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Germany Divided | Riesling

German winemakers just can't agree on labeling. Wine editor Lettie Teague is befuddled by the debate but clear on one thing: the Rieslings are remarkable.

The last time German wine was fashionable in this country it went by an American name: Blue Nun. Now, some three decades later, German wine sales are dependent on a different name: Riesling. Or as Ernst Loosen, a young star winemaker from the Mosel, told me, "The only reason German wine is selling today is because it's made from Riesling."

While it may lack the mass appeal of Chardonnay, there's no question that right now, Riesling is hot. In fact, it's become the Archetypal Anti-Chardonnay, a wine whose woodlessness is considered a great virtue, along with its ripe fruit flavors and palate-cleansing acidity. Such food-friendly qualities have made it a particular favorite of sommeliers. Indeed, some have gone a bit Riesling-mad; I recently witnessed a woman drinking Riesling with steak--the wine chosen by the restaurant's sommelier.

Such awkward combinations aside, the only catch to this otherwise happy tale of Riesling's revival is that it hasn't brought about a bigger appreciation of German wine. While Australian and Austrian Rieslings do well (the latter at pretty high prices) and Rieslings from Washington State and New York's Finger Lakes are considered good value, German Rieslings still have a long way to go.

How can this be? Germany is, after all, the defining ground of great Riesling. If any country should profit from Americans' new Riesling love, surely it should be Germany. What's to blame? Is it the wines? (Hard to believe. The 2001 vintage is considered one of the greatest in decades.) The winemakers? (Highly improbable.) Or is it perhaps those indecipherable German wine labels again? In my search for an answer, I put together an itinerary that included all the great German growing regions (Rheingau,  Nahe, Mosel and Rheinpfalz) and some time with top winemakers. As it turned out, I found about as many answers as I did winemakers. The only thing they all seemed to agree on was the importance of fashionable attire; I'd never seen so many winemakers outside of Italy wearing slick sports jackets and Ferragamo ties.

RHEINGAU My first stop was the Rheingau, a region whose Rieslings are famous for their structure and elegance. Here winemakers were eager to discuss their new classification system, Erstes Gewächs. This system, applicable only to Rheingau wines, was created two years ago as a means of recognizing the region's top vineyards. It is modeled after the Burgundian grand cru system, though Erstes Gewächs means first growth--a Bordeaux wine term.

Though Erstes Gewächs seems like a laudable idea--designated wines must meet rigorous specifications, such as mandatory hand-harvesting and limited yields--I wasn't persuaded that what German wines needed was more unpronounceable words on their labels. Still, some winemakers were clearly enthused about its potential. Wolfgang Schleicher, director of the famed Rheingau estate Schloss Johannisberg, which produces some of the world's longest-lived Rieslings, said it was a "quality movement" whose meaning would soon be unmistakably clear.

A fellow Rheingau producer, the young modernist Robert Weil, agreed. Weil, who poured me samples of his elegant but rather austere Rieslings in his equally austere blue-and-chrome tasting room, insisted that the new system wasn't really new. Instead, Weil claimed, it was all quite historical, harkening back to the old days, when only the best vineyards were named on the labels.

Still, some Rheingau winemakers, like the talented Franz Künstler, want nothing to do with the Erstes Gewächs system. To Künstler, who makes big, mineral-rich Rieslings, it's just confusing. The traditional German Prädi-kat system (which identifies wines according to the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, with terms like Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese), Künstler believes, is the only one German winemakers should use. This, he told me, would help keep things simple. He seemed like such a nice man I didn't want to tell him most Americans probably think Prädikat is a handbag designer.

There does seem to be a flaw in his thinking, however. Under the Prädi-kat system, some labels (such as his) contain so much information--sometimes 12 lines or more, in as many different typefaces--that people get confused. (On Künstler's labels, by the way, Riesling doesn't get mentioned till line six). Künstler's view: "People have to be willing to learn." After all, those 12 lines contain everything a person needs to know about a wine--the producer, the vineyard, the town, even the conditions at harvesttime. I agreed that German winemakers are admirably forthcoming, but pointed out that maybe a tad less precision wouldn't exactly make Amer.icans feel cheated.

NAHE Labels have, of course, long been a stumbling block for would-be German-wine drinkers. Armand Diel, the good-natured proprietor of Schlossgut Diel in the tiny region of Nahe (next door to the Rheingau) offered his thoughts on the subject: "We Germans are idiots. Every year we make our labels more complicated. German labels are complicated enough." Diel, who is the head of the growers' association VDP, has two different types of labels, both clean and spare--one even sports a cartoon of Diel on the back. Diel is a proponent of yet another new classification system, one that divides wines into Classic (dry) and Selection (sweet).

These two designations (which can be used in any wine region, unlike Erstes Gewächs) can be applied to any sweet or dry wine of a certain quality level. It's a concept that sounds refreshingly straightforward, and the wines Diel turns out under these designations are certainly impressive--marked by lots of bold, forward fruit and bracing acidity. There's only one problem. Not everyone believes in, or for that matter, uses, this system. Some, like Dieter Greiner of the well-touristed Kloster Eberbach estate in Rheingau, deride the classification as strictly "a concept to make money."

MOSEL By the time I reached the Mosel, my notes looked like a seating plan for a contentious dinner party ("Doesn't believe in Erstes Gewächs," "Hates idea of Classic," "Wants only Prädikat"). In the face of such divisiveness, it seemed almost incidental that the wines I'd been tasting had been some of the best in recent memory. Things only got more confusing at the next stop, Kerpen, a well-regarded winery just north of Bernkastel. Proprietor Martin Kerpen, a lanky middle-aged man (with an even lankier daughter, who bounced a basketball against the tasting-room wall the entire duration of my visit) believes in the belt-and-suspenders approach to terminology. That is, he employs both the traditional Prädikat nomenclature and the Classic/Selection system.

But Kerpen didn't think terminology was the issue when selling his wines in the States. To Kerpen, the importers themselves were the obstacles. "The importers only want sweet wines," he lamented. "Our dry wines don't fit their image. So some Americans think we only make sweet wines." Indeed, because the dry German wines (sometimes identified as Trocken) are less expensive than the most profound German sweet wines (those labeled Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese), there's a smaller profit to be made on them. While Kerpen's sweet Rieslings, such as his Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese and Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese, were full of heavenly peach and apricot fruit, I felt cheated that his wonderfully mouthwatering dry wines, like the 2001 Classic and the 2001 Trocken Spätlese, weren't also exported.

The famously outspoken Ernst Loosen agreed that some importers were the source of the problem. Said Loosen, "There's an American importer who calls himself the Kaiser. Who would want to buy wine from someone called the Kaiser? People probably just hope he never shows up." The talented, Mosel-based Loosen makes wine under several different labels, all of them acclaimed--Dr. Loosen for his estate wines, J. L. Wolf for wines made from purchased grapes and even, incredibly, an American Riesling, Eroica, produced in the state of Washington in cooperation with Chateau Ste Michelle. Lively and dry, with a real lemon-lime finish, Eroica is generally regarded as one of the best Rieslings made in this country.

Even though Loosen produces Rieslings from some of Germany's greatest vineyards (Bernkasteler Lay, Graacher Himmelreich), he pessimistically predicted, "If anything is going to happen with Riesling, it will happen in the New World." Loosen travels to other wine regions quite often and was particularly struck by the spirit of Australia's Riesling producers. "They've banded together to figure out how to make the best Riesling they can."

As impressed as some German wine producers seem to be with New World winemaking, there's only one region they appear to truly hold dear: Burgundy. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Riesling is probably the only grape as sensitive to its terroir as Pinot Noir, the great grape of Burgundy. On the other hand, it's a ridiculous model for consumer clarity. As Loosen admits, "I'm a Burgundy freak, and I have trouble remembering the names of all those premiers crus. I don't think the average consumer can read a Burgundy label any easier than they can one from Germany."

RHEINPFALZ That hasn't stopped German producers from dreaming in French. Christian von Guradze, head of the esteemed Rheinpfalz (Pfalz, to its familiars) estate Bürklin-Wolf, not only refers to his vineyard sites as "Bâtard-Montrachet" and "Le Montrachet," but he even paid a surveyor to establish their superiority. (The survey was unofficial, and as far as the German wine world is concerned, these comparisons exist only in von Guradze's head.) Von Guradze, for his part, doesn't believe in the Prädikat system, which he condemns as "Communistic."

I wish I could say I came home with a clear answer to the winemakers' dilemma. What should they do? Keep the old Prädikat system? Convert everyone to Classic and Select? Fire the importers? Exile the Kaiser? Or just change the regions' names to Burgundy and be done with it? I was sympathetic; in all troubled families there are innocent victims. In this case, they were the wines. And what wines they were. Deep in flavor, redolent of white peaches, apricots, mineral and slate, they were as great as any Rieslings I'd ever tasted in my life.

I thought about a remark Künstler had made, that wine isn't merely a beverage but a form of communication.It seemed like the Germans have tried every means of communication there is--from new labeling terms to marketing schemes. Maybe one day they'll just let their wines speak for themselves. 

Published September 2002
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