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Friday, June 12, 2009
Sip away from it all with modern German Rieslings
Special to The Japan Times
With stifling summer temperatures just around the corner, many of us will be yearning to head for cooler climes. But if you can't escape just now, the mineral sharpness and cerebral acidity of a German Riesling might be just the ticket to help you weather the oppressive heat.
Evoking the freshness of a spring morning, with church bells tolling over verdant vineyards, the relatively low alcohol content of Germany's favorite varietal has the ability to whisk you away without knocking you out.
Though Australian and American Riesling exports are on the up, German wineries have suffered from the misconception that they mainly produce unfashionably sweet wines.
"In Asia, nearly everyone thinks German wines are always sweet, but they really aren't. Riesling can do anything; it's good for sparkling, dry as well as sweet styles," said German Wine Princess Sarah Schmitt. In Tokyo last month, on May 11, Princess Schmitt attended the Riesling & Co. World Tour at the Sheraton Miyako hotel as an ambassador for her country's wines.
The tasting there brought together a huge range of German wines, with an emphasis on Rieslings. Many of the importers were keen to demonstrate the evolution of German wine styles.
"In the 1970s, German wines were rather sweet, but now Germans prefer to drink dry and medium-dry wines. The sweet Rieslings are mainly exported to other countries," said Carina Zeitler, export director of the winery Burgerspital Weingut. "However, we'd like to show off our dry and medium-dry wines to the Japanese market."
Along with being more in vogue, drier Rieslings have the distinct advantage of lending themselves to a wider range of food pairings, while sweet Rieslings are often best enjoyed alone.
The Riesling grape has a wonderful range of aromas — from warm peaches and honeys to sharper hints of apples and cut grass. Producing a great wine from the grape is a delicate balancing act between the fruit's natural sweetness and acidity; if it's pulled off well, the result can be startling in its elegance and panache. Increased acidity also bestows an increased capacity for aging, and most well-made wines can improve if left for around a decade. These characteristics mean Riesling is still the most popular grape in Germany.
"Riesling is our queen of grape varieties. About 24 percent of all grapes planted in Germany are Riesling," said the princess.
Unlike France, which withholds its Premier Cru designation for a select few wineries, Germany takes a more egalitarian approach to nominating its best wineries. In fact around 200 estates make the cut to be allowed into the VDP (Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter), the German association of top-quality wine estates, founded in 1910. Most of these producers are in the southeast of the country close to the border with France, where poor soils stimulate deeper vine roots and the warmer climate makes for excellent growing conditions.
We began our tasting journey in the Rheingau, a dry and sunny region which benefits from its location beside the majestic River Rhine. The river has left behind mineral deposits that have enhanced the region's wines.
First up was Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Auslese 1999 (¥7,000) from the Balthasar Ress winery, imported by Zato Trading ( www.zato.co.jp ). This wine displayed typical apricot flavors which coated the tongue before being brought to balance by a delicate acidity. My second choice from the same region was Schloss Vollrads QbA (¥2,507) imported by Sapporo ( www.sapporo beer.jp ). A silvery color, this displayed a biting, sharp scent on the nose with apricot hints again on the palate.
While Rheingau used to reign supreme as Germany's top region, it has in recent years been eclipsed by Pfaltz, the largest vineyard region and also the warmest and driest part of the country. Many think this is down to the innovative techniques used by the newer generation of winemakers in this Rhine-valley area and surrounding hills. From Pfaltz, I sampled the dry Bassermann-Jordan QbA Troken 2007 (¥3,000) imported by Jeroboam ( www.jeroboam.co.jp ). This had a beautiful minerality coupled with a lovely buttercup fragrance.
Most of the best vineyards in the Mosel region sit on well-exposed steep slopes lining the river before it flows into the Rhine at Koblenz. My favorite was from Weingut Van Volxem, a relatively new wine estate. Saar Riesling QbA (¥2,800) imported by Fushimi Wine ( www.wine.gp ) had a summery-warm floral scent with its sweetness balanced nicely on the palate by a mineral sharpness.
The Rheinhessen region is embraced by the Rhine, which cuts steep slopes into the land creating excellent vineyards. Keller QbA Trocken 2007 (¥3,200), imported by Jeroboam, had a flinty nose, which glinted with a metallic verve that followed through with a long flavor in the mouth.
Though the climate in Franken is usually considered a little too warm for Riesling, I did try an excellent one from Burgerspital Wurzburg for 10.20 euro (approx. ¥1,400; www.buergerspital.de ). The Riesling Kabinett 2007 balanced deliciously sweet apricot flavors with a biting freshness. In Franken it is the Silvaner grape that excels, and I tried a lovely example of this grape from Hans Wirsching ( www.wirsching.de ). The dry Silvaner Kabinett 2008 Troken (6.50 euro) had a leafy sharpness on the nose and palate with bracing acidities typical of the grape.
Mention should also be made of the sweeter Rieslings that have been unfairly sidelined by the vagaries of fashion in recent years. From Weingut Schloss Saarstein ( www.saarstein.de ) in the Mosel, I particularly enjoyed Riesling Auslese 2006 (26 euro). Made from vines that are more than 40 years old, this had lovely hay scents and a minerality that balanced its sweetness. With only 8 per cent alcohol, you could happily split a bottle of this on a summer's afternoon over lunch without suffering from the drowsiness that higher alcohol wines inevitably bring.
From the same region is Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslese 2001 (¥6,300), imported by Pieroth Japan ( www.pieroth.jp ), which has aged nicely with petrol scents and caramelized flavors in the mouth. Again from Pieroth are two Rheingau wines. One is the late-harvest Schloss Johannisberger 2006 Spatlese (¥6,562), which has lovely apricots and honeys that don't cloy on the palate but are relieved with a tinge of acidity; the other is Schloss Johannisberger 2006 Kabinett (¥4,935), a lighter style of wine with a sherberty edge that positively glittered on the palate.
Dry Rieslings are best served at a cool 11 C, so load up your fridge with a few slender green bottles and get prepared to shake off that heat-induced lethargy.