Gems from Germany: riesling samplings

VINTAGE POINT

Wine: Offerings can make excellent companions to a wide range of foods.

May 05, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

Fine German riesling is perhaps best explained as one of God's little jokes.

Here you have some of the world's most crystalline, delicate, sprightly wines, and most of them are sporting names that sound as if they were lifted straight out of one of the kaiser's more belligerent military directives.

Can you imagine going into a wine store and casually asking a clerk to bring you a case of Adolf Weingart Ohlenberg Bopparder Hamm Riesling Spatlese?

Say it again, faster this time.

While the sheer complexity of learning about German wine names is always worth a chuckle, many of these tongue-twisting beverages are among the world's great wine values. Furthermore, when they are not made in an overtly sweet style, they make excellent companions to a wide range of foods.

Chicken and fish are perhaps obvious companions for a good German riesling, but so are venison and spicy Asian cuisines. A ripe, high-acid riesling can carry you through a Thanksgiving turkey dinner or be sipped by itself outdoors on a warm summer night.

To master all the complexities of German wine labels could take years. But there are a few tricks.

First, stick with riesling. There are other fine German wine grapes, but good examples are hard to find at the retail level. Riesling is perhaps the world's finest white wine grape (sorry, chardonnay lovers), and easily the most expressive of individual vineyard sites.

Next, choose an appropriate level of ripeness. Wines labeled as auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese are usually dessert wines. For mealtime use, look for wines labeled spatlese, kabinett or qualitatswein.

Qualitatswein is the entry level of decent German wine. It's a category that embraces such commercial creations as Blue Nun, but it also includes high-value, high-quality creations from top pproducers.

Kabinett wines are perhaps the purest expression of Germany's viticultural soul. The wines are made from ripe -- but not overripe -- grapes with no added sugar. You can tell more about a producer from his kabinetts than any other level of wine.

With spatleses, you get a little more ripeness and fullness. Some are too sweet for mealtime use, but the best generally have enough acidity to retain an impression of dryness.

Unless you are familiar with individual vineyards, depend on the reputation of the importer. In the mid-Atlantic states, the best name to look for is Terry Theise Estate Selections.

A basic familiarity with the major German regions also helps. The standards for delicacy and crystalline purity are set in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and in the underrated Mittelrhein region. The most concentrated and dramatically expressive rieslings come from the Pfalz (formerly Rheinpfalz) and the Rheinhessen. The Rheingau and Nahe fall somewhere in the middle.

The three vintages that are now widely available on the retail market -- 1995 through 1997 -- offer a splendid example of how German wines can vary from year to year.

The 1995s were heavily affected by the "noble rot" botrytis -- sometimes with ignoble results. Many of the wines are very flavorful and fruity, but not destined to last. The vintage's best regions, according to Theise, are the Nahe and the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.

The classic 1996 vintage is one for riesling purists, a year when the wines seemed to be "carved from stone" in most German regions, according to Theise. The high acidity levels of the 1996s might put off some wine drinkers at first, but these will come around.

The 1997s, said Theise, will be "ephemeral," flowery wines that will reward early consumption. With a few exceptions, they are wines for casual fun -- not an intellectual experience.

A series of recent tastings uncovered a number of gems, as well as some noteworthy values. Most are Theise wines, but a few came from other importers.

* 1995 Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spatlese. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($16). The soul of the Mosel, this wine displays a crystalline grace and a piercing acidity that gives the impression of dryness despite a generous sugar level. Its classic flavors of apple, berries, pear, peach and minerals are already showing mature overtones, with no hints of fading.

* 1996 J.u.H.A. Strub Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Kabinett, Rheinhessen ($10). This is simply a mind-blowing value. Who would think you could find such intensity in a $10 wine? How can a wine combine creamy texture with blazing acidity? Strub, one of the world's most overlooked great winemakers, has done it again.

* 1996 Willi Haag Brauenberger Juffer Riesling Spatlese. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($19). This is simply a classic Mosel, with terrific intensity and bracingly pure flavors of apple, pear, strawberry, honey and clean wet stones. Imported by Romaine C. Rice.

* 1995 Adolf Weingart Bopparder Hamm Ohlenberg Riesling Spatlese, Mittelrhein ($13). This food-friendly, remarkably dry-tasting spatlese displays a rigorous intensity and crystalline purity, along with subtle flavors of honey and peach.

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