A new era for German dry whites (Jan - 2010)

SocietyNews editor Joanna Goodman talks to von Kesselstatt’s Annegret Gartner about proposed changes to German labels, climate change and dry riesling.

Annegret Gartner, longtime friend of The Wine Society and head of renowned Mosel estate Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, the source of our own-label Saar Riesling, is a charming ambassador for her country’s great wines. On her last visit she spoke to us about plans to change German wine labels, her dry rieslings and how they are coping with the trials and tribulations of climate change.

Vineyard not sugar level

The proposed changes to German wine law move towards labelling wines by vineyard site rather than sugar levels. ‘In the current system, there are too many confusing labels because we harvest by oechsle (grape ripeness/ sugar levels): QbA, Kabinett,Spätlese, Auslese, and so on and then we may ferment each category to dry, medium dry or sweet. So in theory, we could have twelve different wines per vineyard (not including Beerenauslese and above). To simplify this, the old terms (Kabinett, Spätlese, and so on) will be used to describe the style of sweet wines only. A new term Grosses Gewächs for the ‘great growths’ will now apply to the top dry wines.’

Unfortunately, to complicate matters, the Mosel estates, for example, have opted for a different term Erste Lage (literally ‘first sites’), which more closely relates to the vineyard rather than Grosses Gewächs, which relates more to the wines.

Whatever the descriptive term used, wines bearing the accolade all originate from eligible vineyards and are deemed worthy; wines to be designated Grosses Gewächs (or equivalent) must be of at least Spätlese ripeness, with yields no greater than 50hl/ha, adhering to minimum selling prices and fixed release dates.

Although positive about the proposed changes, Annegret thinks that it will take another ten years before the law actually changes. The concern for consumers is that there is many a slip between cup and bureaucratic lip, and German labelling regulations have never been known for their clarity, but on paper, at least, the proposals make good sense.

On the dry side

Another uniquely German anomaly is that the wines enjoyed by the home market are completely different from those appreciated in its export markets. For the past 20 years the German preference has been for dry riesling. Up until now lovers of German riesling (The Society’s buyers included) have felt that the dry rieslings produced were good but not brilliant and not exciting enough to merit attention. But things have changed, helped no doubt by global warming and a change of focus by producers. Last year Sebastian Payne MW, buyer for Germany, listed two of von Kesselstatt’s dry rieslings making Annegret a very happy lady! ‘We are trying to prove that we can produce very good dry wines, especially now, as our climate has warmed up and we get very good ripeness levels that are essential for top dry riesling’

Although they have always produced dry rieslings, they now want to give the wines more attention, using them as Annegret says “to catch the mouse with the bacon!”. It is nearly impossible to explain the beautiful balance between acidity and fruit that can be found in riesling, from Mosel in particular, in words. So Annegret hopes that the wine lovers who never buy German wines because they don’t like the sweeter styles might come to appreciate the delicate mineral-flavoured wines via the dry styles.

Despite global warming the wines still retain a beautifully poised balance. They are very mineral, racy, fragrant, puretasting and fruit driven with moderate to low alcohol. ‘Who else can do something similar? No other region has such a long ripening period. Riesling from our region is the best in the world’. Annegret says she wants her dry wines to be as good as any dry wine in the world but for them to reflect their background and personality and be true to their roots. She is keen to make a style of wine that ages, as she feels this is an essential feature of a wine of quality. Interestingly, she pointed out that the dry wines, as with all the estate’s wines, benefit from being decanted.

Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, one of Kesselstatt’s top Mosel vineyard

Testing times for growers

Warmer conditions are posing interesting problems for wine growers like Annegret who are still learning how to deal with the effects of global warming. It isn’t a question of just more heat or sun but also more rain and humidity. Too much heat can stress the vines. Older vines with more developed root systems are better able to cope. Otherwise, Annegret says that there isn’t an awful lot they can do other than keep yields low and mow the grass between every second row of vines (grass competes with the vines for moisture). Too much humidity can lead to rot.

The management of botrytis is something they have much more experience in! Cutting grape bunches in half, green harvesting and canopy management all help to increase the flow of air through the vines and lessen the chance of grapes bursting and rotting.

Finally, Annegret told us that they are frequently asked when they will be planting new grape varieties which might be better suited to the warmer climate: “We don’t need to,” she says, “we already have the world’s greatest grape variety and at last we are enjoying weather conditions that allow us to produce great wines from it every year.”

Societynews January 2010

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