Of the most beautiful flower, the begonia, he sang the least.
Now it is true that poets do not usually write about begonias and, despite the efforts of Jancis Robinson, Terry Thiese, and bloggers such as Davy Strange, German Riesling remains a far too neglected beauty of the wine trade: it is the begonia of wines, beautiful but overlooked by most because they know no better, know not what they do.
Part of the accusation against Riesling is about sweetness, as if this was somehow a bad thing in and of itself. Of course, there are plenty of dry (trocken) wines which have benefited from global warming and which have the fruit to match the acidity, but these are swept up along with the off-dry and richer wines with that universal wave of ‘I don’t like Riesling’. If I was to say ‘I don’t like you’, you might say ‘well, you don’t know me’ (or something rather more cutting). Equally the careless dismissal of a great wine based on report and not experience is a matter of preconception and not taste.
Once upon a time, I thought too that I did not like Riesling. Back in my twenties, I had tried a number of New Zealand versions of the wine: the vines were young, the hang time was too short, the alcohol levels were too high, and the acidity was piercing. New Zealand versions of the wine have come a long way since then, but at the time it was enough to put me off. Then, one day much later, I attended a tasting of German Riesling en primeur: the feinherbs didn’t appeal much, but when I got to the kabinetts and spatlese, it was like taking the left side of my brain out and reprogramming it on the spot before slotting it back in. I finally understood what the fuss was about and I have loved Riesling ever since.
Let us be clear about this: all wine starts out its life as pressed grape juice that is rich in sugar. It starts out sweet. Then the yeast get the munchies and start the fermentation process: the resulting alcohol is essentially yeast excrement. Now sometimes the yeast cark it before they can finish the job because there is so much sugar, and sometimes the winemaker stops the yeast to keep the alcohol level low. They usually do this by adding a little sulphur, a subject to which I will return. With Riesling the sweetness is intentional: it comes from the grapes and not via the addition of sugar (chapitalisation). The point is to balance the sweetness against the acidity so that they are in harmony.
Yet I can still hear the ladies who lunch saying ‘but it’s sooo sweet’ while the wolf their salad leaves and order another glass of sauvignon blanc. What they mean by sweet is calorific, because they have no problem with other things that taste sweet. It is here that the single biggest misconception lies. A glass of dry white wine, with no residual sugar, between 13 and 14% is 128 to 138 calories per 125ml glass, to which you can add on half the value of the residual sugar as calories per 125ml glass. Hence, a sauvignon blanc at about 13.5% with 6-10 grams (ie. 3-5 calories) of residual sugar per litre (which is typical) is about 136 calories per 125ml glass.
One of the advantages of attending tastings when the winemakers are there is that you can ask them for the kind of technical information that is not found on labels. So it was at the Howard Ripley tasting where I asked Peter Lauer about his hauntingly lovely Ayler Spatlese Fass 7. This charming wine comes in at a whopping 7.5% alcohol. Yes, that is right and not a misprint, seven point five percent. And the residual sugar? Well that is 60g per litre, so yes this wine is balanced between sweetness and acidity and it is this that drives through the lemony fruit. It must therefore have more calories than the sauvignon blanc, or so we would assume, but not at all: it is about 105 calories per 125ml glass because the residual sugar is less calorific than the alcohol. An ordinary kabinett with about 9% alcohol and 40-45g of residual sugar would come at much the same calorie value (the slight increase in alcohol is balanced by the reduction in residual sugar). The ladies have missed a trick here: they can have something a little sweet and still cut calories.
In fact, nothing quite so suits a hot summer afternoon than a glass or two of Riesling. The alcohol is low, the sweetness combined with the acidity is refreshing, and its natural accompaniment would be a little charcuterie or a firmer cheese. The Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand invites ideas of hummus and pita bread, carbohydrates rather than proteins.
So what about that sulphur? Well, having grown up in New Zealand, I spent childhood holidays in Rotorua so I will confess to an immediate sensitivity to its smell, and by the end of the Howard Ripley tasting I did feel somewhat fumigated, but not in a bad way. The trouble with sulphur is that too much is definitely too much. Further, sulphites are a natural by-product of the winemaking, so adding more can easily lead to an inadvertantly high dose. In the case of an en primeur tasting where many of the wines are samples that have just been bottled, it can also be a little more obviously present. Most of the time one can be confident that a small hint will disappear and that its presence is momentary. Personally, I reject any wines where the nose is clearly sulphurous or dead. Having said that, some winemakers are noticably more heavy handed than others, and in what follows below you can be sure that in all cases the sulphur present was minimal or non-existent. By the time they are available they will be as clean as a whistle.
The tasting, every year at the Middle Temple in June, is hosted by the charming and amiable Sebastian Thomas. Every second year the winemakers attend as they did this year. On the alternate year the wines are organised from dry to sweet, but when the winemakers are present they are organised by each in turn. The result is a little like doing piano scales as you move up and down the sweetness scale continuously. The nose will exhibit variations on the stone fruit and citrus theme with hints of ‘minerality’ (a fairly problematic term), the body should be poised and elegant with a lightness of touch that fills out in the mouth, the palate should linger and be long; there might be something of a ‘mineral’ finish, perhaps a touch of saltiness. What one is assessing is a range of subtle differences and, in a rather academic way I use a panalopy of pluses and minuses, sometimes bracketed, to register those shades. It is a bit like marking essays: the ‘Smith is slightly better than Jones but not quite as good as McTavish’ kind of thing. Overall, 72 of the 78 wines I marked in the ‘would be happy to buy’ category, and six got very high marks indeed, the highest being Robert Weil’s Kiedrich Grafenburg Beerenauslese, followed by Daniel Vollenweider’s much more affordable Wolfer Goldgrube Auslese.
The reason for marking (and my system is very much my own) is that at the end you can look at the marks relative to the price and assess value, alongside other issues such as the variety of wines you might want to buy. As elsewhere, quanities for the 2013 vintage are depressingly small, so there will be little about of the best wines quite soon. The following were amongst those that I most admired below £150 per six in bond.
If you want an inexpensive, dry, low alcohol trocken, then the Peter Lauer 2013 Sarr Riesling Fass 16, with its spicy nose, salty finish, and 7.3% alcohol certainly does the trick for £45/6 in bond. A little more upscale is Heymann Lowenstein’s smoky, ripe and juicy 2012 Schiefferterrassen (£66/6) and their more mineral 2012 Von blauem Schieffer (£78/6), whilst at the top are Schafer Frolich’s lovely and rich Bockenauer Schiefergestein (£84/6) and Julian Haart’s mineral Wintricher Riesling (£96/6).
In the next category, the three stand out wines were Daniel Vollenweider’s intense Wolfer Golgrube Kabinett (£51/6), Julian Haart’s mineral and lemony Piersporter Schubertslay Kabinett (£72/6), and Peter Lauer’s tangy Ayler Kabinett Fass 8 (£63/6). Also worthy of note were Hermann Donnhoff’s ripe and lemony Oberhauser Leistenberg Kabinett (£66/6) and von Hovel’s Scharzhofberg Kabinett (£63/6) with a zippy grapefruit touch.
There was very little of J. J. Prum’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese made in 2013 (most of the grapes were ripe enough for the auslese) and it is not available, but they did show their weightless and beautiful 2012 (£120/6). Of the 2013s, the top wines were Julian Haart’s Wintricher Ohligsberg Spatlese (£96/6), with its lovely texture, and Willi Schaefer’s zippy, rich and long Graacher Domprobst Spatlese 5 (£102/6). Not far behind were Peter Lauer’s beautifully balanced Ayler Spatlese 7 (£72/6), and Daniel Volenweider’s elegant Wolfer Goldgrube Spatlese (£72/6).
Finally, at the top end are two wines that veer from the beautiful to the sublime: J. J. Prum’s ripe, pure and beautifully balanced Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese (£144/6), and Daniel Vollenweider’s utterly gorgeous Wolfer Goldgrube Auslese (£132/6) that was so light and pure, so fine and elegant, it is an extraordinary wine. It is now sold out by the bottle, but is still available in halves (£138/6).
These are all beautiful wines which will develop and age gracefully, and that ought to change any preconceptions one has about Riesling. What is pleasing is that Haart, Lauer and Vollenweider are all young winwmakers who are setting extraordinarily high standards. They have a long future ahead of them. In an age obsessed with power, and it is a delight to find grace. These are convivial wines, to be cherished and enjoyed in good company. Rare wines ask rare friends.