Riesling seems to be the grape that establishes the dividing line between “connaissers” and casual wine-drinkers.
The relationship between german winemaking and riesling is synonymous. Just as gruner veltliner is the national grape of Austria, riesling is the star of german wine. That being said, riesling is subject to numerous categorical statements from wine drinkers, something I’ve witnessed firsthand working as a sommelier. The following three guidelines are the ones that usually come up when I’m about to propose a wine at a table, notice how the clients start by telling me what they don’t want :
-No Pinot Noir
-No Riesling, German wines are sweet and I want a dry wine
By focusing on the last statement, we will better understand the prejudice riesling is a victim of. Riesling seems to be the grape that establishes the dividing line between « connaisseurs » and « casual wine drinkers ». For the sake of simplicity, let me say that it is rare—in the North American context—for riesling to be the first white grape that one falls in love with. It is also quite unusual for sommeliers to not swear by this grape, which they believe is one of the most complexe in the world. I think this dichotomy exists because of our perception of acidity, or to use a synonym that is used to characterize riesling’s complexity: its minerality. Before I get ahead of myself, I will attemp to dispell as many negative connotations surrounding the grape as possible in order to better promote its merits.
It is certainly true that the preference fo riesling correlates with a certain aquired knowledge about wine. If you’ve seen the documentary Somm: What’s Inside the Bottle, you’ll recall various Masters of Wine prasing the merits of riesling for its ability to refresh the palate, especially if you are tasting over twenty wines in one day. The grape’s tendency towards crispness and acidity is not as inviting to the non-initiated as the buttery textures that Chardonnay can take on. When we begin drinking wine, there is perhaps a predisposition towards a comforting lushness or chewiness in white wines and a more straight forwardness in reds. Riesling is part of our evolution as wine drinkers. Riesling’s raciness constitutes « an attack » on the palate; a raciness that can leave one perpelxed. In a sense, we aren’t charmed by riesling, we are taken hostage by it. Is the solution then to keep on trucking (or rather to keep on chugging) until one comes around? Obviously, personal tastes and preferences aside, I am certainly writing as one who has come to be enamored with this grape and I will promote it as unabashedly as a Jehovah’s Witness knocking on your door until you discover it for yourself.
Acidity and Minerality
The negative perceptions of riesling may be due to our vocabulary when describing it. We often speak of riesling’s acidity, which can be a bit of a misnomer. Acidity gives the impression of being one-dimensional, minerality on the other hand brings to mind stones and pebbles, rocky textures, salitniy, an iodized quality or even a certain smokiness. A more precise description of acidity gets us closer to our subject. How can a client understand acidity by looking at the label? This project was undertaken a quarter century ago in Germany, with mixed results. To help out consumers, authorities developed a system to classify wines based on sugar levels (i.e. the amount of grams of sugar not transformed during the alcoholic fermentation). So we have « Trocken » on a label, which signifies dry or that the amount of residual sugar must not exceed four grams per liter. Whereas « Spatlese » refers to the ripeness of the grapes (usually harvested a week later), so it is assumed there will be more sugar. What these labels can’t quantify is the perception of sugar on the palate. This is one of the lingering problems of semantics when qualifying « ripeness » and « sugar » on a label, independant of the wine’s acidity. While it may be true that we in North America are not used to residual sugar outside of a dessert or a cheese course, perhaps we associate sugar with youth and cheap syrupy wines. Well then, I believe now is the appropriate moment to introduce the Mosel region.
German wine, particularly in the Mosel region (formely the Mosel-Saar-Rhur region until 2007), has been affected by global warming. It is in the Mosel where riesling was first mentionned, back in 1435. For a long time, the cooler climate didn’t allow for fermentation to completly transform all the sugars into alcohol and the malo (whereby the tartric acids are transformed into more creamy lactic acids) where blocked. The results were wines with low alcohol levels, tart intense acidity, residual sugar and fruit aromas. Global warming turned much of this on its head, although alcohol levels have not crept too high. The beauty of Mosel wines stems from quite a few terroir factors, but most of all it is the harmony between sugar and acidity on the palate which makes these wines special. The slate-limestone-schist soils offer a profound minerality to the wines. Add in the steep slopes, which are some of the most difficult in the world to harvest (sometimes the incline is as much as 30˚) allow for optimum levels of sunlight. It their youth, these rieslings can have a straw-pale colour, giving way to a more intense golden yellow as the wine ages.
The Quebec Wine Market and German Wine
Many of the biases regarding German wine in Quebec stemmed from the SAQ’s tendancy to import the cheap, mass-produced wines that the Germans made. Who remembers when Black Tower was one of the only availble German wines? This isn’t because the Germans weren’t promoting it, they were, but they were going through a bit of wine crises themselves. Much of the older vines of riesling were uprooted for more productive varieties, such as Muller-Thurgau, Kerner or even Ebling. Little by little, acreage of land under vines dwindled in Mosel and only in the last few years has it gone up. Please note that the majority of Western European winemakers where struggling to balance industrial practices of modern agriculture with the old way of doing things. Winemakers are only now slowly coming back to the old ways, aided by pionneers like Rita and Rudolph Trossen, who are in the heart of the Mosel. The Trossens has inspired numerous winemakers to take the path of non-intervention. The couple are the pionners of Mosel wine.
It is because of these internal wine policies, that German wine has been disregarded for so long. After all, when shopping for wine at the SAQ, there is a French, Italian, Spannish and American section. German wines are lumped into the catch-all category of « other country » along with Lebabon and Greece. Don’t forget Mitteleuropa has just as much history of winemaking as these countries. Prices too remain a bargain, for the moment.
Rita and Rudloph Trossen’s Wines are available from Ward&Associés