This past spring I took my very first wine trip to Germany. Before I took off, I did a bit of homework: There are thirteen regions (Anbaugebiete) for quality wine production in Germany: Ahr, Baden, Franconia, Hessische Bergstrasse, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Palatinate, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Saxony, and Württemberg. Most of these regions are located in the southwestern part of the country and most of them are in some way connected to the Rhine River, which begins in the Swiss Alps to the south and flows northwards across the western side of Germany into and across the Netherlands before emptying into the North Sea. The thirteen regions are further divided into 39 sub-regions or districts called Bereich, and nearly 60% of quality wine production takes place in the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate where 6 of the 13 regions are located. From here it gets a bit more complicated but hang in there because this is important information that will give you a good handle on getting to know German wine.In Germany, “quality wine,” usually refers to a category known as Prädikatswein, as opposed to Landwein and Taffelwein, which are simpler wines intended almost exclusively for local consumption. The official regulations, implemented in 1971 and slightly revamped in 2007, consist of six basic categories based on the ripeness (sugar content) of the grapes at harvest, as measured by the weight of the juice: Kabinett has the lowest density or ripeness of grapes (though they are still fully ripe); then comes Spätlese (‘late harvest’), Auslese (‘select harvest’), Beerenauslese (‘select berry harvest’), Trockenbeerenauslese (‘select dry berry harvest’), and Eiswein (ice wine’).

The really critical thing here is that these categories, which often appear on German wine labels, refer to the ripeness (= sweetness) of the grapes at harvest, as well as the length of time the grapes spend on the vine and when they are harvested, but not necessarily the sweetness in the finished wine. While this might seem counter intuitive and is, in fact, a bit confusing, there’s a good reason for it: Because Germany’s wine-growing areas are very far north — some actually go beyond the 50th degree latitude beyond which grapevines cannot generally grow — it was often difficult to obtain sufficient ripeness in the grapes, so a naturally higher sugar content was the main distinguishing factor between high-quality wine and plonk. More sugar and a longer growing time means more alcohol, more flavor and more aromatic components, but does not necessarily mean a sweet finished wine. (The Prädikatswein category prohibits the addition of sugar during fermentation, which is known as chaptalization.)

The last three categories indicate wines from grapes that are harvested extremely late and so are always sweet. Beerenauslese refers to a wine made from grapes that have been affected by an airborne fungus called botrytis cinerea (aka ‘noble rot’) which, under the right circumstances, can be a noble thing indeed, causing the grapes to loose moisture before being picked, thus concentrating the sugar and intensity while giving the wine distinctive aromas of honeysuckle, dried apricot, and porcini mushroom, along with more viscosity. Trockenbeerenauslese goes one step further, producing a wine made from botrytis-infected grapes that have almost completely shriveled (the trocken here means ‘dried out’) giving the wine even more intensity and sweetness. Ice Wine is made from grapes unaffected by botrytis that have remained on the vine past the first big freeze, which gives them tremendous ripeness and concentration, as well as sweetness. When finally harvested, the frozen clusters are immediately pressed and then fermented, to make a small amount of very concentrated, sweet and complex wine.

Because these three types of wine are completely dependent on a particular series of climatic events including proper heat and sunlight, ripeness, humidity, ventilation and the timely onset of cooler temperatures, they are made in very small quantities and not in every year.

Though Kabinett originated as a high-quality wine that was kept in a special cabinet, today it is generally a simple, fruit forward low-alcohol wine typically made in an off-dry style (known as Feinherb or Halbtrocken), whereas the ‘late harvest’ and ‘select late harvest’ are often as sweet as their names suggest, but not always. This is where it starts to get especially confusing, because it is entirely possible — and increasingly common — to find a Spätlese or Auselese (or even a Kabinett) made from very ripe grapes in which most of the sugar has been fermented out into a truly dry wine. Often these wines will say ‘Trocken” on the label, which must have 9 grams or less of residual sugar per liter. Some bottles destined for export might even have the word “Dry” on the label, though most will not tell you what the actual amount of sweetness/dryness (as measured in grams of residual sugar per liter) actually is.

We’ll talk a bit more about sugar in a moment, but it is important to remember that residual sugar is not the only significant factor in a wine. Another and perhaps even more critical consideration is precisely where the grapes used to make it come from.

In many Old-World wine areas, there are major differences not only between different growing regions but also between different sub-regions and even individual vineyard sites within the same small area. This is something that the official regulations of 1971 tended to overlook, or at least under-emphasize. And so, in 2012 a private organization of producers called the Verband Deutscher Prädikats or VDP (which was originally founded in 1910) unveiled its own system of wine categories based on a hierarchy of increasingly specific geographic areas of production that closely resembles the type of system used in Burgundy, France.

Gutswein, at the base of the VDP pyramid, is a category of good but somewhat generic wines that express the characteristics of an entire region. Ortswein indicates wines that come from a specific village. Erste Lage, comparable with the Burgundian Premier Cru category, are wines made from a single vineyard site, while Grosse Lage, comparable to a Grand Cru, indicates the most renowned single vineyard sites in Germany. A Grosse Lage wine that is fermented dry is known as Grosse Gewachs (GG). While it is entirely possible to find sweet wines in a VDP bottle — which is easy to spot by the stylized eagle and grape cluster insignia on the capsule — most VDP producers tend to prefer lower levels of sweetness in order to allow the characteristics of the growing area come through.

The VDP is a prestigious organization with very strict standards that its carefully vetted 200-odd members must strictly adhere to. But because non-members are welcome to use its classification system as well (except for the Grosse Gewachs indication, which is reserved exclusively for members), its emphasis on the expression of geographical origin has significantly raised the bar of quality wine production throughout the entire country.

So far most of this information pertains to winemaking throughout Germany and to all of the permitted grape varieties, of which there are many. But each winegrowing region has its own particular dynamics and so does each grape variety. And my maiden voyage to Deutschland, organized by the non-profit educational organization Wines of Germany, focused on the Nahe and Mosel regions, and, principally, on one grape: Riesling.

Riesling is clearly the country’s most important and most representative grape. This is the variety that is most widely planted and the one that best expresses the uniqueness of Germany’s different territories and the identity of its winegrowing culture. While it grows in other places in the world (including the Langhe area of Piedmont, Italy and New York’s Finger Lakes, which is one of the most promising outside of Germany), there is no doubt that this is the place it truly calls home. The grape is hardy enough to not just survive but thrive in the often extremely cold temperatures and poor rocky soils, soaking up the sunlight during the day and locking extracted nutrients and aromas in during the cool nights. What’s more, this variety displays an uncanny ability to balance high residual sugar with bracing acidity, pronounced mineral-driven flavors and distinctively exotic aromas, all with low levels of alcohol. What this means in practical terms is that Riesling has the potential to carry-off a fairly high level of sweetness without seeming overly sweet, while even the driest versions still retain sufficient fruit to round them out. Despite low alcohol and the absence of tannins, Riesling has the potential to evolve positively in the bottle for many years. And it also has an uncanny ability to respond to and encapsulate the particular and sometimes very subtle characteristics of the places where it grows.

It takes just one glance around the Mosel to know that you are in an extraordinary winegrowing area. From its origins in the Vosges Mountains of France, the river heads northward through Luxemburg into Germany (an area known as the Upper Mosel), picks up steam from the Saar and Ruwer Rivers, and, after passing through the city of Trier, gets all squiggly in the middle section known as Mittelmosel or Bernkastel after its most famous city, in some places practically doubling back into itself, before lengthening out in the Lower Mosel and joining the Rhine River at Kolbenz.

Steep vine-covered slopes rise up vertically from the riverbanks sometimes interrupted by rock outcroppings, and the vine-covered areas shift back and forth from one side of the river to another (or both), based the exposition offered by its sharp twists and turns. Conversely, after careening up a curvy narrow road to visit one vineyard site (during which a member of our group got a bad case of car sickness), we looked straight down at the majestic river far below over steep angles — in some cases nearly 70 degrees steep — of vineyards clinging to the hill covered with loose dusty topsoil littered with shards of slate.

Slate is the predominant material in the vineyards of the Mosel, especially in the middle section, but there are many different types — red, blue, Devonian — as well as other types of stone including Greywacke, a dark sedimentary sandstone with grains of quartz, and clay. This variety of soils, along with other factors like grade, exposition and altitude, make for a multitude of nuances in the wines, even from vineyards within the same area and even when dealing with the same grape variety. In addition to the flavor and aromatic qualities these different types of soils might contribute, the rocks absorb heat from sunlight during the day, which they give off at night, helping to protect the grapes from the harsh nighttime temperatures. Also, it is thought that sunlight reflecting off the river acts as an additional stimulus to the photosynthesis of the vines.

The Nahe region is located 40 kilometers (25 miles) south along the Nahe River, which runs parallel to the Mosel and empties into the Rhine, though its course is less twisty and about half the length. Like the Mosel, the Nahe region is divided into three parts — upper, middle (known as Bad Kreuznach, after its biggest town) and lower. Here too the predominant grape variety is Riesling, but other grape varieties like pinot noir (spätburgunder), pinot blanc (weissburgunder) and pinto gris (grauburgunder) also do particularly well.

The angles of the hills in the Nahe are a bit less extreme and the altitudes a bit lower than the Mosel. But what makes it really different is the soil. Instead of the predominant slate of the Mosel, here much of the rock is of volcanic origin, either a type of red volcanic stone or a softer greyish porphyritic one called Andesite, often mixed with clay. This, along with its position a bit further south, gives the wines from this area a distinctive spiciness in the nose and a bit more body on the palate.

This trip gave me a quick but intense first real glimpse at a tremendous winegrowing area I had largely overlooked, and there were a number of important takeaways: First of all, not all German wine — and especially not all Rieslings — are sweet. And even when there’s a wine with a higher amount of residual sweetness than I might generally tolerate, it can be sufficiently balanced by other factors such as minerality and acidity so that the unique characteristics of this great grape variety and fantastic winegrowing areas can come through. If it’s really dry you’re after, look for a Spätlese or Auslese with ‘Trocken’ on the label and don’t let the long names scare you! You can find exceptional terroir-driven (and food friendly) wines here at a very reasonable price.

Here are wines of some producers we visited that are currently available in the US:

Nahe

Tesch — Riesling Löher Berg 2015 (12.5% alcohol by volume)

Beautiful, enticing aroma of ripe fruit and loamy earth with a touch of smokey caramel. When it first hits your palate it feels soft, almost creamy, then blossoms into Key lime pie with a long arc of flavor ending with a friendly lemon pith finish and lingering after taste.

Martin Tesch, current proprietor of his family’s winery that was founded in 1723, is a rock star of a wine maker. Part of this might have to do with the rock memorabilia prominently displayed in the winery’s tasting room, part of it with the fact that many actual rock stars and others in the music business are his clients, and the rest with his “I don’t need no education” demeanor. (Martin is also a member of a group of German winemakers 35 years and under called “Generation Riesling that was founded by the German Wine Institute in 2006. Most of all, his wines rock. Tesch is one of the few wineries we encountered that makes only dry wines, and they’re all excellent. Besides Löher Berg, Tesch makes four other single-vineyard Rieslings plus the winery’s flagship “Riesling Unplugged.”

Dönnhoff —Riesling 2016 Dry Slate “Tonschiefer” (12% abv)

Citrusy grapefruit peel aroma, with hints of papaya and persimmon. Smooth first palate impression builds to full ripe (but not over-ripe) fruit body framed by tart acidity and dry chalky minerality.
    
If Martin Tesch is a ‘rockstar,’ Helmut Dönnhoff the ambassador emeritus of the Nahe, helping to put the region on the map and exalt the unique characteristics of its terroirs in his wines. And Dönnhoff makes many different ones from their 25 hectares of vineyard comprised of numerous individual parcels, from bone-dry to fruity sweet. Keep an eye out for the 2016 Riesling Roxheimer Höllenphad, and three 2016 Grosses Gewächs — Dellchen, Hermannshöle and Felsenberg — which should be arriving in the US this fall.  

Kruger Rumpf — 2016 Pinot Noir Rosé

Kruger Rumpf makes many excellent Rieslings (and we tasted many of them our very first night of the trip, at a long table on an outdoor patio at a casual restaurant adjacent to the winery run by the Kruger Rumpf family). But the Nahe also makes great pinot noir (spätburgunder), and this rosé is one of them. Palest salmon-pink color. Delicate and appealing aromas of fraises des bois and green plum, with a touch of mowed lawn. Tart cranberry and crabapple flavors balanced by sea salt mineral with a nice clean finish. Perfectly refreshing in the summertime, but this is a rosé to drink all year round and goes very nicely with food.

While the family winegrowing activity dates back to 1708, it was Stefan Rumpf who began to focus on producing and bottling wine under their own label in 1984, an endeavor which is now spearheaded by his quietly charismatic redheaded son Georg, our host on this evening, and Georg’s brother Phillip. Their mother Cornelia oversees the restaurant operation, including food preparation, and Stefan, who was at an adjacent table with his wife, now appears to greatly enjoy the fruits of both operations.

Keep an eye out for the 2016 Rieslings, especially the Im Pitterberg GG and Dautenpflänzer GG, that should be arriving in the US in early fall.
 

Mosel

Dr. Loosen — 2015 Riesling Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Dry Grosses Gewachs Alte Reben

Restrained spicy aroma of white pepper and ginger, with hints of wet pebbles, peach pits and dried fig. Medium-full bodied peach cobbler palate with a refreshing dry finish and slight bitter after taste. Made from un-grafted old vines in a great single-vineyard of red volcanic soil.

With his long curly hair (which seems a bit disheveled even when it’s not), round spectacles, and exuberant personality, Ernst Loosen comes across as a sort of mad professor. He is also an engaging and generous person, as well as a great wine maker and perennial traveller, who has done much to help spread the Riesling gospel throughout the world. During our visit with him we got to taste a 2016 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese against another Ürziger Würzgarten from 1997, offering a tremendous opportunity to see how a Riesling from a top-notch vineyard can evolve over time. Then we moved into an adjacent salon for an exceptional dinner with many great bottles, including an old Pommard from his private cellar.

Dr. H. Tanisch — 2014 Riesling Spätlese Trocken Predikatswein (10.5% abv)

Darker golden-yellow amber color; looks slightly viscous. Aroma of macerated apricots, acacia honey and varnish. Dense but not thick in the mouth, with flavors of bitter orange, dried apricot and cedar, followed by a long lactic finish with a touch of soft porous stone. Tremendous personality in a low-alcohol package. Also, demonstrates the additional layers of complexity a well-made Riesling can take on after a few years of bottle ageing.

Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler — 2014 Riesling Spätlese Wehlener Sonnenuhr (9% abv)

Okay, I admit it (just in case you haven’t already guessed): I have an aversion to sweet things, and even the driest Riesling has enough fruit for my personal palate preferences. This wine pushes the envelope: after an amazingly alluring aroma of fig clafoutis with a pinch of allspice and white pepper, honey sweetness emerges and you think its going to take over. But it doesn’t. Bitter lemon peel acidity kicks in, along with a soft, rounded stoniness, and the three elements merrily play off one another to a long graceful finish. This is a compelling example of how a relatively high amount of residual sugar can be an important component of an exceptional Riesling rather than a dictator.