IMW-NA Tutored Tastings: German Riesling


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We – meaning the Institute of Masters of Wine (North America) have just announced the forthcoming German Tutored Tasting, which we are hosting jointly with the VDP.  As I will be moderating the tasting along with my colleague Sheri Sauter Moreno MW, this seemed an opportune time to reflect on the seminar we held in the fall, and to give insight as to what will be coming on 21st May.

The September seminar was the first seminar designed, to the degree it is possible, to convey the influence of teroir on German Riesling.  More specifically, the aim was to evaluate the diversity of soils and site to a diversity of gustatory characteristics revealed in a wine year after year.  While the soil type may not be necessarily causative (i.e. chalk in the soils may not necessarily result in “chalky” wines), it was an initial attempt to for seminar participants to understand salient characteristics of specific vineyards or regions and the wines they produce.

Unlike the large IMW-sponsored walk-around tasting (“Germany’s Ultimate Terroir Wines’) held in 2002, this IMW-NA/VDP joint venture presented 20-odd wines as a tutored tasting.  I moderated a discussion among Reinhard Löwenstein (Heymann-Löwenstein) and Raymond Prüm (S.A. Prüm), representing the producers and my friend, the inimitable Paul Grieco, representing the trade.

One of the more curious elements that arose in this discussion was the role of residual sugar.  Are the sweeter styles (from Kabinett through TBA) legitimate classics, with the sugar an intrinsic quality of the wine, part of the “true” expression of terroir, and as such, an essential element of the wine’s structure? For many of us early American Riesling fanatics, such as myself, these wines were the initial standard of reference in the mid-to-late 20th Century.  Or, as many producers are now urging us to believe, is the sugar a cloak, obscuring the terroir, which is only expressed in purest form in a dry Riesling?

This topic has been mentioned in passim on the web, but largely within the context of when and why consumer demand for sweeter or drier styles of Riesling led to producers catering to these demands.  I need not traverse that discussion, as my focus is narrower, viz., whether the argument currently proferred by German wine producers is true, that dry Riesling is the ultimate expression of terroir,  and that dry Riesling is the in fact the “traditional” method for producing German Riesling.

The argument that the sweeter styles are a development only of the later 20th century (to placate an unsophisticated consumer base) has largely been based on the following notions:

  1. The sweeter styles weren’t possible until the advent of sterile filtration in the mid-twentieth century; and
  2. The sweeter styles were developed primarily as a marketing ploy, first to appeal to a domestic audience starved for sugar after the rationing of World War II, and to appeal to an export public that preferred sweeter wines.

I suspect the truth is more nuanced.  It’s been my suspicion that the argument that “traditionally, all German Rieslings were vinified dry” ironically is itself a marketing ploy to present the drier styles as “true,” “traditional,” and “a purer expression of terroir.”   The collapse of the Liebfraumilch-bracket of weak, sweet whites; domestic perception (looking at France as the model) that fine wines are dry; and the maturing of Anglo export markets toward drier styles of wine impression that fine wines are “dry”, persuaded German producers both to produce and promote drier wines to distinguish themselves from the past and to position themselves for the present and presumably, a brighter future.

The historical evidence supports the notion that German wines were always made in a diversity of styles.  So does basic logic.  It stands to reason that in such a cool climate (and this particularly applies in the Mosel), with a grape variety inherently with high levels of acidity, producers wishing to produce a balanced wine would find a way (say, by adding sulfur) to leave the wines with enough sugar to provide structural balance.  Additionally, many winemakers who ferment with native yeasts told me that their yeasts died naturally once the alcohol levels reached 8 or 9 percent by volume, leaving a considerable amount of residual sugar.

On its face, a wine with residual sugar can certainly be said to reflect terroir in a site where the grape ripens fully and retains its acidity such that the wine shows a balance between its acidity, alcohol and sugar level.  Suddenly BA and TBA wines – not to mention Sauternes, Bonnezeaux and Tokaji — are less terroir-reflective?

As for myself, I confess I cut my teeth with the acidity of fine Kabinetten years ago, and never lost my love for them.  I well remember the IMW “Germany’s Ultimate Terroir Wines,” event, largely from the 2001 vintage, and even then, I thought a considerable number of the trocken wines were simply too angular, even contorted.  Apart from climate change creating an entirely different vinicultural environment, my impression is that producers are settling into producing more balanced, concentrated and complex dry Rieslings.  I’ve grown to appreciate them, ok, love many of them, for all their intelligence, nuance and purity.  But I can’t deny the childlike joy I experience every time an electric Kabinett graces my palate.

As for the conclusions of the seminar, I can’t say we linked particular soil types with specific results, but we certainly understood how the numerous variables in different terroirs combine to produce entirely expressions of Riesling.

Trocken Flight

1. Weingut Karthäuserhof (Ruwer)  2010 Riesling Spätlese Alte Reben trocken

Intensely floral nose, with a stony core; the fruit expression was more of stone fruit pits.  Dry on the palate, the wine again had  a stony core,  with hints of stone fruits, lemon, lemon pith, an apricot essence and hints of spice. Very lean, with tart acidity.  According to the producers, the slate highlights the floral component of the wine; wines from the Ruwer are typically racy and spicy, with bracing acidity.[Soil: red slate (ferrous); Exposition: S/SW; vines average 30 years old; Yields 30hl/ha; lees contact; Alcohol 12.5%; Acidity 8.8; RS 8.8]

2. Weingut Künstler (Rheingau)  2010 Hölle Erstes Gewächs

This wine had a decidedly different nose, being much fruitier, riper and more intense.  Medium-bodied, the palate was surprisingly earthy, and not about the fruit at all:  a dense impression of wet stone, sweetly sweaty, persistent and very long, with a very long finish.  Shows the power of the Rheingau.  The dark topsoil must absorb heat and facilitate a riper, more powerful wine.  [And now a wine grown on calcareous clay marl, a black-brown topsoil over a heavy, ochre-colored Cyrena marl.  Average vine age 50 years; 30 hl/ha; Lees contact; Alcohol 13.5% Acidity 8.9; RS 7.10]

3. Weingut Toni Jost (Hahnenhof, Mittelrhein)  2010 Hahn Grosses Gewächs

A much fruitier nose of peach and apricot, accented with a spicy quality clove)  Dry, with less density than the Künstler, bu still stony, with hints of peach pit, and more filigree; a wine more about warmth and elegance than power. Medium+ finish.  [Dark blue Devonian slate; 60% slope; exposition S/SE; vines average 42 years;  38hl/ha; lees contact; 12.5%; acidity 7.10; RS 9g/l]

4. Weingut Schäfer-Frölich (Nahe)  2010 Felseneck Grosses Gewächs

An intense nose of very ripe fruit; very complex and dynamic, with spice, stone, and earth notes: Impressive.  Medium-bodied, blooming just after the attack, with flavors of earth, sweat, lemon, stone: persistent, zingy, textured, dynamic and very complex, with a long stony finish evocative of wet cement. Arguably the wild, explosive aromatics are a result of the wild yeast fermentation in a cool climate; the zingy acidity a consequence of the quartzite. [35-60% slope on Devonian slate with Basalt pebbles and off-white Quartzite. 25 hl/ha from ~ 40 year old vines, lees contact; 13.2%; 7.4 Acidity; RS 5.9]

5. Weingut Wittmann (Rheinhessen)  2010 Aulerde Grosses Gewächs

A very ripe nose suggesting botrytis: apricot, apricot pie, baking spices, brown sugar.  Just short of full-bodied, crisp and rich, with a stony underpinning; flavors of roasted peach, tropical fruit, stone and spices.  Offering full palate coverage, the wine is broad, relatively dense (all clearly a consequence of deep, warm, relatively heavy soils) with a firm, crunchy stone quality and a long, vaguely smoky, stony finish. [Aulerde is the warmest of the Westhofen sites, having heavy clay marl with a small amount of limestone; subsoil of clay and gravelly sand; exposition S/SE; vines average 50-60 years;  15hl/ha; lees contact; 13%; acidity 7.20; RS 8g/l]

6. Weingut A. Christmann (Pfalz)  2010 Idig Grosses Gewächs

Stony, firm, high-toned nose. Dynamic, earthy and stony on the palate, with very dynamic retronasal qualities; high acidity, firm, dense fruit held in reserve: stony, seemingly chalky and high toned, with a very long finish.  Powerful and concentrated:  this wine needs time.  [Calcareous rock & clay topsoil; 1 meter below is tertiary limestone rocks mixed with chalky sand; 32 hl/ha; 30 year old vines; 103° Oe; 3 months on fine lees 13.5%; Acidity 8.9;  RS 3.2]

FRUITY FLIGHT: Young wines

7. Weingut S.A. Prüm (Mosel)  2009 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese

Off nose.  Wine did not seem clean.

8. Weingut Geh.Rat Dr. v. Bassermann-Jordan (Pfalz)  2009 Deidesheimer Leinshöhle Spätlese

Off-dry, soft on the palate but with crisp acidity; a little earthy: mouth-filling, with a subtle texture, stone fruits with subtle minerality, very easy to drink and a medium+ finish. The least exciting wine of the flight; I usually like their wines a lot, so I was disappointed.  [Clay to clay sand, with some limestone; no lees contact; 9.5%; Acidity 7.3; RS 72.9]  The clay brings bigger shoulders and weight.

9. Weingut K.F. Groebe (Rheinhessen)  2010 Kirschspiel Spätlese

Very complex and individual nose; quite floral.  Off-dry but with a denser palate than the Basserman-Jordan, plump and rich, with very ripe fruits and exotic spices.  Quite generous if not the most finessed, which I admit I miss.  [37 year old vines on clay marl with sedimentary limestone (with a small amount of weathered lime silt); limestone dominates the subsoil;  30 hl/ha; lees contact; 8.5%; Acidity 9.6; RS 87.5]

10. Weingut Robert Weil (Rheingau)  2010 Kiedrich Gräfenberg Auslese

Complex and powerful spicy nose.  Just shy of full-bodied, the wine is dense, rich and complex.  With flavors of apricot, grilled peach, cinnamon, clove, and allspice, it is spicy and floral with a mineral quality throughout.  Offering a powerful full palate coverage and a concentration of energy, the wine is quite persistent with a long and complex finish. [24-40 year old vines from 6 different Geisenheim clones yielding 38 hl/ha, planted on fine-grained mica: a stony, fragmented phyllite mixed with loess and loam. The phyllite grains are larger than slate, smaller than schist; lees contact;  8%; Acidity 10.9; RS 131.5]

11. Weingut Ratzenberger (Mittelrhein)  2008 Wolfshöhle Auslese

More filigreed than the Weil; spicy, honeyed and botrytic with light petrol notes. Broad and elegant, sweet but crisp: Not as rich as the Weil, but very pretty and elegant, with notes of ripe stone fruits and mineral, wrapped with the honeyed, spicy notes from botrytis.  Medium finish. [42 year-old vines  yielding 15 hl/ha on an alternating soil structure of clay slate and crystalline slate; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 10.9; RS 140]

12.  Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken (Saar)  2010 Rausch Auslese

Intensely, high-toned floral nose.  Medium-bodied, crisp, racy and nervy with flavors of lime, lime marmalade, orange peel and mineral.  Zingy acidity.  Bracing and exciting with years ahead.  [30 year-old vines  yielding 28 hl/ha on diabase slate; steep, south-facing vineyards; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 12.5; RS 156]

13. Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein (Mosel)  2009 Uhlen Auslese

Rich nose with botrytic qualities.  Rich, even fat on the palate, heavily botrytis, with lots of honey, clove, spices, grilled apricots and crème brulée. Less nerve and filigree than the prior wines, botrytis seems to have overtaken the wine, which is a bit lacking in acidity given the sugar. Unctuous but muddled. [45 year-old vines  yielding 36hl/ha on Devonian slate with chalk and limestone; S/SW exposure; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 9.7; RS 224]


14. Weingut Egon Müller-Scharzhof (Saar)  2004 Scharzhofberg Spätlese

Ripe, fragrant, highly aromatic nose of stone fruits and “slate” – still young and fresh but with hints of petrol peeking out.  Crisp and clean on the palate, with integrated sugar – almost dry.  Delicate, refined and elegant with a medium finish.  Wow.  [42 year-old vines  yielding 15 hl/ha on S/SW and S/SE facing slate and Devonian slate soils; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 10.9; RS 140]

15. Weingut Joh.Jos.Prüm (Mosel)  2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese

Incredible wine: intense nose and huge palate, still zippy with CO2.  Fresh, young with a stony, mineral, slightly green finish: not ready to drink. Tart and closed.  Both the level of SO2 and the fermentation with indigenous yeasts cause this wine to emerge from the hole and be ready to drink. [Deep, weather-beaten grey slate with slopes up to 70 degrees. 8% abv]

16. Schlossgut Diel (Nahe)  2002 Dorsheimer Pittermänchen Spätlese

Yellow-lemon color.  Intense nose of petrol and mineral, underlying, fading stone fruit quality.  Full-bodied, integrated and round; off-dry; earthy and mineral with a “sweaty” note.  Very high acidity contributes to the wine’s considerable persistence and clean, long, finish.  [20 year-old vines yielding 50 hl/ha on slate, quartzit and gravel; 6 months lees contact; 8% abv; Total acidity 8.2; RS 73g/l]

17. Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl (Pfalz)  1997 Forster Ungeheuer Auslese

Earthy nose, with petrol but also botrytis evident: honey, spices, crème brulée.  Rich but not fat on the palate, with honey, spices, roasted stone fruits and especially brown sugar driving the finish.  Intense, but not the most filigreed, variegated or interesting.  [20 year-old vines planted on sandstone and limestone yielding 10 hl/ha on a south and southeast facing vineyards; 3 months lees contact.  8.8% abv; TA 8.0; RS 108]

18. Weingut H. Dönnhoff (Nahe)  1997 Oberhäuser Brüke Auslese

Nose appears younger than the von Buhl.  It is also incredibly complex and vibrant, still very primary.  Full-bodied, integrated and three-dimensional palate, very persistent and dynamic, seemingly dancing. Limey, citrus, spicy, minerally, yow.  Very long and persistent.  [30 year-old vines planted on grey slate covered with loess and loam; lees contact; 8.5% abv, TA 10.6; RS 129]

19.  Hessische Staatsweingüter Kloster Eberbach (Rheingau)  1989 Rauenthaler Gehrn Trockenbeerenauslese

Dark amber with a light amber rim and greenish highlights: seems prematurely aged.  Initially, the nose showed intense aromas of raisins, caramel, spice, burnt sugar.  Full-bodied and sweet on the palate, rich but not treacly, with a long finish.  Unfortunately this wine was a flash in the pan and fell apart quickly after pouring.  [20 year-old vines on south and south-east facing slopes composed of decomposed slate, quartzit and loess; lees contact; harvested 21 October 1989; 12% abv; TA 10.2; RS 132g/l]

20. Weingut Prinzsalm (Nahe)  2010 Grünschiefer Riesling QbA

A very interesting wine from a curious site of green slate (resulting from the level of sulphur in the soils, unique to the vineyard site Felseneck Wallhuasen.)  Bone dry, firm, with tremendous length and finesse, with tremendous minerality and light peach flavors. [8-35 year-old vines yielding 40 hl/ha; southern exposition with slopes of 30-50 degrees; harvested 26 and 26 October 2010; lees contact; 12.5% abv; TA 9.0 g/l; RS 6.9 g/l]

NB: It was noted that while in Urzig there is both red and blue slate, what is important is not so much the ferrous nature of the red slate but rather the difference in the structure, or the organization of the slates.  If the sediment is different, the taste will be different. How so? A query to pursue.

I look forward to the seminar on the 21st, where we’ll be able to evaluate and discuss several vintages of Grosses Gewächs Rieslings and Spätburgunders, and a flight of Kabinett Rieslings.  Tickets are available at

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