By: Hanifa Sekandi
The exact origin of Riesling in Germany, no one really knows. What is known is that the premier vine, frost-resistant with small berries, could have been birthed by wild grapes in the Rhine Valley. A handwritten invoice for the purchase of six Riesling vines to be planted east of Rheingau from Klaus Kleinfisch to his lord, Count Johann IV of Katzen-elbogen, on March 13, 1435, is the earliest documentation of the existence of this world-renowned wine.
The broad spectrum and diversity of German Rieslings are attributed to the region, the terroir and the ripeness of the grape – whether it be a cool, refreshing, fruity, crisp citrus flavor or a spicy, warm, robust herbal aroma that entices the senses and dances on the palate. The experience of one Riesling to the next due to its complexity leaves wine lov-ers eternally intrigued. Many consider this wine the ultimate dining companion since its diverse wine repertoire, sweet to bone dry, pairs well with an assortment of dishes.
“Spåtlese” (late harvest) is a process stumbled upon in 1775 in the Schloss Johanisberg vineyard, owned by Prince-Abbot of Fulda in the Rheingau, where noble rot had taken over the grapes. Destiny would have it that the estate winemaker’s decision to press the grapes led to the discovery that good is sometimes revealed in the most precarious times. The quality of the wine was beyond expectations and thus led to harvesting Riesling grapes or bunches during different stages of ripeness. The significance of this is that a wide range of wines are produced, setting German Riesling apart from the rest.
The high quality of the Schloss Johanisberg Riesling led to further cultivation mandates in the 18th century, when approximately 294,000 Riesling grapevines were planted. Since this vineyard is the home where viticulture would transcend the mundane and grotesque into the sublime, the term “Johanisberg Riesling” is another name used to mark the quali-ty of wine and pay homage to where it all began. Not only did this include Mosel and Rhine regions, but vines were also planted in 1720 on the serene vineyards of the former Benedictine monastery in Johanisberg/Rheingau.
The popularity of this royal varietal was quite apparent in 1787 when Clemens Wenzeslaus, Prince Bishop of Trier/Mosel, decreed an order within his territory that all inferior to Riesling must be replaced. A sentiment previously echoed when Prince-Bishop of Speyer/Pflaz demanded more of this enigmatic grape in his Deidesheim vineyards. Ra-re vintages from 1848 are housed in the cellars underneath the estate, now owned by the Metternich family.
Unripe Times For German Riesling
& New Beginnings
As with most jubilant times, there is a low point where what was once celebrated no longer fits the times. It was indeed the fate of Germany’s beloved Riesling due to World War I and II and the Great Depression. Long gone were the days where this noble wine touched the lips of royals and elites. As the markets for exporting the wine languished, so did viticulture. Once an award-winning “Grand Prix” gold star wine in 1904 at the St. Louis Worlds Fair, German Riesling’s sparkle dimmed into the background. New innova-tive methods for wine cultivation led to cheaper wines but resulted in less flavorful, lower quality wines.
With these new inexpensive wines on the market, German winemakers had to move be-yond just popularity and remind people why traditional grape varieties and quality cannot be replaced. The surge of a younger generation of growers, Generation Riesling, brought new life and new meaning to this beloved internationally acclaimed wine by appealing to the market change with innovation while still keeping their process firmly rooted in tradi-tional handcrafted cultivation and harvesting.
Appealing to both the budget-conscious wine lover and those who seek premium wines led winemakers to produce smaller quantities of higher quality wines. Striking the right balance between consumer demand and market change allowed German winemakers to retain their previous glory without the pomp and circumstance and elitism. Each bottle of Riesling represents the hardworking winemakers and family-owned vineyards determined to keep this nuanced grape varietal on the table for generations to come.
Why Climate Matters
The climate in Germany is quite favorable to producing what has been designated authen-tic Riesling. The vast, steep slate slopes carved out by rivers help to ripen grapes. As a result, Riesling is cultivated in 13 German wine-growing regions. But, the climate is not something most people think about as they fill their basket with a few bottles of great wine. German vineyards house and grow 50% of the world’s most diverse Rieslings. From the valleys of the Mosel River to the Rhine with mild winters and summers, to eastern regions Franken, Sachse and Saale-Unstrut with hot summer temperatures or cold continental winters, the extraordinary ability for this wine to survive in unpredictable climates at times tepid or blistering is unmatched.
Riesling is cultivated in other countries such as South America, Austria, New Zealand, Africa, Australia, and even Canada and the U.S., but with 24,000 hectares grown in Ger-many, it’s not surprising that they have become synonymous with this mixed lineage wine. Today, what sets them apart is that even with climate change, the higher latitudes of where the vines are located still allow for curated grape selection based on ripeness. Just as before, warmer temperatures or unpredictable weather patterns require quick ad-aptation to yield quality wines. This made more headway for dry Rieslings since the most robust healthy grapes are harvested first due to new methods to accommodate the evolv-ing temperatures. Warmer temperatures give way to a full landscape of wines that can be harvested accordingly.
Discover Germany’s Riesling
There is a Riesling made for everyone. Even a Pinot Noir connoisseur cannot deny there is that one that deserves to be the star when they host friends and family. If you are un-familiar with German Riesling, knowing where to start can become overwhelming due to the large selection available. As with other wines, you embark on a journey of trial and error to discover a palate-pleasing experience. The great Riesling can be a hit or miss de-pending on where you start.
It is safe to say the best place to start is with styles that put German winemakers on the map. You may be familiar with the medium-bodied sweeter wines with lower alcohol levels; for example, higher quality wines such as Eiswein, sweet dessert wines or botry-tized Rieslings, where berries are harvested in temperatures below -8 degrees Celsius and pressed frozen. Other Rieslings that sit on the spectrum of higher sugar levels with sweet fruity aromas are picked seven days after the main harvest. These include the world-famous premium vintages made with shriveled berries that age for decades, some dating back over 100 years. Honey-like aromas indicate individually handpicked overripe ber-ries.
Lighter-bodied dry wines with citrusy lime and apple aromas originating from cooler climates are picked earlier and selected from the main harvest. When produced in warmer climates that harvest and produce dry wines, robust orange aromas are often present. These wines are fruity yet crisp, lower in alcohol and have a mineral undertone and high acidity.
Each region is known for producing different wines. For example, from the valleys of the Mosel and the Rhine, you will find wines that have a higher fruity acidity. Conditions in these regions are favorable for late harvests. Understanding the region where your wine is harvested will give you a glimpse into what aromas may be present in your selection. Words like Spaltese, Auslese (very ripe grape) or Beerenauslese (overripe berries) found on the label of most German wines reveal a story of a sweeter experience.
Notable German Rieslings
Niedermenniger Herrenberg – 2018er Riesling Spatlese feinherb: From the Hofgut Falkenstein winery produced in the Mosel region is a tart, off-dry, light, semi-sweet medium finish wine. Best served cool, not over-chilled. Grapefruit, peach, lime, pear and green apple aromas with slight honey, floral and mineral notes best de-scribe this Riesling. Best served with meats, seafood, spicy dishes and poultry.
2017 Christmann Riesling Trocken: Produced in Pflaz, the second largest of Germany’s 13 Riesling-producing regions. This dry, bright, citrusy, biodynamic-certified wine with an herbal finish comprises of grapes from a selective harvest.
2018 Driessigacker Organic Grauburgunder: This certified-organic, dry, medium-bodied Riesling is produced in the Rheinhessen re-gion. Light with ripe citrus, grapefruit, and apricot aromas, it is made by acclaimed winemaker Jochen Dreissigacker. Best served with seafood.
You may not be able to experience the great landscapes and rolling valleys of Germany or visit these historic vineyards at the moment, but for now, you can imbibe in the rich history of the great Johanhisberg Riesling. Know that while you create memories over a glass of wine, with each sip you too have traveled to great places where beautiful things flourish in the harshest of conditions.