German Riesling
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A beginner’s guide to German riesling

September 9, 2021

It can be hard to ignore the fact that German riesling represents some of the best values in wine, not to mention, some of the most rarefied cellar choices on the market.

In Germany, where the grape likely originated, certain appellations are among the most regulated vineyards in the world, and the best bottles almost always point to the specific plot of origin. Neighboring Austria and the Alsace region of France also produce celebrated rieslings that are arguably as grand (and expensive), though textural and aromatic differences can be strikingly distinct from their German counterparts.

Read Also: Reasons for riesling: Rediscover Canada’s coolest grape

German wine, and especially riesling, is all about its classification systems. First and foremost, the Germans classify their wine by quality. Prädikatswein, which literally translates to “quality wine with specific attributes”, is a quality designation that seems to impact riesling more so than any other variety when it comes to influencing how consumers make their buying choices. This designation indicates top-tier quality German wines, ranging from completely dry to super sweet, with chaptalization forbidden in this designation.

German Riesling

Rheingau (also pictured above) is historically known for producing some of the world’s finest German riesling wines. (Photo provided by Wines of Germany.)

The classification of Prädikatswein is ranked by gradually increasing sugar levels in the wine. Two of the most commonly produced Prädikats are included among the wines I’ve reviewed at the end of this article. They are:

  • Kabinett – translating to “cabinet.” The signification comes from the quality wine saved by the winemaker to keep in his/her own personal cabinet (think ‘reserve’ status). These wines are generally dry to semi-sweet, with crisp, balanced acidity.
  • Spätlese – translating to “late harvest.” These wines are usually sweeter than Kabinett wines, considering grapes are picked at least a week after Kabinett-designated grapes. Permitting the grapes to ripen longer allows for higher sugar content, translating to sweeter off-dry wines or fuller-bodied dry wines.

Additional Prädikats are Auslese (select harvest), Beerenauslese (select berry harvest), Eiswein (Icewine), and Trockenbeerenauslese (select dry berry harvest – these wines are rare and generally very expensive.)

German Riesling

The Mosel Valley, a place believed to be the heart of German riesling. (Photo provided by Wines of Germany.)

Seeing how riesling’s flavour profile covers an entire spectrum of possibilities, producers have begun to understand international consumers’ stress over sugar content, and so a breakdown of sweetness was created and some wineries choose to provide these additional indications on their labels. The terms seem general, but are actually legally defined in terms of residual sugar:

  • Trocken wines have 9 g/L sugar or less
  • Halbtrocken are off-dry, with 9–18 g/L
  • Wines labeled lieblich or halbsüss measure 18-45 g/L
  • Süss wines are fully sweet, 45+ g/L

Another life-hack when shopping for riesling is to check the alcohol content; drier wines tend to have a higher alcohol content than their sweet counterparts. Leftover (residual) sugar in wine means less sugar converted to alcohol, therefore, a lower ABV for the final product.

Read Also: Schloss Johannisberg: 300 years of riesling excellence

Back to that flavour spectrum profile; German riesling ranges from floral and honeyed, to citrus and bolder tropical fruit flavours, to minerally, earth-driven flint flavours. As riesling ages, signature aromas of gasoline (or petrol as it is more commonly referred as) can reveal themselves, due to a compound within the grape. But worry not, this is viewed as a good thing.

At its best, riesling is a wine of extremes, displaying racy acidity, minerality, rich texture, complex fruit, and sweetness. Below are five examples that are certain to kickstart the conversation as to whether you’re a true riesling lover or just a curious, casual consumer:

Würtzberg 2016 Slate Riesling

From the wine growing district of Saar Valley within the Mosel region, this is perhaps one of the better value finds currently available. It’s a wine characterized by its unique terroir – slate. Classic characteristics of petrol and orange blossom are quite identifiable on the nose. The palate is off dry and sports apple, orange and flinty flavours, with a mineral splash on the finish. A very food friendly wine, there’s a good balance of sweetness and acidity here too, which lends to this wine’s refreshing nature. ($15.95)

Dr. Loosen 2018 Blue Slate Riesling Kabinett

The Dr. Loosen estate has been in the same family for over 200 years. Located in far western Germany, the Mosel valley’s steep, south facing slopes create the perfect climate for riesling, giving the vines ideal exposure to the sun. The cool climate allows the grapes to ripen slowly while retaining bright acidity. This classic Mosel Kabinett is harvested from higher-elevation parcels owned by Dr. Loosen in the villages of Bernkastel, Graach and Wehlen. The wine is bright and pure with vibrant peach fruit and a floral, flinty minerality. The finish is firm and delicate. ($21.95)

Tesch Karthäuser 2018 Riesling Trocken 

This dry riesling (hence its designated “trocken” label) is enticing with its lovely and lifted nose of peach, apricot, honey and flint. The palate is quite flavourful, with honeyed pear, lime zest and a herbaceous note that leads to a mineral toned finish. Quite compelling and complex – dare I say textbook? Drink now or hold mid-term. ($34.95)

Studert-Prüm Maximinhof Graacher Himmelreich 2018 Riesling Kabinett

This is on the drier side of kabinett’s medium-sweet designation and it’s a tough wine to pinpoint. My feeling is that this is made for true riesling aficionados – otherwise, you’ll either love it or hate it for its intense and varied flavour profile. It’s quite sulphuric and you might come to the initial conclusion that this is an off bottle. Apparently it’s not. It does open up, but it unfolds very slowly, which is perhaps the appeal here? The mouthfeel is soft, but you can immediately detect this sense of tension in the wine and your taste buds are trying to figure it all out. It’s definitely a curious study and at such a low price! My advice: buy two or three of these and use them in a fun comparative tasting with friends. ($20.25)

Dr. H. Thanisch Erben Müller-Burggraef Bernkasteler Graben 2018 Riesling Spätlese

A wine that tastes just as complex as it is to try and pronounce. This late harvest, and hence sweeter wine (spätlese), is from a highly distinguished area of the Mosel, and despite its sweeter profile, seems destined to be a selection for those who can and will fully appreciate its nuanced profile. There’s a pretty obvious whiff of sulphur and petrol on the nose which can come across as off-putting. There are many that just aren’t used to tasting rieslings like these, but rest assured, this is authentically German in character. Expected flavours of peach, citrus and honey consume the palate, with further notes of petrol and minerality. Acidity is quite good and will hold up to a decade of further aging if one wishes to experiment with this. Once again, a very reasonable value all things considered here. ($27.75)