Summer is here! Hot weather means cool drinks, with low (or no) alcohol. Drinks that are fresh, fun and zippy.
That means: Riesling. Or it should.
Riesling is a stylistic “Jack-of-all-trades”, responsible for wines ranging from bone dry to lusciously sweet, both sparkling and still. But what Riesling – and certainly German Riesling – almost always has, is great freshness and lower alcohol levels than most comparable wines.
The grape is made in the entire span of price classes and quality levels, from rather thin, sometimes sour wines often available in liter bottles on up to “Grand Cru” – level dry prestige wines costing hundreds or thousands of Euros each, on through to half-bottles of sweet, immortal, botrytised elixir. The official German quality designations for fine wines are based on sugar levels, and are part of a system called Prädikat, which can be tough to navigate even for German-speakers, but it is worth checking out so that you can better understand what is in the bottle. I wrote about them here.
The Summer Drink
Delightful freshness coupled with low alcohol and ripe fruit flavours mean that Riesling is the perfect summer white wine. The right wines are easy to enjoy, and easy to have a few (even quite a few) glasses of without suffering too much the next day. But how does Riesling manage this, when so many wines these days are laden with an abundance of alcohol?
Sweet and Sour
How Riesling can stay so light in alcohol is due to a combination of that fabulous acidity and the levels of sugar that it permits – or even needs – to be balanced on the palate. Many wines – particularly from the Mosel – have higher levels of unfermented sugar than you might think when you drink them. And that’s the thing. Many of the best wines allow a higher level of unfermented sugar to balance that acidity. German wine law even incorporates this simple necessity into the legal definition of “dry”: sugar levels for Riesling can be up to 9 grams per liter (for other wines it is just 4 grams per liter), as long as the acidity is not more than 2 grams per liter below the sugars. Unfermented sugar means lower alcohol. But before you get all unhappy about the extra sugar and its effect on your waistline, you should remember that alcohol has calories, too, and the difference, on balance, is very small. If you are interested in some comparisons, I’ve done the math on another post. I’ve also included the formula for the real geeks out there.
The Tradition and the Trend
Traditionally, and for historical reasons, Riesling almost always had a little to a lot of residual sugar. “Dry”, as we understand the term today, didn’t really happen to Riesling. But in the last few decades, there has been a real trend towards fully-dry (less than 2 grams per liter of residual sugar) wines. Most producers have a full stable of wines in all Prädikat levels, both dry and sweet. So, no matter what your tastes may be, there are many gorgeous options for you to try.
Summer is short, let’s get to the drinking!
All the wines I’ve chosen are from 2018, because it is the most recent vintage and because I think it is going to be a great one, as I’ve written here. I’ve chosen three dry (Trocken) wines and three that have a bit more residual sugar – all of them from the Kabinett level of the German system, whether or not they were declared as such officially.
I’ve chosen Kabinett because it is the first – and most important, by volume and easy drinkability – level of the Prädikat quality pyramid, and because the wines have already been released. Higher levels of the pyramid from 2018 have often not yet been filled, and so are not available. Plus, Kabinett is cheaper and designed for early drinking.
The Dry Wines
“Kabinettstück” Riesling Trocken 2018 13% abv – Schloss Lieser, Mosel
Quite aromatic and full of grapefruit, green pear and lemon juice, against a backdrop of ground stone. The wine is very flinty and a bit reductive (read: stinky) upon opening – refreshing, if a bit hard – but, by the second day, has mellowed into fruit, its acidity far better integrated, offering a lovely, smoother drinking experience. Light, tight and well-balanced.
The vertiginous, slate banks of the Mosel, together with its sister rivers the Saar and the Ruwer, are not only one of the world’s most iconic wine landscapes, they are THE classic terroir for Riesling. Schloss Lieser is another historic property, with 23 hectares of vineyards spread around the Mosel – but concentrated towards the middle. Everything is done by hand, the viticulture – like the winemaking – focuses on minimalism.
Hallgartener Riesling Trocken 2018 13% abv – Weingut Prinz, Rheingau
Intensely stony and citrussy, with salt and lemon peel, kumquat, acacia flowers and an acidic core that is both austere and daunting upon opening. But. It is because of wines like this one that I always taste my wines over three days. By the second day this, the cheapest entry on my list at just €11.70, had opened up, smoothed over, and deepened into a thing of real beauty. The stoniness had softened, the fruit came out of hiding, and it no longer needed the sweetness that I had missed on the first day. An excellent wine, with great length and lovely texture.
Weingut Prinz has just nine hectares, all organic. What they lack in size, however, they make up for in ambition and quality. It is smaller estates like Prinz that are leading the way in the Rheingau.
“Gelblack” Riesling Trocken 2018 12.5% abv – Schloss Johannisberg, Rheingau
Tight, salty and lively, there is, nevertheless, good citrus fruit and a steely balance to this wine. Not as dense or long on the palate as some, but making up for it with sheer refreshment and palate-cleansing fruit.
Named for the yellow capsule on the bottle, the “Gelblack” is not officially a Kabinett, but in 2018 the grapes had attained enough sugar even to have been declared as a Spätlese, had the producer so desired. This wine was the most expensive on my list, coming it at €15.00.
The Rheingau is, together with the Mosel region (including the Saar and the Ruwer rivers), among the most important areas for Riesling in Germany, with 78% of the vineyard planted to the variety. As legend has it, late-harvest wines were first discovered here by accident – at Schloss Johannisberg! This estate is one of Germany’s most storied and important wine producers, with a history going back over a thousand years – and a legitimate claim to being the first historically-recognized producer of Riesling in the world.
The Fruity Wines
Brauneberger Juffer 2018 9.0% abv – Weingut Fritz Haag, Mosel
Elderflower and flint, stone fruit and kumquat, with lemon zest and a side of slate. Sweet apricot, lemon juice and ripe pear on the palate, with lip-smacking salinity to round things out. Flavour is bursting from this outstanding wine, which is juicy and intense, yet palate-cleansing and light in the mouth. And it comes from one of my favourite sites: the Brauneberger Juffer.
The Haag name is found all around the Mittelmosel, which is the core area of the Mosel centered on Bernkastel. There are several different producers carrying this family name, but none is as venerated and respected as Fritz Haag, which has been around since 1605. The wines are a benchmark, even if I, personally, often find them a bit heavy-handed with the sulphur in difficult vintages.
Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Kabinett 2018 8.5% abv – Schloss Lieser, Mosel
The wine starts out very reductive – even more so than the “Kabinettstück”, above, but if you give it some air, it becomes a sublime expression of the grape and the region. Loads of flint, with grapefruit peel and pink grapefruit juice, white flowers and iodine. Blood orange on the palate, with salt to spare and a freshness that you just won’t find with other grapes in this style. Well, honestly, nobody even tries to make this style with other grapes anymore. Super intensity and length to spare, there is a surprising level of nerve and concentration in this wine.
Schloss Lieser is not a secret, this smaller estate is well-known among fans of Mosel Riesling. But the quality of the wines belies their price, the estate remains good value. It’s worth mentioning that it is owned by a certain Thomas Haag. Yes, those Haags.
“Hölle” Saulheimer Riesling Kabinett 2018 10% abv – Weingut Thörle, Rheinhessen
Oh my goodness. I have seldom had a wine that I adored immediately after opening, that then got better – for DAYS – after having been opened. This wine is a highlight for me, and easily my favourite from the selection. And you know what? There is only one source that I have found for it in Germany. Because some strange people think that it must be a sweet wine, and sweet wines are bad, apparently. Let me be clear: the impression of this wine on the palate is barely off-dry, certainly not sweet.
Acacia flowers and sweet lemon, with ripe pear, ripe apple and a nectarine chaser. Quince jelly eases in, almost as an afterthought. After a day, some grapefruit becomes noticeable. All the while, there is fantastic balance, with lovely freshness and a hint of grip on the palate that you would almost think there was a bit of tannin. Superbly healthy fruit, first-class winemaking, and a wine that I could drink a bottle of daily. Pure hedonism, with just 10% alcohol. The acidity keeps everything in balance, 37 grams of sugar must be a joke, the wine is practically dry, but with such sumptuous fruit that you could be forgiven for downing the entire bottle in one go. The finish is long, salty and drying, with some almost tannic grip on the palate from the mineral and acid. Vivid and intense without being a brute, this is a Riesling for all occasions and all company. I absolutely love it.
Rheinhessen, Germany’s largest wine region, is arguably also the third most important Riesling area. Located on the left bank of the Rhein – just across from the Rheingau, in fact – it covers many, many hectares and used to have a somewhat negative reputation for the large amounts of relatively poor-quality wine that it made for a long time. Now, there are many high-quality estates doing great work. People like the Thörle brothers, who took over the family estate and made quality their first priority, and with organic production, are the kind of people driving the ascent. The estate consistently delivers excellent value across all their wines, but the Rieslings are a standout for me. Everything on the seven-hectare estate is done by hand.