Exported German wines fall into two basic categories, qualitatswein (QbA) and qualitatswein mit pradikat (QmP). The QbA wines can have sugar added in the fermentation process; the QmP wines cannot. The QmP wines are generally superior, but there are excellent QbA wines.
There are five basic gradations of ripeness for QmP wines. In ascending order, they are kabinett, spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese; the last two are expensive rarities made in only the ripest vintages. Spatleses are usually mildly sweet and ausleses are usually dessert wines.
But ripeness does not always translate into sweetness. If a wine is made in a trocken (dry) or (halbtrocken) style, it will contain less sugar and more alcohol than a traditional German wine. Some heady but very tasty dry wines have been made in the "auslese trocken" style.
Among the most successful 1992 German rieslings tasted recently were the following:
* Kurt Darting Durkheimer Fronhof Riesling Spatlese. ($12). This intense, superconcentrated wine from the Pfalz (formerly Rheinpfalz) is testimony to the extraordinary commitment of this fine producer, known for low yields and a perfectionist approach. Lightly sweet, it is just stuffed with flavors of mineral, pear, marzipan and spice. Propping up this fruit salad of flavor is a spine of steel. Drink over the next five years.
* Toni Jost Bacharacher Hahn Riesling Kabinett ($13). Terry Theise's greatest accomplishment as an importer may be exposing the hoax that the Mittelrhein is a subpar wine region. In fact, Jost is a great Mittelrhein producer, and this is the kind of structured, stately, racy kabinett most fine Mosel producers wish they could have made in 1992. It transcends the vintage.
* Merkelbach Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spatlese Fuder No. 6 ($13). Usually Merkelbach's Erdener takes a back seat to its Urziger Wurzgarten, but not in 1992. This intensely flavorful, lightly sweet Mosel spatlese displays fine intensity, a silky texture and well-integrated flavors of honey, peach, pear and minerals.
* Karlsmuhle Lorenzhofer Riesling Halbtrocken ($9/liter). This big bottle of dry Mosel riesling shows just how good a QbA wine can be. With great length, fine mineral flavors and impeccable structure, it represents sensational value.
* Merkelbach Urziger Merkelbach Riesling Spatlese Fuder No. 10 ($13). This smooth, silky, spicy wine is a disappointment only by Merkelbach's high standards. The sweetness slightly obscures this superb Mosel vineyard's highly individual character, but this is one tasty wine.
* Heribert Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken ($12). This dry but not severe Mosel riesling is a beautiful window into the soul of this great Mosel vineyard. It has wonderful clarity, precision and structure.
* Selbach Zeller Schwartze Katz ($6.49). There are some better wines in the following group but they can't hold a candle to this one on price. Zeller Schwartze Katz is generally trashy wine, but the fine Selbach firm has fashioned a crisp, clean, appley wine that requires no apologies.
The following wines are pleasant but not exceptional:
* Merkelbach Urziger Merkelbach Riesling Auslese Fuder No. 16 ($16). A decent sweet wine that lacks Merkelbach's usual verve.
* Rapp Ebernburger Schlossberg Riesling Spatlese ($13). Plump and pleasant, but no more.
* Prinz von Hessen Johannisberger Klaus Riesling Kabinett ($15). A solid, typical Rheingau kabinett.
* Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Kabinett ($11). A pleasant, soft Mosel wine for drinking young.
* von Schleinitz Koberner Weisenberg Riesling Auslese ($18). Usually a von Schleinitz Mosel wine slashes like a scimitar of flavor. This is more like a cottony caress. It's nice, but I'll take the sword.
* Willi Schaefer Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett ($11). Lush, silky and not at all typical of the vineyard or producer. A mosel that tastes like a Rheinhessen wine,
* Neckerauer Weisenheimer Goldberg Riesling Kabinett ($10). Pleasant but undistinguished.
* Selbach Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay ($6). Pleasant, appley wine for a decent price, but if you have a choice, buy the Zeller Schwartze Katz.