Whereas it’s fair to say that the current trend for white wine is crispy dry, this represents only one area of viticulture. Between those refreshing bottles of dry white and the opposite extreme: the rich dessert wines of South-Western France lies a category springing back to popularity: medium or half-dry.
Unfortunately though, about 90% of off-dry wine is badly made – fermentation is artificially stopped to ensure a certain amount of residual sugar remains in the wine. This is either done by cooling the fermenting wine down to stop the process of turning yeast and sugar into alcohol or, in the most extreme of cases, chucking in a few bags of sugar (or similar) into the tank after fermentation before bottling the wine.
There are wines that are naturally sweeter though – where the grapes have fully ripened and are left to mature for longer creating more sugar – this sugar sometimes cannot be offset by the naturally-occurring yeast in a grape (or indeed winery’s cellar) and, after the fermentation cannot continue due to lacking of this yeast, a certain amount of sugar is left over in the wine: nothing added and nothing artificially adulterated: naturally-produced, off-dry wine.
Whilst it isn’t true of every wine produced, in Germany, this is commonly labelled as ‘Feinherb’ or, as many professionals prefer to label the wine: the optimal balance between acidity and fruitiness – basically medium or off-dry.
Unlike the German word for off-dry (halbtrocken), feinherb isn’t legally defined – whereas the main taste classifications are defined and categorised by legislation and a whole list of deciding factors: feinherb is open to interpretation although usually means wines not quite dry enough to be dry and yet not quite sweet enough to be labelled as sweet (süß, lieblich).
Whereas such wines are made all over Germany, one region is particularly good at it: the Mosel. In fact, this is the kind of wine the Mosel is famous for altogether. Whereas it is home to some of Germany’s finest dry Grand Cru (Grosses Gewächs) wines, these have little appeal on the export market. If someone (not in Germany) says “Mosel”, the thought that immediately springs to mind is of off-dry, low-alcohol Riesling. They really do make up some of the country’s finest wines and, in stark contrast to the very sweet wines of the upper echelons of the Prädikat system and the finest dry wines, they’re entirely affordable.
Affordability, excellent fruit notes and relatively low levels of alcohol, Kabinett wines are both refreshing and present some of the most accurate definitions of Riesling altogether.
The grey-green-capsule, single-vineyard Rieslings of Markus Molitor are some of the shining examples of this style of wine. Sourced from some of the entire region’s finest vineyards, Molitor’s Kabinett wines offer fantastic value and even better drinking. Particularly good are the wines produced in and around Zeltingen. The 2013 Markus Molitor Zeltinger Himmelreich Kabinett is wonderfully youthful and reminds immediately of freshly-pressed, unfiltered apple juice. Together with notes of freshly cut grass and handfuls of wild herbs, the wine is both refreshing due to its acidity and warming thanks the thickness of the fruit. The finish is long and yet very clean – priced at around 13€, it’s some of the best-priced Mittelmosel Riesling available.
One of the most famous names in the Mosel is Joh. Jos. Prüm. Like Molitor, the winery produces fabulous wines from some of the region’s finest sites. Alongside the Zeltingen vineyards, the winery also creates wines from the famous Domprobst vineyard in Graach. Its 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Domprobst Kabinett is an excellent example of how much sugar can be contained in the wine and yet balance is never an issue. Whilst the definition feinherb might not stretch this far, the astonishingly well worked-in sugar doesn’t make the wine feel big and bulky. With beautiful quince and fresh pear aromas, coupled with a hint of stone fruit and lashings of typical Mosel slate soil, it is easy to see why Prüm is one of the most famous names in the Mosel valley.
In Bernkastel-Kues lies the world-famous winery of Dr. Loosen. Whereas the wines are widely available abroad, they’re somewhat of a rarity in Germany which is a shame. The 2013 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett is one of the finest Kabinett wines from this estate and, thanks to the blue slate soils of the site, the wine combines stone and orchard fruits (particularly nectarine and green pear) with a mineral bouquet that leaves the wine feeling remarkably clean on the palate.
The Trier-based Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt is one of the region’s largest and most famous wineries. Its dry wines are stocked throughout Germany and, with many of the Mosel and Saar’s finest vineyards at its disposal, one Mittelmosel site: Josephshöfer is operated solely by the producer. The 2012 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt (Graacher) Josephshöfer Kabinett is a bold wine with a great deal of character. With yellow plum, sweet apricots and nectarine on the palate, the wine finishes on slate notes typical for the wines of Graach and surrounding sites. Aromatic herbs finish off the wine leaving it feeling both big and yet completely in control.
Moving on from the Mittelmosel, the Saar region is also home to some excellent Kabinett wines. In Kanzem lies the Von Othegraven winery. Only Riesling is produced here and, whilst the winery might indeed be well-known for its dry Grand Cru (Grosses Gewächs) wines, its Grand Cru sites also produce fabulous off-dry wines such as the 2012 Von Othegraven (Wiltinger) Kupp Kabinett. This remarkably clean-cut wine oozes with fresh sweetened nectarine, ripening pineapple and mango juice. Whilst that might sound like an overwhelming combination, the fresh menthol herbs such as mint and sage hold it together, making the wine very round and extremely easy-to-drink.
Another Saar estate famed for its off-dry Riesling is the Forstmeister-Geltz Zilliken winery based in picturesque Saarburg. With its Rausch Grand Cru site (Grosse Lage) consistently producing some of Germany’s best Prädikatswein, the small company is gaining ever more popularity thanks to its combination of fantastic wines and their retailing at almost unbelievable prices. The 2011 Forstmeister-Geltz Zilliken (Saarburger) Rausch Kabinett is full of exotic fruit so bold that it feels like jam. The green apples, pears and quince work well with lemon juice and the eucalyptus note at the end of the wine is unforgettably good.
Food pairings with Kabinett Riesling
The great thing about such wines is that they work both as aperitifs, for savoury and for sweet dishes. A very popular pairing is with spicy Asian food – particularly Thai and Indian dishes. Whereas dry wines often struggle to cope with hot spices, the residual sugar manages to work well, neither pushing itself into the foreground nor vanishing into nowhere. Whilst most fish dishes are possibly dwarfed by the fruit content of these wines, grilled tuna or any other oily fish are perfect companions to this kind of wine. Seafood, particularly scallops and marinated king prawns also benefit from a touch of residual sugar and the racing acidity and delicate-edge of Riesling. Also, if you’re using hot sauce with your oysters, Riesling Kabinett offers a great pairing.
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