Thursday, 3 November 2011

Riesling Trocken

The other week I was searching for a bottle of Malvasia delle Lipari for the Italian wine course I'm running, which I tracked down to The Winery in Maida Vale, West London (see here for the post on the Malvasia).  It's a small but perfectly formed emporium, selling interesting wines from small producers that you're unlikely to find elsewhere.

Whilst there, I soon realised that regardless of the fact that I'd come out for a bottle of Italian Passito and even though Italian wine was clearly one of their specialities, their real niche is German Riesling from small independent domaines.  More specifically they had a great line-up of Riesling Trocken.  Riesling what? Well, before looking at the specific wines I took away with me, let's have a quick look at the different styles of German wine...

For a start the whole conversation here is about quality German wine.  We're not talking about supermarket bottom shelf hopelessly cheap branded wine, Liebfraümilch, Blue Nun or Black Tower -  we're talking about superb wine and in particular Riesling.  The same applies to other varieties - Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Silvaner for example - but we'll confine our discussion to Riesling, as that's the key German variety and it keeps things simpler to explain.

What's often called traditional German wine isn't dry.  This is a stylistic choice designed to balance against the extremely high acidity of Riesling grown in such a marginal climate (the variety is naturally high in acidity to start with anyway, but particularly so in Germany).  Consequently the fermentation is arrested before going through to completion, resulting in a naturally sweet wine of relatively low alcohol.  The sugar takes the edge off the rapier acidity and the result can be a wonderfully balanced drink with refreshingly low alcohol.  There are different categories of these wines, classified according to how late the harvest is, resulting in ever richer, sweeter and more expensive wines as you go up through the styles (we'll save the details of these amazing wines for another time).

Consequently, when a German producer makes dry Riesling (with all the sugar fermented into alcohol), they nearly always mark it as such, as it's not the norm.  Trocken simply means dry in German and there you have it.  As vineyard practices and tastes change producers are finding it increasingly possible to harvest riper grapes that can handle being fermented through to dryness without being overly tart.  What's key to understand though, is that these wines are austere, with high acidity and really stark minerality.  Rich, soft, round and peachy they most certainly are not.  They're food wines.

So, how about the wines I bought then.  Well, for an interesting comparison I bought three similarly priced wines, all between £13 and £14, from three different classic regions; the Mosel, the Rheingau and the Nahe.

The first one I tried was wine from the Nahe, a lesser-known region that's producing excellent Rieslings to rival the great wines of the more famous Mosel and Rheingau regions.  It was a Riesling Trocken 2009 from the producer Von Racknitz.  It was very dry, with crisp acidity, excellent structure and good balance.  With the distinctive Riesling smell of petrol (it sounds odd, but is lovely and very characteristic of the variety, though normally in older bottles), the flavour had citrus notes with a full mid-palette and a long finish.  A lovely wine that needs a grilled fish to go with it.

Next up was the Mosel wine, which was called Steiler Süden Riesling (not marked trocken on the front lable this one, but it was dry) from the producer Altmann.  It was a 'natural wine', a growing movement that doesn't have a specific definition, but is all about minimal grape handling, minimum intervention, using natural yeasts instead of commercial yeasts and, most markedly and controversially, using as little sulphur dioxide (SO2) as possible, indeed sometimes none at all.  Parking the SO2 for a minute, the aims of the movement are absolutely admirable and there are increasing numbers of really excellent and interesting 'natural' wines coming onto the market.  However, the SO2 issue is tricky.  SO2 is an antioxidant, which is a good thing, but it does pong of rotten eggs and struck matches when used to excess (which used to be a big problem), although that smell tends to dissipate after a bottle has been open for a short while.  In the past lazy winemakers would use huge amounts of SO2 to cover up their poor practices.  At high levels it starts to get really noticeable and mask the character of the wine.  Not good.  So Keeping SO2 to a minimum is clearly a good idea and winemakers generally use less these days as winemaking practices improve.  However, having none at all in my experience can result in a very particular oxidised style that becomes more marked than the actual characteristics of the varieties or the terroir.  I've had a couple of bottles recently that really highlighted this.  One was a Sancerre I had at the excellent natural wine bar Terroirs and the other was this Steiler Süden Riesling.  Now the grape varieties are completely different (Riesling vs Sauvignon Blanc), the locations are totally different (the Loire Valley vs the Mosel Valley), but the wines tasted eerily similar - incredibly similar - basically tasting of slightly fizzy cider!  I couldn't find any varietal or location character in either.  For me, this results in the ethos getting in the way of the wine.  Well, natural wine is a big subject and certainly an extremely interesting development, but it also clearly has issues.  Anyway, I've got to be honest here, this wine wasn't for me.  If I wanted a bottle of cider (which I don't) I would have bought one, but I wanted and bought a bottle of German Riesling!  Oh well.

The final bottle was the example from the Rheingau.  It was bottle of Riesling Trocken 2010 from the grower Peter Jakob Kühn.  Well I'm glad to say this was a great wine, of comparable quality to the first.  It had a hint of spritzy prickle to it, was very dry, but surprisingly soft with it and not too austere, yet it was also perfectly crisp on the palette.  It had green apple and citrus characteristics with a streak of mineraly running through it.  It was also very long, leaving a lovely taste in my mouth a good two minutes after taking a sip.  Less austere than the Von Racknitz wine it didn't need a grilled fish to go with it - it was a very friendly accompaniment to some antipasti of olives, cheese and salami.  Delicious.

Well, although the cider style natural Riesling wasn't for me, I still applaud The Winery for stocking a diverse range of Rieslings from small growers, though perhaps that particular bottle should be sold with a warning! I hugely enjoyed both the other Rieslings and will be going back there for more of them.

Directory - All wines from The Winery, Maida Vale, London
Von Racknitz Nahe Riesling Trocken £12.99
Altmann 'Steiler Süden' Mosel Riesling Trocken £13.99
Winehaus Kühn Rheingau Riesling Trocken £12.99


  1. Thanks for a most interesting posting Hugo.
    I'm very fond of the best German Riesling and will certainly try the Winehaus Kuhn Trocken without delay.
    Whilst you mention the relatively low alcohol in these wines, I don't think you actually mentioned the % shown on the labels. I would be grateful if you could follow up with this.
    Best wishes, Oswald White

  2. Thanks for that Oswald. Yes, even when fermented fully dry, German Rieslings tend to have lower alcohol that most other dry white wines due to a couple of simple reasons:
    a) Riesling isn't naturally high in sugars (and hence alcohol) compared to many other varieties
    b) Germany has a very marginal climate for viticulture, so the harvested grapes have less sugar in them than elsewhere

    With the 'traditional' not-dry wines of Germany, this low alcohol is then taken much further by the fact that the fermentation is arrested before all the sugars are turned to alcohol, leaving wines anywhere from 6.5% to about 11%, depending on how ripe the grapes were when harvested and how early the fermentation was arrested.

    With the trocken wines however (the subject of this post), the wines are fermented through to dryness, so they aren't in the low alcohol style of the sweeter German wines. Having said that, they are still usually lower in alcohol than most other dry white wines from around the world due to the reasons given above (variety and climate). The wines in this article were all about 12.0%, which is light for a dry wine, certainly by today's standards.