Dry Riesling Stakes Its Claim

With Riesling soaring in popularity, it’s time to dispel the myth that all German versions are sweet.


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It used to be that pretty much every German wine sold in America was sweet. That’s what consumers wanted, and that’s what importers delivered. There are still some who insist that sugar is the best way to achieve balance in coolclimate, high-acid Rieslings, and there’s merit in that argument: Sweet but balanced German Rieslings are some of the most beautiful wines in the world.

Yet sweet-style—fruchtig in German—Rieslings are a small proportion of what Germans actually drink. In Germany, dry Rieslings have been ascendant for more than a decade, with several producers basically dividing production between fruchtig wines for export and dry wines for the domestic market.

“Like all of us, we’ve been selling ‘fruity’ wines here for years,” explains veteran importer Rudi Wiest. “But about seven years ago, we started to see the quality of the dry wines really improving, and we started to really push the category.”

To date, most of the successes in marketing dry Rieslings have come in fine-dining restaurants, where sommeliers can explain to their customers exactly what a particular wine is and how it will complement their dishes.

Part of the issue stems from the fact that German wine labels—intended to spell out with Teutonic precision what’s in the bottle—don’t seem to translate well. The words are long, foreign and sometimes in inscrutable typefaces. Others—in an attempt to be modern—strip out so much information that consumers have no choice but to check the back label. Here’s a look at some of the key German label terms to look for when shopping for dry Rieslings.

Trocken. Dry. Wines can contain no more than 9 grams perliter (g/L) of residual sugar (0.9%). At the high end of that range, some may show just a hint of sweetness, balanced by crisp acids.

Halbtrocken. Literally, half dry. With 10–18 g/L of residual sugar (1–1.8%), most tasters would describe these wines as just off dry.

Feinherb. Not an officially regulated term, but generally means that the wine approximates halbtrocken in style.

Classic. Used in conjunction with a grape variety, but no mention of village or vineyard to denote “harmoniously dry” wines.

Selection. Similar in intent to Classic, but it allows the use of site names and requires handpicking and lower yields in the vineyards.

Grosses Gewächs. Abbreviated GG, as the term is not part of official German labeling regulations. It’s used by members of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter, an association of top wine estates) for a dry wine from a classified site (erste lage, literally, first growth). In the Rheingau, the term Erstes Gewächs is used instead.

The Grosses Gewächs wines are usually very good to excellent, but also tend to be very expensive, with prices starting around $50 and headed up toward three figures. As they come from Germany’s top estates and best vineyards and often sell out quickly on the domestic market, there is some justification for the lofty price tags.

They’re still relatively inexpensive compared to some other wines, says Wiest. “I’ve got customers at high-end restaurants in New York who say, ‘Why should I buy white Burgundies for $500 when I can put a Grosses Gewächs on the list for so much less?’” Fortunately, there’s no need to shell out that much cash, as some of the recommended bottles on the facing page demonstrate.

What goes with dry Riesling?

In Germany’s wine regions, the classic lunch is wurst mit kraut (sausage with sauerkraut). Pour a simple dry Riesling alongside, and it can transport you there. The lean stoniness of a dry Riesling from the Mosel is an apt pairing alongside oysters or other shellfish, while the full-bodied wines of the Rheingau or Pfalz can stand up to richer fishes and sauces, or even veal, poultry or pork. “Just nothing where there’s sweetness,” cautions Wiest.

Ruwer

91 Maximin Grünhäuser 2010 Abtsberg Alte Reben Riesling Trocken.
Alte Reben means old vines, in this case up to 80 years of age, said to contribute spice, body and structure. Hints of peach and clover give this mediumbodied dry Riesling a warm, sunny gloss, although it’s still a racy, crisp wine laced with crushed stone and tart notes of passion fruit and quince. Valckenberg International Inc.
abv: 11.5%             Price: $48

Nahe

91 Prinz Salm 2010 Grünschiefer Riesling Trocken.
The Nahe is one of Germany’s gems, a tiny river valley framed along its northern edge by a protective rim of hills that coddle some great vineyard sites. This wine, derived from unique green-slate soils, is perfumed and floral, yet at the same time intensely redolent of wet stones and citrus. Valckenberg International Inc.
abv: 12.5%             Price: $41

Mosel

91 Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler 2010 Dry Riesling.
A great value, this 2010—a blend composed from several estate vineyards—displays fascinating aromas of peach, lime, fern fronds and brine, along with medium body, a velvety texture and a long, potent finish. Drink it over the next few years. Miller Squared Inc. Best Buy.
abv: 11.5%             Price: $15

91 Prinz von Hessen 2007 Johannisberger Klaus Erstes Gewächs Riesling.
Rheingau Rieslings are riper and richer than those from more northerly regions, and this wine is a big, powerfully built Riesling, almost oily in texture, and decidedly unfruity in style. It suggests liquid stone, with just hints of peachy ripeness, finishing oily, rich and dry. Folio Fine Wine Partners.
abv: 13.5%             Price: $60

Rheingau

91 Prinz von Hessen 2007 Johannisberger Klaus Erstes Gewächs Riesling.
Rheingau Rieslings are riper and richer than those from more northerly regions, and this wine is a big, powerfully built Riesling, almost oily in texture, and decidedly unfruity in style. It suggests liquid stone, with just hints of peachy ripeness, finishing oily, rich and dry. Folio Fine Wine Partners.
abv: 13.5%             Price: $60 

Rheinhessen

90 Kühling-Gillot 2008 Nierstein
Pettenthal GG Riesling Trocken. From an extremely steep vineyard with red soils acknowledged to be one of the best in the region, this wine is smoky and diesel-scented, with bold baked apple and pear flavors and a dash of cinnamon. This is a big, impressively endowed Riesling that features just a touch of sweetness, balanced by dry spices on the finish. Domaine Select Wine Estates.
abv: 13.5%             Price: $59

Pfalz

93 Knipser 2009 Dirmstein Mandelpfad GG Riesling.
The Knipser brothers are perhaps best known for their red wines, but this Riesling from a gently sloping loess vineyard site is terrific. Ripe peaches balance quince and citrus, and plenty of wet stone and brine notes provide backbone and textural richness. Harmony, length and minerality are all here in a wine that’s relatively affordable by Grosses Gewächs standards. Magellan Wine Imports Inc. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12%                Price: $45

Baden

88 Weingut Burg Ravensburg 2008 Freiherr von Goeler Dry Riesling.
From a region not especially known for delicate and floral Rieslings, this is a standout. Much of Baden’s production is under the control of vast cooperatives. This wine, however, from an independent estate, is a lovely and versatile Riesling, filled with lime, floral and apple and pear shadings. It’s medium bodied and barely off dry, with a slightly spicy note on the finish. The winery’s higher-end wines are even more impressive. Wine Sources. Best Buy.
abv: 11.5%             Price: $13
 

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