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  • September 11, 2013
  • Too Much Heat, Not Enough Light: The Pigott Fracas

  • by Terry Theise

stuart_pigottI recently incurred the disapproval of Stuart Pigott over a quote I’d given to Eric Asimov of the New York Times. Eric mentioned to me his disappointment over some dry German Rieslings his panel had tasted, thinking perhaps he’d find me saying “I told you so,” or words to that effect. In fact, I felt wistful, and wished the wines had shown better. What I said to Eric echoed what I’ve written in my catalogues; I have little issue with the wines themselves, or with quite a lot of them, but I have found them to be an “invasive” species, and it constituted “a dubious example of this country’s temptation to do things in large implacable blocs.”

So Stuart had at me.

My metaphor “invasive species” is, I admit, imprecise, but Stuart’s a smart guy and I can’t be sure why he elected to read it literally. In any case, he did, and set about to instruct or remind me that German dry Rieslings existed historically, which I already knew. The larger point is that this species seems to wish to conquer all the floras in its path.

Thus ensued a lively back-channel dialogue amongst Stuart, David Schildknecht, Lars Carlberg, and myself, salient points from which I’ll share here. In brief, both Stuart and Lars see a different picture than I’ve seen, finding the modern German wine drinker within Germany to be far more flexible in his/her tastes than I suppose and have reported.

I want any reader to know that I have very great regard for Stuart Pigott, and am also personally grateful to him for having helped me when I was just discovering Austrian wine, thanks to his having shared some from his cellar with me back in March 1992. While this recent exchange hasn’t shown him at his best, there’s a remarkably deep body of work that does, and respect must be paid. During the writing of these many backs-and-forths, Stuart himself was otherwise occupied with a hectic schedule of tasting and blogging—in part about me—and was unable to fully engage. This largely accounts for the relative paucity of his input in what follows. To experience him more deeply, I refer you to his blog.

Finally, after his challenge to me, I sent him a couple of comments, which he was gentleman enough to publish [click here, too], and for this I am grateful. He needn’t have done it. He can write anything he wants on his blog!

Pigott has already excerpted from emails I wrote him, and, in that spirit, I feel I can do the same, as we were apparently all “on the record.” However, I have sent this document to David and Lars prior to publishing to ensure they are content with how I have used their words.

I regret the relative paucity of text from Lars, who has been a very fine mensch throughout our dialogue, albeit we disagree vigorously. I imagine he will post his own version of our exchanges in a reply below, which of course will emphasize different things than I’m doing here.

What follows are just some of the various email exchanges, which have been edited and shortened for clarity. The symposium begins with my very first comment to Stuart’s blog challenge.

Terry: To anyone reading this—and I hope Stuart chooses to make it public—I stand unequivocally by every word I said. They reflect conclusions I have drawn inexorably from my experience. I could not have concluded otherwise.

And I hope I am wrong. Indeed I hope very much I am wrong, because I would far rather live in the world Stuart experiences than in the one I do. But sadly, hoping and yearning will not bring this world about. Thus while my conclusions are categorical, they are not immutable. Stuart and I do the very same thing; we infer conclusions from the empirical business of living. His "sample field" leads him hither and my sample field leads me thither (I always wanted to find a way to use that word…).

Thus I don't think it would be useful to engage in dueling anecdotes. Stuart has his, I have mine, and debates such as these seldom grow corn. Nor do I feel it is especially germane to argue about "tradition" in terms of whether the typical, that is to say, sweet Rieslings of the 1970s and 1980s were traditional or aberrant. As Stuart says, it is a question of perspective, and tradition tends to be a moving target, depending on how far back you look and where you stand while you're looking. I myself don't care whether that style is defined as "traditional." It is valid, at least in its best iterations, and it ought not be permitted to disappear.

I am encouraged by the attitudes Stuart reports amongst the young drinkers he encounters. I hope to meet a few of them myself some day. But isn't it worth asking what these people are actually exposed to? In nearly all of the Pfalz and Rheinhessen—to cite just two regions—I'm not sure how one can be an ecumenical drinker when there's almost nothing but dry wines from which to choose! Perhaps I'm a habitué of the wrong restaurants and tasting rooms, or else just the unluckiest guy around.

David: On the subject of "invasive species," I think what's misleading about this metaphor is that although not explicitly part of the expression in question's meaning, "invasive species" is in practice used almost exclusively for non-native species. And I'm sure Terry isn't trying to maintain the absurd position that dry Riesling is not native to Germany (even though one's German interlocutors—you very much included on this occasion, Stuart - will often act as though someone defending the role and qualities of residually sweet Riesling must perforce be ignorant of German wine history and the role of sterile filtration, refrigeration chambers, and so on.). Beyond that, I think this metaphor is an apt goad. Many invasive species are useful (which is how some of them got introduced) and/or lovely; but the problem is that they come to dominate an ecosystem and threaten the existence of other long-standing lovely and/or useful resident species.

Stuart—besides taking unwarranted umbrage at what he interpreted as a disrespectful accusation by Terry of the entire German People—got carried away by his vision of Germany's youth and its openness. That is a heartening vision and fortunately one with considerable evidential support (as I have found in my annual visits to Germany—where I studied as a young man—and in following the German press). But the question at issue—at least, the question that clearly concerned Terry and that concerns me—is whether or to what extent such openness is illustrated by how Germans relate to a range of residual sugar and finished alcohol in Riesling or by the attitudes of German Riesling growers and their collective organizations. And I feel sadly compelled to answer: “not much.”

The issue of interest to Terry and to me both professionally and as a matter of deep personal attachment concerns the future of German Riesling wine and its perception and reception inside Germany. Terry's claim quoted by Eric looks extreme or even wrong-headed only insofar as generalizations about national character are inherently risky and, more importantly, insofar as one assumes that he meant to extrapolate from the German character beyond the context of addressing Riesling and its styles. He did nothing to encourage such an assumption.

When it comes to matters of Riesling style, Terry believes—as do I—that a rigid, black-and-white mentality (what I would call the mentality of Konsequentheit) tends to dominate the most prestigious German wine growers’ association [VDP] and the overwhelming majority of its Riesling growers outside the Mosel region; as well as among the movers and shakers of German gastronomy and a size-able share of Germans who write about wine.

There are many signs of stylistic restrictiveness or schizoid extremity in the lists as well as attitudes of Germany's Riesling growers and restaurants; and if you challenge these tendencies or the presuppositions underlying them, you will get an earful of purported justifications—many of which I have tried to address in detail in my writings—that simply don't make sense unless one discounts the autonomy of aesthetic judgment and ignores the evidence of one's senses.

Among the most prominent of these signs of restrictive prejudice and schizoid behavior are:

  • the notion that what counted as well-balanced Riesling for generations is somehow totally unthinkable today: halbtrocken, for example, is "neither fish nor fowl"—whatever that's supposed to mean, but presumably insufficiently konsequent—and therefore a horror, indeed the notion "if dry then legally trocken and if sweet then really sweet" has almost become gospel; and wines of less than 12 percent potential alcohol have almost ceased to exist at most German Riesling-growing addresses
  • that non-trocken Riesling is suitable with at most a tiny range of cuisine, most of it "oriental"
  • that the sole functions of residual sugar in Riesling are to convey a sweet taste and/or to cover-up defects (though it must be pointed out that this utterly wrong-headed belief threatens to become gospel among precisely the youth and avant-garde of Champagne, too)
  • that due to its structure and the terroirs Riesling inhabits, levels of alcohol needn't concern a German Riesling grower, and if he or she focuses on achieving low yields and complete fermentation all will (aesthetically speaking) be well.

Stuart: I do think, however, that one absolutely crucial point is the question of perspective. Seen from within Germany the predominance of dry wines (which is certainly no new phenomenon in many regions) does not feel at all narrow-minded. There is not the slightest hint of anything fascistic about this, indeed quite the opposite. It is all about how the market reacts to the wines and the last years it did so in a very relaxed way. In contrast, the way the VDP behaves may often be very unrelaxed, partly because of that very German anxiety to be seen to do the "right" thing (they are terrified of you guys!) but also due to the fact that its leaders are older than the segment of the wine market which is dynamic. They are thereby giving a very distorted picture of what is going on the ground, without wanting to do so.

If Terry thinks Rheinhessen with its warm climate (accentuated by climate change) and often rather chalky soils needs to turn "back" to the sweet Spätlese, I think he's barking up entirely the wrong tree and missing the whole point of what has changed, particularly since the turn of the century.

Terry:  Stuart, I do not feel the Rheinhessen needs to "turn back to the sweet Spätlese," and I'll grant you that you must have been in a hurry, because you're not that obtuse. I think that the estate of Geil, in Bechtheim, whom I represent, is precisely what I'm happiest to see: some dry wines, some barely off-dry wines, some properly balanced "sweet" wines—no grotesque 100-plus-grams-of-sugar-per-liter monsters at this address—and everything coexists peacefully and all the wines play-well-with-others. (And in truth, the portfolio of Rheinhessen's most prestigious calcaire [limestone] grower, Klaus Peter Keller, pretty much fits that description as well—though few follow his lead.) Alas, and typically, the domestic market buys nothing but the dry wines. I buy them also, and happily, as part of a balanced assortment in a range of styles—also known as the genius of Riesling.

I do not believe—climate change notwithstanding—that Riesling has any stylistic manifest destiny except to always demonstrate its giddy brilliance in producing beautiful wines across a range of possible residual sugars. If I actually were the caricature you (hurriedly) drew, then I would argue that my insistence that all Rheinhessen Rieslings must be sweet is no more prima-facie ridiculous than your insistence they must all be dry. What I find most ominous in this entire business is this notion they must always be anything.

David: A bipolar attitude toward residual sugar on the part of German Riesling growers is simply one among many influential fashions or ideologies in wine that some of us think stylistically misguided, and it is a fashion peculiar to Germany only to the extent that Riesling from Germany represents one of the very few examples—and surely the most dramatic—of a cépage [grape variety] and place that issue in profoundly delicious wines across a huge range of residual sugar, and whose wines can in particular be catalyzed to extraordinary expressiveness by small increments of residual sugar.

Received opinion among German growers and taste trendsetters today is that the reason they return again and again to (are perhaps fixated on) the issue of legal dryness is that they have to expunge the last remnants of a nightmarish post-war period of sugar debauchery and degradation of Riesling by residual sugar. I believe that this perspective is askew. The reason that dryness must be an issue with German Riesling is not because of the excesses of the past—if you want to taste truly excessive levels of residual sugar in German Riesling, it's the previously unprecedented "100-plus-gram" Spätlesen and the nobly sweet Rieslings being produced nowadays to which you should turn!—but because of a long history demonstrating the unique potential of Germany's Rieslings to come to glorious expression under the influence of residual sugar, even when it's just one or two dozen grams. For most grapes and places, dryness is not an issue because long experience has shown that the wines need to be dry to be maximally expressive and aesthetically satisfying. With German Riesling, legal dryness is just one successful mode along a continuum.

Terry: I currently offer 66 trocken wines, excluding reds and rosés. If you add in the halbtrocken/feinherb segment it's nearly 40 percent of my offerings. I'm glad they have their place. They deserve a place; just not the only place.

Lars: A number of producers (Weiser-Künstler, Vollenweider, Günther Steinmetz) have complained to me, too, about the domestic market only wanting dry wines. I know that most growers, who are not named Egon Müller or Joh. Jos. Prüm, can't sell much of their sweet wines here.

Terry: Again, 99% of the growers I know south [mostly east, though] of the Mosel continue to tell me they can sell nothing but dry wines domestically. And if they have two dry wines, one with 1 gram of sugar per liter and the other with 1.8 grams, they cannot sell the "sweeter" wine! Even the Moselaners tell me the domestic demand for trocken is growing like kudzu.

Lars: It's true that most producers don't have a market for sweeter wines in Germany. For example, I've sat at Willi Schaefer and remember a private German client asking for dry Riesling and then leaving. Yet I've so many German friends who are just the opposite.

What's irksome, however, is that a picture is painted that most Germans only want to drink dry Riesling. I think this is an unfair depiction, even though there's some truth to this. I agree, too, with David that German Rieslings in the range between 10 and 40 grams of residual sugar per liter have been sadly overlooked, especially by the VDP. Instead, many winemakers feel that the wines have to be either legally trocken (Trockenheit) or they make them overly sweet. The rising residual sugar, much like the rising alcohol for dry wines, has partly to do with climate change as well.

Terry: Sometimes, yes, but less often than one supposes. Sure, if you pick at 100º Oechsle and you intend to make a wine with residual sugar, you'll need more than your grandfather did when he picked at 85º. But we do see, as David says and as I experience far too often, the "token" sweet wine that's absurdly oversweet, as if the grower is saying "Well cupcake, if you like sweet wine then here's something just for you!" It's also a pernicious form of propaganda, because "normal" drinkers will taste such a wine and recoil—and assume they hate "sweet wine." Whereas what they hate is cloying treacle, which all of us hate.

Even if I agree (as I mostly do) that many of the sweet wines made in the 1970s and early 1980s were cloying, I'd say the inverse is also true—most of the dry wines made from the late 1970s through and including the early 1980s were shrill and sour. What does this demonstrate? Only that lazy or untalented growers make yucky wine in whatever is the prevailing style of the moment. To say, as I paraphrase you to mean, that "We needed these dry wines because some of the sweet wines were sugar-water" is not, in my opinion, a useful point of view. I'd respond that we didn't need the ocean of repugnant, bitterly unbalanced dry wines that prevailed until very recently under any circumstances. What we need is to stop obsessing over sugar as-such and to become pragmatic and broad-minded in our approaches to Riesling. Because its signal genius is to be successful across a wide continuum of sweetnesses, all of which should be appreciated.

David: My having, like Stuart, authored over the years thousands of tasting notes in praise of specific trocken German Rieslings—like the fact that Terry offers annually in his import portfolio dozens of them—suffices to make clear that neither he nor I somehow oppose, on principle, Riesling of under 10 grams residual sugar. Indeed, the very notion seems ludicrous when put that way, which should have—indeed,  apparently did—prompt Stuart to recognize that pretense to the contrary could at best be used to stuff hollow arguments or feed flames of resentment, which I was dismayed to discover is just what he did.

Stuart: I fear you still don't get the point I'm trying to make. It seems to me that you [Terry] are approaching the changes there have been (and which continues apace) in Germany with a fundamentally negative attitude, or at the least an attitude that is blinding you to a lot of what is happening. In your role as a wine importer, it's your privilege to do what you want at your own risk. However, a quote in The New York Times that goes beyond comment about the wines of Germany and makes serious criticisms of national character that strike me as outdated cannot go unchallenged. It seems to me that you and others are projecting a bunch of stuff onto Germany that is no longer there and grossly exaggerating other things that are there. That is not a joke. How would you like it if I starting making sweeping assertions about the American national character on the basis of the big California Chardonnay brands and I did so in a major German newspaper or on a TV chat show? You'd say that I was projecting a bunch of stuff onto America and grossly exaggerating the importance of those brands.

Terry: I am not approaching this with a negative attitude; I have developed a certain pique based on what I actually see and hear. Year after year, I yearn to glean some reason to hope it is changing; on the contrary, it appears to be getting worse. If and when things seem to improve, I am the first to applaud, as I did when the VDP began developing the concept of Erste Lage detached from the residual sugar of the wines. I am publicly in favor of vineyard classifications—an area of no small disagreement between David and me, by the way.

Your rhetorical question about Cal-Chards is curious. I'd have no objection whatsoever if you made "sweeping assertions about the American national character on the basis of the big California Chardonnay brands." Nor would I care where you did it. I would enjoy the many grains of truth such an assertion would contain. Maybe this is why we don't seem to understand each other.

Stuart: [D]ry wines—that is, wines where the must ferments through instead of this process being stopped—is "an invasive species" in Germany? I think that for centuries this is what happened and the exceptions to this rule were mostly few and far between (in the best vintages more common, but probably seldom the norm even then). A new culture of dry wines has developed in Germany over several decades (I missed the very beginning). It has its strengths and weaknesses, but it is a culture, which I think deserves to be treated as such.

Terry: I take no issue with the wines themselves, or, at least, with many of them. I take issue with what looks like an either/or equation that does a serious disservice to Riesling's capacity to shine in a multitude of idioms. I don't know how this is inconsistent with treating the dry style as a "culture." The questions are, what is the nature of this culture? To me, at times, it seems like more of a cult than a culture.

I do not, by the way, accept the charge that I have impugned the "German national character." I drew attention to a particular aspect of it as a possible explanation for the phenomena I was observing. You read the rest in, and I hope you're not fanning the flames amongst those you describe as "shocked" by those words—words which I have spoken directly to a lot of German growers I buy wine from, and who laughed it off or even ruefully agreed.

However, to the extent I appear to have insulted you, I regret it and didn't intend it. And I repeat, I hope you are right, and if so I'll have no trouble eating my words.  Meanwhile, I'm just not seeing it, and what I am seeing doesn't look at all healthy.

David: As I have repeatedly attempted to frame this issue: When it comes to matters of alcohol and residual sugar, German Riesling growers need to shed a long-standing, self-congratulatory fixation—rooted, perhaps, in an unwarranted inferiority complex—with what “we, too” can accomplish in bottle (or for that matter, in vineyard classification ;- ) and focus attention on what “only we” can, which includes singularly profound, versatile, and age-worthy wines at levels of residual sugar from 10 grams upwards, as well as dry-tasting wines well-under 12 percent alcohol.

What's more, the so-called "arguments" from purported Konsequentheit offered me by growers don't even consider the matter of taste. I never hear: "Oh David, if you can possibly stomach the awful results of letting a Riesling rise to 15, 20, or 25 grams of residual sugar, I can't argue with your taste; but I think such wines taste terrible...unless maybe they get up to 50 or 60 grams." Not once. Instead, what I hear are the likes of this:

  • "Such wines are neither fish nor fowl." (And your point would be...?)
  • "I don't engage in half-measures." (If you despise any deviation from that principle, you must be a terror to live with. By the way, do you vote NDP or Die Linke?)
  • "In don't want to make wines that require crutches. Residual sugar simply covers up flaws." (So do paint and plaster. Shall we take a look at our house? And I guess Terry's barbaric beard must offend you, too.)
  • "Our terroir is too calcaire." (Ever taste one of those awful off-dry Rieslings from Keller? Or a [Vouvray] demi-sec from Foreau or Huet?)
  • "There has to be a limit somewhere, and if you go over 10 grams the next thing it'll be 15, and then..." (And then the wine will actually taste sweet? Which would be horrible? But let's suppose for the sake of argument that it would be. Have you ever actually sat in on a bench trial for residual sugar? Do you imagine that sweetness in wine is solely a function of residual sugar—or even of residual sugar and acidity? Do you imagine that the sole effect of residual sugar in wine is to make it taste sweet? Are you imagining a linear progression of grams per liter and perceived sweetness?)
  • "Look, I'm not against sweet wine, but then it has to be really—consequentially—sweet." (So you never considered backing-off of 100 grams of residual sugar in your Auslese just to see what would come of it?)

...and on and on.

The fact that otherwise reasonable people, not to mention talented vintners can imagine that there's some force to "arguments" like the above—just like the defensive over-reaction that often results when one suggests that the unique potential of judicious residual sugar in German Riesling is nowadays being overlooked and marginalized—are, I think, simply signs that many, many German growers and German taste trend-setters are singularly obsessed with dryness and issues of residual sugar.

This is all I ask of the German wine establishment and its growers: Do what you like; what sells; what tastes good to you. And if you refuse to even consider as part of your self-expression and of what you offer your customers the proven opportunities afforded by residual sugar and/or lower alcohol in German Riesling—if you are insufficiently curious to explore them—then at least don't prejudice wine lovers and your fellow growers against them by means of ludicrously empty "arguments"; by deriding those of us who insist such wines are uniquely beautiful; and by putting up road blocks to deter other growers from exploring (such as refusing to allow the name of a "grand cru" to be "tainted" by low-alcohol or insisting that Riesling's highest expression of terroir "must" take place at under 10 grams of sugar—as though Riesling's reputation will be enhanced if we insist on narrowing the parameters of alcohol and residual sugar within which we claim it can achieve greatness).

Terry: There's a curious implication behind something you wrote me elsewhere, Lars, that "before 1971, the terms ‘trocken’ and ‘halbtrocken’ didn't even exist." Because if they didn't exist, how was the purchaser supposed to know whether the wine had zero sweetness, or a little, or more than a little? I assume if it had a lot, the label would indicate by using "Spätlese" and "Auslese," but what of the others? Did those drinkers not care?  That, to me, would be awfully sensible! The few times I myself attend to the question are when I'm choosing wine for my meal, when certain things ought ideally to align.  Like when Stephen Colbert says "I don't see race," I myself don't "see" sugar; I see harmony, balance, deliciousness. I "see" sugar only when it's either excessive or insufficient, which is another way of saying I see disharmony as well as harmony.

I admire your (Lars’s) interest in history, and your scholarship is noteworthy. That said, and said sincerely, I'm not sure how it bears on the current situation. Things change for a variety of reasons, and we are where we are. Some of Stuart's misreading of my initial words had to do with an overly literal interpretation of my metaphor "invasive species." The metaphor is a little blurry, I know, because a true invasive species comes from outside, whereas the dry-Riesling "species" is home-grown, and has some of its roots in earlier times. Still, it is enacting a disturbing hegemony in many/most regions, and all the arguments in the world that adduce "tradition"—itself a slippery notion—won't change today's melancholy spectacle. The fact that until recently (in historical terms) all Champagne used to be sweet would never be used to justify some fantastic return to tradition!

David: I just couldn't help pointing out one last instance of Stuart's digs at Terry, because it actually made me smile:

(Stuart): These are two winemakers with as much daring as talent and both are just beginning to spread their wings. By the way, they are both making almost exclusively making [sic] that “invasive species”, dry wines. PS Don’t worry, there really will be some serious thoughts on the Grosse Gewächse (GG) when I’ve managed to process the enormous mass of sensory data! Of course, they’re also all dry wines…what the hell are we getting into here?

Own-goal, Stuart: What led you to imagine that pointing to the (statistically near-certain) dryness of Riesling from two young Rheinhessen vintners and (legally requisite) dryness of GG has any rhetorical force beyond supporting my and Terry's contention that trocken is—outside the Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer—the overwhelmingly dominant species of contemporary German Riesling? Shouldn't you be trying to point instead to (in the phrase you borrowed from the Times' Roger Cohen) "flexi-Germans" who render Rieslings of between 10 and 40 grams of residual sugar?

You have to wonder about any publicists or growers who are being defensive about dry German Riesling after having totally WON the style war, or who keep patting themselves on the back on account of their Rieslings' virtuous dryness when non-dry Rieslings are a statistical anomaly. Might they be acting from deep-seated insecurity or from fear that the dominant style will lose its cutting-edge luster and approbative connotation and be recognized as going without saying? In that context, I suppose any attempt at critique of trocken-dominance such as I or Terry muster is a boon to those who would use it as an opportunity to pretend that Trockenheit in German Riesling is the hard-earned reward of some sort of grower Declaration of Independence and Liberty that must be defended against a return to servitude under the tyranny of sugar.

Terry: Stuart, having performed a high-minded and responsible act by running the text(s) I sent him—which I sincerely appreciate his having done—will now tweak me in his special manner. All the while not noticing the very thing David succinctly drew attention to: each thing he says supports my point rather than repudiating it.

Look: One of two things is true. Either my impressions had led me to a false conclusion, in which case I need to see a wider range of impressions so as to adapt that conclusion. (I await enlightenment!) Or, my conclusion was accurate but my value judgment was unreasonable. I haven't felt engaged (by Stuart) with anything approaching that clarity.

Looking back on this entire affair, I remain struck by the intensity of high dudgeon our pal Stuart displayed. The hegemony of trocken is so complete, I can't imagine what threat I pose to it; I'm no more than a pebble in its shoe.

Meanwhile, here is a way I've been thinking about this discussion the last few hours. The "you" I'm addressing is, I suppose, Stuart (and those who think as he does), and while I haven't thought this through, on first glance it seems apropos.

doennhoff_logo_editedINSOFAR as we have an estate, such as Dönnhoff in the Nahe….and insofar as this estate produces a not-dry [basic] Gutsriesling to partner its dry sibling, and insofar as this estate also produces two Riesling Kabinetts avec du sucre residuel, and insofar as this estate produces a range of residually sweet Spätlesen which many consider iconic—here is my question.

Were Dönnhoff to pattern themselves along the lines overwhelmingly dominant in the Pfalz and Rheinhessen, and becoming ever-more dominant in the Rheingau, Nahe, and even the Mosel, they would then produce a range of entirely dry wines, leavened by a much smaller range of very sweet (over 100 grams of sugar) Spätlesen and whatever few Auslesen and dessert wines nature was able to provide. The Kabinett wines would be jettisoned as being trivial and conceptually inexplicable, and the five to six Spätlesen currently being made would reduce to one, maybe two much sweeter ones. The production of GGs and second wines of GGs would increase, along with a larger range of basic dry Rieslings named for their geology.

So, my question: would this be better or worse? Better or worse for Riesling, better or worse for Germany, better or worse for wine?

If ones answer—and I have no wish to "lead the witness"—is that it would be worse, then why on earth do we tolerate and defend it when it is in fact the case at a huge number of Riesling producers in Germany today? If ones answer is it would be better, then I personally would be very frightened, and the light will have left the sky. ♦

Images courtesy of Stuart Pigott and Dönnhoff.

Terry Theise has loved German Riesling since first tasting it 35 years ago and has been buying and selling the wines for 28 years. He is the author of Reading between the Wines (University of California Press, 2010).

Inspired in particular by meeting Terry Theise, David Schildknecht has been tasting his way through Germany annually since 1984. He covered its wines for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, as well as being responsible for the entries on German wine in the 3rd and upcoming 4th editions of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

  • Matthew Cohen says:

    Pretty amusing that Terry regrets that he insulted Stuart:

    “However, to the extent I appear to have insulted you, I regret it and didn’t intend it. And I repeat, I hope you are right, and if so I’ll have no trouble eating my words. Meanwhile, I’m just not seeing it, and what I am seeing doesn’t look at all healthy.”

    Yet in the same article, writes the following:
    “Stuart, I do not feel the Rheinhessen needs to “turn back to the sweet Spätlese,” and I’ll grant you that you must have been in a hurry, because you’re not that obtuse.”

  • Matthew Cohen says:

    Reading this again, it seems that after cutting through the personal attacks, the basic point is that everyone agrees that dry Riesling is taking over in the German market.

    David and Terry are extremely distressed about this fact.

    Stuart is not (or does not appear to be in this post).

    And at the end of the day, it matters not a whit either way. People will drink what they want irrespective of what thought leaders think about Riesling having the ability to shine at all points along the RS scale. They will drink what they think goes with the food they like and if they think that German Rieslings with RS taste like dessert wines then they will not drink them that often. If they can be convinced that dry German Rieslings are world class wines then they will drink more of them.

    German winemakers will follow market demand and if they devote an increasing portion of their production (and their time) to dry wines, they will expect their American importers to sell more of their dry wines. We can debate the glories of the versatility of Riesling all day long (and I agree with Terry and David on this point) but at the end of the day, money talks.

  • Thanks for your write-up and kind words, Terry. I would have replied to your post earlier, but I was with my girlfriend in Paris over the weekend. It’s understandable that Eric likes to cite you for his articles on German wine. I, however, disagree with your quote. Like Stuart, I’ve lived for many years in Germany and I don’t get the impression that most Germans only want to drink dry wine.

    Speaking of Paris, I once did a few tasting events there for my former Mosel Wine Merchant portfolio, including wines from Maximin Grünhaus. Although I offered the full range—from bone dry to nobly sweet—the majority of the tasters preferred a dry wine, so it’s no different in France.

    Florian Lauer, who studied in Montpellier, says that most of his Saar Rieslings are rarely understood in France, where most people like to drink dry. His friends in Chablis, for example, even find his off-dry Saar Rieslings (which is most of his production) too sweet.

    In your article, you highlighted, of course, passages from our email exchanges that support your viewpoint. And there’s no doubt that German producers have a more difficult time selling residually sweet Rieslings in the domestic marketplace today. Nonetheless, in Trier, where I live, the various styles of Mosel Riesling are sold in many different restaurants and wine shops. Plus I’ve lots of German friends who drink non-dry Mosels, especially those Mosel Rieslings in the feinherb range but also “fruity-sweet” Kabinetts.

    Moreover, the younger generation in Germany is different from their parents or grandparents. Yet I know older Germans who favor a fruity Mosel Kabinett (and even drink Sprudel), whereas a younger German might find the same wine too sweet. Likewise, I know Germans who start off drinking sweet Mosels but come to appreciate the dry ones more. It’s often true, too, that German wine connoisseurs love a mature sweet Mosel Kabinett, Spätlese, or Auslese.

    In Trier, the local beer is Bitburger Pils, a hoppy pilsner from the Eifel. Some Germans find it too bitter, even though it tastes less bitter than a Bit Pils brewed 30 years ago. Today, the large breweries seek a more mainstream taste and have started to make flavored (sweetened) beers for younger drinkers. Likewise, Viez, the local cider from the Saar Valley, is quite tart. It’s an acquired taste, which, like a tangy and dry Saar wine, is less popular nowadays. Bitterness and tartness are out among most German drinkers.

    Over the years, I’ve been with various German friends at Maximin Grünhaus. Both novices and experts often favor the non-trocken Maximin Grünhäuser Rieslings—i.e., the residually sweet Kabinetts, Spätlesen, and Auslesen. Carl von Schubert says that he produces less dry Ruwer Rieslings at Grünhaus than before. His family tends to drink more feinherb, or even the Bruderberg Riesling, a light wine with noticeable residual sugar. Carl does like trocken, though. In fact, he was one of the first producers to help revive the tradition of dry Mosel wine.

    On the Saar, Roman Niewodnisczanski’s Van Volxem estate, which you once imported, has become quite celebrated in Germany. The estate has grown from 8 to 60 hectares in the last dozen years. In most vintages, Van Volxem’s Rieslings are legally non-dry wines (above 9 grams of sugar). In addition, the style is ripe and concentrated, but lighter in recent vintages; hence, far removed from those “shrill and sour” Saar and Mosel wines. The majority of his 2012s are trocken, but are not labeled as such.

    It should be noted, too, that the fashion for sweet German Riesling took off in the post-war years. This “sweet wave” ended after the Austrian glycol scandal in 1985. Afterwards, the mindset amongst many Germans has been that wine has to be “dry” (which often meant “natural”), but this is slowly changing.

    At the same time, Mosel wine was famous and distinctive before the advent of sterile filtration to produce “apple-sweet non-botrytised wines” from arrested fermentation, which really only took off in the 1950s. Hence, the “old-school wines” of Carl Schmitt-Wagner or Alfred Merkelbach really only go back to this time.

    Mosel wine’s heyday, from roughly the 1860 to 1900, had little to do with today’s style of residually sweet wines. On the contrary, the Rheingau was famous for nobly sweet wines. In addition, the famous late-19th-century auctions in Trier consisted, for the most part, of dry-tasting to off-dry Mosels (including Auslesen) that were sold by the cask, not merely small batches of dessert wines, like today’s Grosser Ring auctions. By the 1920s, this began to change some. This is an important point, as many people still like to think that the so-called classic Mosel wine is a lightly sweet Riesling à la J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett.

    When I first began importing Mosels in the States back in 2006, the dry-tasting wines were a less well-known style to most Americans, as many of the wines were ignored over the years. For example, Christoph Tyrell of Karthäuserhof rarely sold any of his dry or off-dry Ruwer Rieslings from Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg to Rudi Wiest. (This was, of course, before all the hype surrounding the VDP’s GG category.) German Riesling, more or less, was pigeonholed as sweet, Austrian dry.

    Unlike yourself, David’s focus is more on German Riesling between 10 and 40 grams of sugar. Yet Dönnhoff, whom you use as a case in point for producing all the different styles, only makes one or two wines in the off-dry category. Besides an entry-level feinherb, their Nahe Rieslings are either drier than 10 grams or sweeter than 40, thus like many producers whom David is criticizing. A.J. Adam, on the other hand, has the full range from dry to sweet. In addition, most present-day residually sweet Kabinetts, Spätlesen, and Auslesen are well above this 40-gram mark.

    Today, the most producers from the Mosel region dislike the term “halbtrocken” and have replaced it with “feinherb”, even though some avoid feinherb, or, at least, have taken off the term on their (front) label. In 1998, von Kesselstatt first used feinherb (literally “finely bitter”) for wines between 9 and 15 grams (that is, at the low end of halbtrocken). Yet the term morphed into a separate category—sweeter than halbtrocken—for a number of producers. As I wrote before, this is rare now. Among top producers, Selbach-Oster is one of the few holdovers to use both terms, with feinherb defined as between roughly 20 and 30 grams of sugar.

    Before 1971, the terms “trocken” and “halbtrocken” didn’t even exist. Go back even further, pre-1920s, most Mosel wine labels had either a village or a site name (Riesling was understood) and the wines were assumed to be dry (rather than sweet), unless it was an Auslese, in which case the wine generally had a discreet amount of residual sugar.

    It depends on the producer, too. Before 1971, for example, Maximin Grünhaus produced mainly off-dry to sweet wines. If a Naturwein, or “natural wine”—that is, an unchaptalized wine—tasted more dry-ish, they would simply indicate it on the price list. Most earlier-picked unchaptalized and chaptalized Grünhaus Rieslings would be in today’s feinherb category in this period. The Prädikats Spätlese and Auslese had higher ripeness levels and residual sugar, though often still under 40 grams. In general, a basic Naturwein (later known as Kabinett) was lighter and drier than a Spätlese. In addition, Carl’s father liked to use pressure tanks for making sweet Rieslings. Grünhaus, however, was especially famous for its wines in the 19th century. Back then, the style was different from the residually sweet wines produced in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Bill Hooper says:

    Hello Lars, Terry and David,

    This is an interesting conversation that seems to resurface every couple of weeks. I know that I’ve personally entered into it dozens of times and owing to the unique passion and partisanship that only Riesling generates, even more than Pinot Noir it seems, resolution is never found and the argument perpetuates.

    In making a case for off-dry Riesling, I would simply say that there are times when nothing else will do. Sweetish but balanced Riesling was what initially got me hooked on that wonderful grape at a time when all that my (then) girlfriend wanted to drink was Chardonnay. I probably wouldn’t have explored German wine (or any wine), and certainly would not have dedicated my career to produce Riesling without that chance encounter some fifteen years ago. I still love it, and for certain dishes or times of the day, there is nothing in the world that will satisfy like a delicate Riesling in the ballpark of 15-25 g/l rz.

    But the style that I drink most often of any wine of any color is dry (legally dry, not dust-dry) Riesling. I do so because I have found hundreds of excellent examples year in and out that (pardon me) kick the fuck out of every other white wine variety/style produced on this planet. For me, there is no other wine that showcases terroir and love and care in the vineyard like it. There is absolutely no room for error when trying to produce the greatest of dry Riesling. Canopy management that helps to retain acidity and ward off botrytis (and sunburn) at once; nutrition, soil, climate, cover-crop, clone, and rootstock combinations that provides the perfect balance of competition to reduce vigor and achieve physiological ripeness without elevated or retarded must-weights –everything must be in perfect balance or the wine will taste heavy and alcoholic on the one hand or thin and shrill on the other. The grapes must be ripe enough and healthy enough to produce great wines that have enough aroma and flavor to stand on their own without the benefit of sugar. If you try to produce great dry Riesling with less-than-perfect grapes, you will need to employ many more technology and chemical-induced corrective measures in the cellar that will ultimately compromise the aromatic and sensory quality of your wine to the point where greatness is unattainable. The same cannot always be said of other varieties.

    Riesling is obviously an interesting case because of its identity problem in the mind of consumers regarding sweetness (I don’t think that Chenin provokes the same conversation, nor is it as popular). But it seems to me that the millions of global citizens who currently drink dry white wines named Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay (the best of the latter currently and conveniently being dragged through the mud by PremOx) would be better off drinking dry Riesling -maybe not the case ten years ago, but today it certainly is.

    Tod Allem außer Riesling, but no need to start a civil war over it.

    Cheers Fellas,
    Bill Hooper

  • Izek Jasper says:


    I don’t know if your Maximin Grünhaus tasting conducted in Paris would have any different results if done in the US. You would know better than I would. Although Terry has had much success importing Spätlese and Auslese wines, the average American wine consumer is not interested in them. Sweeter style Riesling is a niche market. Indeed, Riesling is a niche market in the US. The average consumer in the US isn’t even aware of trocken Riesling. It’s an entirely different situation in Germany, and even in France. At most tastings in the US – not trade tastings but tastings attended by the public – many consumers will decline to taste Riesling because they think all Riesling is sweet. If you haven’t experienced this then you haven’t worked in the wine trade. Terry has observed the reaction of American consumers to Riesling in his own annual catalog as he has defended the category of sweeter German wines. His success has been a result of critical acclaim from the likes of Schildknecht, a small niche of German connoisseurs, and his own commendable efforts to promote these very worthy wines. My point is that, a change in preferences from sweet to dry in Germany is not unique to Germany. I don’t think a penchant for dry wines can be attributed to German culture. The argument could be made that it happened in the US many years ago. Some parts of the US are still lagging in their preference for dry wines, like certain parts of the Midwest, where I hail from.

    I do agree with Terry that both sweet and dry styles are worthy of consideration. I think it is a mistake to suggest that only the “great” wines of Germany are dry. I would even agree that it’s dangerous. My observation is that Terry’s arguments have less to do with seeing dry German Riesling as an “invasive species” than they do with seeing sweeter styles as an endangered species.

    Thanks for posting such an interesting debate.


    Izek Jasper

    • Thanks for your comment on Terry’s post, Izek. You make some great points.

    • Matthew Cohen says:

      “I think it is a mistake to suggest that only the “great” wines of Germany are dry.”

      I’m not sure who has suggested this. Clearly, Germany makes some of the great sweet wines in the world.

      The bottom line is that sweet wines make up a small percentage of wine consumption in the US and Europe. German demand for sweet German wines was a significant part of global demand for these wines and global demand for sweet German wines has dropped with the change in German preferences.

      This will change production:
      1) German producers will produce less sweet wine and will have fewer sweet wine bottlings (although almost all producers will still make some sweet wine).
      2) New growers will spend more time focusing on dry wine and most new great growers will be dry wine producers.

      I would also argue (based on anecdotal evidence) that German dry wine consumption in the US has increased over the past 10-15 years. Dry German wines do not yet have the general respect that they deserve (as some of the great dry wines in the world) but I am optimistic that this day will come.

      • Matt, I believe Izek is referring to the VDP’s focus on GG, even if non-trocken wines can be designated as Grosse Lage.

        I’m pretty certain that the consumption of dry German Riesling has increased in the States over the last several years and that the wines are still underrated.

      • Izek Jasper says:


        I was referring to the VDP’s focus on GG. I could have made that point more clear. I think that your are right about seeing an increased focus on dry wines from producers, particularly new producers without established markets for sweeter wines. There may only be a handful of producers that won’t feel market pressure to produce more dry wines. Those will be the biggest names with large international markets, like J.J. Prum.

        • Izek, I think you’re right that certain producers, such as Joh. Jos. Prüm, will feel less market pressure. Nonetheless, J.J. Prüm also doesn’t have it easy with plenty of wines to sell each vintage. Their production, for example, is much larger (20 ha) than at Willi Schaefer, which is considerably smaller (4 ha) and doesn’t have enough wine to meet the demand.

  • Gilberto Colangelo says:

    Today I came across an old article by Stephan Reinhardt on Klaus Peter Keller, which appeared on the World of Fine Wine in 2005. Here he mentions that the Gault Millau Guide to German Wines 2005 gave 100 points to the Riesling Hubacker TBA Goldkapsel 2003. And then adds:
    “But despite such endorsement, the Germans themselves do not drink them. Paranoid, they now tend to regard every wine that is not declared dry as dishwater. ‘It’s a pity in one way, but not in another’ smiles Klaus-Peter, ‘as otherwise we couldn’t satisfy the US, UK and Japan’ ”

    So apparently the debate is not new and the point of Theise and Schildknecht has been already made a long time ago by a German wine critic.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gilberto! By the way, that’s a well-written article on Keller by Stephan Reinhardt in The World of Fine Wine. I have a PDF copy of his Fine Wine write-up on my MacBook Air. Nonetheless, I didn’t remember Klaus Peter Keller’s quote when I last read it.

      It’s good that you brought it up, though. Perhaps Stephan, who is a subscriber to my site and now the chief editor of Vinum, can give us his opinion. I would think that the insistence on dry among many Germans has changed a little since 2005.

      It’s important, too, to differentiate between the market in Germany and in the United States. In my opinion, US importers of fine German Riesling, like Terry Theise and Rudi Wiest, seemed less enthusiastic about pushing dry and off-dry wines until about eight years or so ago. Their focus was on sweeter wines, especially from the Mosel region.

      • Gilberto: Stephan Reinhardt is a little pressed for time right now, but he did reply via email and gave me permission to post his comment.

        He says:

        Thanks, Lars – I am in Zurich this week and very busy with the next issue of Vinum since 2 of us 4 are on their holiday. Saturday I go to California for 8 days. I am not sure if I can make it before, however, I will try. Haven’t read Terry’s piece yet. However, of course more and more markets focus on dry German Rieslings and whereas a producer bottled 20% dry Mosel rieslings 10 years ago, he makes now 80% and just 20% sweet. Especially the Norwegian market focusses on dry wines and has become the most important market for many Riesling producers from the Rhine and the Mosel. I wonder what has been the reason for Reinhard Loewenstein to present (dry) GGs for the 1st time I can remember. Was this because of the vintage or because of market demands…?
        I presonally think that especially light off-dry Rieslings such das Mosel or Rheingau Kabinett feinherb wines will have a future whereas Auslese wines and higher predicates will become rarer and rarer. We will see what the Chinese market wants but ín general I think German wines will be mostly dry in the nearer future. This is my impression, I don’t have figures to prove it.

        Warmest regards,

        • Yes, the Norwegian market loves dry Rieslings from the Mosel and Rhine.

          I was surprised to hear about Heymann-Löwenstein designating his top dry wines as GGs, too. It probably had to do with both: the wines fermented under 9 grams, and Reinhard sees the demand for GGs.

          It’s too bad that Riesling Kabinett feinherb, much less trocken, are less common now, as the VDP only wants sweetish Kabinetts, even if they can go down to 18 grams. Yet most are well above 40 grams.

      • As a follow-up to the above comments, I received an email from Klaus Peter (“KP”) Keller, who gave me his answer in German, which I’ve translated below.

        “In comparison with 2005, a lot has returned to normal,” KP says. “In the domestic market, one has, by all means, the chance to sell with great success off-dry and nobly sweet Rieslings. The export is no longer only fixated on residually sweet wines—there are fans of dry, off-dry, and fruity qualities. And that’s the way it should be. The renaissance of Kabinett especially pleases me, for I love this category.”

        In addition, Florian Lauer says that he sells a lot of off-dry Saar Rieslings in Trier.

  • Gilberto Colangelo says:

    Thank you for following this up, Lars.
    The comments by Stephan Reinhardt and KP Keller are most interesting.

  • Terry Theise says:

    Glancing (for the 1st time in several weeks) at your thread, and I only wanted to say – for myself, as I can’t speak for Wiest – that my willingness to embrace Trocken Rieslings increased precisely as their quality increased. The better they got, and the more frequently they were attractive, the more of them I offered. It is very simple, and adds to my basic argument that my concern is not about the wines themselves.

    I will never forget sitting with Armin Diel in 2005 and having him tell me that his tasting group tasted Trocken wines from 1994 as part of a “10 Years After” series, and that everyone was struck by how “thin and sour those wines were, compared to what we’re making now.” Well of course they were. But what he didn’t say was how passionately these “thin, sour” wines were extolled as representing all that was noblest, purest, truest and most modern about German Riesling. The dogma was there from the beginning, and it’s only very recently that truth has even begun to catch up to it. I personally find it melancholy and maybe a little undignified to have to say Well yes, we oversold those wines back then but now it’s true at last, what we’re saying!

    I’m glad for Keller’s success selling his not-dry wines, and applaud him enthusiastically for reviving the Kabinett category. Why haven’t others followed him? Where’s Phillip Wittman, where’s Daniel Wagner? And is Keller’s success due (at least partly) to who he is, to his position atop the mountain?

    • Terry: Thanks for your reply. There were, of course, a number of top producers in Germany that made very good dry Rieslings back in the 1990s. On the Mosel, I can think of Markus Molitor, Peter Lauer, Stein, and Maximin Grünhaus, among others.

      I don’t think either Wittmann or Wagner-Stempel need to follow Keller’s path in producing a sweetish Kabinett. They should decide for themselves whether or not to produce such a wine.

    • David Schildknecht says, “[Keller’s] success in the off-dry categories is because he works hard to promote the categories. He gets no ‘cover’ or ‘free points’ for having become a legend in his own time.”

      In addition, the VDP Rheinhessen hasn’t made it easy for him to designate a single-vineyard (fruity) Kabinett.

  • Ulrich Brauns says:

    As a contemporary witness of the transition phase from the sweet wine style to the predominance of dry wines in Germany, maybe I can contribute some thoughts to the background of this move.

    I am German, born in the second half of the 50s. My first contact with Mosel wine was made by my parents in 1974, immediately fascinating me. The fascination turned into a mild form of obsession three years later, when for around a decade I was staying for several weeks each year in the Middle Mosel area, helping in the cellar and the vineyards of a small family-owned estate (the name of which doesn’t matter here, it was and is not a famous one). This opened vast opportunities for tasting of the regional wines (and some of the wines of other regions of Germany), comprising both recent and older vintages.

    This period ended when my first “real” job made it impossible to stay at the Mosel for prolonged periods of time. Furthermore, at that time my wine interests shifted away from Mosel to red wine, especially Bordeaux. Nevertheless, I closely followed what happened there and in other German wine regions in the years to come.

    It seems to be a common notion here and elsewhere that the move from the sweet wine style in Germany is a rather recent phenomenon, one of the last fifteen or twenty years. It is not. The starting point was exactly in the period of my intense interest in Mosel wines, i.e. in the late 70s.

    At the Mosel, in the sixties and the first half of the seventies essentially every wine was sweet. Only some rare exceptions existed which were regarded by most producers as a strange oddity rather than “serious wine”. The picture in the Rheingau and in Rheinhessen areas was similar (perhaps with some more wines verging on a halbtrocken style). In the Pfalz region there were actually many dry wines, representing maybe half of the total production. In Baden and especially in Franken the production was predominantly dry at that time.

    The last year which was completely sweet at the Mosel was 1976, a year yielding very ripe grapes with high levels of botrytis. After that, the picture changed, and it did quite rapidly so. Relevant amounts of trocken and halbtrocken wines first appeared towards the end of the 70s (I still have some reference bottles from 1978 and 1979 in my cellar), and ten years later – by the end of the 80s – those producers who had their customers predominantly in the domestic market had converted more than half of the production to trocken.

    The percentage of dry wines in the portfolio of those producers focusing on the domestic market will have further increased since then, but the main turning point was in the period from the end of the seventies to the end of the eighties. The Austrian wine scandal of 1985, mentioned above by Lars, may have reinforced the move to some extent, but it was definitely not the key to it – the trocken wave was on full run already before ’85.

    What was the reason for this sudden and rapid change in the preferred wine style?

    An obvious factor was the complete change in food habits which occurred at the same time, moving rapidly away from traditional German food to French (the high quality sector was completely French at that time) and all kinds of Mediterranean food, first Italian, then also Greek and Spanish. All these countries had a long-standing tradition of serving dry wines with their food (with some exemptions in France, which were not taken note of), and it was felt that sweet German wines would make a very bad match to this kind of fare. In parallel, wine consumption was increasing in Germany which had become quite wealthy, and many people started drinking wine with bottles from France and Italy and thus got adapted to the dry style, reinforcing the concept that sweet wines are no good for food. A whole generation of wine drinkers started their career with dry Edelzwicker from Alsace which was at that time imported to Germany in tremendous quantities.

    Whereas these factors are quite obvious and were in part caused by the deplorable quality of German food and average German wine in the 60s, both of which were focused more on quantity than on quality, it is absolutely crucial to understand that there was also a strong political subtext to this. In the 60s, the post-war generation became increasingly aware of the atrocities of recent German history, and young people were asking their parents probing questions about what had happened. The older generation, which was involved in one or the other way in the Nazi period or at least severely affected by it, did not want to be reminded of what was not so far away by then, and did not answer properly. This led, among some other reasons, to the German student’s riots in 1968, which became a key turning point of West German history after the war.

    After 1968, the young intellectual elite turned completely away from everything that smelled of “old German culture”, which was felt to be totally corrupted by the Nazis (in fact, they had abused almost everything which was thought to be traditional German for their purpose). This hit German food, German folk music, and also sweet German wine. For the latter this was a misconception, as the sweet wines produced by aborted fermentation were definitely a post-war phenomenon; wines of the Nazi period were predominantly dry. Nonetheless, they were counted as being “traditional German”, a category which was suspect, or to say it in modern words, “politically incorrect”. There was a strong feeling at that time that there was something completely wrong about German culture and sweet wines as part of it, whereas the corresponding products from other countries were “right”.

    As always, the mainstream followed the elite, and by the end of the 70s it was commonplace for younger people to know that sweet wine was “wrong”. The German producers were forced to react to this by converting their style of wine making and to adapt more to an international dry style. What continued to be produced in the sweet style was either for the export market (which was not affected by the political subtext) or for older consumers who died away over time.

    Meanwhile, the political subtext is definitely gone. Funnily enough, what is not gone and is now deeply rooted in the German understanding of wine is the concept that sweet wines are somehow WRONG. Most German people (at least those who are not wine geeks) would reject even tasting a wine on the mere reason that it is not dry, which is felt to be the only acceptable style. From time to time I serve my guests a sweet Kabinett from the Mosel as aperitif, not mentioning that this is not dry. The typical reaction is: “Wow, what is this? This is marvelous” – but the same people would have rejected the wine if I had asked whether they prefer a dry wine or a sweet one. You can watch this behavior in the tasting room of every producer who has both sweet wines and dry wines in his portfolio: Germans reject tasting the sweet ones as they are not “correct”.

    It seems that in the last few years the attitude of the new generation of wine drinkers is slightly changing, albeit at a snail’s pace. The trocken wines will remain the dominating style in the domestic market for a long time.

    • Ulli, I appreciate your posting a long explanation. One of my favorite Mosel winegrowers Dr. Ulrich Stein also goes by the name “Ulli” with two l’s.

      Anyhow, your reply reminds me of some of the points that the German wine author Joachim Krieger wrote in an essay for our then-Mosel Wine Merchant catalogue. It’s titled “The Mosel: Taking the Long View.” My friend Dan Melia and I translated Joachim’s essay.

      The other night, I was invited to dinner at my relatives’ home, near the Ruwer Valley. My other aunt and uncle from Hamburg were visiting as well. I brought a bottle of Falkenstein’s 2012 Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Riesling Spätlese feinherb for the occasion. They all loved the wine. In fact, my aunt and uncle from Trier actually prefer Mosel Rieslings with noticeable residual sugar. In their seventies, they don’t like Mosels that taste too dry. In Germany, a lot depends on the generation and whether one is a connoisseur or not of sweeter wines.

      It’s too bad that traditional German culture, such as the Fraktur typeface, is often associated with Nazism, even though the Nazis rejected this font as “Schwabacher Jewish letters,” preferring instead the Latin and more legible Antiqua font. Go figure.

    • David Schildknecht doesn’t have time to comment himself, but I’ve been given permission to reply on his behalf.

      In regard to Ulli Brauns passage about “the complete change in food habits which occurred at the same time, moving rapidly away from traditional German food to French (the high quality sector was completely French at that time) and all kinds of Mediterranean food, first Italian, then also Greek and Spanish,” David says that “even if historically accurate,” (I’m paraphrasing here) it doesn’t make any sense on an “organoleptic level.” Who needs, he asks, “residual sugar in wine that hopes to cut through heavy, traditional German cuisine?”

      Also, David says:

      As Tyrell [Karthäuserhof] and [von] Schubert [Maximin Grünhaus] averred early on, if one has to drink local Riesling with one’s local boar, an Auslese trocken is the sole possibility. On the other hand, there are countless instances in diverse cuisines especially those piquant and light in and of themselves where residual sugar is critical to synergy, whether in German Riesling or in Champagne. What happened is that eating-habits became more diverse and more of a fashion statement and the Germans started from the viewpoint that “we too” have to be able to make wines superficially like those in France.

      Today, neither Karthäuserhof nor Maximin Grünhaus designate its ripest dry Ruwer Riesling as “Auslese trocken.” As a VDP member, Karthäuserhof has reluctantly chosen to follow the new classification system with its “best” dry wine labeled GG. Though they do have an Alte Reben trocken, which corresponds to Spätlese trocken. Carl von Schubert labels his top dry-fermented Rieslings as Alte Reben trocken, though he also has the Superior, which tends to be in the halbtrocken category. It’s worth mentioning that almost all of their trocken Rieslings in recent vintages have must weights at Auslese levels.

      David, however, agrees with Ulli and Terry that many Germans fail to trust their own taste preferences, as many growers have told him again and again.

  • Terry Theise says:

    I quite agree with Ulli, and bore witness myself to most of what he describes, having lived in Germany from 1973-83. First of all, my THANKS to him for his scholarly and reasonable exposition. What I was told in the late 70s as the first wave of dry Riesling was stirring, was that it was a desire to reclaim market-share from Alsace and Northern Italian white wines, which were uniformly dry (and mostly cheap). Somehow though, it wasn’t enough to simply say “We want a piece of that market,” but instead it needed to be cloaked in all manner of ideological/metaphysical justification, an impulse that was exacerbated by the glycol scandal of 1985.

    Ulli is also (sadly!) correct that in far too many instances a grower cannot even get his customers to TASTE anything without the Trocken imprimatur unless he somehow tricks them into it. I have heard this story countless times.

    Lars is of course correct that Wagner, Wittman are free to make the wines they wish to make, just as we are free to comment on their choices.

    • At the same time, how often do I still hear certain well-known Mosel producers who specialize in sweet wines claim that theirs is the “traditional style.” Hence, the ideology cuts both ways. Though it might be true that the rebirth of dry German Riesling was to “reclaim market-share,” there were plenty of producers who were sincerely keen on just making high-quality wines that fermented through to dryness.

      Several years ago, I remember sitting with David Schildknecht in Zilliken’s old tasting room. We were joined by some German wine experts who loved Hanno’s style of residually sweet Saar Rieslings. When we mentioned that we were heading over to Peter Lauer, whom I imported at the time, they turned up their noses. I believe it was Lauer’s 2008s, which are still my favorites. Yet the idea of tasting dry or off-dry Saar wines (which weren’t Van Volxem) didn’t appeal to them.

      It should be noted, too, that Van Volxem, Markus Molitor, and Immich-Batterieberg sell a lot of Riesling in the German market without the term “trocken” on the label. In fact, depending on the vintage, many of their wines are legally not even “dry.”

  • Ulrich Brauns says:


    there are certainly “plenty of producers who [are] sincerely keen on just making high-quality wines that fermented through to dryness”. But these came up quite a while after the first move to dry wines in the late seventies, at least for the majority of producers. According to my own observations, in the Mosel area producers started to make dry wines just to meet market demands, although they preferred definitely the sweet style. Maybe this is the reason why so many dry wines of the “first generation” were indeed bad. In this regard, it took a new generation at the helm to produce really great dry Rieslings, which are available today.

    Just a short comment to Lauer: the majority of his 2008 wines, and certainly the premium line, is predominantly “feinherb” with residual sugar levels of 20 to 30 grams per litre. This is neither dry nor halbtrocken, and the sugar levels are not far away from what was standard for sweet Kabinett or even Spätlese fourty years ago. Just the alcohol levels are higher, due to reduced yields and later picking.

    • Ulli, I used “were,” because I was referring to the past. Of course, there are plenty of producers who are making top dry Rieslings in Germany now.

      I know Peter Lauer’s wines well. That’s true. My point was just that their dry and off-dry wines, including the ones up to 30-plus grams, didn’t seem to appeal to those gentlemen at the time. Lauer was less well known back then.

      Here is a list of some of Peter Lauer’s 2008 dry and dry-tasting Saar Rieslings (i.e., legally trocken and halbtrocken): Fass 1, Fass 3, Fass 25, Fass 6 “Senior,” Fass 12 Unterstenbersch, and Fass 11 Schonfels, plus the off-dry Fass 3, Fass 13 Saarfeilser, Fass 15 Stirn, and Fass 9 Kern.

  • Today, Joachim Krieger brought up an important point on the phone. Before the 1971 Wine Law, Spätlese, for example, had a maximum limit on residual sugar. Though the percentage changed over time, he says that the wines rarely exceeded 40 grams. Sadly, that’s no longer the case today. Most fruity Kabinetts exceed this mark.

    Many producers began to produce overtly sweet Mosel wines for the German and export markets by the 1970s.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Just got a chance to read through this thread in its entirety, and everyone brought up some interesting points.

    Anyway, just a couple of questions/comments: I was not aware of pre-1971 limit on residual sugar. Was there a maximum limit on for Auslesen and Beerenauslesen as well?

    Also, regarding Armin Diel’s 10 Years After tasting of 1994 Trockens: does anyone happen to know what producers/wines were included? Were all of the wines from the Nahe, or did they include other regions of Germany? (Certainly, some in the Pfalz were making excellent dry Rieslings in the 1990s.) For that matter, when the 1994s were first bottled, how were the Trockens viewed initially?

    As far as Keller, Kabinett, and vineyard designations, I agree with KP’s frustration about the VDP rules, which treat Kabinett as an inferior manifestation of Riesling. I also wish that I had bought more of KP’s 2005 Limestone Kabinett, which was a real standout for me from that vintage.

    • Andrew, I’m glad you read Terry’s long article and all the comments.

      I don’t believe there was a maximum limit on Auslese and above. As regards Diel’s tasting, Terry should be able to answer your questions.

      It’s odd that the VDP—formerly called Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer (VDNV)—downplays Kabinett, a Naturwein, or “natural wine” (i.e., an unchaptalized wine). Yet it backs GG, which can be chaptalized.

  • Thanks to Guy Brits-Gedopt, a knowledgeable Belgian subscriber to my site, who recommended the book Könige des Riesing an Mosel, Saar und Ruwer (Kings of Riesling on the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer) by Peter Sauerwald and Edgar Wenzel (Seewald, 1978).

    In the book, the authors profile four famous estates: Joh. Jos. Prüm, Karthäuserhof, von Othegraven, and Egon Müller. Their tasting notes are focused mainly on the top residually sweet Auslesen from the 20th century. In the chapter on Karthäuserhof, the authors mention that the 1921 Karthäuserhofberg wines, bottled in 1925/27, included 85 Fuder of Auslese, of which four Fuder, Burgberg and Kronenberg feinste Auslese, survived the Second World War. While most of the other Auslesen were fermented dry and were past their prime after 15 or 20 years, these four casks had between 35 and 76 grams of sugar per liter and were still in fine shape.

    In the late 1950s, the residual sugar per liter was supposed to be set at a max of 30 grams. Yet Werner Tyrell, the owner of Karthäuserhof, with the expert opinion of Professor Troost from Geiesenheim, showed the authorities that the four 1921 Karthäuserhofberg Auslesen, which had a relatively high amount of residual sugar, were still fine, and thus the law never went into effect.

    It’s worth noting, too, that the authors mention that Werner Tyrell removed the heater out of the cellar in 1949, as one discovered that a slow fermentation helps keep the aromatics better for producing great wines.

    In 1830, the Francophile Valentin Leonardy wrote that he preferred Riesling for his Karthäuserhofberg but also kept a little Pinot. Like Grünhaus, Karthäuserhof once had red wines as far back as the 1800s.

  • Last night, I spoke with Johannes Weber from Hofgut Falkenstein. He says that his father use to produce only bone-dry Saar Rieslings in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, more than half of their production is non-trocken Saar Rieslings. Many of their German private clients prefer feinherb.

    In the past, local wine enthusiasts often preferred crisp, dry Saar wines. This has changed a little over the years, though.

  • I just commented on another article and thought it would apply to this thread as well. See below.

    Martin Kössler of K&U, arguably the top wine merchant in Germany, still selects a Grünhäuser by the Fuder. Last year, from a smaller cask, he chose a 2012 Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Faß N°17. It’s a special K&U edition. He says that Herrenberg seems to be his favorite. The Oechsle was about 84° and the wine tastes dry-ish, despite the 21.7 grams of sugar per liter. He feels that it’s a real Kabinett in the tradition of Naturwein—i.e. before the wines started to become overly sweet.

  • Last night, a friend and his girlfriend from NYC invited me to a delicious dinner at Schloss Monaise in Trier, where the talented chef-owner Hubie Scheid suggested our two-course fish menu and uncorked (no screw-capped wines at his restaurant!) a couple of bottles from Maximin Grünhaus, as well as a Zilliken Spätlese. He also poured me a glass of von Othegraven’s 2011 Altenberg Kabinett—which is a special selection for his restaurant. It comes from old vines near Kanzemer Hörecker and had a marked stinky/sponti nose and about 20 grams of sugar per liter. The Grünhaus was a 1996 Abtsberg Kabinett, which tasted very good but was still a little sweet. He also served us a half-bottle of 2008 Abtsberg Kabinett trocken.

    Hubie, who, like me, can be a little opinionated at times, has an excellent palate and tends to favor Mosel Rieslings that have residual sugar and some bottle age. He’s also a proponent of spontaneous fermentation. Those wines that don’t reveal a noticeable sponti note are often (and mistakenly) brushed aside. Nevertheless, he’s been an ambassador for Mosel wine for many years now.

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