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The Perfect Summer Drink? Riesling from Germany & Austria

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Riesling grapes in southern Germany

Looking for the ideal summer drink? Do you feel like something juicy, light to medium in body, refreshing and low in alcohol? A drink you can enjoy before dinner, as an aperitif, but can also continue with through a meal, with tangy acidity that makes it a perfect accompaniment for all kinds of food? You need look no further than Riesling from Germany or Austria.

Riesling is one of the greatest wine grapes, and in the cool growing regions of Germany and Austria--in favorable vintages, at least--it gets the long hang time it needs to produce wines that are complex, minerally and thoroughly delicious.

Some people tell me they don't drink Riesling because it's too sweet. It is time to get rid of outmoded notions of Riesling being "sweet."

Most Rieslings from Germany and Austria these days are made in a dry style, as that's what consumers in Germany and Austria prefer, by vast majorities. We're talking bone dry here--with bracing acidity. Great sweet wines are still made in these countries too, with vibrant acidity that balances the sweetness, but most of those wines are exported, mainly to the U.S. and U.K., where there is still some market preference for sweeter style wines. It is easy to identify which Rieslings are going to be the most dry, however, by only recognizing a single German word: "trocken."

So what about those notoriously intimidating German wine labels? Yes, they often sport very long, German-style compound words, sometimes indicating the producer, other times designating the village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown. The traditional focus, though, of German wine labeling, especially since the German wine law adopted in 1971, has been to indicate the sugar and sweetness level of the wines.

The basic terms for what have long been known as Prädikat level wines are kabinett, spätlese and auslese, indicating increasing levels of "oechsle," or the degree of ripeness and sugar levels of the grapes at harvest. The very sweetest three categories above that, used for dessert wines, in ascending levels of sugar are beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and eiswein. Nonetheless, the term German and other European consumers are all looking for now is "trocken," meaning dry.

While the Prädikat designations are still often found on labels and are somewhat helpful in identifying sweeter wines, one also finds a lot of kabinetts, spätlesen and auslesen now labeled "trocken," indicating that despite their initial sugar levels, the grapes were fermented to a nearly dry state.

Other terms indicating drier versions of Riesling are halbtrocken ("half dry") and the unofficial but widely used feinherb, meaning "fine dry."

What's becoming even more important for designating the wine quality in Germany is the presence of the symbol for the VDP, the association of Germany's leading producers, and the terms Erste Lage and Grosse Gewachs.

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steep hillside vineyard in southern Germany

I wrote about the VDP and these new designations at length here. Basically, as German consumers have moved toward demanding dry wines almost exclusively, major German producers have sought ways to indicate their top wines coming from the most historically significant hillside locations, long the sources of Germany's best Rieslings. In essence, they've moved to a Burgundian model of indicating premier cru and grand cru vineyards.

Effective for the 2012 vintage, vineyards throughout Germany are designated by four tiers: grosse lage (the top level, comparable to Burgundy's grand cru), erste lage (the equivalent of Burgundy's premier cru), ortswein (equivalent to Burgundy's villages) and gutswein (basically regional wine).

VDP members' wines are distinguishable by a seal showing an eagle with an inverted triangle of grapes on its chest. Wines from vineyards designated as Erste Lage also display a logo consisting of a numeral one that partly frames a cluster of grapes similar to that on the eagle's chest.

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VDP seal showing around capsule

To clearly indicate what the VDP considers the very best dry wines from the top vineyard sites in each region, they have adopted a system by which a dry wine from a VDP grosse lage vineyard may be designated as Großes Gewächs (also sometimes indicated as "GG").

As it happens, the 2012 vintage for which all this new labeling applies is shaping up as a particularly good year for German and Austrian Riesling, as a recent tasting mainly of pre-release wines from importers Terry Theise, WineWise and The Vienna Wine Company this past month demonstrated for me.

The vintage didn't start out so well in Germany, where a cold snap in May led to abnormal fruit set. An extended rainy period after that intensified mildew pressure. August, however, was quite warm, followed by a warm and dry fall all the way into October, affording slow ripening Riesling plenty of hang time.

Austrian weather conditions were quite similar, with the May frost there having cut yields by up to a third in some regions.

Johannes Selbach
Johannes Selbach

Johannes Selbach, winemaker/proprietor of one of my favorite producers year after year, Selbach-Oster, described his 2012 Rieslings to me as follows: "They're not thick. It's a delicate and super drinkable vintage that will outlive 2011 by a great distance." Johannes considers 2012 his best vintage since 2005.

In the complete report on my blog here you will find my tasting notes on 98 wines from 25 producers. Most of these are 2012 Rieslings, although I also included some recently released reserve wines from other vintages and 2012 wines based on other white grapes, like Muskateller and Pinot Blanc, that also seem to have fared well in 2012.

My top producers of Riesling in Germany and Austria so far from 2012, with one or more wines I scored 93 points or higher, are Carl Loewen, Dönnhoff, Hexamer, Josef Leitz, Kruger-Rumpf, Selbach-Oster and Spreitzer.

Most of these wines will start hitting the shelves in late summer and throughout the fall this year. Some 2012 bottlings from some of these producers, however, like Selbach-Oster, are already available, offering delicious Riesling for quenching your summer thirst. And many very good bottlings are priced well below $20.

Leitz Rieslings
Leitz Rieslings