Pushing the boundaries and creating something new has been done. The appropriate t-shirt is presumably sitting in the back of a wardrobe somewhere. Pushing the boundaries often results in shock and awe and yet it is seldom done well: it is the pushing that attracts attention: rarely the result. Pushing the boundaries in this case is the utilisation of exotic varietals in Germany's Pfalz: it isn't new but it is rarely done well: there are a thousand dull Merlots, a hundred boring Sauvignons and these big red Cuvees where Cabernet is mixed with Syrah and a whole host of awful (best-)forgotten German varietals is tiresome: everyone is doing it and yet it is difficult to recall a wine produced in this style that I actually like....no, it is difficult to name many such wines that are actually any good.
But, there are a handful of names attracting attention for producing such wines: Sauvignons that don't just taste like mass-made Marlborough, Merlots that avoid mimicking the Medoc or Shiraz that doesn't bore the hell out of you. Furthermore, one estate is doing it really well: producing such wines alongside established German-style wines made of varietals more commonly associated with the Pfalz: Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Oliver Zeter in Palatinate's Neustadt produces Germany's best Sauvignon Blanc and yet not because of its reliance on gooseberry, peach and fox urine but because the best side of the varietal is displayed with a unique Germanic flair: besides a touch of the fruit you might expect, there is a clear structure: one of the defining aspects of well-made Riesling - there is a touch of spice, something other Sauvignon Blanc from the Pfalz often lacks. It doesn't stop at Sauvignon though. Zeter also makes a Chenin Blanc and whilst that might indeed be a touch exotic, even by Pfalz standards, the wine relies on its solid good quality rather than being "one of the only Chenin Blancs from this region". Again, deeply complex, the wine exhibits the characteristic acidity of Chenin Blanc and the classic cleanliness of German wine: whereas the wine is naturally fermented and left on the lees for a long time: a practise typical in the Loire, the wine impresses with both structure and spice.
Changing colour for a moment and switching to Syrah, here is a wine with the wonderful black fruit and pepper elements of Syrah with an excellent character: superbly incorporated wood, a floral touch and a metallic feel. The "Z" Cuvée is also a treat - a Cuvee of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, the wine is a reliable red of traditional character but a noteworthy different feel to anything you may have had before: with the clarity and cleanliness of Bordeaux, the Syrah spices the wine up giving it a fuller feel despite ensuring it remains elegant. The temptation is for winemakers to use varietals like Dornfelder or Cabernet Mitos/Dorsa in such Cuvees and this wine proves that this simply isn't necessary. Often these varietals remove elegance creating obtrusive fruit, giving the wine a darker colour or just raising the residual sugar level to make them easy to drink. Cuvee "Z" is reminiscent of another top Pfalz red: Knipser's Cuvee X.
And here is where you expect for me to stop and yet it would be a shame if I were not to mention Zeter's classic German wines. They too are more than worthy of a passing recognition. Starting with the entry-level Riesling, the wines express true character and perhaps something more than just excellent drinkability. The basic Riesling is a brave wine: despite it being the "simplist" Riesling in the Zeter portfolio, it offers up notes typical of longer maceration times, longer on the lees and plenty of acidity: something several producers are anxious of offering-up these days for fear of losing their mainstream customers.
Perhaps the most stunning German-style wines in the range though are the excellent Pinot Noirs. With perhaps a more Francophile touch than any of the other wines in the Zeter range, the Pinot Noir Reserve is a juicy, elegant and addictive red with structure, spice and a non-reliance on fruit. Deeply complex and wonderfully moreish, it is my favouite wine in the Zeter series.
Silvaner has to be one of the most underrated varietals of all. When done well it is expressive, elegant and highly interesting: in Rheinhessen, Franken, Baden, Alsace and Pfalz, this is a frequent occurrence: Silvaner is more than capable of offering up world-class wines and yet most of the world hasn’t even heard of it.
On its own and without intense selection and crop reduction, Silvaner is often fairly neutral in taste. Like Müller-Thurgau and indeed the majority of the Pinot grapes, its character is tuned by the soil it grows on and how the winemakers chose to produce the wine. Whereas Silvaner is one of the most exciting varietals in Germany, it often produces bland, tasteless wines that fill supermarket shelves. In this form, it is seldom expensive and Silvaner is one of the workhorses of the German mass-producers: millions of litres of forgettable liquid, produced with the sole intention of getting someone drunk on the cheap.
But the true story of Silvaner is completely different.
Some of Germany’s most interesting and expressive wines are made of this varietal. Unlike Riesling, it isn’t particularly well-known overseas which leads to the vast majority being consumed within Germany and Alsace. Even the best wines made from this varietal rarely exceed 30€ a bottle which makes it a bit of an insider-tip for lovers of wines with small budgets: there are world-class Silvaners on the market for under a tenner, sometimes even for half of that price.
Franken is the spiritual home of Silvaner and its wines represent the pinnacle of the varietal’s production. Grown mostly on limestone soils on the banks of the Main, Franconian Silvaner is often very characterful, packs a decent amount of acidity and works astonishingly well with a wide varietal of dishes: particularly Asian cuisine. From top producers right down to regional co-ops, Franconian Silvaner is one of the world’s most important wine culture-products. Prized nationally for its Silvaner, without this varietal, it is hard to picture Franken as a major production region. Whilst many argue that its reds and Rieslings are the true gems of the region, my personal impression is that Silvaner is the specialty here.
Rheinhessen is also an important production region for Silvaner. With its limestone soils, many of the producers in and around Westhofen are prized for their fantastic, decent and smooth Silvaners: newcomers and established names alike consistently serve up some of this varietal’s top wines. Perhaps cleaner and lighter in style than those from Franconia, the wines are excruciatingly modern in style with elegance being perhaps the key word, wines here often display slightly less acidity and have a higher concentration of creamier, buttery notes.
In Alsace, Silvaner (most-often labelled as Sylvaner here) is a slightly more simple, everyday affair although the region produces a high number of good quality wines – whereas Alsace is also probably best known for its Riesling, Alsatian Sylvaner is highly underrated and, whilst it sometimes can feel a little dull (as is the case in Germany also), wines with a higher level of acidity can be particularly good: the old vines in the Zotzenberg Grand Cru site offer up some of the best examples of Sylvaner worldwide.
Even in the Riesling and Pinot-dominated Pfalz are there examples of fantastic Silvaner: again, mostly reliant on chalky soils, the wines here present themselves with a reliable acidity, a decent structure and, thanks to the way some of these wines are produced, they offer up stunning examples of modern, crisp, dry wines. In Baden, a region blessed with sunshine and ripe soils, many producers experiment and succeed with Silvaner. In the Kaiserstuhl and Markgräflerland, the varietal is widely planted and, whereas the majority of these wines are indeed forgettable, a few sites offer optimal growing conditions and excellent results.
I have compiled a list of wines to try: from entry-level, affordable wines right up to Grand Cru, Grosses Gewächse and experimental natural wines from a whole host of producers. If you have any suggestions, please use the comments section and I’d greatly appreciate being able to add more to the list based on your tips!
Alsace, Baden and Pfalz
Finding these wines where you live
Almost all of these wines are exclusively available in Germany. Many of the wineries do ship overseas or work with importers in several regions worldwide. If you're having trouble locating any of the above wines where you live, please get in touch and I'll gladly assist you in getting hold of more information.
German wine has it hard.
Not only are the names of the wines unpronounceable for about 95% of the world’s population, its flagship products are so poorly understood or mislabelled that only a select few know what is hiding behind the brown glass and olde-worlde label.
Riesling? Isn’t that the sweet, sour, floral stuff that your Nan drinks?
I won’t go down the path of defending Riesling, it can do that on its own. I will however defend the labelling. In the past I have hinted at the simplification of German wine classification and the VDP and its members have done a good job – it still seems a little over-complicated for some but…..and I mean this seriously: why are international consumers so willing to split Bordeaux into appellations and yet are not prepared to do this with German wine?
In Bordeaux there are a whole host of styles from white to red to sweet. All of these wines are described with a theoretical map, varietal-compositions are hotly-discussed and we even talk about tertiary aromas and how they define the wine in the glass. Burgundy is even worse. It is incredibly complicated and we are forced to split not only the Côte de Nuits from the Côte de Beaune but from the hundreds of AOCs within. On top of that we then separate between Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru – you can study Burgundy your entire life and will still come across an AOC you’ve never heard of before.
I named only two of the French production regions and yet the world seems to only want one generic German style – “Rhein Riesling”.
Winemakers often argue that German wine is too complicated: too many names, too much information on the bottle….too much German. Whilst I’ll admit that Le Montrachet Grand Cru sounds nicer than Scharzhofberger Grosse Lage, in effect it is exactly the same information being portrayed here: even better in fact: the German label even tells you whether the wine is dry or not and which varietal it is you are drinking.
And yet people will argue that this is too complicated, too “unsexy” and yet I think we should embrace this: people often enquire about English translations for “Spätlese” or “Auslese” – when was the last time a French producer thought about translating “Grand Cru” or “Vielles Vignes” – we should relish these German words and enforce that they become part of international wine lingo like “Reserva”, “Classico”, “American Viticultural Area” and the like.
I am sometimes genuinely of the impression that German wine should continue being German: bowing to consumer demands is a very unsustainable business: consumers are notoriously non-loyal.
So crack open a bottle of Geheimer-Rat Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan Deidesheimer Hohenmorgen VDP. Erste Lage Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese and thank the heavens that it isn’t called “Rhein dessert wine” – there is no culture in that.
As the Saar slowly and majestically meanders on its journey North to join the Mosel, it passes several of Germany’s most-famous and prized vineyards. In Wiltingen; Scharzhofberg, in Saarbrücken; Rausch, In Ayl; Kupp and in Kanzem; Altenberg. The rolling hills and sleepy communes perhaps disguise the fact that these are some of the world’s finest vineyards when it comes to the production of white wine, specifically Riesling.
With parcels of vines in many of the above-listed vineyards, Weingut Van Volxem is one of the region’s biggest names. With so much of its vineyard space in Grand Cru (Grosse Lagen) sites, it has one of the largest portfolios of top wines: no less than six top dry wines and a handful of sweet wines sourced from the same sites.
Perhaps it is the Scharzhofberger wines that Van Volxem is best known for: its dry Scharzhofberger is a truely fantastic wine that drinks well young and even ten years later. This legendary site is probably Germany’s most famous vineyard and the one most commonly associated with the Saar region as a whole: whilst part of the Mosel production region and the reliance on slate-soils, Saar wines are often very different to those of the more widely-known Mittelmosel.
However, it isn’t just the winery’s top wines that impress: whereas entry-level estate wines (Gutswein) are the calling-cards of every winery and the ones they makes most money with, several top German producers release dull, lacklustre wines in this market segment. This is not a practise that Van Volxem is familiar with: its “Saar Riesling” and “Schiefer Riesling” (from purchased grapes) wines are both remarkably good and, just like their big brothers, keep for the best part of a decade, if not longer. The secondary tier too is fascinating Alte Reben, Rotschiefer and the Wiltinger-village wines are all very good and offer fantastic value-for-money. It’s even worth mentioning that the winery’s two non-Riesling wines are also some of the best non-Riesling wines from the Saar altogether: the producer’s Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc) is a thrilling take on the Devonian slate soils without the piercing acidity of Riesling. It is perhaps only topped by the winery’s Windvogt made of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc sourced from a unique parcel in Wawern with a micro-climatic situation leading to successful cultivation of Chardonnay in what is a cold-climate production region.
The top Riesling wines are so very good though and Van Volxem has so many of them: besides the above-mentioned Scharzhofberger, the winery produces some of the finest wines from the other top Saar vineyards: Ockfener Bockstein, Wawerener Goldberg, Wawerner Ritterpfad, Kanzemer Altenberg, Wiltinger Gottesfuß and Wiltinger Kupp. All of the wines express the sites expertly and yet all of them have a very similar set of winemaking characteristics: The Van Volxem style.
The Van Volxem Style
Whereas many other Mosel and Saar producers opt for medium wines with medium bodies and a high amount of residual sugar, the majority of Van Volxem's wines are dry in style. Again, dry Mosel wines have a recent tendency of wanting to hide their acidity and yet the Van Volxem wines make use of this acidity rather than attempting to hide it behind over-obtrusive fruit. The wines are also fairly unique in colour with a much deeper pigementation than many other producers' products in the region. A spice structure holds the wines together, joined with the acidity, and it leads them feeling rather fuller - perhaps even Burgundian in style - despite being completely different in taste. The dryness is approachable and sometimes hovers close to the beginning of medium or halbtrocken despite never crossing that boundary in the single-vineyard wines. Whereas the winery does produce two Kabinetts, an Auslese and a Beerenauslese, its competence lies with dry wines and they are undeniably stamped with the Van Volxem style - a set of characteristics that exists in the top-wine: The Scharzhofberger P right down to the simplest manufactured wine: "Schiefer Riesling" - this style is even applicable for the winery's fantastic "1900" Brut Sekt - an hommage to the Saar-sparkling wines of the days gone by, where Saar bubbles were favoured over the wines of Reims, Ay and Epernay.
It also belongs to the Van Volxem Style to recultivate historic sites. In 2015 and 2016, Van Volxem has worked together with Mosel producer Markus Molitor to revive the historic Ockfener Geisberg vineyard - the first wines should be available in the 2019 and 2020 vintages.
A selection of recent Van Volxem wines
Purchasing these wines where you live
All of the Van Volxem wines are widely available in Germany and Austria although the top wines from 2015 are mostly sold out already. In the UK, Berry Bros. and Rudd has a good selection of Van Volxem wines (click here). In the US several retailers stock the wines - if you have any trouble finding a retailer, please get in touch and I will gladly assist you in getting hold of the above-mentioned wines.
The birthplace of the illustrious Spätlese, Germany’s culinary capital and the spiritual home of Riesling, the Rheingau already has a few feathers in its cap. Many of those feathers might have come from the VDP eagle which soars over the Rheingau more often than it does in any other German production region: nowhere do you find the VDP logo as often as you do in the Rheingau.
The region might represent only a tiny part of German viticulture when it comes to the amount of wine produced but it is one of the country’s most important production regions, on a par with Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, when it comes to the importance of the wine that is made there. Whereas the Mosel is world famous for its sweet wines, it's the Rheingau’s dry wines that are some of the finest white wines in the world.
I remember reading a discussion about how the Rheingau region had lost its flair: this was at the time when the new VDP classification came into force (2012): all of a sudden huge Mosel names started releasing dry wines grown on well-known vineyards with the GG logo on the label. This, alongside the rise of Rheinhessen and the omnipresence of the Pfalz and Nahe, put the Rheingau into the shadows a little. Rheingau winemakers openly discussed the problems the region had: too traditionalist, too old-fashioned, not-attractive enough to new drinkers – plans were put into place, changes were made and I am pleased to be able to present a reinvented Rheingau: a region bursting with youthful innovation and home to a hundred new styles of wine.
One of the most exciting wines to emerge from the region in recent years is Schloss Johannisberg’s Weisslack – I’m referring to a wine that costs about 12€. Important though is the producer and their relevance in the region: Schloss Johannisberg is one of Germany’s most famous wineries: the inventor of the Spätlese and the world’s oldest Riesling winery – the fact that Schloss Johannisberg realised a change was needed is proof enough that this region required a refit. Its entry-level Gelblack is a fabulous wine: a typical old-world style Rheingau dry Riesling and, whilst this is appealing to a wine drinker, it often feels a touch dusty, a little over-complicated for a new drinker. Weisslack is different though: no wood, cleaner, more driven, a screw-top, fresher, skinnier and not-at-all-dusty: it tastes like a young wine from the Pfalz rather than a Rheingau wine although it does have a telltale Rheingau spice structure to it - it was created for restaurants and modern gastronomic ventures.
It isn’t just Schloss Johannisberg though: the new Gutsweine (estate wines) from the Rheingau producers have all been spruced up a bit: the ever-relevant Georg Breuer range has retained its freshness, the wonderful wines of Spreitzer have cleaned up their act too: mineral-driven, clean, compact wines with freshness at the forefront of drinkability. Of course the upper-echelons of a winery’s portfolio still retain individual elements of traditional Rheingau character but even here, the wines have been to the gym: look at the 2014 and 2015 Grosse Gewächse from Allendorf and Balthasar Ress: addictively drinkable Riesling with focus on staying slippery: aerodynamic wines that fit perfectly with almost any dish imaginable despite losing nothing that makes Rheingau wine fantastic.
Let’s forget Riesling for a moment…
Riesling is what the Rheingau is best known for but some of the most interesting and thought-provoking wines to have emerged in the last few years are made from Pinot Noir. Whereas this varietal isn’t new in the Rheingau, the wines in the last few years are not just more drinkable but fabulously modern too. Peter Perabo of the Bischöfliches Weingut Rüdesheim is one of Germany’s most gifted Pinot Noir artists: the winery’s Pinots are some of the region's finest and all of them combine both the German take on Pinot Noir and the international appeal of this sometimes (particularly in Germany) problematic grape.
Likewise Chat Sauvage is making some wonderful Pinot Noir from some of the finest sites for this varietal in Germany. Odder still is their reluctance to produce any Riesling at all: favouring Chardonnay as a white varietal and yet these wines aren’t gimmicky or Chardonnay-worshiping wood-bombs but excellently crafted Burgundy-like wines with an exquisite drinkability and, compared to the wines they are modelled on, astonishing affordability.
A natural touch
The rise of natural wine is undisputable. Whereas 100% natural wines are likely to remain a niche-market product: having regular wines influenced by natural-wine characteristics is a welcome addition to a winemaker’s toolbox: long grape-skin maceration, leaving wines on the lees for longer than necessary, aging in clay amphora or no filtration for example. Two wineries in the Rheingau have impressed with surprisingly drinkable wines using exactly these practises: Balthasar Ress and Peter Jakob Kühn. In the case of Peter Jakob Kühn, the dry Rieslings from Grand Cru vineyards have more than just a background natural-wine feel to them: long grape maceration is noticeable in both the Sankt Nikolaus GG and the Doosberg GG wines. Balthasar Ress has recently endeaved to extend the amount of time some of their Rieslings spend on the lees with three wines aptly named: 18, 32 and 42 according to the number of months they matured with their yeasts. Not only that, Balthasar Ress produces an orange wine made from Pinot Blanc – actually one of the only orange wines that you could suggest might achieve unilateral appeal: it might indeed be a niche-market product but it isn’t too specialist that it might scare adventurous drinkers away.
It isn’t just still wine experiencing a revitalisation: three of Germany’s finest Sekt producers operate in the Rheingau: Schloss Vaux, Sekthaus Solter and Bardong. All three make some of the nation’s finest sparkling wine both out of Rheingau wines but also those imported from other production regions. Schloss Vaux has been at the forefront of German sparkling wine production for more than a decade and its single-vineyard line is a wonderful expression of how Rheingau Riesling and Pinot Noir works fantastically in powerful sparkling Cuvees. Sekthaus Solter too is one of the nation’s most decorated producers of bubbly and has some rather interesting Cuvees in their portfolio: with some of the region’s best sparkling-intended vineyards at their disposal, the producer’s fine wines continue to impress.
Perhaps most interesting is Bardong with its tendency to leave wines in the bottle for a long time before release. It uses both Riesling and the Pinot grapes to make Sekt from some of the region's best sites for growing grapes intended for the production of sparkling wine. It isn’t just
Sekt-houses that are making fabulous wine: some of the region’s wineries are also creating fabulous sparkling Rieslings or Pinots and one producer in particular is preparing a sparkling wine sourced only from its Grand Cru vineyard: Schloss Johannisberg – their first Sekt in decades.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the "reinvented" Rheingau is that it is still ever-changing: whereas a lot has been done, the region shows no sign of slowing down in its progressive approach to winemaking. The days of restrictive governing bodies and a traditionalist VDP-leadership are over: whereas the VDP still enforces traditional practise and typical Rheingau wines are in its sights, its talons have released slightly and its member wineries have a little more room to play with than they did before: will we see Chardonnay Grand Cru sites in the near future? Probably not but we will see a whole host of new wines emerging from one of Europe’s most important production regions: the often overshadowed and yet utterly appealing Rheingau.
Some wines to try
Finding these wines where you live
Many of these wines are available in the United States and United Kingdom. All are widely available in Germany and most in Austria and Switzerland.
If you'd like assistance in finding these wines where you live, please get in touch and I'll gladly help you find a handler/distributor in your region.
You'd think that, as a keen wine drinker, I should keep my mouth shut about this but, after all the years of drinking more Riesling than mineral water, milk and every other wine combined, I am still fully perplexed for this very simply reason:
Riesling is far cheaper than it should be.
I know why people don't buy Riesling: most of the world thinks it is always syrupy-sweet and most Germans think that it is overly acidic. Riesling does have a higher amount of acid than most grapes but modern wines, particularly the dry ones, don't have an unpalatable amount of acid, nothing to break open the heartburn tablets for and, imagine this for a second, acid in wine is good: it pairs well with many different cuisines and is an important part of both the structure of a wine and a crucial part of its ability to carry flavour. The mis-conception that Riesling is always sweet is also pretty much true if you only visit supermarkets and smaller wine stores outside of Germany or Austria. However, the majority of Riesling sold in Germany is dry and these wines are beginning to emerge in other countries (finally).
But this isn't about Riesling's struggle against mainstream mis-conception, rather a simple fact: Riesling is worth a lot more than the price most of us pay for it. Decent Chardonnay is a great deal more expensive and seldom as good as Riesling - I know this is an objective statement but, it's true as well: take a ten euro Riesling and a twenty euro Chardonnay and....the Riesling is nearly always the better wine.
Riesling has the ability to impress: I have converted hundreds of Chardonnay drinkers to Riesling and hundreds of Pinot Grigio drinkers onto Riesling as well: they always have the same objections and then, when it is in their mouths and finally swallowed, they are forced to agree with me and I'm not talking about expensive wines here. Actually Riesling has such a wow factor that I've converted drinkers of only the driest wines to actually try and like sweet wines and off-dry wines made of Riesling.
But, Rieslings struggle against false or unimportant interpretations isn't new and a handful of bloggers and wine journalists have been trying to combat it for years. There is however a huge argument in favour of Riesling and that is quite simply the value-for-money factor: aside from a handful of wines from Alsace and sweet wines from Rheingau and Mosel (and one dry wine from Rheinhessen), Riesling is nearly always completely affordable and I'm not talking about average quality wines here. Ten euros is going to get you a very good wine in Germany, twenty euros and you're looking at world-class white wine....think of what you'd pay for that in France or the USA.
1) Nearly all Riesling is good
Yep, that's not a lie - nearly all Riesling (particularly the dry ones) are good, 80% are even very good. You can't say that about any other varietal (apart from perhaps Grüner Veltliner). Seriously: there are very, very few bad Rieslings out there: yes, the supermarkets stock extremely cheap Riesling however most of these are drinkable and more than half are actually enjoyable. Whether dry, sweet, cheap or premium: Riesling is always a treat.
2) Riesling is the best food wine
There is a Riesling for any food dish - actually I'll be posting more on this point in the next few weeks but, for now, I challenge you to think of a dish that you can't pair with one form of Riesling. Like Asian food? Always Riesling. Seafood? Again, Riesling is your best bet. Steak, burger, pizza? Riesling is always a good choice - imagine being able to choose a bottle of wine at a restaurant that fits with everyones' dish? I can't think of another varietal that can offer that.
3) Compare the value-for-money factor with other wines. Riesling always wins.
Take a 200 euro Pauillac, a 200 euro Pommard and a 200 euro Cabernet from Napa - nothing will come close to the value for money factor in a 20 euro Riesling. Of course, the wines are very different but, if you were to assign the same price per quality to Riesling as you would to the above-mentioned wines, Riesling would cost 200 euros or more. Don't believe me? Check out the scores of the best Rieslings from every major wine critic and those of the Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa wines....now do a quick internet search to find out how much they cost. Don't forget to pick up your chin from the desk once you're done.
4) Riesling ages gracefully
Dry Riesling ages better than white Burgundy and some sweet Rieslings are pretty much eternal. Provided that the wines have good corks, sweet wines can be enjoyed 50, 60 and even 100 years later. Dry wines can age 15-30 years and, thanks to the acidity (see I told you it was a good thing), they always retain a certain freshness. Whilst investment buyers might only choose a few select wines from the most famous wineries in the rarest forms, most Riesling ages very well regardless of cork or screw-top. To describe how Riesling ages is like describing how beef tastes: there are so many different aromas and characteristics that come with so many wines - they are all remarkably different but they all have the ability to age.
5) There are very few poor vintages
Whilst a top vintage is just as rare as in the other regions (although strangely becoming ever-so-common), the "bad" Riesling vintages seldom create low-quality wines. Actually, in the entry-level category for winery-made products, the level of consistency is unparalleled in Europe. Riesling always pulls off a decent show - whilst the premium dry and nobly sweet rarities are noticeably different between the vintages, it is still rare to find a bad or disappointing wine.
6) You can drink Riesling when you want
Maybe not all people agree with this point but I'm going to make it anyway: Riesling is fabulous at every point in its development: from fresh-in-the-bottle to pre-historic: Riesling is always enjoyable. Whilst some of the sweeter wines do lose a bit of, let's call it "zing" in middle-age, they are still perfectly palatable throughout their lives: you can wait or you can drink it now: you don't have to wait for ripeness...but you can...if you want: it really is completely up to you!
7) It wasn't always this way
There was a time when Riesling wines from the Mosel and Rheingau regions cost just as much and sometimes even more than the famous products of the Domaines and Chateaux of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Again, I challenge you to check that fact out. In the late 19th and 20th Century, Riesling from the Rhine regions and its tributaries (commonly referred to as Hock back then) was some of the most expensive wine in the world and was one of the most important German exports: these days machinery and automobiles have taken this title but it all started with wine - some of Europe's oldest and most profitable wine merchants were (and still are) based in Germany's Hanse-Städte: they used to export millions of litres of Riesling all over Europe and the wines were so sought-after that they often auctioned for much higher amounts of money than the French wines of the time did.
8) Riesling isn't necessarily cheap to make.
Whereas a great deal of European and New-World vineyards are fully-mechanised. A great deal of those in Germany (particularly those where Riesling is grown) aren't and probably never will be. High-altitudes, steep slopes and slippery floors make the planting, caring-for and eventual picking of Riesling grapes quite a job. Not only that: German employment guidelines for the pickers are some of the strictest in Europe and German vintners pay some of the highest wages in the world for seasonal pickers. Also, being so far North, German winemakers (again, particularly with Riesling regions), there is a large element of risk in the production of Riesling: hail, not-enough sun, too much rain, fewer natural predators for pests, frost and many other factors make producing Riesling a far greater risk than many other varietals and, in the regions where it is produced, it can be very unrewarding to make wine at all: yields are low, crop loss is high and winemakers are in a constant battle against nature to make a living.
9) Riesling expresses its 'terroir' more than any other varietal.
Whereas you can train yourself to taste the soil upon which a wine has grown, Riesling is one of the best wines to discover this in. Whether slate or limestone, quartzite or volcanic, it is nearly always present in the glass. No two Rieslings taste the same and, due to the simple fact that most German wine is sourced from a particular region (usually comparatively small to those overseas), the wines often stay true to the form that nature chose for them: regardless how many separate vineyards' grapes are used in them. Whereas all regions have a variety of soil types and differing climates within them, Riesling wines are often shaped by the place they were grown in - whereas Pinot Noir and Chardonnay also express terroir well, Riesling does it best.
10) There's not as much of it as you think there is.
German wine and the word Riesling are synonymous: think of Germany and you think of Riesling. Because of the customer's mis-conception that Riesling is sweet and too acidic to consume, winemakers have been forced to plant other varietals - wine tastes change and, whilst Riesling crops have remained stable in the last few years, the varietal occupies less of Germany's vineyard space than it used to (in %). In fact, compared with other regions, German wine production is tiny: in Bordeaux alone there are over 120,000 hectares of vineyards. In Germany there are around 102,000 hectares, only about 22% which are covered by Riesling vines (source).
But perhaps things are changing. Riesling has never attracted the same attention as Bordeaux and Burgundy (particularly in the important emerging markets). This will undoubtedly change though and the nation's new wave of young winemakers is likely to have an effect on the demand both overseas and inland. the German Wine Institute, Generation Riesling and the VDP are doing a great job in promoting the varietal and prices have risen slightly in the last decade.
Unfortunately though, 2016 looks like it is going to be a disastrous vintage: weather, pests and a whole host of other factors mean that there will be far fewer 2016 wines than in the vintages beforehand. Stock up on 2015 Riesling (one of the best vintages ever) to make sure you don't miss out.
It might sound like a cliché, recommending Rosé wine with your summer and it probably is but, let’s be honest, Rosé can be so good. It combines the best of both words: the freshness and crispness of white wine and the fuller, redder notes of, well, red wine.
The problem is with rosé though, is that it is sometimes so badly made: sickly sweet, messy and sticky. For that reason, many so-called wine experts ignore the stuff. Well that’s their problem: there are hundreds and thousands of well-made rosé wines all over the world and, if done properly, some of them can even compete with white and red wine. Of course, the world’s most famous and arguably best pink wines come from Provence in Southern France. These wines represent the pinnacle of rosé winemaking. The only problem is that they’re rather expensive and some of them, and I’m sorry for saying this, kind of take the interestingness out of rosé – for me, rosé needs to be fun and fruity and….kind of unserious: it needs to be easy-drinking, pour-it-down-your-throat kind of stuff rather than the stuffier world of white and red wine.
So here I have compiled ten German rosés, all of which offer fun, fruit and yet a high-quality feel. All of them are very different from one another and you’ll notice a number of styles: from clean cut, bone dry, to bonkers, out-of-this-world wine with residual sugar, the craziest pink colour you’ll see in wine and a whole lot of fun.
Because, let's be honest, that's what drinking pink wine is all about.
Finding these Wines where you live
As ever, I'm more than happy to assist you in finding these wines where you live. All of them are widely available in Germany and can be found with a quick internet search. The vast majority are available in Austria and Switzerland and a handful in other European countries. If you'd like me to help you in tracking down a bottle you can purchase near you, let me know and I'll gladly assist you.
A few weeks ago I was shocked by some comments I heard. I asked about the wines of a certain Saar winery and was immediately hit with a lecture about how people who know about wine don’t drink such products: apparently the wines have no style, are dull, are overpriced, can be found in every supermarket and are only popular because of a certain celebrity lurking in the background.
I was a bit shocked because I’ve always liked the wines. Sure, I agree that the entry-level stuff is available on every corner but, as a supermarket wine buyer, I don’t see that as a problem: the wines are always sold at a respectable price and neither the winery, nor the prestigious VDP institution is harmed by this. Quite the contrary in fact: the availability of entry-levels wines in supermarkets is a general sales boost and a kind of dangling bait hook for the consumer: “hey, you like this? Visit your local wine dealer and ask for our premium wines.”
That is exactly what I did back then.
The winery in question is Von Othegraven, one of the Saar’s most important producers: a stone’s throw from Egon Müller, Van Volxem, Forstmeister-Geltz Zilliken, Peter Lauer and many other fantastic producers. Von Othegraven belongs in this club in my opinion and I was really shocked when I heard that a handful of people think the opposite is true.
So, here I say it: regardless of whichever TV personality stands behind the Kanzem winery, regardless of the fact that you can find the entry-level wines in many supermarkets, regardless of the fact that some people refuse to accept this blatant truth: the Von Othegraven winery is a producer of fantastic wines and, in one market segment specifically, one of both Germany and the Saar’s frontrunners: Kabinett and Spätlese Feinherb from Grand Cru sites.
The wines drink excellently from day one and, whilst this is the case with a few other entries in this category too, this characteristic runs throughout the entire portfolio rather than only being applicable to one or two wines. They grace with age but represent excellently drinking at every stage in their long lives which is a rare treat with many winery’s best products entering drinking five to ten years after bottling (and in some cases, much longer).
Even the aforementioned entry-level wines are well made, full of Saar character and, true to the spirit of this part of the world, realistically priced. The dry wines from Grand Cru wines are good as well: the Illustrious Größe Gewächse are very enjoyable indeed: the flagship Kanzemer Altenberg GG is, for me at least, one of the Saar’s best. However, I still regard the winemaker’s sweet wines as being far superior but, let’s face it, that’s normal in the Saar region and the Mosel in general as well.
So, last night, whilst enjoying a bottle of the basic VO Riesling, I decided to dig up some tasting notes of the Von Othegraven wines I’ve tried over the years. I’d call it “best of VO” but I haven’t tried all of the wines in all of the vintages so here are a few random wines from the Kanzem winery that I recommend you try.
Finding Von Othegraven wines where you live
In the UK, the Wiltinger Kupp Kabinett is available through www.thewinesociety.com however, for a full range, contact the guys www.thewineryuk.com. In the USA, it can be a little harder to find the wines but some of them are available. Visit www.skurnik.com for a comprehensive range and information about shipping in your state.
The wines are widely available in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For further information about getting hold of these wines where you live, get in touch and I'll gladly help you.
www.von-othegraven.de - the winery's official website
www.grosserring.de - The Grosser Ring's website (VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)
www.moselfinewines.com - comprehensive information and tasting notes for VO wines
Pairing white wine with wood is always a risky business. Not everyone likes oak and some of the most slender and delicate varietals often suffer under too much wood contact.
We know that oak can fit well with Chardonnay. They’ve been doing it in Burgundy for centuries and, in California, it is practically the norm. Chardonnay and wood work very well together if done well. Sometimes the wood might seem a little dominating, especially in some Australian wine – probably the reason that many people avoid it.
Still, there are thousands of blogs about Australian and Californian wine discussing the influence of oak on Chardonnay – even in Burgundy, hundreds of bloggers confront the fruit/wood balance every week. A new(ish) trend in Germany is the aging of wine in wooden barrels – most notably Barrique-aged Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and even Riesling.
Alright, so storing and aging wine in wood isn’t new in German viticulture but seldom has it ever been allowed to dictate taste rather than simply carry it. Some of the Rheingau producers age a certain amount of their wine in wood and blend it back into their final cuvees – this has been happening for decades and not just in the Rheingau.
The spring to the limelight of white wine in wood was probably started by the Palatinate Dr. Deinhard winery when it released a series of wines under the new name of Von Winning.
Von Winning has a wide portfolio of both own-grown and bought-grape wines. The signature wood factor is part of the brand’s success. Whereas many critics believe that the reliance of wood in Riesling is a mistake…or indeed, in the most extreme circumstances, renders the wine undrinkable, a bright new approach to both Riesling and German white wine is always generally well received. Copycats and many other wineries who had been experimenting with Barrique and white grapes were finally able to market their new creations – why not?
Whilst Riesling and Barrique is still only a very niche marketplace and one pretty much dominated by Von Winning, the aging in wood of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay has become pretty widespread. In Franconia some people are even taking a look at Silvaner in wood – with mixed results. Even new-on-the-scene Sauvignon Blanc is ready for wood and Von Winning’s 500 Sauvignon Blanc is arguably its flagship for this new direction.
The problem many have with wood and Riesling, or indeed Pinot Blanc, is that it removes the sense of “German-ness” of the wine and I suppose I partially agree. Young Von Winning single-estate Rieslings often feel quite a lot like Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc from the Mosel sometimes feels like Russian-River-Valley Chardonnay on speed. With a bit of time though, these wines are, partially in thanks to the Barrique, really able to expose terroir. The Chardonnay-feel drops off after a few years in the bottle with the riper and sharper fruits of Riesling (together with a sense of acidity) taking over from the wood and its rounding-off of the Riesling in the younger years.
By now, you’ve probably realised that I’m talking about dry wine. Whereas sweet German wine usually does have a hint at wood involved, these wines suffice as the international ambassadors of German winemaking – it is unlikely that these will ever change.
Von Winning’s wines are still young (the first vintages aren’t even ten years old) so it’s difficult to see what will happen in the future. The creamy edge and vanilla notes of oak are interesting and will gradually fall into the background. The main question many people are asking is whether much of the Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Blanc will be left over to taste when that has happened.
Still, there are a number of highly recommended wines. Perhaps no longer typical of German wine and mistakable for foreign products, the new direction is an exiting one. Von Winning’s portfolio is attractive and its new-found definition-of-character might actually be positive for German wine as a whole. Making a product portfolio broader and more diverse never harms the market as a whole and the true fans of finely driven and classically-produced German wine will still have enough to chose from. Riesling in oak will always remain a niche market.
Getting hold of these wines where you are
These specialist articles are hard to find although a number of them are available in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand. If you'd like help getting hold of them, please get in touch and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.
This post is purely subjective and comprises of wines I've tried and have enjoyed. There exists no ranking, nor have any of the wineries involved any influence on the words written. Nevertheless, if you don't like something, please let me know and I'll get back to you.
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.
For more Mosel wine reviews, please click here.