German Riesling, sugar & spice and all things nice?

I was recently asked to conduct a tasting on a selection of German Rieslings, and for me this was music to my ears. For many however, I fear this would be a full album of Marylin Manson to the ears. Aggressive, confusing and an assault to the senses. Now I have very little against Marylin Manson myself, but I understand the feeling of dipping the toe into the unknown. We are oft creatures of habit, and like familiarity. Therefore, the thoughts of trolling the aisles of your wine shop on a Friday evening, weary and bruised after a long week in work, and taking a risk on a wine that possibly tastes like syrup is just a non-runner right…?

But how has Germany still not shaken the reputation of ‘the era of sugary plonk’? Now remember this era was thirty to forty years ago. Look at Kylie, who managed to shake off the cheesy Stock Aiken and Waterman vibe and transcend into a disco goddess. Then we have good ole Gareth Southgate who missed a crucial world cup penalty, and also managed shed his pupa of shame and turn into a world class football manger. Even Clinton, the complete rogue himself, managed to shake off cigar gate. So why is Riesling still considered the sugary, frumpy offering from the land of reliability and near perfect engineering.

Liebfraumilch is the culprit in my opinion. This is a semi sweet style of wine that rose to fame in the 70’s and 80’s. By law 70% of the blend must be Riesling, and the sugar level must be between 18- 40 grams of residual sugar. Considering your average glass of Sauvignon Blanc contains 2 grams of residual sugar, you can only imagine the sweetness. It flew off the shelves as fast as shoulder pads and leg warmers. Blue nun and Black Tower were the gateway wine that succumbed many a sweet tooth back then. But now the modern palate discerns a far more austere glass of white. Those generous sugar levels are now no longer on trend. High acidity and low sugar levels seem to dominate the white wine market. So, has Germany adapted to this… the answer is, yes.

Nowadays more than 90% of what is consumed in Germany is dry (trocken). In fact, when I had a recent chat with Master of Wine Alison Flemming, a Riesling expert, she informed me that Germans tend to prefer steely, dry whites as opposed to the saccharine fuelled wines that filled the shelves back yonder. It is our preconceived notions that assume these wines are still overly sweet. Indeed, they range from dry to sweet and everything in between, but commercially over 75% of what is exported from Germany now is dry (trocken). When we talk about dry, this means that there is anything up to 12 grams of residual sugar per litre in the wine. Considering Coca Cola has 113 grams of sugar per litre, we can understand how incredibly lean and fresh these wines are. Furthermore, due to the cooler climate that Germany possesses, winters are long and hard, and summers are milder, which adds to the natural acidity count of these grapes. Extremely steep slopes, and their golden autumns help with extra sunshine hours to increase the natural sugars levels but suffice to say these grapes are generally not sugar laden and overripe. Due to the varying diurnal range i.e. cold winters, mild springs, warm summer days, cool summer evenings the grapes have time to ripen much slower. The longer the grape hangs on that vine enjoying a prolonged growing season, the more nutrients and flavours are packed into these grapes. They are naturally blessed with a vast array of flavour compounds such as green apples, limes, apricots, white peaches, rhubarb and these can develop over time into toffee apple, oil and kerosene. Flavours that are virtually unheard of in the worlds of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. 

Fast forward on 30 years later from the sugar years, and quality producers are revolting. Yields are drastically being lowered, standards of production are constantly improving, and a far greater understanding of modern trends is being adhered to. Additionally German labelling laws are being reviewed. In other words, labels will become simpler to read. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Gothic, over-filled, cheesy labels, that remind you of a stay in a Monastery. An abundance of words and wine terms seems to bamboozle the consumer. Many producers are now heading down the minimalist design route, with just the grape variety, region and sweetness level on the label. The modern wine drinker is very busy taking over the world, and so the distinct disconnect between the need for all these wine terms and the need for just the vital stats became very apparent. Was there really much need for all the jargon? Today wine drinkers want to know where was the wine made, how much sugar is in the wine and who made the wine? Time is of the essence in those busy wine aisles. So in short, if you enjoy cool climate fresh white wines, that have charming and layered flavours with vibrant acidity and low sugar, you should enjoy three quarters of the German Rieslings that are sitting on our shelves.