So Much Dry German Riesling: A Revelation!

Last week I visited many wineries in Germany as I traveled through the Rheingau, Mosel and Pfalz. The first thing that struck me was that contrary to popular U.S. belief, two-thirds of all wine produced in Germany is in fact dry or very slightly off-dry, and not the sweeter styles that we most often encounter here. Does it surprise you to learn that? And where is all this drier Riesling going?

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When we think of German Riesling, off-dry and sweet are probably two terms that first come to mind. What a revelation to find out that most German wine is in fact dry. And, that Germans themselves also prefer to drink dry wines, with domestic consumption strongly dominated by the dry wines.

How Dry is Trocken?

Under German wine law a dry wine (called trocken) is a legally defined term, whereby the wine can contain up to 9g/l of residual sugar. This is much higher than the limit in most other European countries, where the limit is 4g/l. The reason for the higher German limit has to do with the higher total acidity levels typically found in German wines (think cooler climate, etc.).

An example: For a German dry wine to have 9g/l residual sugar, the total acidity level must be at least 7g/l. This is really quite high considering that the total acidity in most California wines is between 3 and 4 g/l. To put it further into context – 9g/l of residual sugar is nothing really when you consider that most kabinett level wines have residual sugar levels of between 45 to 55g/l and regular (not trocken) Qualitätswein about 20 to 25 g/l. For explanations of these and other German wine labeling terms please see my earlier post on wine labels in Germany.

While the limit is 9g/l most of the dry wines we tasted in the Mosel had about 7g/l residual sugar. It was only when we moved down to the more southerly and warmer Pfalz that we encountered dry wines with less than 4g/l residual sugar.

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So Why All the Sweet Wines?

Given that so much dry wine is produced why do we automatically associate German wines with being sweet? There are a number of reasons that have contributed to this assumption. These include tradition, climate and the American palate’s preference for the sweeter styles. While not a verified statistic, it was mentioned more than once that of all German wine imports to the US, 80-85% is sweet and only 15-20% comprises dry wines.

Tradition and climate possibly go hand-in-hand. German wine regions are among the most northerly and coolest in Europe. Hence, Riesling, which is already a naturally high acid variety, can have searingly high acidity in such cool climates. Off-dry and sweet styles with high levels of residual sugar have traditionally been the means to counter and balance such acidity levels.

However, over the past decade, Germany has seen a succession of warmer vintages. Climate change is often cited as a major contributing factor. This coupled with more advanced canopy management and other vineyard techniques has/have enabled German wine producers to more consistently make dry wines that are balanced without needing high levels of residual sugar.

During my trip almost every producer I met with said that 80% of their production is dry wine and that the remaining 20% of sweeter wines is mainly for export – to the United States or the United Kingdom, where specialist importers, and market influencers (in many cases the gatekeepers) continue their ardent love-affair with the sweeter styles. All well and good if this truly reflects market demand and the Riesling palate in the United States.

However, I am not sure that this is still the case, and I wager that we are ready for a more diverse choice of dry German Riesling.

The Feinherb Style: Off-Dry

Another category that was much talked about was ‘feinherb’. This is not an easy word to translate, nor is it a legally defined wine term. It is a term that many producers prefer to use instead of the legally defined term ‘halb-trocken’ (mmeaning half-dry). While ‘halb-trocken wines have a maximum residual sugar limit of 18g/l, ‘feinherb’ does not. In practice it is essentially a synonym for ‘halb-trocken’ and used to indicate wines that are not legally trocken, but slightly off-dry.

Since my return I have tried to check out the availability of ‘trocken’ German Riesling in various retail stores in New York City. While not an exhaustive or a scientifically viable search, overall it was slim pickings all around. Many stores that I checked out seem to carry a token ‘trocken’ wine amid a sea of the sweeter kabinett and spätlese styles. There were a few exceptions however - namely Astor Wines, Crush Wine and Chambers Street Wines, which each offers at least seven to ten dry options.

Over the next week or so I will be writing in more detail on the various wineries visited and wines tasted and will include a mix of their dry and sweeter wines.

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Trocken and Feinherb Wines to Try

Meanwhile, I have put together some suggestions of excellent ‘trocken’ and feinherb’ wines to try, that seem to be fairly widely available in the United States.

Have you ventured into the world of German trocken wines? What is your opinion? I would love to hear from our readers on the subject.

2009 Schloss Schoenborn, Hattenheim Nussbrumen Riesling Kabinett Trocken, 12.5% - From the Rheingau. Strong mineral nose, showing ripe stone fruit aromas, hints of herbs and nuts. Deliciously juicy. Note: The 2008 is currently available in US wine stores for approximately $18.

2009 Schloss Schoenborn Riesling Qualitätswein, Feinherb. 12%, $15 – From the Rheingau. Pale lemon color. Very precise, clean, minerally nose with lots of zesty citrus fruit. Little spritz on the palate. Very refreshing

2009 Schloss Lieser Riesling, Qualitätswein Trocken, 11.5%, $15 - From the Mosel, and showing typical delicate floral aromas mingled with stone and citrus fruit – apricot, tangerine, clementine with some spice notes. Lovely racy acidity is well balanced.

2009 Carl Loewen Laurentiuslay Riesling Alte Reben Trocken, 12.5%, $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 Schmitges (Grauschiefer) "Grey Slate" Riesling Trocken, $19 – From the Mosel – the grey slate referring to the slate soil. Delicate citrus, stone fruit and mineral aromas and flavors. Quite focused on the palate, lively, juicy and lingering.

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.

2007 Sybille Kuntz Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Mosel, Germany, $20 — We did not visit this winery, but wanted to include it as it is widely available, and tasty. As mentioned before this is a firm favorite in our household. Dry, and quite nicely focused. Crisp and fresh with layers of stone fruit, white flowers and crushed stone minerality. Light-medium bodied. Note: My notes are for the 2009 vintage, which I tasted during my trip. Some stores may still carry the 2008. But that is perfectly okay, as German Riesling, with all that acidity ages very well.

Until next week, would love to hear from you on your German 'trocken' experiences.

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?

(Images: Mary Gorman; wine producers)

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