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The Riddle of Riesling

Some wines can't be easily explained; just taste them and embrace their complexity

Posted: Mar 20, 2014 10:15am ET

By Mitch Frank

If you're looking to simplify Riesling, to make it easy to understand, don't look to me. I visited Germany for the first time last month, and I hoped that a week in the Mosel, the Rheingau and the Rheinhessen—time spent strolling some of Riesling's most storied vineyards—would finally bring me clarity. Afterward, if someone asked me, "I want to try a great Riesling. Where should I start?" I could confidently reply with a list of wines that would teach them why Riesling is so special.

After a week in Germany, what I can say is that Riesling is a delicious and bewilderingly complex variety. And that's OK. That's what makes it an iconic grape.

Riesling, especially in a marginal environment like Germany, at the northern end of suitable land for grapevines, can offer fascinating expressions of ripe fruit, vibrance and minerality. The best wineries send their pickers up and down the often-steep vineyards multiple times during harvest, looking to gather grapes at varying degrees of sugar and acidity, carefully selecting the best fruit to make a wide range of wines—bone-dry to stickily sweet. German Riesling is not one wine, but a multitude.

Complexity and variety are wonderful on the palate, but not so good in a sales pitch. "Because we are German, when we see a light at the end of the tunnel, we make the tunnel longer," said Johannes Hasselbach of Weingut Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen. We were talking about the multiple categories one sees on a bottle of Riesling, as well as recent changes to the laws, going into effect soon, on how single-vineyard wines are classified.

Marketing gurus routinely advise wineries to make their labels simple, concisely conveying what consumers need to know so they understand what's in the bottle and feel confident buying it. German wineries have opted to go the other way, printing a wealth of information that requires knowledge, experience and possibly a decoder ring to decipher.

This dilemma was illustrated when I visited Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau. Its history stretches back to 1100, when Benedictine monks planted vines in slate soils perched high above the Rhine river. But in the 1970s and 1980s, it chased trends, replanting with a focus on sparkling-wine production. Its dry wines suffered. Over the past 20 years, a renewed focus on quality has given this classic a fresh start.

Americans love a comeback kid, but when I asked managing director Christian Witte how sales are in the United States, he grew reflective. "Stalled since the 2008 financial crisis," he said. "Today, China, Japan and South Korea are all better markets for us. Riesling is not an easy sell in America." Witte told me something I heard echoed by several German winery owners: U.S. consumers have a price ceiling when it comes to German Riesling. They won't pay more than $25. Most of Schloss Johannisberg's wines, which routinely earn outstanding scores, are more than $30 retail.

For those willing to experiment in that price range, however, the array of options can be intimidating. Witte put out a dozen bottles to taste—a small sample of what the property produces. In 1820, Johannisberg's owner decided to make things easier for buyers by color-coding the capsule on top to correspond to ripeness levels and other categories, getting a head start on the 1971 German wine law, which notes levels on the labels. Today, gelblack or yellow seal is QbA, which at Johannisberg is their dry wine, rotlack or red seal is kabinett, green is spätlese, pink is aüslese, silver is great growth single vineyard …. Confused yet?

All these ripeness levels and other designations are supposed to give consumers clues to what the wine in the bottle will taste like—how dry or sweet, its intensity, body, the acidity level in some cases—and whether it's a top-level wine or site. But often it just scares them away, especially because one producer's dry is another producer's off-dry. Classifying an impressionist painting into multiple categories—haystacks, sunset, oil paint, French—doesn't help explain how it makes you feel.

"After this many years, I should be able to give you a better answer on how to simplify Riesling," said Paul Grieco, the New York wine director who has held "Summer of Riesling" at his Terroir wine bars for several years now. "German Rieslings aren't simple."

But is that a bad thing? These days, we tend to demand predictability from our wines. Once, wine knowledge was reserved for sommeliers, wine geeks and people who wore ascots. We have worked very hard to strip the mystery and make wines easy to understand. We want wine for dummies. It's doubly true of our white wines. Reds can be complex; whites are supposed to be quaffable.

If I wanted simplicity and easy answers, I could be writing about cranberry juice. Let's make sure wine still holds the promise of adventure.

Buying a bottle of Riesling is an expedition. So go out and try one—better yet, find a restaurant with several by the glass and sample an array. Find a reliable guide for your expedition, whether it's a passionate sommelier or a trusted retailer. "Riesling demands a conversation," said Grieco. You can post questions in the comments below and I'll try to find you an answer. (Some helpful tips and links are below.) Just don't ask me to speak German—my trip didn't give me much clarity there either.

Some Riesling Basics:

Ask Dr. Vinny: "What's the deal with the sweetness levels of Riesling?"

Wine Spectator lead taster for the wines of Germany, Kim Marcus: "The Challenge of Riesling"

2013 Tasting Report: "A Golden Age for German Riesling"

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