- August 29, 2016
What’s the Matter with Grosses Gewächs
- by David Schildknecht
Editor's note: In a reply to a discussion on the VDP's Grosses Gewächs (GG) several years ago, David Schildknecht wrote some compelling points on this prestige category of dry German wines. The following is an edited version of his views on Grosses Gewächs. A lot has changed since then, including the VDP's Grosse Lage (now in copyrighted all-caps form as VDP.GROSSE LAGE) and the new wine-labeling regulations in Rhineland-Palatinate. David plans to write more on this topic in the near future. In the second part, he replies to a comment from a reader in the same thread about the so-called classic fruity-sweet wines of the Mosel and Nahe.
Even though I've already often worked myself into a lather over Grosses Gewächs (GG) issues in this forum as well as others, I was prompted by conversations during recent visits with German growers, as well as by a recent thread here, to offer the following possibly more concise yet complete account of my views. (A number of my arguments are already quoted or at least adumbrated in a piece on Grosse Gewächse in the December/January 09/10 issue of Vinum; have appeared as part of my columns in the Austrian journal Vinaria; or were canvassed in my opening address for delivery at the Rheingau’s International Riesling Symposium 2013. But in English, I have until now published only scattered polemics regarding the issues addressed here.)
I hope and trust that these opinions will be taken in the constructive spirit in which they are offered, and as in no way diminishing the great respect and debt that I, like all Riesling lovers, owe to the 100-year-old organization today known as the VDP, without whose efforts the high regard both at home and abroad that is now once again being paid German Riesling could scarcely have been achieved. My considerable misgivings about many aspects of the evolving VDP program including the place occupied by the concept of Grosses Gewächs that has in recent years formed the lynchpin of its marketing have, as noted, never been kept secret, and many of my concerns date back to a time when this notion was but embryonic, concerns at the heart of extensive conversations and correspondence I have had over a 25-year period with three VDP presidents: Peter W. von Weymarn, Prinz Michael zu Salm-Salm, and Steffen Christmann. I might have been more reluctant to promulgate my misgivings as an attempt at systematic criticism had not a considerable number of the roughly 80 VDP members whom I visit annually repeatedly urged me to do so.
The initiative to highlight top terroirs and gain more exposure and better prices for the great Rieslings of Germany is welcome and has had much success. But making Grosses Gewächs in its current parameters and as currently regulated (or, outside the VDP, not-regulated) the lynchpin of a vineyard classification; stylistic ideal; and marketing strategy for German Riesling entails in my opinion many already evident as well as other probable drawbacks.
Grosses Gewächs is a work still in progress, one whose evolution (or stasis) over the next several years will I suspect determine whether we 20 years hence look back on it as having on balance been of service to the cause of Germany's Riesling, its growers and lovers—and perhaps even whether the concept is still widely used.
Issues in regard to Grosse Gewächse about which growers should be thinking (and consumers, too, be aware) include:
1) Insisting on legal Trockenheit invites (and indeed has repeatedly engendered) the following:
a. Rieslings "wrestled" to below 10 grams of residual sugar by yeasting, warming, blending, and so on that would have tasted better (and, in particular, better balanced) had they not been wrestled via yeasting, etc.*
b. Dearth of Rieslings in the (roughly) 10–13 grams of residual sugar range (envisioned and enshrined, incidentally, in the Rheingau "Erste Gewächse"—the only legally protected category of its sort), a range that correspond to or correlated with…
i. the behavior of many Riesling musts when left to their own devices.
ii. a notably high percentage of the great "dry" wines from the late-19th-to-early-20th-century heyday of German Riesling, to which those who thought up Grosses Gewächs appeal in establishing the category.**
iii. a level of hidden sweetness that proves uncannily food-friendly and takes Riesling places where frankly most of the world's utterly dry wines offer no synergy.***
c. Increasingly problematically high alcohol. Not as much in 2008 or 2009, thankfully, [nor, indeed, in 2010 or 2014, and consciousness about this issue has now clearly been raised among VDP vintners] but if nature is headed the way most growers as well as climatologists profess to believe, then this will become an increasingly critical issue, and keeping Grosse Gewächse under 14 percent alcohol and from letting their alcohol show will become more of a problem than it already is now.**** (Even in 2008 and 2009, the most famous—in part because warmest—Rheingau vineyards from right along the river routinely recorded 14 percent in their Grosses Gewächs renditions.)
d. An emphasis—at least superficially speaking (though I would argue another time at more length that the similarities are more than superficial)—on vinous parameters that can be achieved with white wine all over the world and with nearly all grape varieties as opposed to styles that can only be achieved with Riesling in the Rhine basin—and then achieved in large part precisely on account of this grape's uncanny talent for canceling out the usual effects of residual sugar. (Whereas, in regard to alcohol, Riesling has no such special talent—if anything, quite the opposite is the case.) These styles include not only high-wire balancing acts such as we witness when savoring a Mosel Riesling from Egon Müller, Manfred Prüm, or Hanno Zilliken but—at least as importantly, in my view—essentially dry-tasting wines of 10–20 grams residual sugar and correspondingly low 10–12 percent alcohol. For three decades, German growers and taste-setters have been focused with near obsession on demonstrating that "we too" can render excellent, amply endowed dry wines. (As if this hadn't already been proven back when Thomas Jefferson wrote in praise of Rhenish Riesling.) It's well past time for the emphasis to fall on what "only we [Germans]" can render in the world of wine, and on a combination of elegance, levity, vivacity, and transparency seldom if ever achievable—and probably unattainable—with other grapes in other places. (The elimination of "Kabinett" from the labeling vocabulary permitted by certain regional VDP chapters might be seen as symptomatic of the neglect to which I am referring, but this is a topic for consideration at greater length and on another occasion.)
e. Stylistic uniformity across the portfolios of increasingly many estates, a homogeneity that fails to respect the diversity definitive of Riesling's talents in these soils and climate. Increasingly—certainly among the top non-Mosel VDP estates that I routinely visit—the style of Riesling, from generic through Grosses Gewächs bottlings, is medium-bodied, legally trocken (under 10 grams of sugar per liter), and 12–14 percent alcohol, except in the case of obviously sweet Prädikat wines. Indeed, it strikes me as almost schizophrenic the number of estates at which Riesling disappears from the radar screen above 9 grams and does not reappear below 40, leading one to wonder what—save two decades of consumer misinformation and misguided conflation of ideological and aesthetic principles—could possibly have resulted in so few if any Rieslings being deemed worthwhile—much less illustrative of a golden mean—in that 10—40 gram no-man's land which for decades prior to the 1970s, a majority of German Rieslings (even those referred to as "dry" or as "Auslese") inhabited. Incongruously, many vintners proudly point to this gaping chasm as evidence of their "Konsequentheit" and unwillingness to tolerate anything middling or implicitly half-hearted. "If dry, then truly [dare I say, 'adamantly'?] dry," they will tell you, "and if sweet then genuinely [dare I add, 'often exaggeratedly'?] sweet." This makes no more sense than if a chef were to say "it's not a stock and it's not a classic reduction, so don't expect me to give lip service to your so-called sauce!" [Lars: It should be noted, too, that a GG can be chaptalized, and thus a GG is designated as a Qualitätswein. In other words, the VDP.Prädikatsweingüter are focusing on a non-Prädikatswein.]
2) While there are huge disparities among growers, the small quantities of Grosse Gewächse rendered by most participating estates, combined with the marketing strategy pursued by the VDP, has rendered me skeptical of these wines' ability to fulfill their stated role as international ambassadors for their great vineyards and for German Riesling and its finest terroirs as a whole.
a. Marketing as well as pricing continues to be dominated by the domestic market where the vast majority of Grosse Gewächse are sold, and the degree to which "Grosses Gewächs" serves in actual practice as an über-Prädikat sought by wealthy consumers as a status symbol is, I strongly suspect, unlikely to carry over to export markets, even in instances where there is enough wine to go around. (Strange but true: Some Grosse Gewächse are sold exclusively to a single German merchant, retail chain, or even restaurant group, and if you ask their growers why, they will tell you it's because, first, the quantities are small; and second, this makes marketing their entire line simpler. Now I ask you, do these sound like the arguments of someone anxious to demonstrate to and share with the wine lovers around the world the quality and distinctiveness of great vineyards in which he or she is often one of only a handful of landholders? Try to imagine how it could possibly benefit Robert Chevillon's reputation, in Nuits Saint Georges, if you could buy six of his eight crus on the open market but Bousselots and Pruliers were tied up with a single French retail or restaurant chain because, he explained to you, the acreage is smaller and anyway six is already a lot to deal with.) Many German estates allot to each export market "its" particular Grosses Gewächs, so that precisely the sort of taste comparison that would serve to demonstrate the efficacy of and Riesling's sensitivity to terroir is rendered unlikely.
b. In order to achieve a desired (self-described) "pyramidic" structure, the VDP strongly encourages (many growers describe this to me in terms of pressure and enforcement) the production of so-called Gutsriesling and Ortswein (ostensibly patterned after the generic and village wines of the Côte d'Or) even when—as is often the case—this means declassifying wine from Grosses Gewächs-level sites. The aim of this approach—other than perhaps to appear to be imitating Burgundy—is evidently to insure that Grosses Gewächs remains a prestige category commanding top prices. Certain regional VDP chapters permit a second trocken to bear the name of a Grosses Gewächs-rated vineyard (and these often represent terrific value); others don't. [Lars: None do so any longer.] The overall upshot is fewer and fewer bottles of wine from VDP members bearing the name of these great vineyards.
Consider a realistic Burgundy analogy. One typical grower has 25 percent (basic-level) Bourgogne by classification, mostly from level sites below the route nationale; 45 percent village (i.e., non-premier-cru-rated) acreage; 25 percent premier cru; and 5 percent grand cru. His neighbor is more fortunate and has 20 percent village; 40 percent premier cru; 40 percent grand cru. What do you suppose the latter would say if you told him "great wines, but they don't fit into our pyramid; we need you to get with the program by declassifying into a sufficient amount of Bourgogne and village wine" (genuine examples of which you were 'unfortunately' deprived of by bad luck in inheritance?)? Part of the answer wouldn't be printable, but the telling retorts would surely include these: "Am I or am I not a top-notch grower? Is this or is this not top-notch terroir? Is terroir what's at issue here or not? Do you think I am doing anybody favors by producing less outstanding cru-classified wine than I'm able to? Do you think I should deny my wines' places of origin? Do you expect me to take a six-digit cut to my bottom line?"
Yes, I am well aware that due to how lines were drawn in 1971 many German Einzellagen (the sole official single-vineyard sites) are somewhat—and a few grotesquely—heterogeneous in terroir and quality, leading certain conscientious growers to willingly declassify wine from lesser portions of a site. The same thing happens in Burgundy. But this is by no means the norm, and is in any case beside the present point. I have been told by many German growers that they bottle only one or two Grosse Gewächse despite having prime holdings in other Grosses Gewächs-rated sites because they can only sell a certain amount of Grosses Gewächs. But surely this is a sad commentary on the market and/or those grower's quality ambitions, not a model that should be emulated. If truth were told, some German estate owners would really be happiest with a Bordeaux model: one grand vin at the highest imaginable price; a second wine; and basta!***** If you're like me, site-specificity excites you, and a generically labeled wine—even if its grower whispers into your ear as he sells it to you "it's really 100 percent cru x"—doesn't so much arouse the buyer as it does suspicion why the grower chose to so-label the wine or was constrained from identifying its place of origin. As one grower asked me sarcastically, “We invested a decade on behalf of the VDP to impress our customers with the importance of where the wine grew [“Herkunft”] and now we’re supposed to disguise that?”
I know one really quality-conscious grower well represented in the US market whose best-known and best Riesling comes from vineyard X. But when Grosse Gewächse came along, he didn't ask to have X registered as one because he has a lot of it to sell; his customers appreciate his established quality-price rapport for wines from this site; and his local VDP chapter was at the time making noises about not even permitting a residually sweet Spätlese to carry the same vineyard name as a Grosses Gewächs, whereas this grower's X Spätlese acts as an international calling card and is often his top wine. So, this fellow applied for approval of Grosses Gewächs status for vineyard Y, which few even in the region had heard of before (I hadn't) and from which he had never before bottled a wine. After several years of Y Grosses Gewächs—wines that were good if forgettable—and after the local VDP consented to Spätlesen identified by Grosses Gewächs vineyard names, this grower decided to drop his lease on Y and enshrine X as "his" Grosses Gewächs. This sort of history is not as extreme an example as you may think. (And indeed, if you think that the growers themselves are clear about precisely what regulations they are or in future will be expected to observe—whether as matters of law or VDP protocol—try asking the same question to half a dozen of them and count the number of different and mutually exclusive answers you receive. I do this repeatedly, and the results frustrate my efforts to explain to my readers just what actually are current norms.)
c. No matter how much good, quality-oriented work the VDP does (and it does a huge lot), the amount of wine bottled by non-members from any given Grosses Gewächs site often dwarfs that bottled by members, because not only do non-members own large portions of these sites, they also bottle in a full range of styles and Prädikat wines labeled with those site names, seeing that they are under none of the aforementioned (see b. above) pyramidic constraints. Especially abroad, chances are good that the consumer's experience of wine from many Grosses Gewächs sites will come from a non-VDP grower, and only consumers able to spend $50 to $100 will be able to afford Grosses Gewächs bottlings, if they can find them.
3) The nomenclature chosen is unattractive and confusing.
a. I cannot believe that only American, British, and French consumers—whom I discuss this with often—find "Grosses Gewächs" hard on the tongue and even harder on the ear. In fact, I have heard this criticism from some German growers as well.
b. At the very late stages of developing Grosses Gewächs as a marketing tool and ostensible vineyard classification, the VDP recognized the interests of growers who are strongly vested in great terroir as well as in residually sweet wines; acknowledged that such wines, too, could be reflective of those terroirs; and created the category of "Erste Lage" as a purer (i.e., non style-specific) top tier of vineyard classification. But since what mattered to the originators of this marketing strategy—and what matters almost exclusively in the German market—is legally trocken wine, even when referring to vineyard ratings, "Grosses Gewächs" is what gets talked about and promoted. So now we have "Grosses Gewächs," "Erstes Gewächs" (exclusive to the Rheingau), and "Erste Lage," only the middle one of which (due to its legal recognition by the State of Hesse) is permitted to appear on a wine label, and none of which are any clearer in meaning if translated into English ("great growth"; "first growth"; "first[-class] site"). This is supposed to entice and to make it easier to "explain" German wine to the consumer? [Lars: VDP.Grosse Lage, which replaced Erste Lage, has a copyright and is printed on capsules or labels. VDP.Erste Lage means premier cru now. But the VDP.Mosel-Saar-Ruwer doesn't use this tier in "the refined VDP.Classification."]
c. Since neither "Grosses Gewächs" (which can't appear on a label anyway) nor "GG" is legally protected, non-VDP growers are free to informally or (as in the case of Bernkasteler Ring members) formally refer to certain wines as "Grosses Gewächs" and put the letters "GG" on labels or neck stickers, whether or not these wines fulfill similar conditions. Martin Kerpen, spokesperson and chairman of the Bernkasteler Ring indicated to me this month that his group had reached an entente coridale with the VDP whereby they will bottle as "Grosses Gewächs" only legally trocken Rieslings fulfilling similar yield restrictions, and perhaps this entire situation will clarify itself in the near future. But right now, it's murky.
d. The smaller number of different wines that are—for the greater glory of Grosses Gewächs—permitted vineyard designations on their labels (see 2.b. above and 4.b. below), the greater the proliferation of what German law recognizes as "fantasy names" in an effort to distinguish between wines from different parcels or pickings; wine lots that stopped fermenting at different stages and times; or (heaven forbid the inconvenience!) wines that taste better on their own than when blended out, or that appeal to different sorts of wine lovers. So we have the proliferation of winery-internal designations, as well as the use of terms such as "Alte Reben," less in their literal sense than as a code name for wine that did not (or do not routinely) ferment to legal Trockenheit. And there are so many initials and capital letters used on German wines nowadays—"R" and "S" are the favorites but by no means the only—that it makes one's head spin trying to figure out what the grower means by them, if anything. If you're a German consumer buying at the cellar door from only one or two estates you can understand the governing conventions, but on a shelf or wine list representing dozens of estates, good luck! (The minting by German lawmakers of such quickly devalued coins as "Hochgewächs," "Classic," and "Selection" in a misguided effort to meddle with marketing has only added to an already a far-too-confusing picture.)
e. [Lars: The term "Grosse Lage" can easily be confused with Grosslage.]
4) Treating Grosses Gewächs as a category for enshrining terroir is at least doubly misleading.
a. It refers to a particular style of wine (see 3. b. above), with the vineyard designations having been introduced so that growers have a site name under which to showcase their ostensibly best wine in that style. If you don't believe this, take a good look at the list of approved sites and research their history. You'll discover how many traditionally outstanding sites are not so-classified even if VDP members have large holdings in them, because as a matter of marketing (not quality of terroir) there can only be so many Grosse Gewächse. It's just a fact that certain regions have a concentration of more great vineyards than do others, just as some growers (see 2. b. above) are luckier than others. To dumb down or deny sites for this reason doesn't strike me as ultimately good marketing for any wine region. Conversely, take a look at some German wine regions that don't enjoy a history of renown or of famous vineyards, and you'll find that they still have "their" Grosse Gewächse, because you can't very well put your emphasis on marketing a wine category that some of your members aren't permitted to bottle. VDP.Rheingau members are not even supposed to mention the Johannisberg vineyard names "Goldatzel" or "Schwarzenstein" on a label (resulting at the Johannishof winery in multiple bottlings labeled "G" and "S"). In other words, these sites don't even make it to the penultimate level of the pyramid, much less the peak. But there are regions of Germany whose growers would be fools not to trade "their" Grosses Gewächs sites for ones with the pedigree and potential of Johannisberger Goldatzel or Schwarzenstein if only they could!
b. Meaning no disrespect to the VDP and its members, their elite numbers have holdings in many and perhaps even most of the historically renowned German Riesling sites, but by no means all. If one is going—if it even makes sense—to talk about a classification of vineyards, then this has to be on the basis of their potential, which may have been demonstrated recently—or perhaps not.****** Germany is replete with Riesling sites whose outstanding quality is demonstrated in the glass by the work of avid non-VDP member growers, but there are (alas) at least as many whose quality is known solely from wines of an earlier era and which have no present champion, or in some cases have been neglected for decades. The disappearance of steep slopes including many known to be capable of greatness should be top on the list of concerns for all those of us who care about great German Riesling and its reputation, and any classification that fails to emphasize the extent of currently untapped potential for greatness or potential tapped solely by non-VDP members is bound to discount the true value of Germany's Riesling vineyards and their market potential. Imagine that only 70 percent of today's Burgundy crus were even being farmed—much less farmed well—and you have at least a remote analogy. Any system or protocol that supports the status quo at the expense of nourishing new talent is regrettable, and when the "new" includes once-renowned vineyards, this is especially unfortunate. (Just as it is in my view an unfortunate debasement of the concept of "terroir" to employ it in the evaluative sense of "I've got it, whereas all you've got is dirt." As if every vine weren't rooted in dirt or oriented toward heaven, and quality were not determined by what's in the glass. It's as ridiculous as saying "we live in a neighborhood; you merely inhabit a collection of houses in one part of town.")
And speaking (as the VDP often does) of following Burgundian protocol, I'd like to see the real Côte d'Or nomenclature instituted in Germany, whereby you can put on your label the name of any vineyard registered in the cadastre, regardless of whether it's officially classified as a cru. [Lars: State wine laws, beginning with those of Rheinland-Pfalz, have since taken a huge step in this direction.] If one wants to walk in the direction of terroir talk, let the labels tell you (assuming the grower chooses) where the wine was grown. Then the market—by setting prices—will reward quality and enshrine certain vineyards as worthy. That's why, for example, there are half a dozen Vosne premier crus that routinely command prices higher than those of next-door grand crus Echézeaux and Clos Vougeot, and why Meursault growers like Jean-Philippe Fichet, Patrick Javillier, and Roulot command top prices even though almost none of their vineyards are premier cru. And whether or not these sites are ever legally up-graded (a process which—like appeals to re-institute mustered-out German vineyard names—faces enormous bureaucratic hurdles) is frankly no longer of much concern to their farmers, much less consumers. Unfortunately, the VDP is working in a direction quite the opposite of this—the reduction of site names on labels for the greater glory of Grosses Gewächs. Yet more lamentably, German wine law forbids the use of vineyard names not registered in 1971 as Einzellagen. [Lars: No longer. See my preceding note.] It takes skill, subterfuge, and luck to get around this legal impediment to uttering the truth by means, for example, of fantasy names that resemble names of vineyards, or vineyard names entered in local dialect. (While meanwhile, Grosslage names—while a few are justified—retain legal protection precisely because of their ability to delude the consumer. Chablis, incidentally, is regrettably similar to Germany in these respects, with its ban from labels of non-cru vineyard names and its in-practice Grosslagen.)
= = =
* Yes, if one's going to define "dry" (or "Grosses Gewächs") legally one must draw a line somewhere or hew to some formula. But I'm amazed at the number of German growers and journalists who argue as follows: "If we set the limit at 13 grams, in short order the wines whose dryness we are trying to define and protect for consumers would nearly all migrate toward that extreme." Yes, and if in fact that were to be the case… ? If what's meant is that growers would deem their wines better-balanced for leaving their wines with a bit higher residual sugar, their encouragement to do so is precisely what I advocate. But if what's meant is that growers will let sugars rise despite believing in their hearts that they are betraying principle and good taste, then what a shockingly low opinion growers who offer this "argument" must have of their fellow-vintners!
** See for example Troost's Technologie des Weins, offering a graph to suggest when residual sugar in Riesling is in balance ("ausgeglichen"), which for finished acidities of 7–9 grams he places at 10–20 grams of residual sugar. Troost's book went through many editions and I've repeatedly been told that his word was gospel at Geisenheim from the 1950s until long past his retirement from that institution in the early 1970s. Or see the analyses performed and published by Dietrich et al. of ancient wines from Kloster Eberbach. Of course, the chemistry and élevage of German Rieslings from the late 19th and first two-thirds of the present century differed in many ways from the vast majority of today's examples, not just Grosse Gewächse. And any number of these ways (including modest levels of residual sugar even in "sweet" Prädikat categories; more use of large wooden casks; longer lees contact; a more catholic view as regards occasional malolactic fermentation) are worthy of exploration and perhaps even emulation. If I were a German grower and thought I could render something half as profound and age-worthy as a 1909 Eltviller Taubenberg Naturrein or 1911 Kiedricher [Gräfen-]Berg Auslese I happened to have the rare privilege of tasting last week—not to mention scores of other 50–100-year-old Rieslings I've had over the years—I know I would experiment on at least a few of my own wines by employing any measures I thought might conduce to such long-lasting and profoundly delicious results!
*** As for my claims about food compatibility and synergies, of course this comes down to taste, but all I can ask you to do is experiment for yourself. I've shown wines to chefs and engaged in food pairings for much of my life. There are, in fact, vast categories of cuisine—raw fish sushi for example—that demand precisely the "hidden sweetness" to which I refer, whether the white wines in question are Champagne, Vouvray, and Montlouis, or Rieslings. (And in my experience, don't try getting much higher than 15 grams with sushi either, or the synergies quickly vanish.) German chefs unprompted and not fully aware of my "prejudices" frequently tell me about the huge efforts they must make to sell anything but legally trocken (or the occasionally nobly sweet) Riesling. ("I can only sell them provided I offer to buy back the wine if the customer isn't impressed with the match," a talented Saar chef I met the week-before-last—and who did not know of my opinions—told me when I complimented him on what for his native country counted as an extensive list of Rieslings labeled halbtrocken and feinherb. And this was in the Saar region, where there actually are many such wines. See my "Saar Rising" in the December 2007 issue of Wine & Spirits.)
**** You might be asking, "Why the big deal over a few grams of sugar which in total cannot even make close to 1 percent difference in alcohol?" But this ignores two factors: a) Taste and balance (including perception of finishing heat or roughness)—as anyone who has played around with Süssreserve (sweet reserve) or fractional de-alc blending can testify—do not vary in linear lock-step with quantitative parameters. Far from it. But taste and balance are—or, at least, ought to be—what are at issue here, and in this regard pushing the alcohol proves (on the evidence of my palate, anyway) to be a dangerous game. b) Say you set about rendering a Grosses Gewächs. Even growers who normally rely on spontaneous fermentation will often employ pure yeast cultures to assure more complete fermentation. But spontaneous fermentations are generally far less efficient in sugar-alcohol conversion, yielding significantly less alcohol for a given level of sugar. The difference in alcohol, therefore, between a yeasted 9-gram residual-sugar Grosses Gewächs and a spontaneously fermented Riesling of 12–13 grams residual sugar that might otherwise have resulted from the identical must, can thus easily approach a full percentage point, a circumstance that cannot be captured by the simple equation for conversion of sugar to alcohol and CO2, but must take into consideration various sidings down which carbon atoms can be diverted. (I'm no chemist, but I have spent a lot of time corresponding with yeast experts such as Professor Matt Goddard of Auckland University—who appears to enjoy among the world's highest reputations in this field—and the long and the short of it is that efficiency of conversion varies to degrees of enormous significance to taste.)
***** Only folks who have been fighting the good fight for Riesling since the mid-1980s are likely to realize that at one time the bandwagon among influential growers and journalists was behind a classification of estates, not vineyards, with many explicitly advocating a Bordelaise model. And as if it weren't enough to stake out that position, they offered extensive arguments against vineyard classification. Not many years later, the scent of terroir was in the air as Germany's old tax maps were "discovered" and a tradition of vineyard classification that went back to Napoleon and was already adumbrated by Medieval monks was revived. (I won't name names. But if you happen to have old issues of Decanter from 1985 and 1986, have a look at the articles and exchanges on German wine classification. You'll find a surprisingly familiar cast of characters—including yours truly—but not all of their positions will strike you as familiar!)
****** This is the fundamental truth on which the recent impressively printed and widely referenced, multi-author Weinatlas Deutschland founders, although to dissect in detail that tome's consequent omissions and commissions would require a lengthy separate consideration.
* * *
"At first I also felt that Germany, and especially regions like the Mosel and Nahe, should stick to the fruity style they excel in."
Please pardon my jumping on this, but it represents to me another example of the bipolar thinking that has a grip on so many of our German friends.
I am not advocating that the Mosel or any other region ought to stick to a particular style. Quite the opposite: I'm advocating stylistic diversity.
What you call "the fruity style" of Mosel wine is one I cherish but in terms of my own uses at table as well as (for reasons cited in my text) fidelity to long-term tradition, I am frankly more interested in German Rieslings that (to put inevitably arbitrary numbers on this for ease of communication) harbor 10–20 grams of residual sugar. As the so-called fruity style—a style not even possible until the advent of sterile filtration in 1916 (technology that originated with Seitz in Bad Kreuznach on the Nahe, incidentally, who appear to still be the leaders in beverage filtration) and that caught on in the (perhaps not coincidentally sugar-starved) post-WWI years—has evolved to the point where precious few residually sweet Rieslings even of Kabinett Prädikat are being bottled at less than 40 grams of residual sugar, which as I pointed out is well more than harbored by any typical Auslese before the 1970s.
So… I am for getting back to what even viewed solely from a statistical-mathematical standpoint—not to mention in an historical and gustatory one—looks like stylistic territory worth exploring (perhaps even a golden mean), not treating as off limits. It's like saying, "compose for the piano for a lifetime, but don't touch the two octaves on either side of middle C," even though you know the entire historical literature for this instrument relies on just this range (the long lower and upper reaches having only been made possible as the modern instrument evolved) and if asked why, getting told "really, that you even have to ask such a question: who could possibly want to mess with the mediocre middle when you can hit so many low and high notes?!" My culinary analogy above is more appropriate, but I hope you'll tolerate some slight (and if you've discussed this much inside Germany you know it's only slight!) exaggeration to help get readers to think about this issue. Getting back to the middle means exercising some restraint on what I see as the excesses and narrowness of the Grosses Gewächs program, and also (something I'm seeing happening now, slowly) a dialing back of excessive, superficial sweetness in wines of what you call the fruity style. My present piece is about the former. If I wrote about saving "Kabinett" and some other related topics I'd concentrate on criticism of the other extreme.
In any case, I'm happy to see that you seem to agree with me in the main. And I don't deny that "middling" wines are hard to market inside Germany (though Van Volxem and the other Saar growers I alluded to are proof that it can be done). Internationally, I know of no US wine merchants or restaurateurs not raised in Germany (although I am sure there are some) who gives a fig whether or not a given Riesling is legally trocken. They want a balanced wine that will fit a certain sort (or perhaps even a wide range) of cuisine. Each of us has to make up his or her own mind—and the restaurateur similarly at his table, provided synergistic taste is actually what concerns him or her—as to the styles that fit. In my experience, what I call the "hidden sweetness" possible with Riesling lends itself not only to enormous versatility and pleasurable synergy at table, it also represents a sort of performance that few other wines on earth (leaving room for Vouvray, Montlouis, and the Coteaux du Loir here) can even remotely imitate.
I could site endless anecdotal evidence from growers that if cellar-door customers or experienced restaurateurs are "forced" to taste blind (including also without benefit of the analytical data Germans so love to put on their price lists) and to experiment with food and wine pairings blind, they move instinctively toward the middle, of course loving lots of trocken wines, but also lots of the "un-sellable" wines legally known as halbtrocken—and perhaps (gasp!) even some Rieslings higher in residual sugar than that.
Whether a bit of residual sugar plays a vital role in the aging of Riesling has to my knowledge not really been scientifically studied. But, paradoxically, a belief that it does is part of the received opinion among German wine growers, even those who bottle overwhelmingly trocken Rieslings.
"Germany makes some of the best and most elegant dry Rieslings in the world and does this for reasonable prices. Looking at Schildknecht’s scores for the GGs, Lagenweine, and Ortsweine, and seeing what these wines cost at the winery, it makes no sense to say that these wines are too expensive."
I don't disagree. My concern (very much including concern as a consumer myself) is lest we get to a situation where in order to have a German Riesling that's both distinctive and has the pedigree of single-site origin, you have to "trade up" to a category that is getting quickly out of the range where the typical consumer will pop a bottle a week and well out of the range in which most restaurants pour by the glass—and where this situation has come about not due to paucity of outstanding fruit from top-class vineyards, but rather due to limitations (or at least pressure) placed on the grower to limit how much single-vineyard wine may be bottled and thereby help keep the prices high for that which is.
Just a bit of history: the original notion was for Grosse Gewächse to follow the tolerance level of the Rheingau's Erste Gewächse, and indeed to share that name. (But since "Erstes Gewächs" entered the law of Hessen, whereas Grosses Gewächs was not similarly accepted by other German states nor federally, another name had to be invented.) From 2002–2006, this parity as regards permissible residual sugar was in effect. During that initial period, though, not even the use of the initials "GG" had been approved on labels, and growers were both free to and in most instances did label simultaneously as "Spätlese trocken" or "Auslese trocken"—though a few already early on registered their wines sans Prädikat in anticipation of the Prädikat-free status toward which the VDP was working for their Grosses Gewächs category. And some early Grosses Gewächs wines, too, were labeled sans "trocken" because they weren't; just as numerous Rheingau Erste Gewächse made use the allowance of up to 13 grams of residual sugar, and some still do. There would almost certainly have been more non-trocken Rieslings among the early Grosse Gewächse save for the fact that the growers most anxious to embrace the new category were those who concentrated on trocken wines and whose perceived top wines were single-vineyard Spätlese trocken or Auslese trocken, which in principle merely underwent a change in the name of their category.
(Interestingly, Bürklin-Wolf, a Pfalz pioneer in fielding an essentially all-trocken portfolio and source for some of Germany's most consistently fine trocken Rieslings, continues to label their wines "P.C." and "G.C." to reflect their internal classification of "premier cru" and "grand cru" that was in effect even before the emergence of Erstes Gewächs, not to mention Grosses Gewächs.)
In 2006, at the time that the permission on labeling Grosse Gewächse with Prädikat terminology expired, it was also decided that Grosse Gewächse should all be legally trocken. There were certainly voices of dissent, but ironically it was the "southern" faction—Pfalz and Baden—who (I've been repeatedly told by growers both in those regions and in other regions) were most insistent on legal dryness. I say it's ironic because first off, with wines from the Pinot family (which play a significant role as Grosse Gewächse in those regions) the issue is a non-starter since these generally lack the acidity or structure to balance more than 9 grams without indeed displaying at least some sense of sweetness (and certainly nobody contemplates Spätburgunder at 9 grams!). But, more importantly, it's ironic in a way I suspect will become increasingly evident, because precisely Riesling from further south is more susceptible to alcoholic overload.
Almost certainly, another reason why there was ineffective opposition in 2006 to revising the permissible level of residual sugar downward is that the principle skeptics about Grosses Gewächs were Moselaner, many of the most influential of whom (notably Manfred Prüm and Egon Müller) had no interest in the category and still have no intention of ever bottling wines of the sort. The Moselaner, lead at the time by regional VDP chairman Wilhelm Haag, actively lobbied for fuller recognition of the place of residually sweet wines in the official VDP hierarchy, and were rewarded with the acknowledgement of "Erste Lage" as a style-free designation of the purportedly top German vineyards. [Lars: VDP.Grosse Lage replaced Erste Lage.]
As I have written before here, Rheingau growers often still render Erste Gewächse that aren't legally trocken, but relatively few of those who are VDP members do so, because this disqualifies the wines in question from also being referred to as Grosse Gewächse or shown as part of VDP presentations of that category. That the two notable Mosel area exponents of Riesling with what I call "hidden sweetness"—Reinhard Löwenstein of Heymann-Löwenstein in the Terrassenmosel (aka the Lower Mosel) and Roman Niewodniczanski of Van Volxem on the Saar—apparently (based on reports I keep receiving and lists of presentations I see) show their non-trocken wines alongside Grosse Gewächse, is to say the least a bone of contention among many growers. But at least these guys are now actively lobbying for action in some of the directions I suggested. [Lars: Heymann-Löwenstein now makes GGs, even though it defied the category for years.] (Time precludes my going into details on their ideas and proposals.) ♦
Photograph courtesy of the VDP.
David Schildknecht has been tasting his way through Germany annually since 1984. He covers its wines for Vinous and is responsible for the entries on German wine in the 3rd and 4th editions of the Oxford Companion to Wine.