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German Riesling: A buying guide for beginners

Explore the all-in-one guide to the classic Riesling regions in Germany and learn how to decipher labels just in time for International Riesling Day.

Riesling grows prolifically from Alsace and Austria to New York and New Zealand. Nowhere but Germany, however, does Riesling shine with such kaleidoscopic brilliance.

After all, Germany is considered by many to be the birthplace of Riesling. Historical accounts of Riesling’s exact origin vary, but undoubtedly, Germany is the heartland where this majestic grape has flourished for centuries. The earliest recorded reference of Riesling in Germany was found on cellar logs dated 13 March 1435, a date that’s celebrated  as Riesling’s unofficial birthday.

Riesling is the chameleon of the wine world, adopting a unique persona and style in every region it sets its roots. But only in Germany does Riesling unveil the full technicolour spectrum of its abilities. A mirror to the exacting intricacies of German terroir, German Riesling ranges from bone dry, or trocken, to the barely sweet feinherb and decadently sweet. German Riesling triumphs in both still and sparkling forms.

Key Riesling regions in Germany

Despite straddling the historic limits of cool-climate viticulture, Riesling has flourished in each of Germany’s 13 wine regions thanks to a complex interplay of sun exposure, topography and soils.

The most iconic of all German Rieslings are those of the Mosel, a region where legendary producers like Willi Schaefer, Joh. Jos. Prüm, Zilliken and others are so abundant, that they’re seemingly ubiquitous. Spine-tingling and often laser-light in expression, the wines of the Mosel are born out of a contrast of extremes. Despite an extremely northerly latitude (in wine region terms), the steep, south-facing slopes of the Mosel enjoy maximum exposure to the sun. The craggy outcrops of shale covering the region’s most famous vineyards reflect sunlight and hold in heat.

‘The depth, complexity and lightness of wines from the Mosel, especially our Kabinett, is singular to Germany and the world,’ says Andreas Barth, who, with his wife Susanne, operates Weingut Lubentiushof in Niederfell, a winery that dates back to 1711.

The Rheingau’s historic reputation for Riesling of aristocratic pedigree far outsizes its surprisingly small vineyard size. Vineyards of the Rheingau stretch along the northern banks of the Rhine and Main Rivers, tucked around the many castles and abbeys that dot the region. The south-facing vineyards tumble down gentle slopes towards the rivers and are protected from northerly winds by the Taunus mountains to the north.

Compared to the Mosel or Pfalz, the region enjoys a ripening period that starts earlier and extends late, explains Catharina Mauritz, the eighth-generation owner of Domdechant Werner in the village of Hochheim. The Riesling there is ‘elegant and filigreed’ with ‘acidity that’s not too harsh’, she suggests. Dry, distinctly supple Riesling with focused minerality is characteristic, but the region is also renowned for complex expressions of botrytised sweet Riesling.

Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine region – a sunny, fertile expanse that was once an epicentre for the mass production of industrial sweet wines. Today, the region is far better known for the renegade producers of the 1990s who spearheaded a quality revolution there. Historically, Rheinhessen’s best sites were concentrated in the red-sandstone soils of the Rheinterrasse (‘Rhine Terrace’) and the majestic Roter Hang (‘Red Slope’). Winegrowers like Gunderloch, St. Antony and Kühling-Gillot were largely responsible for resurrecting this region’s reputation and producing some of Germany’s most profoundly spicy, savoury expressions of Riesling there. Meanwhile, a roster of star producers – Klaus-Peter Keller, Wittmann, Battenfeld-Spanier, Dreissigacker and others – have brought new attention to the gentle limestone hills of the Wonnegau in the south.

The Pfalz, which extends south of Rheinhessen to Germany’s border with Alsace in France, is one of Germany’s driest, warmest wine-growing regions. The northern Mittelhaardt is the historic centre of the Pfalz ‘where power players like Bassermann-Jordan, Dr Bürklin-Wolf, Müller-Catoir and Christmann command big prices for their ornate Rieslings,’ says Evan Spingarn, a German wine specialist and portfolio manager for US importer, David Bowler Wine. But ‘the moral centre of the region lies a few miles north where producers like Koehler-Ruprecht [champions classically] barrel-aged… dry wines from loess and limestone,’ he says. The Südliche Weinstrasse, or southern region of the Pfalz, is characterised by ‘warm breezes, sunshine and fruit trees [that] are as close to a Mediterranean vibe as Germany is ever likely to get’ and leading producers like Ökonomierat Rebholz and Leiner, Spingarn says.

Tucked away in a pocket nearly enclosed by mountain ranges, the Nahe wine region is one of Germany’s smallest. While protected from harsh wind and rain, the region is often surprisingly cooler than vineyards in the Mosel or the Rheingau. Riesling in Nahe shares a thrilling tendency towards focus and linearity but the region also boasts a wide range of soil types and an eye-opening diversity of Riesling styles. The red slate soils of Monzingen in the warmer upper Nahe, for example, ‘offer more fruit and a sense of openness’ juxtaposed with ‘spice and piquant acidity,’ says Werner Schönleber who helms Emrich-Schönleber, his family winery. Schönleber’s Riesling stands in bold contrast to the crystalline purity of Riesling sourced from the grey slate and volcanic rocks of Dönnhoff’s Hermannshöhle vineyard, or the chiseled, smoky minerality of Riesling from Schlossgut Diel’s Burgberg vineyard from the cooler lower Nahe region.

How to read a Riesling label

Riesling famously enjoys a fervent following among sommeliers, critics and wine geeks alike. But for the everyday consumer or budding wine enthusiast, navigating through German Riesling labels can feel like a never-ending onslaught of unpronounceable quality classifications and vineyard designations. Even distinguishing between a dry or sweet Riesling can overwhelm.

At its most basic, wines labelled trocken are dry with little to no residual sugar. Feinherb or halbtrocken suggest wines that are just off-dry. Even without familiarity with these terms, simply checking a Riesling’s alcohol content can provide significant insight. Typically, Riesling above 11.5% abv will taste dry. The lower the alcohol under 11.5%, the sweeter the wine will likely taste.

Credit: VDP. Die Prädikatsweingüter: www.vdp.de

Traditionally, German Riesling was classified according to the Prädikate, designations indicating the ripeness levels of grapes at harvest regardless of how much sugar remained in wine after fermentation. Starting with Kabinett, the spectrum swerved riper with late-harvested Spätlese and then Auslese. Riper still are wines made from botrytised grapes, the intensely sweet Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. Eiswein (or ice wine) indicates exceptionally sweet wines from grapes frozen on the vine until their sugars concentrate.

Today, the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter or VDP, a selective association of nearly 200 of Germany’s quality wine producers, uses the Prädikat system to classify only wines with sweetness. But producers outside of the VDP may still use the Prädikat system to signify late-harvest grapes that were fermented into dry wines like the often-confusing Spätlese Trocken (‘late-harvest dry’).

Parallel to the traditional Prädikat, VDP producers have adopted a Burgundian model classifying wines according to the specificity of their origin. Gutswein indicates good wines at the base of the VDP quality pyramid – akin to a regional Bourgogne. Ortswein equates to village wines. Erste Lage, meaning first site, is comparable to the Burgundian premier cru. And finally, at the top of the quality pyramid are the Grosse Lage, or great-site wines, similar to the Burgundian grand cru. Grosse Lage wines that are dry are specified as Grosses Gewächs, meaning great growths, or GG for short.

Many consumers assume that German Riesling is typically sweet. But as German taste preferences have swung drier and drier in the last few decades, an increasing majority of German Riesling today is actually dry.

At the pinnacle of prestige today are Germany’s super-premium, powerfully wrought GG bottlings. Yet for many veteran German wine devotees, it’s the much less expensive Ortswein (village) category that delivers the most revealing expressions of Germany’s diverse terroir.

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