Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Brooklyn Blind Tasting Panel # 6 - 2009 "Basic" German Riesling

I'm a German wine neophyte, but over the past year I've started poking around a bit, drinking Riesling here and there. I like the wines very much in general, but I'm still a bit intimidated. There are several regions and many producers, sweet wines and off-dry wines and dry wines, wines that were harvested at spätlese must weight but fermented dry, and all sorts of other complications. Some of the labels indicate the relative sweetness (trocken, halbtrocken, feinherb, etc.), some do not.

How to really begin learning about the wines, approaching them in a sensible way? There are many answers to this question, but I decided that I would use basically the same approach that I use with Burgundy wine. Drink the basic wines by a variety of producers and see whose wines I like, and go from there.

In Burgundy it's this is relatively straight forward - the basic wines are regional wines, Bourgognes and the like. But what are the basic German Rieslings? Knebel makes a wine that is simply called Riesling Trocken. It is not classified using prädikat language (kabinett, spätlese, etc.), it is a blend from several vineyards, and is the most inexpensive wine in their portfolio. Sounds like a basic wine. But wait - Knebel also makes the Von den Terrasen Riesling Trocken, also a blend from a few vineyards, also without prädikat language, and only a few dollars more. Are they both basic wines?

Perhaps these things are a bit silly to focus on, but it became an issue when I decided to convene the Brooklyn Blind Tasting panel to sample a load of "basic" German Riesling from the 2009 vintage. Which wines should be included, which should not? I very much wanted to include the wonderful Immich-Batterieberg Mosel Riesling CAI, but I didn't because the wine is a kabinett. It didn't have to be labeled this way, but it was - see importer's explanation in the comments on this post. Anyway, I bought some wines for the tasting, and when I asked a few Riesling importers for donations, they were all a bit confused. "What exactly do you want," they would ask. "Do you want dry wines or sweet wines, and what about prädikat language? And what if a producer makes more than one of these 'basic' wines, as you call them?" Reasonable questions, indeed.

But I was determined to do this tasting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I haven't done one of these in a long time and I really enjoy blind tasting. Also, I wanted to learn more about the producers. And lastly, I had this idea that "basic" German Riesling can compete with the best white wines of the world, say Muscadet, at the under $20 price point. So flawed definition and all, I convened the panel and we tasted 2009 "basic" German Riesling. For this tasting I was joined by some serious Riesling people: Rubén Sanz Ramiro, Head Sommelier at Veritas Restaurant, Stephen Bitterolf, Wine Director at Crush Wine & Spirits, and Eric Asimov, wine critic at The New York Times.

We tasted 9 wines in two flights, discussed the wines, and everyone selected two favorites. We then drank the wines with dinner. I must say, I was quite disappointed with how the wines showed, as a group. There were a few bright spots, but a few dark spots as well, and unless it was a root day or something, my theory about the great value of this category of wine was basically blown. The way I see it now is this: there are some producers whose "basic" wines are utterly fantastic, and might qualitatively equal a great Muscadet, for example. But if this tasting is representative of the wines as a group, then perhaps Eric Asimov was right when he said after hearing about my theory, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Hmm, I don't think I agree. After all, great Muscadet is made with the region's best grapes from its most interesting terroirs, and it sells for $16. Basic German Riesling, whatever that is, is made from the region's least interesting grapes and from its least interesting terroir, and it sells for $20. You have to buy up to get the best German wines."

Here are the wines we drank, along with some notes:

2009 Willi Schaefer Mosel Riesling Qualitätswein, $18, Terry Theise Selections/Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines. Rubén, Eric, and I selected this as our favorite of the tasting, and Stephen had it as his second favorite. I liked the subtlety and harmony of the nose, and the faint sponti whiff that darted in and out, and that the palate was so well balanced, although very much off-dry. It was clean and pure, and just delicious. Rubén thought it was a classic wine in the off-dry style of the Mosel. He said that it wasn't terribly concentrated, but he liked the vibrancy and focus, and he found that it improved over the course of the evening. Eric felt that it had good presence, texture, focus, balance, and acidity, and that it was simply very pleasing. He said that it was the most complete wine of the tasting. Stephen enjoyed the contrast between the fresh tart nose and the sweetness of the palate, and he thought it was a well-done wine. He did say, however, that there was something that bothered him about the midpalate, that it was a bit glossy, too giving, not enough cut.

2009 Reichsrat Von Buhl Deidesheimer Herrgottsacker Riesling trocken, $16, Rudi Wiest Selections/Imported by Cellars International. This wine was donated by the kind folks at David Bowler. This was Stephen's favorite wine. He said that it was the tartest, the most curt, and the shortest wine, but he liked the bitterness and acidity and suggested that this wine speaks more to the German palate. He said that it felt as though it has more ambition than some of the other wines, and that he wanted to check back in 5 years. I also liked this wine, particularly the mineral character, but I was put off by what I thought was the canned character of the fruit. Neither Eric or Rubén were terribly impressed.

2009 Weingut Keller Riesling trocken, $20, imported by Petit Pois Corp. Rubén and I both picked this as our second favorite wine. Rubén liked the midpalate concentration, although he noted that the alcohol stuck out a little and clipped the length a bit. I liked the nose a lot, with subtle pineapple fruit and minerals, and I found the palate to stand out among the wines for its mineral and acid drive. Clean and pure with some hints of baking spices, I wanted to eat with this wine. Stephen, by the way, identified it as a Rheinhessen wine, but didn't love it, wanting more tension in the wine.

2009 Fritz Haag Riesling, $18, Rudi Wiest Selections/Imported by Cellars International. This was Eric's second favorite wine. He felt that a touch of sulfur made it opaque, but he liked the texture and the presence, and he thought it had good length and lots of character. He said that it was identifiable as a Mosel Riesling in a classic way. Stephen found the wine to be confusing - he couldn't get much from it, finding it ornery and restrained. But he liked the green apple fruit and slightly salty taste, and the minerality. In the end, he thought that it never really came together. Rubén was on the fence, liking the ripeness, but he felt that the wine lacked concentration and length. I wanted to like the wine but I found the sulfur on the nose to be off-putting.

2009 Weiser-Kunstler Mosel Riesling feinherb, $19, Mosel Wine Merchant selections. This wine was kindly donated by the folks at Mosel Wine Merchant. Eric really liked this wine, finding good character and lovely apricot and peach fruit, some ginger, and minerals. He liked the succulent texture and called it one of the more complete wines of the tasting. I really liked this wine and second favorite was a toss up for me between this and the Keller. I thought the nose was subtle and harmonious, and I liked the hints of baking spice and earth. The off-dry palate was nicely balanced with good acidity and there was a lovely bitter pit finish. Stephen liked the fresh nose, the sweet palate and thought it was a well put together wine, but found it to be unidimensional. Rubén liked it initially, but going back to it he found it a bit mute and without complexity. There were leftovers of every wine except for Willi Schaefer's, and this one improved a lot on day 2, by the way.

2009 Schäfer-Fröhlich Nahe Riesling Medium-Dry, $19, Rudi Wiest Selections/Imported by Cellars International. This wine was donated by the kind folks at David Bowler. During the tasting this wine did not show very well, but it improved a lot on day 2. Stephen liked the clean mineral nose but found the wine to be closed down, or maybe reductive. He liked the pear and apple fruit but thought the wine was short and rough without much distinction. Eric didn't like the wine at first, finding it bland, but with air he liked the mineral character. In the end, though, he thought it was fairly simple. Rubén felt the same way. I liked the spices and the ripe orchard fruit but I thought it was reductive and not entirely balanced. Again, much better the next day.

2009 Müller-Catoir Riesling trocken, $18, Terry Theise Selections/Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines. This wine was donated by the kind folks at Michael Skurnik Wines. Although we were divided on this wine, no one thought it showed very well. Stephen found it bizarre but enjoyable, with ginger and mandarin, but he also thought it was lean and difficult. I thought it was basically a balanced wine and I liked the mandarin fruit and the acidity, but I thought it felt a bit candied. Eric and Rubén really did not like the wine. I heard things like "bland, dull, without character, too much malic acid, out of balance, short, over-cropped cheap Riesling."

2009 Peter Lauer Riesling Barrel X, $17, Mosel Wine Merchant. This wine was donated by the kind folks at Mosel Wine Merchant. This was an off bottle, and I say this because I've had a couple of bottles over the past few months, and this one was entirely different. Eric and Stephen literally said the same thing upon smelling - "Prum?" This wine was dominated by sulfur, overwhelmed by it. Sad too because Eric said that underneath the sulfur it seemed as though there was a very interesting wine with intriguing aromas and flavors. He wanted to check back in a few years. Stephen thought it was serious wine with freshness and a real core, very solid. He said that it wasn't a sulfur screw-up, that there was a lot of tension and the wine was built to age.

2009 Weingut Josef Leitz Riesling Eins Zwei Dry "3," $16, Terry Theise Selections/Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines. This wine was donated by the kind folks at Michael Skurnik Wines. I liked this wine more than the others, finding a rich ripe nose and palate that was almost balanced by the acidity, but I found something honeyed in there that was distracting. The others really disliked the wine. I heard things like "artificial, disjointed, thin, and dilute."


Clotpoll said...

Euro sitting at around $1.45 right now. Wait until the exchange rate gets even worse.

The way our friends at the Fed are buggering the currency, I can see some importers just halting trying to bring in anything from Europe.

Clotpoll said...

Bet all these would taste a lot better were they the $8-$11 price they truly merit.

Anonymous said...

Clotpoll - you go work those 40-70 degree slate covered slopes for 3 grape bunches per vine and then ask for $8/bottle of your juice. Hard labor doesn't come free.

Clotpoll said...

Anonymous, the inflation in price is in the EUR-USD exchange rate, not the pay structure for the vineyard worker.

Chances are, the input costs (petroleum products excluded) and labor costs in any of these German vineyards have tracked- or even lagged- Germany's traditionally-low rates of inflation for well over a decade.

Translate that decently-priced (in Euros) bottle of Riesling into USD...and an excellent value becomes another overpriced disappointment.

People think '82 Bordeaux was a vintage "made" by Parker. Truth be told, most of those wines flew off the shelves because the dollar index stood at a 30-year high of nearly 164.

Today, the dollar index is at 74...close to its 30-year low. This makes the import of virtually all European wines a losing bet for both importer and consumer.

Dan said...

I wonder what the "truly merit" is about here. It doesn't sound to me, Clotpoll, that you're only complaining about the Fed. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but as Anonymous noted, there's a bit of a begrudging tinge to your second comment, as if you think the growers (or perhaps their filthy importers) are gouging along the way, or at the very least overvaluing their entry-level bottlings.

Just the opposite is true: to want to drink solid Mosel Riesling--with life and lift and guts and character--and to expect to get it for eight bucks is more or less to ask the growers to get out of their steep slate slopes and instead to concentrate on the flat alluvial soils that will make such a thing possible. I would argue that--like it or not, and I realize that with this logic there is not a lot to like at the cash register--given the work required most growers probably undercharge for these wines.

BG--as for your notion that you've lost faith in this category as a source of great value...well...it was just one night. Don't lose faith so quickly.

But I think Mr. Asimov is on to something here, and the good news about "buying up" in German wines, is that the up is often just a few dollars more. (Though obviously it can be much more than that too.) I mean--and obviously this is not a wine I import--you can buy single-vineyard Spätlese from Willi Schaefer for $28. Twenty-eight bucks! I think that is astonishing. It's too early in the morning to shill, but there are truly great wines from my growers, as there are of course from Terry's and Rudi's, right in that wheelhouse.

Not the point of the tasting, I realize, but still important to point out.

Clotpoll said...

Dan, just to be clear, the only party I believe to be "filthy" or "gouging" is our own Federal Reserve. The top growers in Germany, IMO, produce a consistently fine glass of wine, and their US importers- with rare exception- do a great job of marketing and deserve the margins they get...no matter what the EUR/USD exchange rate may be at any given time.

Not so long ago, in an exchange rate environment in which the EUR/USD was at parity (or better)- and not the insane 1.45 rate at which it stands today- entry level German wines regularly sold for $8-$11 a bottle.

Given the fact that the US is slipping into a crippling depression- and that the typical consumer of your imports most likely is not benefitting from any kind of wage inflation- the entry level offerings described in this article are insanely overpriced, and I find it hard to imagine that sales outside of NYC haven't been deeply impacted by the confluence of all these factors.

I have a background in imported wine and currently am employed by an importer. Please do not confuse me with some boulevardier who simply enjoys declaring fine things to be overpriced.

Clotpoll said...

On the other hand, for the $28 I can shell out for Willi Wonka's Spatlese, I can buy 4-5 bottles of Borsao White, whip up some shrimp and grits and give 15 people a full belly and a nice buzz.

Out here in the hinterlands, $28/btl should merit at least one org@sm. It's been at least four years since I spent that on a bottle of wine. I'm sure this wine is worth every penny, but the American wine audience is painfully short of folks who can pony up the ante required to even care.

Unknown said...

Sorry to pile on as a dissenter, but did anybody at the tasting happen to bring up the possibility that vintage could have been among the main contributing factors to the evening's general sense of disappointment? Many of these wines were significantly different in 2008, for example, and you wouldn't have heard anybody complaining about a lack of acidity in those bottles. This seems to me at least as plausible of an explanation as the idea that the biodynamic calendar was wreaking havoc on the night's festivities.

I haven't loved many of the 2009 Beaujolais that I've tasted, but that doesn't mean I would or should write off the whole region as one that produces forward, slutty, fruity wines with low acid that are poor values. Why hold German Riesling to another standard?

rhit said...

I thought the Weiser-Künstler feinherb was great. Not the most complex wine, but undeniably delicious. I have no idea how overpriced it might be, but I'd buy it again.

Brooklynguy said...

a few ideas - these kind of wines can cost as little as $14 and as much as about $28. although i am not at all giving up on the "basic" German Rieslings that I love (knebel, lauer, batterieberg, now schaefer, a few others), i do think that as a category of wine, it doesn't offer as many great options at prices comparable to a great Muscadet, for example. Or great fino or Manzanilla Sherry. And since these and other European white wines all face the same issues regarding exchange rates, it's not wrong to discuss the relative value of "basic" German Riesling in relation to those other wines. That said, I'd hold the wines I mentioned above at their prices up against any white wines at similar prices, as I think they are qualitatively equal.

John - we didn't discuss the vintage at all, and I think this is because the only thing to say about it would be "well, this is a warm year and the wines are not as well defined as those from other vintages," or something like that. When I drink burgundy, I am aware of the differences among vintages, but I don't excuse a producer who makes mediocre wine just because it might be an off year. Perhaps it would have been better if I had said that in 2009, the wines as a group were less great than I hoped they would be. Muller-Catoir is a great producer, but is this basic Riesling better in other years? i'd have to drink it again next year to find out.

Lars Carlberg said...

“Basic” German Riesling remains undervalued, yet an unfavorable euro-dollar exchange rate makes it pricier in the US. The ripe bunches can come from top sites and tend to be harvested first, ignoring botrytis-affected grapes that might need to be picked early in a given vintage. Knebel Riesling trocken and Von den Terrassen Riesling trocken, from some of their best terraced sites, are underpriced entry-level dry Rieslings. The production costs on the Rhine and Mosel's steep slate slopes are higher than in Muscadet.

As Dan noted before, the excellent ’09 Immich-Batterieberg Riesling C.A.I. was labeled Kabinett to help justify its price. It could have been a Qualitätswein (ex-QbA). Qualitäts- and Prädikatswein (ex-QmP) have become blurred with climate change and since the VDP prefers to keep Prädikats only for sweeter wines. A Gutswein (Estate Wine) and GG (once Spätlese or Auslese trocken) are Qualitätswein.

Were the four dry Rieslings in the first flight? The ’09s from Fritz Haag (Juffer and Juffer-Sonnenuhr et al) and Weiser-Künstler feinherb (Ellergrub and Gaispfad) are closer to 20 g/l RS. Willi Schaefer (all Himmelreich) is ca. 30-plus g/l RS.

Did Peter Lauer Barrel X have an aroma of sulfur (struck match) or was it reduced? The stinky aromas from spontaneous fermentation (à la J.J. Prüm) can be accentuated on young wines bottled under screw cap. The “sponti” stink should blow off. More producers choose screw caps, esp. for their entry-level wines, as they’re less expensive (disregarding a larger carbon footprint) than natural corks, not because of cork taint. In comparisons of the same wine under screw cap and natural cork, the former has less balance and more zip from trapped CO2, but seems better than synthetic corks or glass closures, which are often poorly sealed.

Wicker Parker said...

It's interesting, my takeaway from reading this post is that while two of the wines seemed clearly problematic (dilute, etc.), the rest seem quite serious for the category and need more time and/or air to come into focus.

It does seem that invoking QPR comparisons with Muscadet leaves even German rieslings at a distinct disadvantage. What if the comparison was with similarly-priced riesling from the Clare Valley or the Pacific Northwest, or with entry-level, sub-$20 calling cards from the Macon, Friuli, Bordeaux, and other high-profile white regions?

Per Dan's note, you can buy up without spending a lot more. I see a single vineyard Willi Schaefer Kabinett at Chambers St. for just fifty cents more than the price you listed for the Qualitatswein.

Lars Carlberg said...

Wicker Parker: I agree. Few fine wines have the quality-price rapport of great Muscadet, such as from Domaine de la Pépière. It’s difficult, however, to compare wines among regions based on price alone. Mosel Riesling from steep slate slopes has long been underpriced with or without a Prädikat. Alfred Merkelbach is an old-time estate specializing in sweet-style Prädikat wines that sell for a song. The modest Willi Schaefer estate has remained quite affordable over the years despite being a household name, even if their pricing in Germany is now comparable to other top producers in the region.

Lars Carlberg said...

Not that anyone will read this third comment of mine, but I’d like to follow up on my previous ones. If the ’09 Peter Lauer Barrel X didn't have “sponti” aromas (including some hydrogen sulfide), then it might have been an off-bottle, as you wrote in your post, with elemental sulfur on the nose. Florian Lauer said that this could occur if the bottle after cleaning had sulfur residue.

Many entry-level German Rieslings, even from top estates, are indeed basic, but some are not. They can come from ripe grapes grown in top sites. It’s also difficult to compare wines with different RS levels and with no progression from dry to sweet. As I wrote before, a Prädikatswein (and not just from bulk bottlers) can be less expensive than a Qualitätswein. Some producers only make the one or the other category, not both. In addition, some have lower prices than others, because of their set-up, yields, and other costs.