GERMANY’S RIESLINGS ARE “SWEET” EVEN WHEN THEY’RE DRY

 

Normally I would find it a challenge to drink nothing but white wine– and only one type of white wine at that – for and extended period of time.

 

But this was German Riesling (my personal favorite white wine and arguably, at its best, the greatest white wine in the world) and I was in the Rheinhessen, Nahe, and Mosel on a press trip hosted by the German Wine Institute.

 

So, in this case, it was no challenge at all. It always has confounded me that Americans don’t appreciate this wonderful wine more. Interestingly, this was a topic of discussion with every grower we met. The two most common explanations we heard – and they are not exclusive of each other – were Americans assume all

German Riesling (actually all Riesling) is sweet at a time when most Americans prefer dry wine. And, to make matters worse, the traditional labels are complex and confusing to consumers such that most can’t tell what they are buying.

Many German producers have responded by simplifying their front labels, often prominently displaying “Riesling” and using only a brand name or just the name of the village or the single vineyard, then putting all the traditional, still legally required information on the back label (for wine geeks like me who appreciate that sort of thing).

They also are working hard to educate consumers (and trade and press) about the variety and high quality of Riesling, hence a major reason for this trip. The main mission seemed to be to emphasize there actually is a lot of dry German Riesling and it is really good stuff!

Still, the basic marketing approach seems a bit schizophrenic, even though it may just be reflecting the contradictions of the American market. Every producer we met with who makes any sweet or off-dry wine said that’s what they mostly export to the U.S. They said it’s because that’s what most U.S. consumers want. Most of their dry wine goes to other markets but they hope to change that.

I guess economic realities dictate they sell what consumers like. Meanwhile, they pursue a parallel strategy to promote their dry wines, in the hope of (even if gradually) building demand. And quite frankly, I’m happy to help. As much as I love the sweeter wines, I was greatly impressed (quite blown away actually) at just how delicious the dry Rieslings were/are.

Before I get into the specific wines and wineries, a few thoughts. Looking back on the four days of winemaker/grower visits, a number of patterns emerge. Although the fifteen growers we visited aren’t a scientifically randomized sample, I do think they are representative of the trends among the best German producers in the top regions.

The first thing I noticed is they are small, especially compared to, say, most California wineries. The exception to this and all of my subsequent observations is Moselland, the largest winery we visited, making 2 million cases annually. Most of the growers we visited produce fewer than 20,000 cases and for several it’s more like 5000.

All of the wineries on our trip are family owned operations that have been in the family business for generations. Many have at least two generations working at the winery. In almost every case, a father had recently retired from day-to-day operations and a son (no daughters on this trip!) had recently taken over as winemaker. The fathers usually were still involved either in the vineyard or basically in a consultant role in the cellar. It also was common to find grandmothers, mothers and sisters helping out with other aspects of the business.

I think all the growers we met are primarily estate producers, meaning they use only grapes from vineyards they own for most of their wines. In a few cases, they also buy fruit to supplement their own to produce their entry level wine (basically a higher volume introduction to the winery).

Each of these estates had their own family history to recount. In most cases, that family history extends at least 150 years, in some as far back as 500 years!

Of course, there wouldn’t be anything to write about without the amazing vineyards. And each grower showed a certain pride, even reverence for their vineyards. We especially heard a lot about slate – the layered, metamorphic rock of sedimentary, clay and sometimes volcanic origins notable for high mineral and crystalline content. These slate soils are prized for their ability to hold moisture and heat and to impart a distinctive sense of those minerals in the resulting wine.

Something else I found interesting about those families and their vineyards: these vineyards don’t have just one owner, as is the case in most other wine regions around the world. In Germany, especially with the top vineyards, ownership is more like what you will find in Burgundy. As I understood the explanation from our hosts, because of Germany’s inheritance laws (dividing property equally among the heirs) and the hundreds of years properties have been passed down, ownership in these top vineyards commonly is shared among dozens of owners.

One thing this did was provide opportunities to compare wines from the same vineyards made by different growers. I’ll discuss that and more about the specific producers and their wines in my next column.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.