Thursday, September 28, 2006

Raise your Riesling steins...

Images of Oktoberfest -- overflowing beer steins, overweight men in lederhosen, Chad Johnson leading the chicken dance, and…wine?

Yep. No celebration of Oktoberfest would be complete without a discussion of German wine -- at least not in this space.

German wines are easy enough to understand. You start with one word and go from there:

Riesling.

There are other grapes grown in Germany -- a couple of white varietals, and I've seen a rare bottle of rosé or red from that corner of the world. None of them, however, have the tradition or quality of the Riesling grape grown in the valleys of the Rhine and Mosel rivers.

Until recently, German wines have been marketed sparingly to American consumers -- partly due to the steadfast German tradition of not including a translation guide to the labels for we U.S. monoglots. While some German wineries have started doing "easier to understand" labels, we need a quick German vocabulary lesson in the interim.

Most people think of Riesling as sweet wine. A good number of them are not. German vintners are very helpful -- they give you a fair idea of what you're getting before you open the bottle. If you see the lone word "Riesling" on a bottle, you can be certain that the wine will be somewhat sweet.If you see "trocken" on a bottle -- this means "dry." Many trocken Rieslings taste almost like sauvignon blancs. "Halbtrocken" means "half-dry" (or "demi-sweet" if you prefer). Almost all Rieslings have pronounced fruit characteristics -- apple, pear, and citrus are most common.

German wine law also requires a vintner to identify the quality and style of wine they're producing. There are two major classes of German wine -- Tafelwein (table wine), rarely seen in the United States, and Qualitätswein (quality wine), which includes almost everything you'll find in a typical store. Within the Qualitätswein designation, there are two sub-classes. I won't go into the German, but the labels include their respective abbreviations: QbA and QmP.

Any German wine from one of the thirteen major wine regions (the four top ones are Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and Pfalz) that's ranked as "basic quality wine" will be labeled QbA.

QmP wines, though -- are the really good ones. They are given one of the following designations in increasing level of quality: Kabinett (usually light and semi-dry), Spätlese (medium style, with more body and a more intense flavor from a little extra ripening of the grapes), and Auslese (full-style, made from hand-picked grapes that are well-ripened). There are other designations above these three -- but they're going to be out of the price range of the Vine. If you get one of those three designations, you'll have a solid product.

As a side note, Germany is the world's foremost producer of Eiswein (Ice Wine) -- which is a delicious dessert wine made from grapes left on the vine until they freeze. Definitely worth trying sometime.

Riesling may be one of the world's most food-friendly wines. While Riesling makes a good aperitif or dessert wine, you can pair one with just about anything. A Spatlese halbtrocken will go with just about anything -- from chicken to pork to roasted vegetables to smoked salmon, or real wine killers like asparagus. I've done a Riesling with cream of Portobello mushroom soup, and it was fabulous. Drier Rieslings are probably the best pairing on the planet for spicy Thai, Chinese, or Indian dishes -- especially if they're loaded with ginger or curry. About the only thing I absolutely wouldn't have a Riesling with would be a good cut of steak. But if you want goulash or stroganoff, you'll be in business.

I'm going to taste three Rieslings here. Doing a side-by-side-by-side tasting would prove fascinating, as you can easily taste the difference among different "preparations" of similar grapes from a relatively small area.

Schmitt Sohne 2005 Riesling Spätlese -- One of the more inexpensive Spätleses that you'll find on the market, Schmitt Sohne's offerings are easily recognizable by the smiley-faced sun on the front of the bottle (not to be confused with "Mr. Smiley" of the former Kentucky license plates). Schmitt Sohne is the largest German exporter (in terms of volume) to the U.S. As I mentioned, a "Spätlese" definition means that the grapes ripened a bit more, meaning more sugar in the grapes, a higher alcohol content, and generally a more complex flavor. The nose of this is a bit less pronounced than many regular Rieslings -- with a combination of apple and wood. The wine hits your tongue with a sweet punch of apples and honey, which then quickly turns citrusy in its very full body. The taste (nectarines?) melts easily into the finish of the wine, which is long and tart -- with just a hint of spice at the very end. A good strong cheese and some apples with this wine would make a fabulous dessert -- made even better by the fact that you paid $8-10 for the bottle. A great way to end a meal or start a picnic.

Bollig-Lehnert 2004 Riesling Kabinett -- A good, solid choice if you're going to be looking for a Kabinett. Inside this traditional green tapered bottle lies a very respectable wine. The nose of this wine carries extremely clean fragrances -- a little fruit and springtime. The first taste of the wine is very gentle and fruity, but not overwhelmingly sweet. (I'm surprised that this didn't get a "halbtrocken" designation.) The overall flavor is full of peaches and honey -- full bodied and long lasting. The finish ends with a quick uptick of tartness. The wine is extremely complex -- you may find yourself tasting slightly different things from sip to sip, which isn't uncommon with Riesling. Foodwise, this may be one of the most flexible wines you can run into. It's not so sweet that you couldn't have it with a basic chicken or pork dish -- but this would work extremely well with peppery food. Mexican food, especially a spicy enchilada sauce or any kind of salsa, would be a nice complement for the fruity backbone of this wine. It'll set you back $11-14, but if you need an extremely flexible wine -- for instance, if you just don't know what you're having for dinner, or you're out and you want a bottle for several people, this is a great choice.

Selbach 2004 Riesling Dry -- As Riesling continues its resurgence among American consumers, savvy German winemakers are making some changes in their labeling. Much as some of the French producers now put the grape varietal on the bottle to increase their market share in the States, so are German winemakers giving monolingual Americans a little more of a hint as to what they're drinking. A few years ago, this wine would simply have been labeled "trocken." You'll recognize the Selbach immediately by the multicolored, stylized fish on the bottle. The wine has an initial clean scent of pineapples. Once it hits your tongue, though, you know you've got a completely different animal than our previous two selections. This wine is very dry, with fresh lemon and tart apples on your tongue. While the wine is quite full-bodied, it's not nearly as fat as the other two wines I've mentioned. The finish is light and crisp with a lingering tartness. This wine is really best enjoyed with food. Dry Rieslings tend to be less complex than their cousins, and they're really a bit too dry by my tastes for either before or after dinner. But if you have this with a meal -- anything loaded with garlic and spice will be balanced exceptionally by this wine. As you've undoubtedly picked up, I love Thai cooking -- and this wine seems to be created specifically as a food pairing for lemongrass and fish sauce. Sushi also works exceptionally well with the Selbach. It's been a favorite of mine for quite some time. $8-11.

Until next time -- Zum Wohl!

4 comments:

Covington said...

Here's a question for the expert...

Certain whiskeys make me totally flushed. It's a cliche, since I'm close to 100% Irish, but it's not all... just certain ones.

Woodford does it, I've recently found, while Maker's and Jameson don't.

Ever heard of such a thing? Is there something different about how these whiskeys are produced?

(I'm cross-posting, asking Tavernwench the same thing - http://tavernwench.blogspot.com/ )

Mike said...

Fascinating. I have no scientific basis for any answer. My first guess might be that you have an allergy to something in the whiskey mash. I'd focus on the bourbons, since Irish doesn't do anything to you. The difference in composition between Maker's and Woodford is that Maker's uses wheat in the mash instead of rye. Irish (and Scotch) malt whiskeys are primarily made from barley.

My advice -- next time you're out, order a rye on the rocks and see what happens to you. If you end up resembling a tomato -- there you go...

Derek said...

Love your side by side comparison of the different styles, great read.

We reviewed over the Schmitt Sohne Riesling Spatlese 2005 over at CorkReview.com giving it 3 out of 5 stars. "The smell of this wine is of apples and apricots, reminding me of spring. Very bright and fresh to the nose. Clear and crips apple flavors, with hints of cinnamon. The finish is quick, leaving bits of fruit as it fades away. Not overly sweet, well rounded." Check it out CorkReview.com

Sassy Marie said...

Thanks for the wealth of information! Riesling is by far my favorite wine...my personal choice so far is Fess Parker Reisling.