. But what followed that postmillennial Wunderjahrgang (miracle vintage) turned out to be too much of a good thing, marking the onset of a worrisome climatic trend.

Following that benchmark vintage, the 2002 Riesling was initially promoted as the sec­ond vintage of the century, but closer atten­tion proved it not nearly as good as its precursor. And while equally extravagant claims were made up front for the 2003, the consensus was that record heat distorted the vintage to such an extent that many wines lost their characteristic qualities. Many claimed that global warming was ratcheting up sugar levels to unprecedented heights and tipping the delicate balance that kept top-flight German Rieslings sweet but never saccharine. To approach the varied winemaking problems raised by this envi­ronmental phenomenon, a conference will be held in July 2008 at the Cool Climate Oenology and Vit­iculture Institute at Brock Univer­- sity in St. Catherines, Ontario, which main­tains a relationship with the highly respected Oenology School in Gei­sen­heim, Germany. Accord­-ing to CCOVI’s director, Isabelle Lesschaeve, "This will give us the first major opportunity to share the research and techniques that have been emerging to address this problem not only in Germany but around the world as well."

Indeed, the 2003s in every cat­egory seemed ratcheted up at least one notch: Kabinetts tasted like Spätleses or Ausleses, while Ausleses could pass for Beer­enausleses. From an American mar­keting perspective, this was bad news. Most wine consumers beyond entry level equate sweetness with cheapness, affirmed by the disdain typical of those weaned from nineties vanilla-butterscotch-sundae California Chardonnays. That a serious wine can be sweet and complex, besides pairing well with main courses, is still not a broadly shared notion, making it urgent for German vintners to adapt before the market scorns their entire output as dessert wines.

One of the most admired Mosel masters, Martin Kerpen from Weingut Heribert Kerpen, acknowledged that his 2005 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett could have qualified as an Auslese, two levels up the sweetness chart, but added, "I have to offer my customers something as Kabinett each year." According to Barbara Rundquist-Müller, owner of the esteemed Dr. H. Thanisch Müller-Burggraef estate, "There are Kabinetts today that easily would have been classified as [the typically sweeter] Spätleses fifteen years ago."

The need for more true Kabinetts is prompting some German winemakers to rethink the traditional equation of low yield equals high concentration, thinning crops to increase the intensity of harvested fruit. It remains to be seen whether wine produced from such bumper-crop grapes merely tastes diluted. Rundquist-Müller is skeptical about this notion. "If you go for volume, then you are really in trouble," she warns. "Sugar content is not everything—extraction and acidity must be considered as well—and if you dilute sugar too much by not thinning enough, you get that awful flabbiness typical of California Rieslings a decade ago."

Another strategy is the sudden in­­ter­est growers are showing in acquiring second-rate vineyards where fruit takes longer to ripen than in traditional top-tier locales, where earlier maturity means more dessert-level wines. One irony is that Germany, considered Europe’s northernmost bastion of viticulture since the ancient Romans introduced it to that colony two millennia ago, is facing the same climate-induced challenges as France, Italy, and California are.

But what really lies at the heart of the inexplicable failure of German Riesling to win the widespread popularity its advocates fervently believe it deserves? Terry Theise has a theory. "Every article on this wine always begins the same way," he says. " ’How is it possible that a variety so loved by all the critics still hasn’t caught on with the general public?’ I know this will never happen, but instead of all the usual answers, I’d love someone to finally say what I believe is the truth: It’s because critics have better taste."

This critic isn’t presumptuous enough to second that opinion, but I do believe that anyone who truly appreciates the incomparable Rieslings of Germany is worthy of the overused accolade "wine connoisseur." Or, as I should say it in German, Weinkenner.

Kabinett Class

The increasing natural sweetness found across the board in recent German Rieslings is focusing renewed attention on the rel­a­tively dry Kabinett classification, ideal with main courses that would be overpowered by Spätleses and Ausleses, now perhaps best saved for dessert.

2005 J. J. Christoffel Riesling Erdener Treppchen Kabinett Sleek and zippy at first, this elegant, mouth-filling Kabinett develops the characteristic fruit-versus-mineral counterpoint of late-harvest Rieslings without undue sweetness. The lingering finish makes it a compelling companion to salmon dishes. A steal. $19

2005 Kerpen Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett: Kellermeister Martin Kerpen had a stellar ’05 vintage, and though experts have gone wild over his botrytis-rich Auslese, the Kabinett, at about a third of the price, is no schlepp. It flaunts the suave, creamy finish typical of this esteemed Mosel estate. $16

2005 J. & H. A. Strub Riesling Niersteiner Brückchen Kabinett I came across this screw-top winner at San Francisco’s Boulevard restaurant and ordered a case as soon as I got home. Its citrusy tang pairs perfectly with grilled fish, and the long aftertaste is amazing for a wine that costs little more than a mass-market Chard. $16

2005 Dr. H. Thanisch Riesling Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett This deep, full-bodied Kabinett from a venerable label is redolent of peaches, and its bracing acidity would work wonders with Peking duck. It could use another year or two to reach maximum impact, but it’s still deliciously drinkable right now. $20

2005 Von Schubert Maximin Grünhäuser Riesling Herrenberg Kabinett A taste of honey so predominates in this luscious wine (bottle at left) that I’d re­- serve it for glazed ham, gravlax, and other reciprocally sweet dishes. A strong mineral structure and tart fruit undertones keep this beauty from being cloying. Plus you can cellar it for a decade. $25

How to Talk Riesling

One secret to the success of German Riesling producers is the country’s closely defined and strictly en-forced regulations for premium wine­making—signified by labels authorized at the highest level as Qualitätswein mit Prädikat ("quality wine with predicate," similar to a French appellation). These are imposed industry-wide and have guarded against the wine adulteration scandals that have shaken Italy and France. (The lesser German rating QbA stands for Qualitäts­wein bestimmter Anbaugebiet, or quality wine from a designated region.) The laws also allow for strict government regula­tion of wines classified by their residual sugar content. Here, in ascending order of sweetness, are the officially mandated categories, along with general guidelines for was mit was geht.

Trocken (dry) and Halbtrocken (half dry) Not as astringent as the names suggest but still at the low end of sweetness. Often modest, though Robert Weil’s are unbeatable with smoked trout.

Kabinett (cabinet) At a mere 9 per­cent alcohol content on average, this is made to order for lunchtime drinking or as a pacer at multiwine dinners. Thrifty enough to open with Chinese takeout.

Spaetlese (late picking) The grapes for this moderately sweet wine—the earliest of the late-harvest Rieslings—are picked after the main harvest but before much noble rot sets in. It’s sublime with roast pork.

Auslese (selection) More plentiful and less costly than the top three late-harvest categories, this one is often served as a dessert wine, but it’s dynamite with scallops, foie gras, and triple-cream cheeses.

Beerenauslese (selected berries) Just as sevruga is to beluga, so Beerenaus­lese is to Trockenbeerenauslese: the more-bang-for-your-buck choice of connoisseurs unawed by top-dollar status.

Trockenbeerenauslese (dry selected berries) In winespeak, TBA doesn’t mean "to be announced." It is short­hand for this killingly expensive, in­tensely concentrated dessert wine of legend.

Eiswein (ice wine) Baby, it’s cold outside when the last frozen grapes are culled for this minuscule-production wonder. The German eiswein shames all freezer-made New World knockoffs.

Going for the Gold

When it comes to late-harvest German Rieslings, prices go through the roof for rarities that are released in half bottles and apportioned internationally in tiny quan­tities. Only two cases of the 2005 Fritz Haag Riesling Gold Cap Braune­berger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Beerenaus­lese ($288) were allotted to the States, so grab one if you can find any. The nonstop unfolding of this animated and complex wine makes all but the grandest Sauternes seem prim and two-dimensional by comparison. Also worth hunting down are the 24 bottles of 2005 Selbach-Oster Riesling Zeltinger Schlossberg Beerenauslese ($195). This respected producer’s fine 2005 Kabinett wowed most critics more than it did me, but I won’t dispute any hosannas inspired by this splendid new BA. The relatively plentiful bottling of 80 cases is reflected in the lower price of the 2005 Markus Moli­tor Riesling Zeltinger Himmel­reich Beerenauslese ($150). Unlike the thick, syrupy TBAs and eisweins doted on by some aficio­nados, this light-bodied but nonethe­less intricate BA is more Rossini than Wagner. But the stand­out among the late-harvest Rieslings is the 2005 Zilliken Riesling Saarburger Rausch Trocken­beerenauslese ($500). Although I’ve hoarded Zilliken’s great 2001 Spätlese and Auslese, this TBA is a revelation. Intense and complex, its varied fruit notes interweave like jazz riffs. Wait a few years before uncork­ing the long-lived masterpiece.