The wine world can be quite self-absorbed and will at its worst seem to cater to the 1%. Luckily there is also room for trying to do something good (aside from supporting wine makers), and over the years there have been a great any initiatives taken for just causes. Charity dinners and auctions, Wine in Moderation’s continuous awareness raising for the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, or the #winelover against cancer campaign are just of a couple of examples (incidentally, be sure to check out the latest one as October is breast cancer awareness month!).
To my own surprise, mirroring my previous article and naming this one ‘the old ones’ would not have done justice to the wines. Despite a couple of them nearing twenty years of age, the freshness and the life found in the bottles was stunning, and I can’t help but believe that these wines still have a long future ahead of them.
First, the selection. Wines came from all over Germany with the Mosel, being the international reference for sweet wines, well-represented. Vintages ranged from 2001 to 1995. Prädikats were limited to spätlese and auslese as everything beyond that did become quite expensive. Seeing as we had about 12 wines to go through, budget limitations also came into play. The most expensive wine in the selection was 55 euros and the cheapest one a mere 22.
Like with the young wines, we were struck most by the diversity offered across the various regions and winemakers. What was even more interesting however, was the diverging evolution across styles. Whereas alcohol percentages in combination with the prädikat could give one an indication of what level of sweetness to expect in younger wines, no such luck here. Three of the twelve wines did not really come across as sweet as you would have guessed based on Prädikat and alcohol percentage. There is a rather lengthy but immensely interesting discussion to be had on a wine’s actual sweetness and one’s perception. I could never introduce it like Jamie Goode did a couple of months ago, but suffice to say, German sweet wines would form an excellent case study.
Take the first wine, Willi Schaefer’s Graacher Domprobst Spätlese 1999. In no way does this come across as sweet. 8% in alcohol would make you guess at the presence of residual sugar, so this discordance was surprising. One of the only two wines in the selection that started off with petrol on the nose. Flinty, smoky aromas, even a bit herby (currant leafs) with the only hint of sugar really being present in the structure, perfectly blended in with an almost racy, lime-like acidity jittering across the wine. Energetic, savoury and full of life, in my opinion a joy to pair up with food, really versatile in its complexity.
Moving on to Auslese, the wines start to match our assumption, i.e. containing actual sweetness! A rare treat is the comparison of two of the most famous producers in the Mosel, Gelt-Zilliken, whom I mentioned here before, and Reinhold Haart. Both own vineyards in two of the most famous Grosse Lagen in the Mosel Valley, the Saarburger Rausch for Zilliken, characterized by a mix of Devonian slate and volcanic rock, and Piesporter Goldtröpfchen for Haart. The latter is a Grosse Lage surrounding the village of Piesport as a natural amphitheater and as luck would have it, Haart’s vineyards are located right in the middle, benefiting from exposure to the south while receiving shelter from the slopes in east and west.
Both wines hail from 1999, and show remarkable differences in style. The aromas found in Saarburger Raush 1999 are fresh and astonishingly youthful. Creamy, almost voluptuous in the mouth, honeyed lemon and a dash of minerality that seems almost endless in the finish. Piesporten Goldtröpfchen 1999 on the other hand is much riper on the nose, yellow fruit, passion fruit, containing much more overtly present aromatic sweetness which disappears on the palate. Luscious but with a clear choice to define the wine by its freshness, really coming together in the end.
As I expected, the Nahe delivers with Dr. Crusius’ Schlossbockelheim Felsenberg 1995 (a producer mentioned here before). Absolutely delicious ripe fruit on the nose, apricots, mandarins, lemon zest. Lively but creamy on the palate, quite dense at first actually (a lot of sweetness for a wine at 11% alcohol) but with refreshing acidity kicking in towards the end. All the pieces are there and to really allow the wine to find its ultimate balance, I would give this at least another five years to a decade. Regardless, this is already sheer deliciousness.
Ending not with a bang but a whisper, one of my favorites comes from the Mittelrhein, Ratzenberger’s Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Auslese Goldkapsel 2001. Years away from its prime but already showing tons of potential. Ever so delicate, apple, pear and white peach showing so fragile but balanced against an almost saline minerality, all lifted by a refreshing but grounding acidity that nullifies any stickiness you would get from the residual sugar. This is the ethereal lightness of German Riesling at its best!
I think that Ratzenberger’s Auslese is one of the best examples of what exactly an aged German Riesling can be. In their youth these wines are too often defined by overtly fruity aromas, clear from the get-go but masking what lies beneath. You see it often enough in professional reviews, sweet wines tasted in their youth will receive stellar scores, even if the tasting notes nearly always boil down to the same concise description, defined by nothing but fruit. Age however, is not so kind, and will reveal if there actually is substance behind the curtain instead of remnants of the fruit that used to be. What our tasting showed is that the best sweet wines display all kinds of qualities; savouriness, minerality, freshness, vibrancy and elegance among those most pleasing. It is a completely different, exciting world and I for one, being well aware that we only scratched the surface, would do my utmost best to convince anyone who says otherwise!
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There are several arguments often used against sweet wines. ‘They all taste the same’ or ‘after a while you lose all sense of taste because of the sweetness’. To a certain extent these all make sense. When actually put to the test however, they don’t hold up. Even with a single grape variety, grown in a single country or region and vinified in the same way, the differences can be huge. Sweetness can cripple a palate, but a quality wine is a balanced wine. The interaction between acidity and sweetness should not lead to palate fatigue.
Over the last couple of weeks I tasted German sweet wines on several occasions, including a memorable evening in which we took a closer look at older vintages. This was an astonishing exercise. Riesling already has my winelover’s heart, but tasting such different wines all coming from the same variety was terrific. Today I will focus on the younger wines, whereas the spotlight will shift to Riesling from the past century next week.
Tim Fröhlich is one of those rare winemakers who hit the ground running in such a way that they cannot avoid changing the German wine scene. He is the pretender to the Nahe throne alternately occupied by Dönnhoff and Emrich-Schönleber, and while his style can be divisive, he is unanimously respected. He is a major proponent of spontaneous fermentation (the use of wild instead of cultured yeasts) and late harvesting, often taking risks that other winemakers would shun, but somehow pulling it off. Felseneck Spätlese 2013 shows an almost unattainable elegance, with mere hints of aromas at first. Herbal notes, white Japanese peaches, lemon zest and even a bit of honey. Surprisingly little sweetness on the tongue given the 80g/l of residual sugar, but a mouthwatering, almost saline acidity. This oozes class but comes across quite tight, definitely not ready to show what it is capable of. To tuck away for 15 to 20 years!
Many consider the Mosel to be the benchmark for German sweet. Oddly enough, it’s not the sweetness but the acidity that makes these wines unique. Sweetness and residual sugar levels can be controlled up to a certain point. Acidity and the structure it brings to a wine, are inherently linked to the grape variety, soil and climate. The Mosel is one of the coldest regions in Germany, home to the steepest slopes of slate that are a match made in heaven with Riesling. The Trittenheimer Apotheke 2011 Spätlese from Eva Clüsserath fell a bit short in our tasting but changed into a completely different wine on the second day. Pure, flinty minerality on the nose, clear signs of spontaneous fermentation. Acidity-driven on the palate with ripe apples, zestiness and just a touch of sweetness. Still young but already extremely enjoyable, it is a righteous display of the ethereal lightness that you can only achieve in the Mosel.
We are staying in the region, but now we move one of the Mosel’s tributaries, the Ruwer. The first village you encounter when following the river upstream is Eitelsbach, home to Karthäuserhof. The estate’s peculiarity is that all their wines are sourced from only one vineyard, the Karthäuserhofberg, which is fully owned by Karthäuserhof, making it one of the largest ’monopole’ vineyards in Germany. The Riesling Auslese 2010 has 8.5% alcohol, slightly higher than Schafer-Frohlich’s Spätlese at 7.5% which actually results in a lower level of residual sugar at 70g/l despite the fact that the wine has a different Prädikat. Surprisingly, it comes across a lot sweeter, owning up to its classification with apricots, pineapples and almost exotic fruit scents. It is quite heady, a hint of smokiness that is nowhere to be found on the palate. It comes across very clean but the acidity is markedly lower than expected. This is one for cellaring in the hopes that it will lose the overt sweet tones, or one to combine now with a spicy Indian curry.
Thanks to the Belgian importer, I had the opportunity to taste Am Stein’s Stettener Stein Eiswein 2012. People who have been following this blog from the beginning will be familiar with this estate so I’ll cut right to the chase and state that this is just fabulous. As stated last week, 2012 was the last year in which Eiswein was possible all throughout Germany, with harvest at Am Stein taking place on the 10th of December at -12° C. Half a hectare (little over an acre) resulted in a mere 500 liter wine! An astonishing 170° Oechsle (215g/l) means that you’re in for the sugar high of a lifetime but luckily you do not need a lot for instant gratification. An exotically perfumed nose, mango, papaya, passion fruit, everything just coming straight at you. The palate is luscious, on the verge of syrupy but just at the right time you hit a wall of thrilling acidity that restores balance, ending on a fresh, long-lingering note of pure fruit. Getting your grapes unaffected by noble rot to December is quite a feat, and Am Stein has pulled it off with this one. Taking into account all the work that goes in it, the risk that the winemaker has to take and the absolutely stunning wine that you get, this would be the first wine at 60 euros that I would call a bargain!
Sweet Riesling in its youth is often accused of being nothing but exotic fruit, but the four wines presented here show that it can be so much more. All kinds of fruit, different interactions with acidity and minerality, changing aromas and impressions, there is such a wide range of styles that saying its just exotic fruitiness is blatantly superficial. All these wines are already enjoyable but show so much more potential to the future, let’s put some of their companions to the test next week!
Wine is the result of a winemaker’s decisions with regards to viticulture and vinification. At the very least, he or she would need to ensure that grapes contain enough sugar for a successful alcoholic fermentation. Sugar alone however does not create quality wine. Grapes balancing all flavor components sought in a good wine are the starting point. Getting these is more difficult than it sounds, as overripeness can occur in days or even hours. Each grape variety also has its own tipping point, heavily influenced by the climate in which it is cultivated, adding to the constraints a winemaker faces.
There are numerous ways to make a sweet wine, but for today we’ll limit ourselves to those most commonly employed in Germany. The cheapest way is adding süssreserve (sterilized unfermented grape must) after the fermentation has run its course. I briefly mentioned the term when discussing Champagne, and I remain skeptical on its added value to quality wine. It is a drastic intervention in the wine that risks not adding anything but blandness, as we have learned from liebfraumilch.
Quality sweet wines are created through intervention in the alcoholic fermentation before all sugars have been converted into alcohol (thus the term residual sugar). The tricky part here is keeping a careful eye on three factors that will be key to a satisfactory result; alcohol, residual sugar and acidity. Monitoring for each of these during the process is not the issue, but keeping them in check, let alone divining how they influence each other as well as what the wine will end up tasting like is more easily said than done.
Acidity is really the one element that can make or break your wine. Too low, and you might as well be making syrup, too high and you end up with Fanta, sweet but too tart to taste it. When done right, though, you will have luscious, accentuated fruit shining through without leaving a hint of sugar on your tongue, just a long, lingering sensation. This, of course, requires that you use grapes with naturally high acidity, which is where the greats like Riesling or Chenin Blanc come into play.
I won’t send everyone running to the hills by attempting to explain German wine law and viticulture, but when it comes to sweet wines it can be handy to at least have a notion of what it all entails. Broadly speaking, Prädikat classifications are based on ‘degrees Oeschle’ an indicator of the ripeness of the grapes based on the must weight, which increases as sugars accumulate within the grape.
Over time these classification terms have become associated with sweet wines, but it is important to keep in mind that °Oeschle conveys info on the sugars present in the grape, not in the wine! With grapes that fall into Kabinett, Spätlese or in less frequent cases Auslese, a winemaker can simply decide to let the alcoholic fermentation run its course, ending up with 12 to 13% of alcohol. For instance, the VDP Pyramid (see Burgundian Riesling at Von Winning) requires Spätlese-level grapes for Grosses Gewachs wines, which are always dry.
The actual sweetness is up to the winemaker to decide. He or she can decide to halt the fermentation by adding sulfur dioxide or by lowering the temperature to a point where yeasts stop functioning (although in this case he would likely have to sterilize his wine in order to avoid refermentation in the bottle, which is a drastic move). The complication is that, unlike the Prädikat classifications, mentioning if a wine is trocken (dry), halbtrocken or feinherb (off-dry) is not legally required on the label, so sometimes you have no idea if the wine in front of you is sweet or not! The trick is to check the alcohol percentage. If this is in general higher than 11% in the case of spätlese and 13% for auslese, chances are you are in halbtrocken or trocken territory (dependent on where you are in the Oechsle range, but you get the general idea).
Starting from Auslese though, you will rarely encounter completely dry wines. Auslese grape picking commences in a stage of overripeness, comparable to the ‘vendange tardive’ as we know it in the Alsace. Beerenauslese goes even further, and whereas signs of noble rot can already be present in Auslese grapes, here we are already more on the level of ‘Sélection de Grains Nobles’ in the Alsace. Another apt comparison would be Coteaux de Layon versus Chaume and Quarts de Chaume in the Loire region where concentration and residual sugar potential are also considered as determinants of quality.
The Beerenauslese level will also see a steep increase in price. The stems become too weak to support the grape brunch, so yields plummet. Trockenbeerenauslese is even more exclusive, as only grapes fully infected with botrytis come in scope. It can be painstakingly difficult to make the selection in the vineyard as the right grapes have to be picked out one by one. These wines can be virtually indestructible, capable of aging for decades while retaining their thrilling balance between acidity and sweetness. I myself haven’t had a lot of occasions to taste them, and while I do recognize their quality they can be a bit too much on the syrupy side in their youth, especially if you are not used to drinking sweet wine.
Finally we get to Eiswein, a sweet wine that can really only be made in cold climates as you need frozen grapes. When temperatures hit -8°C, the water in the grape bunch will freeze, concentrating other components such as sugar and acids. Pressing must occur when the grapes are still frozen, so harvest is in general an all-nighter, resulting in a very pure, intensely sweet wine. The concentration of acids will preserve balance though and when done right, the wine can be extraordinary. °Oechsle would be in the same category as beerenauslese, but the key difference is that the best ice wines contain not a single trace of botrytis.
It is a risky business as a winemaker forgoes a part of the harvest in order to get a shot at making Eiswein, hoping for a decent winter. For instance, 2012 was the most recent year in which it was possible to produce Eiswein in large parts of Germany, but winter has not been strong enough in recent years, barring a few select locations. Yields are low at the harvest already and wild animals can ravage a vineyard still containing fruit. Winemakers may resort to using plastic coverage, although the downside is that it increases humidity, and thus the risk of botrytis.
As has hopefully become clear, there is a logic to the system, albeit a complicated one. We will take a look at a couple of young and old sweet wines over the next couple of weeks to show off the incredibly diversity riesling can offer with a bit more sugar!
photo credit – Peter Jakob Kuhn
I have talked about Riesling wines from the Pfalz before, mainly in the context of the Von Winning tasting I participated in a couple of months ago. Stephan Attmann, the winemaker at Von Winning is a proponent of creating opulent, majestic Riesling wines through the use of oak barrels, the Burgundian pièces. There is a certain complementarity to be found, as the warm climate we find in the Pfalz leads to more ripeness and sunniness in the grapes. It is like doubling down on a wine’s characteristic without going overboard while still opting for something bordering on radical.
Others will try to keep the wine in check through focusing on old vines and controlling yield, attempting to strike a balance between the subtlety and fruitiness that Riesling can offer so brilliantly. One of the most accomplished growers in the Pfalz, Hansjorg Rebholz uses this delicate interplay as a signature touch to all the wines his family produces. He wants the wines to be an honest reflection of their point of origin, the terroir and the vintage. To this end he works biologically and refuses interventions such as deacidification or chaptilization.
Vom Buntsandstein Trocken 2013 grows on red sandstone, a soil we encountered before at Furst in Franken. A harsh soil that does not retain a lot of water is perfect for keeping vine growth in check while still holding on to enough heat to ensure ripe grapes in the end. Smoky, even a little bit flinty on the nose, something zesty and ripe in the background. It starts of almost water-like in the mouth, which is deceiving as it gradually wins in depth, juicy in the middle with ripe sunny peach, only to end on a spicy, almost cinnamon-like minerality that keeps on lingering. In style it resembles Eva Fricke’s Kiedricher actually, focused on subtlety while not losing sight of keeping it in balance with sufficient complexity and depth. This is a really nice example of the delicacy that Riesling is capable of, even in a warm climate.
Other Pfalz wines talked about:
You cannot get a full picture of German Riesling without talking about the country’s tradition in sweet wines. At one point in time they ranked amongst the most expensive wines in the world, even beating a couple of Médoc First Growths. Unfortunately, they took a turn for the worse in the eighties. ‘liebfraumilch’ is largely to blame for the image of sweet German wines that still persists in many parts of the world. Continue reading
So it has been a while since I talked about Franken. At the time I only really focused on two estates to show what the region’s producers could do with Spatburgunder and Silvaner, but that does not mean that you cannot find terrific Riesling here as well. Horst Sauer is generally considered one of the best-known winemakers of the region. Continue reading
The Rheingau has historically been considered one of Germany’s premium wine regions. The presence of the Cistercian religious order, of course better known for their work in the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, probably has a lot to do with this. It may be surprising that the Rheingau was initially a Spätburgunder-growing region, based on Pinot Noir vines taken from Vougeot. Near the end of the 19th century however, when German wine was booming worldwide, prices commended for Rheingau Rieslings frequently rivaled those of the famous wines of Mosel and Saar. Continue reading
We are staying in the Mosel this week with a slightly atypical wine. Rita and Rudolf Trossen have been working biodynamically for almost forty years. Continue reading
The Mosel is without a doubt Germany’s most famous wine region. Most people associate it with sweet wines and rightly so. Somehow the slopes along the Mosel or the Saar are capable of bringing out an almost ethereal lightness in Riesling, showcasing delicacy and liveliness at the same time. Continue reading
Rheinhessen is the most important wineproducing region in Germany. There are two ready explanations for this success. First, it is home to several important varietal crossings, including Muller-Thurgau, Dornfelder and Scheurebe (which actually originated here), so there are a lot of different wine styles on offer.
So we’ve talked about Riesling for the last couple of weeks as if it were simply the ideal summer wine but there is of course so much more to it. It is one of the world’s most complex varieties, capable of offering a most nuanced and true picture of terroir. Continue reading
Despite my love for Riesling, I’ve never really gotten to know the Alsace, France’s one and only home to the variety. Part of this is because of the limited availability of Alsacien wines, as I do not think that there is one merchant in Belgium who really specializes in the region; most of them only have a limited range just because they think that they need it to complete their offer. Continue reading
Finally summer has arrived with a bang as the weather forecast shows 38° C this weekend. For many people, the go-to wine when it gets this hot is rosé, but I have to admit that I’m not exactly a fan. Continue reading
There are dozens of misunderstandings amongst the general public when it comes to wine. It is too expensive, it all tastes the same, I don’t know anything about it so I have to look like a deer caught in the headlights when presented with the wine list in a restaurant, anyone who knows the name of a grape variety that is not chardonnay or merlot is a snob,… . Continue reading
Von Winning is unquestionably the rising star on the German wine scene. This is all the more surprising as the real “start” of the estate was only in 2008 when Stephan Attmann was appointed managing director. For the history of the vineyards we have to go back a bit further. Continue reading
So we had our first sunny day over the weekend. It’s a perfect time to move on from dense, warming wines to something more fresh but still containing a lot of substance as Belgium never seems to heat up properly. Spring is, together with autumn, my favourite time of the year to drink wine. Now what to drink with sunny but cold weather? Continue reading
The majority of Franken’s vineyards can be found surrounding Würzburg, the region’s most important city. The city was one of the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire and despite being destroyed during WWII, it is clear that the city prides itself on a long and rich history. This is evident in the wine domains based in the city as well, namely Juliusspital, Bürgerspital and the Hofkeller Würzburg. Continue reading
I have a love-hate relationship with German red wines. They are either too thin, containing mere superficial fruitiness, or they are too concentrated, displaying alcohol levels up to 15% and tasting more like watered-down port. To make matters even more complicated, whereas you can find a more than decent Riesling for as little as 9-10 euros, a decent Spätburgunder will often set you back at least 20 euros. Continue reading
If you quiz people on what, if anything, they could tell you about Franken, I’d gather that you would get a lot of blank stares. Even among winelovers, I am fairly certain that most people would stop at bocksbeutel (the signature Franken bottle) and Silvaner (the most important grape variety grown). Continue reading
Judging from the wine blogosphere, you would be quite correct in assuming that German white wine is the next big thing, up for a well-deserved revival after the world had been flooded with cheap, low-quality liebfraumilch for decades. I myself only discovered the new wave in German wine a couple of years ago when I was introduced to Dönnhoff (Nahe) and Horst Sauer (Franken). Continue reading