Wine quiz: Are German Rieslings sweet or dry? Sounds like a no-brainer. For wine drinkers in the U.S., German Riesling is the classic example of residual sugar in the glass. But ask a German, or look through a German restaurant wine list, and the answer is this: Riesling is dry, and getting drier.
It’s the German Paradox. The style that dominates the U.S. marketplace, balancing a dollop of sugar with enough acidity to deliver a crisp finish, has all but disappeared in Germany. What we think of as German wine is something most Germans stopped drinking years ago. There’s no ”right” or ”wrong” here—both styles can be delicious—but there is definitely some international misunderstanding.
The semi-dry style—call it fruity or, as the Germans prefer, lieblich (charming)—dominated German winemaking from the end of World War II through the 1970s. This was the heyday of gloppy Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun, but also of astonishing, ageworthy wines from small producers. As Germany began to import growing volumes of dry whites from Alsace and Italy, dry-style Riesling made an appearance.
The 1985 Austrian wine adulteration scandal—the revelation that some sweet wines were pumped up with infusions of diethelyne glycol—had a spillover effect in Germany, and the trend toward drier styles went into high gear. Riesling and other whites went on a reduced-sugar diet, and red varieties got more attention. The German wine press loved the new direction and the shift in consumer preferences proved unstoppable. According to the German Wine Information Bureau, trocken (dry) and halbtrocken (medium dry) wines accounted for nearly 60% of the wines submitted for quality evaluation in 2004.
Defining ”dry” for German wines takes a little work. The familiar categories of Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese refer to sugar at harvest, not the sweetness of the final wine—a Spätlese can be trocken. In sensory terms, most German table wines containing residual sugar finish quite dry on the palate because of bracing acidity. By the numbers, under German law a wine labeled trocken can contain up to nine grams of sugar per liter—0.9%—more than is likely to be found, for example, in a dry Sauvignon Blanc from California or New Zealand. Halbtrocken wines can reach 18 grams of sugar.
Still, the drier styles are noticeably, sometimes dramatically, different from the sweeter ones, and the two find homes in entirely different markets. Most German estate wineries produce both: dry for domestic consumption and off-dry for the U.S., Japan and the UK. Dry styles rule in warmer areas like the Pfalz, but even in the chilly Mosel-Saar-Rüwer, famous for its off-dry wines, Hans Selbach (Selbach-Oster) makes a third of his wines dry, and Karl Loewen (Weingut Carl Loewen) 90% of his wines dry. Many winemakers like Toni Jost in the Mittelrhein and Daniel Wagner (Wagner-Stempel) in Rheinhessen acknowledge that they continue to make the sweet wines only because they have an overseas outlet.
German winemakers differ on which style ages better, which more fully expresses terroir, which is harder to make and which wine they prefer to drink. But everyone agrees the trocken wines have become more drinkable over the years. For Nahe winemaker Helmut Dönnhoff, “In the ’90s, everything was black and white. Now we aim for balance and forget about the ideology.”
Meanwhile, dry remains a tough sell in the U.S. Both Terry Thiese, whose high-profile selections are imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, and Thomas Haehn, national sales manager for Rudi Wiest Selections, report that there is more talk about dry styles than demand among their customers. Both import quite a number of dry Rieslings, but they hardly fly out of the warehouse.
Consumer taste in the U.S. represents yet another side of the German Paradox. Riesling fans here are used to a bit of sugar in their wines, and like it that way, and can find the steely bite of trocken wines downright traumatic. On the other hand, partisans of dry whites have no clue that Riesling comes in that style. The impression is reinforced by the fact that the largest U.S. domestic Riesling producers favor an off-dry style. Haehn points to the difficulty in changing ingrained perceptions with tiny case lots from artisan producers.
Though he carries some dry wines, Thiese is in no hurry to turn the market on its head. ”These [sweet] wines are unique in the world,” he says. ”My colleagues and I are largely responsible for keeping this style of German Riesling alive.”