Auslese labelled wines are my favourite styles and can have some botrytis fruit which give hints of apricot and ripe stone fruit aromas.
FOR a long time in Australia we have been extolling the virtues of dry rieslings both in Australian wines as well as the dry German rieslings from producer organisation Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter Association (VDP) and especially their Grosses Gewachs (GG) wines. In bottle shops and on most wine lists, the traditional sweeter rieslings have been out of favour and are sometimes regarded as cheap and inferior wines. This is a throwback to the last century when the world was awash with Liebfraumilch, Piesporter and Niersteiner labels that were often made from the grape muller thurgau and not even riesling.
We have been conditioned to drink dry and inadvertently see it has an indication of quality in riesling. But when I give an off dry wine to a student it is always well received. They look at me for assurances and I imagine them asking: “Is it alright for me to like this?” It’s as though they are in the church confessional and I have to give my blessings on their minor transgressions and their secret desire for sweetness.
Germany is the home of sweeter styles of riesling. The grape ripens very late and therefore needs warm and sheltered sites that squeeze out the warmth going into late autumn and even winter. This is why the best wines in the Mosel are located on pure south or south east or south western facing slopes. The slate soils are beneficial in retaining the heat as well as allowing good drainage. They also help in getting the growth started in spring as these soils warm up quicker than, say, more dense clay soils. The proximity of the river also provides reflected sunlight on the vines that cling to the slopes. It is a special but very marginal place to grow grapes.
The rise of the dry wines in Germany has seen production of the traditionally sweet wines drop from 60 per cent of the market down to 30 per cent in the past decade. The names of these wine styles do not help consumers when ordering. Most sound foreboding; try ordering a J.J Prum Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel from the Mosel, for example. Under the German Pradikatswein classification wines are classified by their must weight at harvest and is measured in the oechsle scale.
In this classification system, Kabinett label wines are the lightest style with an acid balance that gives them aromas of green apple. They have anywhere between 20 and 40g/litre of residual sugar (RS). Next is Spatlese, a late harvest wine with more richness and body. These wines have around 40 to 60g/litre RS. Auslese labelled wines are my favourite styles and can have some botrytis fruit which give hints of apricot and ripe stone fruit aromas. Auslese are hand selected from fully ripe bunches and have between 60-120g/litre RS. The last three are clearly into the dessert style of riesling. First there is Beerenauslese (shortened to BA) – over-ripe grapes are individually picked (as opposed to bunches) and usually botrytis affected (known as edelfaule in German) are rich with apricot and dried fruit aromas (120-200g/l RS). Eiswein indicates they are made from frozen berries (picked at -6C to -8C), no botrytis here just purity of fruit and very rare and expensive (120-200g/l RS). Finally Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) are made from individual berry selection again, raisined and definitely botrytis affected (200g/l+RS).
The traditional labelling of German wines does not help the consumer to choose the right wine. One would expect all these styles to be sweet, but that is not the case. The perception of sweetness is dramatically altered by the level of acidity. This was demonstrated during an extensive tasting of the 2016 J.J Prum wines at Sydney’s Chin Chin restaurant this year. The previously mentioned Graacher Himmelreich Auslese wine was elegant and intense showing ripe stone fruit with racy acidity. The word “sweet” was not mentioned once in my notes. It was matched superbly with rotisserie pork belly with fennel pickle and the curiously named scud chilli death sauce. This proved that some of these so called sweet styles don’t match with dessert but do gloriously well at other parts of the meal.
In tasting through brackets from Kabinett through to Auslese the supposedly sweeter styles end up being dryer than the Kabinett because of the increase in acidity. What the extra ripeness achieves is more intensity, richness and power, and who minds that. There is of course a price difference between the categories and the Spatlese bracket came out on top with richness and concentration but at a lower price. While not as intense as the Auslesen wines they still were an excellent match with our steamed pork and prawn steamed dumplings. Aromas of these wines floated between red apple skins, floral and stone fruit. It’s the compound linalool that gives us the citrus and floral aromas in riesling. Linalool belongs to a group of compounds called monoterpenes. These compounds are found in citrus fruits and flowers. Other less important monoterpenes found in riesling are geraniol, which provides floral or rose petal aroma and lactone which produces lime aromas. These primary aromas fade over time and another controversial aroma compound called 1,6,-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronapthalene (or TDN) become dominant. TDN has chemical aromas of kerosene. Age in these rieslings can also bring out unusual aromas. We tasted a 2004 Berkasteler Johannisbrunnchen Eiswein that was intense with honey, marmalade and intensely sweet but surprising had the flavour of blackcurrant and even a sour acidic note on the finish.
While the majority of Australian riesling are still dry there is an increasing number being made with residual sugar. Winemaker John Hughes, for example, makes around 10 different styles of riesling under his Rieslingfreak label and some of these (such as his No5 and No8) have residual sugar and are made in a German style.