German Rieslings

 




Many wine-drinkers don't appreciate the virtues of German rieslings. The usual complaints are that labels are too difficult to understand, and that most of the wines have some sweetness. The lower alcohol levels, typically 8-9%, also go unappreciated, even in these calorie-conscious times. 

That touch of sweetness, however, is balanced beautifully by a bracing acidity. This acidity keeps the wine lively and refreshing, while that tinge of sweetness matches a lot of foods which have a hint of it themselves. 

A number of white wine grapes other than riesling are also cultivated, such as Müller-Thurgau (also known as Rivaner), Kerner, Bacchus, Scheurebe, Gewürztraminer, etc., but Riesling is acknowledged to be the finest for complexity and ageing-worthiness. If the name is not on the label, then it's not riesling. 

What I've tried to do in this mini-guide is to present helpful information on German riesling in increasing levels of complexity, from straight-forward to more difficult, so that the reader can enjoy the wine without needing to know everything German wine classification. Because of that intent, the information is also, by design, incomplete. 

Wine Categories 

Food Matches 

A Sad Little Story 

Vintage Date and Age 

Wine Regions 

Village and Vineyard Names 

Grosslagen 

Some Personal Preferences 

Typical German Wine Labels, decoded 


Wine Categories

(updated Jan. 25, 2009)
Note added 11/1/2015: While I wasn't looking, the wine category designations seems to have become simplified, with (Deutscher) Qualitätswein or Prädikatswein instead of Q.b.A and Q.m.P as described just below:

The labels themselves are not that hard to understand, if one doesn't go to the next level of complexity (i.e., villages and vineyards). In increasing order of price, the Categories are:
  • Qualitätswein (literally, quality wine): the least expensive and often a great deal. The level of sweetness depends on the year and the vintner; my policy is to try a bottle before buying more. Also known as Q.b.A. (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete).
    Hochgewächs - a higher level of Q.b.A. (but it has nothing to with vineyard heights). This term has appeared more and more often, and I was able to get clarification on it during my 2004 trip to the Mosel valley.
  • Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (literally, quality wine with attribute): these must conform to type by meeting criteria for that type, basically a guarantee of quality. Also known as Q.m.P.
    Kabinett - the lowest level of sweetness. 

    Spätlese - late-picked, with more sweetness than Kabinett. 

    Auslese - selected, with more sweetness than Spätlese. 

    Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein - very sweet, wonderfully complex, and far too expensive for most mortals.
Other label terms:
  • Trocken, Halb-trocken (literally: dry, and half-dry) - an attempt to meet customer demand for dry wines, with the residual sugar level limited by law. I have a personal bias against these wines because I think the glory and uniqueness of German riesling is that perfect balance of acidity with sweetness. Also, a dry riesling low in fruit intensity will show emphasized acidity. 

    Note that while Kabinett, Spätlese, etc., refer to sugar levels before vinification, Trocken and Halb-trocken refer to residual sugar after it. This means that there's no contradiction in an "Spätlese Trocken" - it's just that more of the sugar is fermented into alcohol. The Trocken and Halb-trocken wines will consequently usually have alcohol levels of 10-11% rather than 8-9%.

  • Lieblich or Feinherb: Occasionally wines not labeled as Trocken or Halb-trocken may be designated as "lieblich" or "feinherb". I spent a good deal of time trying to understand "lieblich" - in Germany it appears to be applied to wines, even red, with some sweetness and lower acidity to make them enjoyable to more customers, so it has a bit of a negative connotation in my mind. On the other hand, "feinherb" implies a certain austerity along with quality (fein = fine), so it's probably similar to Halb-trocken.

  • A.P.-Nr. (Amtliche Prüfungsnummer): These wine all have official certification of being true to type and of being made according to stringent regulations; this shows up on the label as a long string of digits. It's basically a guarantee of quality for the consumer. (See some examples at Typical German Wine Labels, decoded )

  • Note added 4/24/06: Having recently sampled two Spätlese wines with widely varying sweetness levels, I realized that I need to complicate the above discussion just a bit. In this example, one Spätlese with 9.5% alcohol approached Kabinett-level sweetness, while another, at 7.5% alcohol, approached the Auslese level. In the first case, more of the sugar was fermented to alcohol (9.5%), in the second case, less (7.5%). In short, it helps to look at the alcohol level to determine the likely sweetness of the wine, using 8.5% as a base value.

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Food Matches
So what foods match up well with these wines? 

Kabinett: a lot of seafoods have a tinge of sweetness themselves (scallops, lobster, shrimp) and the acidity matches up well with trout, salmon, arctic char, and such fish. I've found that pizza is also a great match, probably because of the natural sweetness of onions or tomato sauce. In fact, a lot of foods with onion or some caramelization go very well with a riesling.
A specific example - during one recent week, I enjoyed Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Kabinett-level wines with three meals:
- A Moroccan-style chicken with typical spices and raisins, 
- grilled salmon, and 
- scallops with leeks and ginger.
Another time: One might not think of serving a German riesling to accompany chicken enchiliadas with mole coloradito (a sauce which includes ancho and pasilla or guajillo chiles, and some Mexican chocolate), but a Kabinett had the sweetness to match the chocolate in the mole and the acidity to refresh and lighten the richness of the sauce.
Riesling Kabinett is a nearly perfect summer wine: it's low-alcohol, the acidity is refreshing, and it matches up superbly with grilled chicken, pork tenderloin and seafood. 

Spätlese: goes well with fowl (chicken, cornish hen, turkey), which is often served with some sweetish accompaniment like cranberry sauce or orange glaze. But it is at its best with goose or duck. 

It's comical to me how newspaper wine writers twist themselves into knots in their annual article about what wine to serve with Thanksgiving turkey, and forget all about German riesling. 

Auslese: really too sweet for foods except dessert. 

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A Sad Little Story
The real pity is that even supposed experts can get it wrong. I once went to a special tasting dinner, sponsored by a local wine store and its star importer of German wine, where a number of different German rieslings were to be served. A fine concept, which they unfortunately got completely wrong by serving wines one level of sweetness greater than they should have with each course. I don't think they made any converts that evening. 

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Vintage Date 
and Age
The vintage year can make a difference (some years are better than others), but that should not be a surprise to anyone that follows other wines, such as French or Italian ones. The vintage descriptions below from over ten years ago show some of that variation.

Note added Sept. 2015: Vintage variation over the last several years seems to be far less than before, with a longer ripening season due to global warming effects.

The 2005 Vintage: Although not extensively sampled yet, this appears to be another very good year. 

The 2004 Vintage: Based on limited tasting so far, this seems to be a superb year, with vibrant acidity to go along with lovely riesling flavors and aroma. 

The 2003 Vintage: This was a very hot year, which means that the grapes ripened fully and early. My tasting experience, although limited for 2003's, speaks to their being sweeter and with lower acidity than other years. With so many others available, I've tended to avoid buying 2003's. 

The 2002 Vintage: This appears to be a classic riesling year, just quietly very good after the hoopla that the 2001 wines garnered.

The 2001 Vintage: It is apparently, according to wine writers and reviewers, one of the best ever. My experience in tasting some 2001 wines is in agreement - the wines have a lot of flavor and lingering taste. They will gain a good deal of complexity with a few years of age, although they are delicious to drink now. I've also noticed that the level of sweetness is sometimes correspondingly higher (sometimes as much as one level: e.g., Kabinett may approach Spätlese)), so that one has to take some care with food matches. 

German rieslings age well; in fact, with 3-5 years of age the wines will generally gain in complexity and lose a bit of that sweetness. There nothing quite like a riesling of this age with a Christmas goose. 

One other little lesson I learned from the highly touted 2001 vintage is that there are other good vintages, and that the wines will not disappear from the shelves. At the time, I was bamboozled into buying 2001's at full price because it was hyped as such a great vintage; some years later good 2001's became available as close-outs! 

Vintage Ratings - if one wants to take guidance from vintage ratings, the Jan.-Feb. 2009 Wine Spectator has some for recent German rieslings vintages:
2006
2005
2004
2003
2002
2001
1999
1998
92
98
91
94
93
98
90
89
As with all ratings which collapse complex information into a single number, caution in taking these too seriously is advisable.



  So even without going to the next level of knowledge, the various wine-growing regions, one can enjoy some wonderful wines to go along with a large variety of food. 

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Wine Regions


Saarland 


 
Hessen


But that next level, the wine-growing regions, is not so much more complicated:
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer - has the highest acidity of all the rieslings, sometimes too much so in poor years, but superbly refreshing in good ones. This is the best choice with seafood (Kabinett, not Spätlese). Always in green bottles, as distinguished from the brown bottles of the Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz regions. The Saar wines are often described as steely or flinty. 

Rheingau - probably the best-known region, along with Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, with lots of famous names. In this region, the Rhine runs east to west, so that the vineyards have hillsides that face south, for maximum exposure to the sun's summer warmth. The Rhine then turns north at Rüdesheim, and the wine region becomes Mittelrhein (middle Rhine). 

Mittelrhein - not one of the major regions, but more and more of its wines are in the marketplace. Since the Rhine runs from south to north here, hillsides that face south, for the best ripening conditions, are harder to find. 

Nahe - also a less well-known region, but excellent, with characteristics between Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau. The region is named for the river Nahe, which joins the Rhine at Bingen, across from Rüdesheim. 

Rheinhessen - while the Rheingau vineyards are north of the Rhine as it runs from west to east, Rheinhessen is the region to the south. 

Pfalz - the region south of Rheinhessen. The wines from both of the above regions tend to be fuller, with a bit of spiciness; The poorer ones may be a bit flabby, or low in acidity.
There are a total of thirteen German wine regions, but the wines from the others are harder to find. For completeness, these other regions are: Ahr, Hessische Bergstraβe, Franken, Württemberg, Baden, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen. The latter two are from the former East Germany. 

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Village and Vineyard Names


Hattenheim 


 
Boppard


The next level of complexity: Another piece of information on the label is the village and vineyard name. Over time, because of vineyard soil and exposure to sun, and because of vinification practices, certain vineyards have become recognized as superior to others. 

The standard usage is: village name with "er" tacked on, followed by the vineyard name. Examples are:
Piesporter Goldtröpchen - the Goldtröpfchen (gold droplets) vineyard in Piesport. 

Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg - the Bischofsberg (bishop's mountain) vineyard in Rüdesheim. 

Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube - the Kupfergrube (copper pit) vineyard in Schlossböckelheim. 

Niersteiner Ölberg - the Ölberg (oil mountain) vineyard in Nierstein.
Inevitably, there are exceptions, vineyard names without the village, such as: Steinberger, Scharzhofberger, Schloss Vollrads, Schloss Johannisberger, Josephshöfer, Lorenzhöfer, etc... 

Like anything else, although there are many villages and vineyards, one tries some wines, develops favorites, and so acquires knowledge over time. 


Wines labeled by village and vineyard names are among the best that Germany has to offer. There are others, still "Qualitätswein mit Prädikat" or without, that may not have one or both of these names. The following are examples of label information for such wines (all are 100% riesling):
Riesling and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. This wine is a Q.b.A (Qualitätswein, no Prädikat), but the grapes may come from any vineyard in the entire Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region; 

Riesling Kabinett and Rheingau. Wine from anywhere in the Rheingau region, and at the Kabinett level of Q.m.P.; 

Piesporter Riesling Spätlese. All the grapes come from Piesport, but from any vineyard; the wine is at the Spätlese level of Q.m.P.

Note added 1/25/09: In their ongoing struggle for consumer acceptance, some wine producers have tried to make things easier for consumers by
- Omitting the village and vineyard names from the main label, and putting them on the back label; 

- Anglicizing the names - for example: Joseph Leitz's "Dragonstone", a translation of the Drachenstein vineyard in Rüdesheim; 

- Brand names to be associated with the producer rather than the village or vineyard. 

Whether this helps the consumer or not is an open question; for me, it adds confusion instead.


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Grosslagen
So far so good. However, if one chooses to go deeper into the subject, there's yet another level of complexity that even experts have trouble with: Grosslagen. Most of the village and vineyard names on the labels are so-called Einzellagen (individual vineyards). It is legally required that all of the grapes for that wine come from the individual vineyard, and this is generally a mark of higher quality. 

But there are some other village and vineyard names for which it is permissible to combine grapes from several vineyards or a wider region - these are called Grosslagen. Unfortunately, although the German wine labels are very specific about all other information, there is simply no way to distinguish Grosslagen from Einzellagen other than with a list and/or memorization. One can imagine the winemaker lobby insisting that there be no Grosslage designation on the label of a Grosslage wine, so that the customer would not demand a lower price. 

Basically, with Grosslagen, one has to make very sure to verify that "Riesling" is on the label because often other grape types are used or mixed in, to the detriment of quality. 

Not that Grosslage wines are bad. A good one may be a real bargain. But I still mourn the demotion of what was once a very good Einzellage, Bernkasteler Badstube, to Grosslage status, although it's still quite good. Part of the reason is that the number of vineyards that may be used in Bernkasteler Badstube is limited, whereas most other Grosslagen may encompass a much larger area; the same is true of the Grosslage Niersteiner Rehbach. Some particular examples of Grosslagen are:
Zeller Scharze Katz, Kröver Nacktarsch - the appeal is based on brand recognition of cutesy labels. Avoid. 

Piesporter Michelsberg - generally inferior to other wines from Piesport. 

Wiltinger Scharzberg - because of the name similarity, can be confused with the generally excellent Scharzhofberger (without a village name).
Common Grosslage vineyard names (the village names will vary), by region, are
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer: Schwarzlay, Münzlay, Kurfürstlay, Michelsberg, Römerlay, Scharzberg 

Rheingau: Burgweg, Erntebringer, Honigberg, Deutelsberg, Mehrhölzchen, Heiligenstock, Steinmächer, Daubhaus 

NaheSchlosskapelle, Pfarrgarten, Sonnenborn, Kronenberg, Rosengarten, Burgweg, Paradiesgarten 

Rheinhessen: Sankt Rochuskapelle, Abtey, Gutes Domtal, Spiegelberg, Rehbach, Auflangen, Güldenmorgen, Krötenbrunnen, Liebfrauenmorgen 

Pfalz: Honigsäckel, Saumagen, Hofstück, Mariengarten, Meerspinne
An excellent reference for details of regions, vineyard names, Einzellagen and Grosslagen, is Hugh Johnson's "The Atlas of German Wines". My copy is from 1986; there are likely to be more recent ones. Another very good book is "German Wine Atlas and Vineyard Register", English edition published by Hastings House in about 1977 (that's the date of Edmund Penning-Rowsell's introduction in the book); I have no idea whether that's still available. Since both of these books date from pre-unification, they do not include the two regions from the former East Germany, Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen. 

I found a surprisingly good source for the all the names of the Grosslagen, Einzellagen, and communes in all thirteen wine regions - an Australian 1994 trade agreement with the European Community 
(Caution: this information is one enormous html file, and could take some time to load). I've made a pdf of it and extracted the 25 pages on German wines - to view, click here or go to the file at the bottom

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Some Personal Preferences


Rüdesheim am Rhein 


 
Bernkastel-Kues


After all the details and generalities, what wines do I tend to buy and enjoy? With a bias toward Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, here is a selected list: 

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
Ayler Kupp 
Bernkasteler (Graben, Badstube) 
Brauneberger (Mandelgraben, Juffer) 
Erdener Treppchen 
Graacher (Himmelreich, Domprobst), Josephshöfer 
Kaseler Nies'chen 
Ockfener Bockstein 
Piesporter (Goldtröpfchen, Treppchen) 
Scharzhofberger 
Trittenheimer Apotheke 
Ürziger Würzgarten 
Wehlener Sonnenuhr
Rheingau
Eltviller (Sonnenberg, Taubenberg) 
Erbacher (Marcobrunn) 
Hattenheimer (Schützenhaus, Nussbrunnen) 
Kiedricher (Sandgrub, Gräfenberg) 
Oestricher Lenchen 
Rüdesheimer (Bischofsberg, Berg Schlossberg, Magdalenenkreuz,
                         Berg Rottland, Burgweg) 
Winkeler Hasensprung
Mittelrhein
Bopparder Hamm 
Bacharacher Hahn
Nahe
Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle 
Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube 
Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg
 (the producer is Hexamer)

Producers - A few favorite producers with what I consider to be a high quality-to-price ratio:
Karlsmühle (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) 
Meulenhof (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) 
Willi Schäfer (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) 
Selbach-Oster (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) 
St.-Urbans-Hof (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) 

Prinz von Hessen (Rheingau) 
Schloss Schönborn (Rheingau) 
Langwerth von Simmern (Rheingau) 
Josef Leitz (Rüdesheim) 

Helmut Hexamer (Nahe: Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg) 

Toni Jost (Mittelrhein) 
Weingart (Mittelrhein) 

J. & H.A. Strub (Rheinhessen) 

Kurt Darting (Pfalz)

Some more rieslings (and a few other wines) not usually available in the U.S. are described in my notes on a May 2004 trip to the Mosel valley



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Typical German Wine Labels, decoded






A more old-fashioned kind of label, with the hillside Würzgarten vineyard, the town of Ürzig and the Mosel river in the background.



Weingut Mathern
 is the producer, based in Niederhausen, a town on the Nahe River 


Nahe is the wine region 


The wine is from the Felsensteyer 
vineyard in the town of Niederhausen 


The grape is Riesling 


The category is Kabinett; it's a 
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat
officially approved by the A.P.-Nr., 
or "Amtliche Prüfungsnummer", 
that long sequence of digits




Josef Leitz is the producer, based in Rüdesheim, a town on the Rhein River 


Rheingau is the wine region 


The wine is from the Drachenstein 
(Dragonstone) vineyard in the town of Rüdesheim 


The grape is Riesling 


The category is Qualitätswein; it's not a QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat), but still officially approved by the A.P. Nr., or "Amtliche Prüfungsnummer", 
that long sequence of digits



Geschw. Albertz-Erben is most likely the estate, with Alfred Merkelbach the 
producer, based in Ürzig, a town on the Mosel River 

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer is the wine region 

The wine is from the Würzgarten 
vineyard in the town of Ürzig 

The grape is Riesling 

The category is Kabinett; it's a 
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat
officially approved by the A.P.-Nr., 
or "Amtliche Prüfungsnummer", 
that long sequence of digits

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Updated Feb. 15, 2016

Ċ
Peter E. Schmidt,
Sep 24, 2015, 12:47 PM
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