“I like rice-ling.” “No, actually… it’s ‘reece-ling’, like a reeces peanut butter cup.  But better.”  The finest white grape varietal in the world, some say, and I can understand why.  Nothing seems to nakedly express terroir like riesling does. Taste a riesling that comes from a field of stones and you’ll think you have a wet pebbles in your mouth, in the most pleasing way possible.  Try one from say, a southeastern facing slope of reeces pb cups and it’ll taste like chocolate sunshine but still maintain its varietal markers.

So what are the varietal markers, say you?
For starters, naturally high levels of tartaric acid.  Like, lots of it.  Also, powerful, rapier-like (thank you Jancis Robinson, for that description) aromas that can be flowery, lemony-limey, steely, honeyed and of course, whatever mineral it is grown in.  We can’t forget the horisoprenoid hydrocarbon 1, 1, 6-trimethyl-1, 2-dihydronaphthalene…. Petrol.  In small & integrated amounts, it’s delicious and intriguing.  In exorbitant amounts, it’s gross.  I heard Olivier Humbrecht (Master of Wine, oopmteenth generation vigneron in Alsace and world champion for Biodynamics) speak on the topic a couple of weeks ago and his perspective is smart and simple: if it’s there and it’s unpleasant to you, um, don’t drink it.  If it’s there and you want it in your mouth, then it’s good, go for it.  He broke it down further in an interview with Dr. Vino:  The aroma can signal several different things:
1. the grapes were harvested underripe
2. machine-harvesting can cause off-aromas like it
3. reduction (in stainless steel, poor use of sulfur, bad use of time on the lees)
Further, Mr. Humbrecht prefers to describe the aroma as wet stone, sea air or iodine.  Not something you power your lawn mower with.  I also asked importer, Ewald Mosler what the thought and he was in the same boat.  In fact, he was quite put off by my use of the word “petrol” at all.  He said, “It’s not petrol, it’s mineral. “  Oh… okay.  I was very sad to have offended the happiest German on the planet. 😦

We are talking about Riesling here. And Germany, so there’s more.  Much more…

Knowing some German wine terms is essential to even understand what you might be purchasing when buying German Riesling.  Here’s the DL:

Prädikat: literally means distinction.  Rieslings are labelled by distinction of oechsle (ook-shla), another really fun word.  It is the measure of grape ripeness / must weight.  So if grapes are picked really not ripe, then they have a low level of oechsle, if they’re really ripe, then more oechsle.  Got it?  Good… The different prädikats are:

Kabinett: lowest oechsle. What’s with the name?  Sounds like “cabinet.”  It is; previous to German wine laws established in 1971, wines were often labeled with the English word, “cabinet” suggesting that the wine was of high enough quality that it was worthy to be stored in the producer’s cabinet, or cellar.  So some wines could be labeled for instance: Auslese Cabinet = that it was of the Auslese ripeness level and of high quality.  No longer.  Kabinett is now its own thing, the least ripe at harvest, so generally the lightest body but can be vinified totally dry or not.

Spätlese: means “late harvest” but is not like late harvest wines from Washington, for instance.  Heavier must weight than Kabinett, but can be vinified dry or sweetish.

Auslese: sometimes botrytized, usually some RS, requires ageing.

Beerenauslese: beeren means “berries” and the word as a whole usually refers to grapes that have been affected by botrytis.

Eiswein: grapes frozen on the vine which concentrates the sugar and the acidity to make a rockin’ dessert style wine.  They freeze them on the vine though… not in the fridgidaire.

Trockenbeerenauslese: fully “dried” (trocken) on the vine by botrytis.

More terms that may appear on the label:

Landwein: kind of like Vin des Pays.

Feinherb: unofficial term for medium dry.

Halbrocken: medium dry

Erzengerabfüllung or Gutsabfüllung: estate bottled.

Weingut: wine estate.

Some specifics on German regions where Rieslings are produced:

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (or just Mosel): The largest and most renowned.  Really, really steep cliffs that are famous for astounding vineyards.  Some fabulous producers here include but are not limited to Dr. Loosen, Selbach-Oster, J.J. Prüm & J.J. Christoffel

Rheingau: Slightly warmer than the Mosel producers great richness but dry styles can be found here also.  Some producers to know: Schloss Johannisberg, Johannes Leitz & Robert Weil.

Nahe: Again, you may find a variety of styles here but generally, wines from here are kind of between the highly aromatic Mosels and the rounder Rheingaus.  A producer to know: Dönnhoff.

So that’s about, mmmm, 1% of what there is to know about German Riesling.

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