At the turn of the 20th century, Germany reigned supreme in the wine world. Its wines were priced similarly to or higher than first-growth Bordeaux. This heyday of German wine is often remembered by wine geeks who can quote the late 1800s prices of Schloss Johannisburg from a Berry Bros. & Rudd retail catalog or a Schönborn Marcobrunn from a New York restaurant menu.
Sommeliers, wine writers and industry experts still champion the complexity, expressiveness and ageability of Germany’s finest Riesling, and increasingly, its Pinot Noir and other varieties. Yet, that perception runs counter to those of many American wine consumers. Some look down their noses at the mass-market remembrances of their youth (Liebfraumilch), or think that all Riesling is sweet. They haven’t yet learned that Germany produces some of the most versatile, food-friendly wines on the market.
German wine is having its moment. In the following pages, five of America’s leading proponents of German wine give their picks of which wines you should seek out now. Prost!
As a sommelier at some of Manhattan’s most celebrated wine meccas, notably the NoMad Hotel and Shuko, Lewis has spent many evenings trying to entice wine-zealous customers, often collectors of Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux, to give Germany’s greatest offerings a try.
Half of Lewis’s list at the newly opened Günter Seeger NY, a German fine-dining restaurant in the Meatpacking District, is devoted to German wines. Riesling shows prominently, but for Lewis, the list is also an opportunity to shine light upon some of the country’s other varieties.
“Legendary German reds like Spätburgunder [Pinot Noir] or Frühburgunder [an early ripening mutation of Pinot Noir], as well as a variety of red blends, are so underutilized in America,” Lewis says.
Their power makes them a wonderful fit for restaurant patrons, she says, often more so than delicate styles of Burgundy.
“And it’s such an incredible opportunity to get these truly riveting wines, even older examples, for half the price of Burgundy.”
Sabra Lewis’s Top Picks
German Riesling is a powerful food-pairing wine, and the complexity that a top Riesling Grosses Gewächs (GG) gains with age makes it especially compelling, Lewis says. Moreover, in contrast to persistent issues of premature oxidation in older white Burgundy, the consistency of these German wines is hugely appealing.
Alongside Riesling, Sylvaner has an unusually strong presence on Lewis’s list, including Fürst Löwenstein’s 2002 Sylvaner Trocken, sourced from the 1,000-year-old Homburger Kallmuth vineyard in Franken.
“Sylvaner is a really special grape, and especially when it ages, it’s like a more refined version of Sauvignon Blanc,” says Lewis. “There’s that green hint that people love from Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s more subtle and ages in a way that’s more savory.
“For subtlety, I almost appreciate grapes like Sylvaner and Weissburgunder more than Riesling,” she says. “When your chef’s food is so clean and pure and subtle, these less aromatic, more filigreed wines hit food pairings so well.”
June Rodil, MS
According to Rodil, a Master Sommelier, the best German wines in America are still largely an insider secret. As beverage director for a group of prominent restaurants in Austin, Texas, including Jeffrey’s, Josephine House, Perla’s and Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Rodil makes getting the word out on legendary German wines a priority.
“It’s sommeliers and wine-industry people who drive demand for premium German wines,” she says.
But savvy wine collectors are getting on board, as are curious millennials, a demographic group known for trying new things. The key to getting guests excited about German wine is communication, says Rodil.
June Rodil’s Top Picks
“The wines are so delicious that when brought to a table in the right context, with the right verbiage and expectations, guests can easily see how magnificent they are,” she says. “But the beauty of the wines sometimes gets lost in a whirlwind of umlauts and einzellagen and Grosses Gewächs.”
Language is but one barrier in translating German wine to everyday consumers: The misconception that all German wines are sweet also poses hurdles.
A self-professed “Riesling whore,” Rodil eagerly lays out the virtues of her most beloved Rieslings in lavish detail.
“The Mosel is filigree and angel tears,” she says.
Within the Mosel, Rodil says that Egon Müller exemplifies the highest tier of Riesling in the world, staying true to the off-dry style of the Saar, regardless of shifting trends for dry or sweet wines.
The one wine that Rodil always keeps in her refrigerator, Maximin Grünhäuser’s Abstberg Riesling Spätlese, is also from the Mosel.
“The complexity of this wine is unreal,” she says. “From citrus to tropical fruit, green tea, peonies and licking chalk—it’s seamless.”
Equally exuberant about Germany’s dry wines, she describes Rheingau wines as typified by “power and strength.” Her first taste of Robert Weil’s Kiedrich Gräfenberg Riesling solidified her devotion to the noble grape, she says.
“The sheer width on the palate allowed for pairings that were so crazy, the richest meats even,” she says. “Since then, Riesling and I never looked back.”
Founder, vom Boden and Rieslingfeier
Bitterolf, founder of vom Boden, a boutique German wine importer in Brooklyn, is America’s most dynamic voice for German wine today. He’s the mastermind behind Rieslingfeier, the annual New York City celebration devoted to German wine. A hot-ticket event featuring tastings and seminars, Rieslingfeier culminates with a gala dinner where legendary winemakers and their fanatics dig deep into their cellars to create the world’s largest German wine BYOB.
According to Bitterolf, enthusiasm for the country’s fine wines is a distinct niche, but where it exists, there’s a near-maniacal devotion that’s infectious.
Stephen Bitterolf’s Top Picks
“It’s not a question of, ‘Will German wines regain their status as benchmarks of wine?’ it’s a question of when,” he says. “The press is there, the geeks are definitely there, and the collectors are coming. It’s just that 95 percent of your average consumers—the ones who drive a good amount of the business—aren’t there.”
One challenge is the question of scale and availability.
“[Most] people don’t have any familiarity with many of the truly great estates of Germany like Egon Müller, Karthäuserhof or Willi Schaefer,” says Bitterolf.
The best estates in Germany don’t make enough wine and lack the marketing budgets to be visible in today’s global market, he says.“
And visibility is not necessarily an indicator of quality,” he says.
According to Bitterolf, today’s fine German wines are akin to Burgundy in the decades before it became prohibitively expensive. German wine “is all about site specificity, history and ageability,” he says. “There’s no sex appeal, it’s not easy and there’s more to learn, but that’s what makes it fun.”
If the success of Rieslingfeier is any indication, this fervor is stoking a powerful rejuvenation for the historic wines of Germany. It also highlights a rising generation of young, entrepreneurial producers like Rheinhessen’s Klaus Peter Keller of Weingut Keller and the Mosel’s Peter Lauer and Weiser-Künstler.
“Rieslingfeier is special, because it’s not about ego,” he says. “If anything, it’s a little like going to Comic Con. Maybe you’re a little bit of a social deviant—you really should know better and should probably be buying Burgundy or Bordeaux or Champagne. But you go there because you really just love these wines.”
“German wines have always been among the greatest wines on the planet,” says Southern California-based wine importer Wiest. But throughout the 1970s, he watched these great wines “become lost in a sea of mass-produced, inexpensive wines.”
Now almost 40 years into a crusade to reintroduce Germany’s great wines in America, Wiest has become a groundbreaking figure in the German wine world.
Since the beginning, Wiest pushed Americans to delve deeply into the diversity of German wines. He championed dry Rieslings as far back as the 1980s, when naysayers insisted only sweet wines would sell. Today, dry Riesling, Sylvaner and Pinot Noir dominate his sales.
At their best, the wines are uniquely ageworthy and have an unsurpassed ability to express terroir across a variety of grapes, he says. In many cases, they’re better and more consistent than ever before.
“The Germans are maniacs in the vineyard,” says Wiest, describing how producers like Hans-Jörg Rebholz in the Pfalz ensure quality. Rebholz tastes grapes from every vine, not every vineyard, when harvesting for his highest-classification GG wines.
Rudi Wiest’s Top Picks
“Nobody in the world does the kind of selection in the vineyard that the Germans do,” says Wiest.
The wines’ ability to age, he says, contributes to their underestimation.
“You hear critics saying that a dry GG Riesling needs to be drunk in two years, but frankly, you’re only tasting the tip of the iceberg at one or two years old,” he says. “The dirt—the heritage of where these grapes are grown—doesn’t really start coming through til at least five to six years.”
German wines also offer taste profiles that can’t be duplicated, such as Joh. Jos. Prüm’s profoundly delicate style of Riesling, which Wiest says is “singular to the world in expressing that unbearable lightness of Riesling.”
He notes that Germany’s best Pinot Noir can rival the finest in Burgundy, but with inimitable expressions of a greater diversity of terroir. From Meyer-Näkel’s blue slate vineyards in Ahr, to Friedrich Becker and Rebholtz’s limestone soils in the Pfalz, or Rudolf Fürst’s colored sandstone in Franken, each landscape offers a unique dimension to Pinot Noir.
One of the world’s leading wine auction houses, New York-based Zachys has seen a resurgence of interest in German wines in the U.S., Europe and Asia over the last few years. Its response? In February, Zachys partnered with Rieslingfeier to produce its first Riesling-only electronic auction.
It’s a reflection of an evolution of auction buyers as wine drinkers, says Varghese, wine specialist for Zachys.
“New wine drinkers often start with bold, in-your-face wines, things like a California Cabernet,” he says. “As their palates evolve, they begin veering towards Old World wines like Bordeaux, then probably Burgundy, Champagne or Piedmont. From there, the next logical step is Riesling.”
Buyers at fine wine auctions look for wines with ageability, finesse and elegance, Varghese says.
“Old World wine lovers particularly have an affinity toward higher-acid wines with complex nuances and the ability to pair well with food,” he says.
Varghese says that few wine regions offer that kind of capability, and buyers are starting to realize that a properly aged German Riesling can be as compelling as a grand cru Burgundy with decades of age.
Zachys’s Rieslingfeier eAuction featured a collection of rare German wines—library vintages of Maximin Grünhäus and Dr. Loosen going back to the ’70s and ’80s, and verticals selected for the auction by Robert Weil and Joh. Jos. Prüm. Composed of wines sourced directly from the estates, the event was an opportunity to obtain pristinely stored wines unlikely to appear on the market again.
Santosh Varghese’s Top Picks
Varghese says the auction was a great success, as aggressive bidding escalated prices far beyond original estimates. A lot of six bottles of Maximin Grünhäus 1988 Auslese Abtsberg Fuder 67, for example, realized a price that was five times the presale estimate.
Still, says Varghese, “the prices aren’t as high as you would see for say, Burgundy, which is in its own stratosphere.”
This makes German Riesling an investment within reach for many consumers. Because most German wines in auctions tend to be sold in small lots and in Internet-specific offerings, it’s easier for new and inexperienced auction buyers to bid with confidence, he says.