A German Riesling to remember

By Celia Strong

During the past couple weeks, we have featured some new wines, all of which would make good choices for the holidays. Even though they seem far away and many people have not yet made final plans, the reality is that the holidays are sneaking up quickly, and that means we’re going to need some good wines (definitely plural). Instead of waiting for the last minute to pick these crucial additions to our holiday meals, we can do our research and learning and tasting now and plan in advance for selecting the best wines.

This week, we travel to Germany to find out more about a particularly notable Riesling. Most German wines are produced in the Western part of the country; their vineyards are all based along rivers, mainly the Rhine and its tributaries, with surrounding mountains protecting them from inclement weather. As a whole, Germany is farther north than most other wine regions — above the 50th parallel — and this northern location has led German wine producers to rely on suitable grape varieties, those more resistant to frost and those that ripen earlier, and to develop many crossed grapes.

In the steep valleys, vineyard soils are slate. The slate can absorb the sun’s warmth and keep the grapes warmer for more hours. On the rolling hills, the soils are mostly lime and clay.  The best vineyards are on steep hills, so plantings are limited and harvesting is difficult and expensive. Most of the vineyards face toward the south and southwest for maximum sun exposure for the vines. There are slightly more than 250,000 acres of vineyards in the country and there are 13 defined wine regions.

Grape growing and winemaking date back to about 70 AD, when the Romans controlled what is now Germany. Trier, which is considered to be the oldest city in Germany, was founded as a Roman garrison on the banks of the Mosel River. It is possible that wild vines were cultivated before “vitis vinifera” vines were brought into the area. Despite archeological finds of pruning knives and other tools, not much is known about the style of German wines under the Romans. After the Romans, Charlemagne is thought to be responsible for bringing viticulture to the Rheingau. The eastward spread of viticulture was connected to the spread of Christianity. Many of the grape varieties that are still associated with German wines date back to the 14th and 15th centuries. There is documentation of Riesling from 1435 and of Pinot Noir from 1318.

Around 1500, German vineyards had probably expanded to their greatest extent, there were more then than now even. (The decline is attributed to beer becoming the every day drink of the country.)

The secularization of most of the vineyards occurred in Germany, like many other countries in Europe, in the 19th century. In 1775, an unexpected but important wine event took place. At Schloss Johannisberg, a courier delivering permission to start the harvest was delayed by two weeks. When the Riesling grapes were harvested, they had been affected by “noble rot,” a mold on over-ripe grapes, which caused them to make sweeter wine — very, very good sweet wine. This began the intentional late harvests, with the wines referred to as “Spatlese,” German for “late harvest.” In 1971, German wine laws defined their various stages of harvesting and the wines from them.

The Mosel River, and its tributaries the Saar (pronounced “sour”) and the Ruwer (“roover”), make up one of the best known of Germany’s wine regions. Labels on wines from this area are labeled with the three names. This region is dominated by Riesling grapes, grown on slate soils. The best are grown in very steep sloped vineyards and their wines are light and crisp with high acidity and a definite mineral quality. There are dry wines produced, but this is the only region that sticks to Riesling wines with some residual sweetness as their standard style.

So what about Riesling makes it the great variety of German wines? This is an aromatic white variety, with flowery, almost perfumed aromas. It has high acidity and is used to make wines ranging from very dry to semi-sweet to sweet to sparkling. It is considered to be one of the “top three” white grapes, along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is clearly influenced by where it is grown, including soil type and climate. In Germany, it accounts for 20 percent of the total planted grapes. Riesling wines are often drunk when they are young, but many of its wines are capable of aging well — some dry wines for up to 20 years and some sweet ones for up to 30 years. The town hall in Bremen, Germany, has Riesling in barrels that dates back to 1653 (quite a bit more than 20 or 30 years of aging.)

Riesling was thought to have developed from the wild vines of the Rhine region. DNA tests have since have shown it is a cross between Gouais Blanc and a cross between a wild vine and Traminer. The Rhine Valley is probably where it was born. Riesling wine flavors include lime and Meyer lemon, pineapple, apricot, nectarine, ginger, citrus blossoms, jasmine, honeysuckle, honey, apple, pear and, not exactly but something close to, pine resin. Riesling wines can range from light-bodied to medium to medium-full. And they go with a large variety of foods including seafood and poultry and pork — with  seasonings like lemongrass, soy, ginger, lime, fennel, cilantro, think fish tacos, pickled jalapeños, Moo Shu, barbecue, papaya or mango or pineapple salsas, pork with apple and onion compote, stuffed pork tenderloin with bacon and apple Riesling sauce, shrimp with sweet chile sauce, mackerel with cilantro sauce, trout almandine, gumbo, braised rabbit with mustard sauce — pretty much anything except a steak. And “pretty much” does include turkey and ham holiday meals. (There’s that “planning ahead” nudge.)

Now, all this food talk gets me hungry, and brings us at last to our wine for this week: The 2012 Steinhaus Riesling from the Mosel Valley. The 2012 growing season started slowly — the winter was harsh so bud break was in late April. A dry spring with cool temperatures ended with a lower yield than usual. August was very warm with a lot of sun and a good September let the grapes ripen fully. Harvest was in late September. These conditions created a very aromatic wine with green apple and ripe melon and kumquat flavors. Slightly off-dry, meaning dry but fruity, with a mineral finish. Elegant and refined. Exactly what a good German Riesling can be.

As we taste this wine, now, we have to note that we are planning ahead and this is a really good wine to remember. It is available at Bill’s Liquors on Lady’s Island for only $12.99. Enjoy.

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