Can U.S. Fans Save the Delicious—and Increasingly Rare—Sweet German Riesling?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Oct. 19 2011 4:23 PM

Can American Fans Save German Riesling?

Germans don’t make sweet rieslings like they used to—except to export them to us.

Riesling.
Riesling.

Photograph by Creatas Images/Thinkstock.

For the fourth year in a row, riesling enthusiasts in the United States—and no grape breeds devotion quite like riesling—appropriated the entire summer to celebrate their favorite wine. The Summer of Riesling, as it is known, is the brainchild of New York sommelier Paul Grieco, who often wears a temporary tattoo of the word riesling in big letters down the length of his right forearm. The event is intended to showcase the Germanic grape in all its geographic and stylistic diversity. While this riesling triumphalism probably irritates some people—most wine grapes get one day in their honor, if that—I think it is a fun promotional campaign on behalf of what is unquestionably a great variety. My only concern is that it might give consumers the idea that rieslings are suitable only for summer drinking. It’s now Oct. 19, and I’m here to tell you that that is not the case: Riesling is a grape for all seasons.

That’s especially true of German rieslings, which were a focus of this year’s event. Germany, in addition to being the grape’s native turf, is said to be home to more than 60 percent of the world’s riesling vineyards. A robust variety, riesling has a rare ability to flourish in Germany’s fickle northerly climate. Perhaps more than even pinot noir, it also excels at capturing the influence of the soil, and German rieslings are some of the purest, most mineral-driven wines you will ever taste, which is all the justification one needs to drink them. However, the decision by Grieco and company to put a spotlight on German rieslings was also apt for another reason: but for the American market, what had been the signature style of German riesling might well be headed for extinction.

For at least the last 60 years or so, a certain amount of sweetness has been a defining attribute of German rieslings. There is some dispute as to whether the “fruity” style can be described as traditional; while sweet wines enjoyed great prestige in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were rarities then, and most German wines were apparently fairly dry. The advent of sterile filtration enabled German winemakers to stop fermentations in order to consistently produce wines with discernible amounts of residual sugar. And it was after World War II that German consumers developed a raging thirst for such rieslings, a fact that is generally attributed to postwar sugar rationing, which had the paradoxical effect of giving Germans an insatiable sweet tooth.

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The 1971 German Wine Law introduced a hierarchy known as the Prädikat scale that was based on the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, i.e., the amount of sugar they contained. From lowest to highest, the classifications were Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (between all the cumbersome names, the classifications, and the morass of regulations, trying to decipher German wine laws is like trying to master the tax code; it makes Burgundy look like a paragon of simplicity). A lot of dreck was marketed under these headings, but the best examples were elegant, complex rieslings with a perfect balance of sweetness, acidity, and minerality and the added virtue of being very low in alcohol—typically just 7-10 percent. They were some of the most distinctive, enthralling wines in the world.

But in the 1970s and ’80s, German drinkers soured on sweetish Rieslings. It was during this period that Germany saw a proliferation of French-influenced restaurants, and consumers demanded dry wines. The first wave of trocken (dry) rieslings was pretty abysmal; they were often lean and harshly acidic (“battery acid” was a popular description). But thanks to better viticulture, and with some help from global warming, quality has improved dramatically in recent years, and there are now numerous excellent dry German rieslings on the market. Meanwhile, domestic demand for fruity rieslings has effectively collapsed; German palates have been completely reoriented, and rieslings with pronounced residual sugar are now outcasts in their own neighborhood. David Schildknecht, who covers Germany for the Wine Advocate, humorously describes this volte-face as “bipolar riesling disorder” and says Germans have succumbed to “trocken-fanaticism.”

The fruity style now is being kept alive, barely, by foreign consumers, and Americans in particular, which is another ironic twist to this story. Back in the 1970s, Americans were smitten with Liebfraumilch, of which treacly Blue Nun was the foremost brand. The inevitable backlash made German wines a dead category in the United States for many years thereafter. The road out of perdition was paved by two importers, Rudi Wiest and Terry Theise, who together represent a who’s who of top German estates. Wiest and Theise brought in the finest off-dry and sweet German rieslings and traveled the country preaching their virtues. These efforts paid off with the 2001 vintage, a superb year that generated enormous excitement and which created an ardent American following for the likes of JJ Prüm, Dönnhoff, JJ Christoffel, Loosen, Fritz Haag, and other great German growers. German wine imports to the United States have doubled in the past decade.

Theise told me that the only reason most of his producers continue to make sweetish rieslings is because he keeps buying them—if he were to stop tomorrow, they would very likely cease production of these wines and turn out nothing but trocken bottlings. Whether or not the fruity style is the German tradition or a historical aberration, he believes that the advent of this genre was “the loveliest destiny for German rieslings” and that its creeping obsolescence is a tragedy. As he put it in a recent newsletter, “Do we need Germany to be yet-another-source for dry rieslings when she is the only possible source for rieslings of the type she used to make? ... We’ve gained another source for something we already had. But lost the one and only source for something astonishing and miraculous.”

But it hasn’t been lost entirely, thanks in no small part to the popularity that the wines enjoy in the United States. Stephen Bitterolf of New York’s Crush Wine & Spirits, which has one of the most extensive German selections in the country, says there is now strong consumer interest in dry German rieslings, but it hasn’t come at the expense of the other style. The very sweetest wines—Ausleses, Beerenausleses, Trockenbeerenausleses—are not selling as well as they did before, he told me, but Kabinetts and Spätleses are still moving briskly. “Even for a tricky vintage like 2010, the demand is extraordinarily strong,” says Bitterolf.

Kabinetts are the most versatile of the fruity rieslings. Although climate change has pumped up the sugar levels to the point that some people question whether true Kabinetts can even be said to exist now (most of them are harvested these days at Spätlese or even Auslese levels of ripeness), the best examples still combine light, delicate flavors with great structure and minerality. They make very gulpable aperitifs, and because of the residual sugar, they also pair well with spicy cuisines such as Indian and Thai. And the whole Summer of Riesling thing notwithstanding, these are wines that can be happily drunk throughout the year; in fact, they are superb with game dishes in the fall. They are amazingly affordable for the quality and can age beautifully. In short, they can pretty much do it all—everything, that is, except win back the allegiance of German consumers.

While the 2010s are now hitting the market, I’ve recently gorged on Kabinetts from the excellent 2009 vintage. I love the wines of Willi Schaefer, and the 2009 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett ($24) is a typically delicate, sublime effort from this acclaimed Mosel producer who now enjoys a cult-within-a-cult following among riesling zealots. It was also one of the stars of my recent hot dog and wine tasting. I long ago swore allegiance to the cult of JJ Prum, and the 2009 JJ Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett ($33) gave me no reason to reconsider. Sure, there was the usual sulfurous stink on the nose—always a problem with drinking Prum young—but the wine was light, almost airy in texture and packed a toothsome medley of lime, apple, and mineral flavors. A lot of people believe that Helmut Dönnhoff, whose vineyards are in the Nahe region, is Germany’s most talented winemaker, and the 2009 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett ($25) made a persuasive case on his behalf. It was a finely chiseled, delicious wine that radiated completeness. Selbach-Oster is a great producer in the Mosel whose wines also offer sensational value. The 2009 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett ($18) was just a terrific bottle, with perfect balance, superb minerality, and an herbal twang that I loved. The 2009 Zilliken (Forstmeister Geltz) Saarburger Riesling Kabinett ($23) was as much a mouthful to taste as it is to pronounce; this is the kind of voluptuous Kabinett that leads people to say that true Kabinetts no longer exist. That said, the wine was excellent, its richness parried by plenty of zesty acidity and a beam of minerality.