Wine Travels in Germany + A Few Words(?) About the Ironic Inscrutability of Germany’s Greatest Grape
German wines and America have had a difficult relationship over the past one hundred years, to say the least. Two world wars in twenty years weren’t exactly conducive to good public relations (or wine sales), and dumping boatloads of plonk on the American market back in the 1970s — in the form of Piesporter, Liebfraumilch and the dreaded Blue Nun — didn’t help matters either. The overall effect has been to seriously damage the reputation of Riesling — one of the great drinking grapes of the world.
The other problem with German wines really isn’t Germany’s fault. It has to do with the tsunami of “dry” chardonnay that swept over America for thirty years and still hasn’t receded. Somewhere between the Judgment of Paris in 1976 and the rise of Wine Spectator a dozen years later, it was decreed that all quality white wines had to be “dry” and any residual sugar was bad, and the preference for the latter pegged you as a hopeless rube only a swig away from the Boone’s Farm crowd.
Quality German producers got swept aside by this tide (or at least pushed into the corners of the wine drinking world), and only in the 21st Century has Riesling rebounded to reclaim its place as the noblest of grapes worthy of the highest praise. The fact that it also kicks most other wine’s butts when it comes to price and matching with food also should not be discounted, be you a serious connoisseur or casual sipper.
With these thoughts in mind I traveled to Deutschland late last year to taste my way through a few of the better estates in the Rheingau and Mosel, in hopes of gaining a further appreciation of this underrated and fascinating grape. I picked three producers whose products are widely admired and available in the United States, and after three days of Riesling immersion, it can honestly be said that there wasn’t a bad sip in the bunch. But it also has to be said that to properly parse the fine distinctions between all of the various expressions of this vine, you really must do side-by-side comparisons of wines (the kind that can only be done at the winery or a good wine shop), in order to appreciate the delicate interplay of soil, acid, sweetness and minerals (not to mention age and oak) that makes Riesling so compelling and inscrutable.
Weingut Robert Weil (pronounced “VineGoot Robert Vile” preferably while rolling your r) is now owned by the Suntory international conglomerate — which probably explains why you’ve been seeing a lot more of it on wine shelves and lists over the past few years — and has been described by Jancis Robinson as one of the true “Bordeaux-like estates” of the Rheingau. It also probably explains why the tasting room is open on Sunday, which is a real plus for a wine tourist on a tight schedule.
You arrive at this chateau-like winery by way of a gorgeous, circular driveway at the foot of the state-of-the-art facility.
That facility overlooks the three great vineyards of the weingut (wine estate) — Klosterberg, Turmberg, and Gräfenberg — sites that now have official Rheingau designation as “the best parcels of renowned sites since time immemorial.” In another attempt to make things easier on the consumer, Weil has taken a cue from the French (quelle horreur!) and classifies its wines by terroir, designating Klosterberg and Turmberg as “premier cru”-like sites, while Gräfenberg (or GG on the label) is more akin to a grand cru vineyard in the Burgundian mold. Keep in mind, there’s still the old trocken (dry), Kabinett (a bit lighter and drier in the mouth still, although there are fully sweet Kabinett wines), Spätlese (made with riper grapes, therefore even sweeter), and Auslese (higher sugar levels still, where things start getting serious), designations on the label — all of it done with a very earnest, very German attempt to give you as much information as possible on a 3×4 inch label.
Be advised however, that no matter how hard they try and you try, the whole classification thing will still drive you crazy.
The Rheingau was the first region in Germany to try to validate their “dry” style of Rieslings within a system that used to only reward sugar levels. (The reason for this is best understood when considering that German wines are made at the farthest north and coldest wine-making region in the world, thereby inspiring a ranking system based upon a winery’s ability to coax the most ripeness from its grapes.) A good rule of thumb is to look for the VDP designation on the neck of the bottle (it looks like a gold eagle with a cluster of grapes on its breast), but even then, all it tells you is that you’re getting top shelf Riesling. Weil at least, is a lot more English language-friendly than many others, but may still leave you scratching your head when it comes to deciphering what’s really going on inside.
This is because the “dry” designation in any VDP wine is still a highly relative term. Trocken or Kabinett Rieslings are “dry” in the same way that a kiwi fruit is drier than a pineapple, or Donald Trump is more presidential than Kanye West. Dry Rieslings can range from mouth puckering tartness to explosions of sweet fruit, honey and floral aromas depending on the wine and the winery. Combine that with the Germanic predilection for stressing the sugar levels in their wines rather than the overall sensations they invoke in the mouth, and sometimes you can leave a German wine tasting feeling like you just got confused in both a foreign language and a chemistry class.
None of that matters when you’re simply enjoying a mouthwatering, complex white wine, and at Weil there’s a lot to enjoy. After a tour of the spotless winery and a mini-lecture on the terroir of the adjacent hillsides, you end up in a very modern tasting room where your guide will lead you through a range of wines that will astonish you with their interplay of fruit, minerality, alcohol (usually low), and mouth-feel. They start you with Riesling Trocken wines from their “Rheingau” and “Kiedricher” wines (corresponding to a domaine and village wines in Burgundy), and these entry-level wines are a fine introduction into the joys of the Riesling grape. The 2014s are showing very well right now, with plenty of peachy aromas and firm acidity to balance the unavoidable touch of sweetness, even though it says “dry” on the label. (I told you things get confusing fast.)
To confuse you further, keep in mind that the German wine industry is one place that has benefited from global warming. Both along the Rhine and Mosel, I heard producer after producer say that getting their grapes to ripen before harvest isn’t the struggle it used to be. Chaptalization (the adding of extra sugar to promote fermentation) is now but a dim memory to many of them, but the side effect, according to these same winemakers, has been that “trocken” (dry) grapes are now picked at (formerly) spätlese levels. Which means that recent changes in climate ecology have rendered German wine vocabulary even more opaque. Which is really saying something.
None of this matters when you’re tasting one lip-smacking Riesling after another at Weil, and with a little coaching from Konstantin (our guide for the day and a veritable fount of information), you’ll be parsing the differences between vineyards and sugar levels in no time. You will also walk away from Weil knowing that the best way to strike up a conversation with a German winemaker is to ask about sugar levels.
Striking up a conversation with Sofia Thanisch, however, is one of the easiest things to do on earth.
As the owner of Weingut Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch, she is the great granddaughter of the founders and oversees wines made from two of the greatest vineyards in Germany: the Bernkasteler Badstube and Berncasteler Doctor. She is also one of the most charming people in the world of wine, and an hour or so spent sipping vintages in her private tasting room in the village of Bernkastel is something that should be on every oenophile’s bucket list.
Four generations of women have controlled this estate (the Wwe. on the label means “widow”), and Sofia will recount the history of the weingut (wine estate) and her wine family (dating back to 1636!) over sips of her entire catalogue, starting with her entry level Thanisch label, a wine possessed of a convenient screw-top and, to quote an internet wine seller’s tasting notes: “Yeasty nose, some dried herbs, stone fruit and some citrus, hint of tobacco and smoked bacon, tart mineral notes. Sweetish and juicy on the palate, tart spice, good grip, ripe, polished fruit, some tobacco, polished, lively acidity, persistent and has some depth, slightly sandy, but ripe tannins, yeasty traces, fairly prominent tart spicy mineral notes, firm grip, fairly creamy, light vegetal traces on a very good, delicately sweet finish.”
I didn’t get all of that from the bottle, besides the sweetish and juicy part (tinged with a nice mineral coating and a touch of herbaceousness) , but I will say it’s the type of wine you’d want to quaff with highly-spiced Thai, Chinese or Korean food, and will never tire of throughout your meal. All in all, it’s quite a mouthful for a $24 bottle.
As easy as it is to fall in love with Thanisch wines, vigilance is advised when buying them, because, as if things weren’t complicated enough, there are TWO Dr. H. Thanisch wineries in the Mosel. The one we’re talking about has labels that look like the one above, except when it has labels that look like the one above it. Got that? No one told you this was going to be easy. But then again, few worthwhile things in the world are.
Look for the Dr. H. Thanisch – Erben Thanisch wine label and you’ll always find something ethereal, like Sofia’s 2010 Berncasteler Doctor Spätlese — retailing for around $50/bottle — one of the richest, most precise evocations of the Riesling grape, all tropical fruits and spicy complexity, with a finish until next Tuesday. When you consider the flavor punch it packs for around 8-9% alcohol by volume, you’re getting more in your glass than any chardonnay you can dream of. Sofia proudly points to a framed picture on her wall, showing that in 1959, Thanisch wines commanded a higher price in America than first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundies. My how times have changed.
I’m lucky to live in Las Vegas, where we have both Lotus of Siam and Chada Thai: Two popular Thai restaurants with world-class wine lists chock full of Weil and Thanisch Rieslings, along with many other producers — — making these two spots a mecca for Riesling drinkers in America. (Keep in mind that the price goes up as the sugar levels do, because as sugar levels increase, so does complexity, mouth-feel, ageing potential and the otherworldly levels of acidity and minerality that only the best German winemakers seem to be able to capture at alcohol levels so low. Still, the quality you get for the price is extraordinary when compared to flabby, character-less chardonnays costing twice as much. Lotus’s may be the best Riesling list on this side of the Atlantic (and was once proclaimed as such by Robert Parker) because — in one of the great food-wine ironies in the world — Rieslings go so splendidly with spicy, herbaceous, Southeast Asian food, even though no one would ever accuse German cuisine of being either of those things. Or even seasoned much for that matter.
If you’re nice (and nothing brings out niceness like glasses of crisp, bracing Riesling), Sofia may exit the room and return with bottles so wizened that the labels are a tattered, unreadable mess. Take it on faith that (at almost any winery in the world) when rag tag bottles with moldy labels appear, you know you’re in for something special. In this case we tasted some of Thanisch’s older Auslese labels These wines may not be available in stores, but when you get a sip of a 1996 Berncasteler Doctor Riesling Auslese – full of pineapple and tropical fruit aromas, palate-coating creaminess and a long, deep, shockingly fresh finish – you will know why people go so nuts over this grape. And after spending an hour or so with Sofia Thanisch, you’ll be nuts about her as well, and will have learned that German winemakers are every bit as friendly and approachable as their wines.
Friendliness and approachability are pretty much the watchwords at Dr. Loosen. Not to mention elegance, which is pretty obvious from the moment you step into the tasting room, just across the river from Weingut Thanisch.
These stately homes – like the ones housing Thanisch and Loosen – are steeped in history, and give you a feeling of timelessness as you stroll the cobbled streets of what can only be described as a Riesling storybook land. Wine shops and tourists are everywhere, and you half expect Hansel and Gretel to come strolling out of one of half-timbered houses.
Looming over it all is the impossibly steep Berncastel Doctor, the most famous vineyard in Germany. The village of Bernkastel-Kues (really two villages on opposite sides of the river) has been at the center of the German wine world since Roman times, and Dr. Loosen’s headquarters are right in the middle of town. Markus Schulte, our wine guide for the morning, brought an armful of maps, pictures, and props to demonstrate what makes the soil and the exposure so valuable in this region. One of the most stunning was a famous photo of the Doctor, showing a frost on the ground all around it, but, owing to its position on the river, a clear and warm terroir for the vines fortunate enough to be drinking up the sun being reflected from the water.
For all of its history, though, Dr. Loosen has made a name for itself as one of the most modern of the German wine estates. Since taking over the family business in 1988, Ernst Loosen has turned a modest estate (at the time comprising on 19 acres of planted vines) into a Middle Mosel powerhouse, with almost a hundred acres planted. Loosen makes three blended wines, a non-estate Riesling called “Dr. L,” and two estate Rieslings, one made from grapes grown entirely on blue slate, and another from vines in red slate. All three of these retail for under $15/bottle, making them a flat-out steal for every day sipping.
But the core of the Loosen portfolio are the six old-vine sites from which Loosen makes both dry and sweet wines that are benchmark examples of the form. The bouquet, density and higher alcohol content of these wines distinguish them from the usual fruity, Mosel style. These sites represent some of the Mosel’s most coveted: Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Ürziger Würzgarten, Erdener Prälat, Erdener Treppchen, Bernkasteler Lay, and Graacher Himmelreich. Each vineyard the German equivalent of Grand Cru vineyards, or Erste Lage (first class site), which is designated on the label as “GG” – meaning the top selection of grapes from the best vineyards. Why the Germans use the letters GG to stand for two words starting in EL is a question best left to parsers of the Teutonic brain. If you’re like me, you’ll quickly find that the best thing to do is to stop asking questions and ask for another pour. Luckily, as we’ve noted throughout this piece, the taste of the wines more than makes up for the constant confusion.
With the exception of the Dr. L wine, all the wines are fermented with indigenous yeasts, and aged on their lees in massive old oak barrels for at least 9 months before being racked. The single vineyard wines are aged in old oak for between 12 (for sweet) and up to 24 months (for dry) on the lees before filtration and bottling.
As quaffable as Loosen’s entry-level wines are, it’s the single vineyard selections where things get really serious. His 2012 Urziger Wurtzgarten Spatlese may clock in at only 8.5% alcohol, but it delivers a strong floral nose and loads of citrus notes all wrapped around juicy acidity that begs for a second sip. Quite a mouthful for around $27/bottle. Even more stunning was the 2011 Erdener Pralat Alte Reben Auslese Reserve, not only for the price (around $200/bottle), but for the huge, round, sexy-silky mouthfeel of a sweet grapefruit, offset by concentrated acidity that advertises its aging potential. It is the stuff Riesling dreams are made of, and in ten years could go toe-to-toe with anything the Loire Valley or Burgundy could throw at you. The reserve we tasted is probably next to impossible to find in the United States, but the regular Alte Reben GG is available in better wine stores for around $60/bottle, and it’s nothing to sneeze at either.
To complicate things further, Loosen has designated some of his dry wines “GGR,” standing for Grosse Gewachs Ruhe Reife, or, a dry wine from the Grosses Gewachs (or Erste Lage, remember?) vineyard that has been allowed to rest (ruhe) and mature (reife). Rather than try to keep up with all of this, just know that regardless of your wine knowledge, budget, or level of bewilderment, Dr. Ernst Loosen has a product that will fill the bill and please your palate.
I came away from my four days in the Mosel actually feeling sorry for German winemakers. They try to impart as much information as they can to the consumer (as required by law), and sincerely want you to know as much about the bottle as possible before you buy it, but the densities of the German language defeat them (and us) every time. Be that as it may, there’s something fascinating about all this ironic inscrutability — telling you everything/leaving you in the dark — that will keep you coming back for more, once you dive into the deep end of the Riesling pool and discover the most remarkable and versatile white wine you will ever taste..
A note about tasting rooms and food. Robert Weil has a modern tasting room on the site of the winery that is open to the public seven days a week. However, arrangements must be made in advance for a private tour and tasting. Both Dr. H. Thanisch Erben-Thanisch and Dr. Loosen have small tasting rooms within the beautiful houses that hold their business offices. Thanisch has a small retail store on premises, but private tastings are by reservation only. Dr. Loosen must be contacted in advance for a tour of the cellars and a tasting of the full panoply of its wines.
As great as all of these wines are, food is another matter entirely. Unlike most of the world’s winemaking regions, the Rheingau and Mosel are not exactly known for their cuisine. Tuscany, Burgundy, or Napa they are not. Even in the Riesling mecca of Bernkastel, all you find are lots of gasthauses (guest houses, small inns) and small restaurants serving tons of pork knuckle, flammenkuchen (the Deutsch version of tarte flambée), and more wurst that you can shake a stick at. (All of which are delicious, by the way, but it all gets rather boring rather quickly.) Even one of our tasting guides mentioned that German cuisine has a long way to go before it catches up to their wines. All of which made us wish we were a hundred kilometers to the west in France, or at least at an Asian table in Vegas, tucking into some spicy pad Thai while guzzling the greatest white grape juice in the world.
A mighty big danke schoen to Ira Harmon of Southern Wine and Spirits in Las Vegas, and Jeff Wyatt of Marché Bacchus in Las Vegas, for helping make all of our wine-tour reservations with the wineries. And most of all, many thanks to Konstantin, Sofia and Markus for leading us through their entire portfolios of great wines. Finally, many thanks and hugs to my niece Melissa Heitmann (and her husband Matt) for being such tremendous tour guides for our wine sipping trip. Like I always say: When traveling in a foreign country, take a local, or at least a couple of ex-pat Americans who live there, speak fluent German, and love to drink Riesling as much as you do. Yep, that’s what I’m always saying.
Weingut Robert Weil
+49 6123 2308
Weingut Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch Erben Thanisch
Bernkastel-Kues an der Mosel
+49 (0)6531 2282
Weingut Dr. Loosen
LOTUS OF SIAM
In the Commercial Center
953 East Sahara Ave. A5
Las Vegas, NV 89104
CHADA THAI & WINE
3400 South Jones Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89146