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Rüsselsheim, Germany, is widely regarded as the birthplace of Riesling, with the earliest documentation in 1435. Today, German Rieslings are enjoyed throughout the world.
The key to understanding German Rieslings is to know its very specific classification system, established the VDP, Germany’s association of top wine growers. Here is a brief description:
- Qualitätswein/QbA: A wine that comes entirely from one of the 13 designated wine regions in Germany. An estate’s basic wine.
- Kabinett: The lightest and most delicate style of Riesling, made from normally ripe grapes picked early in the harvest.
- Spätlese: Late harvest wine, typically with more richness and body than Kabinett because the grapes are allowed to ripen for a longer period.
- Auslese: Wine made from very ripe, late-harvested grapes, often with some amount of botrytis (aka “noble rot”). Made in a fruity style with luscious residual sweetness, Auslese is the most concentrated wine, before getting into the realm of the big, sticky dessert wines.
- Beerenauslese/BA: Dessert wine made from extremely overripe grapes that are fully affected by botrytis. BAs are very intense and nectar-like.
- Eiswein: Another rare dessert wine, similar in concentration to BA, but made from overripe grapes that have frozen solid on the vine.
- Trockenbeerenauslese/TBA: Germany’s greatest and rarest dessert wine, made from individually selected berries that have been completely shriveled to dried-up raisins by the botrytis mold.
In Germany Riesling is grown in many regions. Here are the primary regions from where Rieslings are produced for the world market.
Mosel, Saar and Ruhr
The Mosel Valley is a river-carved gorge between the Hunsrück and Eifel hills. The Mosel River is the sinuous spine of the Mosel region, changing direction so often as it flows northeast toward the Rhine that it meanders nearly 150 miles from the French border to Koblenz, to cover about half that distance as the crow flies. Together with its two small tributaries, the Saar and the Ruhr, the Mosel composes one geographical entity.
Although each river’s vineyard area produces a wine with its own distinctive personality, the three share a family resemblance: a fragrance reminiscent of spring blossoms, a pale color, light body and a refreshing, fruity acidity. To add to their charm, they often have the slightest hint of effervescence.
Along the serpentine route of the Mosel, the river banks rise so sharply that the vineyards carpeting these slopes are among the steepest in the world, with some planted at an astounding 70-degree gradient. On these precipitous inclines, nearly all labor must be done by hand. That includes tying each vine to its own wooden stake and carrying up the slate soil that has washed down with the winter rains.
Riesling from the Mosel is legendary. Nearly 2000 years of uninterrupted viticulture have created a unique bond between its natural and cultural landscapes. The sites on steep slate-covered hills, in particular, bring forth Rieslings that number among the finest in the world. The warmth of the heat-reflecting slate is mirrored in the wines: mineral-rich and earthy, yet highly elegant, with refined, complex aromas. They are wines of nearly infinite longevity.
Bordered by the Rheinhessen on the north and France on the south and west, the Pfalz’s vineyards sweep across this remarkably pretty land for nearly 50 miles. It is Germany’s second largest wine region in acreage, but often has the largest crop of all. It extends 85 km (some 50 miles) north from the French border at Schweigen to Bockenheim, not far from the town of Worms.
Modern technology and viticultural training have made their mark here, yet for the visitor driving through the sea of vines along the German Wine Road, the scene is still pastoral with the tree-covered Haardt mountain range, castle ruins, fruit trees, and old walled villages of half-timbered houses.
The Pfalz is second only to the Mosel in acreage planted with the noble Riesling grape. Here, it yields wines of substance and finesse, with a less austere acidity than their Mosel counterparts. Nearly one out of four vines in the Pfalz is Riesling, which is also the most important variety for VDP estates. The Rhine plain between the foothills of the Haardt and the river provides optimal conditions for grapes, thanks to its geological diversity: weathered colored sandstone, slate, basalt, shell-limestone, and Rotliegend that each lend a distinctive note to the Riesling.
The Rheingau is a quietly beautiful region, rich in tradition. Early on, its medieval ecclesiastical and aristocratic wine-growers were associated with Riesling and, in the 18th century, were credited for recognizing the value of harvesting the crop at various stages of ripeness from which the Prädikate, or special attributes that denote wines of superior quality, evolved. Rheingau Rieslings are elegant wines with a refined and sometimes spicy fragrance; a fruity, pronounced acidity; and a rich flavor. Whether dry or lusciously sweet, the finest fetch tremendous prices at auction.
Nearly 80% of its 7,700 acres are planted with Riesling – a record among wine regions worldwide. The region’s geological history is millions of years old, during which its diverse soils developed: quartzite and slate; loess; and gravelly, sandy, and clay sediments of the Mainz Basin, a prehistoric sea – soils that mark the terroirs in which Riesling thrives.
While vines are virtually a monoculture in the Rheingau or along the Mosel, they are but one of many crops that share the fertile soils of this region’s vast farmlands. Steep vineyard sites are confined to small areas near Bingen and south of Mainz along the Rhein Terrasse.
Rheinhessen wines are often characterized as being soft, fragrant, medium-bodied and mild in acidity pleasant, easy-to-drink wines. Rolling hills, steep terraces, and the Rhine mark the landscape of Germany’s largest wine-growing region. The region’s vineyards are bordered by the Rhine to the north and east; the Nahe River in the west; and in the south, Rheinhessen seamlessly adjoins the Pfalz. The Rhine terraces of Nierstein are known for excellent Riesling.
DR. LOOSEN – Situated on Germany’s Mosel River, the 200-year-old Dr. Loosen estate produces Rieslings that are enjoyed around the globe, receiving awards and accolades from top reviewers. With ungrafted vines averaging 60 years old in some of Germany’s best-rated vineyards, winemaker Ernst Loosen creates stunningly intense, world-class wines by restricting crop size, prohibiting chemical fertilization, strict fruit selection, and employing gentle cellar practices that allow the wine to develop its full potential with a minimum of handling. The estate produces Rieslings in a wide range of styles, from fine reserve “GG” (grand cru) dry Rieslings to dessert-style trockenbeerenauslese. DRLOOSEN.COM
INTERNATIONAL WINE INSTITUTE – The International Wine Institute in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, provides seminars, continuing education programs, marketing and consulting for the restaurant, hotel and wine trades. The Institute promotes the cultural landscape of wine and tourism by making people interested in wine aware of the specific resources of their region. IWI-EDU.EU/INTERNATIONAL_WINE_INSTITUTE/DE
SCHLOSS JOHANNISBERG – As the oldest Riesling winery in the world, Schloss Johannisberg documented its wine harvest for the first time in the year 817. Since 1720 only Riesling has been cultivated in its monopole vineyard. It is the home of the quality designations for German wine, especially Spätlese (late harvest wines were invented there in 1775 when a courier came back late and noble rot had infected and concentrated the Riesling grapes). The designation Auslese was created there in 1787 as well as Eiswein in 1858. Schloss Johannisberg’s wines are the most elegant of Rheingau wines and are long lived, gaining balance and smoothness with age, a claim that has long been proven by a large collection of Johannisberger Rieslings all the way back to 1748. SCHLOSSJOHANNISBERG.DE/EN
VDP – The Verband Deutscher Prädikats, (VDP) is an association of Germany’s top wine producers. Its membership includes about 200 wine estates. To be a VDP member, a wine estate must adhere to certain standards, which are somewhat more strict than German wine law. Subject to high standards, the VDP and its members are a bastion of quality in today’s globalized world. They oppose anything that makes wine nondescript and artificial. The VDP eagle on the capsule of each member bottle is a sign of exceptional quality. VDP.DE/EN/HOME
WINES OF GERMANY – Wines of Germany is the exclusive U.S. office of the Deutsches Weininstitut and is the primary information source on German wines for U.S. consumers, members of the wine trade and the media. Wines of Germany aims to create greater awareness and increased sales of German wine in the U.S. through educational and promotional activities. These efforts include vintage tastings, wine and food pairing events, organized trade and media trips to Germany, educational seminars, and July’s annual 31 Days of German Riesling promotion, a month-long celebration that offers Riesling specials and tastings in restaurants and retailers around the country. GERMANWINEUSA.COM