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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

Posted: Nov 19, 2012 2:00pm ET

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.

Alan Gavalya
Hampton, VA —  November 19, 2012 8:29pm ET
Thanks Talia for a bit of validation. I have been on the "delicious side" since I began enjoying wine in the 70's. That more than a few wine aficionados don't recognize the superb balance in fine Mosel Rieslings is difficult to accept. The fact that these whites age well is an added bonus. I just received the C. VON SCHUBERT Riesling Qualitätswein Trocken Mosel Maximin Grünhäuser 2010. I was surprised that even in this cool vintage Kim Marcus recommends a drinking window of 2014-2024. Can't wait to see how this one plays out.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 20, 2012 2:43am ET
It's been my experience that wine drinkers who love sweet wines like the ones described here are either (a) so unsophisticated that haven't learned that they're not supposed to like them or (b) so sophisticated they know better. There's a reason why every sommelier in Las Vegas can be found at Lotus of Siam eating fiery Thai dishes and drinking.....spätlese and auslese Rieslings!
Patrick Frenchick
Montogomery MD —  November 20, 2012 12:32pm ET
After reading the two "balanced" blogs it seems to me the discussion is back to where it started...balance depends upon the grape, the location, the food and the person. Arbitrary benchmarks like alcohol levels (which if taken from the bottle label are only guidelines) or sugar or acid detract from the wine and the skill of the winemaker.

Maybe some of this is driven by critics that have a preference, like no high alchol wines? But if the alcohol is balanced with the other components of the wine and it goes with food you are having, isn't that balanced?
David Rossi
Napa, CA, USA —  November 20, 2012 2:40pm ET
Harvey was right when he said "(a) so unsophisticated that haven't learned that they're not supposed to like them or (b) so sophisticated they know better.".
Concise and on the mark.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  November 28, 2012 12:01am ET
We lived near the Mosel when I was in the Air Force, and we became friends with the Prum family of Joh. Jos. Prum (wish I could do the required umlaut). We just opened a 2001 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese on Thanksgiving (96 pts in WS). Still phenomenal. I have 2000 Auslese, 2001s, 2004s, and 2005s, split between Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Graacher Himmelreich. Best wines on the Mosel if you ask me, and great people too.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  December 2, 2012 5:46pm ET
As a wine retailer for most of the last decade, I have discovered that, if I can walk the White Zin / Moscato drinker into Mosel Riesling, they will eventually join the world of dry wine drinkers.

If I try to jump them immediately into a dry wine, they won't make that leap.

I've found that the wines of Max Ferd Richter in the Mosel do that job nicely.

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