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  • July 2, 2015
  • Riesling Feinherb from the Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer—an Enigma?

  • by Stephan Bauer

label_max_ferd_richter_2013If there is one category of German Riesling that I don’t fully grasp, it’s feinherb. Why is that? Is it because it doesn’t have a clear profile, such as trocken (dry) or residually sweet Riesling? Is it because producers are still experimenting with the style between dry and sweet? Is it because some wines taste similar to those that used to be produced in the past, but were never labeled as “feinherb”? I’m not sure myself. Therefore, this write-up is not about answers, but more about questions, thoughts, and experiences.

The term "feinherb" on a label of German Riesling is a fairly recent development. The term is neither defined by the German Wine Law nor by any EU regulation or directive. It was only in 2003 that the German Federal Administrative Court clarified that a wine may be labeled as feinherb. But only some producers print the word feinherb on their labels. Quite a few producers simply name their wines by the vineyard or by a fantasy name. You have to know the producer to know if the wine is really dry or not. And some German Rieslings are not labeled trocken, halbtrocken (“half-dry”), or feinherb. They may be dry in one year, (legally) halbtrocken in another, or sweeter the next, depending on where the residual-sugar level during fermentation ended or was stopped.

The legally defined term halbtrocken, which comes closest in style to feinherb, means the wines have between 9 and 18 grams of residual sugar per liter. The residual sugar can be no more than 10, or higher than the tartaric acid in the wine. While halbtrocken is fairly easy to understand, the term is out of favor in the high-quality sector. This likely has to do with consumer perception of halbtrocken wines as neither fish nor fowl—as easy to like, but dry wines for people who don’t really like dry. In addition, producers like the flexibility that the term "feinherb" gives them for wines that are not legally halbtrocken, but also are not as sweet as consumers usually expect from a “classic” fruity wine of the same Prädikat.

So what are feinherb Rieslings? The best way to describe them is probably the same as halbtrocken, with sometimes a higher level of sweetness—but not always. In fact, it’s hard to say what feinherb tastes like, as there are so many different styles, ranging from light and almost dry to opulent and—depending on the vintage—quite sweet. There is one style, though, that many people associate with feinherb today, namely, ripe to very ripe Riesling grapes fermented with wild yeasts until the yeasts slow down (or, in some cases, the fermentation is stopped artificially). And there are two producers who are (or were) best known for this style, even though they never had the term on their labels: Heymann-Löwenstein in Winningen (Lower Mosel) and Van Volxem in Wiltingen (Saar). Both were heralded by many as the leaders of a new movement that harkens back to the roots of the Mosel. In other words, the producers were inspired by the early 20th-century style of Mosel and Saar Rieslings that didn’t always ferment dry, as fermentation wasn’t as easily stopped by technical means. Improved techniques to help bottle wines made from arrested fermentation (by cooling and sterile filtering) were used on a broader scale only after the Second World War. Therefore, the fruity/sweet style of Riesling that became prevalent in the post-war years (Spätlese and Auslese) was regarded for a long time as the “classic” Riesling style in the Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer (and still is today).

Reinhard Löwenstein of Heymann-Löwenstein was one of the first Mosel winemakers who introduced a different style to the broad public—with a ripeness of fruit that reminded wine drinkers more of certain producers in the Wachau or Alsace, oftentimes with some botrytis fruit, sometimes a certain creamy mouthfeel due to malolactic conversion. In many cases, these have a dense and slightly astringent edge due to longer macerations on the skins than practiced by other Mosel producers. The results were polarizing. It took me a while and many bottles to understand this style. The wines age very well. But botrytis, moderate sweetness, noticeable alcohol, or astringent notes sometimes stick out and dominate the overall impression, and it seems harder to know when these wines are not in their best phase than it does with dry or fruity-sweet Rieslings. If you catch a good bottle at the right moment, these wines can be heaven on earth (like a recently tasted 2007 Winninger Uhlen Roth-Lay). But they can also seem out of balance, sweet, or more alcoholic than they actually are.

Löwenstein’s style inspired a few other Mosel and Saar producers to produce wines in a similar vein. Van Volxem, with Gernot Kollmann and later Dominik Völk (winemaker since the 2004 vintage), Clemens Busch, and the Lochs of Weinhof Herrenberg are among the most prominent names. This fairly new style sparked lots of discussions. Some saw it as the old-style of Mosel wine. Others liked that it varied from the prevalent light style of sweet Rieslings from stopped fermentations, while some rejected it as atypical for the region and an imitation of the ripe, botrytis-influenced Rieslings made by well-known producers like Emmerich Knoll, F.X. Pichler, or Franz Hirtzberger in the Wachau, as well as Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace.

Fashions come and go, and today the debate that was going on in the early 2000s has calmed down. In fact, feinherb Riesling has been produced all these years in many different styles, not just that of Löwenstein: some producers stop the fermentation of their mostly botrytis-free Rieslings at a lower level of residual sugar than their fruity-sweet wines, typically somewhere between 10 and 30 grams of sugar per liter, and produce wines ranging from light and airy to ripe and full-bodied. Some bottle the wines when the fermentation stops naturally at a similar level of sweetness. Some write “feinherb” on the label, others don’t. Some identify the ripeness of the grapes by designating the wines with a Prädikat (Kabinett, Spätlese, or Auslese), others simply write the name of the vineyard on the label. At Heymann-Löwenstein and Van Volxem, the Rieslings from the last few vintages have been a little drier than before and it seems that their style is changing as it is at other estates.

Two producers which have a somewhat similar approach to feinherb Mosel Riesling are Max Ferd. Richter in Mülheim and Immich-Batterieberg in Enkirch. When asked about the relevance of feinherb Riesling at his traditional family estate, Constantin Richter emphasizes that it’s increasing. The estate produces four or more different feinherb Rieslings each year, from different vineyards and at different ripeness levels (usually Kabinett and Spätlese). For Constantin Richter, feinherb has replaced the fruity-sweet Kabinett and Spätlese wines of the 1970s and 1980s. Due to climate change, the grapes ripen differently from back then. Reaching an Oechsle level of 85 to 95 degrees is the rule rather than the exception, and harvesting phenolically ripe grapes at an Oechsle of 75 degrees (which is just above the low legal minimum ripeness for Kabinett) is not that easy, says Richter. He sees a trend towards wines with not as much residual sugar, but still with some sweetness that has been a hallmark of Mosel Riesling for years. At Richter, in most cases, the fermentation of feinherb Rieslings is not arrested, but, rather, it stops on its own because their cellar is rather cold. In some cases, the fermentation is stopped at the desired level of sweetness, but this is rather the exception than the rule. For Richter, the feinherb style suits especially the wines from the cooler vineyards, like Mülheimer Sonnenlay. This could be seen in a tasting of four different Kabinett feinherb wines from the 2007 vintage, where the Mülheimer Sonnenlay stood out due to its almost Ruwer-like flavor profile of white currant, herbs, and gooseberry.

Gernot Kollmann, co-owner and winemaker at Immich-Batterieberg, doesn’t produce feinherb wines every year. The wines ferment as long as they do and are sometimes dry and sometimes off-dry. It all depends on the vintage. In 2009, the first vintage since the estate was resurrected after a longer hiatus, only one wine was legally dry, or trocken, whereas, in other years, almost all the wines are trocken. Kollmann says that he slightly prefers his Rieslings dry, but doesn’t mind if a little residual sugar remains, especially in high-acid years, like 2010, in order to balance the acidity. When asked what he does differently from his four-year period at Van Volxem (vintages 2000 to 2003), he says that the practical differences are not huge, but that he now aims for lower ripeness and less richness at Immich-Batterieberg. Kollmann remembers the time when the market asked for more opulent wines from just about everywhere, even from the Saar. This is when the sometimes extremely rich wines from Zind-Humbrecht—with alcohol levels often surpassing 14 percent alcohol, and sometimes even 15, with still some residual sweetness—fetched the highest ratings from The Wine Advocate. According to Kollmann, this is no longer the case and that’s fine with him.

Both Kollmann and Richter agree that it’s difficult to pin down what a feinherb Riesling really is, as there is no maximum level of residual sugar. In their opinion, some wines labeled as feinherb are too sweet to still count as such, which for them is a style of wine that is neither dry nor sweet but can taste dry (harmoniously dry) in high-acid years. Kollmann names the 2008s of Peter Lauer as being very successful representatives of a feinherb style. Constantin Richter particularly likes the Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett feinherb from Günther Steinmetz and the Bernkasteler Badstube Spätlese feinherb from Joh. Jos. Prüm (which has not been produced for some years now).

While some publications, like Gault&Millau, plead for a narrower definition of feinherb, and there are even discussions to do this, it’s also good how different producers interpret the feinherb style and how the wines develop in the glass and bottle. I find that hardly any other Riesling style is such a chameleon. A wine from the same bottle drunk over the course of several days and at different temperatures can seem quite sweet at one point and almost dry at the next. It can taste a bit heavy at one moment and light and airy at another. Whenever prominent voices, such as Gault & Millau, ask for “taste corridors,” it’s important to keep in mind that it’s the variety of possible styles that is unique to the different parts of the Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer. In few regions of the world, the climatic conditions allow for such a variety of styles, even in a relatively narrow category such as feinherb. Therefore, while a more precise definition would help consumers to know what to expect, it’s also good to have a “freestyle” kind of category of Riesling where a lot is possible and where producers are not restricted by legal or expected residual-sugar requirements. Feinherb is a bit of a lucky bag and while it may contain disappointments, the joy is all the more intense if you grab the toy from the bag that you’ve been dreaming of since childhood. ♦

Image courtesy of Constantin Richter.

Stephan Bauer is a lawyer and passionate wine amateur whose focus is on the wines of Germany and France. He lives in Hamburg and is an occasional contributor to Christoph Raffelt's award-winning wine blog originalverkorkt, where he writes about the wines of Beaujolais.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Thank you for the really informative article, Stephan, on a very interesting style of Riesling that I happen to really enjoy.

    One thing that I’ll throw in is that Selbach-Oster is currently using both the feinherb and the halbtrocken designations. The off-dry Kabinett from Zeltinger Himmelreich is still labeled as Halbtrocken, as it has been for years. In the last few vintages, Selbach-Oster has introduced old-vine Spätlesen from Zeltinger Sonnenuhr and Graacher Domprobst, which are labeled as Feinherb. Perhaps the Himmelreich Kabinett gets stuck with the older designation due to the lower pradikat and the lesser site it originates from – nonetheless, it’s a very reliable wine year in and year out. Anyway, I’d be interested to know if any other producers are using both terms.

    • Selbach-Oster is one of the last top producers to use both terms. In this case, feinherb designates a wine between halbtrocken and “fruity.” Selbach-Oster’s Graacher Domprobst Spätlese feinherb Alte Reben and Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlese feinherb “Ur” alte Reben (“very” old vines) have more than 18 grams of sugar and are probably closer to 30 grams. Weingut Günther Steinmetz once did this as well. Today, winemaker Stefan Steinmetz only designates his Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett as feinherb, which is one of my favorite wines in his portfolio each vintage and is usually above 20 grams. He no longer uses the term “halbtrocken” for any of his Mosel Rieslings. For his high-end single-vineyard dry to dry-tasting wines, he doesn’t indicate sweetness and he has dropped the predicate.

      As Stephan pointed out in his article above, feinherb is a legally undefined term. It is supposed to mean off-dry. In 1998, the term was first used for Mosel wine by Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt for their Rieslings between 9 and 15 grams of sugar, but the regulatory authority in Trier would eventually take them to court. They contested, “any information that is not required on the label is prohibited from appearing there.” In 2002, the authorities permitted the use of the term “feinherb”. Since then, a number of producers have preferred to substitute feinherb for halbtrocken, although most still use feinherb to also designate Rieslings which have somewhat higher residual sugar than what is legally stipulated for halbtrocken, which never really caught on as a term. Others, like Van Volxem and Immich-Batterieberg, have done away with all dry and off-dry designations on labels.

      Weiser-Künstler took off the term “feinherb” on their entry-level Riesling and other wines, as many German drinkers don’t know what this exactly means, even if it sounds better than “half-dry.” On visits to Berlin, Konstantin Weiser said that feinherb confused consumers. The term is used for some beers, but it doesn’t translate to wine. Many producers don’t put a designation on their label for wines in the halbtrocken–feinherb range.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for these stimulating thoughts, to which I’ll add a few of my own.

    I was thrilled when within a couple of years of feinherb being permitted on labels, it became clear from grower anecdotes and sales figures that utilization of this designation in lieu of halbtrocken was going to make non-trocken Riesling acceptable for the first time to many German wine drinkers who had heretofore insisted on the imprimatur trocken. This meant in my view that they could double their Riesling pleasure by discovering the singular attractions and culinary possibilities afforded by “hidden” sweetness, a phenomenon possible with few other grapes and in few other places (perhaps arguably otherwise only with Chenin in parts of the Central Loire). I worry that a huge opportunity was missed when those growers who wanted to see feinherb defined by law as a precise alternative to halbtrocken lost out to ones who preferred that it remain entirely elastic. The danger is that feinherb becomes a mere buzz word after being routinely attached at certain addresses to Rieslings whose prominence of residual sugar would have made a Mosel grower of the ’60s or ’70s blush if featured in a “sweet” Kabinett. But there’s no going back. Feinherb is here to stay, and it is never going to be confined to precise parameters. So we can only sit back and see whether or for how long it retains its usefulness. Response in the U.S. seems to suggest that its literal indefinability is no bar to acceptance; it’s certainly more euphonious than halbtrocken; and consumers readily and correctly assume that fein literally means fine.

    If feinherb eventually flops in or fades from the marketplace, then we may be headed for a situation already familiar from Vouvray and Montlouis, where only a few of the top growers continue to label or even refer to their wines with the terms “sec,” “sec tendre” or “demi-sec.” Instead, it’s up to their customers to learn whatever winery-internal conventions apply, and whether wines from a certain site or with a certain fantasy name can be reliably associated with an approximate level of sweetness or are instead finished according to the dictates of each vintage. Such a situation seems ill-suited to a global marketplace, but I can’t say that I have observed it to inhibit the sale of Loire Chenin Blanc in retail stores or restaurants stateside or in France. I’m personally happy to see the word halbtrocken on a Riesling label since such wines, if well-executed, exhibit precisely the hidden sweetness I find lovely in itself and critical in many culinary contexts. But I doubt that there is any calling back the ebb tide of halbtrocken either. It has already flopped and faded in the German marketplace, and no grower is going to reserve it for bottlings sold abroad.

    Permit me to elaborate on the observation that “[a]t Heymann-Löwenstein and Van Volxem, the Rieslings from the last few vintages have been a little drier than before … .” Specifically, those of Löwenstein have become legally trocken, a stylistic move surely in part driven by the desire to qualify for the VDP’s prestige category Grosses Gewächs. (Niewodniczanski has thus far at least shown no interest in so-qualifying.) Conditions in vintages 2012–2014 were such that elevated alcohol was not going to be a serious worry for a Mosel grower who wished to see to it that musts at the ripe end of the vintage’s spectrum finished dry. But in many other recent vintages, I wonder whether the Rieslings at these two addresses would have been as expressive and well-balanced as they in fact are, had they been permitted, encouraged, or compelled to finish in single digits of residual sugar.

    I’m puzzled by the attempt to draw a connection between Rieslings of the Wachau – whether Smaragd, Federspiel or Steinfeder – and the off-dry style of Riesling (once) favored by Löwenstein, let alone those of the Lochs or at Immich-Batterieberg and Van Volxem. Any Wachau wine qualifying for one of the Vinea Wachau’s three aforementioned categories must be analytically dry. And the intersection of style with what seem to be typical geological influences of so-called Urgestein, make for finishing characteristics practically adamant and incisive when compared with a Riesling from Löwenstein or Niewodniczanski. To the extent that opulence became a feature of Wachau Riesling during the late ’90s and early ’00s – and then at by no means all of this region’s top estates – that was a function of elevated alcohol in Smaragd bottlings, a phenomenon (thankfully) largely absent from the Mosel portfolios in question. (I wrote “largely” after remembering a few top-heavy Löwenstein bottlings, though none from the past decade.) The Wachau also developed something of a reputation during this period for embracing botrytis – again, solely in the case of Smaragd – but it was much more prominent (as was alcohol) in Grüner Veltliner than in Riesling.

    What I do clearly recall from this same period was the number of German growers in regions other than the Mosel who consciously borrowed stylistic elements from the Wachau, whose Rieslings had rapidly risen in prestige even as they did in alcohol, with Germany being the first market outside Austria where they were received with adulation by critics, gastronomes and fellow wine-growers. Künstler and Leitz each used to joke about certain dry wines representing ‘my Wachauer,’ in each instance referring to one that featured botrytis.

    It’s also worth pointing out in this regard that contrary to a widely-shared opinion passed on in this piece as well, alcohol and residual sugar levels at Zind-Humbrecht have for at least the past three decades been overwhelmingly a function of vintage, not stylistic decision. In largely botrytis-free vintages where ripe flavors could be achieved without elevated must weights, the Rieslings at this address have been dry and modest in alcohol. Whether such wines were overshadowed in the press by those of vintages marked by elevated must weights and botrytis opulence (even in non-V.T. wines) is another question. Fermentation at Zind-Humbrecht is spontaneous and its progress in Fuder, while carefully monitored, is almost never arrested by any sort of intervention. Wines that “want” to keep fermenting even as their successors are getting picked have permission to continue. Precisely the occasional dry Zind-Humbrecht bottling that has reached problematic levels of alcohol (their dry 2011 Rangen Pinot Gris notoriously possessed an impossible-to-hide 15.6%) demonstrates a determination to let nature take its fermentative course.

    • Thanks for your long comment, David. As I indicated in my previous reply, I think feinherb has lost ground in recent years. More and more top producers, such as A.J. Adam and Weiser-Künstler, no longer use the term on their labels.

      I tend to like wines designated as Kabinett or Spätlese feinherb, because so many “fruity” Kabinett and Spätlese wines are overly sweet.

      The VDP has decided to define “Kabinett feinherb” from 18 to 30 grams, even though their new definition of Kabinett is from 18 to 60 grams.

      You wrote that “[halbtrocken] has already flopped and faded in the German marketplace, and no grower is going to reserve it for bottlings sold abroad.” But Selbach-Oster still sells their Zeltinger Himmelreich Kabinett halbtrocken in the States.

      Roman at Van Volxem has been seeking to make somewhat lighter and drier wines since 2008.

      At Zind-Humbrecht, I’m sure you meant various-sized Stückfässer, or oval oak casks, not Moselfuder.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    What I meant by “reserve” was that even though U.S. wine drinkers may prove more accepting of the designation “halbtrocken” than are Germans, no grower is likely to perpetuate use of “halbtrocken” solely for the sake of a bottling sold in the U.S. market. Selbach-Oster’s Zeltinger Himmelreich Kabinett (which has for many years been their sole halbtrocken bottling) is sold in virtually all of their markets. It also happens to be an example of a use of “halbtrocken” that will likely continue indefinitely, simply because it is so firmly associated by Selbachs’ customers with one bottling.

    Yes, I of course meant collectively large casks at Zind-Humbrecht, most of which are in German terms Stück- and Doppelstückfässer.

    • Okay, I wasn’t sure what you meant. It’s interesting how Selbach and Steinmetz chose to define feinherb as a separate category that is sweeter than halbtrocken. Most producers just replaced feinherb with halbtrocken and have the added flexibility of bottling wines higher than 18 grams. Of course, Steinmetz no longer uses the term “halbtrocken”. He just has Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett feinherb, which in some vintages is above 20 grams. In contrast, Stein’s excellent St. Aldegunder Himmelreich Kabinett feinherb is a wine that usually has only 14 grams, and thus is legally “half-dry.”

    • Andrew Bair says:

      David,
      You raise a good point about the Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Himmelreich Kabinett keeping ‘Halbtrocken’ because it’s an established “brand” for them. I was actually thinking along the same lines while writing my original post. Interesting to note that it’s labelled as “Halbtrocken” in all markets – I had also wondered if it was only this way for the American market.

      Going off on a tangent, I’m having a hard time getting used to the new labels on some of the Selbach-Oster wines.

      • On the new label, it might have looked odd to have “Selbach-” above “Oster,” rather than “Selbach,” but people who don’t know the estate will think that the name “Selbach-Oster” is without a hyphen now. The previous label had a more classic look. But the new design looks good without being too sleek. I’m glad that the Selbachs didn’t switch to the extra-tall bottles.

  • Stephan Bauer says:

    Hi David, thanks for your comments. The Wachau reference was meant to refer to Smaragd Rieslings, but you’re right that it’s confusing. While the Smaragd Rieslings have to be below 9 g/l to qualify for the Vinea Wachau Smaragd label, to me some of the Rieslings from the late 90s or from extreme vintages such as 2006 taste a lot sweeter than they actually are, which may be due to botrytis, fairly low acidity and/or high alcohol (to me alcohol emphasizes sweetness). To me, some Heymann-Löwenstein, Clemens Busch or earlier Van Volxem Rieslings can taste similarly opulent, even though they are usually lower in alcohol (however, Löwenstein reached 14.5% Vol. alcohol for some of his 2010s, Clemens Busch the same ABV level for some of his 2007s). It’s a very broad comparision and things differ from producer to producer, from vintage to vintage and from vineyard to vineyard, but I’d rather compare a Heymann-Löwenstein Riesling from a warmer Botrytis-rich year to a Wachau Smaragd Riesling than (for example) to a botrytis-free dry Riesling Großes Gewächs from e.g. Rheinhessen.

    Re Zind-Humbrecht, I’d generally agree and actually the alcohol and residual sugar levels weren’t even that high in Humbrecht’s Rieslings when I look at some of the stats I have. Still, I’m not sure it’s really just a vintage question. I’d say it’s also a stylistic question and Olivier Humbrecht told me à propos his 2012 vintage that he’s generally aiming for drier and a little less opulent Rieslings than he did before.

    Re the use of “feinherb” by growers: I would actually think that feinherb will eventually be a label just for Kabinett and maybe a few Spätlesen, as can already be seen today. What Constantin Richter says seems plausible to me and I can see it at some friends of mine, for whom Kabinett feinherb is their favorite style – simply because it’s not very high in alcohol (usually somehwere in between 9 and 11% Vol. alcohol), but also not really sweet. I would think that it may eventually replace halbtrocken, but maybe with a wider permitted sweetness range.

    It is strange that half-dry wines seem so out of fashion these days. As you say, halbtrocken is factually dead and feinherb the only possible half-meaningful (if not legally defined) designation in Germany for half-dry wines. In Vouvray and Montlouis it really seems to be in decline as well, that’s true. One example is the reported debate at Huet between Noel Pinguet and the owners about the decision of the owners to make more dry and less half-dry and sweet Vouvray. In some regions where half-dry wines may or do actually “work” (and not just taste sweet), e.g. Jurancon, central Loire outside of Vouvray/Montlouis, there is no designation for half-dry wines and e.g. in Jurancon, wines above or below a certain level of residual sugar are not even allowed to carry the AOC.

    • Stephan, I agree with you that some Mosel wines, especially from the producers that you listed, can taste rather opulent, as well as marked by botrytis.

      On my visit to Zind-Humbrecht several years ago, I also got the impression that Olivier was favoring a more ripe style at the time. As with Roman at Van Volxem, he seems to be seeking somewhat lighter and drier wines now. Olivier also said that he isn’t a fan of sweet Mosels made from arrested fermentation.

      At Hofgut Falkenstein, the Webers will continue to label their Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spätlese as feinherb. It’s their most popular wine, also in Germany. In certain vintages, like 2014, the residual sugar is well above 18 grams. It’s good to know that you have friends that like Kabinett feinherb.

      That’s what I read about Huet. As I’ve pointed out to David and others before, I noticed that either really dry or sweet Mosels were received best at my Mosel Wine Merchant tastings in Paris, not the near-dry Mosels with 14 or so grams. Florian Lauer sells a lot of Riesling feinherb in Germany, but he says that his French friends don’t appreciate this style as much. I don’t think it’s just a German hardheadedness for “dry.” That’s what a lot of people want to drink. But this is changing some.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Incidentally, Lars, Josts in Bacharach introduced “feinherb,” almost as soon as it became legal, solely for wines that finished on the cusp of legal Trockenheit, i.e. at 10-13 grams. This is a clear example of how growers planned to instrumentally define the term in winery-internal, winery-specific ways. But I maintain that it’s one thing to refer to Rieslings as feinherb that hover around 10-13 grams as well as ones in the 18-22 gram range, but quite another to include wines of 25-30 grams that are manifestly (if deliciously) sweet. A situation like that is bound to lead to consumers drawing one of two conclusions: either “Feinherb” is too elastic to serve as an effective guide to a wine’s sense of sweetness or else “Feinherb” doesn’t actually refer to degree of dryness or sweetness, in which case to what on earth does it refer?

    You are right, Stephan, high alcohol Smaragd Rieslings can indeed exhibit some sense of sweetness for all of the reasons you indicated, and to that extent I now see what you were getting at.

    Re Zind Humbrecht, thanks for the reminder that I ought to have clarified my comment regarding “the last three decades.” Yes, beginning with 2011 Olivier has indeed made it a stated stylistic goal to encourage Riesling to reach dryness. (Only the 2011 fruit from Heimbourg and Brand-Schneckenberg exhibited significant sweetness. And the issue was essentially moot in 2010, high acidity and modest must weights having dictated dryness save from the Schneckenberg sector of Brand)

    As you note, the apparent death of “halbtrocken” or its equivalents is strange. It’s also worrisome for those of us who value those wines that can be gloriously expressive at “hidden” levels of residual sugar. If there is not a name for them, consumers might have difficulty requesting them, and the decline could feed on itself. It’s important to note, though, that this doesn’t seem to be happening among growers in Montlouis or Vouvray who have stopped labeling for “sec” or “demi-sec” styles, nor is it happening among the numerous top Saar winegrowers who have similarly ceased labeling wines “halbtrocken” OR “trocken.” So perhaps the best thing that could happen, given that “halbtrocken” has been rejected and “feinherb” is probably (eventually) headed for vacuity would be if more growers of Riesling would take their cue from these Loire and Saar growers. Lauer, Loch, and Siemens certainly make clear on their price lists which wines are “dry-tasting” and which exhibit subtle (or not-so-subtle) sweetness. But of course that won’t help someone who purchases them from a shop or restaurant list.

    (I’m a bit skeptical, given how I’ve seen it used, of the scale of dryness that the International Riesling Foundation promotes. Zind-Humbrecht has labeled for dryness on their own scale for some years now. They’re very consistent and conscientious about this, but of course it represents yet another instance of something winery-internal and winery-specific.)

    • Florian Lauer, who has regularly bottled feinherb wines above 30 grams of residual sugar, says that the Saar is different from other areas of the Mosel, much less the Mittelrhein, Nahe, or Rheingau. He feels that the extra-high acidity and low pH of the Saar makes a wine with even 30-plus grams of sugar taste fairly dry. It depends on the wine and vintage of course. As you know, Erich and Johannes Weber of Falkenstein have sometimes bottled Spätlese feinherb wines with about 30 grams of sugar that taste drier than other producers’ wines with less than 15 grams.

  • Stephan Bauer says:

    Hi David,

    when you write “So perhaps the best thing that could happen, given that “halbtrocken” has been rejected and “feinherb” is probably (eventually) headed for vacuity would be if more growers of Riesling would take their cue from these Loire and Saar growers. Lauer, Loch, and Siemens certainly make clear on their price lists which wines are “dry-tasting” and which exhibit subtle (or not-so-subtle) sweetness. But of course that won’t help someone who purchases them from a shop or restaurant list.”, this exemplifies well what the chances, but also the risks of making Rieslings with a little, but not very much sweetness.

    I think it has become a big problem for Alsace wines that consumers don’t know what they’re getting (in many cases). I know Germans are a little complicated when it comes to residual sugar, but in Germany, Alsace wines and Riesling among them, has no customer base anymore. And I think Germany is not the only country, in which the thirst for Alsace wines has dried down a bit. I would really think that this is not due to people truly hating a little sweetness, but rather that they cannot be assured of a wine being dry (i.e. labeled as dry). This decline in sales may have been one reason for the Alsaciens to introduce the obligation of labeling a wine as sec if it has below 4 g/l of residual sugar. So the wave of sometimes dry, sometimes off-dry Saar and Mosel Rieslings where nothing but the grape and the vineyard is mentioned on the label could lead to a similar situation as in Alsace.

    On the other hand, this may broaden the customer base. At least in Germany, many wine drinkers want to drink wines labelled as dry (you hear the question “is this wine dry” a lot in restaurants), but don’t want wines that are really dry. Therefore, “halbtrocken” and maybe even “feinherb” may be problematic for some consumers as they reject all wines that are marked as something else than dry. If nothing is marked at all and the wines are “harmonically dry” or have the “hidden sweetness” that you mention, those wines may also please those who say they want dry, but don’t actually want it.

  • Stephan Bauer says:

    On another note, yesterday night a friend of mine organized an evening of 2005 Rieslings (the third of this kind this year) and we started off with five Mosel Rieslings from a vintage which was very highly rated by Gault Millau, but seems to have fallen out of fashion with a lot of wine drinkers.

    The first three wines were from the Terassenmosel, Franzen – 2005 Bremmer Calmont Riesling Goldkapsel (13% alc), Knebel – 2005 Winninger Uhlen Riesling Spätlese trocken (13% alc) and Heymann-Löwenstein – 2005 Winninger Uhlen Riesling Roth Lay (12.5% alc). The Knebel was stylistically completely different from the Franzen and the Heymann-Löwenstein: dry, but not bone dry, botrytis-free and rather straight whereas for my palate the Franzen and the Heymann-Löwenstein were difficult to drink due to their mild acidity, very high ripeness of fruit, opulent character and botrytis. It’s really stunning to see how Knebel and Löwenstein produce totally different styles from the same vintage and vineyard.

    The two other wines were both from Kanzemer Altenberg – 2005 Van Volxem Alte Reben (12% alc) and 2005 von Othegraven Erste Lage (a whopping 14% alc). These two wines were really quite extreme. The von Othegraven had so much botrytis and was so opulent that I would never have thought of the Saar. I really loved that wine from 2004, but the 2004 was completely different from the 2005. The Van Volxem was better and less opulent, but very sweet. I don’t know the exact amount of residual sugar of the Van Volxem, but I would guess it’s way above 20 g/l.

    On our table, most liked those wines more than me, but at the end of the night nobody was truly crazy about them (except for the Knebel and that included myself).

    • Stephan, I worked the entire harvest at Knebel in the 2005 vintage. Maybe that was the reason for the high quality. Joking aside, 2005 was Gernot Kollmann’s first full vintage making all but the dessert wines at Knebel. I’ve fond memories of the harvest there. The 2006 vintage was, however, more opulent and affected by botrytis.

      I think a good measuring stick for wine is Trinkfluss, or how well a wine goes down. It’s the bottles that are quickly emptied. That’s Mosel wine’s charm.

    • Andrew Bair says:

      Just a few more thoughts/comments:

      Stephan: I appreciate you update on the 2005 von Othegraven Altenberg Alte Reben. Sounds like it was good that I drank my bottle of this back in 2009, when it was showing much better balance.

      Re: Zind-Humbrecht – I attended a Z-H tasting this spring featuring mostly 2013s. There were two Rieslings, and the Brand tasted off-dry to me, although well balanced. Unlike in some past vintages (2005 and 2007 come to mind), I did not come across anything that was overripe.
      I definitely recommend the bone dry 2013 Riesling Vin Sec Terroir d’Alsace. It may be hard to locate, though, as I was told that it is mostly sold to restaurants in France.

      As for Loire Chenin, I’ve never understood the difference, if any, between Demi-Sec and Tendre.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for your additional thoughts Stephan.

    A lot of evidence growers present to me albeit anecdotal suggests that “[i]f nothing is marked at all and the wines are ‘harmonically dry’ or have the ‘hidden sweetness’ that [I] mention, those wines” W I L L “also please those who say they want dry … .”

    The Alsace 4 gram regulation exempts cru and other single-site bottlings but may still prove useful over time in convincing consumers in the region’s export markets who were turned-off by sweetness and/or unpredictability to once again favor Alsace Riesling. That could however take quite a lot of time!

    The problem for Alsace really has to be looked at more broadly. Back in the ’80s when I scored many of my earliest commercial successes and garnered by first positive press as a merchant strongly promoting the wines of Alsace (as well as treating that region in my first two published wine articles), my message and that of the regional interprofessional committee was quite simple: “Amazing diversity makes for wines suitable to any cuisine and occasion, most of them inimitable elsewhere. What’s more, despite the Germanic names you see on their labels and despite what is routinely rendered from these same cépages in Germany and the United States (or, in the case of Muscat, in Mediterranean lands), Alsace whites are with rare exceptions (clearly labled as ‘VT) DRY.” Once the fashion inside Alsace and the approach of her growers rendered Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat routinely not just off-dry but downright sweet, such a simple promotional message became impossible.

    Certainly changing weather was a factor along with changing local (or at least, I suspect they were local) changes in preference. The Auxerrois and Sylvaner started routinely losing so much of their already naturally modest acidity even when harvested at the first taste of (bare) ripeness that even a few grams of residual sugar rendered them off-dry tasting. True Pinot Blanc largely disappeared from still wine blends as it represented the only suitable cépage on which to rely for Crémant base wine. And then the drive to make ever-riper representations of “cru” sites, when combined with the weather, meant that precisely the most expensive and ostensibly best Riesling were also increasingly turning-up off-dry or sweet.

    2005 is a vintage with many over-the-top and/or botrytis challenged dry German Rieslings and a perfect example of what I had in mind in my original posting when I suggested that Löwenstein or other Moselaner who moved in a drier direction in 2012-2014 won’t always be blessed with weather that renders legal dryness unproblematic.

    • Andrew Bair says:

      Thank you for the comments, David. Am I alone in wishing that Alsatian producers would stop labeling Auxerrois-dominated wines as Pinot Blanc? Alsatian wine is already confusing enough for most American buyers, but a top Auxerrois can be a real value.

      On another tangent, I had the 2009 Z-H Pinot Noir Heimbourg recently, and it showed really nicely – mature, well balanced, with intriguing black tea and coffee flavors. Almost up to the standard of Deiss’ Burlenburg, in my humble opinion; and I love Jean-Michel Deiss’ field blends.

  • Eric Steinberg says:

    Belated thanks, Stephan, for your very interesting article. During a week-long visit to Trier in May, I was able to taste 11 Mosel feinherb wines from respected producers. The wines exhibited the stylistic diversity you note in the article; with the exception of a couple bland examples, they were extremely enjoyable and worked well as accompaniments to food. Two of my favorites, Molitor’s 2010 Bernkasteler Badstube Spatlese feinherb and the St. Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein feinherb illustrated this diversity. The former was rich in fruit (but not sweet), had balancing acidity, as well as minerality in the finish. The latter was seemingly less developed and not nearly as rich as the Bernkasteler but had an attractive vivacity. The delicacy and low residual sugar of the Saar feinherb wines I tasted remind me of certain Saar wines from the late 1960s and 1971.

    I would add a couple comments about use of the term ‘feinherb.’ As an inveterate collector of German wine lists, I occasionally have found the term in descriptions of particular wines on lists prior to 2002. For instance, on a 1987 wine list from Lauerberg, the term appears in the description of the estate’s 1985 Bernkasteler Badstube Spatlese trocken. Similarly, Schloss Saarstein’s May 2000 wine list includes the following description of its 1999 Serriger Schloss Saarsteiner Spatlese halbtrocken: “klassischer feinherber Riesling.” I find it interesting that the list of wine appreciation terms in Hans Ambrosi’s 1976 book “Where the Great German Wines Grow,” are “fein,” which he characterizes as “delicate,” and “herb,” characterized as “the wine has pronounced acidity and little residual sugar.”

    • Thanks for your comment, Eric. I’m glad that a number of readers have liked Stephan’s article. I also appreciate your going back to those old wine lists and finding “feinherb” as a descriptor for certain Mosel wines. The term “herb” means dry or tangy. It’s also used for hoppy pilsners, such as Bitburger Pils.

      • Andrew Bair says:

        Just for the sake of comparison: In Ian Jamieson’s 1992 book, “The Simon and Schuster Guide to the Wines of Germany”, ‘Herb’ is defined as meaning austere. Jamieson adds that restaurants sometimes use ‘herb’ to denote a Trocken wine, and that it “elsewhere generally describes the effect of tannin in red wine, without residual sugar.”. This book is essentially an English dictionary of German wine terminology. Nonetheless, Jamieson neglected to define the word “fein”, outside of “feine” as a qualifier of an estate’s superior QmP wines in the years before the much-maligned 1971 law.
        I don’t know much about Jamieson, aside from that he is/was a MW who wrote a lot in English about German wines in the 1980s and 1990s. This was another book that I found for a couple of dollars at the local used bookstore.

        • Yes, herb can also mean austere. The term “feinherb” is for marketing. It was first used by von Kesselstatt in 1998 for its near-dry wines. Even the terms “trocken” and “halbtrocken” were part of the 1971 Wine Law. The terms weren’t used before then. I’ve only found references to Sekt trocken in the late 19th century.

  • Stephan Bauer says:

    How about “tart” as a translation to “herb”. Actually, I’d say that consumers in Germany today don’t really take the term “feinherb” literally (which they may have done when the term was introduced), but rather take it as a different word for “halbtrocken” (half-dry). In a way, “feinherb” makes sense in describing certain Rieslings with fairly high acidity, but some sweetness, so that the wine tastes “harmonically dry” like biting into an apple of the acidic kind (such as Boskopp) where the acidity hits you, but there’s some sweetness, too. What doesn’t make sense to me is labelling wines made from not very acidic grape varieties (such as Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc) “feinherb” as it’s practiced by some producers for the mass market. Those wines just taste “non-dry” or outright sweet, but don’t have that “noble austerity” or however may call it for Riesling.

  • Weiser-Künstler dropped the predicate “Spätlese” for its feinherb wines a few vintages ago. It seems Selbach-Oster has done the same for its old-vine (Alte Reben) and “very” old-vine (“Ur” alte Reben) Riesling feinherb wines. At least, the new design no longer has the predicate on the front label.

    It’s interesting how the predicates are only used for sweet wines, even among non-VDP members, as if dry and off-dry Riesling doesn’t need to indicate an unchaptalized wine. In other words, the predicates are more an indication of residual sweetness than the original idea of “natural wine,” in the sense of no sugar added to the must.

  • Brent Goff says:

    Hi Lars,
    In reading this conversation for the first time here in late November, I would just add re: your July 3 2015 post, that A.J. Adam, at least on the bottling available in Canada, does use the Feinherb term on the back label of their 2015 ‘in der Sangerei’.

  • On Instagram, I noticed that Income Tax, in Chicago, had a bottle of 2015 Ayler Kupp Spätlese feinherb from VOLS. I didn’t realize that Helmut Plunien made such a Spätlese? It suddenly occurred to me that Terry Theise has all of these feinherb-designated bottlings in his portfolio. On pages 7 and 8 of his 2016 German catalog, I see why. He’s selling feinherb as a better version of “dry.” But our friend David Schildknecht astutely points out that it’s exactly the opposite. Terry is “using ‘feinherb’ to avoid ‘sweet’ when talking about wines that aren’t very sweet.”

    In his profile of VOLS, Terry also says that Helmut “makes the ur-Saar wines.” I don’t know about that. The wines are true Saar, but I wouldn’t call them old-school wines. The vinification is mostly in stainless-steel tanks.

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