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German Rieslings: a light, dry delight

by Felicity Hughes

It’s a breathtaking sight: Between the rigid rows of bare vines, constellations of seeding dandelions glisten silver in the morning light. While the barely budding vines may seem dull in comparison, the golden Rieslings made from last year’s grape harvest are glittering with promise in my glass. Spring in Germany is the perfect time to assess the quality of the newly bottled vintage, and I’ve been invited by the Deutsches Weininstitut (German Wine International) to meet some of the nation’s new generation of winemakers, who, with each year’s new crop, are redefining the boundaries of what the Riesling grape stands for.

What Germans now prize as stellar wine is very different in style to the treacly, fruit-driven confections made by the previous generation of winemakers. Just as the Protestant movement that began with Martin Luther in the 16th century was to sweep away the ostentatious pomp from churches, laying them bare for a more sober contemplation of the divine, so too has the Riesling grape been stripped of its high sugar levels and more tropical fruit flavors by a new generation of purists, allowing the grape to channel the pure taste of minerals that had been overshadowed by cloying sweetness in the past.

Theresa Breuer, who is responsible for the coordination of production and blending at Weingut (winery) Georg Breuer, typifies this trend and favors wines that are bone dry, with a rich vein of minerality and tight acidity that, unlike many whites, are capable of aging 10 years or more. Breuer owns some choice real estate along the Rhine, including Schlossberg in Rudesheim, which is in a treacherous but priceless position. A slice of soil that sharply inclines down to the Rhine at a point where the great river narrows and deepens, Schlossberg is too steep for machinery and can only be harvested by hand, but it enjoys an incredible microclimate as light reflecting off the river forms a concentrated cone of heat that amplifies the power of the sun, giving the grapes a powerful charge. The slate soil is rich in quartz, the flavor of which is detected in Breuer’s delicate handling of the grape.

While Breuer typifies the new guard, Weingut Jakob Schneider, established in 1575, manages to skillfully steer a path between the new and old waves of winemaking. On my visit, I was greeted by Jakob himself. Looking remarkably young for a man who founded his business 435 years ago, Jakob is actually the umpteenth eldest son to bear the full name of the winery. This youthful Jakob, who is still in his 20s, works alongside his father, also Jakob, at the winery.

Jakob junior, trained in modern winemaking techniques, admitted there can be some friction when it comes to making decisions in the vineyard. While his father is a traditionalist, Jakob junior wants to innovate, and their clashes often ferment into stormy arguments that quickly blow over. Jakob junior believes this is beneficial, generously admitting that “the truth is somewhere between.”

The Schneiders have the good fortune to own first-class vineyards at Niederhausen on the banks of the Nahe River. Some of the soil is volcanic, which gives an appealing saltiness to the wine’s taste. They produce a number of reasonably priced wines in the more fashionable trocken (dry) style, which nevertheless contain surprisingly sweet candied orange, fruity scents along with a modern lightness.

On perilous slopes, tending the vineyards is a test of the winemaker’s nerve as well as his skill, and is made all the more dangerous by the slippery dry straw that has been laid down between the vines to prevent soil erosion.

While climate change has in some ways been kind to German Rieslings, with warmer summers aiding the ripening process, sudden floods, hailstorms, drought and changeable weather are all potential land mines. Too much sun during the summer months can stress the vine and produce over-ripe grapes — a problem for those aiming to make a dry wine as higher sugar levels in the fruit will push up the alcohol content and destroy the balance of flavors. Because of global warming, many winemakers are now making the decision to harvest around two weeks earlier in order to avoid such a situation.

Balancing tradition with modernity is a recurrent theme with many of the region’s best winemakers. Although Weingut Geheimer Rat Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan has now passed the estate into the hands of a wealthy investor, young winemaker Sebastian Wandt is keen to keep with traditions by making a fruitier, less fashionable wine. Bassermann-Jordan is in the process of gaining EU organic certification, and Wandt feels that a more hands-off approach will produce a finer wine. “A lot of problems in the vineyard can be regulated by nature itself,” he said.

An organic label, of course, is sought after in these environmentally conscious times, but not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to advertise green credentials. I also visited Weingut Kruger-Rumpf in Munster-Sarmshein and chatted with Georg Rumpf who, together with his father, is producing some interesting wines. The Rumpfs embrace some organic strategies such as planting cover crops of wild plants between the vines to replenish nutrients in the soil and provide a habitat for insects that can reduce pests. However, Georg maintains that spraying with pesticides and herbicides can be necessary in order to develop healthy vines. After tasting his Rieslings, which zing with minerals from the quartz and slate soil while still showing some delicate citrus and strawberry flavors, I don’t doubt that Georg has definitely made the right decisions for his vineyard.

There is not as much tension between old and new ideas of winemaking as there might first appear. The 1970s and ’80s, a notorious period that saw the global market choke on a glut of cheap sugary German wine and tainted the reputation of German Riesling, were a historical blip. Before World War II, the global reputation of German wines was second only to France, and the style in which these wines were made was predominantly dry. Now the pendulum has swung back, and there are some great Rieslings out there.

My one reservation might be that while many winemakers are enthusiastic reformers, a small overly zealous few are stripping the Riesling of the lovely fruity qualities that give the grape much of its drinking pleasure. At their most refined, dry Rieslings are not only austere, but also charming, and it’s this latter quality that should not be swept aside in the rush to modernize: The best of these newly bottled German wines will improve in luster long after the fleeting sparkle of dandelion seeds have been blown away.

This entry-level Riesling is very fine indeed, containing hints of gasoline scents that, believe it or not, are an attribute of the most highly prized expressions of the grape. Mixed in with the gasoline, you’ll be pleased to hear, is a nice ripe apricot scent. On the palate, the interplay between ripe fruitiness and acidity is nicely done making this an exceptionally pleasing wine for the price. While it’s a little young right now, it will be nice for midsummer drinking in about four months’ time.

Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan, Auf der Mauer, Riesling 2009

Fermented with wild yeasts, this one gives off a smoky scent that entices the drinker. In the mouth, complex flavors of cranberry and faint oak charm the palate.

Kruger-Rumpf, Riesling Trocken 2009

Pale and silver, a good sniff produces scents of fennel and iron combined with a fresh lemony zing on the palate that’s tightened up with strong acidity. A perfect way to cut through the stupor of a midsummer afternoon.

Kruger-Rumpf, Pittersberg Riesling Trocken 2009

Attractive marmalade scents with an undertone of oak are brightened by twinkly lemon and honeysuckle. While sweet on the nose, it’s dry and crisp on the palate, displaying excellent restraint.

Jakob Schneider, Niederhauser Klamm Riesling Spatlese 2009

Tropical fruits and herbal hints on the nose lead into a structured taste that combines with a salty-sweet seasoning and high acidity that really astonishes. “Spatlese” means late harvest, which raises the level of sugar ever so slightly.

Georg Breuer, Berg Schlossberg Auslese Goldkapsel

Made with a strict selection of botrytis berries, fresh melon flavors play out over the mineral background. Made with selected grapes, auslese is also late harvest and slightly sweeter than spatlese. This one is of exceptional quality.

Wagner Stempel, Riesling Trocken 2009

A blend from different vineyards, this combines rosemary and cut mint leaf with a depth of minerality on the nose. On the palate, a haughty acidity and snooty saltiness raises this wine above more plebeian Rieslings.

Emrich-Schonleber, Lenz, Riesling 2009

“Lenz” means springtime, and this has a lovely lilac bloom on the nose that combines with an attractive minerality. In the mouth this one has a great pizzazz made up of lemon and lilac flavors.