Germany’s White Gem
By Jennifer Cossey
When discussing Germany, images are conjured of snow-capped mountains, overflowing steins of beer, long blond braids and lederhosen. Another image that might come to mind for some of us is the thought of a sparkling glass of white wine with notes of peach and honey; in short, Riesling.
While Germany grows several other grapes — they have more than 100 varieties planted, including Pinot Noir, which they call Spätburgunder — Riesling is the star. Of the country’s 13 major growing regions — called Anbaugebietes — the Mosel and Rheingau are the most famous for Germany’s regal white.
Many people have come to champion Riesling — they know it’s far more versatile than its super sweet reputation. The acid-focused white is also an amazing wine to age and, wait for, to serve with dinner. And I know just the dinner to have it with, thank you.
To appreciate Riesling, let’s first discuss its sweetness and ripeness, two characteristics that help define the noble grape. The level of sweetness depends on the winemaker; the ripeness, on the amount of time it stays on the vine. Usually the label indicates if a wine is dry or sweet. “Troken” on a label indicates the wine will be dry with no perceptible sweetness as it contains nine grams of residual sugar (RS) or less per liter. Halbtrocken wines are thought of as being semi-dry; they can have up to 18 grams of RS per liter. If neither word is on a label, most likely it will have a perceptible amount of sweetness to the drinker.
Ripeness, on the other hand, is measured by the degree of sugar in the grapes at harvest. What we often refer to as “brix’ in the U.S. is called “oechsle” in Germany, though the measurements are slightly different. Ripeness is also indicated on the label. Quality German Rieslings typically come in the following ripeness categories from least to most ripe at harvest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). The riper the grape, the higher the sugar and the more extracted the color and flavor of the grape and end product. This usually also means a more expensive bottle.
Riesling has long been a favorite among sommeliers for food pairings. Its unique expression as it ages makes it a fun wine to store and share. The siren song of Riesling calls to winemakers and those with a thirst for adventure. Local sommelier Jessica Pierce, most recently at Portland’s Ned Ludd, is living in Germany now finishing her second harvest in the vineyards of Johannes Selbach at Weingut Selbach-Oster in the village of Zeltingen-Rachtig in Germany’s Mosel Valley.
For her, it was the history and connection to the land that called her away, “I’m in Germany because I wanted to see how Riesling was made by the folks who did it first,” says Pierce, who previously worked two harvests at Brooks in the Willamette Valley. “It is so important to go out there and get your hands dirty, literally. Technology has taken our generation away from the land. It’s time to get back to it,” Pierce says. “Understanding your soil and vines is key to making wine with minimal intervention, giving the wine a sense of place with an unmistakable character.”
Aside from working harvest, Pierce is in the process of filming a documentary about the development of a controversial bridge in the Mosel. The proposed bridge, formally called the Hochmoselbrücke, is meant to run across Germany’s Mosel River connecting the towns of Rachtig and Ürzig. Expected to be operational by 2016, the bridge is considered by many of the region, as well as the international wine community, an attack on the land, the people and the history of the place. Aside from simply spoiling the area’s natural, bucolic beauty, the potential environmental causalities include persistent highway noise, potential harm to the air quality caused by the car and truck fumes, and damage to the vineyards’ natural watering system. Pierce is eager to return to work on the project to bring more awareness of the situation and hopefully be a harbinger for change.
Another local who has put in some steep time in the vineyards of Germany is Matt Berson, owner and winemaker for Love & Squalor wine. Berson, who has also worked at Patricia Green Cellars, Brooks (where he is currently the assistant winemaker), J. Christopher, Escarpment in New Zealand and Dr. Loosen in the Mosel region of Germany went to Germany in 2005 to “venture into the unknown” and in pursuit of Riesling.
“I had discovered the joys and possibilities inherent in the grape while working for Jimi Brooks (Brooks Wine) and Tad Seestedt of Ransom,” Berson says. “I wanted to see what the best Riesling region in the world had to teach me. It was really great to see the combination of truly old school techniques and very cutting-edge modern winemaking.”
As for what Berson brought back with him from his time spent in Germany? “Mostly, I think it’s the drive to work through whatever problems you may encounter in the vineyard or the winery, to look through those and uncover the true clarity and expression of the fruit. That is true for red grapes, too, but Riesling especially is a grape of such verve and tenacity and it just wants to be heard. It’s my job to let it speak.”
German Riesling, as well as those made in Oregon, has a voice. And the winemakers of both places are the custodians of those voices and the vessels of a history so rich and deep, ripe and sweet, how could you not love it?
JUMBLE OF GERMAN RIESLINGS
2011 Robert Weil Riesling Tradition, Rheingau
Aromas of apple, pear, dried apricot, lemon meringue along with hints of hay, yellow rose, honeysuckle and geranium lead into a balanced palate with a pleasant finish and a richly textured mouthfeel. $21
2010 Maximin Grünhäuser Riesling Troken, Mosel
Notes of lemon, lime and nectarine along with a hint of banana laced with aromas of honeycomb, shortbread and orange blossom Bright acids on the palate with more citrus characters and a touch of honey and white flower on the finish. $21
2011 Leitz Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Kabinett Riesling, Rheingau
Simply delicious with notes of white peach, papaya, guava, baked yellow apple and melon along with a slight note of honey and yellow flowers with approachable acids, fleshy stone fruits on the mid-palate and a prominent finish. $21