German Riesling: Dry or Sweet?

by Loosen Bros. USA

The answer is: Yes! The remarkable thing about Riesling is that it can produce an entire spectrum of styles, from bone dry, to off-dry, to medium sweet, to sticky dessert sweet. However, this singular ability of this amazing grape variety also causes a great deal of misunderstanding in the minds of wine consumers. Because it is such a versatile grape, it’s difficult for most wine lovers to know what to expect when they pick up a bottle of Riesling.

 

We need all the help we can get to explain Riesling’s astonishing versatility to the wine drinking public, which is why we wanted to present a Wine Education Session about Riesling at the Wine Bloggers Conference. With their growing reach and influence, the blogging community has a unique opportunity to dispel the misconceptions about the noble Riesling variety, and bring greater understanding of its delicious complexities.

Keep on Trocken: The new generation of German dry Rieslings

The first major misconception about Riesling is that it is always sweet. This has never been true, although it may have seemed that way in decades past when the U.S. market was flooded with the “cheap and sweet” German factory brands. But dry Rieslings have a long history in Germany, and there is a new generation of wines currently being produced that are better than ever.

At the pinnacle of this resurgence in quality are the “Grosses Gewächs” wines, a designation that has existed for a couple of decades, but was formally codified by the elite VDP growers association in 2012. The term means “Great Growth” in German, and is mercifully abbreviated simply as “GG” on the bottle. The GG designation can only be used on a dry wine that comes from a “Grosse Lage” (grand cru) vineyard site, and the VDP maintains very strict quality standards regarding minimum must weight, maximum yields, expression of terroir, and release dates. The level of quality is stunning and, like any great wine, these are wines that will mature beautifully for decades.

Don’t fear the sweetness!

At the same time, German wine growers are still producing the classic sweeter styles, with designations such as Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese – the “Prädikat” wines. This is especially true of the cooler wine regions (Mosel, Nahe and Rheingau), where Riesling’s naturally high acidity is even more pronounced and a touch of sweetness brings better balance. These classic styles are unique to this part of the world. No other wine region can produce a fine, delicate Riesling Kabinett with such intensity of flavor, while being low in alcohol, and with such an invigorating tension between acidity and sweetness, as can be made in Germany.

Winemakers in these regions don’t want to give up their tradition for the sweeter styles of Riesling, even though sweetness in wine has inexplicably become a bad thing in recent years. It’s as if consumers have become frightened that they might accidentally encounter sweetness in a wine, so they avoid Riesling altogether. We don’t understand this fear, because these wines – when made well – are so freaking delicious to drink. We must conclude that these fearful consumers have had a bad experience with poorly made sweet wines that lack character and vibrance.

We are convinced that it’s just a matter of tasting experience, because we see it time and again that someone who believes they don’t like Riesling will change their mind when they finally get a chance to taste a great one.

Erni Loosen, owner of Dr. Loosen, has had this experience many times:

In our Wine Education Session we will contrast a dry Riesling GG with a sweet-style Prädikat wine from each of the German producers that we represent (with one exception: Wittmann, in the Rheinhessen, only produces dry wines). The idea will be to explore the characteristics and merits of each style. Which style expresses terroir more clearly? Is sweetness really a bad thing, after all? It is our hope that the answers to these questions, together with the sheer joy of tasting the wines, will inspire the blogging community to help us spread the word about Riesling – and to urge their readers to be bold and curious.

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