September 11, 2013

Wine: A perfect specimen, yet an endangered species


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.)

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