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The Fate of Sweet German Rieslings, and a Reply From David Schildknecht

2011 October 21
by Mike

As some of you know, my wine column was among the casualties of the recent budget cuts at Slate. I had several pieces in the pipeline when I learned the bad news, and Slate agreed to run them. The first of the remaining articles, about the fate of sweet German Rieslings, was posted on Wednesday. One of the people cited in the story was David Schildknecht, who covers Germany for the Wine Advocate. Apart from Terry Theise, I don’t know anyone who is more knowledgeable about German wines than David, with whom I correspond periodically by email. When I saw in my inbox yesterday afternoon that there was a message from David, I braced myself for what I figured would be a sentence-by-sentence dissection of my article (I suspect I’m not the only wine writer who approaches the subject of German Rieslings with great caution precisely because David is out there and will let you know when he thinks you erred!). His critique wasn’t quite that exhaustive, but it was close, as you can see below.

In my email reply, I told David that I thought he was being a little persnickety. I stated in the article, for instance, that German drinkers turned away from sweet Rieslings in the 1970s and 80s; David said that it was really only in the 1970s that German tastemakers started pushing the idea of dry Rieslings. That may be so, but I wasn’t talking about when journalists and critics began championing dry wines; I was talking about when German consumers made the move from sweet to dry, and this was a trend that unfolded over two decades (and as David noted in his email, it was only in the late 1980s that trocken Riesling attained majority status on restaurant wine lists in Germany). David also took issue with my claim that Germans acquired a “raging thirst” for sweet Rieslings in the period immediately following World War Two; he said it didn’t happen until the 1960s. When I checked with Terry Theise, he pegged it to the first years after the war, as did Stephen Brook in his opus The Wines of Germany. As I said, I think David was straining to find fault, but you can decide for yourself.

Amid the quibbling, however, David offered some wonderful information that speaks to his expertise on this topic; his comments regarding kabinetts were particularly illuminating. For this reason, I asked if it would be okay to publish his email, and David kindly agreed. Here it is:

There is certainly some exaggeration in the premise – since (as you adumbrate in the course of the article) it’s really the collective export markets (including especially the Swiss and Japanese, but also the U.K. and some of the Scandinavian countries … and, to the small extent they are now importing German wine, the French and Italians of all folks) that are keeping residually sweet German Riesling from extinction. But I am the least likely to complain (about this exaggeration, I mean)!

“[R]aging thirst for [sweet] rieslings, a fact that is generally attributed to postwar sugar rationing, which had the paradoxical effect of giving Germans an insatiable sweet tooth”
is a more questionable exaggeration. The so-called “sweet wave” really didn’t begin in earnest until the 1960s, and denizens of the wine growing regions themselves largely continued to “drink dry.” In a way, one needs to view the residents of the rest of Germany as another “export market” for German-grown Riesling, and residually sweet wines – especially cheap ones from coops and negociants – definitely caught on in that market during the ’60s and early ’70s, especially in northern Germany. But Germany (and I speak from my experience there as a student in the early ’70s as well as my experience as a wine merchant and writer from the early ’80s on) really only became a nation of wine-drinkers devoted to a common style during the 1990s, and then under the banner of Trockenheit.

“But in the 1970s and ’80s, German drinkers soured on sweetish Rieslings. It was during this period that Germany saw a proliferation of French-influenced restaurants, and consumers demanded dry wines.”
Really it was only in the 1970s that self-proclaimed gurus of good taste and wine etiquette like Graf Matuschka and Hamburg journalist Mario Scheuermann began promoting the notion that to be good let alone to “go with” cuisine German Riesling had to be dry. But that took a while to catch on. There were dry wines chez Matuschka (Schloß Vollrads) all along. But, for example, the first wine to be labeled “trocken” at Schloß Reinhartshausen was a 1971, and then only because it accidentally started re-fermenting in bottle and was repatriated and allowed to finish up in tank before re-bottling! Only in the late ’70s did the best-known estates in Germany’s Riesling-growing regions start to offer a really wide assortment of wines labeled “trocken” and only in the late 1980s did trocken Riesling  (outside of the Mosel and Saar) reach majority status on most lists.

“[T]here are now numerous excellent dry German rieslings on the market” is a statement unfortunately bound to mislead. I mean, it suggests that if pay attention, you’ll find some marketed someplace. In fact, not just in Germany but also in  European countries that I didn’t except above, German Riesling is both more popular today than it ever was, and represented almost entirely by dry wine. And it is the rare top-flight German Riesling grower (other than among Mosel and Saar growers where there are numerous exceptions) who does not export to the U.S. at least two or three trocken Rieslings, while many are represented in U.S. markets by easily a half dozen different dry Rieslings a year. What’s more, there are important importers such as Magellan, Mosel Wine Merchant, and Sussex the majority of whose portfolios are trocken (or nearly so).

“… 2001[s] … generated enormous excitement and … created an ardent American following for the likes of JJ Prüm, Dönnhoff, JJ Christoffel, Loosen, Fritz Haag, and other great German growers.”
Prüm had a cult-like following in the U.S. throughout the ’70s and was still in the ’80s (along with Egon Müller and a few other less-distinguished estates that were prominent ever since Frank Schoomaker chose to promote them) an iconic, go-to “green bottle” Riesling for the U.S. Rudi began importing the wines of J.J. Prüm (as he still does) in order to help bring attention to his portfolio of at that time less well-known growers. He took lower margins on and had his only non-exclusive contract to represent Prüm’s wines, for that reason. (It’s still – and with one brief exception always has been – the sole estate Rudi doesn’t represent exclusively.)

“Theise told me that the only reason most of his producers continue to make sweetish rieslings is because he keeps buying them—if he were to stop tomorrow, they would very likely cease production of these wines and turn out nothing but trocken bottlings.”
Whatever precisely Terry said, I’m sure the above is on the face of it an exaggeration. If you abstract from the Mosel (in which, however, 11 of Terry’s 28 agencies are located) and abstract from nobly sweet (“dessert”) wines that are nowadays considered respectable by Germany’s Trockenfanatiker, then I could rescind my skepticism.

That “Kabinetts are the most versatile of the fruity rieslings” would have elicited a mere quibble from me a decade ago, but as things stand now I really think this statement will inadvertently mislead. I would once only have quibbled because we don’t see in the U.S. the many dry Pfalz Rieslings of 13-14% alcohol that were and still are labeled “Kabinett.” But today, things have changed. There  is a concerted effort by several local VDP chapters – in some instances already successful – to eliminate the use of the term “Kabinett.” And even outside of the VDP as well as among growers who still have some sympathy and customers for residually sweet Rieslings, many are simply dropping the Prädikat Kabinett from their lists and labels, even if they are still rendering a wine stylistically identical to those they once labeled as “Kabinett.”  In fact, if you restrict yourself to Kabinett in the U.S. market, you’ll really be limited to the Mosel, a very few wines of the Nahe or Mittelrhein, plus a few wines from other regions that are represented by Terry. Among other things, that means off-dry Kabinett is de facto limited almost exclusively to variations on slate soil. Not that I would ever speak ill of slate (!), but as you adumbrated, Riesling is known for its ability to reflect a diversity of soils  Even in my beloved Saar, for instance, you won’t find a single Riesling labeled “Kabinett” at three of my favorite addresses – Lauer, Loch, and Weber – though you will find some superb, off-dry, alcoholically light Rieslings. Nor will you find one at emerging Weingut Vols. And at von Volxem they just re-introduced an off-dry Kabinett but it’s not up to their usual quality. In a sign of the times, Eymael (Pfeffingen) just told me that their long-time (evidently once-) fast-selling off-dry Kabinett has been dropped from Wiest’s portfolio at the latter’s request. And Klaus-Peter Keller – a devotee of sweet Kabinett – is being told by his local VDP cell that he can either label one of his top wines in this style after the great Pettental vineyard in which it’s grown OR he can label it “Kabinett,” but not both. The Rheingau VPD has elected to retain “Kabinett,” but mostly because “Cabinet” (the approbative term cooped; persuasively-and-unrecognizably-redefined; and banned by Germany’s 1971 Wine Law) was coined in the Rheingau and used for more than two centuries. The sort of wine Rheingauer bottle under that name however looks likely to remain almost entirely trocken.

There’s a reason – beside hoping to clarify certain points for you – why I harp on “Kabinett.” It’s this. I claim one of the fundamental laws of marketing that German growers and especially the VDP repeatedly and foolishly violate is “don’t destroy equity.” (“Don’t fix what isn’t broken” is violated even more often.) “Kabinett” still has resonance in the U.S. And it still sells as a concept inside Germany, too, albeit for dry wines. I agree there’s something awkward about that conceptual schizophrenia. But I am trying to convince German growers is that they should save “Kabinett” as a term for alcoholically light wines, period – regardless of their level of residual sugar. You may recall that I have as much of a problem with the alcoholic effects of insisting on Trockenheit as I do with the disrespect and ignorance that such insistence demonstrates toward the downright magical balance Riesling can achieve with residual sugar. Ridiculously, many German growers (including most of the VDP magnates and virtually all Pfalz and Rheinhessen growers) are set to become the very last wine folk on earth who still believe that “bigger is better” and to in the process make fools of themselves outside their own borders. Meanwhile, the world is clamoring for lower-alcohol wines, something few other countries can supply whether dry or sweet, much less supply at levels of quality comparable to what can be achieved in Germany. I suggest one consider 11.5% alcohol as a cut-off because even most Muscadet is nowadays over 11.5%; though I appreciate arguments growers have countered this suggestion with, that 12% would be better (the same limit set for Federspiel in the Wachau). Would I like to see an upper bound for residual sugar in the Kabinett category? Much speaks for that, but the issue is moot since such a limit will never be accepted. The most one might be able to achieve is to promote alcoholic lightness. My huge beef with the Germans can be summarized as “when are you finally going to stop trying to show the rest of the word what ‘we too‘ can do and start celebrating (or at the very least, respecting) what ‘only we‘ can do?” Imagine the marketing opportunity when and if wine lovers around the world started asking growers from every place but the Mosel and Rhine basins “Why can’t you make some refreshing, light, elegant wines like German Kabinetts?” And these other growers, should they try to comply, will have to harvest unripe grapes or invest in de-alc. If you like this notion perhaps you can pass it on to any German growers you meet.

Cheers,

David

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  38. Kent Benson permalink
    November 11, 2011

    Mike,

    I enjoyed both your article and David’s reply. I only lament that it is so seldom made clear to consumers that the Prädikat levels are not necessarily indications of residual sugar in finished wines. Too often consumers think of them as sweet, sweeter and sweetest, when in fact all Grosses Gewächs wines must be at least Spätlese level at harvest, yet no more than 0.9% residual sugar in the bottle. What’s more, most Grosses Gewächs producers typically consider there finest achievement to be their trocken Auslese.

  39. October 29, 2011

    Jurgen,

    Thanks for stopping by. I agree–it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, and there is certainly no “right” answer here. But I think people like David and Terry are concerned that things have moved too far in one direction in Germany, and that the fruity style is now an endangered species. Let’s just hope that the demand here in the US and in those other key export markets remains strong and can continue to help sustain this style.

  40. Jürgen Steinke permalink
    October 29, 2011

    I had an exchange of opinions with David and Terry about this topic from time to time. I really don´t see that most of the best German estates stopped producing sweet Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese. Prüm, Egon Müller, Dönnhoff, Schäfer Fröhlich and so forth have a big portfolio of sweet wines.

    It is true that Grosses Gewächs are successful recently with moderate levels of residual sugar (but still not totally dry). I really have hard times to understand why Germany should focus on producing sweet Riesling. Many consumer in central Europe prefer a dryer style (not bone dry). Germany had very good vintages even in the norther areas over the last 10 years and the global warming has an effect. It is easier to pick fully ripe fruit and therefore the dry wines are not for masochists only.

    I do understand that some people prefer the sweet version of German Riesling. If the producer are wise they give that group of consumer what they want. But please – the other part of wine lover who prefer a style like Grosses Gewächs i.e. has exactly the same right to get what they want. As long as both styles do exist I see no reason for complaints.

    Nobody should try to give lectures what good taste is. Not the one nor the other group. When it comes to personal taste there is no right or wrong but just opinions.

  41. October 23, 2011

    David gave a very interesting speech a year ago in Hattenheim at the 1. International Riesling Symposium http://schiller-wine.blogspot.com/2010/11/david-schildknecht-rieslings-gobal.html The German version of the speech was posted on schiller-wine.

  42. Tran Bronstein permalink
    October 22, 2011

    Mike,

    Thanks for the article and the reply from David. I am a huge fan of German Riesling and would be very sorry to see the lower alcohol sweet wine styles become extinct, as I adore Spatleses and Ausleses and am interested in trying sweeter Kabinetts.

    There truly are no other wines like these on the market and the Germans have turned me into a complete Riesling convert. What a terrible thing it would be to lose these unique wines. I am in complete agreement with David on his point that Germans should celebrate what they have accomplished with their unique Riesling wines rather than snub their own noses at it.

    Interestingly, a similar situation is occurring here in Canada. A number of local Niagara wineries have informed me that they will no longer make icewine due to the fact that Canadians seem to have turned against it and are not buying it. It is only international sales that are keeping the product alive and only larger wineries that can afford to do business abroad are bothering to make it.

    Ironically, and I am merely speculating here, I could see a situation where if German sweet wines really do disappear altogether, it would open the door for Canadian late harvest Rieslings to take over the market for sweeter Rieslings. That would be one heck of an interesting conundrum if it were to ever develop.

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