German Riesling Primer

Seasons Greetings members!  The holidays are a time for sharing love, joys, kindness, and yes of course WINE!!  And believe me sharing wine makes sharing all those other things much easier to do!!  I hope this email finds you well and certainly hope that you are enjoying the wines from the prior emails.  This month we are going to move away from red wines for the first time and delve into the world of European whites which is fascinating, exciting, and delicious.  For our first venture into whites we will go with a pure classic, the German Rieslings.  These are historic and amazing wines from the areas of cultivation (see picture), to the longevity of the wines, to the diversity of food pairings they allow.

Mosel vineyard
A vineyard in the Mosel Valley; the steep terraces certainly look tough to work…

German wines are intimidating due to the difficult to understand labels, but a few simple tricks will allow you to navigate these relatively well.  Please follow along on the sample label provided below:

German wine label

This is a fairly standard label type although things will be in different places on the label depending on the producer, but they all have the same basic info:

1 – Producer – on this label the producer is Willi (pronounced Vili) Schaefer; the producers name will always be somewhere on the label

2 – Vintage – fairly self explanatory

3/4 – This can be a bit confusing, but this is the village and the vineyard.  Not all labels will have a village or vineyard, but if it does the giveaway is the -ER suffix.  In this case the village is Graach and the vineyard is Domprobst.  For some reason (I don’t know why) the village will always have an -ER added onto it and will come first.  Other common examples you will see include Bernkasteler (village of Bernkastel), Wehlener (village of Wehlen), Urziger (village of Urzig) etc.  Basically these are equated to village and vineyard as in Burgundy; take for example the Gouges Nuits-St-George (the village) Les Pruliers (vineyard) that you own as a similarity.  So don’t be thrown off by this and unless you truly become a Riesling fiend you will probably not know much about the villages or vineyards so just know that this is what they are.

5 – Grape varietal, also self explanatory

6 – This is another area that throws people off and you will only see it on Pradikatswein labels, but it is the ripeness level of the grapes.  We won’t delve into Pradikatswein v. non because being high quality consumers we will primarily always be drinking Pradikataswein; suffice it to say that these are the top level of german wines.  We will occasionally drink a QBA only wine, but this can be another discussion/lesson.  There are 6 levels of ripeness to be aware of on these labels.

  1. Kabinett
  2. Spatlese
  3. Auslese
  4. Beerenauslese
  5. Trockenbeerenauslese
  6. Eiswein

These are listed in order from lowest ripeness (translates to least sweet wine) to highest (eiswein being grapes that are literally allowed to freeze on the vines so you extract essentially only sugar when they are pressed).  In general we are going to be drinking Kabinett, Spatlese, and Auslese as the wines above this level are a) very hard to find and b) very expensive.   A littler further explanation, Kabinett wines are classic lighter weight, off-dry wines that are delightful, crisp, and great with a variety of foods.  Spatlese (pronounced schpat-ley-zuh) literally means late harvest, so these are riper grapes that are harvested later and have more honeyed notes and sweeter wines.  Auslese (pronounced oh-schle-zuh) literally means picked out; this refers to removing specific berries from spatlese bunches that are exceptionally ripe and delicious; this makes them even sweeter and more concentrated.  These are the beginning of essentially the dessert Rieslings, but can still be served with things other than dessert

7 – Region; the main regions to be aware of in German Riesling are Mosel, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz.  Mosel and Nahe are in my opinion the best

8 – This is simply the level of the wine, Pradikatswein being the highest level, others including tafelwein, QBA, etc which we won’t worry about

9 – Alcohol %, fairly straightforward

The other interesting word which can impress your friends, Gustabfullung means estate bottled by the person who grew the grapes

Ok, now that you are label masters, lets move on to some actual wines for you to try!!

Wine 1 – Monchhof Urziger Wurzgarten Kabinett – This should hopefully still be available in SLC, it should be around $20-25 and is a lovely intro to Kabinett Rieslings.  Now remember, ALL German Rieslings that say Kabinett or up will be off-dry to sweet.  There are dry Rieslings from Germany (these will say Trocken), but most of this production stays in the country and is not exported.  So this wine will be off-dry with a lovely bouquet of stone fruits (pear, peach), hints of lemon and lime zest, hints of lychee, a touch of petrol, and sometimes a whiff of sweet spices.  The palate will be slightly sweet, yet very crisp as it is driven by very high levels of acidity (take a sip and hold it on your tongue and just feel how much you salivate… that is the acidity!).  This is a very versatile food wine, fantastic with aromatic dishes (great with Asian foods, especially as the sweetness cuts the spice in Thai/Indian foods), but also great with simple fruit and cheese plates or with spicy seafood dishes.  A very enjoyable wine and one to always have on hand for a versatile pairing partner

Wine 2 – Joh. Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonneneur Spatlese or Auslese – this is a truly classic and great Riesling from one of the greatest producers.  The Auslese will probably be $55-60 if they have it; the Spatlese probably around $45-50.  These wines have lots of potential in the cellar.  The sugars and acids work as preservatives and the wines are capable of 15-20 years easily.  A personal note, I have found that some of these wines develop more and more petrol notes with age, so I tend to try to drink them around 7-10 years rather than more, but with the sweeter wines there is less of this note.  This wine will be beautifully sweet, rich, and more mouth filling with honeyed notes, marmalade, quince, etc, yet it will still have lovely acidity that keeps it from feeling flabby or cloying.  I personally love these wines with salty, tangy cheeses (blue cheeses, very sharp cheddars, etc) and Spatlese wines are also still delightful with aromatic, spicy dishes from Asia.  They are also delightful simply as an aperitif or digestif in the summer months.

Well, I dare say that this was probably more than you bargained for in one session, but you better read it all because there will be a test!!!!!  Until then, happy imbibing!

Jonathan “Eis” Newman