How sweet it is … or isn’t
December 20, 2005
When most people think of German wines they think of sweet wines like Blue Nun. Well, it might surprise to you to know that most of Germany’s fine wines are not sweet, per say; they are dry wines or at least taste that way. German winemakers are said to have made sweeter wines during and after World War II to appeal to American G.I.s stationed there and also to appeal to the Germans themselves who where suffering from poor diets and craved sugar. But those days are long gone in Germany, and the wines produced today are some of the most beautiful and delicate white wines in the world. The fact that grapes can be grown at all is somewhat remarkable. Germany’s wine growing region lies at the northern most extreme of where grapes can ripen. At latitudes of 49 to 51 degrees, these vineyards are as far north as Mongolia and Newfoundland. Not only are they pushing the limits of ripeness, but most of the vineyards are grown on ridiculously steep hills. The German word for vineyard is Weinberg, literally translated as “wine hill.” At that latitude any sun exposure is important, and the warmth of the low-lying rivers coveted.
German wines are organized in a hierarchy based on how ripe the grapes were at harvest. This is not an arbitrary methodology and at this latitude, ripeness varies tremendously and the effects are profound. Winemakers will harvest grapes through several weeks, picking grapes at different levels of ripeness and producing a different wine from each selection. Remember, this ripeness is determined at harvest and does not reflect the sugar content of the final wine. Ripeness is under nature’s control; sweetness is under the winemaker’s control.There are a couple of easy guidelines to follow when selecting a German wine. Riesling is considered Germany’s greatest grape, though second in terms of production. This grape has remarkable finesse, elegance and aging potential. If the wine is labeled “troken,” this means it has been fermented dry, regardless of ripeness at harvest.
There are six QmP (Germany’s designation of quality wines with specific attributes) categories. The least ripe at harvest is a Kabinett, typically a light-bodied wine and the most food friendly. Spatlese, literally “late harvest,” are made from grapes that are riper and have greater intensity than Kabinett wines. Auslese wines are made from selected very ripe grapes, are harvested in select bunches and can only be made in the best years. Picking individual bunches means intense labor and that translates into an expensive wine. Beerenauslese literally means “berry picked.” These wines are incredibly labor intensive, are rare and can cost a fortune. These wines are infected by the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea, like Sauternes, giving the wine deep honey richness.The rarest wines from Germany are Trockenbeereanauslese (TBA), which is the sweetest and most expensive of all German wines. TBA is berry harvested when the grapes are raisins and affected by noble rot and are no more than 6 percent alcohol.
TBAs are absolutely mesmerizing in their intensity and price. Eiswein is made from very ripe grapes that have frozen naturally on the vine. The grapes are pressed and the concentrated juice separated from the water in the grapes, the ice. The wine is miraculously high in both sweetness and acidity. It is a heavenly experience. Susanne Johnston is the owner of Frisco Wine Merchant. For more information, contact her at (970) 668-3153.