Thursday, April 19, 2012

K is for Kabinett

I’ve neglected German Riesling for a bit around these parts. Not long after I started the Vine, I got asked in an interview what my favorite wine was. I said something to the effect of “Riesling. It’s tasty and it goes with anything.”

That was many moons and a considerably changed palate ago. German Riesling gave way to dry Riesling from the Pacific Northwest. Dry Riesling virtually disappeared after I discovered the lean, minerally joys of Alsatian Riesling, which is where my tastes dwell today. For old time’s sake, I decided to swing back around to Germany.

I had to give myself a refresher beforehand, though. Whereas the French and the Italians simply put the name of the region on the wine label and expect a wine drinker to know what’s inside, the German detail-orientation comes out. Look at a German bottle and you’ll get the winemaker, the type of wine, the style of wine, the wine region, and often the vineyard the wine came from. Throw all this together and you’ve got a long, intimidating string of Prussian to sort through. Thankfully, untangling those strings of consonants and diacritics isn’t too difficult. Here’s a quick vocabulary lesson:

There are two types of German wine you’ll usually see. Qualitätswein, which is abbreviated somewhere on the level as QmA. This is generally table wine. The other is Prädikatswein, which is a higher quality wine, subject to classifications. Until 2007, Prädikatswein was labeled with the abbreviation QmP. I mention this because most German wines are age-friendly. Good Riesling can age almost indefinitely. So, if you run into bottles with vintages from a few years ago, don’t be alarmed.

Prädikatswein is divided into a number of categories, based on the amount of sugar present when the wine is fermented. The three types you’ll see most commonly are Kabinett, Spätlese , and Auslese. Kabinett wines tend to be the lightest and potentially the driest. Spätlese , which means “late harvest,” is made from grapes left on the vine longer, thus increasing the sugar content.  The best Spätlese  grapes get made into wines called Auslese, which means “select harvest.” Spätlese  and Auslese wines tend to be sweet or semi-sweet. Kabinett wines can be either dry or sweet. How to know which is which? “Trocken” is German for “dry.” If you see “Trocken” on the label, you’ve got a dry wine. The exception would be Trockenbeerenauslese, which is a sweet dessert wine made from dried grapes.There's also "halβtrocken" -- which is "half-sweet" or "semi-sweet."

Since I’m into lighter-styled whites these days, I decided that I’d sample some Kabinett. I opened these three long, intimidating strings of Prussian:

Darting 2004 Dürkheimer Fronhof Riesling Kabinett Trocken
Darting 2007 Dürkheimer Michelsberg Riesling Kabinett
Leitz 2008 Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett

I tried them in that order, thinking I’d lined them up in order of sweetness. All three wines had very low alcohol. Usually, the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine. The Dartings were both 11.5%. The Leitz somehow turned out not to be as sweet as the sweeter Darting, checking in at only 8.5%. (Brunch wine, anyone?)

The Darting “trocken” started with a minerally, lemony nose. The taste was right down that alley -- minerally and sharply acidic. My note on it says, “Like a granite grapefruit.” It reminded me a great deal of the Alsace Rieslings that I mentioned above. I found it light in body and flavor with a dry finish that had a little hint of a metallic taste.

I found some big contrasts when I poured the other Darting. It had a similar mineral and lemon nose to the first, but it somehow smelled “fatter.” When I tasted it, I recognized a lot of that  granite grapefruit” flavor – if you’d dropped that grapefruit into a bowl of honey. I found it to be quite sweet initially, but that sweetness mellows into a peachy flavor. The finish starts as honey and ends up as grapefruit rind. That sensation wasn’t as gross as it sounds, trust me.

The Leitz had a very light nose. I got faint apple blossoms and pepper, but I really had to sniff at it. The initial taste was like apples and honey, but the honey morphs into a Granny Smith apple-ish tartness, along with some of that pepperiness. After a few sips, the flavor reminded me of  Chinese take-out “sweet and sour” sauce, if you dialed the sugar was back.

Riesling, as I mentioned before, is exceptionally good food wine, especially when paired with Asian dishes. I made a green Thai curry with shrimp & halibut to go alongside the wines. The Darting trocken, somewhat surprisingly, didn’t fare very well. Paired with the curry, it became somewhat alkaline. It simply wasn’t as good as the other two. The pepper in the Leitz jumped up and danced a little jig with the spice in the meal, cutting the sweetness a fair bit. Very pleasant and flavorful. The sweet Darting definitely held up to the spice, but it initially tasted too “honeyish” for that dish, overwhelming the flavors in the curry. Since Thai food is “creeper spicy,” the sweeter Darting got better as the meal went on.

There are flavors all over the map in German Riesling. With a little research, you should be able to find one you like. It’s also a great choice if you have friends who “don’t like dry wines” but you’d like to serve something a little more complex than white zinfandel. Don’t fear the umlauts. 



James V said...

You're correct that Spatlese and Auslese tend to be sweeter than Kabinett, but like Kabinett, they can also be vinified completely, resulting in dry wines. There are trocken Spatlese and trocken Auslese wines out there that can be very complex. IMHO, Riesling is the single most undervalued wine on the market, bar none. You can find world class 20-30 year old German Riesling on good wines lists for $50-$60 bucks. Comparable quality Burgundy or Barolo would be 5-10x that price, minimum.

The Naked Vine said...

I'm trying to remember where I read -- I'll have to go back and check -- but that the German wine powers-that-be have been discouraging winemakers from making Spatlese or Auslese Trocken. I didn't really understand the logic behind that. But I did remember something I should have put in the article...which I can now go back and fix.