German Riesling: Andrew Catchpole argues that the Mosel is Riesling's spiritual home
- Tuesday 14 October 2008
Yes, Australia has done Riesling proud, admits Andrew Catchpole. But Germany will always be the grape’s heartland, making not just the world’s best Riesling, but arguably the world’s greatest white wine
My first introduction to the precipitously steep vineyards of Mosel came in a January of distant but still bone-chilling memory. The winemaker Ernie Loosen had walked me into the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard under a misty drizzle of icy German rain.
‘To really understand our wines,’ Loosen told me, ‘you have to taste the soil.’ With this, Loosen bent down and handed me a blue-grey shard of slate. Pressed to the tongue, a quasi-electrical charge of wet stone minerality tingled, vibrant and edgy, on my palate.
I would soon be tasting it again and again in his wines. It was the beginning of a revelatory trip that plunged me into the vineyards and cellars of Loosen, JJ Prüm, Fritz Haag, Maximin Grünhaus, Kesselstatt, Bassermann-Jordan, Georg Breuer, Robert Weil and others.
Here I fell head first for the ethereal delicacy and subtle complexity of German Riesling. I’d been inducted into a small, elite club of wine lovers who, like Burgundy-philes eulogising over their beloved Pinot Noirs, recognise that Riesling is, in many ways, Pinot Noir’s white counterpart.
It’s the world’s most elegant, expressive, terroirsensitive grape, and Germany – especially the Mosel – is its spiritual home. But no matter how often we Riesling disciples banged the drum, the muchtouted renaissance never quite happened.
The stumbling blocks are well known: tortuous Teutonic script on old-fashioned labels; a confusing progression of styles from dry to lusciously sweet in wines harvested from the same vineyard; and, of course, the deeply unfashionable legacy of so much cheap Liebfraumilch. Together, they conspired to hold a new generation of modern wine drinkers at bay.
Fallen from favour
It wasn’t always so. Not that long ago, German Riesling, in all its myriad styles, was seen as one of the world’s greatest wines, ranking alongside top Bordeaux.
‘At the turn of the last century,’ confirms Simon Field MW of Berry Bros & Rudd, ‘our records show that top German Rieslings were significantly more expensive than Burgundy, Champagne and all but the very top Bordeaux.’
Indeed, Berry’s list from May 1909 offers Chateau Margaux 1870 at 90/- (£4.50 equivalent) a dozen; Krug 1894 at 82/- (£4.10); and Schloss Johannisberg ‘Cabinet’ 1893 listed under ‘Hock’ at 190/- (£9.50).
Today, prices are well below those of top claret. A quick online price comparison finds, for example, en primeur offers at Howard Ripley Wines of JJ Prüm, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese Riesling 2007 at £102 for six bottles and Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Spätlese Riesling 2007 at £69, also for half a case (in bond).
Ripley buyer Sebastian Thomas is unequivocal: ‘Now is a very good time to stock up. A combination of rising interest in German wines, pressure from the euro and a realisation that the  vintage is very good, mean that prices for such leading estate wines won’t remain so good for long.’
OK, this is a salesman talking, but these are highly regarded estates: you can find excellent wines from £8 to £20 a bottle, sometimes with a modest spot of age. The truth is, Germany has been fighting for our attention for some time now, modernising and simplifying labels, and spreading the message that much has improved, including a real drive to deliver every-day, dry-and-fruity Rieslings.
Loosen in Mosel and Lingenfelder in Pfalz have led the way with unashamedly popularist dry wines such as Dr L and Lingenfelder Bird Label Riesling, wines that hint at the character of great Riesling at a fraction of the price of top bottles.
The better supermarkets and high-street merchants followed, with cautiously increased ranges of very enjoyable sub-£10 dry German Riesling. ‘The reason for Riesling’s renaissance has been its drinkability in every vintage,’ Loosen told me. ‘As the climate has changed in the past few decades, we have gone from being able to ripen three vintages in 10 to at least seven in 10. That has been a huge benefit.’
Helmut Dönnhoff, who makes nervily poised wines of great complexity from some of the best vineyards in Nahe, elaborates: ‘There has been a big increase in demand for drier styles in Germany, with top-end restaurants pushing the trend,’ he says.
‘The better climate has ensured a greater balance between acidity and fruit in drier styles.’ Either could have added that quality German Riesling – especially in its drier forms of Kabinett, the dryish-but-intense Spätlese trocken and off-dry Spätlese styles – are ideal for today’s consumer: alcohol levels are low, and the wines are perfect as light aperitifs.
Moreover, the balance of taut acidity, nervy minerality and delicate-but-concentrated fruit is remarkably compatible with a broad range of foods, from delicate poached fish to Asian-influenced dishes.
Add into the mix Riesling’s ability to mature beautifully, and you can forget the Australian version, for this surely challenges even the great whites of Burgundy for the crown of greatest white wine in the world.
A question of style
Yet it has taken the emergence of Rieslings outside of Germany to open many people’s eyes. Australia, in particular, has created an engaging style all of its own. But the great wines of Clare and Eden are like chalk and cheese
when compared to those of the Mosel and the transparency with which Riesling here highlights its origin.
As Australian winemaker Brian Croser said: ‘The best wines of Mosel and Rheingau represent another varietal dimension when compared to Australian Rieslings. Their searing intensity and acidity, often magnified and embellished by botrytis, creates the world’s greatest white wines – more than equal to Montrachet in all but price – and are certainly the whites that benefit most from bottle age.’
Oliver Haag, winemaker at Fritz Haag, explains: ‘The reason Germany – especially the Mosel – has some of the world’s finest Rieslings is that, with our extremely northern climate, we can make wines with a very light touch.’
At the northern limit of the vine’s ability to survive, a long, slow growing season suits these hardened vines, forcing them to send roots deep underground to fight for minerally goodness from the harsh, rocky soils. Slow ripening, resulting in a long hangtime on the vine, allows the grapes to retain delicate aromatic character and piercingly refreshing acidity while developing intense minerality.
The result, as expressed in so many wines from the beautifully balanced, minerally, concentrated 2007 vintage, is quite sublime – as is the great value offered by so many of these wines.