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The German Wine Conundrum

Posted on  | November 1, 2004   Bookmark and Share
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Adding to the established German wine law classifications are several other movements that are both legally recognized and independent of the government. They focus on dry Riesling with an emphasis on high quality.

A curious thing was evident at several recent German tastings this fall. More and more bone-dry Rieslings have been appearing with virtually no honeyed character at all.

Granted it isn’t the first time most of us have come across exciting Trocken Rieslings, but there appears to be a much greater number of them right now which are driven more by mineral notes, not unlike a Premier Cru Chablis. Should we be bracing ourselves for a new style of German Riesling to take the market by storm? And how do we make room for them among the category of fruit-driven and off-dry Rieslings?

When gaining an initial understanding of German wines, one must memorize the various quality levels such as QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete) wines and the next highest tier of QmP (Qualitätswein mit Pradikät) with its various required levels of grape sugar at harvest; all of which is a feat in itself to the initial student. The German wine trade has become a lot more complicated, or simplified, depending on whom you ask. Adding to the established German wine law classifications are several other movements that are both legally recognized and independent of the government. Most of the newly emerged categories are based on dry Riesling with an emphasis on high quality.

Bernard Breuer, a much lauded winemaker of the Rheingau region who recently passed away in May 2004, spearheaded an organization in the 1980s called the Charta movement. It put an emphasis on quality, lower yields, anti-technology and later proved to be the blueprint of what is now a legally recognized movement known as Erstes Gewachs. This branch of winemaking rejects the idea that grapes should be picked at a certain must weight and chooses to promote, instead, the quality of their vineyard sites where their predecessors have made wine for hundreds of years. Stephen Metzler, co-proprietor of Classical Wines, an importer focusing on dry Rieslings, puts it this way, “They are making wines the way it has always been done up until the 1960’s and 70s, before the government pushed for more ripeness. Under the laws of QmP, extraction went down while sugar levels went up.”

Erstes Gewachs stresses single vineyard sites that are designated as either Premier Cru or Grand Cru by the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter), an independent wine board that was established in 1910 in an effort to promote elite estates that produce the highest quality of wines. The VDP criteria for Erstes Gewachs relies on restricted grape varieties, low yields, traditional methods and selective hand-harvesting, to name but a few of the rules. Emphasis is placed on the quality of a single vineyard site and must weights are kept to a minimum.

Much like the Erstes Gewachs, producers in the Mosel decided to set up their own classification, which is not a legally recognized term, known as Erste Lage. Brent Wiest, the vice president of Rudi Wiest Selections, an importer of excellent German Wines, says, “On top of Erstes Gewachs, we’ve now got the Mosel producers who got all upset because they don’t get quite get the must weight that regions like the Pfalz or Rheingau achieve so they wanted to set up their own system too.” And so Erste Lage joined the bandwagon of rebels wanting to make top quality wines that weren’t defined by must weight alone.

It doesn’t stop there; the German government is not immune to the idea of quality dry Riesling wines either. We have recently seen the emergence of Classic and Selection wines. Carol Sullivan, executive director of the German Wine Information Bureau, explains, “Classic is a new designation for dry style wines that are not necessarily dry according to the EU definition but are perceptibly dry to the palate. There are restrictions on production and each region has specific traditional grape varietals that producers can use.” Possibly the simplest German wine label to date, Classic wine bottles merely depict the producer name and the region. Ultimately the most consumer-friendly of dry Rieslings, these wines are pleasant at best but they hardly comprise of the brilliant examples of German juice.

Another attempt to classify the more serious dry Rieslings has been found by the government in Selection wines, a category that is dry, by EU standards (meaning that it has less than 9 grams of sugar), is made from a traditional grape variety, must be hand-harvested and from a single vineyard. The main difference between Selection and the likes of Erste Lage or Erstes Gewachs is that the wines labeled Selection can come from any single vineyard, whereas the rebel counterparts must be wine made from grapes that are grown on a single vineyard site that has been classified by the VDP.

So what are members of the trade meant to make of this when it comes to recommending a dry Riesling to the consumer? Beverage director, Fred Dexheimer, who has worked at the likes of Cello, L’Impero, Jean-Georges and 66 in New York City, believes that it is essential to have a dry Riesling on any wine list, including his current restaurant, BLT Steak. It is ultimately down to a preference of style when it comes to diners. He says, “I chose to carry a Georg Breuer Riesling, which isn’t actually one of his Premier Cru or Grand Cru wines, because I wanted something dry, delicious and reasonably priced for the American audience that fears residual sugar. It is ironic that Americans grow up on candy and sweet sodas and they love fruity Chardonnays but many are scared of the residual sugar in a German Riesling.”

According to most buyers, the quality of the producer is the most important element when it comes to stocking German Riesling and whatever the view is on Erste Lage and Erstes Gewachs, the anecdotal consensus is that the QmP does not guarantee quality. Hence, you can have a rather poor wine at the same designation and similar price point simply because they met grape must requirements at harvest.

So are the new wine movements in Germany a good thing? According to Brent Wiest, matters have become much too complicated. “They don’t have it figured out yet. The Pradikat is partly to blame because they need to allow for recognition of the better estates, which is what the producers who are adding Premier Cru and Grand Cru to their labels are attempting to do but they are really just adding more spokes to a wheel that has enough of them as it is. The best thing that is out there right now is the VDP. Rudi and I have touted for the VDP for a long time. Ninety-nine percent of the time you can be guaranteed that if it has VDP on the bottle, it is going to be a good wine. The whole Cru movement is run by the VDP anyway.”

Though Carol Sullivan believes that Erste Lage and Erstes Gewachs are movements that are heading in the right direction, she diplomatically adds, “There is room enough for everyone and the argument shouldn’t be about sweet versus dry. The beauty of Riesling is that it is so multi-faceted.”

John Roesch, the former wine director at PJ Wine and Warehouse in New York and current wine buyer at Zachy’s, a retail outlet in Westchester, has mixed feelings. “I think Erstes Gewachs and Erste Lage are noble attempts with noble motives. Their endeavor to regulate lower yields and recognize superior vineyard sites is fantastic, however, I think it stinks of bureaucracy. It is far too complicated and will only appeal to a very small minority of people in America that understand what it is all about. Consumers barely understand the concept of Pradikat when you throw in the rest of the trocken classifications their eyes are just going to glaze over. As a buyer, what it all comes down to is that producer comes first and foremost and then the vineyard site, no matter what the classification. For instance, I know that all Robert Weil’s wines are excellent and I can be sure that his Pradikat and Erstes Gewachs wines are going to be great.”

The best way to raise awareness among consumers of dry Rieslings from the best vineyard sites, and made by top producers whose families have been making wine for centuries, is to drop the jargon. Trying to explain this to consumers is far too complicated when the industry itself can barely get their heads around the conundrum themselves. Highlighting the wines with food is the best thing that you can do. Stephen Metzler remarks, “We’ve gotten tremendous response from savvy chefs. The wines suit the cliché of Asian cuisine but it doesn’t stop there, some even go with red meat.” Brent Wiest has this to say when it comes to the food-friendliness of German Riesling, “This kind of range is what makes Riesling one of the greatest grapes in the world. I mean take the minerality and acidity of a Rheingau Riesling and pair it with a Kumamoto oyster – if you don’t like that combination – I can’t help you!”


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