Thursday, January 30, 2014

The noble grapes: riesling, part 2

The noble grapes: Riesling, part 1

The striving after ripeness explains German wine labels.

If a bottle of riesling is the product of that first harvest, it will carry the term Kabinett on its label. If it is a product of a second harvest, it will carry the term Spatlese (pronounced SHPAIT-lay-seh -- although people do struggle with this one, rendering it "Spall-teese" or "Spayte-lace," or, like me for a while, "Shpaht-lace"). If it comes from even a third harvest, it will be called Auslese, and will have been harvested in individual bunches. A fourth harvest gives us Beerenauslese (BA), meaning the gathering of individual grape berries left so long on the vine that they are not only very ripe but have been attacked by the beneficial mold botrytis, and so are even more shrunken and their sweet juices concentrated. Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) means the wine comes from the harvesting of individual grape berries fully dried (trocken) by the mold. Finally there is Eiswein, made from grapes harvested and crushed while frozen. The ice carries away the grapes' water content and the wine is therefore made from the sweetest, most acidic, most concentrated juices possible.

These six words therefore don't necessarily indicate the increasingly sweet taste of the wine; rather they annouce the level of ripeness of the grapes at harvest. Each higher level of ripeness will mean a richer-feeling wine, but only the three ripest styles -- Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein -- will invariably be sweet because the sugar levels in these grapes have been able to climb so high. The three lower levels of ripeness -- Kabinett, Spatlese, and Auslese -- can still be fermented completely dry.
And coping with these six words already means that we have in our hands a bottle of the highest quality of German wine, a Qualitatswein mit Pradikat or QmP, meaning quality wine with special characteristics. Having this also means that we hold in our hands the results of a sunny, warm year in the best German vineyards. If the year's weather was not so good, we might hold instead a Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet or QbA, simply a quality wine from a specified region. German wine labeling laws lay all these standards down. A "QbA" is not allowed to announce the ripeness levels of its grapes, because they were not remarkable enough to brag about. It can only announce roughly where in Germany it is from.

All this still leaves a positive forest of German words on the labels of fine rieslings, on the labels of fine German wines in general. These comprise announcements not only about the region but about the district, collection of vineyards, and specific vineyard which made the wine. There are also announcements that the wine was bottled on the estate (address included), and proofs of its having passed inspection (the Amtiche Prufungsnummer, or A.P. testing number, the last two digits of which represent the year of testing).

Germany is anxious that you are shown exactly what you are getting in your riesling, because the very fact of growing grapes and making wine there is such a feat and a triumph. But where, for instance, in this QmP and QbA and A.P. and "spall-teese" complexity do we place our (probably) first experience of German wine -- the humble and inexpensive grocery-store Liebfraumilch?

Liebfraumilch, meaning "milk of Our Blessed Lady," is a QbA wine made of a blend of riesling plus other German grape varieties like Kerner, Muller-Thurgau, and Silvaner, the first two of which are crosses of the riesling grape themselves. Being of QbA designation means it is still a qualitatswein -- QbA wines sometimes specify only that on the label -- and therefore still above the category of Landwein or Tafelwein, what would be the everyday quaff of the German consumer except that it seems Germany doesn't produce much of anything ordinary to begin with. Most authorities agree that only about 5 or 10% of the country's wine production is not "qualitatswein," and almost none of the lower-tier stuff is exported.

So that means Liebfraumilch is high-quality product? I'll confess I have never actually tried it. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible is polite: it's "pleasant, basic, and slightly sweetish," she says. The best-known example is Blue Nun, which most people seem to remember, with a laugh, as something belonging to the 1970s. As of The Wine Bible's publication date (2001), Blue Nun was still "the largest-selling German wine in the English-speaking world."

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