In fall, so much attention in the drinking world turns to Oktoberfest beers.
I love beer as much as the next person, but wine is another one of Germany’s prominent exports and should not be overlooked.
German wines have a mixed reputation. To some, German wine is simple, sweet and uncomplicated — fine as a low-alcohol “quaffer.”
Others view German wines as some of the most elegant and pure white wines in the world.
I agree with the latter view. In fact, before the 1900s, there were arguably only two worthy wine-making countries in the western world: France and Germany.
The history of German wines dates back to Roman times, when the Romans had a garrison in Trier to beat back the Germanic tribes on the other side of the Rhine. The Romans needed a steady supply of wine, and transporting it from France or Italy or across the Vosges mountains proved to be too expensive.
Thus, winemaking began in earnest with the Romans and many of their methods are still used today. During Medieval times the vine spread east, coinciding with the eastern spread of Christianity. Because of this, churches and monasteries played an important role in grape-growing reaching the peak production in the 1500s and controlling most of the land under vine.
During this time, quality rather than quantity became important, and German wines were established as being some of the finest in the world. When Napoleon became ruler, he took most of the vineyards away from the church and broke the vineyards into parcels and many people formed cooperatives. This, coupled with beer gaining in prominence, produced market changes that drove German wine down the road of making much more wine, but of lesser quality. This carried into the 20th century and still damages the reputation of German wines.
Despite this, there are many German producers making truly incredible riesling that range from floral and aromatic to flinty and mineral laden. The flavors and characteristics can change, but all of the top-flight wines have Germany’s signature finesse and tremendous balance between fruit and bracing acidity.
This acidity is what makes the wines of Germany often copied but rarely matched. This is because of the delicate balance of the climate, soil and topography in Germany. German climate is generally too cold to grow top wines, but because of the factors of the river, steep slopes facing the sun, slate soils and German ingenuity, wines are able to ripen to near perfection while still being bright, crisp and aromatically pure.
German wines found in these parts are usually of the sweeter style, but are beautifully balanced. Some of my favorites:
• Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Noble House Riesling ($13): The Bergweilers believe that the most important asset of the estate is its vineyards. Extensive care, handpicking of the grapes and intentionally low yields have kept this estate among the top producers in the world. The Noble House wine is actually a blend of rieslings from some of the very best vineyards in the Mosel Valley. Bergweiler makes wines from each of these vineyards, but they are much more expensive. By blending grapes from these top vineyards, he is able to use some of the very best riesling grapes in the world, yet make a consistent low-cost wine. In my opinion, this is among the very best value rieslings I can find.
• St. Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein Spatlese ($39): Named for the patron saint of German winemakers, St. Urban. This winery was founded in 1947 but really started booming in the 1960s. In the 1980s, Hermann Weiss started investing in some of the very top vineyards in Germany, including Ockfen. Ockfener Bockstein is considered a Grand-Cru vineyard. It’s located on a 50-degree slope so the sun’s rays have more direct contact with the vines. The soils are filled with hard, gravelly slate, which also retains heat. Most importantly, the hill is topped with an extensive forest that retains water and allows the water to drain slowly to the subsoil of the vineyard. The combination of these factors make Ockfener Bockstein the most refined wines they make. For a taste of a top-flight spatlese, this wine fits the bill and costs significantly less than many other of the great Mosel spatlese wines out there.