Article By: Jonathon Alsop
As I was packing to leave on a summer tour of the vineyards and wineries of the Rhine in Germany, I struggled with the weighty issues we all struggle with. Am I bringing too many clothes? What kind of shoes? Sandals? No, not sandals, not to efficient, practical Germany; pack sensible shoes for Germany, I thought - that sturdy hand-made Canadian pair would be good - and save the sexy man sandals for Spain, France or Italy. And then it hit me: my ideas about the people I was going to meet, the wines and the food, even down to the choices of what I thought I was going to wear carried within them a distinction between sophisticated worldly Roman Europe - Italy, France, Spain, others - and Germania, the untamed Europe east of the Rhine and north of the Danube that the ancient Romans never managed to subdue.
Even though it's been more than 2OOO years, life on both sides of the river is still very different. In archetype, the Germans are accurate and technical, convinced and efficient, although lacking a bit in the strong right-brain skills we still call utterly Romantic. In stereotype, they are emotionally capable of gemuetligkeit, but only after a couple of giant beers. In reality, they are focused, proud people who like things neat. West of the Rhine, France and Spain make many different white, pink and red wines from dozens of different grapes, as do the Italians. On the other side of the river, the Germans make 99% white wine that's overwhelmingly Riesling, as if to say, not only is it enough to do one thing really well in this wine world, it is both more efficient and more likely if you are concentrating on one kind of wine.
German wine poses a real challenge in the US market to everybody from the importer all the way to the consumer. First of all, it's one grape, almost all Riesling, and that makes it hard to distinguish clearly between different wines. Next, there's the long and indecipherable wine label in German that's clearly trying to tell you something, but what? I speak German fluently, and I can't figure them out without a cheat sheet. Finally, Americans bear a prejudice against wines that are in any way perceived as sweet. We like wine with a little residual sugar well enough to slurp down 11+ million cases of white zin a year, but we all agree that it's cheap. In the US, this perception hurts German Riesling, which is already naturally very fruity and does often contain plenty of residual sugar as well.
"Two world wars were very bad for German wine," importer Rudi Wiest reminds us, a little unnecessarily. "The 1971 wine law", which codified the current incomprehensible Kabinett-Spaetlese-Auslese system, "has meant confusion for the consumer." Worse yet, Wiest says, the current designations are based only on sugar levels in the grapes, "with no limit on yield". This means that at the end of the bottling line, a vineyard producing eight tons an acre can get the highest normal ranking - Auslese - just like a vineyard yielding two tons. "Big producers really capitalize on this system," Wiest says, by producing vast quantities of cheap wine with the best designations which naturally tend to be sweet. "It's been bad for quality and bad for image. How do you explain the difference between a real Auslese and an $8.99 Auslese?"
To illustrate how the mighty have fallen and what's the potential for a German wine resurgence on the world stage, Wiest brandishes a collector's item, 1961 Consumer Reports whiskey and wine guide. 1959 Chateaux Petrus, Margaux and the like ring up for about $7.95. One of the 1959 Bernkasteler dessert wines goes for $11. If you extrapolated that to today's interstellar Chateau Petrus, you're looking at $15OO for five glasses of wine. Hard as the price is to imagine, it's almost more impossible for modern wine lovers to picture any sweet white wine on the planet being accorded the same level of respect as the greatest dry red wines of France.
WHAT the RHINE MEANS to WINE The Rhine is the geographical western boundary between two historical worlds, and the river represents the furthest reach of the conquering Roman empire through France. After it descends from its source high in the Alps, the river flows relentlessly northward almost a thousand miles in a straight line, through France and Germany, past Luxembourg and Belgium until it reaches The Netherlands and the North Sea. Right in the middle however, just west of Frankfurt, the river meets the Taunus Mountains and takes one dramatic left turn for 2O miles, then another dramatic right turn back north to the sea. This region is called the Rheingau, the bend in the river where the Rhine slows a bit, grows both turbulent and shallow, and makes its way through steep hillsides until it can resume its course. The Rheingau gets its name from "aue", the ancient Germanic name for the long channel islands that divide the river at this point into almost parallel lanes.
Over the millennia, the Rhine has both deposited rich soils in the Rheingau and exposed ancient geology by carving away the hillsides. Since the river runs east to west here, the land's southern exposure to the sun is unique along the otherwise northerly river. Many of Germany's most famous Rieslings come from this region, and the Rheingau's steep hills and fertile soils are famous for growing rich ripe grapes that are full of flavor.
Johannisberg is literally a mountain of Riesling rising within sight of the Rhine. Its slopes are covered with many vineyards devoted to one grape, and atop the Johannisberg sits the castle - Schloss Johannisberg - equally devoted to Riesling for the last three centuries or so. According to legend, Charlemagne became the first person in history to discover a microclimate when he noticed that the snows on the mountain melted earlier than the rest of the landscape. His son, Ludwig the Pious, made wine in the early 8OOs from vineyards planted at the foot of the Johannisberg, and for the last 9OO years or so, the entire hillside has been growing grapes and producing singular and recognized wines. Insignificance is too big a word to describe how I felt as I descended the stone stairway to the ancient cellars of Schloss Johannisberg. Dwarfed by history, maybe, but now that's too many words. Small talk we made as we stood on the stairs for a moment seemed smaller than usual, then winery manager Christian Witte opened the door to the cellars to reveal the entire expanse illuminated by candlelight. We crunched loudly across the loose stone floors as we walked between rows of wood casks, the candlelight falling darkly all around us. Christian spoke a little about history and continuity in producing wine. If the track record of his predecessors at Schloss Johannisberg is any measure, he is at the beginning of a tenure that could last 3O or 4O years. We were in awe, and there are not too many words for that.
These cellars have outlived many owners, managers and wine writers, I thought. Napoleon seized the winery and awarded it to a loyal ally in the early 18OOs. It eventually became property of the Habsburg emperor in Austria who gave it to the Metternich family in exchange for 1/1Oth of the annual harvest, an amount that is still paid today. Deep in the cellar, a giant wood cask is engraved with the words of the German poet Heinrich Heine: "If my faith could move mountains, Johannisberg is the mountain I would carry with me." I realized that seeing the cellars in candlelight was perhaps the least efficient but most authentic way. We were seeing it not entirely for ourselves, but as others in history have seen it. And by the bottle, we can still have Johannisberg with us.
THE HEART has ITS RIESLINGS "I believe you can make a Riesling taste better for a lower price than a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, because of the residual sugar you have to work with," says Alex Bartholomaus, President and CEO of Billington Imports. "Sweetness is not a disadvantage," and Riesling is not on the ropes. "Chateau Ste-Michelle Riesling is strictly allocated," he points out, "and Bonny Doon's Pacific Rim is the most popular non-Chardonnay restaurant wine in America." This is all well and good for the grape, but "Germany does little to make itself market appealing," Bartholomaus says. Riesling today "is a phobia for people over 45. From 35 to 45, there's just not much knowledge there. But 25 to 35" - he calls this the I'll-try-anything crowd - "are the wine lovers we need to reach" with creative new wines and new labels to help people get into Riesling.
"Marketing has to be simplified. Stress the brand name and the varietal," but stay the course with traditional German labels. "If you want to be more creative, then go for utter deviation," he says, referring specifically to his 2OO3 Big Tattoo White (a tasty blend of Riesling and pinot blanc) and the ultra-modern labeling of the 2OO3 KUHL Riesling, and the WAY KUHL that is allegedly in the pipeline. "German wines work if we educate, educate, educate," Bartholomaus says. "It must be a continuous, redundant effort," not unlike grape growing and wine making. "We have to be repetitive and build on the repetition."
SUGAR-FREE and LOVING IT Anyone who thinks terroir doesn't exist - that's the notion that the earth (Latin, terra) directly influences the flavor of wine in the bottle - ought to take the short drive up the Mosel River valley. At the mouth of the river where the Mosel meets the Rhine, the earth is like topsoil, rich and verdant, famous for producing big fruit-driven Rieslings of ripeness, depth and power. Not even 75 miles west on the flood plain of the Mosel valley, the soils are entirely different, dominated by slate laid down over millennia of flooding and receding. Sugar is secondary here: Mosel Riesling is generally dry and mineral-focused, perfumed and aromatic.
It's the same sun, the same grapes and essentially the same people with access to the same wine making techniques. Soil and the near-absence of any residual sugar in the wine - in wine-speak, this is called dry, especially when referring to a white wine - make these wines unique and uniquely flavored among German wines. "All roads are leading to drier versions of German wines," says Ian Ribowsky, portfolio director of German wines at Palm Bay Imports. "There is a growing call for drier wines, for a much brighter, stylish wine that has both fruit and acid. The balance between the two is critical."
When the sugar recedes, it exposes a world of flavors that I find difficult to discern sometimes when there's a layer of sugar over everything. It's natural to imagine the difference between these neighboring wine regions must be the soil, but it's much more.
Raimund Pruem wants to develop another important difference, one he hopes will carry his family's winery, S.A. Pruem, into the 21st century and beyond. "To work S.A. Pruem as a brand, this is the finale of my life," he says, looking a little young to be talking that way and not a day over fifty-something. Pruem has embarked on an aggressive modern style of Riesling and is reaching out to the world with it. "I try to put my signature on every wine I make," Raimund says, and it is a thoroughly modern signature designed to compete on a world stage. Just a few years away from the winery's 1OOth birthday, Pruem is focused on a new line of "branded" Rieslings: Essence and Solitaire. By modern, Pruem means a number of things - limited production, contract growers, stainless steel, modern label, modern screwcap closure - but more than anything else, it means dry, sugar-free and loving it. "There is room for change," Ribowsky says, specifically referring to his client Pruem. "I'd advocate a place for both concepts, traditional and modern. The marketplace is receptive to both."
Palm Bay recently updated the labels for the classic Pruem wines, "taking the simple steps of moving legal information to the back label and cleaning up the front." Even that minor modernization had a real impact, Ribowsky says. Raimund is one of many Pruem winemakers in the Mosel, whose family came here more than eight centuries ago from the town of Pruem in the Eiffel region just north of Wehlen, their home now. One of his ancestors, Jodocus Pruem, was a tireless improver of the people. In 1842, he built two giant sundials - sonnenuhr, in German - one in the town of Wehlen and another in Zeltingen, so the people could improve themselves by knowing what time it was whenever the sun was shining. The sundials gave the surrounding vineyards their names - branded them, if you will - and over time, unsurprisingly, they've produced relentlessly excellent wines: lots of sun is the first thing you need for a functional sundial, and lots of sun makes great wine. Raimund is a man who carries around him the aura of occasion. Just to stand for a moment and look out from his patio and see vineyards climbing up the hillsides across the river is a small event. Off to the left, the Wehlen sundial is illuminated by the setting sun, and we see it from the inventor's perspective.It not only stands the test of time: it is time.
Leitz "Dragonstone" Riesling $13
Dragonstone is semi-dry/semi-sweet with great flowery aromas and flavors of pear and white peach. Leitz makes about 9OOO cases a year, and as with all their wines, 9O% of it goes to the export market. It's a great starting point for discovering the rest of the Rheingau.
Leitz Ruedesheimer Klosterlay Riesling
Leitz Ruedesheimer Berg Rottland
Leitz Ruedesheimer Berg Roseneck Spaetlese/Late
Spreitzer "3O3" Oestricher Lenchen Riesling
Spaetlese/Late Harvest $5O
Spreitzer has achieved an amazing balance between hugely ripe fruit and bright zingy citrus acidity, not exactly an easy thing to do. 3O3 smells like honey and tastes like flowers.
Robert Weil Kiedrich Graefenberg Erstes
Gewaechs/First Growth (price unknown, but the 2OO3
Auslese/Harvest Select is selling for about $1OO
This wine is absolutely super, round and ripe with delicious flavors of candied banana, orange peel and fresh coconut. The crisp acidity is refreshing and tangy, bracing and a little formal. You'll rarely hear me say that a big price tag is a bargain, but compared with a bad Hollywood movie for $9, a glass of one of the best white wines on the planet for $2O qualifies.
Availability Leitz and Spreitzer are both available nationally from Terry Theise Estate Selections, 516.677.93OO. Imported by Rudi Wiest Selections, 76O.566.O499.
Johannisberg: The Magic Mountain
Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Kabinett $25
Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Spaetlese/Late
Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Auslese/Select
Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Spaetlese/Late
Harvest and 1971 Schloss Johannisberg Riesling
Trockenbeerenauslese/Raisin Select Harvest
(collectors' items, retail price not available)
Amazingly, even after almost 35 years, the wine tastes young and fruity, like sweet mulberries. The only things that belie the age are the golden color and a stony minerality behind the juice. This wine essentially challenges a number of ideas about what a good wine should be - young and dry, for two - but it ends up cracking my personal top ten list of best pure hedonistic pleasure wines.
Availability Schloss Johannisberg is widely distributed in North America by Valckenberg, 918.622.O424, and Old Vine Imports, 7O7.769.1745.
The Mosel: Discovering Dry Riesling
S.A. Pruem Essence Riesling $1O
S.A. Pruem Blue Slate Riesling $16
S.A. Pruem Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett
Availability S.A. Pruem is imported and distributed by Palm Bay Imports, 561.362.9642.