This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
“Why are there no dry wines?” asked a crestfallen Joris Bjein, the sommelier of Andaz, the new incarnation of London’s Great Eastern Hotel, at Justerini & Brooks’ tasting of German 2007s last month. In response, Christoph Tyrell of Karthäuserhof in the Ruwer valley turned puce, pinched his lips, then let out an exasperated sigh. A few moments later I heard a mature lady in a floral dress, who might on the face of it be assumed to favour traditional, super-fruity German wines, observe sniffily, “we like our wines much drier”. She took a cautious sip of a Mosel Kabinett. “My goodness, it’s sweet again!” she said disapprovingly.
The following day at another presentation of the appealing German 2007s currently on offer, Armin Diel of Schloss Diel in the Nahe was more explicit about Britain’s extraordinarily skewed representation of German wine. “In Germany 90 per cent of the wines we sell are dry. We export our dry wines very successfully to Hong Kong, Japan, Scandinavia and now to the United States – but your colleagues are too conservative. Some of them won’t even taste them.”
It is a huge shame that such a tiny proportion of all the German wine imported into the UK is of the new dry style, typically labelled trocken (dry). There are still hundreds if not thousands of sumptuous fruity German wines but it is surely crazy not to offer the dry ones too – especially since it seems to me that some growers deliberately reserve their best fruit for the wines in which any shortcomings cannot be disguised with residual sugar.
Partly thanks to climate change, the quality of German Riesling fermented out to dryness has changed enormously for the better in the last 10 years or so. A century ago most German wine was fairly dry. After the second world war, when quantity not quality was the watchword, and when winemakers finally understood how to ensure that sweet wines would not re-ferment in bottle, the Germans began to send oceans of semi-sweet, bland, watery wines labelled Liebfraumilch and the like to nascent wine drinkers in countries such as the UK and the US. For a while they enjoyed huge commercial success with these halfway houses between soft drinks and real wine.
The first of the new wave of trocken wines launched in the late 1970s were a reaction to the prevailing tide of sweetness. Wine drinkers in Germany were taught that only bone-dry wines were sophisticated. Foreign palates, even the best-tutored ones, recoiled from the eye-watering austerity of these early dry wines. But since then the world has warmed up. German Riesling grown even as far north as the Mosel valley is now regularly so much riper than it used to be that acid levels are no longer painful. A typical dry Riesling from Germany is about 12% alcohol, medium bodied with no oak influence but real fruit and flavour counterbalanced by enough racy acidity to make the wine refreshing although not so much that it has to be covered up with sweetness.
Like their British counterparts, the traditional specialist importers of German wine into the US were slow to catch on to the special qualities of fully ripe German Riesling vinified dry. But they have finally been won over and have enjoyed enormous success selling these wines, especially to restaurants where the better sommeliers are adept at recommending their especially food-friendly qualities. In fact such has been American demand for Riesling that the Germans have had difficulty meeting it, and the price of American-grown Riesling grapes has risen in response. Riesling is once again fashionable in the US.
And in much of the wine drinking world there is a new generation whose perceptions of Riesling and Germany are unclouded by teenage memories of Niersteiner Gutes Domtal and Piesporter Michelsberg that taste like sugary dishwater. They were more likely to have broken their wine-drinking teeth on cheap Australian and California Chardonnay and so approach the rapidly widening range of styles and flavours available from Germany without any prejudice.
Another effect of warmer, longer summers in Germany has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of German red wines, particularly those made from the Pinot Noir grape they call Spätburgunder, which is now the country’s third most planted grape variety after Riesling and Müller Thurgau. I have also tasted very respectable Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon made in Germany, thanks to careful viticulture, low yields and skilful winemaking. The dedication of the younger generation of winemakers in Germany should not be under-estimated, even if, in the international wine media anyway, it is distinctly underexposed. Germany has never been very good at producing wine ambassadors. Erni Loosen of Bernkastel is arguably the best known German wine producer abroad, not least because he makes Rieslings for Washington state’s dominant wine producer Chateau Ste Michelle.
Until this year only two relatively small wine importers made any sort of speciality of dry German wines in the UK: German-born Iris Ellmann of The Wine Barn in Hampshire and David Motion of The Winery in London W9. But this year Justerini & Brooks did allow some Riesling trockens from the hugely gifted Klaus-Peter Keller of the Rheinhessen a corner of their tasting, described by their buyer as “our leap into the unknown south”. Their admittedly small allocation of Keller wines, which are admittedly of knockout quality and becoming more refined every year, sold out immediately.
Montrachet have sold Christmann’s dry wines successfully since 2004 but have not ventured further into dry territory. Sebastian Thomas of German specialist Howard Ripley introduced some dry wines in his German offer this year and reports that they have sold very well. He is particularly pleased to see restaurants taking on dry wines, as well he might. I hope that next year we will see a higher proportion of dry wines in the various offers of German 2008s in the UK and that more general wine merchants might even start to see their virtues.
Another brake on the acceptance of dry German wines in the UK however is that most specialist German wine importers make their offers of the new vintage around June, but the most ambitious dry wines, those which express a single superior vineyard and are labelled either Grosses Gewächs or Erstes Gewächs, may not be offered commercially before September, so we rarely see the crème de la crème of this exciting new wine category. Americans in this case may benefit from the tendency of US importers to be a little less precipitate than their British counterparts.
Fine dry German wine must represent some of the world’s best bargains. Below are those producers whose dry wines particularly impressed me among the 500-odd German 2007s I have tasted so far, although I have yet to taste many dry wines from the likes of Dönnhoff, for example, whose UK importer remains immune to the charms of Germany's new generation of dry wines.
See full tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCERS OF DRY GERMAN WINES
Acham Magin, Pfalz
Josef Biffar, Pfalz
A Christmann, Pfalz
Schloss Diel, Nahe
Freiherr Heyl zu Herrnsheim, Rheinhessen
Peter Jakob Kühn, Rheingau
Sybille Kuntz, Mosel
Josef Leitz, Rheingau
Georg Mosbacher, Pfalz
Villa Sachsen. Rheinhessen
St Antony, Rheinhessen
Emrich Schönleber, Nahe
Martin Tesch, Nahe
J L Wolf, Pfalz