German Riesling: A Wine for Every Palate
It’s summertime, the temperature is a wilting 90 degrees F., and you’re in the mood for a crisp white, “front porch” wine. In other words, a wine that’s easy to drink, is refreshing, and pairs well with a wide range of foods.Or perhaps you are serving a formal dinner and want a complex wine to serve with multiple courses; whatever the occasion, try something different and consider delicious German Riesling.
Long considered one of the world’s greatest white wines, German Riesling is a favorite of connoisseurs and collectors, and American consumers are now enjoying this fantastic wine too. So what’s all the fuss about? Isn’t all German Riesling sweet?
Riesling is so beloved because it’s a wine with many faces. It can be a light, dry, easy-drinking wine served as an apéritif or with light menus, or it can be an opulently flavored, complex wine savored slowly with rich foods or on its own as dessert. It’s famous for heady aromas, mouth-filling flavors of ripe fruit, and a clean, racy acidity.
Riesling: A Sunny Wine from a Northern Climate
Despite the myths you may have heard, not all German Rieslings are sweet. In fact, only about 1/3 third of all German wine produced is sweet and is trending towards making more dry wines. Riesling comes in a wide range of styles such as dry sparkling wines, still dry, light fruity wines, bone dry, medium dry, off-dry, slightly sweet, sweet, dessert, and wines made from frozen and raisinated grapes.
Two of German Riesling’s most distinct qualities are: naturally high acidity levels and the grape’s ability to express terroir and minerality, whether the soil or geology is schist, flint, slate, limestone, or chalk. Riesling’s unique among wine grapes because as it fully ripens its acidity levels remain high and yet it can still produce a wide range of dry or sweet wines and can often have alcohol levels as low as seven to ten percent. In addition, the cold climate in Germany requires a long ripening period (usually as late as November) to ensure ripeness and maturity and yet the grape manages to retain intense, fruity aromas and flavors.
Wine for Everyone
As you know by now, German Riesling comes in a wide range of styles, but did you know that the aging process affects the flavor? Neutral oak is the preferred aging medium because it lets the grape’s aromas and fruit flavors take center stage, so no oak or heavy tannins ruin the wine’s character.
For those who prefer more age worthy wines, Riesling is a natural choice since it one of the longest aging wines that can age for up to 100 years.When it is aged it can easily rival the world’s most renowned aged white wines.
Embrace Riesling’s Sweet Tart Qualities
It’s hard to get grapes to ripen in Germany’s cold northern climate, so long harvests that can go into November, are common and this longer ripening period makes the grape juice intensely flavored. To counteract Riesling’s naturally high acidity levels and ensure the wine isn’t harsh, winemakers often don’t ferment all of the sugar into alcohol and leave a little bit of sugar behind to soften the zippy acidity called “residual sugar.” Nevertheless, don’t dismiss the wine for this touch of sweetness. Embrace it. A small amount of sugar in the wine doesn’t mean the wine is sweet, it can still be dry because the sugar simply provides balance and contrast, like those Sweet Tart candies you used to chew as a kid. Remember how irresistible they were?
How to Find the Style You Like
Although German wine labels contain tons of information you won’t always know if a wine is dry or sweet unless you learn a few of the important terms that give you clues. German wine terms, classifications, and categories can be a little daunting with all the information on the label and tongue twisting village names, but the more you drink and explore the different styles from various regions in Germany, the more we are sure you will become a devoted convert.
In Germany, there are four quality levels but the two you need to know are the top quality tiers:
- Prädikatswein: A wine categorized by Prädikat, or ripeness levels when harvested.
- Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA): A quality wine from a specific region.
To keep things simpler, you should concentrate on learning about the wines in the top quality tier, Prädikatswein. This category offers wine with complexity and intense flavors. It is classified by six categories based on an ascending scale of ripeness and natural sugars during harvest. These categories do not measure sweetness; sweetness levels come from the amount of residual sugar left behind after fermentation.
The levels of ripeness in Prädikatswein, in ascending order, include:
- Kabinett, which is a light, fruity wine best drunk alone as an apéritif or with lighter food.
- Spätlese, which translates as “late harvest,” is for ripe full flavors and pairs well with rich spicy foods from India and Asia. When dry, it’s fabulous with sushi.
- Auslese, literally means “select picking” from select bunches of riper grapes and can be slightly sweet. The wine is richer and more intensely flavored and pairs well with cheese plates, and when aged, game, and earthy dishes.
Okay, now it’s time to get to the sweet stuff. Remember, the dessert wines will still have that clean, acidity that keeps the wines from being cloying or syrupy.
- Beerenauslese or BA means berries “individually handpicked” in German. These grapes are always affected by a special fungus called Botrytis, which creates full dessert wines to rival any found in France or Italy.
- Eiswein means “ice wine,” and it must at least be same level of ripeness as BA and made from pressed frozen grapes. This wine is rare, costly, and is only made in small quantities when the climate conditions are just right. It’s distinct for its high acidity levels, sweetness, and intense fig and raisin flavors.
- Trockenbeerenauslese or TBA literally means dry berries, and each grape handpicked after Botrytis turned them into raisins. They are rare, honey-like, and only made in small quantities.
All three of the dessert styles are best served alone, as an intermezzo between courses or with salty, mineral-driven blue cheeses, foie gras, and baked fruit and nut desserts that aren’t too sweet. It’s a common mistake to pair dessert wines with sweet desserts and chocolate; you should avoid this because they overpower the wine.