In previous posts I've discussed German Riesling in general as well as the many different styles and levels of sweetness available within German wine law. This week, style and sweetness aside, I am going to focus on the differences that exist between the various German wine-growing regions with particular focus on the Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz areas. Want to know more?
Riesling is the lynchpin of the German wine industry. While it accounts for only about 20% of all vineyard plantings, it is the first grape that comes to mind when anyone mentions German wine. Riesling is considered the most noble of varieties planted in Germany and is planted in all wine-growing regions.
While there is thirteen officially designated wine-growing regions in Germany (called Anbaugebiet), the ones that we mainly see in export markets, especially in the United States are the Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz.
A recent visit to these regions served to deepen even further my understanding of these differences. While Riesling undeniably preserves its varietal character wherever planted, differences in terroir are strongly reflected in the wines, creating wonderful diversity within the Germany Riesling category.
This has to be one of the most breathtaking wine regions in the world, with vineyards planted on precipitously steep slopes throughout the valleys of the Mosel River, and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer. The cooler climate, where grapes often struggle to ripen, along with soils of blue, grey and red slate make for wines of incredible purity, finesse and elegance. More than any of the other regions, the Mosel is where most often a slightly sweeter style works best to balance the marked acidity of the wines. Because very dry Mosel wines can lack a little flesh and seem too austere, many still contain up to 13 or 14g/l residual sugar – hardly noticeable with all the racy acidity.
Mosel Rieslings are beautifully fragrant with delicate floral, peach and citrus aromas, racy acidity, light-bodied and strident stony minerality. An incredible purity and lightness of being often comes to mind when I taste Mosel Riesling, especially those from top vineyard sites such as Sonnenuhr (the sun dial), Wehlen, Zeltingen or Brauneberg.
While there we visited many small estates, many with holdings of less than 10 hectares. What struck me again and again was the passion and pride these young winemakers had for their region and wines. In particular I was impressed by a group of young winemakers that call themselves the 'Moseljünger', who meet regularly to share ideas, taste each others' wines and generally work together to promote the Mosel region, rather than seeing each other as 'the' competition. Overlooking the famous Apotheke vineyard in the village of Trittenheim, a memorable tasting was hosted by winemaker Verena of Weingut Clüsserath Weiler. Along with winemakers from five other wine estates - Bernhard Eifel, Geltz Gilliken, C.H. Berres, Deutschherrenhof and Peter Lauer - we were treated us to an incredibly diverse tasting of Mosel wines.
With vineyards dotted all along the majestic Rhine river, the Rheingau is often regarded as the most famous and noble of German wine regions. Not far from Frankfurt and Wiesbaden, the Rheingau is also home to Geisenheim, Germany's internationally acclaimed viticultural institute. The Rheingau region was one of the early promoters of dry Riesling and instrumental in instigating the Erstes Gewächs (First Growths) Classification of vineyards, which is the apex of the quality pyramid by which German wine is classified.
Compared to the Mosel, Rheingau wines have more backbone and structure with firmer minerality, greater richness and body. Here, the dry style really comes into its own, with wines of intense flavor and concentration, focus and length, especially those from the steeper hillside vineyards. Many of Germany's most renowned estates and vineyards are located in the famous villages of Rüdesheimer, Johannisberg, Winkel and Eltville, and include such famous names as Schloss Vollrads, Kloster Eberbach, Schloss Johannisberg, Künstler, Georg Breuer, Josef Leitz, all of which are available in the United States.
This was my first ever visit to the Pfalz and it was truly an eye opener. Located not far from the French border and Alsace, its Haart mountain range is actually a continuation of the French Vosges mountains. Further south that both the Mosel and Rheingau, the Pfalz is a relatively warmer region. Soils too differ, with less slate to be found. Instead richer loamy soils are more prevalent.
While in both the Mosel and Rheingau, it is the reflective power of the rivers that is the most important topographical influence, in the Pfalz it is the mountains that are key, providing protection from cold winds and rainfall. Here, wines are broader, richer and fuller in body. The Pfalz is also the region where I came across the most dry wines as well as lots of other varieties such as Chardonnay, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir). Excellent producers visited included Müller Catoir, Bürklin Wolf, Von Winning, Knipser and Christmann.
Wines to Try
While we tasted through the 2009 vintage with the producers, you will still find that the 2007s and 2008s are still available in the US. This is a good thing as Riesling ages so well, and the wines should have taken on additional bottle age complexity.
• 2009 Clüsserath Weiler Riesling HC, $14 – Deliciously fruity. Racy acidity that makes it seems quite dry (though 17g/l residual sugar). Lots of focused minerality.
• 2009 Bernard Eifel Kabinett Feinherb, $16 – 11% abv, 16g/l RS – Enticing floral nose – lilac, white blossoms with hints of rosewater and spice. Delicate, crisp, refreshing with lots of minerality.
• 2009 C.H. Berres Riesling Impulse, Qualitätswein – Medium-dry style with 19g/l residual sugar. Very lively with vibrant bright fruit, floral notes and a delicate mineral backbone.
• 2009 Zilliken Butterfly Riesling, Qualitätswein, $19 – a medium-dry style, lots of stone and citrus fruit and floral notes. Crisp, juicy with good minerality on the finish.
• 2009 Peter Lauer Ayler Kupp Fass 4 Riesling Feinherb, $38 – Strong stony mineral nose with delicate floral and stonefruit notes. Racy and refreshing with great depth of fruit and flavor intensity. Very long finish.
• 2009 Carl Loewen Laurentiuslay Riesling Alte Reben Trocken, $25 - Made from 100 year old vines. Fantastically taut palate and very harmonious showing lots of steely minerality with great flavor intensity – ripe apricots, peach, guava and notes of spice. Very fresh.
• 2009 Müller-Catoir (MC) Riesling Trocken, Pfalz $21 – Deliciously dry with lots of vibrant fruit. Totally refreshing with aromas and flavors of just picked orchard fruit. Nice earthy minerality. While not overly complex, it combines elegance with a juicy liveliness
• 2009 Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Wachenheimer Rechbächel Riesling Trocken, $25 – Generous ripe fruit, apricot, nectarine with earthy notes and exotic spices. Crisp, smooth and long.
• 2009 A. Christmann IDIG Königsbach Riesling Grosses Gewächs Trocken, $45 – A single vineyard wine. Fantastic aroma and flavor intensity and fruit concentration. Ripe earthy, peach and apricot compote with hints of exotic spice – ginger, nutmeg. Taut palate with firm minerality giving excellent structure. Very long finish. On the expensive side - but worth it for a special occasion.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
Related: Who Loves German Riesling Wines?
(Images: Mary Gorman-McAdams)