Wine Ink: Exploring German wines
July 2, 2017
I have a friend who served in the U.S. 7th Army with distinction as a military policeman at the now shuttered Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg, Germany. During his stint there he developed what became a lifelong love affair with German wines.
I occasionally have had an opportunity to share in his passion, but it is clear he knew his muse significantly better than I. In fact, of all the world's superior wine regions, I likely know less about the wines of Germany than any other.
And I'm not alone in my ignorance. In 2016, Germany exported $1 billion worth of wine, putting it sixth amongst global producers, just behind New Zealand and just ahead of Argentina. But no doubt, in the U.S., most wine drinkers are much more familiar with the sauvignon blancs of the Kiwis and the Argentine malbecs.
Why? Well, I think that language and labeling play a big part in our national lack of understanding. Ask those who study for wine exams, like the Masters of Wine or the Master Sommelier exams, and they will quickly tell you that no region is harder to make sense of than Germany. Even Italy, with its curious wine regulations and hundreds, if not thousands of varieties, seems easier.
Then there is the history of German wine in America. While German wines were once considered amongst the best on earth, a couple of world wars, and then the proliferation of sickly semi-sweet Liebfraumilch wines sold under the Blue Nun label in mass quantities, turned American palates in different directions
And yet the wines of Germany can be magnificent. More so now than perhaps at any time in the nation's 2,000-year history of wine production.
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Last year, on a brief trip to Berlin, I stumbled into a restaurant and winebar called Rutz, whose menu was built around German wines and foods that paired well with them. I ordered two different kinds of sausages and asked our waiter to pair a wine with the disparate plates, assuming she would bring a red from the German equivalent of pinot noir, which is called spätburgunder, or perhaps a dornfelder, a dark spicy grape that has a following.
But no, she pulled from the prodigious wine wall a dry riesling that she said would go perfectly with the two plates, one of which included a blood sausage. I have to say that pairing was my favorite part of that Berlin trip.
While I have a lot to learn about Germany and its wines, here are a few facts to help illuminate us both:
Things To Know About German Wine
1. Germany is a white wine country.
Nearly 60 percent of the vineyard plantings in Germany are devoted to white wines with the majority of that being held by riesling. Müller-Thurgau and silvaner are other white grape varieties that are prevalent. The aforementioned spätburgunder is the most widely planted red wine grape.
2. German wines are products of a cool climate.
The most significant wine regions of Germany are located in the southwest quarter of the nation, but they are still, for the most part, quite cool. The Mosel, Germany's most famed and picturesque wine region, hugs the hills cut by the Rhine River for over 100 miles. At its northern end, in Koblenz, the region reaches 50 degrees of latitude, placing it even further north than Champagne, another cool climate region.
3. Not all German wines are sweet.
While there was a time that German wines exported to America were super sweet and heavy in residual sugar, the trend is now toward dry and off-dry wines. This means that they are pure, steely and crisp on the palate, and are excellent for pairing with food. Asian food, especially sushi or spicy Thai and even Szechuan Chinese foods, go well with these lower alcohol wines.
4. German wine labels provide a wealth of information.
Region, ripeness, grape variety, vintage, wine style, producer name, grower name, and the "level" of a wine can all be determined by looking at the label on a bottle of German wine. This is very German. The problem is figuring out where each piece of information lives, and then getting past the umlats and the German wine laws.
5. Can You Say? That would be P-ra-di-kat.
Prädikat is the designation for the top tier, the highest quality German wines. Ripeness is a big deal in German wines. There are six levels of ripeness in the Prädikat system, ranging from Kabinett (bone-dry wines) to the sweet desert Trockenbeerenauslese or TBA wines.
Just when you thought it was easy, right?
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.