In the world of white wines, riesling rules.
Forget your over-oaked, overpriced chardonnays. For sheer class in a glass, nothing compares with Germany's celebrated white-wine grape. No other white grape offers such crystalline clarity. No other so faithfully translates the soul of the soil into liquid expression.
This is never more apparent than when Germany's Rhine, Nahe and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (MSR below) regions enjoy a superb vintage - as they did in 1999. The results of that warm, sunny summer can be tasted now; fine examples of the vintage are abundant in better wine stores.(Riesling also makes superb wines in Austria and France's Alsace region, but those are subjects for another day.)
This happens to be an excellent time of year to begin one's exploration of German riesling. The harvest from farm and bay is bringing in a bounty of foods that interact delightfully with drier rieslings. And it's the season for grilling, which plays into one of the riesling grape's greatest strengths - its vibrant acidity.
This assumes, of course, that you've acquired a good riesling. There is plenty of schlock out there, much of it brought in by large shippers of cheap sugar-water masquerading as wine. If you pay $7 for a Bereich Bernkastel from Schmitt-Sohne, that's about all you can expect. (Bernkastel is a great wine village; the word Bereich roughly translates to "somewhere in the same time zone.")
A fine riesling will cost more than that, but not much more. In fact, there are few categories of wine that offer such high quality in the $12-$15 range.
One of the joys of riesling is that it can shine at all sweetness levels, from bone-dry to decadently sweet. Germany's best values are to be found in its drier wines, especially those with the designations Kabinett or Hochgewachs. Wines with the designations Spatlese and Auslese are generally on the sweet side. Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese are magnificent dessert wines and are fiendishly expensive.
Kabinett wines generally have some residual sweetness, but not enough to push them off the dinner table. That hint of sweetness can be an advantage in pairings with spicy or salty dishes or with foods that are a bit sweet, such as lobster or top-quality sea scallops. Tasters who want the crispness without as much sweetness should look for the designations trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (half-dry.)
Finding a fine German wine can be either very difficult or very easy. Learning the vineyards and producers is the hard way. The easy way is to look for reputable importers such as Terry Theise and Valckenberg International. In a recent tasting of 1999 German rieslings, all of them Kabinetts or other drier-style wines, the class of the vintage shone through. These were some of the best:
Dr. Thanisch Berncasteler Doctor Riesling Kabinett, MSR ($32, Valckenberg). A wine from this celebrated vineyard was a bit of a splurge, but the wine lived up to its hype. Its ripeness borders on Spatlese, but its vibrant acidity makes it compatible with food. It offers crystalline purity and impressively intense flavors of apples, strawberries, peaches, minerals, honey and meringue shells. There's also that hint of effervescence one often finds in crisp young Mosels.
Kurt Darting Durkheimer Hochbenn Riesling Kabinett, Pfalz ($11, Theise). Kurt Darting must be the Crazy Eddie of the Pfalz because selling a wine of this quality for this price is insane. So would be the wine lover who passes up this sensational value. It's a drier-style Kabinett with intense flavors of baked apple, spices, apricot and minerals. The finish is delightfully long and satisfying.
Weingut Willi Schaefer Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, MSR ($15, Theise). The Wehlener Sonnenuhr is one of Germany's greatest vineyards, and nobody captures its personality better than Schaefer. This elegant, crystalline wine offers gripping slate, spice and apple flavors along with a hint of effervescence. This wine could easily age 5-10 years and gain increasing complexity.
Willi Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, MSR ($14, Theise). A wine of slashing intensity, this magnificent Kabinett displays flavors of apple, peach, melon and strawberries. It's on the sweet side for a Kabinett and probably met the technical qualifications to be a Spatlese. But the generous acidity keeps it in perfect balance.
Meulenhoff Erdener Trepp- chen, MSR ($13, Thiese). This rich, complex, layered wine offers flavors of honey, peaches, apricots, citrus fruit, minerals and yeast. Despite its potential for aging well, its youthful charms are hard to resist.
These wines weren't quite as magnificent, but showed very well:
Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan Riesling Trocken, Pfalz ($14, Valckenberg). This very dry riesling would make a fine companion to seafood.
Weingart Bopparder Hamm Riesling Hochgewachs Halbtrocken, Mittelrhein ($14, Theise). There's a hint of sweet corn in this dry riesling that would make it a natural to pair with some fresh-picked cobs.