Andrew Corrigan MW enthuses about exploration of wine traditions in Germany and then discusses Riesling commenting on comparisons of German regions and Australian examples the other acknowledged great producer of Riesling.
The long history and traditions of wine in Germany found their way to Australia, mainly to South Australia, in the 1840s and afterwards. Australian wine is dominated by South Australia in terms of production size, prestigious producers and institutions connected with wine. The German influence and interest in Riesling has spread across Australia.. A trip to Germany not only offers a taste of wine that is familiar to an Australian palate, but presents wonderful scenery, history, beautiful villages and towns, great places to stay and sensational food. Several well traveled Germany hosts exclaimed to me Dont think that German food is all schnitzel and sauerkraut! That would be like believing that Australians eat meat pies and vegemite all the time. The premium wine regions of Germany follow the ancient river highways the Rhine and Mosel principally but also tributaries the Nahe and Saar. Vines were introduced by the ancient Romans and Trier, a town on the Mosel, was the Roman Empires northern outpost. The wine regions that stretch up the Rhine and Mosel river valleys are in close proximity to France the wine regions of Alsace are just across the border. On both sides of this river border there is a history of fine food and excellent restaurants.
German wine traditions had a big influence on the development of Australian wine. English entrepreneur George Fife Angas (after whom the Baroosa village Angaston is named) organized the immigration of German Lutheran farmers from Silesia where they were suffering persecution at the time. They arrived from the 1840s onwards and included Johann Gramp who planted at Jacobs Creek in 1847. The Lutheran church and German traditions are strong in the Barossa Valley to this day. However until recent times, Australian wine was dominated by strong alcoholic table wines and fortified wine. The Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956 stimulated an effort to make sophisticated and food matching styles. From 1953 onwards for a few years Barossa producers imported technology from Germany to make light fruity clean whites chilled pressurized stainless steel tanks were required. The 1955 Orlando Barossa Riesling was a pioneer of the style and won various trophies and signaled a change from the old rich Riesling styles that preceded it. Fresh slightly sweet sparkling wines could be made with the same technology and wines such as Barossa Pearl, Sparkling Rhinegold and Starwine were very popular and introduced a generation of Australians to wine. Still wines that were clean and fruity such as Ben Ean and Muroomba Moselle were also important. Young German winemaker Wolf Blass was sponsored to come to Australia in 1961 to make Sparkling Rhinegold. These fruity fresh styles were the hook to make wine so popular to Australians in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Riesling is the premier grape variety of Germany and succeeds well in Australia although its role causes debate. Its flavour is delicate and is much under rated by average consumers compared to the more forward taste of chardonnay. Weary palates, such as those of wine makers and wine writers, love it! Rieslings inherent character offers a very light piercingly acidic fresh white. In Germany, the cold climate often yielded highly acidic grapes and the wines were made sweet deliberately in order to give some balance. In the 1960s and 70s in Australia, there was a lot of Riesling made and much of the less expensive stuff was made in the same sweet way. 30 years later Australian Riesling is delicate, maybe with floral aromas, but it has a fresh sharp dry taste. However many remember it as sweet, and because a sweet wine is widely seen as being unsophisticated, Riesling continues to be meet a mixed reception from consumers.
Riesling is a delicate grape. In Australia its winemaking is simple and the winemakers task is to preserve the fresh delicate flavours through the winemaking process and into bottle safely as soon as possible. The harvest is generally in hot weather, grapes are often picked at night in the cool and then chilled in cold rooms before being crushed lightly the winemaker seeks the soft press juice only. If the skins are crushed, or the juice is left to steep in the skins, harsh phenolic tannic flavours will infuse into the juice. The juice itself is then settled and/or filtered in order to further rid it of small amounts of grape skin before a special clean yeast is added to carry out the fermentation. The fermentation process itself produces heat and the stainless steel fermenter is constantly cooled using refrigeration equipment. Fermentation takes about 3 - 4 days and then the wine is further filtered to remove the yeast sediment, and it is bottled. The resulting wine should be very fresh, and should have a bright green tinged light appearance. This straightforward unmanipulated wine making means that the inherent flavour of the grapes is transmitted to the bottled wine. There is no room for a winemaker to introduce complex flavours as in the case of say, Chardonnay, where a veritable library of wine making steps such as wild yeasts, oak barrels, grape skin solids inclusion, post ferment lees maturation, secondary malolactic ferment and so on. Hence a great chardonnay is prized for its complexity whereas a great Riesling offers a delicacy and purity with a nervous tingling acidity.
In Germany, higher volume production utilizes procedures similar to Australia. However the small high quality producers in the premium areas Rhinegau, Mosel, Nahe and Saar regions, make use of a number of techniques to introduce complexity to their wines. Germany is much colder than Australia and the grapes retain much higher levels of acidity, allowing more leeway than in Australia for winemaking that will add complexity. Use of natural/indigenous yeasts for ferment is common. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks followed by maturation in large old oak barrels with the yeast lees, is widespread and traditional. The best drier styles may have 6 months of oak maturation time using barrels of a size of 1000 litres called moselfuder. Malolactic ferment occurs partly in the stainless steel tanks before transfer to the oak. These techniques introduce a creamy broader mouthfeel that gives balance to the inherent high acid. The widespread technique for achieving acid balance is to leave the wine with residual sweetness but in many years the grapes simply dont ripen sufficiently and the top ranking German wines cannot add sugar to the grapes or wine. There are certainly problems with the natural yeasts particularly in a cold year when the juice temperature makes the yeasts numb with cold. Assistant winemaker at legendary Rhinegau estate Dr Weil, Christoph Dinda, delighted in telling me that they have back up yeast to add in certain years when the natural yeasts are numb or in really hot years such as 2003, a heat wave, when the grapes were so ripe that the natural yeasts became gorged and wouldnt function. The backup yeast is from Australia, it is very strong and they call it their Arnold Schwarzenegger yeast, an explanation delivered with much laughter. The younger winemakers have been to Australia but I think some of the old cellar hands were still confused with Australia and Austria the body building film star who is now Governor of California was originally Austrian!
In Germany, a balance that is attained by sweetness, is common. Easily detectable sweetness is the theme running through the lesser rated wines. The second quality group in German known as QbA (standing for Qualitatswein bestimmte Anbaugebiete, meaning quality wine of origin) although the label often simply says Qualitatswein. Such wines have sugar added to the grapes artificially. The first tier of German wine is labeled QmP (Qualitatswein mit Pradikat meaning Quality wine with Distinction) and sugar may not be added. The wine is made from naturally ripened grapes and is from the best vineyards. There is a designation of levels of ripeness the lowest ripeness is called Kabinett followed by increasing sugar ripeness designations - Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese the latter being a highly sought after small yield expensive wine.
Tasting the wines of classic German wine regions
An overall principle applies to tasting German wines. The weight and rich flavour seen on other countrys wines including France and Italy, is missing. Instead there is a delicacy and a high level of acidity on the taste, often with a lower level of alcohol than other wine countries. Such delicacy can be difficult to grasp in terms of its inherent quality. Such a grasp is inhibited by the introduction of sweetness into so many German wines as a balance to the high acid and low alcohol, but unfortunately also in order to offer apparent flavour when the wine flavour is dilute. Hence many believe that German wine is automatically sweet the truth is that some great wines are sweet but there are many great wines also that are dry or maybe off-dry. The delicacy of Germany wine does mean that they reflect their origins readily. The classic regions for Riesling are Rhinegau and Mosel-Sarr-Ruwer. The Rieslings of the Rhinegau show apricot, golden apple and peach/nectarine aromas followed by higher alcohol softer acidity than the Mosel where the aromas are of wet gravel, limes and greem apple and dry styles tend to have a crunchy green apple acid structure. Dry styles tend to have alcohol levels around 11 12 % although in 2004, a war year, some wines went higher a classic example is Dr Weil 2004 Kiedrich Grafenberg Erstes Gewachs (meaning First Growth) which is dry and has a strength of 13.5% yet has a tingling fresh mineral taste. Riesling from the Mosel tends to have an alcoholic strength of around 7% even when the lowest ripeness dry designation - Kabinett. Rieslings from the Nahe tend to show a herbal dried/glace fruit aroma and bigger palate than the Mosel because alcohol level is a little higher. For example, Donnhoff Qualitatswein trocken 2004 is 11%; Donnhoff individual vineyard Hermannshohle Riesling Trocken 2004 is 12.5%; the off-dry non trocken wine from Donnhoff is 9% and is noticeably sweet. Wines from the Saar and Ruwer show citrus limes ripeness and higher alcohol yet fresh acid Eitelsbacher Karthauserhof Spatlese Trocken 2004 is 11.5%.
East of the Nahe and along the Rhine as it flows due northwards, are the regions Rheinhessen, Pfalz and Baden the latter stretches all the way to the Swiss border. The country side opens up and is flatter and as well as Riesling there are other lesser white grapes such as Muller-Thurgau and increasingly as you travel south, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir respectively known in Germany as Weissburgunder, Grauburgunder and Spatburgunder. In Rhinehessen are Nierstein and Liebfraumilch that give German wine such an undeserved poor reputation for dilute sweet inoffensive wines.
The southern Baden region, particularly around Kaiser Stuhl (near Freiburg and Mulheim) is considered a sleeping giant that has been held back by the presence of many grower cooperatives who seek high crop levels and easy sweetness rather than true flavour. It is changing and top quality new producers are emerging. In Vogtsburg-Oberbergen in Kaiser Stuhl is a top class hotel and restaurant Schwarzer-Adler which also acts as a dealer and wholesaler of old vintages of Bordeaux. The owners, the Keller family, have modern winery and label Franz Keller. The range includes super modern clean yet complex Weissburgunders, Grauburgunders some made in Stainless Steel tanks, others partly in oak barrels. Reserve wines are called Special Selection and exhibit creamy yet mineral complexity of top white Burgundies. There are also Spatburgunders. Nearby in Bad Bellingen is Master of Wine Jurgen von der Mark who is hugely enthusiastic about Pinot Noir his wine, called Von der Mark, is labeled Pinot Noir as well as Sparburgunder. It is a sophisticated barrel fermented Burgundian style.
German wine laws have been developed with the influence of the growers and they reward ripeness. Hence for decades there has been interest in earlier ripening varieties such as Muller-Thurgau, Rulander and others even though the ripened grapes then do not possess much flavour. Riesling is late ripening and in such a cold climate, the site of a vineyard on a steep slope is crucial in such a cold climate where the slope will catch precious extra time in the suns rays. A new movement in the early 1990s, the VDP (Verband Deutsches Pradikatsweinguter) has been formed that designates locations of vineyard in the French manner, rather than rewarding simple ripeness. Since the late 1990s it seems to be taking off although German officialdom does not like elitism and government recognition is slow.
Travelling to Wine Regions in Germany
The classic regions are to the south and west of Frankfurt (mostly shown as Frankfurt am Main on German maps and travel information). The most famous section of the Rhinegau commences at Hochheim (a village that gave its name to the term hock that was used by the English wine trade generically for some centuries to describe light white wines) a short 40 minute drive from Frankfurt Airport. A tour should proceed along the Rhinegau westwards to Koblenz, then up the Mosel to Trier and on to the Saar. Then head eastwards to the Nahe before turning south to travel down the Rhine to Baden.
Germans revel in their own wines and have endless fascination for the delicate balance of the acidity and flavours of alcohol, sweetness and fruit intensity. All the wine villages have their Weinstube a wine cellar that offers tastings in a café setting as well as wine retail purchasing. The local areas classic and best wines will be found here and the locals only too interested in discussing them with you. This is quite a contrast to famous wines in regions such as Bordeaux or even Australia where the top estates wines are simply not seen locally but are all exported; and there is a gulf between expensive producers and the locals.
Travel from Hochheim along the northern bank of the Rhine past Eltville, Hattenheim, Johannisberg, Geisenheim, Rudesheim, Assmannshausen and on to St Goarshausen. Hattenheim has the top class small Hotel Kronenschlosschen (firstname.lastname@example.org and www. kronenschloesschen .de) with a restaurant and as well a small guest house/hotel Zum Krug, the latter having an excellent small restaurant with a huge wine list. Spectacular local estates to visit include Robert Weil, Kloster Eberbach (where the movie Name of the Rose was filmed), Schloss Volrads and Schloss Johannisberg.
Zum Krug Restaurant, Hattenheim had wine and food offerings that included Haufer Rhinegau Hattenheim Kabinett 2004, Robert Konig Rhinegau Assmanhausen Auslese 2004 With Goose liver pate, tuna, black pudding with hazelnuts, pressed oxtail and beef cheek cappuccino. This was followed by Langwerth von Simmern Spatlese Trocken 2002 (13%), Reinhartshausen Kabinett Trocken 1999 (11.5%), Johann Maximilian Spatlese Trocken 1994, Johannes Ohlig Jesuitengarten 2002 Spatlese (11.5%) and JB Becker Spatlese 1988, Eltville Sonnenberg (9%) (Zum Krug, described as a Weinhaus and Hotel is owned and run by the Laufer family the address is Hauptstrasse 34, 65347 Eltville-Hattenheim email@example.com and www. hotel-zum-krug.de.
Bernkastel is the village at the heart of the Mosel. Across the river is the twin town of Kues. Stay at the Hotel Richtershof in Bernkastel or I recommend the guest house at the SA Prum winery in Wehlen just to the north and downstream of Bernkastel (firstname.lastname@example.org and www.sapruem.com ). The winery at SA Prum is fascinating and their wines are excellent. Manager, Saskia Prum is an ambassador for the region and is enthusiastic to show off other wines of the Mosel, Ruwer and Saar. In Bernkastel, Weinstube Porn has all the famous wines available for tasting and buying. We tasted there, Bastgen Blauschiefer Mosel Trocken 2004, Bernkastel-Cuser Weisenstein Auslese 1971 Weinhofgut Dr Hans Licht and Egon Muller Scharzhofberger 2004 Kabinett. There is also a small guest house (email email@example.com and www,.weinhausporn.de).
The ancient market and university town of Trier is important to explore.
In Kaiser Stuhl, near Freiburg, the highly related hotel and restaurant is Gasthof Schwarzer Adler with the wine estate Franz Keller (firstname.lastname@example.org and www.franz-keller.de )
Nearby in the Bad Bellingen area is Restaurant Berghofstüble, in Hertingen with the address 79415 Hertingen. The owner and chef is Ramon Basler who is striving for excellence and recognition. Dinner there started with home made pate and de Fargues Sauternes 1986 followed by fish and Franken region Riesling before venison and Roistang Cote Rotie La Landonne 1993. A local hotel is Landgasthof Schwanen, 79415 Bad Bellingen (email@example.com).