For years, the German wine market in the United States has been built on its sweet Rieslings – spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenausle and ice wine. Now German producers are wishing we Americans would just start drinking their dry wines as well.
A common complaint I heard last week on my trip to three of the primary wine regions – the Mosel, the Rheinhessen and the quickly emerging Nahe – was, “When you offer Americans a German Riesling, they say, ‘No thank you. I don’t drink sweet wines.’”
There are several aspects of this dry dilemma:
One is German producers make the world’s best sweet Rieslings, are justifiably proud of them and certainly don’t want to give up that market. Even if you are visiting a cellar to taste someone’s elegant dry wines, you can’t leave the room until you also taste a half-dozen sweets. It’s not exactly a mixed message, but it does soften the focus of the dry sale.
Second is that Riesling is a fragrant, aromatic wine that will taste a little sweet in its fruitiness even when it is dry.
Third – and very importantly – is that most dry German Rieslings aren’t that dry by American standards. If our Chardonnay strays much above three or four grams of sugar per liter, we classify it as off-dry, as in Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. In Germany, a dry Riesling can have up to nine grams and still be considered dry or trocken because of the mandated higher acid levels to balance the sweetness – even if it does not fully negate a sweet taste. (Champagne brut, it should be noted, can technically have 12 gpl because the base wine is made from not-yet-ripe, very-acidic grapes. Extra brut or dry Champagne is limited to 6 gpl.)
This is not to argue that a nine-grams-of-sugar Riesling can’t be a good table wine – it may be just what the food pairing demands – but it does point out why many Americans with educated wine palates still consider most German table Rieslings to be a little sweet.
All this being said, I did taste a number of marvelous table Rieslings in the trocken range. Even among the limited number of producers I was able to see in a few days, among the one I tasted, these ones stood out:
In the Rheinhessen – Groebe, Dreissigacker, Winter and Becker-Landgraf. Groebe also has a delicious Pinot Blanc, not yet imported into the U.S.
In the Mosel – The Moselland cooperative (selected bottles only), C.H. Berres, Fritz Haag, Schmitges, Ernst Clüsserath, Pauly-Berweiler, Werner.
In the Nahe – Jakob Schneider, Dönnhoff and Hermannsberg. Dönnhoff justifiably deserves its reputation, but I also very much enjoyed the wines of the newly restructured Hermannsberg just across the river. There, Karsten Peter is making very good wines, some with less than five gpl of sugar and higher acidity.
All these brands are available in America, although the importers generally carry a limited number of wines offered.
A few other notes:
• One of the reasons sugar levels is kept higher in the dry wines is that alcohol in the dry whites is creeping into the 13 to 15% range.
• Many producers are simplifying their front labels, not using the prädikats, often simply “Riesling trocken.” More info is on the back label.
• Riesling is still the most-grown white grape, averaging about 22% of all vineyard space.
• Red grapes now make up 36% of vineyard plantings, up from 11% in 1980.
Finally, with a couple of weeks to go before serious picking begins, producers I talked with are very optimistic about the 2012 vintage.