Riesling & Co. German Wine Trade Fair

Seminar and Tasting Event May 17, 2011 at the CN Tower in Toronto

CN_TowerRiesling up in the clouds.

The name "Riesling & Co." suggests the obvious emphasis at a German Wine Trade Fair, and of course most attendees were expecting that focus. But I hadn't known that the introductory sit-down Tasting and Seminar was to be about dry Rieslings, and the fact that dry Rieslings can be aged. What luck! Unexpectedly, I could indulge my two favorite Riesling hot-buttons together: dry Riesling and aged Riesling!

One point emphasized in the seminar, and confirmed by representatives from other wineries, is that Germans themselves drink mostly dry Riesling. Apparently about 50% of German Riesling is dry(1), and almost none of that is exported. In talking one-on-one with various representatives I sensed a real frustration that Riesling is stereotyped as sweet by foreign vendors such as the LCBO, and by the global importing community. Of course the importers say that they can't sell dry Riesling, and so it's really up to the Germans to create demand, and this presentation was a small step in that direction.

panelistsThe three panelists: Hasselbach, Basslich, and Lingenfelder

Four wineries from four different regions participated in the seminar:

  • Weingut Markus Molitor from the Mosel
  • Weingut Gunderloch from Rheinhessen, represented by winemaker Fritz Hasselbach
  • Weingut Schloss Reinhartshausen from the Rheingau, represented by Export Director Andrea Basslich
  • Weingut Lingenfelder from the Pfalz, represented by winemaker and owner Rainer Lingenfelder
RainerLingenfelderRainer Lingenfelder discussing the vinification of dry Riesling

Rainer Lingenfelder, who began the presentation, did double duty as he spoke on behalf of Markus Molitor as well as his own estate. Herr Lingenfelder began by talking about ageability of wine. Outside of Germany the relatively small audience that is aware of aged German whites tends to think of sweet wines, but Rainer and his colleagues want to show the interest of older dry Riesling.

But before we can consider the aging of dry Riesling, we need to step back and look at the nature of German dry Riesling itself. The wines of Mosel estate Markus Molitor are a good place to start, because the traditional Rieslings from the Mosel are typical of most people's perceptions of Riesling. They tend to be lighter bodied wines with lots of fruit and good acidity, where the acidity is balanced by sugar. A typical Mosel Kabinett(2) is likely off-dry, although it can be sweeter than that, while most people would associate Spätlese and Auslese levels of ripeness with higher levels of residual sugar due to the higher sugar levels in the riper grapes themselves.

Markus Molitor (3)

  • 2008 Zeltinger Sonnenuhre: delicate perfume and stone fruit with flint undertones. Dry, medium acidity, with a rich full body and long finish.
  • 2003 Zeltinger Sonnenuhre: slight petrol from bottle age, flint, ripe stone fruit, dry, less than medium acidity, with a rich full body.

Both the Markus Molitor wines were ripened to the Auslese level, and were probably picked with a selection process that separated the grapes into Spätlese and Auslese, and ensured that no botrytis-affected grapes were included. These are from old vines over 100 years old, on their own rootstock, and have very low yields.


Gunderloch

  • 2009 Rothenberg, 12.5% abv.: aromas of apricot, peach and pineapple over mineral notes. Dry with medium acidity on the palate, a medium-plus body and a long mineral finish.
  • 2004 Rothenberg, 13% abv.: very light petrol, but still very fresh aromas of peach and apricot just beginning to evolve. Dry, medium acidity, medium-plus body and a long finish.

The Rothenberg is a "Grand Cru"(4) vineyard. Botrytis is avoided for dry wines, and grapes are ripened to the Auslese level but are not classified as such. Wines are matured in 600-1200 litre neutral German oak containers on lees.


Schloss Reinhartshausen

  • 2009 Hattenheimer (Wisselbrunnen) Spätlese, 12.5% abv., 7 g/l TA and 7g/l residual sugar. Aromas of apricot, pineapple and coconut, dry, with medium acidity, medium-plus body and a long drying (but not acidic) finish with flint notes.
  • 2005 Hattenheimer Spätlese, 13% abv. 6.6% TA and just 4 g/l of residual sugar. Still fresh aromas of peaches, apricots and citrus peel, and the slightest hint of petrol. Dry, medium acidity and medium-plus body with a long finish.

Lingenfelder

  • 2009 Freinsheimer Goldberg: fresh peach and pineapple aromas, dry with medium acidity, medium-plus body and a long finish showing lots of fruit.
  • 1993 Freinsheimer Goldberg: golden highlights but no browning at all. There is some gentle petrol and rubber, along with cobbler's wax, and no obvious oxidation. Although the fruits are drying out, there is still an evident freshness. The palate is dry, with a medium-plus body and a slightly waxy mouth feel, medium acidity and a lovely lingering finish.

When you think of Riesling from this typical perspective, you observe that the drier wines are made from less ripe grapes and have higher acidity. In the German world these would be Kabinett, and in North America we would think in terms of Brix in the 18 to 20 range. But there is a real risk that with a must at 18-20 Brix that is fermented dry (let's say 9 g/l or less of residual sugar), the resulting wine will have mouth-puckering acidity that may prove to be undrinkable. Here winemakers and other experts will often say that there is too much acidity, and some residual sugar is needed to balance the acidity. When dry Rieslings made on this model actually work, they are austere and challenging. These are wines that I can personally enjoy, but I realize they will have limited market appeal.

As Herr Lingenfelder and the other panelists talked about their approach to making dry Rieslings, it took me a while to realize that, without explicitly saying so, they were presenting a very different thought process and model. As grapes ripen further, and sugar levels rise, the acidity falls naturally. I believe that six of the eight examples were ripened to Auslese level, with the other two ripened to the Spätlese level, whether or not they were explicitly labeled as such. Checking my spreadsheets, this suggests Brix in the 21 to 24 range or higher, and potential alcohol in the 12-14% range. So for all of them dry Riesling is made from riper grapes with lower acidity (probably 6 to 7.5 g/l) and higher sugar levels, leading to higher alcohol levels in the 12.0 to 13.5% range.

These winemakers are well aware of the need for balance, they just deny that the only way of balancing acidity is by requiring residual sugar. Let nature reduce the acidity naturally through ripening, and then ferment it into a substantial, rich still wine. For those who like the statistics, these dry Rieslings have a profile much closer to an unoaked Chardonnay (though the "C-word" was never used), than a traditional delicate off-dry Mosel Riesling. Indeed several winemakers mentioned that the dry Rieslings made this way are matured for longer periods, often in large neutral German oak containers, and certainly stay on the lees during that time to enhance richness and mouth feel. It sounds familiar, doesn't it!

The result is that dry Riesling doesn't have to imply wines that are austere and difficult. They can be richer, full-bodied wines, with riper flavours from the riper grapes, lower acidity and higher alcohol. These characteristics are reflected in the tasting notes on the side.

With the time constraints of the seminar, I didn't have a chance to ask about the process of aging itself. On the first model of Riesling, most of the aged wines are sweet, and there is a prevalent view that residual sugar is a necessary component of the aging process. Clearly with dry Rieslings residual sugar cannot be part of the process, and the model for aging has to be closer to the standard model of aging other dry white table wines. The 1993 Lingenfelder Freiheimer Goldberg (with about 4 g/l of residual sugar) demonstrated how beautifully these wines can age, and so this is an interesting topic for further follow up.

There were questions about petrol notes in Riesling as well. As I expected, the panel members believe that petrol is an acceptable, and even desirable, consequence of bottle aging. None of the younger wines showed anything more than a flinty minerality, and the 2003 to 2005 examples had very modest petrol notes. Even on the 1993 the petrol was by no means overwhelming, and was more on the nose than on the palate.

All of these dry Rieslings struck me as very food friendly, but not along the lines of the typical spicy Thai food pairing often suggested for off-dry Riesling. These are more substantial whites that certainly can stand up to chicken, fish and pork.

I think it is only fair to mention that I came across one representative of a Mosel winery who did not like this trend to drier Riesling. He suggested that only 15% of Mosel Riesling is dry, and he didn't believe that Mosel wines were suited to that style. So there is a debate within the German Riesling community, and it will be interesting to watch how this develops.

I would like to encourage everyone to try these dry Rieslings for themselves, and to let me know what you think. Unfortunately I don't believe that there are many available through our Ontario liquor monopoly,(5) and I haven't found any yet through private order. The local agents I spoke with were not interested in trying to buck the sweet Riesling ethos, which is disappointing although totally understandable. If I can find a way of doing something about this, I'll pass the word!


(1) Wines actually labeled "Trocken" (Dry) must have less than 4 g/l of residual sugar, or up to 9g/l as long as total acidity is within 2 g/l of the level of residual sugar. Under "Trocken", the Oxford Companion to Wine states that 28% of German wine is labeled as "Trocken", presumably from about 2005 prior to publishing of the latest edition. This is a very large number, but much less than 50%. Checking out some company websites, I easily found references to "Dry" in English translations for wines with residual sugar in the 10-15 g/l range, outside the "Trocken" definition. I assume that "dry" is unregulated in descriptions, and that "Trocken" would not be on the label. I suspect that the claims of "50% dry" include dry-tasting wines that are not labelled as "Trocken".

(2) The German prädikatswein are identified by the ripeness levels of the grapes at harvest, Kabinett being less ripe than Spätlese and Auslese respectively.

(3) Given the format of the presentation, I did not get to make notes on (or take pictures of) the bottles, so I am not sure about the labeling. For example, I do not know whether the first two examples from Molitor were actually labeled Auslese and Trocken or not.

(4) Another interesting complication: there is a "Grand Cru" designation on this bottle, and Herr Hasselbach mentioned that this designation can only be apploied to legally dry wines.

(5) An LCBO search on "Trocken" turns up 23 hits, only one of which is a German Riesling Trocken (57 cases in the whole province). I will be running across town to pick up several bottles to sample.