I used to think I knew what there was to know about German wine. Two millennia of winegrowing culture summed up in a word: Riesling.
It took a recent trip to Germany to open my mind to the dynamic ideas shaping this ancient industry and to prove how much more I wanted to know.
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Ross choiceRiesling Trocken
Ÿ Suggested retail and availability: About $21.99 at wine boutiques and liquor shops (distributed by Cream Wine Co., Chicago)
This Riesling enters the palate like a Mercedes onto the Autobahn, accelerating in power as ripe fruit, savory accents, mineral complexity and pure acidity develop in the mouth. Vineyards surround the town of Hochheim, historically such a respected wine source that the British dubbed all Rhein wine as "Hock." Kunstler's estate is primarily "Erstes Gewachs," Germany's official recognition of premium quality growth. Serve as an exciting aperitif and with lighter international fare -- from sausages to sushi, crab Louis salad to crab rangoon, cocktail franks to five-spiced riblets.
I knew, for instance, that Riesling is Germany's primary grape; I didn't know that Riesling now accounts for only 22 percent total acreage and that red wine varieties -- including statuesque Pinot Noir to rival France's Burgundy and Oregon's Willamette -- fill nearly 20 percent of Germany's vineyard.
I knew that German wine made an exciting complement to traditional Germanic cuisine, from spargel Hollandischer (asparagus with hollandaise sauce) to grilled sausage and roast duck.
I didn't know that Scandinavia and Asia are now Germany's biggest customers, with German wines winning fans paired with a Danish roast veal with radishes, Swedish black currant-glazed venison and Cantonese dim sum. (For Nordic recipes, visit germanwines.de
I didn't know that Germany is third behind Japan and France in Michelin recognition, the tiny town of Baiersbronn (population 16,000) holding more than twice as many stars as Chicago.
And I didn't know that German Riesling -- beloved for its breathtaking balance between natural fruit acidity and sugar, ranging in flavor from tart nectarine to nectar-of-the-Gods sweetness -- has taken a stylistic shift, called "trocken," meaning dry.
In wine's timeline, the preference for dry wine is a trend in last-minute. Before processed sugar, sweet wine was one way to get your daily sugar fix, the other being sticking your hand in a bee hive. German winegrowers were heroes, battling autumn's "Ice Princesses" to harvest snow-covered, extra-ripe grapes to produce honey-sweet wines.
As sugar became accessible -- even ubiquitous -- preference in wine turned dry. The irony isn't even tasty: dishes with inherent sweetness (in fact, most American meals) bring out bitter and acidic flavors in dry wine.
Trocken Riesling contains about the same sweetness as California Chardonnay -- generally 6 grams of natural grape sugar per liter (6g/L). Chardonnay loses acid as it ripens, however, leaving unfocused "flabby" flavors, like an apple left on the grocer's shelf too long. Riesling maintains acidity, with the impression of biting into a nectarine, peach or apricot just picked from the tree.
Sadly in our area, fine German wine labors under association with mass-marketed German products, which is kind of like not listening to Mozart because you don't like polka music.
So turn to your wine merchant for recommendations of Trocken Riesling and other fine German wines. You may also contact Chicago restaurants Rootstock, Spiaggia and Table Fifty-Two, and Bacaro Restaurant in Champaign about their 31 Days of German Riesling promotions.
My favorite Trocken Rieslings include "Ross's Choice" and:
Barth Winery (Rheingau): Apricot in richness backed by solid acidity.
Hans Lang (Rheingau): Soft pear, yellow plum and white peach flavors with pleasing acidity.
Wagner-Stempel (Rheinhessen): Bristling in minerality, with complex fruit flavors defined by crystalline acidity.
While I came back from Germany enriched, I'm still thirsty for knowlege. I want to know:
How will Germany continue to adapt to global warming in vineyard planting and wine style?
Can Germans be convinced to stop already (!) with the re-designations and new labeling laws which serve only to convolute an already confusing system?
And when will the Chicago-area take its place with other great wine markets in its enthusiasm for German Trocken Riesling?
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at email@example.com.