I never thought this could happen to me but last night I actually wanted a white wine instead of a red one – a German white wine to be precise. In my long love affair with Cabernet Sauvignon and more recently Barolo, it never crossed my mind that I could like a white wine enough to actually want a glass. But my wine journey, very analogous to one’s life journey, has taken many twists and turns.
This latest turn happened upon my return from Germany touring the Mosel and Rheinhessen wine regions. My dad and I spent a week drinking all kinds of Rieslings, Weissburgunders (Pinot Blanc), Silvaner, Rivaner (also called Müller Thurgau), and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris). These are white grapes and several of them are rarely seen outside Germany. All of these wines shared a shockingly vibrant minerality and refreshing nature seldom found in other wines. Instead of groggy and tired, these wines left us feeling refreshed and alive. Maybe it was the 95 degree heat wave that hit while we were there (and the lack of air conditioning) but every night we tasted interesting local wines and the Riesling- based wines always rose to the top.
Riesling is an incredibly versatile grape making styles from dry (trocken) to very sweet, rosé, and sparkling wines (called Sekt in Germany). There isn’t much that Riesling doesn’t do extraordinarily well when in the right growing spot and left to little winemaker intervention. The winemakers we talked with all agreed that Riesling is made in the vineyard on their perilously steep slate and limestone covered hills. They said their job is to merely get out of the way and leave it to express its own tendencies.
These are beautiful and sensuous tendencies. One of our favorite dry Rieslings was the Jakob Schneider Grauschiefer which tasted of citrus, lemon, and very light petrol (a trademark aroma from Riesling). Riesling is quite high in acid and this adds to the freshness and crisp nature of dry Rieslings. Other fantastic dry Rieslings with singing minerality came from Weingut Hofmann, a charmingly modern boutique winery in Rheinhessen. Rheinhessen tends to make drier styles while the Mosel region has greater success with sweet styles due to its unique climate and blue slate soils.
Sweeter styles are classified by increasing degrees of grape harvest sugar levels - Kabinett, Spätlese, Eiswein, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). The difference between these categories is based on when the grapes were harvested (their sugar levels) and if the grapes were affected by the desirable noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) which further concentrates grape sugars.
While these names seem long and complicated, if you look closely you can see that the last 3 all share common words and build upon each other. The Germans are very practical and their language adds words together to expand the meaning. Auselese for example means “selected harvest”. Beerenauslese means “selected berry harvest” and Trockenbeerenauslese means “selected dry berry harvest”. “Trocken” in this case refers to the grapes being dried on the vine instead of the wine being a dry style. Trockenbeerenauslese is one of the sweetest styles of all.
Riesling’s high acid also plays a key role in its sweet wines as the acidity counteracts the sweetness in such a way to provide balance and it can also make the wine seem less sweet than it is. As a result, blind tasting sweet Riesling is one of the greatest challenges as sugar level is always difficult to assess correctly. We tasted many amazing sweet wines while in Germany culminating in Selbach Oster’s 1976 Wehlener Hofberg Riesling Spätlese. This was an ethereal work of art combining viscous dried apricot, marmalade, beeswax, and spice notes into a laser-pointed clean finish on the palate.
We had Eisweins (ice wines) too and oddly some of those seemed less sweet than the sweeter styles of Beerenauslese and TBA. Ice wines are those made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine. They create sumptuous sweet wines with great complexity. We tried Walter J. Oster’s 2013 Johanner Abtey Eiswein (7.5% alcohol) which was pale yellow in color with an herbal nose and lively finish. We also tried the 2012 Keth Johanna Elisabeth Silvaner Eiswein (9% alcohol) with fruit and honey notes which provided a perfect finale to a great meal.
Two more of my favorite dry wines came from a producer named Gebruderkauer. One was a rosé, another wine I have actually never had a full glass of, and a secco trocken. The latter was a lightly sparkling (perlwein) vivacious triumph. At 11.5% alcohol, one could down a few bottles of this wine which tasted of wet rock, lemon zest, and citrus. It was literally soft rain in a bottle and equally refreshing.
I admit I had an occasional Rioja or Barolo over dinner while abroad but ever since returning home, I find myself yearning for a mineral-driven German white wine. In the U.S., look for wines by Selbach Oster, Jakob Schneider, or Willems-Willems. If you’re confused by the various labeling names, look at the alcohol and if its 11% or over, it will likely be a drier style. You may find yourself converted as well.
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