The King & Queen of Wines

Germany is a wine country whose history is as rich and important as France’s, home to some of the most expensive wines in the world, yet it remains unfashionable and underappreciated. This evening of tasting German Pinot Noir and Riesling was designed to address that and, to a packed ‘ditch crowd, wine writer and all-round German expert Anne Krebiehl made sure none of us was left under any illusions as to just how great German wine is.

First misconception: Great red wine cannot be made in Germany because it’s a cool climate.

Anne was at pains to emphasise that the climate of Germany is more varied than imagined: cool in the north, but really quite warm in the south. The first black grapes planted in Germany came from Burgundy in 884 and the first mention of German Pinot Noir dates from 1323, dates which point to the rich historical association between the wines of Germany and France – many of the great Champagne houses were founded by Germans – and the German name for Pinot Noir, Spätburgunder (“late Burgundy”), is another indication of that historical association. Germany is the third largest producer of Pinot Noir, after France and the USA, and more than Australia and New Zealand put together.

It’s not just the warmer south that’s capable of producing great Pinot Noir, as the cooler north does too. Our first two wines of the evening were from Meyer-Nakel, a pioneer of modern German Pinot, based around the Ahr river, a tributary of the Rhine. The river flows from west to east, creating southern-facing slopes; together with the slate soils, this allows enough heat to be generated from the sun for black grapes to ripen. Our opening wine, Meyer-Nakel Spätburgunder Rosé 2013 (£20), was a delectable, appealing rosé, pale pink in colour with cinnamon and delicious red fruits, and ideal with a summer salad or prawns. This was followed by the Meyer-Nakel Estate Spätburgunder (£23.50), full of savoury flavours (characterisitc of German Pinot Noir) such as dried lovage, as well as black cherries, spice, and petrol. Potential food pairings demonstrate the diversity both of the wine and German Pinot: roast duck, chicken liver pâté, or grilled salmon.

The final Pinot Noir once again proved the range of wines Germany is capable of. From Baden, three and a half hours south of the previous wines, the Franz Keller Spätburgunder 2011 (£20), was a much earthier, spicier expression of the grape. The wine was from “climactically favoured” Kaiserstuhl, an area near the “brooding” Black Forest and the “brighter” Alsace Vosge mountains. Anne, who is from the area, made it all sound perfect: the rich food, the sophisticated wine, the warm weather, the overlooking mountains.

Pinot Noir was spread around Europe by Cistercian monks

Second misconception: all German Riesling is sweet.

German wine labels are some of the most confusing and misleading in the world, both for wine novices and connoisseurs. Anne came up with a piece of good advice: when looking at a bottle of German Riesling, ignore all the labelling and focus on the level of alcohol. The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine – and if it’s above 12% ABV, then it’s probably dry.

The first three Rieslings we tasted were all dry, but with completely different characteristics from the differing terroirs. The first wine, Basserman-Jordan Estate Riesling Qba 2012 (£20), was from Pfalz, which Anne described as a place of abundance: wine is served in 500ml pours. Pfalz is a warm, northern counterpart of Alsace, where the grapes fully ripen, meaning there’s no need for residual sugar. In this wine, acidity, a key characterisitic of Riesling, is all important, creating a refreshing, clean, enlivening wine.

Our second wine was Alexander Laible Riesling 2012 (£20), from a young winemaker who exemplifies the future of German wine. From Baden, the warmer area of the country which isn’t associated with Riesling, the wine was bone dry, serious, and indiviudal, described by one customer as like “a moody teenager finding their way.”

Both these wines were extremely popular with guests, but, surprisingly, the most expensive wine of the evening divided opinion. One guest described it, positively, as “sobering”; others didn’t understand why it was so expensive compared to the previous two; Anne passionately invoked its story to explain why she loved the wine so much. Clemens Busch Rothenpad 2011 (£48.50) is from a neglected vineyard in the Mosel, one of the most difficult areas in the world to produce wine, due to the cool climate and steep riverside slopes. The vineyard, Rothenpad (meaning “red path”), has been resurrected by the winery, Clemens Busch, who have planted new vines, as well as restoring the health of seventy-year-old vines, from which this wine is made. This was a dry, serious, complex wine, evocative of everything that makes Riesling stand out from all other white wines, but not one to be taken lightly: Anne suggested drinking it with steak or well-hung game – again, another example of wine defying expectations.

Anne Krebiehl King and Queen of Wines

Third misconception: sweet wines are all about sugar.

Our final Riesling, St Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein Kabinett (£20), had some sweetness to it. Anne asked everyone if they were familiar with Blossom Hill, the Californian high-volume winery which produces a sweet rosé. Everyone nodded. She told us that Blossom Hill Rosé had 31 g/L of residual sugar (a dry wine has 0-4 g/L, an off-dry 4-9 g/L): what residual sugar does this German Riesling have? Upon tasting, some wildly varying suggestions were offered, some of them surprisingly close. The answer was that this Riesling, at 49 g/L, was far sweeter than Blossom Hill, but felt less so due to the wine’s acidity, which balanced the sweetness and gave it much greater depth. Rather than simply pairing the wine with sweet food, Anne suggested duck frisée salad with a viniagrette sauce or pork roast with sweet apple sauce.

Anne concluded the evening with the observation that “there are only three things for a summer’s day: Champagne, Fino, and Riesling.” As summer approaches, maybe we’ll all be looking to Germany for refreshment.

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