I love Riesling.
Love it so much that I had no problem having three other wine dorks over and trying 12 of them in a row.
What a cool opportunity! I hosted my own expert panel -- a rare Riesling tasting, provided by both Valckenberg who sent over a bunch of their products from different tiers and different places to try (these were sent as complimentary samples, but I'll be honest in the review, of course) and two from the Wines of Germany. Just so you know what these organizations do...
P.J. Valckenberg is the oldest family-owned wine merchant in Germany and exports wine to the US from smaller, higher quality producers with long histories of production. They sent a slew of their latest vintage for me to check out.
The Wines of Germany is "focused on creating greater awareness and increased sales of German wine in the U.S. through educational and promotional activities." They send kick ass German wines for me to try and review quarterly. It's a great opportunity for me to share with you the joys of German Riesling, of which I'm a huge advocate.
Before I go any further, I've got to give thanks to my wine expert panel -- Michael, Andrés, and Marie -- a group with a special combination of great taste, lots of credentials and expertise, and a normal (and hilarious) take on wine. We dorked out, learned, and laughed. Who could ask for more?
A quick German wine 101 before I get into what we tasted...
Like all other countries in Europe, Germans classify their wines based on the quality of the grapes and vineyards. They have 13 large wine growing regions (think Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Bordeaux, Tuscany, etc). These are called Anbaugebiete (AHN-bow-guh-beet-uh). There are then classifications that specify area (using Napa as an example, the Bereich are akin to the Rutherford AVA), and then classifications for estate grown grapes and producer/grower made wines. Similar to other places, the smaller the area (estate v. region) the more expensive the wine. (map, left, from Wines of Germany)
Quality and Sweetness Levels
You won't see much of the general Table Wine (Tafelwein) or Country Wine (Landwein) outside of Germany but you'll see a ton from the 13 regions. If you look on the bottle you'll see it's classified as QbA (QUALITÄTSWEIN BESTIMMTER ANBAUGEBIETE). It's a general regional quality designation and some amazing wines are QbA.
The top level classification is QmP (QUALITÄTSWEIN MIT PRÄDIKAT) or quality wine with attributes. These wines are the finest in Germany but to say they represent a quality pyramid is a little strange. It's not really what you think.
Because it's so cold in Germany and often the grapes can't get ripe, Germans created a scale of different ripeness levels (which they equate with quality, although we dry wine drinkers are better off thinking about it in terms of ripeness or sugar levels). Here are the most common levels and what they mean:
Kabinett: Ripe grapes from a regular harvest. They can be dry or they can be slightly sweet.
Spätlese (SHPATE-lay-zah): Late harvest with very ripe grapes. They can be dry but usually they are pretty sweet and they can be fruitier than a Kabinett but not always.
Auslese (OWZ-lay-zah): It means "select harvest," and this wine is made from very ripe, selected bunches and is either sweet, semi-sweet, or rich and dry.
Spätlese and Auslese are tricky because they cover a lot of different styles, so you have to ask or research before you buy one.
Other sweeter styles are Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese. These are über sugary and just really for dessert.
That's the sweet stuff, but if you're a dry wine lover, here are some things to look for on the label:
Trocken: A dry wine with no noticeable sweetness
Classic: Dry wines from a region
Selection: Dry wines from specific vineyards
Erste Lage, Erste Gewächs & Grosses Gewächs (ge-WEX): The top wine estates in Germany carry this classification and they have to meet strict requirements to use this. These wines are all dry. Erste Lage is used for vineyards in the Mosel region, Erst Gewächs is for quality vineyards in Rheingau and Grosses Gewächs is for quality vineyards in all the other regions.
That was a lot of info and we're not even up to the wines! Here's the deal, part of the reason Germany is so complicated is that there is great variation between each of the regions, as we confirmed in our tasting. All the wines we tried were Rieslings but the range was so broad we may as well have been trying different grapes in some cases. A key thing I'll keep bringing up is access to sun. Germany is at the very far north of where you can grow grapes, and growers need every trick possible -- south-facing slopes to catch every bit of sun, rivers that will reflect heat, and soils that retain warmth -- to make sure the stuff ripens and makes good wine.
As I describe the wines and the regions from our tasting, hopefully the contrast will become clear!
The Johnny-Come-Lately of German wine, the Nahe was planted with grapevines 600 years after the Mosel (right around the Middle Ages, so let's put it all in perspective), in the 8th century (yes, this stuff is OLD). Located on the River Nahe, the area is south of the other wine regions in the tasting. This slightly southern location and the abundance of south-facing slopes on the river makes some areas of the region almost Mediterranean in climate. Rare for Germany, they even grow some red grape varieties here (in cold climates it's hard to get the color and ripeness levels need to grow reds, so this is no small feat).
Still, Riesling, the friend of the cooler weather vineyards, reigns here -- 27% of vineyards are planted with it. Nahe used to be known for some the best quality Riesling in Germany but the modernization of the wine industry left the more rural Nahe in the dust and it never quite regained its golden reputation. This is changing now, but not much of the good stuff is making it out of Germany, so it may be hard to find a wine from Nahe locally. We had a cheapy but a goodie from there...
The Wine: 2010 Two Princes Riesling, Salm-Salm, Nahe, QbA,$10
This wine comes from Schloss Wallhausen, one of Germany's oldest wine estates. Prinz zu Salm, the estate owner, has wine in his blood: he can trace his family tree back to 932 and his vineyards date to 1200. “Two Princes” P2 is the signature wine of Prince Michael (not Jackson, FYI) and Prince Constantin zu Salm-Salm, the 32nd and 33rd generations at Schloss Wallhausen.
Color: This wine was a golden yellow color, darker than some of the other Rieslings we tried.
Smell: It wasn't too aromatic -- it smelled a little like hot rocks and a bouquet of white flowers...maybe with a little salt water thrown in. We all kind of agreed that the wine smelled like clothing detergent -- floral and soapy.
Taste: It tasted better than it smelled, with a little bit of sweetness, and a candied lemon, honeydew melon flavor. There was a touch of wet saltiness but the wine also had a full texture that we all found very pleasant. For $10 this isn't going to rock your world, but it was a perfectly enjoyable wine.
This is the biggest grape-growing region (Anbaugebiet), but even though there's lots of diversity\ in soil and some great wines made here, Rheinhessen is best known for Liebfraumilch...if you've ever seen Blue Nun, that's what I'm talkin' about. That nasty swag is made in the town of Alzey, here. That wine, in it's memorable blue bottle, is nondescript and cheap and has kind of wrecked the reputation of Rheinhessen, but I think there's still goodness to be had here.
That may just be the optimist in me though. Honestly, most of the wines I've had from here have been kind of lackluster. Apparently along the Rhine river there's a terrace of red slate, which gives a spiciness to the Riesling planted and can create insanely delicious wines, but that hasn't been what I've tasted, so I'm still on the hunt for something good from here. Riesling is important here, but Müller-Thurgau (an aromatic but often blah white) is the big dog in the region. Given the reflection from the Rhine, it's warm enough here to grow red grapes, so you'd find some of that here too.
We had two Rieslings from Rheinhessen.
The Wine: 2009 Valckenberg Undone Dry Riesling, Rheinhessen, QbA $8.50
We unanimously agreed that this was the worst wine of the tasting.
Color: A pale straw color, super light.
Smell: It started out so well! Lemon, green apple, and herb scents hopped out of the glass. It smelled promising.
Taste: Urgh. Completely off balance. It tasted like bitter green herbs, and was like plant stems. It had eye-watering acid and very little fruit flavor. The wine hadn't gone bad...it was just plain bad! It was overly acidic, bitter and left an awful taste after we swallowed. The faces and crinkled noses around the table said it all. Ick.
The Wine: 2010 Weingut Liebfrauenstift "Stift" Dry Riesling, Rheinhessen, $18
Color: Pale yellow, with a little bit of green but nothing special.
Smell: Not really much here, but a little bit of lemon, some wet waterfall smell and then something that reminded me of lemon furniture polish. Let's just say none of us was excited to try this one...
Taste: Very blah. A touch of lemon, that lemon furniture polish note was kickin' and there was a bitter, green plant flavor that was a little gross. The wine was metallic (like aluminum foil when you bite some off with your sandwich by mistake) and had a watery, not-so-flavorful note at the end. We found it simple, and compared to some of the other wines, completely overpriced.
And now to the titans of German wine -- Rheingau and Mosel (which I've written on before). These areas make distinctive Riesling and this is where the grape really shines, in my opinion. If you ever wanted an argument for how terroir (listen to the podcast for more info on this concept) plays a part in changing flavor of a grape, pick up a Mosel and a Rheingau Riesling of the same quality level and you'll taste it for yourself, plain as day.
This tasting was awesome for that. There was consensus among our little group on which we preferred...the Mosel blew away the Rheingau. This just confirmed what I've found in other comparative tastings, but everyone has different opinions and tastes so I can see the merits of both.
\With nearly 80% of the vineyards planted with Riesling, this region is pretty single-minded in its focus. For this area of the world, which is really far north and cold, they'd never be able to grow grapes, but for a little quirk in the flow of the Rhine River. Unexplicably, it takes a jog from its northerly flow for a bit and flows West on the banks in the Rheingau region. This shift provides a nice southern slope for grapevines. Insulating the grapes even more -- the Taunus Mountains to the north, which deflect all the nasty polar winds.
Rheingau grapes have got it made and for 150 years, the folks living here have taken special pride in that knowledge. Germany has a nationwide classification system based on how ripe the grapes are, but Rheingau has its own standards for quality. Its Charta system, now taken over by the VDP, a quality assurance group that includes the top vineyards and producers in Germany, ranks the best vineyard sites. 35% of all Rhingau's vineyards are considered top quality (erstes gewächs, which I mentioned above). 13 are first class including two you may have seen before -- Schloss Johannisburg and Marcobrunn.
Rheingau was developed mostly by monks and has been wining it up since the 980s. It's got cred. And it hasn't compromised its dedication to quality. I can't argue that the wines are good, but I don't think the descriptors critics assign to the wine are exactly right, so I'll try to do one better.
The Riesling from Rheingau is usually described as full, rich, and flavorful with fresh acidity. But frankly, I've tried a bunch of great producers and never quite found that to be true. More commonly, I find that these wines are subtle and pretty, but without much boldness to speak of. We had three wines in this tasting, all from very reputable producers and all of high quality. One was a favorite for me and Marie.
The Wine: 2010 Weingut Johannishof Charta Riesling, QbA $18
Color: Golden, kind of like honey.
Smell:The wine didn't just look like honey, it smelled like it too. It also had a strange musty note. It was like a day-old peach pit and it had a candied smell too.
Taste: The taste reminded us of candy -- gummy peach rings, the stick from fun-dip, or some other processed peach flavor. It was pretty astringent and slightly bitter. The wine was a little hot too -- compared to the low alcohol in all the other wines, at 13% this seemed high. We agreed that this would be better with food. Michael, suggested pork as a good pairing. Alone, I could have skipped the experience and gone for a peach gummy ring. It definitely did not live up to the promise of Rheingau wines.
The Wine: 2008 Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Kabinett, $20
(Head's up -- This is a really famous wine from a famous vineyard)
Color: The warmer climate means the grapes get riper and darker in Rheingau -- this was just like the previous one -- golden in color.
Smell: Consensus: it stank. It was musty and had a gasoline note too it. There was a light green apple note with some honey and jasmine tea scents, but it wasn't jumping out of the glass at all.
Taste: The wine, thankfully, had a lot more going on when we tasted it. It was elegant and very dry with a crazy fennel, tarragon, and fresh herb flavor to it. There was a little bit of bitterness but it was still delicious and the acidity was in balance with the herbal notes. By far this was the favorite of the Rheingau wines and the only one I would definitely buy again. Both Marie and I thought it was pretty outstanding.
The Wine: 2009 Weingut Baron Knyphausen Michelmark Erbacher Spatlese, Erstes Gewäch (first growth, highest quality), $40
With a great updated package and a slick look, this wine had sex appeal from the outside.
Color: True to the Rheingau Riesling trademark, the wine was golden in color
Smell: Also true to what we were finding and what I've discovered before, this wasn't a real aromatic wine. It had a very slight perfume smell like white flowers or jasmine tea. Different from what I think of as the characteristic Riesling smell of peaches, nectarines, or limes. It was very restrained although unlike the previous wines, it did smell fresh rather than musty.
Taste: We all agreed, however, that this wine missed the mark on taste and it was grossly overpriced, especially compared to the Schloss Johannisburg. It was light, the alcohol felt too high for the low levels of fruit flavor, and the wine was just mediocre. This is not what I'd expect from a 1st growth or highest quality out of Rheingau. That said, this wine is young. It probably needs another 5 years in the bottle before it comes out of its shell. I wish I had waited to open it.
We had 6 wines from Mosel, but even if we'd only had two, the result would have been the same. Unanimously we found these wines to be the best in every aspect -- excellent flavor, excellent quality for the price, and amazing with food or without. Mosel was the clear star for us all -- four very experienced wine drinkers who have had our share of Rieslings.
Even further north than Rheingau, Mosel is on the Mosel River and parts on its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer Rivers. Riesling is king, queen, prince, and princess here and cultivating it is not easy. The vineyards are on near vertical slopes of either side of the river, on slate vineyards that are terraced, and need to be harvested by hand. Romans planted these vineyards in the 4th century and Riesling made the area its home by the 18th century. The river reflects light and heat off the river onto the slopes, and slate retains heat that allows for grape growing. For a stretch of 5 miles along the river, great vineyard after great vineyard stretch out.
Mosel is the most esteemed Riesling region in the world and the profile of the wines is everything I enjoy in a Riesling -- sweet or dry, they all have low to moderate alcohol, excellent fruit flavor, amazing acidity, and a slate or mineral flavor that is like licking a rock. Many of them have what wine dorks call a "petrol" or gasoline note -- it sounds gross and some argue it's a flaw in the wine, but I think it's delicious and a trademark of a Mosel Riesling. Most big fans of these wines know that flavor and seek it out. Although I've had some stinkers, if you're a fan of Riesling, it's hard not to love Mosel.
We tasted 6 Mosel Rieslings and all of our top picks were among these gems.
The Wine: 2007 Van Hovel Riesling, $15
This was from Wines of Germany
Color: The wine was yellow-green in color but on the lighter side.
Smell: It had an outstanding fruit smell. It was like melons, peach, nectarine, candied apples, and tangerines.
Taste: The wine was off-dry, or lightly sweet, which was needed to balance out the ridiculously high acidity. My mouth was watering like I had just eaten a lemon! The fruit smells carried over into the flavor and the wine was a little spritzy -- often carbon dioxide is left over after fermentation in Riesling, leaving spritzig, as the Germans call it. Natural and delicious.
This wine was a favorite. You can't beat the price and it is a great example of a Mosel Riesling. Except for some cheese and crackers we didn't have food for the tasting, but this would be amazing with sushi or halibut. Seek this out -- for the price, it is a knockout.
The Wine: 2010 Schloss Saarstein Riesling Kabinett, $25
Color: Light, pale straw in color with some small bubbles from the CO2.
Smell: So aromatic. Full of white flower, peach, and lemon aromas. There was a little bit of mineral to it too and a tiny bit of petrol.
Taste: The wine tasted even better than it smelled. It had an amazing balance -- jasmine flowers, peaches, and a little petrol played off the screaming acidity and the lightly sweet taste. The spritz in this wine also helped temper the fruity, floral smells. I have had this wine before and loved it just as much as I did in our "grand tasting." This was my favorite wine of the tasting and I was impressed, once again by this phenomenal producer. Bravo! I wasn't alone -- this wine was in everyone's top three -- Michael, Andrés, and I all ranked it as our favorite.
The Wine: 2009 Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Bernkasteler Badstube Spätlese, $22
This was from Wines of Germany
Color: A little richer and golden in color
Smell: This wine smelled like wet rocks/a waterfall, red apples, peaches, and petrol.
Taste: A perfect Riesling to smell, the taste was damn good but I think this is one that would be heavenly with food. Spritzy from the CO2, the wine was a little sweet but slightly tart and had more petrol and wet slate or wet rock flavor than we smelled. This wine would kick ass with Thai curries. This was Marie's favorite and Michael and Andrés both ranked it after the Schloss Saarstein as their second favorite. I liked it but it was my third best wine.
The Wine: 2010 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinett, $27
Color: Super golden in the color, I expected this to be sugary (sugar darkens a wine) but I was surprised by what I smelled and tasted.
Smell: The wine was so floral -- like gardenias, carnations, and lilac. It was a little like fresh laundry hanging outside/clean cotton scent from an air freshner (in a good way).
Taste: The wine was spritzy, very acidic, and light. Nary a peach or petrol flavor, this was pleasant and so elegant. I really loved this wine. It was my second favorite and everyone else liked it too.
The Wine: 2010 Carl Graff Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett, $15
Color: Greenish and pale in color, this wine was another homerun with us because it was outstandingly different from the others in the tasting.
Smell: The wine smelled like an Asian pear (somewhere between an pear and apple) and like minerals, but the overwhelming aroma was something like root beer.
Taste: It surprised us again when we tasted it -- instead of being sweet and peachy, the wine had a real Asian spice flavor. Tamarind, ginger, and even a salty minerality that was like soy sauce was prominent. Andrés and Michael loved this one and ranked it as the third best -- and it's understandable why. As it was open longer and longer, the wine just kept getting better and better. This was such a pleasant surprise and for $15, one to keep around for spicy dishes. What an interesting wine!
The Wine: 2009 Carl Von Schubert Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese, $30
Color: This wine was a dark, golden color, with small bubbles, and it STANK.
Smell: It smelled like a gas station or a lit match -- a sulfur smell was prominent. Sulfur and pears. It was really hard to get past that gross smell to taste the wine, but we were glad we did.
Taste: The taste was so different from the smell. It was honeyed, and like melon and a tropical fruit salad and golden pear. It had spritz, great acidity, and a touch of sweetness. It really was nasty to smell, but so damn good. I loved this wine, but it's a tough one and not for those who are really sensitive to that sulfur smell, which was off-putting.
What a tasting. We learned so much about the different styles of Riesling that are available and had a great time exploring the different regions and analyzing what each brought to the table.
Thanks again to the panel and here is a summary of our faves:
Andrés and Michael Top 3:
- Schloss Saarstein
- Dr. Pauly Bergweiler
- Carl Graf
- (Van Hovel for budget wine)
Marie's Top 3:
- Dr. Pauly Bergweiler
- Schloss Johannisberg
- Van Hovel
My Top 3:
- Schloss Saarstein
- Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtropfchen
- Schloss Johannisberg
The World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson/Jancis Robinson
Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, Tom Stevenson
Wines of Germany, http://www.germanwineusa.com/