Judging from the wine blogosphere, you would be quite correct in assuming that German white wine is the next big thing, up for a well-deserved revival after the world had been flooded with cheap, low-quality liebfraumilch for decades. I myself only discovered the new wave in German wine a couple of years ago when I was introduced to Dönnhoff (Nahe) and Horst Sauer (Franken). So you can imagine my first reaction when given the opportunity to try these wines was skepticism. I was raised in a family that swore by French wine and my grandfather only ever went to Germany to buy a particular type of brandy he used to put in his coffee. You could find wine in the local supermarket from all over the world except for Germany. If you would be interested in German wine, your only option in a 30-mile radius was picking up a bottle of liebfraumilch in the nearest Aldi Store, which does not exactly scream quality wine.
So naturally my friends and I were hesitant but curious at the same time. Later on I discovered that these were some of the top wines Germany has to offer but at the time it was just a new experience, a way to broaden my horizons. The first wine was Dönnhoff’s Tonschiefer 2011, 25 to 30-year old Riesling vines, handpicked and a partial élevage in big wooden casks. Fruitiness that you would expect from a young wine and substance coming from the oak, accompanied by a certain lightness that seemed to uplift the wine. On the one hand it gave the fruitiness an ethereal aspect, serving as a catalyst that brought forth purity and elegance. On the other hand it grounded the wine, giving it a distinctiveness that was difficult to describe. Only then did I realize that this was the exact definition of minerality that I had been struggling to find.
Every sommelier-wannabe gets bombarded with terms used to describe a wine, but minerality had always struck me as something of a Hail Mary pass, a term that you could just blurt out if you had no idea how to describe the wine in your glass. Most people would then nod understandably as if you had somehow found the x-factor in that wine, the one sensation that could solve the formula behind it. Sensations similar to licking wet stones or tasting salt crystals, distinguishing a very specific type of slate, honestly, it goes a bit overboard sometimes. No one seemed to be able to provide me with a satisfactory description of what minerality actually was. If they had told me to try a German Riesling, It would have made a lot more sense.
To me, minerality is the presence in a wine that shows you its origin, its essence, the one thing that somehow makes it more than just the sum of its parts. It is that aspect of wine aside from all the fruit, spices, herbs, candies or flowers that you can think of that can’t be readily defined or put in an aroma group. It can be overbearing or too subdued, liked or disliked, but in all cases it’s one of the factors that can help you to define a wine. I personally believe that it’s thrown around far too lightly, like the Hail Mary pass I once took it for. I myself am of course no stranger to overusing it (the golden ticket to a sommelier exam) but true minerality conjures an image that is nearly impossible to describe but that somehow allows you to make sense of a wine. At the very least it is a technical aspect of the wine that is derived from terroir, from the wine’s origin, but at the very best it is the missing link between a great wine and an exceptional one.
Wines that do show “true” minerality are few and far between, and everything I said up until now may seem a bit too farfetched, but I’m convinced that it’s something that can only be fully comprehended by stumbling across a similar wine yourself.
As you can gather from the above, one humble sip of wine had a huge impact on me. You could write books about acidity, balanced sweetness and richness, all factors that draw people to German wine but to me it is much simpler. Riesling is one of those grapes that allow you to make sense of it; it shows you what it is capable of and fulfils the promise it contains. They do not necessarily require years and years to develop or show their potential. They can age wonderfully and they can be used to create an extraordinary range of wines but throughout all these possibilities, they offer satisfaction. I would go so far as to say that there is no wine as simple and complex at the same time as a quality bottle of riesling.
German wine is of course much more than Riesling. Aside from Liebfraumilch, I always associated the German wineworld with high yields, hybrids and a much more managerial, distant, approach to winemaking. It would seem that good old Deutsche Gründlichkeit has trickled down to the vineyards, which is of course not necessarily a bad thing, but I discovered that there is so much more to it. Behind this pragmatism are hundreds of passionate winegrowers to be found, trying to find something that suits their ideals, terroir and heritage. It does not matter if they focus on Riesling, Silvaner, Spätburgunder, Müller-Thurgau or Huxelrebe, the most important part is that they all have their own story to tell and that they can all serve as examples of Germany’s diversity.
A substantial amount of attention will be given to German wine on this blog, so I thought it only appropriate to dedicate my first post to it. It will not all be Riesling though, there is so much more to discover that it would be an injustice to regions like Franken or the Ahr to just talk about Riesling. These may not be international wines, nor will they all fit the profile that shows up on the radar of wine critics like Parker or the Wine Spectator, but they all have their own story to tell. Besides, what fun would it be to spend my time chasing around all those established wine critics?