You cannot get a full picture of German Riesling without talking about the country’s tradition in sweet wines. At one point in time they ranked amongst the most expensive wines in the world, even beating a couple of Médoc First Growths. Unfortunately, they took a turn for the worse in the eighties. ‘liebfraumilch’ is largely to blame for the image of sweet German wines that still persists in many parts of the world.
Initially promoted as an everyday wine that aimed to be a crowd-pleaser, it rapidly turned into an almost industrial product that had little to do with quality wine. Focus was on yield, especially as the wine could be corrected through the use of ‘süssreserve’, rectified grape must. The term may ring a bell as I briefly addressed it in the discussion on Champagne earlier this year (here and here), and its use in German wine was similar: keeping acidity levels in check and adding just a touch of bland and not too present sweetness. Increased production lead to lower prices and a momentary increase in popularity but it would not last, and so it was that liebfraumilch ended up bineg just another example of a boom and bust cycle, the likes of which we have also seen in Beaujolais Nouveau and Cava.
At the same time, the German domestic market for sweet wines is also in rapid decline, quite close to rock bottom actually. The increasing popularity of first European and later on international wines that were completely dry gained traction in Germany and producers started to focus on the production of dry wines in an effort to preserve a place on the German wine landscape. This is not a uniquely German trend as the average global consumer is not looking for sweetness in a wine. Sauternes for instance has been struggling for years as its reputation is built on delivering some of the world’s greatest sweet wines. The recent opening of a co-operative cellar as well as lobbying efforts to sell dry Sauternes wines under the Graves appellation instead of generic Bordeaux are clear signs that producers are getting tired of the fight.
Nonetheless, there are still plenty of winelovers out there who bemoan the decline of sweet wine production. Terry Theise recently wrote an article on the hegemony of trocken wines, and others like Stephan Reinhardt have also focused on the exceptionality of sweet Riesling in their writings. So sweet wines do have quite the hardcore albeit small following, and anyone who is promoting diversity instead of taste standardization and catering to the masses could use some support.
I myself have to admit that I‘ve long had a love-hate relationship with sweet wines. They often start off overwhelmingly rich with tropical fruit and sunshine on the nose, only to leave a sickly sweet and heavy sensation on the palate that you cannot get rid of. At its worst, sweet wine is the Red Bull of the wine world. A quick shot of sugar that is pleasing at first but so engulfing that you can’t even get to the bottom of the glass. Given that sweet wines often commanded premium prices that were well out of my budget when I got serious about wine, I just did not get what was so special about it.
I had to pass through Germany to appreciate what pinot noir was capable of in Burgundy, and in an amusing twist I passed through France for my sweet tooth, only to end up in Germany. It wasn’t until Christmas dinner 2012 that I got my first impression of a true sweet wine with a bottle of 1979 Suduiraut, snapped up for 10 euros nonetheless (damaged label). Pure marmalade on the nose, ripe orange zest, nearly candied. It was very open yet delicate, not offering the overkill sensations that you sometimes get with younger sweet wines. The real difference was in the mouth though, no sticky sensation but dried fruit covered with just a bit of caramel, still quite energetic and vigorous to the finish. This was the first serious example of an aged sweet wine I tasted, opulent but delicate at the same time, flavors I would associate with winter honestly, all my favorite kinds of desserts neatly packed in a glass!
So then the game was on and I started to actively pursue the great sweet wines of the world. The Loire was an obvious stop and will surely be discussed in greater detail in the future. The Alsace was not that convincing as what little I could find was leaning more towards the sticky sweetness than the elegance I was looking for.
German Riesling was a different kind of story. Even more difficult to track down in Belgium than trocken wines, I had quite the challenge ahead of me. Nonetheless I soon discovered one of the greatest and underestimated advantages of German sweet wines: they offer ridiculous value for little money! Terrific wines from any region or style are available for less than 25 euros. Of course you can splurge on cult wines like a Scharzhofberger Auslese at 230 a bottle, but if you simply want to discover what a proper sweet version of Riesling tastes like, there are enough wines to choose from. What then makes these wines so special? Next week I will try to make some sense of the dreaded classification system, a bit technical but essential if you want to get the overall picture, so stay tuned!