Little-known grapes make divine wines


November 10, 1991|By Michael Dresser

CHEUREBE, GRAUBURGUNDER, Rieslaner, Albalonga -- what the devil are they?

a. Rare skin diseases indigenous to tropical South America.

b. The 1933 Front Four for the Notre Dame football team.

c. Fourteenth century Viennese stringed instruments.

d. None of the above.

The answer is d. All four are wine grapes grown in Germany. All four are so obscure that 95 percent of American wine enthusiasts have probably never heard of them. And all four are capable of making great wine.

That last part may come as a bit of a surprise. It's generally agreed that the riesling grape is the colossus of German wine, dominating the scene the way the sheer, vine-covered slopes rule over the most dramatic stretches of the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Even though riesling makes up only about 20 percent of Germany's vineyard plantings, "with very few exceptions, all Germany's best wines are made from it," writes Hugh Johnson.

That's true, but those often-ignored "few exceptions" are well worth considering. As great as riesling is, it is not the whole story of German wine. For the adventurous wine drinker, there are treasures to be found that rival the best riesling.

Now, scheurebe, grauburgunder, rieslaner and albalonga are hardly household words for even German wine enthusiasts. But each, given the proper site and fanatic care, is capable of rising to the occasion and producing magnificent wine.

The merits of these grapes and others were put on display recently when Terry Thiese, the premier importer of German wine, and David Schildknecht of Washington's Pearson's Liquors got together to stage a two-day marathon tasting of almost 200 German wines. Most of the wines were the product of the 1990 vintage -- the greatest year for German wine since 1971.

Rieslings accounted for most of the wines, and they were -- as reported after an earlier tasting this summer -- magnificent.

But only a few of the rieslings in the tasting could match the drama and complexity of the dry 1990 Grosskarlbacher Burgweg Scheurebe Spatlese Trocken from Lingenfelder ($15) or the lusciously sweet 1990 Mussbacher Eselshaut Rieslaner Beerenauslese ($41.99 for a half bottle), just to name two.

Many of these wines are rare and difficult to find. You're not likely to be able to run down to the corner store and walk away with a case of any of those producers named here. But it will pay to keep an open mind if you ever do run across wines made from the following varieties:

Scheurebe: This is one classy, distinctive grape variety. It can be innocuous or even offensive when underripe, but let it build up its sugars and it can yield a wine of astonishing intensity, whether it is fermented to dryness or left sweet.

The scheurebe -- most often found in the Rheinpfalz, Rheinhessen and the Nahe -- is distinguished by spicy, exotic aromas and flavors reminiscent of lime, kiwi and starfruit. In its dry (trocken or halbtrocken) form, it would overwhelm most delicate dishes, but it marries beautifully with some Asian cuisines that resist most other wines -- particularly curry.

Fine scheurebe is bold wine that takes no prisoners. Some will hate it, some will prize it above even riesling. Great producers include Muller-Catoir, Lingenfelder, Lotzbeyer and Neckerauer.

Grauburgunder: This grape of many names (rulander, Tokay d'Alsace) is best known as the pinot gris of Alsace, one of the world's great dry white wines. Poor versions are disgustingly flabby and short-lived, but in the hands of the incomparable Hans-Gunter Schwarz of Muller- Catoir in the Rheinpfalz, it can produce exceptional sweet wine of richness, depth and exotic tropical flavor. Lotzbeyer and Salm in the Nahe and P. von Ohler'sches in the Rheinhessen also produce fine dessert grauburgunder, though Lotzbeyer uses the name rulander.

Rieslaner: This extremely rare grape is a crossing of riesling and silvaner. It was developed in Franken, where it produces good wines such as the Casteller Kugelspiel Rieslaner Auslese (no price available) from Castell.

However, the rieslaner only achieves greatness at one estate in the world: Muller-Catoir. And how great it is! Muller-Catoir's rieslaners hold tenaciously to a fiendishly penetrating dry streak in even the sweetest trockenbeer enausleses (TBAs).

Rieslaner is a crossing of riesling and silvaner, but it tastes more like a blend of riesling, with its piercing acidity and steely structure, and the rare viognier grape of the Rhone, with its honeyed decadence and flavors of pear, peach, spice and marzipan.

How good is this wine? I have given fewer than a dozen perfect scores in my life, and four of them have been to Muller-Catoir rieslaners (including the 1990 Mussbacher Eselshaut TBA, $59 for a half bottle).

The only outlet for Muller-Catoir wines in Maryland is Elkton's State Line Liquors, which will ship wines in-state. In Washington, try Pearson's and Calvert-Woodley.

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