Riesling is one of the world’s greatest wine grapes. It is a versatile grape, capable of producing a variety of wine styles from different regions throughout the world. It is tolerant of a range of temperatures, though it performs best in cooler locations. Furthermore, Riesling is arguable more expressive of terroir than any other vitis vinifera. There are many wine regions notable for Riesling; Alsace, Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Marlborough, Austria, Finger Lakes, and Washington State. However, Germany is home to the highest concentration of world class Rieslings.
I must confess I do not drink a lot of Germany Riesling. Largely because there is not a lot available in North Texas. Second, before engaging in the WSET program I understood little about German wines and found the labels quick confusing. Although I understand the region better now, I am still a bit daunted by the labels. Let’s dive into the world of German Riesling and see what we can discover.
Characteristics of Riesling
Riesling is the most widely planted variety in Germany. Because of the variations in the German wine regions due to climate and soil types, Riesling expresses itself differently depending on the region and even vineyard where is it grown. Classic characteristics in cool climates include green fruit flavors with floral notes. Warmer climates increase its richness, resulting in notes of citrus and stone fruit. Riesling is a rare white wine with long aging potential. As it ages it develops notes of honey, toast, rubber, and petrol that many oenophiles, including myself, adore. Riesling buds late, making it ideal for cooler climates since it avoids spring frosts. It is a mid to late ripening grape, depending on the climate of the wine region where it is growing. When left on the vine Riesling is capable of accumulating sugar without losing its natural high acidity. This is Riesling’s secret weapon, allowing it to be crafted into a range of sweetness levels from dry to luscious. Because of this Riesling is widely used to make late harvest and botrytised dessert wines.
German Wines Styles
In Germany, Riesling is crafted into a wide range of styles from bone dry to lusciously sweet. The dry styles are often labeled Qualitätswein. These wines range from light and fruit to rich and concentrated. The best quality are labeled Grosses Gewachs (GG), as indicated by a bunch of grapes and the letters GG embossed on the neck of the bottle.
Conversely, nearly all wines labeled Prädikatsweine will contain some residual sugar; however, some may be made in a dry style. Here is a brief break down of the styles:
- Kabinett: most delicate; Rieslings made in this style will have light body, high acidity, with green apple and citrus balanced with residual sugar (RS). The sweeter styles will range in alcohol between 8-9%; whereas the dryer styles will reach 12% ABV.
- Spatlese: Made the same way as Kabinett, but more concentrated, riper, and with more body and alcohol. Citrus and stone fruit notes dominate.
- Auslese: These wines are made from individually selected grape bunches. Richer and riper than the previous two styles in both dry and sweet expressions. Noble rot can play a part in the flavors of these wines. Furthermore, this is the last category where the wines may be dry.
- Beernauslese (BA): These wines are made with a combination of late harvest vine dried grapes and grapes affected by botrytis. These are sweet wines that are not made every year. They have a low alcohol percentage and offer flavors of honey, dried stone fruit, candied fruit peel, and flowers.
- Trockenbeernauslese (TBA): To reach the minimum must weight these wines are made exclusively made from botrytis. They offer the same flavors of BA. These wines are also not made every year. These rank among the best sweet wines in the world.
- Eiswein: These wines are rare. Since varietal purity is the key to Eiswein, botrytis grapes are not used here. Instead healthy grapes are left hanging on the vines until winter where they freeze, concentrating the sugars and resulting in a sweet wine balanced with acidity and sugars.
Climate and Grape Growing:
Germany is located about as far north as grapes are able to grow successfully. It has limited sunlight which creates issues that must be overcome in vineyard management. It is a predominately a cool continental climate. Summers can be wet; however, the rain typically ends by fall before the final stage of ripening and harvest. A long, cool growing period provides the grapes enough time to ripen while maintaining their natural high acidity. During ideal conditions, botrytis can take effect in every wine region in Germany and sweet wines can be made. However, annual weather conditions vary greatly, leading to vintage variation in quality, quantity, and styles of wines produced. This means small differences in vineyard locations are key to producing quality wines.
The best vineyard sites are found on steep stony slopes with a southern facing aspect to maximize sun exposure and heat, aiding in grape ripening. Vineyards planted near rivers gain additional heat and sunlight as it is reflected by the rivers. Furthermore, air movement is generated by the flowing water which helps protect the vines from a common spring hazard: frost.
On the slopes the vines are head pruned and individually staked, with the canes tied at the top to further maximize exposure to light and air circulation. The slopes also mean the grapes must be hand harvested. Furthermore, with wine classification done by must weight instead of volume of grapes, harvest can takes weeks or even months to complete. Pickers must pass through the same vineyards a number of times to ensure they obtain the right grapes for each category. This is a timely and expensive process.
German Wine Regions:
Germany has seven wine growing regions. I will mention them each briefly, concentrating on the Mosel since those wines are most available in the US and the wines featured in this article below.
- Nahe: a wide area between the Mosel and Rheinhessen, with the best vineyards located on the banks of the Nahe River. Riesling is the most widely planted grape here; the slightly warmer climate results in Riesling with pronounced acidity and slightly riper fruit characters.
- Rheingau: Small but prestigious wine region with its best vineyards located on the north bank of the slopes of the Rhine River. Riesling dominates here with the most prominent style being dry, with medium to full body, and ripe peach characteristics. The Rhine River creates humid conditions that lead to some of the highest quality BA and TBA being produced here.
- Rheinhessen: Germany’s largest vine growing region; Riesling and Muller-Thurgau are the two most planted grape varieties; within Rheinhessen, the area known as Rheinterrasse is known for producing some of Germany’s fullest-bodied Rieslings; it is also an area gaining a reputation for modern innovation.
- Pfalz: Germany’s second largest wine growing region. It is largely seen as a continuation of Alsace since it lies just east of the French border. It is the driest of the German wine regions. Riesling dominates and has a long reputation for high quality wines. As in Rheinhessen, young winemakers making a name for their innovation and quality. Most of the wines made here are dry.
- Baden: This is the warmest and most southerly wine region in Germany. As a result it produces the most full-bodied wines with the highest alcohol. The vineyards are spread over a large geographical area. Spatsburgunder (Pinot Noir) is the most widely planted variety here and has top quality reputation.
- Franken: This region is dominated by white wine making but it is not Riesling. Silvaner is the grape of choice in Franken. Here it is able to achieve a concentration not found in the rest of Germany.
- Mosel: This regions stretches narrowly from the French, Luxembourg borders to the Rhine River. Riesling dominates. Production is concentrated in the center of the region, known as the Middle Mosel. The best vineyards are found on very steep slopes next to the river with slate soils. Rieslings here are light in body and low in alcohol but comparatively high in acidity. Flavors of green fruits and floral notes are characteristic.
As stated earlier, the Rieslings of focus today are from the Mosel. It is hard to image eight Rieslings from the same wine region could vary in style, yet each of these wines is unique in its own right. Each wine has a relatively high level of acidity, balancing out any sweetness it may contain. This makes these wines fantastic to pair with a wide variety of foods! Acidity in wine is food’s best friend. Furthermore, the varying degrees of sweetness make these wines your go to selection when enjoying Indian, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Peruvian, or Chinese cuisines containing some heat. The sweetness cools the heat on the palate while the acidity offers a clean and refreshing finish.
2016 Dr Thanisch Riesling Mosel Germany ($14): slightly under ripe stone fruit, citrus zest, spice, minerality; off-dry in style with racy acidity and minerality on the palate; refreshing and focused; Qualitätswein
2015 Dr Thanisch Riesling Spatlese Trocken Mosel Germany ($30): lively notes of apples and pears with some citrus, rounded out with flint, nuttiness, and salinity; a touch of an oily character on the palate, with endless salinity that begs for food, balanced acidity in an off-dry style; great aging potential
2014 Dr Thanish Berncasteler Doctor Riesling Kabinett Mosel Germany ($40): dazzling notes of savory herbs and spice with minerality take center stage, fruit notes, though subtle, include ripe orchard, stone fruit, and citrus; elegant and refined, this wines is medium dry to medium sweet with racy minerality and balanced acidity on the palate, it is concentrated and slightly voluptuous; great aging potential
2016 Dr Thanish Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett Mosel Germany ($22): ripe pineapple, mango, peaches, and gooseberry greet the nose, while salinity and Chinese five spice meets the palate, off-dry, balanced round acidity, complex and elegant
2014 Bollig-Lehnert Trittenheimer Apotheke Riesling Kabinett Mosel Germany ($17): herbal style Riesling with notes of fresh and dried herbs, black currant leaf, and soft notes of orchard and under-ripe tropical fruit; mineral driven on palate due to slate soil; sweet to luscious on palate with balanced high acidity, coats palate, bring on some food with heat
2016 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese Mosel Germany ($20): rich and concentrated with notes of ripe stone and tropical fruit, acacia, with pastry and cream; sweet to luscious on the palate, this is a rich, bold wine that stands at attention, low alcohol and high acidity make a lingering delight
2016 Dr Pauly-Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett Mosel Germany ($25): rich and inviting aromas of ripe stone, orchard, and citrus fruits lie on top of a vein of minerality resulting from the slate soils; concentrated and sweet on the palate with racy minerality and a long acidic finish balances out this wine, leaving a clean and refreshed palate
2014 Dr Pauly-Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese Mosel Germany ($30): ripe stone fruit and citrus, white floral notes, crushed stone and minerality; late harvest style that is lusciously sweet; balanced with high acidity offers a clean finish, elegant and refined with a ripe fruit dancing across a mineral, crushed stone foundation
I encourage you to branch out and include German Rieslings in your wine consumption.