Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Rock the Riesling, Part 2: A Guide, a Test and The One

German wine labels tend to go into great detail about the contents in the bottle. Image courtesy of


I mentioned last week, since Rieslings have more shades, hues, and varieties than the political positions of defeated presidential candidate Mitt Romney, finding the right Riesling can be a daunting undertaking.

But it will be less so for those with a plan. Step 1: Go directly to the German section of the quality local wine store. Why? Two reasons. First, Germans have mastered the art of the Riesling. Period. There is absolutely no debate on this issue.

Second, ever the master systematicians, Germans have developed an outrageous and rigorously controlled classification of wines and mandated that extensive information appear on every wine label. Knowing how to read a German wine label transforms any novice wine dabbler into a Dionysian-level Riesling god at the next dinner party.

Step 2: Resist the temptation to run and shriek in terror upon viewing the encyclopedic label. Should the temptation prove too daunting, be sure to put the bottle down gently before dashing out the door. Breathe deeply. Return to store and find the salesclerk. (Proceed to Step 4 if consulting clerk.)

Step 3: Underneath the year (vintage), look for the term “Riesling.” If the label doesn't say Riesling in crisp clear terms, ignore. Proceed to the next bottle of German wine.

Step 4: Pull out the following Cheat Sheet. That's right. Cheat. This is not a test. Your homework will not be graded, but your choice of wine might be!

Tip #1 – Sure bet for a great German white wine: At the bottom of the label (or sometimes on the back), look for the term Prädikat. The same holds true for the term großes gewächs, or GG for short. Only wines of a certain caliber earn the designation Prädikat or großes gewächs. (If the vintage is older than 2007, look for Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, or QmP for short.)

Tip #2 – Relatively good bet for determining heft and sometimes sweetness. Right under or after the word Riesling will be one of the six terms: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).

All of these terms indicate when the grape was harvested, from earliest (Kabinett) to latest (TBA). In general, the later the harvest, the heavier, richer and sweeter the wine. Kabinetts tend to be the lightest and least sweet (driest).

While Dr. Loosen is a dessert Riesling, it is not treacly. It pairs well with appetizers, foie gras and desserts that feature fresh fruits. Image courtesy of

The last three, beginning with Beerenauslese, are dessert wines. Serious dessert wines. As in rot-the-teeth-in-your-mouth-so-sweet dessert wines. So let's lob these off, leaving us with the first three.

Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese are therefore the wines that pair excellently with appetizers and dinner. However, while Kabinetts tend to be least sweet (driest), any one of these three wines can be made in a variety of styles from very dry to semi-dry.

Tip #3 – Great tip for determining relative sweetness of dinner wines: Look for the word “trocken” (“dry” in German). If trocken does not appear, look for “Classic,” “Select” or any two words from the following: erste (or 1º), lage, großes or ewächs. Without getting into the where’s and why-for’s in German, these terms generally denote a higher quality wine and tend to be dry.

Not a fan of the driest wines for dinner? Not to worry. Keeping in mind that we've eliminated the dessert wines, look for “halbtrocken” – literally “half-dry”; they are also translated as “semi” or “off-dry.”

OK. So I lied. There is a test – actually more of a quiz – but it is an ungraded open-book one. Look at the images of German wine labels in this article. What indicates the quality of the wine? Its heft? Its sweetness? Notice that one is listed as a “Kabinett halbtrocken.” Although Kabinetts tend to be dry, this particular one is made in a sweeter style, or “off-Dry.” A Spätlese trocken would be drier than the Kabinett halbtrocken. See? A little practice is all that is needed.

The "GG" is an indicator that the Donnhoff is a quality Riesling. Image courtesy of

With cheat sheet in hand, find an example of a very dry, dry and medium dry, as well as a sweet Riesling. Gather a few friends and chill the wines while making appetizers or a nice dinner and dessert. Uncork, sip, and go around the room, exploring the smells and tastes. Consider whether they bring to mind other foods, spices or flowers.

There are no right answers, only many sensations. And then, only at the end, find the Riesling that’s right for you. Enjoy!

Next Up: Rock the Rieslings, Part 3: American Beauties

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