On Par with the Best in the World: German White Wines
German white wines grow in a temperate climate and distinguish themselves from wines grown in more southern climates through their fruity, lively yet elegant character. This is particular true of Riesling wines.
One hundred years ago German white wines were the most expensive wines in the world, especially the sweeter Rieslings, and even the dessert wines, from the Rheingau. At some point in time they went out of fashion. And then the “run on red” started. In the meantime it’s the Chinese who will pay almost any price for a top-name Bordeaux. So let them. True epicureans don’t allow themselves to be dictated by fashion; at the most they will use it for inspiration. I’m often asked what my favorite wine is. When I answer, “My favorite? No, it depends on what I’m drinking it with,” most people are astonished. What could possibly go better with a beautifully poached fish than a light, dry Riesling, or with white meat or porcini mushrooms than a Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc? These wines are welcome to be a bit fuller. That red wines go best with cheese is an ingrained fairy tale; often their tannins are too strong to harmonize with cheese. A well-aged hard cheese or blue cheese goes beautifully with a matured, sweeter white wine, or even a dessert wine.
Where do these wines grow?
White wines grown in the southern regions are often too heavy. They can be quite complex but are missing a light and fruity liveliness that is desirable on certain occasions. And it is just that fruity verve that characterizes German Rieslings, exceptions notwithstanding. This is due to the cooler climate and, despite claims to the opposite, adequate precipitation. Riesling is the grape variety particular to Germany, covering 22%, or almost one quarter, of the entire vineyard area in the country. And it is an upward trend. Riesling has a property that no other grape variety can even approximate: it doesn’t need to be heavy to taste delicious. A mere 10% alcohol by volume is enough to make an excellent Riesling: fruity, steely, elegant, nuances of terrior. In contrast a red wine or a southern-grown white that has only 11 % alcohol can be very astringent and is hardly a joy to drink. But back to climate: Riesling ripens late. Hence it needs to grow in top-quality vineyards, not only to be able to make optimal use of the summer heat but, even more so, to guarantee a long ripening time on the vine in the autumn. This is of utmost importance because the fine aromas are only developed in this final growth phase. And in the summer the grapes need not only the heat but also enough precipitation so the fruit flavors can develop without being overpowered by the alcohol.
Who would want to drink only heavy red wines in hot countries?
Perhaps the lighter wines have real potential in southern regions and are just waiting to be discovered. It is true that German white wines of this type, especially Riesling, are among the best in the world. Of course Riesling grows in other places as well, like in the Alsace, in France, in Austria, or even in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Yet with 22,000 hectares of Riesling grapes being cultivated in Germany, it remains the largest region worldwide to be dedicated to this fantastic grape variety.
Perhaps we should take a quick look at Riesling’s aging potential. When German white wines are exported, they are at risk of experiencing longer storage times. Taking this into account, the exported Riesling shouldn’t be too dry. A lot less is known about the aging process of white wines than about reds, but it is known that the sugars slowly caramelize the aromas which are already present in the wine. Matured Rieslings will acquire nuances of wildflower honey and become highly complex. When they start out rich in density and extracts – not a too simplistic or bone-dry wine – they easily have a minimum aging potential of five to seven years, not to mention the dessert wines.
One more variety to mention: Pinot Blanc
It ranks number four in Germany, just after Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Gris. And when its popularity continues, it will most likely overtake its Pinot Gris counterpart. When wines are fermented from low-yield harvests, picked from older vines cultivated in deep-running soils, and maybe even undergo a spontaneous fermentation for extra character, such wines can become lush and deeply complex with excellent aging potential. A magnificent choice for pairing with grilled fish, veal steak or aged hard cheese!