Wine Column: History speaks through German wines

10/04/2010 4:31 PM |

You can’t visit the wine regions of Germany (as I did in September) without feeling the depth of their history and its influence on their wines. In the Mosel, buildings hundreds of years old are made of the same solid gray slate as the challenging soil that is barely penetrable by the roots of vines, clinging to precipitous slopes. If you stand next to a slate wall in the September sun, you’ll feel the same heat, absorbed and retained, that enables those vines to go on ripening even as the sun wanes after autumn’s solstice. In the perfectly south-facing “sundial” vineyard of Schloss Leiser, the winemaker Thomas Haag’s father, Fritz, tested the heat here by cooking an egg on the slate soil. It took 22 minutes.
Schloss Lieser’s wines, all riesling, show both a filigreed lightness and a surprising substance thanks to the winemaker’s success at balancing ripe fruit flavors with assertive acidity. In a renaissance of respect for their own winemaking traditions, many German winemakers like Haag are returning to old methods of farming with lower yields, more hand labor, fewer chemical interventions, and indigenous yeast for fermentation. The stainless steel tanks introduced in the ’80s to “modernize” winemaking are being augmented by old 1,000-liter barrels to achieve more complex wines.
Visiting Reinhold Haart in Piesport, I stood at the same place where, in 370 A.D., Ausonius (from Bordeaux and tutor to the Roman emperor) wrote his poem “Mosella” in tribute to the Mosel river that flows there: “O river with Bacchus’ fragrant grape planted on your vineyard-filled ridges …”
A few yards away stand the excavated ruins of an ancient Roman winery, large enough to handle 150 acres’ worth of grapes. Their reconstructed presses can be used today, but their wines were very different, seasoned with pitch and spices brought from the far reaches of the empire. They hadn’t discovered riesling, which is spicy enough on its own.
Staying in a restored medieval castle in the Rheingau, I awoke to see what the first Christian emperor, Charlemagne (742-814 A.D.), saw there: that the best vineyards can be identified by weather patterns on the slopes. He planted vines where the snow first melted on the quartzite slopes of Johannisberg (latitude 50 degrees north; New York is at 44 degrees north). I saw that the fog covering adjacent hills did not touch Schloss Johannisberg, a monastery where, in 1775, the first “spätlese” — late harvest — wines were made from fruit affected by noble rot, after a courier sent to the bishop for permission to start harvest came back late. A statue of the tardy courier in the Schloss’ courtyard reminded me of Paul Revere, who made his (much faster) ride to Lexington only four years later.
Much as I enjoyed the sweet late-harvest wines I tasted in Germany, my favorite wines were dry rieslings. At Schloss Johannisberg, I was smitten by a dry 2009 riesling, Rotlack Kabinett Trocken, a focused, expressive wine with a high tone of pure minerality. At other German wineries, I found similarly exciting dry rieslings. Robert Weil’s 2009 Diedrich Grafenberg is spectacularly aromatic, while another favorite, the Müller-Catoir Breumel in den Mauern, showed the same minimalist elegance I saw in the wine property’s post-Napoleonic Biedermeier furnishings. More history!
Tasting Dr. Burklin-Wolf’s Wachenheimer Rechbachel, I agreed with their rep that “dry riesling is intellectual sauvignon blanc.”
I was surprised to learn that over 80 percent of the wine consumed in Germany is dry. They export 80 percent to 90 percent of their sweet wine. Truly dry (“trocken”) German wine has only been exported to the U.S. in the past five years, and even so, most of the 22 producers I met on my tour said their U.S. importers want only sweet wine.
Although the U.S. has replaced the U.K. as the biggest importer of German riesling (tripling in the past five years), many of the “dry” rieslings sent here are actually what in Germany is called “feinherb,” a new term that many producers use to replace “halbtrocken,” or “half-dry.” Halbtrocken is legally defined, restricting producers to 18 grams of sugar per liter, while feinherb is not defined at all.
So much of the perception of sweetness depends on the balance of actual sugar and acidity that it’s not a simple formula. The International Riesling Foundation offers a Riesling Tasting Profile to help consumers anticipate the relative sweetness of riesling wines.
Several Long Island producers, including Paumanok Vineyards, Wölffer Estate and Peconic Bay Vineyards, also make dry rieslings that are worth seeking out.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.