19 Dec 2011

In praise of German rieslings

I know that it is silly, and fairly nonsensical, to generalise as I have done in my title. But one has to start somewhere in a vague attempt to resume one thoughts and catch the eye. How many people would have opened this page had I said, instead: "I really like the Maximin Grünhauser Herrenberg Spätlese 2007, from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region of Germany"?

Few wine styles can be so clearly identifiable as rieslings from the Mosel. As if to serve as counterpoint to the delicacy of its wines, this often spectacular viticultural zone, which used to simply be called Mosel, has been clumsily renamed Mosel-Saar-Ruwer to enclose, with full political correction, two small tributaries (and their vineyards) which run into the southern section of the German Mosel river, which, further north, is in turn an affluent of the Rhine. This vineyard, just across the border from Luxemburg and southern Belgium, is one of Europe's northernmost and only the best exposed sites, on often very steep slopes, can fully ripen the finest grapes. On such sites, riesling is king. 

This particular wine, to give it its full name, is called Maximin Grünhaüser Herrenberg, Riesling Spätlese 2007er. German wine names can be just as complicated as French ones, and sometimes even more so. At least the grape variety is mentioned, since the Germans are far less snooty than the French tend to be about such matters! But a few explanations might come in hand all the same. The "er" suffix in German merely signifies appartenance, or being made from something or somewhere: like a place or a vintage. Herrenberg means the hill of the Lord (Herr). This is therefore, in theory, one of the best vineyard plots on the estate. As in Burgundy, monasteries and the church played a key role in in preserving and developing the vineyards left behind by the Romans here. Maximin Grünhaüs is the name of this estate, which was inhabited during Roman times as the ancient city of Trier, the old Roman capital of the north, is close by. Later, during the 9th century, this land was given by Charlemagne's successor, Otto 1st, to Benedictan monks who founded the Abbey of Saint Maximin.

The German system of describing quality wines by the natural sugar content of the grape must is actually quite logical, once one has understood it. But its major drawback for the consumer is that it does not necessarily tell us whether the wine is going to be sweet or dry, nor to what extent, since it measures the sugar before fermentation. Most wines exported from Germany will be of Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) quality, which has recently been shortened to Prädikatswein, and this is the top classification level. This wine belongs to that category. But within the Prädikatswein category, wine types are then classified more finely according the natural sugar content of the grapes. By "natural", I mean that no chaptalisation (the adding of sugar to grape must) is allowed. Here we have a "spätlese" wine. The word literally means "late harvest". Legislation for this category imposes a minimum sugar density at harvest of 76 on the Oeschlé scale of measurement. This translates to a potential alcool level (if all the grape sugar was fermented out) of about 11%. But many German wines deliberately keep some unfermentend sugar (sometimes known as "residual" sugar) in the finished wine, as a stylistic choice. Since this particular wine has a total alcohol content of a mere 8%, we can deduct that its sugar content stands at a minumum of 50 grams per litre.

This label is so rich and so extensive that I am quite unable to represent it in its entirety with one image. One may or may not like this kind of very traditional imagery and graphics. Personally I love it (but I also love some very modern labels too). The quality of the engraving is amazing. I expect it represents a case of a label being so well-known amongst its regular clients that you would change it at your peril if you owned this estate. The owner, by the way, is Carl von Schubert, whose family have owned this estate since 1882. Being historically very well known, its name is allowed to appear alone on the label without being linked to that of a nearby town or village, which is a rare case in German wine legislation.

So what does it taste like?

The colour is a very intense shade of yellow-gold, quite deep and yet very bright with a greenish tinge. This is quite typical of late-harvested rieslings. The dominant smell, behind an overall impression of "sharpness" of the lemony kind, is one that reminds me of something close to paraffin. This does not sound very pleasant, and in fact I'm not sure that I like the idea much myself, but I find it hard to describe otherwise. This kind of smell tends to be characteristic of many rieslings at some stage in their lives. One can imagine other smells, such as white truffles or garlic, also. Perhaps the thing I love the most about the finest rieslings from the Mosel is the incredibly delicate feel that they give on the palate. This wine is both firm (by its pronounced acidity) and gentle in its application. It appears round and smooth like a steel ball-bearing, yet virtually indestructible. The acidity is wrapped in a light cladding of sweetness. It makes your mouth water and yet is free form any harshness.    

I tried it with two different types of food, and it worked really well with both: a gently spiced terrine of foie-gras, then a fresh fruit salad made of white and yellow fruit (pineapple, peach, tangerine, apple and pear), with no added sugar. 

And what does it cost?

Between 12 and 15 euros per bottle in Europe from specialist dealers. Quality does not necessarily mean very high prices!

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