German wines

Recently we did a staff training down at our Sansei Waikiki & DK Steakhouse restaurants on German wines, which I thought you might find interesting as well.

Back in the old days, we were lucky to get 2 or 3 vintages out of 10 which fully ripened grapes in Germany….that’s how marginal of a wine growing region this country really was.  Now because of the warming of our planet, since 1988, we have quite a bevvy of superb vintages with very few exceptions!  One of the side effects from the warmer growing conditions, is a growing amount of “other” grape varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir & even Cabernet Sauvignon now popping up in the most unpredictable places.

The bottom line is that Germany & its wine scene has greatly changed over the past couple of decades.  For our Sansei staff, since we work with so many German wines with our contemporary Asian foods, this was a golden opportunity to update all & as insightful as possible.

Because of Germany’s extreme growing conditions, their government encouraged the search for a grape variety which could have Riesling’s nobility….BUT ripen earlier.  The 2 most successful crosses were the Muller Thurgau (the best coming from Paul Furst)…AND the Scheurebe (the leading producer–Hans Wirsching)…….both wines in this case come from Franconia & are fermented DRY.

Interestingly, although it seems more people know Germany for their sweet wines, there is an amazing & growing number of sensational, DRY, remarkably light & food friendly wines coming out every year as well (as the above 2  wines clearly show).

Also meteorically growing in popularity are wines produced from the Burgundian grape varieties such as in this case, Pinot Blanc (grown on a limestone outcropping in the Pfalz)  & Pinot Noir (from the Rheingau).

Thankfully DRY styled Rieslings are also greatly progressing in quality as more & more producers learn how to tame & harness the wine’s innate acidity.

The challenge with Rieslings always is the crazy perception that Rieslings are sweet!

The truth of the matter is that all kinds of wines….Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay & Riesling can be made dry, medium dry, sweet, dessert in style…..depending on what the winemaker wants to do.  So, a winemaker can make his Riesling dry, sweet or somewhere in between.  To show tasters the difference, we poured 2 wines…..each from the same producer & from the same general area. 

Both are from the town of Graach in the Mosel River wine growing region.  The one on the left is fermented DRY (as indicated with the word Trocken on the label).  Rieslings designated as DRY (trocken) on the label can only have a maximum of 9 grams per liter of residual sugar left in the wine.  In addition, these dry styled wines will also have a higher alcohol content.  The wine on the right was harvested at a Kabinett level.  Words such as Kabinett & Spatlese does NOT refer to whether a wine is sweet or not.  These terms clearly defined range of sugar levels in the grapes AT HARVEST) therefore lets us better anticipate the physiological maturity, extract & must weights of the grapes.   In this case the Kabinett is made to be slightly sweet in style (which also corresponds to lower alcohol levels).

In an effort to make this point as clear as possible, I need to take a few paragraphs to explain sugar in German wines a little more.

The top quality level for German wines is Pradikatswein (which by the way, there is NO chapitalization or adding of sugar allowed for this category).

Pradikatswein is further broken down into several categories based upon Oechsle (which is the measurement of sugar in the grape AT HARVEST).  In ascending order they are kabinett, spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese & trockenbeerenauslese (eiswein being another but not really pertinent to this discussion).

Another way to look at this….spatlese is harvested later than kabinett wines.  The sugar level is higher…..and so is the extract, weight AND most importantly the physiological maturity.

Let’s examine another fruit. When the papaya increases its yellow-ness, there is a growing level of sugar, weight, extract & physiological maturity.  Same kind of thing.

From there the winemaker can decide if he wants the wine to be dry, medium dry, sweet or dessert level.  THIS is now the discussion about the residual sugar (apparent sweetness in the finished wine).  One can therefore have a kabinett wines from the same producer in the same vintage….dry…medium dry & slightly sweet. The same is true for Spatlese & Auslese levels.

Moving on….the next topic of discussion is how the soil affects the wine  To show how profoundly the soils can influence the resulting wine, we poured 2 wines to taste.

The wine on the left comes from the Mosel region….black & also blue slate soils…which manifests itself to me with apple, pear, slight lychee, pencil lead nuances…and is light & crisp.  In comparison, the Riesling on the right comes from red slate hillsides in the Rheinhessen region (Nierteiner Hipping vineyard) & manifests itself in pineapple, passion fruit/ wet river stone nuances & a rounder, lusher mouthfeel.( Understanding this can really help you when pairing wines with various Asian foods).

The final wine of the night……..

is a 2003 Riesling Kabinett from Muller Catoir.  Yes, it is 9 years old.  It is really fascinating how as Riesling ages the apparent sweetness of the wine gradually changes into a more creamy, tactile texture in the wine.  So a wine slightly sweet like this has changed not only in developed complexities but also in perceived sweetness.  For wine lovers this opens a whole new dimension into the world of pairing wines to foods.

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