Somewhere Over the Rhine: Riesling
Toledo, Ohio is know for a number of things: The Toledo Mud Hens and Tony Packo’s, being two. What many may not know, is that Toledo is home to an amazing collection of art glass housed in the Toledo Museum of Art. The museum is located in Toledo’s Old West End, which annually hosts a festival with tours of homes and mansions built during the Industrial Revolution, including the former home of Toledo glass pioneer and museum benefactor, Edward Drummond Libbey. I’ve never seen the entire glass exhibition, but Joe tells me it is indeed remarkable. While attending the Old West End festival one year, I sat in the fabulous Peristyle theatre, a 1710-seat Greek Revival-style hall, for a concert by Over The Rhine (OtR). OtR takes its name from the 150-year old Cincinnati neighborhood Over-the-Rhine where the band got its start. Founded by German immigrants, the area is thought to be one of the largest intact urban historic districts in the United States.
OtR’s Karin Bergquist’s voice is hauntingly sweet at times, and at others smoky and soulful, singing lyrics penned with undertones of political and social commentary reminiscent of German Cabaret in the Weimar Republic. Speaking of the Rhine (Rhein), it’s also one of the longest rivers in Europe, flowing not only through Germany, but from the Alps of Switzerland west to The Netherlands with numerous tributaries. The Rhine is connected via canal to the Danube which runs through Austria eventually to the Black Sea through Romania.
The Rhine region is associated with the grape variety most grown in Germany as well as the Alsace region of France, the Riesling. There are also significant plantings of Riesling in Austria, Luxembourg, northern Italy, Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada, South Africa, China and Ukraine. Early references to the grape begin in the 15th century, long thought to originated with wild vines in the Rhine. More recently, DNA fingerprinting by Ferdinand Regner indicated that one parent of Riesling is Gouais Blanc, known to the Germans as Weißer Heunisch, which was brought to Burgundy from Croatia by the Romans.
Not All Rieslings are Created Equal
When you mention Riesling, many will say “Oh, I don’t really like sweet wines, ” assuming all wines labeled Rieslings are sweet. However, Riesling can fall anywhere on the spectrum from bone dry to an intensely-concentrated sweetness, with variances in between. Riesling is one of the varietals most determined by its terroir, and wines can differ in their level of alcohol by volume. Many of the classic German semisweet version are 8% alcohol by volume or less, while newer, dryer Alsace and Austrian Rieslings are around 12%. Riesling can also be designated by various styles. The styles do not necessarily represent the sweetness of wine, but the quality and levels of sugar in the grapes when they were picked.
A glossary at The Riesling Report provides information on the six German Prädikat styles:
Kabinett. The first of the Prädikat wines in Germany. This is typically the lightest and most delicate style that an estate will produce. Kabinett is made from normally ripe grapes and no chapalization is allowed. In a region like the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Kabinett will be quite light and delicate, indeed, often with just seven to eight percent alcohol.
Chaptalization refers to the process of adding sugar to the must to increase potential alcohol and thus, the body of a wine. The process is not allowed in Prädikat wines, but can often be used in an estate’s basic wine (QbA).
Spätlese. [SHPAYT-lay-zeh] German for “late-harvested.” Spätlese is the second of the six Prädikat quality levels in Germany. Spätlese has more richness and body than Kabinett because the grapes are allowed to ripen for an extra week or more. Once harvested, the wine can be fermented fruity (lieblich), half-dry (halbtrocken) or dry (trocken), depending on the preferences of the winemaker.
Auslese. [OWS-lay-zuh] A German word that means “selected from the harvest.” This is the Prädikat level for overripe, late-harvested grapes that are selected cluster by cluster. Often made in the fruity style with residual sweetness, Auslese is considered by most winemakers to be their finest achievement (aside from the rare dessert wines). Top winemakers often make several Auslese from different selections based on botrytis levels. In this case, the wines are distinguished by AP Number, by gold and long gold capsules or by stars after the vineyard name, depending on the winemaker’s preference.
Beerenauslese/BA. [BEAR-en-ows-lay-zuh] Adding on to the word Auslese in that inimitable German orthographic style, this means “berry selection.” Beerenauslese is a rare dessert wine made from extremely overripe grapes that are fully affected by the botrytis mold. The grapes are selected one berry at a time!
Eiswein. [ICE-vine] Quite literally, ice wine. One of the rare Prädikat dessert wines, made from overripe grapes that have frozen solid on the vine. They are harvested quickly and pressed while still frozen, so that only concentrated grape juice is extracted. Most of the water stays in the press as ice, so the resulting wine is very concentrated, but with vibrant, racy acidity.
Trockenbeerenauslese/TBA. [TRAW-ken BEAR-en OWS-lay-zeh] Germany’s greatest and rarest dessert wine, and the last of the six Prädikat levels. Trocken (dry) here refers to the individually selected berries, which have been completely shriveled by the botrytis mold. It does not refer to the taste of the wine, which is quite the opposite of trocken. The minimum must weight for TBA is 150 Oechsle/33.9 Brix.
Weingut Scloss Saarstein for TasteLive!
This month TasteLive! (formerly Twitter Taste Live) features Wines of Germany. We joined TasteLive! for a Weingut Schloss Saarstein sampling of three wines sent to us gratis for the event; a 2007 Saastein Riesling (QbA), 2007 Riesling Kabinette and the 2007 Schloss Sarstein Riesling Spätlese.
The Saarstein estate sits on the Saar River, a tributary of the Mosel, which also runs off the Rhine, as part of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Christian and Andrea Ebert own and manage the estate with Christian as winemaker and Andrea in charge of marketing. The vineyards of the estate are steep and located along the river, which allows morning fog to cool the grapes for a slow, healthy maturation.
2007 Saarsten Riesling QbA
The first selection for our tasting was a typical QbA Riesling, with apple and citrus flavors, slightly floral with a bit of sweetness to balance the flint and minerality. Pairings suggested by the winemaker include sweet-and-sour or spicy Asian, Indian and Mexican cuisine. TasteLive! participants saw this wine as a perfect complement to Thai food and Sushi. Priced at under $15, this 88-point Wine Spectator rated Riesling is a great value.
Given the Wines of Germany event was the very next day after another TasteLive! event, we didn’t have much time to plan. But Joe managed to prepare a German-style meal that was ready just as the event began. Dinner included lightly-breaded pork cutlets with a wine/beef reduction; potatoes with sour cream, dill and bacon; and green beans with caramelized onions and homemade spätzel, pictured above.
2007 Schloss Saarstein Riesling Kabinett
Just 600 cases of this 90-point Wine Spectator rated Riesling were produced. The grapes for this Kabinette grew in the heart of the steep Saarstein site, a 60-degree slope of Blue Devon slate. Aromas of pear and kiwi, with flavors of peach, a bit of grapefruit and pebble slate. Balanced, with a long finish. With an ABV of only 8.5% this is an easy pairing with light Asian salads, but wasn’t dwarfed by our hearty German fare. Priced under $25, this light and delicate Riesling promises to be drinkable through the next 10 years.
2007 Schloss Saarstein Riesling Spätlese
Joe immediately reached for this wine first, as the TasteLive! folks got started. The nose is honey, strawberry and apricot on this classic Riesling Spätlese produced from the estate’s 66-year-old vines. Perfect alone, or with pate’ and cheeses, it earned 91 points from Wine Spectator and 92 from Wine Enthusiast. It was our favorite of the three as a stand alone, and we wish we had an extra bottle to cellar to maturity. But with only 400 cases made, we doubt there will be many left by the time 2030 rolls around. With ABV at only 8%, it would be easy to drink a glass or three and still be able to recite our ABCs backwards. At only $29, it’s still a great value, especially given the potential for cellaring.
Stay tuned as we look at other Rieslings, including dryer styles from Austria also known for production of Grüner Veltliner.