The Vitality of German Riesling

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Written by Al Drinkle

If you aren’t already a disciple of German Riesling, now is the time to open up your heart to one of the most rewarding wines on the planet. I’m not talking about respecting German Riesling, I’m talking about drinking it. There’s a big difference, and with the imminent arrival of vast quantities of wine from the enormously appealing 2015 vintage (and the simultaneous softening of the sometimes pointy 2014s), there’s never been a better time to integrate German Riesling into your life.

Like all lovers of German Riesling, I relish in the fact that I and others who earn a modest living can drink exciting examples on a daily basis without severe stress to my finances. Bobby Stuckey, a Master Sommelier and owner of Frasca in Colorado notes the following on his wine list:

“Rieslings from the Rheingau and Mosel were once among the most coveted wines in the world. Today they are more likely to strike fear in the heart of the wine consumer. German wine conjures up images of syrupy sweet wine with scarcely pronounceable names like Liebfraumilch. Collectors of German wine would like to keep it this way. It allows them to drink the wine they love for a fraction of what it’s worth. They know that Rieslings from top sites in the Rheingau, Mosel, and the Nahe are one of the greatest beverages on earth… One can drink Riesling comparable to the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundy for a tenth the price.”

This is all true, but I’m left with mixed feelings. I love how I can casually open a wine from Rüdesheim or Brauneberg on a Tuesday night without giving it a second thought (obviously the same cannot be said of Chambolle-Musigny or Meursault), and naturally I’m delighted about the avaricious amount of Riesling that I’ve been able to squeeze into my basement while still keeping myself clothed. It’s also gratifying as somebody who sells wine for a living to be able to offer my customers such breathtaking wines at astoundingly low prices. Most of the time, if I don’t think about it too hard, the situation seems more than satisfactory.

Al meeting with Eva Fricke

Al meeting with Eva Fricke

But each year when I travel to Germany to visit our growers, I’m amazed that they do the work that they do, achieving the results in the glass that they achieve, and are willing to pursue this vocation while charging the low prices that they charge. Their vineyards are the northern measure of viticulture’s potential, often on dizzyingly steep slopes and my mind is re-blown every single visit. Equally flabbergasting is how unappreciative the average wine consumer is of the situation as it stands. Every one of us should go to bed each night thanking the deity of our choice that we have access to these special wines, and that we can afford them. Instead, German Riesling is too often a hand-sell, somebody’s guilty pleasure or a category of passing interest but certainly not worthy of the most special occasions, serious cuisine or esteemed company. The warped correlation between quality, price and interest is absolutely fucking incomprehensible. But hold on - am I taking liberties in assuming that German Riesling is so great? Let’s examine the wines a bit further…

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The first challenge in discussing why Riesling is great, and yet a significant boon to the argument itself, is that the versatility of the grape is such that from the same vineyard and vintage, Riesling wines can be great in many different ways. Paul Grieco of Terroir Wine Bars and Summer of Riesling fame prefaced his gigantic Riesling list at Hearth Restaurant in NYC with the assertion, “the glory of Riesling is its multiplicity of styles,” followed by, “the problem of Riesling is its multiplicity of styles.” In his recently published and brilliantly researched Riesling Rediscovered, John Winthrop Haeger suggests, “neophyte consumers are obviously most disadvantaged by unsignposted stylistic continua, but the hazard is also great for serious professionals.” He then goes on to assert this claim through anecdotes involving well-trained staff in fine restaurants with award-winning wine lists who were unable to edify their guests as to the sweetness levels of the Rieslings on offer. Perhaps the unpredictability of a wine’s style is an inconvenience, but this doesn’t negate the brilliance that is qualitative success at varying sweetness levels. That’s like complaining that one doesn’t always know what one will get from a Tom Waits or Miles Davis record. Then listen to the Ramones instead! Always the same! And as for “well-trained” staff not being able to speak to the sweetness of a wine that they are selling? Not trained well enough, I’d say, as we seem to be able to keep it straight at Metrovino.

It’s an oversimplification to say that German Riesling succeeds in dry, off-dry and sweet categories alike; instead, it helps to consider the potential of excellence in Riesling as a continuum of sweetness. The wines can be bone-dry, lusciously, oozingly sweet, and every step in between. And in each category, perhaps excluding those that achieve the most opulent sweetness, one will find slim, willowy wines as well as those of great weight and richness, and all that lies betwixt. This means that any given vintage in Germany will likely result in Riesling wines that range from 6 – 14% alcohol. Chenin Blanc is capable of offering a similar sweetness spectrum, but doesn’t range from gossamer delicacy to raw power, nor does it match Riesling’s talent for reflecting terroir. Let’s investigate this point.

Of all the wine grapes, Riesling most eloquently expresses the place from which it comes. Others are also reliable representatives of their origins, perhaps most notably Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, but I’m not the first to argue that Riesling is the most articulate even amongst these. When tasting stylistically similar wines from a skilled Riesling producer with holdings in various sites, the wines often taste like they’re from different planets, nevermind different vineyards. If the visual differences between Graacher Himmelreich and Domprobst are negligible, the disparities between the wines can be shocking. Seemingly insignificant variants of aspect, exposure, mesoclimate and altitude are amplified in the glass and nuances of soil type are explicitly expressed in the resulting wine. When ushered into being by a good grower, Riesling is far too sensitive to take any of these influences (and others) for granted, weaving the story of its birthplace deep into the essence of its flavours. Why is this important? Because Riesling’s capacity to reflect the place from which it comes represents an inextricable connection to that place; it’s a vinous teleportation serum for the adventurous taster.  You don’t just taste aromas and flavours but signifiers of geography, geology, history and culture. And for those of you who don’t care about Riesling’s potential to speak in different dialects because you just want a delicious wine, you needn’t be intimidated by the marketing nightmare resulting from Von Winning’s 12 single-site dry Rieslings, for example – Riesling makes striking terroir statements without sacrificing any deliciousness. Those of us who lovingly sell the wines are here to help.

Riesling’s peerless terroir transparency is a facet of its general propensity towards complexity. All else being equal, an excellent $25 German Riesling will offer more intricacy of flavour than an excellent $25 Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Malbec or anything else that you care to compare it to and the same applies as you work your way up the pricing hierarchy. In part this is a feature of its general value, but there’s more to it. Riesling can effortlessly and simultaneously express myriad disparate but complimentary flavours and textures, indexing them in a clear and enjoyable way that many other grapes are incapable of at any price-point. The complexity of Riesling isn’t hectic, nor is it convoluted under the pretence that more complicated is more good. A complex wine can be more rewarding for those who look for the shading and the detail of beauty whereas complicated flavours can be impressive, but are often distracting and fatiguing. Riesling is gloriously symphonic instead of aggravatingly cryptic. It holds mysteries, but they don’t tend to obscure its deliciousness. As good Riesling ages, which it does magnificently, its myriad components tend to melt, arguably fostering a more profound complexity or at least flavours that are more limpid and sublime.

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Riesling is an exceedingly versatile wine with food. Obviously I’m hopelessly biased, and I’ve noticed that anybody who fervently champions a particular style of wine will tend to argue that said style offers peerless food-pairing flexibility (“…and I just find that Barolo pairs with everything!”), but even objectively this claim must be made for Riesling. Despite such an assertive character and so many moving parts, Riesling is more than happy to step out of the limelight and simply offer accent and support to whatever it is you’re eating. Considering its many German manifestations, one may choose amongst Rieslings of various weight, sweetness and age to fine-tune pairings, but rare is the dish that can’t be complimented by some sort of Riesling. It scores extra points for being particularly accommodating to cuisines that grew up in cultures without wine traditions of their own. But please don’t make the mistake that I did when I was first getting into wine: I assumed that since Riesling so effortlessly enhances a vast array of Thai, Indian, Szechuan and Japanese dishes (especially if German and especially with low alcohol and a modest amount of residual sugar), this must be its prime and maybe even sole utility. But its presumed effectiveness should not be restricted to the Eastern or the exotic because Riesling’s versatility is virtually unprecedented, even if employed only because its soprano refrain provides such lively counterpoint while rarely clashing and competing. This itself is a difficult balance to strike and a commendable virtue.

This all being said, we’ve done little to address what Riesling actually smells and tastes like. Broadly speaking, its wines are refreshing because of inherently high acidity. So Riesling wines can be rich, and they can be powerful, but rarely are these components presented without the counterbalance of assertive freshness - good German Riesling is never cloying or unctuous. High acidity is a great compliment to residual sugar as well and in fact the balance of certain wines require the retention of some natural grape sugar. This is one of the many reasons that pure data regarding wine can be misleading – a Riesling with 20 g/L residual sugar and 10% alcohol might taste much drier than a California Chardonnay with 5 g/L and 14% alcohol due to the interplay between its various components. A general tendency towards low alcohol makes for wines of great gulpability and digestibility. Perhaps because of the “soils” that it loves to grow in, or perhaps because of high acidity, low PH, or its propensity towards reduction (though these latter three characteristics might be influenced by the soils…) the aromas and flavours often tend more towards “minerality” than fruit. This already lengthy piece of propaganda is not the appropriate place to discuss the elusive and enigmatic nature of minerality, but think in terms of “stony,” “icy,” “saline” or “austere” flavours and textures.

This isn’t to dismiss the omnipresence of fruit and flower, which are usually articulated in Riesling’s bell-tone and shiny fashion. When the wines are young, if notes of Bosc pear or linden blossom occur, they will be presented with shimmering clarity and usually allied with fervent mineral tones. Flavours aside, terms like “zippy,” “crisp,” “zesty,” “piquant” and “racy” often apply across the spectrum of weight and sweetness. As the wines age, as even the most modest but balanced German Rieslings gracefully do, the components start to soften with acidity being less prominent, the presence of residual sugar (if applicable) seemingly dissolving and the youthful notes of mineral, fruit, spice and flower melting into a whole that’s even more ethereal. There’s a polymerization of aroma and flavour that results in something simultaneously sub-aqueous, caramelized and celestial. Regarding table wines, the best dry and off-dry examples should be enjoyable for at least a decade or two and the most supernal dessert styles should be drinkable over a couple generations. These might be understatements. But most importantly, Riesling can provide great pleasure at every stage of development. 

More controversial is the potential occurrence of fusel or gasoline-like aromas, now recognized as the aromatic compound TDN, or 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2- dihydronaphthalene. Again, I don’t want to devote the space to addressing this in great detail right now, but it has been established that the precursors for TDN are the consequences of certain vineyard practices, but can be exacerbated by winemaking decisions as well and if present in the wine will usually become more assertive with age. My personal experience is that screwcap closures don’t help. (It’s worth noting that more than one Riesling authority asserts that these characteristics are actually indicative of adolescence in Riesling and will ultimately fade, or at least morph, with full maturity). Like many nuances and quirks that we find in wine, I feel that subtle occurrences may sometimes add to the overall complexity, but when TDN obliterates regional and vintage character, I am compelled to consider it a fault. But as somebody who tastes hundreds and hundreds of Riesling wines every year, I would consider TDN an occasional component of German Riesling, not something that should be expected and certainly not accepted when in excess.

As a final consideration, the dedication and commitment on the part of the growers is touching and admirable. It’s been alluded to earlier in this piece that Riesling is usually grown in parts of Germany that aren’t overly hospitable to farming. For growers in the Mosel, Saar, Nahe, and parts of the Rheingau and Rheinhessen, the best vineyards are on insanely steep slopes and anything but the most crude mechanization is an impossibility. Added to this, I must remind you how far north these wines are grown and that harvest usually takes place in October and might extend into mid-November – not exactly T-shirt and shorts weather. At this northern viticultural extreme, rot and disease pressure in the vineyards can be significant. Needless to say, most of the young Germans who have decided that growing Riesling is their lunatic destiny have also decided that they’re going to put all their efforts into doing a great job at it. It’s not the kind of career path that attracts underachievers and the growers deserve the fame and money that some of their colleagues in less foreboding regions enjoy.

So there it is – German Riesling is a brilliant and rewarding beverage. If you’re not drinking it, you’re missing out and if you’re only dabbling, it’s time that you wholeheartedly commit to this soul-enriching enterprise. If you’re running a wine list and you don’t have a German Riesling by the glass, I simply don’t trust you or your restaurant – if you can’t grasp such a simple imperative, there can be no hope for the rest of your operation. At Metrovino we’re doing our share. Every single staff member is a maniacal imbiber and this year we’ll be offering over 40 German Rieslings that wouldn’t have been available in Alberta without our initiative. For many of these wines, we are the only Canadian source and there’s absolutely no way that this would be worth the daunting financial risk if we didn’t truly believe that these wines will improve our lives and ultimately our city.