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Inimitable German Riesling
You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of really exceptional American Rieslings. And the majority of these are the occasional very late harvest style of wine with lots of botrytis, or "noble rot," which imparts incredible richness and sweetness.
To obtain the greatest selection of fine Rieslings, in styles ranging from Kabinett, the lightest and most delicate, to Trockenbeerenauslese, the richest, sweetest, most luscious and honeyed of the Rieslings, the consumer must look to the great estates of the Old World, particularly Germany, and to a lesser extent, Austria and Alsace.
Riesling is classified as a noble grape variety, right up there with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. And, as with any noble variety, the best wine is made from grapes from a particular vineyard which has established itself over time (at least 100 years) as the perfect spot for the particular wine grape(s) grown there.
Germany's Riesling vineyards, usually quite small in acreage, are as diverse and special as the great, equally tiny, vineyards of Burgundy. And, as in Burgundy, winemaking is mostly artisanal, meaning a small-scale, usually family, affair where tradition reigns and wines are hand crafted.
To properly understand German Riesling, one must first realize that Germany's best vineyards lie as far north as grapes can be persuaded to ripen, sharing the same latitude as Labrador. This chilly climate makes for the longest, coolest growing season of any wine-producing country and accounts for naturally high acid levels in the finished wines.
Most of the greatest German vineyards are located in valleys formed by the magnificent rivers, such as the Rhine and Mosel, that flow through them and create the unique conditions that distinguish these vineyards from all others in the world.
Rising in steep slopes covered with a fantastic variety of stony, mineral-rich slates and soils, the vineyards react to the influence of the nearby river in myriad ways. For example, the river will keep temperatures moderate in chilly autumn and provide mists and fog to protect the vines from frost.
The long and short of this discussion is that no white wines have more vineyard character than the best German Rieslings, which is probably why these wines are the favorites of wine writers all over the world.
And, before you, dear reader, accuse these scribes of having a collective sweet tooth, let me digress for a moment to debunk the notion that "all German Rieslings are sweet." Not so. There is some perceptible residual sugar in Riesling table wine -- that is, QbA, Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese styles -- but what one tastes is not sugary sweetness, but a degree of ripeness. The naturally high levels of cool-climate acidity counterbalance this component in any event, so that the residual sugar is barely noticeable when the wine is sipped without food. When consumed with food, this right amount of sweetness combined with the acidity cuts through fats, proteins and strong food flavors, and serves to refresh and cleanse the palate.
Recently, the Vintners Club brought together twelve Sp”tlese Rieslings from the magnificent 1994 harvest for a blind tasting. Several regions were represented, including the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the Rheingau, the Rheinhessen and the Nahe. "Sp”tlese" (pronounced "SCHPAYT-laysa") literally means late harvest and applies to wines of superior quality made from grapes harvested at least seven days after the normal harvest. Because the grapes have extra days of sun, they make a wine that is more intense in flavor and concentration than Kabinett-style Riesling.
As the 1994 German wines are just now beginning to appear in quantity on the West Coast, you might have to do a bit of looking around to find what you want. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Bill Mayer Fine Wines (510-549-2444) specializes in German estate Rieslings, and the Wine House (415-495-8486) carries an impressive selection. Two Southern California merchants currently offer the largest selection in the state and will ship wines. They are the Wine Exchange (800-76-WINEX) and Hi-Time Wine Cellars (800-331-3005), and both provide informative, free newsletters.
Also, the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society offers events and wine-tasting dinners throughout the year, and membership is inexpensive and open to all. Telephone (415) 695-9463.
As part of the wine descriptions below, it will be noted when a vineyard is a first-class vineyard or a great first-class vineyard. These designations were developed by British wine writer Hugh Johnson in conjunction with German wine expert Stuart Pigott and other authorities, and equate in quality with a Burgundian premier cru and grand cru, respectively. The designations first appeared in the fourth edition of Johnson's World Atlas of Wine (1994). When there is no quality designation, it means that either the vineyard hasn't yet been classified or is simply considered to be a good vineyard.
1994 Scharzhofberger Riesling Sp”tlese, Egon M¸ller-Scharzhof (Saar) ($42)
Initial notes of sulfur (quite common for young Riesling) blow off to reveal an intense, complex and appealing nose of almonds, garden herbs, golden delicious apple, honeycomb, orange blossom and lots of other citrus scents. Deep, concentrated, delicious flavors of apple-apricot fruit tinged with peach; luscious, generous and mouthfilling, with excellent acidity. A monumental Riesling from a great first-class vineyard that is worth every Deutschmark of its hefty price. (Note: This wine came from a special "fuder" or barrel, No. 13, which can be found on the label as the last boldface digits of the long A.P. number. Ask your merchant to point it out to you if you're lucky enough to find any bottlings from this producer).
1994 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Sp”tlese, Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben (Mosel) ($19.50)
Aromatic nose of ripe peach and lemon blossom. Excellent acidity, what the Germans refer to as "filigree." Think of a delicate lace pattern made of steel instead of cloth. Mouthwatering with plenty of apricot- and lemon-like fruit and a honeyed richness without being overly sweet. The Treppchen outside the village of Erden is a first-class vineyard.
1994 Nackenheimer Rothenberg Riesling Sp”tlese, Gunderloch (Rheinhessen) ($21)
This was my first-place wine, and after having tasted more than 160 German Rieslings from the 1994 vintage, it's my pick for the very best wine of the vintage. Everything in perfect balance. Forward, appealing scents of ripe apricot and lemon blossom lead to a rich, luscious, smooth wine in the mouth offering delicious, ripe apricot-like fruit. Crisp, racy acidity keeps all this from being heavy and makes the wine a mouthwatering delight. Virtually declassified Auslese, and a terrific bargain, since it will cellar for 10-15 years. The Rothenberg near the village of Nackenheim is a first-class vineyard.
1994 Piesporter Goldtr–pfchen Riesling Sp”tlese, Bollig-Lehnert (Mosel) ($14)
Fresh, fruity aromas of lemon citrus and subtle notes of honey and sage-like herbaceousness. Forward, ripe, juicy citrus in the mouth, mingled with a touch of red slate mineral tones. Complex and delicious with excellent acidity. Long finish. The Goldtr–pfchen just outside the town of Piesport on the Mosel River is a great first-class vineyard.
1994 Scharzhofberger Riesling Sp”tlese, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt (Saar)($17.25)
From the same great first-class vineyard as the first-place wine, this is a different lot from a different location within the vineyard from another producer. Smaller scale than the Egon M¸ller wine, but almost as appealing with aromas of shy lemon blossom, talcum powder and a hint of freshly cut grass. There is a sense of filigree here as in the Erdener Treppchen and wonderful, crisp acidity. The flavors focus on citrus and apricot and are delicious. Excellent bargain.
1994 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Sp”tlese, Studert Pr¸m (Mosel)($15.50)
Fragrant scents of ripe apricot and grapefruit citrus. Luscious and viscous on the palate with good acidity and deep, concentrated, apricot-like fruit. The Sonnenuhr vineyard outside the town of Wehlen is a great first-class vineyard.
1994 Maximin Gr¸nh”user Abtsberg Riesling Sp”tlese, von Schubert (Saar)($30)
This wine characteristically exhibits lots of sulfur in the aromas when young, which will disappear as the wine ages. In fact, if the Maximin Gr¸nh”user wines -- like the Mosel wines of J.J. Pr¸m -- didn't show sulfur when young, it would be a flaw. Going behind the SO2, there's pretty green apple and peach fruit, which is replicated on the palate. Smooth and luscious. The Abtsberg is a monopoly -- quite a rare thing in Germany for one winery to control an entire vineyard, especially of this great first-class caliber.
1994 Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Sp”tlese, Georg Albrecht Schneider (Rheinhessen)($12)
Aromas of peaches and apricots mingled with mineral and citrus notes. Deep, rich flavors of green apple and apricot that have a slightly bitter edge just now. The Hipping is a first-class vineyard in the vicinity of Nierstein.
1994 Wallh”user Johannisberg Riesling Sp”tlese, Prinz zu Salm (Nahe)($16.50)
Distinctive nose of wet pebbles, shy citrus and minerals. Very good structure and excellent acidity. On the palate, there's a hint of honey along with apple-pear fruit and a touch of apricot.
1994 Saarburger Rausch Riesling Sp”tlese, Zilliken (Saar)($19)
Comparatively earthy, slate-like nose with shy fruit. Much more interesting on the palate, with its apricot flavors tinged with a warm earthiness. Good acidity and a long, apple-y finish. The Rausch near the town of Saarburg is a first-class vineyard.
1994 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Sp”tlese, Knyphausen (Rheingau)($16.50)
Moderately forward aromas of minerals, almonds and apple-pear-apricot fruit. Lighter in body than the preceding wines, this Rheingau effort seemed almost austere.
1994 Erbacher Siegelsberg Riesling Sp”tlese, Karl Joh. Molitor (Rheingau)($19)
Aromas of shy slate, citrus-melon fruit, beeswax and a touch of petrol. Adequate acidity. The flavors showed plenty of mineral-like earthiness, along with green apple and peach fruit. The Siegelsberg is a first-class vineyard near the town of Erbach.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.