Another Case Study in Balance: Riesling

Often lost in the debate over alcohol levels is the other major player in the balanced wine equation: sugar
Nov 19, 2012

Last week I touched on "balance" as a word that's become increasingly polemical, particularly in California, where the growing movement toward lower-alcohol wines has been branded as a movement toward balance.

The problem is, this movement has largely been defined by what restraint (a word that's become synonymous with balance in this case) looks like in Pinot Noir, not grapes like Zinfandel or Grenache. Those grapes are enjoying their own movements toward restraint, but their progress is lost on those who can't see beyond the fact that, by nature of the grapes and how they grow, alcohol levels in even the most elegant versions of both routinely pierce 14.5 percent alcohol. The gist: Ideas about balance and restraint in one grape don't always apply to others.

Enter Mosel Riesling. If Zinfandel's stigma is its natural ability to accumulate higher alcohol, Mosel Riesling's is its sugar levels. In post-white Zinfandel America, the word "sweet" has been vilified, to a degree (lest we forget that Moscato is having a moment), as a word synonymous with cheap, low-quality wine.

It's no wonder then that "Not All Riesling Is Sweet" has become the unofficial tagline of sommeliers and retailers looking to convert customers who do their best eww face when they think of sweet wine. I get it, I was once a giver of the eww face, and I am all for providing Riesling a route to the heart of a consumer. But understanding the role of residual sugar in achieving balance in Mosel wines is crucial to understanding why they are unique.

Dry styles of Riesling are well-suited to the Rheinhessen, Pfalz and eastern Rheingau where the soils are typically heavier and the climate warmer; both of these factors make for rounder, more powerful wines that have the weight and fruit to balance acidity when the wines are vinified dry. But in the Mosel, where the climate is cooler and soils are predominately blue slate, the wines are leaner and more delicate and possess acidity levels that are often so high they redefine the word as it applies to wine.

Balance here does not come from the rounder fruit that a region like the Pfalz can achieve, but from residual sugar, which Mosel producers aptly refer to as "fruit" and not sweetness. It cushions acidity in much the same way. It's also what makes these wines the sort that simply can't be cut from any other cloth.

"You can get dry wines from everywhere—from Australia, from Austria—but these elegant, fruity wines from the Mosel are unique in their style," said Robert Eymael of Weingut Mönchhof and Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben. "Dry Mosel Riesling is not unique. In a dry wine you taste more the alcohol, the minerals and the acidity, but you don't have the fruit to balance it."

This is not to say that truly great dry wines aren't made in the Mosel. Willi Schaefer's 2011 Graacher Himmelreich Grosses Gewächs (a designation that denotes a dry wine from a top vineyard) is one of the best Rieslings I've had, period. There are many, and we're likely to see more if the climate continues to warm.  But understanding balance in Mosel Riesling still has much to do with understanding that the wines present residual sugar in a different way than most wines do. And it's the unique balance that the wines achieve when sugar levels are especially high that, in my opinion, makes Mosel Riesling the best in Germany.

"I call it the margarita effect," said Nik Weis, the owner and winemaker at St.-Urbans-Hof. "It's sweet, sour and salt all working together such that you never think too much about [each] one."

Like a margarita, sweeter styles of Riesling from the Mosel create a mouthwatering sort of pungency, so much so that many Rieslings at spätlese sugar levels—which generally hover around 65 to 70 grams per liter of residual sugar, though this can vary considerably—still register more tart than sweet. To say it differently, sweetness in spätlese Mosel Riesling is nothing like sweetness in Sutter Home White Zinfandel, which has sugar levels hovering in exactly the same range.

I'll admit, this "margarita effect" wasn't always easy for me to grasp. It was a combination of my aversion to the idea of sweet wine and my frustration over not being able to identify the vineyard site in the fruitier wines quite as clearly as I could with the dry wines. It's there, it's just not broadcast in HD like it is when the wines fall below 9 grams of residual sugar, the level at which the wine will register as dry to most palates. With more experience that became obvious. But it took time.

Part of bringing German Riesling forward in America will depend on consumers being able to cross the Khyber Pass between dry Riesling and the fruitier styles. It can be done. My advice is to start with the Mosel wines labeled as kabinett feinherb or halbtrocken (though this term has largely gone out of fashion in favor of feinherb). These wines typically find their balance between 9 to 18 grams of residual sugar and are a great sweet spot for the Mosel, particularly from the 2011 vintage. Add spicy food, ease in, and try and make it to the other side. It's delicious over here.

White Wines Riesling

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