Riesling Revamped

Germany's harvest ripe for the picking.

German Riesling rocks.

No other white grape has its versatility, and no other region has the soil and climate to craft wines like Germany. That said, many wine drinkers hear the words German Riesling and immediately think cheap and sweet.

The bum reputation was built with an influx of cheap, sweet German wines during the ’60s and ’70s (can you say, Liebfraumilch?).

With more yummy Riesling under vine than any other country, it is time to set the record straight: German wine does not mean sweet wine.

In fact, German Rieslings may be bone dry, off-dry, medium-sweet or sweet. The style is determined by the winemaker (and the weather).

Although climates vary, the vineyards of Germany represent some of Europe’s northernmost land under vine. Germany’s übercool climate means the grapes need more time on the vine to fully ripen. Longer “hangtime” develops more sugar and flavor in the berry.

Given extra sugar, the winemaker has the option to ferment the wine completely dry or to leave a bit of sugar by stopping the fermentation early. The sugar left behind softens the acidity. (Think sprinkling sugar on grapefruit.)

If conditions are just right, the grapes become sugar-filled fruit bombs capable of creating some of the world’s most sought-after dessert wines.

Quality German wines, indicated by the letters QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) on the label, list one of six terms designed to indicate degree of ripeness. Starting with the least ripe grapes, Kabinett wines, which may be dry or off-dry, are the lightest in body. Spätlese wines, which may be dry or medium-sweet, are late-harvest wines and have more flavor and concentration. Auslese wines are made from very ripe bunches of grapes. The wine’s flavor is intense and is usually, but not always, sweeter in style. The last three categories, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese, are reserved for sweet dessert wines.

Once one of the world’s greatest grapes, German Riesling is back and waiting for a second chance. So forgive and forget. Pick up a bottle of bone-dry Riesling. And savor the ripeness.

Marianne Frantz, CWE and founder of the Cleveland Wine School, was joined by the Cleveland NEOenophiles in selecting and sampling wines for this month’s Cellar Notes.

2005 Mönchhof Estate Riesling, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany ($17): Delicate aromas of apricot, lemon curd and mineral notes complement a medium-dry sweetness that is perfectly balanced by high acidity. Excellent aperitif wine.

2004 Zilliken Butterfly Riesling, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany ($15): Off-dry and light body with medium intensity of lime zest, lemon curd and white peach aromas. Searing acidity balances the sweetness for a long, sweet-tart finish.

2004 Karthauserhof Riesling, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany ($20): Medium body with white peach and lemon aromas. Medium-dry sweetness balanced by racy acidity. Great first-course wine; think pear salad with crumbled bleu cheese.

2005 Von Buhl Jazz Riesling, Pfalz, Germany ($17): Medium body and medium-dry with aromatic citrus and mineral aromas. Lemon and lime flavors, medium-plus acidity with mineral notes on the finish.

2003 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Spätlese, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany ($33): Ripe fruit aromas include brown sugar, beeswax, roasted grapefruit and candied lemon zest. Oily texture, medium-plus acidity balances its appealing sweetness.

2005 Fritz Haag Braunenberger Juffer Kabinett Riesling, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($28): Medium dry and delicately aromatic with perfumed acacia, lemon and grapefruit. Crisp citrus flavors are teamed with a bit of residual sugar for a long, fruity finish.

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