The Wonder of German Riesling

If I had to nominate my ‘desert island’ wine it would probably be Mosel Valley riesling of the Kabinett style. That’s assuming I had a fridge on the island in which to chill it. No wine refreshes, enlivens and delights like this. It possesses a wonderful balance between fruit, acidity and sweetness that makes you want to drink more than one glass. It’s light and never burdens the senses. And the alcohol is low, about 11%, which means you CAN drink more of it.

I’m thinking Egon Muller, J.J. Prum, Max Ferd Richter, Dr Loosen, Fritz Haag, and Heymann-Lowenstein. And my latest discovery, Schloss Lieser, which is run by Fritz Haag’s son Thomas Haag.

The Mosel and its tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer rivers, are the coolest places that grow wine in Germany and are among the coldest vineyards in the world. Their lightness, aromaticity and high natural acidity make these wines unique. Normally, they’re so high in acid they need some residual sweetness to give them balance and drinkability. The corollary is these areas are the most difficult places in Germany to produce good Trocken wines, the driest of German white wines. Heymann-Lowenstein does this perhaps better than most. Global warming is of course playing into their hands, making it easier to make drier wines (because the grapes are getting riper) although – like France’s Chablis – if it gets much warmer the unique style of these wines may be under threat.

Another advantage of these wines is their price. You can buy the excellent generic 2008 Schloss Lieser Kabinett (tastings) for $28, and the single-vineyard Schloss Lieser Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett ’08 for $30. The higher you look up the scale of price, the sweeter the wines become, which is because in Germany, the later the grapes are harvested and the richer and sweeter the wine, the more it costs to produce – and the rarer and more prized is the wine.

For example, Schloss Lieser’s ’08 Niederberg Helden Spatlese, the next sweetest wine above Kabinett, is $40, the Auslese from the same vineyard and year is $56 (and the Gold Capsule selection, which is richer than the regular bottling, is $88) and finally the Beerenauslese is $150 a half-bottle.

When Thomas Haag visited Sydney recently his importer, Neville Yates of Eurocentric Wine Imports, arranged a dinner at Galileo restaurant to match the wines. The menu gives a good insight into the style of the wines. The delicate ’08 Kabinett (tastings) was served with tuna tataki and vegetable terrine; the wonderful ’08 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett was teamed with crab millefeuille layered with avocado and finished with tomato coulis; a pair of Niederberger Helden Spatleses – ’07 (tastings) and ’08 – were teamed with sauteed scallops and sauce bonnefoy, a heavenly marriage; and the same vintages of Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Spatlese went with pan-seared jewfish and chorizo jus. The ’07 (tastings) was more luscious, sweet and rich, a truly superb wine. Indeed, in each case, the ’07s were richer than the steely ’08s. This is a mirror for the years, with ’08s often seeming a little bit too tart.

With slow-roasted duck and caramellised witlof we had an older wine, a ’94 spatlese, as well as a rich ’08 auslese, the Gold Cap Niederberg Helden. Then into the really sweet wines: a brace of ausleses matched with apple tart cheeecake, the ’08 Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr being a bit too tart for the dish but lovely on its own. Then Brie de Meaux with walnut and fig bread teamed with two magnificent ’08 auslese gold caps: Niederberg Helden and Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr – the last a masterpiece of finesse, line and piercing minerality. Finally, a lone thimbleful of ’06 beerenauslese from the Niederberg Helden was a delightfully luscious and very sweet dessert wine. Beerens and the even-sweeter trockenbeerenausleses are the only German styles made from botrytised grapes.

Just a week before Haag’s visit, Ultimo Wine Centre had staged a memorable dinner at Est restaurant with not one but seven distinguished European riesling producers, four from Germany, two from Austria and one from Alsace. There was a five-course menu instead of seven, and more wines (either three or four) with each course, but the interplay of flavours on the plate and in the glass was no less mesmerising.

Not all the wines were riesling: Austrian gruner veltliner, Alsace gewurztraminer and pinot blanc, and German pinot gris were also served. Andre Ostertag’s late-harvest gewurzes were astonishing (an ’06 Vendange Tardive and an ’05 Selection de Grains Nobles), but in general the meal was a stunning reminder of why riesling is such a great food wine.

To return to the Kabinett theme for a moment, we started with a Gunderloch ’06 Riesling Kabinett ‘Jean Baptiste’ ($33) on arrival with finger-food canapes, which is where this style of wine is really in its element. (The Schloss Lieser dinner also had a Kabinett, the generic ’07, as the aperitif.)

The seven wineries are all imported by Cellarhand. They are Austrians Domane Wachau and Brundlmayer, Alsatian Domaine Ostertag, and the show-stealing Germans, Wittmann and Gunderloch (both from the Rheinhessen), Donnhoff (Nahe) and Heymann-Lowenstein (Mosel). These are great producers. For me, the Heymann-Lowenstein wines were the most memorable – but then, maybe I’m just a Mosel tart?

The greatest wine of the evening, for me, was the ’07 Heymann-Lowenstein Uhlen Riesling Auslese Gold Capsule ‘Roth Lay’ ($170 a half-bottle): all honeysuckle and tealeaf, struck-match and stone-fruits, its considerable sweetness cut beautifully by scintillating acidity. Breathing down its neck was the ’07 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Auslese Gold Capsule ($100 a half): more minerally and racy, fragrantly delicious with vitality galore. In a less-sweet style, the same maker’s tremendously complex and fine ’07 Riesling Rottgen ($92) was probably the best buy of the night. But then, Gunderloch’s ’07 Pinot Gris was a ripper in its opulent malty/honied style, and a steal at $33.

I could go on. And on…


First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 6 April 2010.

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