If your immediate reaction to the mention of German Riesling is to scrunch your nose up and sneer, then it’s high time you reacquainted yourself with what German wines are all about. Just for a moment, set aside your prejudices on saccharine sweet Blue Nun Riesling.
Germany is actually one of the world’s top producers of elegant white wines known for refined delicacy and distinct clarity. And that’s not just my own opinion. Ask any studied sommelier and you’ll find that just about all of them have developed a heartfelt love for Riesling. Take June Rodil for example.
The former beverage director at Congress restaurant, who is joining Top Chef Paul Qui as general manager of his new restaurant, Rodil is a die hard Riesling fan. In fact, you can often find her sipping what she fondly refers to as “angel’s tears” in her free time with friends — even if they’re all throwing back Pearl beer in a can.
“I love Riesling! It’s just beautiful,” says Rodil, who practically gushes when describing her admiration for the grape. “It’s one of the most versatile white grapes out there that gives you styles from sparkling wine to completely dry, off dry, totally sweet, ice wine, and refined dessert wines. They just make your mouth water and finish with this mineral-y texture that’s just so energizing.”
But to Rodil, it’s more than just the textural elements that make Riesling so appealing, it’s the level of complexity as well.
“Rieslings are so ethereal to me. In most white wines you get only a few notes of fruit or floral characteristics. It’s either lemons and limes, or soft, citrus-y oranges, or apples and pears, or tropical fruit — depending on which grape it is,” says Rodil. “But with Riesling, it’s possible to detect all of those things. You can have kaffir lime with Bosch pears, a pinch of melon and a note of passion fruit, lychee, tarragon and even white flowers.”
The best examples of these Rieslings come from the Mosel wine region of Germany, which in terms of importance, is like the Napa Valley of the country. And while Riesling certainly reigns supreme as the dominant grape of Germany, there are actually quite a few more grapes that produce spectacular wines as well. Both white and red.
I recently took a trip to the southwest part of Germany where most of the country’s wine is produced. And while my travels didn’t take me through the Mosel region, I did get to capitalize on wines in other important wine regions such as the Rheingau, the Rheinhessen and Baden-Wurttemberg.
Before leaving, I asked Rodil to clue me in on a few pointers for these regions. What to expect of the wines, what grapes to look for, and any producers I should pay attention to.
“For a wine professional, the Mosel is the ‘go-to’ region — it’s the mother ship. But you’ll be seeing what’s happening in the next chapter of German wine in these other regions. They’re all producing wine that are getting more exposure on the international market and you’ll probably be able to taste some things that we can’t even get in the States. Once you get into these wines, you'll be hooked for life.”
Armed with a little bit of her expert guidance, I managed to sip my way confidently through my German wine excursion.
My first stop was in the little village of Rüdesheim in the Rheingau region. If you didn’t know you were about to visit a wine region, the expansive landscape of vineyards that blanket the entirety of the sloping hillsides that surround the town would certainly clue you in.
Though the Rheingau produces a great number of wines along the varying ripeness levels by which Riesling wines are made, the predominant trend has been to craft primarily dry wines for the growing consumer market that prefers this style. This region is a wine tourist’s dream, as you’ll easily find a concentration of fine wine estates within a few miles of each other.
Among the top wineries to visit Schloss Vollrads for its impeccable library of Riesling — particularly from their grand cru (erstes gewachs) vineyards — and Schloss Johannisberg, both of which are very famous castle/wine estates boasting more than 900 years of winemaking in the region. For a more modern take on Rheingau wines, the Weingut Ankermühle restaurant serves a world-class menu of contemporary cuisine along with a diverse portfolio of both traditional and modern style wines.
Just a short ferry ride across the river from Rüdesheim is the town of Bingen. From the ferry, you can catch panoramic views of the handful of medieval castles that stand as historic watchtowers along the river bends. At this point, you’ve officially left the Rheingau and have entered the Rheinhessen, which is Germany’s largest wine producing region. While it certainly churns out the largest production of wine, the vast majority of it is lower quality table wine. Though you can still find some amazing artisan wines as well.
Riesling is only a small fraction of the wine produced in the Rheinhessen. One of the more commonly associated wines here is Liebfraumilch, a mild, often sweet style of table wine primarily made from a blend of Müller Thurgau and Riesling. Also popular are light-bodied red wines made from the Dornfelder grape. Notable producers include Weingut Hemmes and Weingut Peter Ewen.
This is also a large wine region, if not in wine production, then in sheer geographic size. Comprising the entire southwest corner of Germany, Baden encompasses a wide diversity of wines, and throughout the region, you find a whole host of towns — Freiberg, Heidelberg, Stuttgart — that celebrate the great wines of the area. Similar to the Rhinehessen, this area is known less for its high quality wines and more for quaffable table wines such as the slightly sweet Müller Thurgau and Trollinger, a light-bodied red wine known for its notes of sour cherry.
As you stretch out into the countryside for a better glimpse at this southwest portion of the country, you can stop at various wine towns such as Grantschen (about 24 miles north of Stuttgart), home to Grantschen Weine, a wine cooperative making wine from a group of about two dozen grape growers. While Grantschen does make Riesling, it is more known for powerful red wine blends made primarily from Lemberger, a rich, complex red grape also known as Blaufränkisch.
The peak of the entire trip turned out to be my last couple of nights, the first of which was spent at the luxurious Wald & Schlosshotel Friedrichsruhe, a five-star boutique resort and spa nestled in the rolling hills of the Hohenlohe region within Baden-Wurttemberg. We dined at its Michelin Star-rated gourmet restaurant serving contemporary European cuisine expertly paired with wines from noted sommelier Jochen Benz. Benz pulled out all the stops in serving a seven-course meal with regional wines, including a special Elderflower sparkling wine made from a nearby local artisan.
The next morning I woke up in a spacious room in the hotel’s 18th century castle, or schloss, that was once used by Count Friedrich II as a hunting lodge and summer residence. We made our way through a leisurely breakfast before packing up and heading to our last stop in Heidelberg, perhaps one of the most romantic towns in all of Europe. Nestled in a narrow valley beneath the grand ruin of a 14th century castle along the Neckar river, you’ll more likely find people drinking beer here than wine.
But it is home to The Der Europäischer Hof, a privately owned boutique hotel with a gourmet restaurant where I had perhaps one of the most memorable meals of my life. And it was all expertly paired with a strikingly wide array of German regional wines including a Dr. Bürkin Wolf Kabinett Riesling from the Pfalz region, a Graf Adelmann red wine blend of Lemberger, Pinot Noir and Dornfelder from Wurttemberg, and to top it off, a 1989 Eugen Wambsgamnss Trockenbeerenauslese dessert wine that tasted like liquid gold with each sip — truly the tears of angels.
There’s no question that you can more easily develop an appreciation for something simply by tasting it in its own native environment. The same is certainly true for German Riesling, as well as the vast number of other grapes making world class wine in the country.
Inspired by the June Rodil's passion for German wines, and the many other Austin-based sommeliers who echo her sentiments, I would urge you to be inspired, too. Step out of your comfort zone and discover German wines; they may just be the best kept secret in the world of wine.