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Dry Alsace, Austrian, and German Riesling: Honors Shared, Preferences Split

By |  February 29 2016

After a tasting like this, there’s only two things we tasters want to do: toss our World of Fine Wine baseball caps into the air first of all, then start drinking. I can’t recall a tasting where I felt so covetous about so many of the wines, so greedy to own them, to hoard them and to sip them. Andreas Larsson ("a beautiful tasting") and Stephan Reinhardt ("an excellent tasting") felt much the same way. They were a privilege to assess. Their producers deserve congratulations.

This was not a foregone conclusion. I still remember the incredulity and disdain with which pioneering dry Riesling from the Mosel and other German regions was greeted by the British wine trade a couple of decades ago. Austrian Rieslings, back then, were viewed as congenitally secondary to the nobility farther north, while Alsace was once thought of interest chiefly for its Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris specialties, not its Riesling. The received view for most of the 20th century was that Riesling needed some sugar to shape and highlight its exciting fruit spectrum. Dry was just wrong, dear boy.

What changed? Many things. It’s worth pointing out, first of all, that the old, settled terroir hierarchies of Northern Europe no longer apply. Assiduous producers have made drinkers realize that good wine from the Rheinhessen or Franconia will always be better than ordinary wine from the Rheingau or the Mosel, and that there are great sites in profusion in both Austria and Alsace. Once you open your mind to the possibility of distinguished sites existing in every established region, the only question becomes that of finding a grape variety ideally adapted to convey the nuances of each distinguished site. No variety seems better able to do this in the sheltered, warm sites of Europe’s far north than Riesling.

The climate has changed, too. Harvesting dates have come forward; more importantly, though, ripeness levels have soared, putting balanced dry Riesling within the reach of growers even in those regions where the only chance of counterbalancing searing acidity in the past was residual sugar. Ripeness means not just routinely higher sugar levels and thus potential alcohol, remember, but mitigated acidity levels and a different spectrum of acids, too.

The final change, of course, is that those making dry styles in regions where they were not formerly the norm, have come to understand the requirements of dryness more thoroughly and so craft such wines more subtly. It’s particularly interesting to look at the Mosel wines as a subgroup in this respect, since in terms of climate this is the most challenging area of those we surveyed. Two of the seven wines submitted didn’t really qualify for this tasting (the 2009 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlese from Molitor and the 2008 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett from JJPrüm’), though they were beautiful wines; both had evident residual sugar and alcohol levels of 7.5% and 8% respectively. The other five wines all met the "dry" rubric and had alcohol levels between 12 and 14%. All scored consistently well, with no taster querying the balance or vinous effectiveness of any of the wines — and the wine that was richest in finished alcohol was the one liked most of all, including by our most "alcohol-sensitive" taster, Stephan Reinhardt.

A further question relating to dryness should be addressed at this point. As will be evident from the notes (particularly for some of the Alsace wines), even those wines allowed to ferment fully will not always end dry. This is particularly true for growers who are working with low yields, indigenous yeasts, and a non-interventionist philosophy (which in this context is defined by allowing wines to ferment as far as nature permits and at the speed that nature allows). As Olivier Humbrecht MW has shown with his dry-wine range in recent vintages, the only way under these circumstances to guarantee to produce a dry wine is to increase yields dramatically, by doubling them or more. Some kind of sweetness indication on labels is essential (though of course stating the exact level of residual sugar may be misleading, since the impression of sweetness is a function of the sugar/acid balance). Producers should no longer pretend that this issue is insignificant.

Was there a "winner" region — a place that eclipses all others for dry Riesling? No, because Riesling conveys terroir so limpidly, and winemaking standards were in general impressively high. Expressive differences, thus, seemed to us to outweigh qualitative differences. We can have some fun with the numbers, though. If you discount the three wines with alcohol levels below 12% and then compute individual scores and divide the total by the number of wines coming from our three main regions, then Alsace led the field with an aggregate total of 48.46, followed by Lower Austria on 48.29 and Germany’s wine valleys on 47.97. If you look at individual subregions (discounting those where there was only one representative wine), by contrast, then Nahe emerged in the top position on 49.25, with the Mosel not far behind on 49.1. The margin of victory suggests the closeness of the contest in each instance. When it came to top wines, the honors on my sheet were evenly shared (Alsace four, Austria and Germany three each), while both Andreas Larsson and Stephan Reinhardt tended to prefer Alsace and Germany to Austria (only two out of 12 wines for Larsson, and none out of nine wines for Reinhardt).

One last thing: This was the first World of Fine Wine tasting I have attended where one taster’s top wine was another taster’s bottom wine. That this is possible seems to me to underline the fact that, more than with most tastings, subjectivity governed our choices and preferences — something confirmed by the fact that only two wines appeared in all three tasters’ lists of "top wines." Anyone who blind-tastes regularly will know that while it is usually possible for a small group of professionals to reach some sort of consensus about what is bad, what is adequate, and what is good, trying then to decide what is greatest among the good is impossible. Confronting that futility was our happy task today.

A Christmann Idig GG Riesling Trocken Pfalz 2010 ranked in Andrew Jefford’s, Andreas Larsson’s and Stephan Reinhardt’s top wines at this tasting, and is our wine of the month.

A Christmann Idig GG Riesling Trocken Pfalz 2010

AJ | Full gold in color. You have the impression of walking into a scent tent with this wine: The glass is alive with meadow flowers and early summer fruits, with a little pastry dough behind for added richness. Very attractive. Fine concentration on the palate and full dryness, yet at the same time that aromatic exuberance and force suggested by the palate are amply evident. The wine dances in the mouth, thanks to its wonderful vertebrae of ripe yet fresh acidity. The alcohol provides ample but not excessive central-palate warmth; there’s a kind of (basalt?) minerality on the finish. We are into a relatively warm-climate zone now, but this is immensely good Riesling from fine vineyards, vinified with enormous skill. Dramatic, flavor-saturated wine; you will still taste this a minute later. | 18.5

AL | Very intense nose, indicating a late harvest/high ripeness; a cornucopia of honey, apricot, yellow plum, and flowers emerges from the glass. The palate is ample and well balanced, combining abundant fruit with a brilliant freshness and great persistence. Very stylish. | 17.5

SR | Intense straw-yellow color. Very ripe and intense fruit flavors mixed with slaty aromas. More the style of [Selbach-Oster Schmitt Riesling Trocken Zeltinger Schlossberg and Fritz Haag Brauneberg Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling] again. Piquant and precise. Intense but also refined. Very clear and fruity on the palate; complex, salty, and long; extremely mineral but completed by succulent fruit flesh. Sensual. Still too young. Nice Spiel (play) and a certain lightness. Elegant and refined. Medium-dry style. Perfect with food. But again, not made to drink now. Oh, I love the lingering salinity and fruitiness of this. Serious wine. Very well balanced. Piquant aftertaste. Beautiful. | 18

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