If you could go into a laboratory or outer space and design the perfect wine, on which attributes would you focus? What would be your priorities?
Allow me some predictions: complexity of flavor, variety of flavor; clarity, clean delineation; tantalizing but not overbearing aromas; options along the textural spectrum from bracing to lush; balance among components; a sense that the wine itself offers direct communication between the place it came from and the glass. Above all, a certain vividness.
You’d want this wine to have relatively low alcohol so you could drink more of it. You’d want it to match amicably with all sorts of food, but to serve well and provide pleasure without food. It could be drunk as soon as you brought the bottle home, or it could lie down for decades and gain intricacy and depth.
You’d hope the wine could be made by hand on small estates, amidst dramatic topography in a beautiful region that one day you might visit. You would even ask that this wine offer uncommon monetary value, in terms both raw (you could find decent versions of it for cheap) and relative (at whatever price level you’re comfortable with, the comparative beauty of the wine would be notable and better than with other wines).
You know where this is going, yes? The wine you would design already exists. It is in plain view yet you continually ignore it, and if you continue to do so it might be lost to the world forever. The wine is German Riesling; specifically, traditional German Riesling which contains a small, balanced amount of sweetness.
German Riesling meets every single one of the criteria listed above, better than any other wine in the world. Except for the fact that your hypothetical wine may have been red and not white, it is the perfect wine. So many wine know-it-alls have already eloquently sung German Riesling’s praises that there is little point in my throwing yet another Ode to Riesling mp3 onto the critics’-encomium playlist of your psychological iPod.
But I will try, here and again and again and again, to explain why I feel the way I do about this wine, in the hopes that you might at least accept its legitimacy and remain open to its capacity to serve you well.
Just so we’re clear on the parameters of the conversation: Though I am talking here about German Riesling with sweetness, German Riesling is not always sweet; in fact, more and more of it is being made dry. Historically, though, it was so cold at that latitude that when autumn came, fermentation (done without temperature-controlled tanks) simply stopped before all the natural sugar in the grapes had been consumed by the yeasts. Some sweetness stayed in the wine.
It so happened that this sweetness balanced the wines’ natural acidity. The Germans saw that this was good. A lot of other people saw that it was good, too. (In fact, if you look at old wine lists from this country’s best restaurants before 1975 or so, there were usually just three categories: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Mosel. And the latter had the highest prices.) The interplay between natural sugar, natural acidity and natural minerality, conducted by a clarity of expression no other wine offers, was appreciated fully. It still is appreciated, and the quality of wine-growing in the area has never been higher, but the competition from other regions is stiffer these days.
And most woefully, more and more Germans themselves are claiming they prefer drier wines. At least they’re still drinking Riesling (in dry form, some of which is admittedly extraordinary), though now there’s even a preposterous trend toward German Sauvignon Blanc. The United States today is a more reliable market for off-dry German wines than Germany itself. (Having just returned from a weeklong trip to Germany to taste dry Riesling, I’ll soon issue a fuller report in these pages.)
Still, I do not care, directly at least, whether you end up liking and buying the slightly sweet wines that I adore. I really don’t. You are not my problem, and you can do whatever you like. In fact, Rieslings made in the steep-slope regions of the Mosel, Nahe and Mittelrhein are so dramatically undervalued right now, untenably so given the quality and age of the vines and the absurdly difficult labor conditions (60-degree slopes!), that I hope you persist in ignoring these wines so I can greedily continue to buy them at these prices, which many Germans have told me won’t stay low for much longer.
No, the only reason I’m even talking about German Riesling-with-residual-sugar is that I need for it to remain in the world. For all those wine-growers in Germany who might be producing dry wines to satisfy a deluded international market, I want the “fruity style” (as the Germans themselves call it) to be something they can continue to produce. A scarcity of Riesling Kabinett (the lightest category of off-dry Riesling, usually from the earliest-picked grapes) would be akin to a species of dolphin or leopard going on the endangered species list: sad, because the species is beautiful; tragic, because it is necessary to the health of other species.
Actually, the deeper reason I’m worried has less to do with wine, and more to do with a certain temperament, a way of seeing the world that has more to do with delicacy, softness, grace and charm than with aggression, superfluity, “power.” Maybe grace will remain in the world longer than off-dry Riesling will, but I doubt my own capacity to expand in grace, graciousness and gratitude without off-dry Riesling.
There is a barely decent number of German Rieslings currently available in Maine. You ask someone in the business about it, and they all say the same thing: “Oh, I know, we should have more, but it’s so hard to sell.” This is accurate, if frustrating. Even for those U.S. importers with the greatest German wines (Rudi Wiest, Terry Theise, Frederick Wildman, Domaine Select, among a few others), their Maine distributors offer only a limited selection. This is your fault, but it’s mine too, and I hope to atone by focusing in the majority of my next several columns on the excellent Rieslings that are as close to you as your favorite wine shop or restaurant.
Meanwhile, you can avail yourself of a terrific opportunity to taste a few great Mosel Rieslings this very week, for free. I swear I would be pushing this even harder if I didn’t work there, but on Friday, Rosemont Market in Yarmouth will host a wonderful ambassador for German wine: Thomas Haehn of Von Schleinitz. (I’ve written previously about Von Schleinitz in this paper, whose searchable archives are available online.) It’s from 4 to 6:30 this Friday afternoon, and it’s the only public event scheduled with Mr. Haehn. I’d appreciate your attending, just so we have something to talk about next week. Thanks.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market, but not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold there. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: