Richard Ballantyne MW, 13th October 2018
If you are seeking wines that speak of their place, then Germany might be one of the best places to start.
German wines, in the eyes of casual drinkers, have a bad reputation. They are thought of being sweet, boring and cheap, and perhaps something that was drunk by generations past – long before we started shipping wines from the far flung corners of the globe. There is an inkling of truth in this, as there are many wines from this country that are like that, but when you speak to an enthusiast of German wines they will recoil in horror at any of these notions. Don’t dare utter the words Liebfraumilch, Black Tower or Blue Nun in the presence of these folk.
Like anywhere other wine producing country in the world there are good and bad wines, and several points in between, but when German wines are right, they are some of the most fascinating, exciting, authentic and ageworthy examples from anywhere in the world.
Germany’s greatest asset is Riesling. This is a grape variety which has, perhaps more than any other, a profound ability to reflect its place of origin, even as precisely to a specific vineyard site. It has a chameleon-like ability to adapt to its surroundings, and express its characteristics anywhere from taut, mineral, dry wines, right up to fully blown sweet wines, that require decades of bottle ageing before they reveal their true brilliance.
To appreciate German wines, you must first be able to understand the various styles, varieties and vineyard areas and how these impact the quality and characteristic of the wines.
The best German wines are undoubtedly made from Riesling. There are good examples from other varieties, but it is from this variety that the only truly great wines are made. Riesling is an easy variety to grow but it requires vineyards which are low yielding and sunny to produce the best grapes, and in Germany, this normally means growing them on the impossibly steep slopes of the river valleys. It is also susceptible to botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, which is a benevolent fungus which sucks the water from the ripe grapes leaving them shrivelled, and, therefore, concentrated in sugars and flavour compounds. It is this fungus that is responsible for the production of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausele, some of the world’s greatest and rarest fully sweet wines. It is because of Riesling’s naturally high acidity that these wines retain perfect balance and drinkability, even in very old age.
Most of the wine regions follow the major river valleys: the Rhine being the most important with its tributary, the Mosel. The wine regions are Rheingau, Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Mosel & Saar are where Germany’s best Rieslings are found. In these regions the wines are often named after the village and vineyard from which they are grown, for example Urziger Wurzgarten, or, the spice garden of Urzig.
The wines will also carry a designation which signifies how much sugar, or ripeness is in the grapes, what we call ‘must weight’. This does not necessarily mean how much sugar is the final wine. The ascending order of ripeness is Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. Eiswein, or ‘ice-wine’ is a term used for grapes which have been frozen on the vine during the cold, northern, late autumn or early winter, so that the water in the pulp of the grapes remain crystalized as ice during the pressing, leaving a more sugar-rich juice.
However, there can be, but not always, indications on a label of how dry or sweet wine a wine is. Trocken means dry. Halbtrocken, translates to ‘half-dry’, so a kind of off-dry style. Fienherb is also used to describe off-dry, but it is always a good idea to look at the alcohol level of a wine, as this will often give you a clue to its level of sweetness. A Mosel Riesling Kabinett may typically have 8% of alcohol, meaning that it is partially fermented so there will be some sweetness. A wine of 12% will almost certainly be one of the drier styles if not indicated as alternative style elsewhere on the label.
Yes, German wine labels are very complicated, but things are changing. To help adapt to the new world of wine drinkers the VDP (an organisation formed of an alliance of the best producers of Germany) has developed a new classification – Grosses Gewachs. This designation is used for the best vineyards sites from the members of the VDP who ferment their wines to dryness. GG is printed on the bottles, and is just about as close to a guarantee of quality that you will find in Germany, or indeed just about anywhere in the wine growing world. It is not a designation used by everybody but it is worth seeking these out.
Finally, it is worth researching the best growers, as the man or woman that grows the grapes and makes the wine is a crucial factor for quality. There are hundreds of great producers, but familiarise yourself with half a dozen or so of many of the great names.
In the Mosel look out for Dr Loosen, JJ Prum, Egon Muller, Von Schubert and Von Hovel but there many others. In Rheingau I am very fond of the wines of Johanes Leitz and Schloss Vollrads. Pfalz’s greatest names are Basserman Jordan, Burklin Wolf, Muller Catoir and Villa Wolf.
In summary, yes, German wines can be good, sometimes great, and quite often some are world class. It can be a frustratingly complex country to navigate with its countless classifications, vineyard designations and producers, but that’s part of the fun