'Roll back the sugar and it’s like the tide going out', says Margaret Rand, who investigates the changing landscape of dry and off-dry German Riesling and picks 10 good value wines to highlight the contrasting styles...
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Decanter magazine
Scroll down to see Margaret Rand’s top 10 dry and off-dry German Riesling picks
New dawn for dry Riesling?
German Riesling can be off-dry, in the traditional way, or it can be bone dry. Germans have valued their dry Rieslings for years.
However, In the UK at least, it’s been a tough sell; despite merchants’ usual ability to spark interest among consumers in any new wine.
The usual reason (and I can’t think of any other, so we’ll stick with it) is that sweet Liebfraumilch and its like destroyed the reputation of all German wines. But good grief, worse sins than that have been forgiven by another generation. Think of platform shoes!
While we’ve been looking the other way, Riesling has been evolving: getting drier, riper and more precise. Climate change is taking German Riesling into its comfort zone, and dry wines that used to be a speciality only of more southerly regions like Baden or the Pfalz, and then the Rheingau, are now made in the Mosel. And successfully, too.
Article continues below the wines
Margaret’s top 10 dry and off-dry German Riesling picks:
Click on the wines to see the full tasting note and stockist information, where available.
There's a touch of honey developing here on a wine of great precision and delicacy: it's biodynamic and fermented with wild yeast...
A very harmonious, complete wine. It's resonant, dry and detailed, very pure and precise and with great depth. It fermented for a year and a...
This is a find: a mature Kabinett that demonstrates exactly how wonderful such wines become with age. It's an amazing mix of beeswax...
Perfect if you want to see the difference between the Saar and the Mosel: this has higher acidity and is more austere, but...
A new generation has just taken over here. This is a filigree wine; pure, transparent, taut and very long. Utterly precise.
All the smokiness of the Doctor vineyard: very dark fruit, rich and dancing at the same time.
Very complex spicy notes with a hint of medicinal herbs and a streak of citrus. Layered and concentrated, but feels light. At 11.9 grams of residual sugar...
A wild-ferment wine (spontaneous fermentation, in other words) with lovely texture. Very stony, very precise, fresh and pin-sharp.
Proper Pfalz, with weight and a rich, creamy yet pure palate with some spice notes. Has the weight to match up to quite substantial food.
All apricot and citrus, a taste of grapefruit pith and salt. Very racy and tense. Mineral and very long.
Making a dry wine is not merely a question of letting your vat ferment to dryness. Balance is key. For balanced dry wines, you need ripeness; back in the early 1990s dry Rieslings could be skeletal and hard. The 1970s had three good years, three mediocre ones and four bad ones.
Warmer summers have opened up a realm of possibilities to growers who in the past struggled to make something drinkable. ‘We used to have years of no Kabinett at all, like 1980, 1981 and 1984, because we had to chaptalise everything’, says Christian Ebert of Schloss Saarstein.
It’s not just climate: lower yields and better viticulture have also helped to produce wines with more stuffing; wines that don’t need residual sugar for balance. The classification of Grosses Gewächs, focussing as it does on dry wines at the top of the market, reminds growers that you have to start with good sites.
What you get, along with the greater concentration that comes with lower yields and better viticulture, and the better ripeness that comes from all that plus a warmer climate, is wines of crystalline precision.
‘Roll back the sugar and it’s like the tide going out. Every contour is visible’ – Margaret Rand
Reducing levels of residual sugar is cruelly revealing to any wine: faults will show. Think of how much more precise Champagne is these days, with lower dosage made possible by exactly the same factors that have benefitted German Riesling: roll back the sugar and it’s like the tide going out. Every contour is visible.
Personally I adore the new dry Rieslings for their crystalline precision and transparency. But sweeter Rieslings are how I first learned to love Riesling, and it would be disloyal to abandon them.
Take Kabinett, for example. It’s the most delicate of wines, yet will age for years; it can have as little as 7.5% alcohol – half the alcohol of many a warm-climate red, and with no less flavour. It’s a particularly German style: off-dry Riesling is rare in Austria and eccentric in Australia. You’ll find it in Alsace, but it will have more alcohol.
Light, ‘fragile’ Kabinett is the essence of what off-dry Rieslings (which are now usually referred to as ‘fruity’, to distinguish them from properly sweet Rieslings) can be.
As the ‘better’ vineyards become more suitable for dry wines, so vineyards that used to be less highly regarded are coming into their own and giving the sort of ripe raciness that we want in Kabinett.
It’s routine to describe Kabinett as a perfect aperitif, and it is, especially in the summer. But its intensity of flavour means that it also works with food: crab, trout, salmon, scallops, of course – they all suit a touch of sweetness and they all need acidity. So does a good duck liver pâté. All sorts of fusion food, too.
Riesling should be the default choice whenever you look at a list of ingredients and think, ‘right, what on earth do I put with that?’
Think of dry and sweet not as opposites between which you must choose, but a spectrum of flavours to explore. Dry Riesling from the Mosel is as good an aperitif as Mosel Kabinett; a weightier Grosses Gewächs from the Rheingau will handle game. That’s what Germans will often drink with venison, with a bit of fruit sauce to help the match. And I’ve successfully put fruity Rheingau Spätlese with pheasant à la Normande, where the savoury-sweet apple sauce makes a match with red more complicated.
Switching to dry wines can be a shock, but it’s a good shock, making us reassess the grape. And if that makes us abandon a few prejudices, well – hurrah.
Edited for Decanter.com by James Button.