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Riesling Revelation

I had just about given up on German Rieslings, finding them too cloyingly sweet for my liking. I'd always turn to an Alsatian Riesling instead. That is, until yesterday, when I discovered the lush fruity crispiness of a 2003 Weingut Ratzenberger Steeger St.Jost Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken. For $15, this was a real treat; my first taste elicited a genuine "Wow!." Now I feel like a whole new adventure in German Riesling awaits me.

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  1. Cindy, welcome to the wide(r) world of Rieslings. I know what you mean about German Rieslings often seeming too sweet. Look for the word "Halbtrocken" -- as you have already discovered -- or the word "Trocken" FOLLOWING the ripeness designation (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese) and the wine will be dry.

    (If "Trocken" appears as a part of the word "Trockenbeerenauslese," the wine will be quite sweet.)

    Also, you may want to check out some Australian and New Zealand Rieslings. Some examples would include Gosset "Polish Hill" and Leeuwin Estate "Art Series," both from Australia, and Lawson's Dry Hills and Isabel Estare, both from NZ.

    4 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      Thanks! I'll be looking for these on my next wine-shopping excursion.

      1. re: zin1953

        Hey, some of us need a good sweet German Riesling, to counter-act our sour old fart personalities. A couple of my faves: Gunderloch and Lietz.

        1. re: zin1953

          For the longest time I labored under the belief that all rieslings were sweet, then I had a German riesling from Markus Molitor that I loved. The label reads Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Kabinett Riesling, i.e. no "Halbtrocken". What do these words indicate?

          BTW, I've seen several Austrian rieslings showing up in local wine stores. How do these rank?

          1. re: ambrose

            The wine comes from the village of Zelting, from the vineyard area designated as Sonnenuhr (sundial). The top tier German wines are labelled Qualitatswein mit Pradikat, abbreviated QmP. These wines have attained the specified ripeness level (pradikat), come from the named location, are made in the traditional styles, and passes chemical analysis and taste tests. Kabinett is the least sweet of these quality wines, and are my favorites to serve with food. Riesling of course specifies the riesling grape as it is possible to make quality wines in Germany from other grape varietals as well.


          1. ambrose,

            I find Austrian rieslings to be powerful, mineral driven wines that have great fruit and acidity. Of all the world's rieslings, I find them to be the most food-friendly. The best rieslings, IMO, are from the Wachau, from producers like Hirtzberger, Knoll, and Pichler. They, sadly, are also the most expensive. However, terrific value rieslings can be found from Kamptal, from larger producers like Brundlmayer to small producers like Birgitt Eichinger.

            In regards to your question about the Markus Molitor riesling, Zeltinger or Zeltingen is the name of the town, and Sonnenuhr (Sundial) is the vineyard. You might see other rieslings baring the label Wehlener Sonnenuhr. This is because the Sonnenuhr vineyard is a very large vineyard, stretching over two villages (Zeltingen and Wehlen). Kabinett is the ripeness designation from QmP standards (as Zin1953 was explaining earlier). Trocken is totally dry, Halbtrocken is Half dry. Thus, the wines are less sweet, but have higher alcohol. I can tell you from personal experience that most restaurants of the restaurants that I visited in Bernkastel-Kues (the main "town" surrounding Urzig, Wehlen, Zeltingen, and Graach) only serve those styles of riesling. It seems that the locals prefer that style to what we believe to be the "traditionally german" sweet style.

            Hope this helps.

            1 Reply
            1. re: niagara_wine_guy

              Thank you very much. Yes, it helps a lot (but see below).

              Austrian veltliners and rieslings are showing up here (New Jersey), possibly because of a very favorable article in the New York Times a few months ago. Both wines are being promoted as "Asian food friendly" and that helps too.

              As for my Markus Molitor riesling, it is definitely not what I would call sweet but nowhere on the label does it say Trocken or Halbtrocken. How come?

              Finally, I have been on a mission here to find Canadian wines in local liquor stores. The ice wines from the Niagara peninsula are everywhere but after that it's pretty dismal. Did find a very good Okanagan red and some decent whites from the peninsula. Any decent rieslings to look for?

            2. ambrose,

              Some Kabinett rieslings have so much acidity to it that it can make the wine seem dry, although there is some RS in it. It is fresh and easy to drink, but it wouldn't seem as sweet as a Spatlese or Auslese designated riesling, or some of the cloying/less balanced wines being produced under QbA rules (QbA is a lesser quality designation compared to the QmP). Saying that, even some Spatlese's tend to taste slightly dry, because of the acid.

              As for Canadian wines in the US, I'm assuming that it is similar to the situation of Canadian wines for sale in the UK. When I was working over there last year, the only CDA wines available (other than icewine), were from bigger wineries such as Inniskillin and Mission Hill and were very expensive because of the tax mark-ups. Top Canadian rieslings right now are being produced by Cave Spring, Charles Baker/Stratus, Lailey, Thirteenth Street and Flat Rock, amongst others. Of those, I believe only the Cave Spring would be available in the US, as the others are either a.) too new, and/or b.) too small. Saying that, Cave Spring has been the most consistant producer of top quality riesling in Niagara for about a decade, and I rank their CSV riesling (oldest vineyard block) as on par (if not better) with the Eroica riesling from Washington as the top riesling produced on the continent. Obviously, I'm slightly biased, but it really is a world-class. Cave Spring's Semi-dry, Dry, and Reserve rieslings are fantastic buys and all run for less than $18 CDN.

              FYI, the Canadian Consulate in NYC held a tasting of Niagara wines last month. Some of this area's top winemakers made the trip down, and showcased two or three of their top wines. The goal of the trip was not only to make the city's Sommeliers/Wine Buyers more aware of their product, but to also encourage some NYC wine agents to pick up their wines. Perhaps the current situation you're facing won't be as severe in the years to come.

              1. Try a gru-v...aka gruner veltliner...sooo food friendly and so up and coming! Go to tv.winelibrary.com and search gruner....best website ever!

                1. Yes! And they represent terrific value. I had my first veltliner in a local restaurant and loved it. I finally found it at a not-so-close liquor store for $11/bottle!!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: ambrose

                    There is no doubt that Grüner Veltliner can be outstanding, particularly in the hands of a top producer such as Martin Nigl, Willi Bründlmeyer, Franz Hirtzberger, F.X. Pichler, Hans & Uli Seltzer, Ludwig & Maria Hiedler, etc. But Grüner is like most other wines -- some can be the "terrific value" you mention, while some can cost as much as $40, $50, even $60 per bottle.

                    The values are still delicious, tasty and *very* reasonable, and can run around $10-12 per 1.0L bottle -- some come with cork, some with a crown cap.

                  2. How can anyone "give up" on German riesling??

                    German vineyards have been cultivated for HUNDREDS of years, and are among the oldest in the world... there's a reason for that.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: Chicago Mike

                      Mike, I can't speak for Cindy, obviously, but I know many people who have "given up" on Riesling generally, and Germans in particular, here in the U.S. It's mostly an image problem, though some of it is a quality issue as well.

                      Most Americans think of Rieslings as sweet. This hasn't changed. Most Calfiornia Rieslings are, and its popularity has sunk like the proverbial rock because of it. Without a domestic version to lead the way, many have shied away from imported versions. Add to that the seemingly (to some) bewildering world of German wine labels -- just ask someone to pronounce "Qualitätswein mit Prädikat" or, better yet, "Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete"!

                      While it's true that, once upon a time, Blue Nun was the largest selling imported wine in the United States, it was sweet, and that never translated into big sales of Zeller Schwartz Katz or Moselblumchen, let alone the far more important (and far higher quality) wines of Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg, Ürziger Würzgarten, Erbacher Marcobrunner, or Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck (and how, exactly, is that different from -Berg Rottland or -Berg Schlossberg?), and so on.

                      Now, clearly Mike, someone who is "into" these wines can certainly pronounce all of these names; keep in mind the distinctions between Joh. Jos. Christoffel and Weingüter Mönchhof; and know the differences between an Auslese Trocken and a Trockenbeerenauslese -- just as someone who is "into" Burgundy whill know how to navigate amongst the potential minefields that await in the Côte d'Or. But the Germans have done an ever poorer job than the French in attempting to decipher thei labels and their wines. In the last half of the 20th century, theonly truly successful (in terms of sales, not quality) vintages for German wines in the United States were 1959, 1964, 1971, 1976 and 1983. (1945, 1949 and 1953 were great vintages, but there wasn't much of a market for the wines in the U.S. back then.)

                      Now, with the 21st century here, hopefully things will get better for the marketing of these great wines . . .

                      1. re: zin1953

                        The poster is receiving good advice... to learn the various categories of German wines. When you think about it, there's no other wine-growing region of the world I'm aware of that has such specific "cataloguing" of their wines. Who else has dry - half/dry - kab - spat - aus - dessert wines all from the same grape ??? With various levels of "quality certification" no less...

                        To try and lump all of that together as "cloyingly sweet", as the poster observes, is a mistake.

                        I personally hope Germany continues to do a poor marketing job because where else can you find such a great range of wines at such reasonable price ??

                        1. re: Chicago Mike

                          >>> Who else has dry - half/dry - kab - spat - aus - dessert wines all from the same grape ??? <<<


                          >>> . . . where else can you find such a great range of wines at such reasonable price ?? <<<


                          This also applies to California, too, and to Australia and New Zealand and -- but I'm only being slightly difficult. There is no doubting the facts that Riesling is one of, if not *the* finest white wine grape on the planet, and that Germany produces some truly spectacular wines.

                          >>> To try and lump all of that together as "cloyingly sweet", as the poster observes, is a mistake. <<<

                          I agree. However, if all you have been exposed to are . . . .

                          1. re: zin1953

                            Which single grape(s) in France are produced in such a wide range of styles as riesling in Germany ?? I can't think of any...

                            And there are "first growth" German wines from some of the country's best vineyards priced in the teens and low 20's. Which similar first growth French wines are anywhere near those price points ? I'm not arguing here, would love some names actually.

                            1. re: Chicago Mike

                              Chenin blanc for one: sugar levels from bone dry (sec) to off-dry (sec-tendre, demi-sec) to semi-sweet (moelleux) to sweet (liquoreux); weights from light and lively to treacly; flavours from lemony to melony to honeyed, almost always with a strong underlay of minerals; ageability from DYA to don't even think about opening it for three decades; and made in still, spritzy and sparkling styles. Not to mention its frequent use in white blends in the Loire and elsewhere (most notably Languedoc these days). Most are very affordable; world-class examples (Huet's secs and demi-secs, for example) retail for no more than equivalent German Rieslings (Donnhoff, Muller-Catoir, etc.) and even the pricey low-yield, labour-intensive sweet versions seem like bargains compared with eisweins.

                              1. re: Chicago Mike

                                Carswell has it absolutely right. The prime (but not only) example is Chenin Blanc. In the Loire Valley districts of Anjou and Touraine, it's Chenin Blanc that reigns supreme.

                                The appellation of Savennières, for example, produces some of the finest examples of bone-dry Chenin on the planet. Look for producers like Domaine des Baumard and Domaine du Closel, among others. These wines can be brutal when young, but will easily develop over a decade or more.

                                The appellation of Vouvray, as carswell points out, comes in a wide range of sweetness levels, from bone-dry to the equivalent of any Sauternes or BA (and in some vintages, higher). The swet versions can mature gracefully for 50 years or more! (The 1947 and 1959 Huet's are superb now.) Aside from the wines of Huet, look for producers such as Champalou, Clos Naudin (Phillippe Foreau), François Pinon, Domaine des Aubuisières (Bernard Fouquet) and Clos Baudoin (Prince Poniatowski).

                                The top appellations for sweet, Botrisized Chenins are -- aside from the sweetest versions within the appellation of Vourvray -- Bonnezeaux, Coteaux de l'Aubance, Coteaux du Layon, and Quarts du Chaume. Producers to look for include Château de Fesles, Claude Papin, Philippe Delesvaux, and Domaine des Baumard.

                                1. re: zin1953

                                  While French chenin blanc is probably the grape that comes closest to the range of German riesling offerings, IMO the German range is greater and for total quantity of quality wines there is no comparison between the total output of Chenin Blanc in France and riesling in Germany.

                                  Also, per price points, where can I find top quality Savennieres (or any other premier french chenin blanc product from any region) in the mid teens to low 20's ??

                        2. re: Chicago Mike

                          My "giving up" on German Rieslings was based on my limited exposure to these wines whereby I found them too sweet for my liking. With so many other good wines to choose from, it became easy for me to ignore the German Rieslings when shopping for wine. Alsatian Rieslings, on the other hand, I found quite pleasant. So when I found myself in my favorite wine store recently, I asked for a recommendation for a well-priced Alsatian Riesling. After some conversation about what characteristics I was seeking, and what food I was pairing it with, my knowledgeable wine adviser led me across the aisle to the German Rieslings where he gave me a 5-minute lesson on things including terroir, "trocken" and "halbtrocken." I bought a bottle on his recommendation and was very pleasantly surprised.

                        3. Wines need not be dismissed or shunned due to sweeteness, especially if that is the style. I find, when balanced with proper acidity, the sweetness is quite enjoyable on it's own or when properly paired with a fine meal (or a nice piece of ripe cheese for that matter ).