Im supposed to be a critic rather than a cheerleader, but I confess
that Im deprived of my critical fangs almost every summer by the
new crop of German Rieslings. Year after year, I try to work myself into
a ruthlessly grumpy state so that I can excoriate the Germans for sending
us a lousy batch of bottles, but time and again I end up adoring their
wines and marveling at their achievement. So, acknowledging right up front
that these wines make me lapse from dispassionate criticism into passionate
advocacy, perhaps I can still be of service by disclosing four of the
reasons why they make me lose my edge.
For starters, it gets difficult to remain vigilant in the job of separating
the sheep from the goats whenvintage after vintageno goats
show up. This is to say that the estate bottled German Rieslings that
reach us here are probably the most consistently excellent wines that
I review each year. Sure, some are better than others. But if it is true
that there are highs and lows among these wines, it is also true that
the lows are fewer and not nearly so low as what one finds when tasting
other grapes from other regions. Although you can indeed find poor German
wines if you look for cheap, mass-market bottles in supermarkets or stores
geared more toward spirits than wine, youll find it almost impossible
to locate a less-than-delicious bottle of Riesling if you spend $12 or
more in a retail wine shop in our area.
Second, this remarkable consistency is not purchased at the price of uniformity.
The surest road to regularity in any consumable product runs the way of
blandness, yet German Rieslings are absolutely full of personality and
are amazingly different from one another. By comparison to other wines
like, say, Chardonnay, this is partly because German Rieslings arent
subjected to the standardizing effects of fermentation and ageing in oak.
But there is more to it than that, as youll discover if you compare
a broad selection of Rieslings to a group of unoaked wines like Sauvignon
Blancs from Frances Loire Valley or Marlborough in New Zealand.
I love the wines from both regions, but they are nowhere near as nuanced
or individuated as German Rieslings. This is largely a function of Rieslings
peerless transparency, a term that refers to the grapes
ability to convey aromas and flavors originating in the peculiarities
of the site in which it is grown. I would refuse to live in a world without
Sauvignon Blanc, but the fact remains that most of the aroma and flavor
youll find in Sauvignon is intrinsic to the grape and not imparted
by the vineyard. Differences in soil and climate will show you different
facets of Sauvignon, but it is predominantly Sauvignon that you are seeing
when tasting from one bottle to the next.
With fine German Riesling, however, you can seemingly see
right through the grape to savor the sun, soil, and slant of the land
that impart the character of a particular place. Moreover, the delicacy
that lets Riesling exhibit nuances tied to a place also lets it show shadings
from differing treatment by winemakers, and consequently youll find
another layer of personality differences even when tasting wines drawn
from a single vineyard like the Mosels Wehlener Sonnenuhr.
Third, these wines offer incredible value, and do so in more than one
sense. In an immediate and obvious way, they simply taste better than
almost any alternatives at a comparable price. German Rieslings as a group
are exceptionally complex and detailed in aroma, flavor and structure,
but since the Germans also manage to cram a gallon of good gulpable fun
into almost every little bottle, the wines appeal as strongly to the heart
as the head.
In a less immediately obvious way, fine estate Rieslings offer great value
because of the extraordinary efforts required to make them. Most of the
wines recommended below are from regions located so far north that grapes
can be reliably ripened only on steep, southern-facing, slate-strewn slopes
that maximize the suns intensity. In many cases, the slopes are
so steep and the slate so loose that real courage is required just to
set foot into a vineyard, and use of a tractor is simply out of the question.
Whereas viticulture and winemaking have become almost entirely mechanized
operations for some producers (most notably in Australia), most fine German
Rieslings are still grown and made by hand in roughly the same way they
were made by monks a thousand years agoor by the Romans a thousand
years before the monks.
Finally, I find these wines very easy to use, by which I mean that they
are liked by virtually everyone to whom I serve them, regardless of how
I serve them. Only Champagne can rival fine Rieslings as aperitifs for
sipping before a meal. Their zesty acidity is a powerful stimulant for
the appetite, and since they are quite light in body and alcohol (averaging
around 8% as opposed to about 13% for most other wines), theyll
neither fill your belly nor befog your head. My experience also indicates
that Rieslings are wonderful with many foods, giving the lie to the conventional
wisdom that lightly sweet wines are confining with food. They
are famously delicious with spicy foods of Asian origin, but the good
news doesnt end there. Sweetness is the perfect foil not only to
spiciness in foods but also to saltiness, and youll find that this
is the key to delightful matches with foods ranging from the pedestrian
(pretzels) to the profound (fine cured meats).
Rieslings exuberant fruitiness also flatters almost any dish featuring
a fruit component, and roasted pork loin with a fruit condiment is only
the most famous of many possibilities along this line. And we shouldnt
forget that the light, fresh profile of most German Rieslings makes them
perfect for many fish dishes, especially lighter preparations of freshwater
fish that are easily overwhelmed by more cumbersome wines. These points
hardly exhaust my list of reasons for loving Riesling, but well
stop here for fear of exhausting space in which to list recommendations.
The current vintage is 2002 and the wines are very, very strong, as I
indicated when recommending wines with the Kabinett designation
here two weeks ago.
The 2002s are quite high in acidity, however, so most wines at the pinnacle
of excellence have some sweetness to counterbalance acidity. Of the drier
wines that Ive tasted recently, the best in order of preference
Robert Weil Rheingau Riesling Trocken ($20);
Pfeffingen Pfeffo Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken;
Von Buhl Maria Schneider Jazz Riesling Halbtrocken
Fritz Haag Riesling (Halbtrocken) ($17.50);
Schloss Lieser Riesling (Halbtrocken) ($13.50) and
Dr. F. Weins-Prüm Riesling Halbtrocken ($13.50).
Ill provide some technical background on the Trocken
and Halbtrocken (as well as QbA and QmP)
designations in the online show at noon today, along with more information
on regions of origin and local wholesale sources. For cost-conscious consumers,
some of the best buys in German Riesling are Qualitatswein
or QbA wines from top estate producers, and currently available
Wegeler Mosel Riesling ($15.50);
Mönchhof Estate Riesling ($13.50).
Finally, for those wanting a taste of unmitigated greatness, the very
best wines I tasted for this set of columns carry the Spätlese designation:
Von Buhl Riesling Spätlese Forster Jesuitengarten ($30);
Schloss Lieser Riesling Spätlese Niederberg Helden ($25);
Robert Weil Estate Riesling Spätlese ($36);
Pfeffingen Riesling Spätlese Ungsteiner Herrenberg ($22.50);
Dr. F. Weins-Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr ($25.50);
Mönchhof Riesling Spätlese Ürziger Würzgarten ($22.50);
Bert Simon Riesling Spätlese Serriger Wurtzburg ($19.50).
Rudi Wiest Selections
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