Contents by Mark Middlebrook, with plenty of ideas, writing, and inspiration from Chad Arnold.
A "Where-ness" of Wine: German Wine Geography
Germany's major wine regions are the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the Rheingau, the Rheinhessen, and the Pfalz. There are other important regions that often produce great wines, but I'll limit myself to these four primary places.
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer: AH! The Mosel (as the region is commonly referred to - the Saar and Ruwer are tributaries that join the main river as it winds its way for nearly 150 miles to meet the Rhein near the town of Koblenz). You might think it funny that Chad's "desert island" wine would come from the northern-most fine wine region in the world - a region where there very often is not even enough sunlight to ripen the grapes to maturity. One of Riesling's many great virtues is that it produces extraordinary wines precisely when it is not fully ripe. Imagine that tart, clean fruitiness of a great Granny Smith apple - (not necessarily the same as the apple that you got from Great-Granny Smith). Now add a whiff of wet slate from the region's slate-y soils. I hope you're beginning to get the idea of what a Mosel Reisling tastes like and why it's the quintessence of that favorite German Riesling tasting note adjective, "racy".
The Rheingau: The Rheingau perches precipitously above a relatively short west-east kink in the normally south-to-north flowing Rhein river. The leading grape here, as in all of Germany, is Riesling, and here it accounts for about 80% of the area's acreage. The wines from the Rheingau are generally richer and broader than those of the Mosel, without sacrificing that wind-in-your-face raciness. These wines are powerhouses. Rich, bold flavors fill the palate at every sip. If you like to compare German Rieslings with mountain ranges (and I do!), then think of the Rheingau as the Adirondacks and the Mosel as the Rockies.
The Rheinhessen: Germany's largest wine region unfolds over 65,000 acres south of the Rheingau. Most of the Rheinhessen is flat, fertile farmland, which is most definitely not what you need for great winegrowing. What you do need is to plant your vines on the steeper slopes and less fertile soils near the river, especially in areas like Oppenheim, Nierstein, and Nackenheim. Fortunately there are a pile of exceptional producers who not only do that, but also have the skill and wisdom to make exceptional wine. Check out J und H. A. Strub and Gunderloch, among others.
The Pfalz: This is the most exciting region in Germany. Really. "Creativity above all" may be the motto for producers here. The Pfalz takes its climatic cues from the Haardt mountain range south of Frankfurt and the northern aspect of France's Vosges range. These are mountain wines indeed. But the Pfalz is the furthest south of the great winegrowing regions in Germany, which means a bit more sunlight, a bit more fruit, a bit more spice, a bit, well, more. It is here as well that you find superlative wines made from grapes other than Riesling, such as Müller-Thurgau, Rieslaner, and Scheurebe (as much fun to pronounce as it is to drink!). Other regions can (and do) make excellent wines from these other grapes, but here in the Pfalz, man-o-man, they reach Himalayan heights. The sweet wines from the Pfalz are also well worth getting sweet on. The crush is gentle but lasts a lifetime (like anything sensible and worthwhile).
Why You Should Drink German Riesling
- The Riesling grape is the finest white wine grape on the planet, and Germany makes the finest Riesling.
- German Riesling is racy and vibrant. The combination of Riesling grape, very cool climate, and minerally soils yields wines with brilliant fruit, lively acidity, and loads of minerality. The wines possess a vivid, chiseled quality that's unmatched anywhere else.
- German Riesling is among the food-friendliest wines on the planet, especially with the lighter, spicier, savory-with-some-sweetness kinds of food that many of us eat a lot of these days. Among the good food matches are fish, pork, Asian food, and Indian food.
- German wine is comparatively cheap, because it's under-appreciated in most parts of the world, including the U.S. You can buy astoundingly good German Riesling for around $15 and truly world-class wines for $25-40.
- German wine is low in alcohol. Most German Rieslings contain 7-10.5% alcohol, compared with 12.5-15% for most table wine. Thus you can enjoy more German wine without getting tanked.
- German Riesling ages magnificently. If you have a wine cellar, you should have some German Riesling in it. Hell, if you have a closet with a few spare square feet, you should put some German Riesling in it.
German Riesling Favorites
The 2001 Strub Niersteiner Kabinett ($13.99 for a full liter) is our hands-down deal-of-the-decade, vintage-of-the-new-millennium, man-oh-man-is-this-good Riesling. If you don't like this wine, then you don't like Riesling and you might as well stop reading now. It's loaded with crystalline minerality and cornucopias of fruit - especially peach. Two-thirds of the fruit reached Spätlese ripeness level, so this baby has body to burn. Strub's 2001 Niersteiner is drier than usual - if you remain slightly skittish of sweetness in wine, this one will ease you in gently. As a bonus, $13.99 buys you a full liter of this great stuff - one-third more than a standard 750 ml bottle. As Terry Theise says, "you should be ashamed of yourself for getting this much wine for so little money." Drink it as an aperitif and with slightly spicy Asian dishes that don't have too much sweetness. I especially like it with salmon rubbed with spices and then grilled.
Another great deal is the 1998 Jakoby-Mathy Kinheimer Rosenberg Kabinett ($12.99). Here's a chance to taste a Riesling with the additional complexity that comes from bottle aging - for less than you'd spend on a young, rambunctious, straightforwardly-fruity Chardonnay. Four years in the bottle have softened this wine's mineral components and lemony, appley fruit. In compensation, you get the subtlety of secondary aromas and flavors, including just a hint of that appealingly pungent, slightly "diesel-y" quality that the French approvingly call "gôut de petrol". We like to drink this wine with sautéed soft-shell crab and roasted quail.
The 1997 Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Steinacker Kabinett ($16.00) also offers the charms of aged Riesling, but with the extra power and "stuffing" that typify wines from the Pfalz region. This one is all apricoty richness, bracing minerality, and beautiful balance. This wine has more sweetness than the preceding two Kabinetts, though it's by no means cloying. It will stand up to sweeter Asian dishes, such as satay and lighter curries.
The 1998 Theo Minges Gleisweiler Hölle Spätlese ($18.00) smells of chalky limestone and flowers and yields up a delicate oranginess on the palate. This is a generous and friendly wine, but one with plenty of subtlety, too. Drink it with all those mostly-savory-but-somewhat-sweet-and-sometimes-spicy dishes - especially Chinese food.
Helmut Dönhoff is the acknowledged master of winemakers from the Nahe region of Germany, and his 1999 Dönhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Spätlese ($30.00) is just one demonstration of why. It's got spikey, slatey minerality (imagine sucking on a clean, cold stone laced with minerals) and waves of pretty fruit. While $30 isn't cheap, you're getting what amounts to Grand Cru Riesling for the price of middling California Chardonnay or good village-level white Burgundy. If you like fine white wine, you owe it to yourself to try one of Dönhoff's offerings (we carry several). Wine buffs can drink this one by itself or with a hunk of good Gruyère cheese. Normal people will enjoy it with dishes that feature ginger.
For the uninitiated, German Eiswein is a dessert wine made from grapes that have been left on the vine late enough to freeze (think of it as very late harvest wine!). The result is a dense, super-concentrated dessert wine that's very high in sugar and acidity. We have the 2000 Gänz Guldentaler Sonnenberg Eiswein ($45.00 for a 375 ml bottle), an excellent and comparatively inexpensive version from the Nahe, in stock. Smelling it brings to mind mint and the most delicately pungent white mushrooms imaginable. Terry Theise has described its presence on the palate as "fire and ice".
The Sweetness Thing and the Whiteness Thing
If you drink only red wine, then you're missing out on half a world's worth of wonderful wine. If you like trying new foods, hearing new kinds of music, visiting new countries, then why limit yourself to one color of wine? And then there's the question of wine and food. We will sell you a hearty Zinfandel to go with your filet of sole, but we won't be very happy about it and we won't sleep as well that night. We continue to believe that wine is food - in most of the world it's part of the meal, it grew up with food, it complements food, and it should be respectful of food. Red wine simply doesn't complement everything that most humans eat, even allowing for the natural differences in people's physiology and preferences. White wine is the appropriate, harmonious thing to drink with some food - and a worthy option with some other foods.
The "I don't like sweet wine" refrain deserves two kinds of reply. First, some of the greatest wines in the world are sweet - they're called dessert wines. Now, it's theoretically possible that you don't like dessert wines, just like it's theoretically possible that you don't like desserts. But until you've had a great Sauternes with tiramisú or Port with Stilton cheese or Tokaji Aszu with apricot tart, we humbly suggest that you withhold judgment.
But we're not talking about dessert wines in this newsletter (with the exception of the Eiswein that's reviewed above). We're talking about table wines that happen to have a modest amount of residual sugar in them. So the second kind of reply to "I don't like sweet wine" is that in German wines, this kiss of sugar isn't there to make the wine taste sweet - it's there to balance the acidity. The residual sugar adds body and keeps the wine from tasting painfully tart.
We could yammer on about the grams per liter of residual sugar and grams per liter of acidity in particular German wines, but the important point is that most of the German wines that we carry don't taste sweet. They don't taste bone-dry either - we call them "off-dry". The residual sugar and bracing acidity in good German wine are balanced, and as a result the wines taste balanced (which is another way of saying that they taste good). They're like well-made lemonade, in which the acidity of the lemons and the sweetness of the sugar perfectly balance each other. If you like drinking straight lemon juice by the glass-full, then you've earned the right to say that you don't like any sweetness in your beverages. If on the other hand you prefer to avoid a permanent pucker, then be thankful that most German wines contain a kiss of residual sugar.
We hasten to add that there are plenty of cheap, nasty, cloyingly sweet German wines - though not in our shop, of course. We wouldn't entirely blame someone for developing an aversion to German wine after being subjected to one of those travesties. But that's a bit like drinking Sutter Home white Zinfandel and deciding that you don't like rosé. In fact, it's incomparably worse, because as good as good rosé is, great German Riesling is in a completely different league. It's the big league - we would say, the World Series. And what's the sense in missing out on that?
Who is this Terry Theise Guy, Anyway?
Terry, besides being our friend, is the importer of all our German wines. He's probably the world's most inspired and inspiring advocate for great German Riesling. He has made it his business - as well as his pleasure - to traipse around Germany finding wonderful wines and bring them to those of us who can't make the trip ourselves. He works exclusively with grower-producers who understand that wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery, that terroir is almost everything (especially with a grape like Riesling), that all great wine comes from someplace specific and tastes like it.
Terry also happens to be one of the most entertaining wine writers around. His annual catalogue is a dazzling, non-stop, over-the-top one-man-band of Riesling riffs and revelations. Yes, he's selling wine, but he's also hammering away at what really matters about wine and the people who grow it and drink it. He reminds us repeatedly that wine is part of a tradition that's connected to the soil and that the people who maintain that tradition continue to make the wine that's most worth drinking.
Umalut Relief: How to Make Sense of a German Wine Label
We'll take as our text the label of the 1999 Dönhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spätlese.
I won't insult your intelligence by explaining what a vintage year is.
Naturally, the guy or gal who made the wine is going to tell you somewhere on the label that he or she made the wine. In the wine trade, we call the guy, gal, domaine, château, or multinational beverage conglomerate the producer. In this example, the guy is Dönhoff ("Helmut" to his friends).
Next, you'll see a pair of fun and frolicsome words, such as "Gimmeldinger Mandelgarten", or "Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle", or - I swear I'm not making this one up - "Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube" (those damn cats are at it again!). The first word of the pair identifies the general site where the grapes were grown and ends in "er", which means "hailing from in or around" the place whose name precedes the "er". If you find this convention odd, then you must not know many New Yorkers. The second word of the pair identifies the specific locality within that site - usually a vineyard name. In the above example, we have "Norheimer Kirschheck", which tells us that the wine was made from grapes grown in the Kirschheck vineyard near the town of Norheim.
Below the place name is an indication of the grape varietal and minimum level of ripeness that the grapes reached. In this newsletter, we're concerned with wine made from Riesling grapes, but you might also see such comparative oddities as Scheurebe, Silvaner, or Huxelrebe. The ripeness level categories are, in order of increasing ripeness, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). The German wine bureaucracy has defined minimum ripeness levels for each category in each winegrowing region. More ripeness in the grapes means more body in the wine. Here we've got a Riesling Spätlese, so we know that the wine is made from Riesling grapes that reached the second ripeness level category.
(For you German wine freaks, the Spätlese minimum ripeness in much of Germany is 76 degrees Oechsle. For you chemists, that's a specific gravity of 1.076. For you California wine types, that corresponds to about 18 degrees Brix. Now, did I leave anyone out? Oh yes - ordinary wine drinkers. 76 degrees Oechsle is not very ripe, especially compared to ripeness levels in grapes from more temperate climes. As we said earlier, grapes grown in Germany really struggle to ripen. That's why German wines have such racy acidity and vibrancy.)
Note that more ripeness does not necessarily mean more sweetness - it's entirely possible for a particular Spätlese wine to be drier than a particular Kabinett wine. On the other hand, at the upper end of the ripeness scale, more ripeness in the grapes does usually correspond to more sweetness in the finished wine. Most Auslesen are sweeter than most Kabinetts and Spätlesen, and BA and TBA wines are dessert-wine sweet.
You might also see the word "Trocken" or "Halbtrocken" on the label (although not in our Dönhoff example). These two words are optional, legally defined measures of residual sugar in the finished wine. "Trocken" literally means "dry", but in German wine almost always means "searingly, puckeringly, painfully dry". The exquisite Trocken wines from Müller-Catoir that we carry are an important exception. (If you're still afraid of sweetness in wine, read our article "The Sweetness Thing and the Whiteness Thing" elsewhere in this newsletter.) "Halbtrocken" means "half-dry", and in most cases translates to "not painfully dry but not perceptibly sweet".
Two other handy but unpronounceable words to know are "Gutsabfüllung" and "Erzeugerabfüllung". "Gutsabfüllung"means "estate bottled" - that is, wine from grapes grown by the producer, rather than purchased from elsewhere. You might see instead or in addition the word "Weingut", which means literally "wine estate" - i.e., a producer that estate bottles. So "Gut" means "estate", but also implies that the wine will be Good in your Gut. Got it? The less Gut-sy word, "Erzeugerabfüllung", literally means "producer bottled", but it's less exclusive - cooperatives that blend wines from different member-producers can call their wine "Erzeugerabfüllung" but not "Gutsabfüllung".
So there you have it - the most important words on a German wine label. What remain are the more subtle questions of how to choose among different producers, sites, vineyards, and minimum ripeness levels. That's what were we're here to help you with, so stop in and ask us to help you decipher some labels.
New and Unusual
2001 Cave de Chante Perdrix Syrah ($9.99): Our August newsletter made passing mention of the noble Syrah-based wines from the northern Rhône, such as Côte-Rôtie. The only problem for most of us is that most of those wines cost $40 and up. Well, this little Vin de Pays serves up a heaping helping of that meaty, smoky Côte-Rôtie deliciousness for under ten dollars. This wine is just the opposite of the ripe, overtly fruity Syrah style that's common in California. This baby has backbone! Can you say "terroir"? I knew you could....
2000 Alban Vineyards Reva Syrah ($48.00): Speaking of California Syrah, here's one that absolutely defies the stereotype. John Alban makes some of the best Syrah in the state (some would say the best). Like all good wine, it expresses where it's from - the cool-climate Edna Valley near San Luis Obispo. The 2000 Reva has oodles of fruit supported by the tannin and acidity necessary to make an elegant, complex, and age-able wine.
2001 Thurnhof Goldmuskateller ($15.00): Whew boy, this is a fun wine! "Goldmuskateller" is the name for the yellow Muscat grape in the Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy. Stick your schnoz in a glass of this stuff and smell a veritable psycheledia of exotic aromas - orange blossoms, wildflowers, honey, spices, and even fresh grapes. Then take a sip ... surprise, it's completely dry! (Not that sweetness in wine is a bad thing, mind you - but in this case its absence comes as an amusing surprise.) There's so much hedonistic joy for so little money here - and it's legal.
2001 Domain Fouet Saumur-Champigny ($18.00): Lovers of Loire Valley wines know that Cabernet Franc is not just a blending grape that harmonizes well with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Bordeaux blends. It's quite capable of singing solo, as in this impressively elegant example from the Loire's Saumur-Champigny appellation. Bright fruit, fine structure, and delicate herbal notes combine to form a wine that's utterly poised and satisfying. Whether you're a Cabernet Franc fan or new to its charms, here's a chance to experience it in virtuoso form.
1997 Rocca di Montegrossi Geremia ($20.00): A Super-Tuscan for twenty bucks?! Yep. This one is 100% Sangiovese and comes from one of our tried-and-true Chianti producers. Geremia has got loads of dark cherry fruit along with that lovely earthy, forest floor quality that unmistakably says "Tuscan Sangiovese". In the New Wine Math (developed in conjunction with Yogi Berra), 100% Sangiovese plus 5 years of aging at $20 a bottle equals 150% enjoyment.