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  • July 13, 2012
  • The Rise and Fall of Sweet German Riesling

  • by Bill Hooper

Sweet Riesling is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that… Sweet Riesling is as dead as a door-nail. (Apologies to Charles Dickens.)

That might sound dramatic to you, but, if so, you haven’t been to Germany lately. Depending on which generation you belong to and, also, to your level of involvement in the wine industry, or to your level of enthusiasm as a consumer of wine, this could either come across as surprising news or old hat. Either way, the truth of the matter is that it is nearly impossible for me to walk into a winery, wine shop, or grocery store here to find a bottle of sweetish German Riesling, and I live in the middle of the Pfalz, which is the largest Riesling-growing region on the planet. It seems that we are almost to the point of dropping the qualifier “‘dry”’ (trocken in German—used to signify wines with 9 grams or less residual sugar) when speaking about Riesling, and substituting "sweet" as the outlying indicator of style. The German wine industry has developed over the last couple of decades into a producer of primarily dry wine. How did this happen?

There has been a fair amount of controversy generated by this development and it has been written about and discussed for years by Terry Theise, a well-known US importer of German wines, and recently in the unfortunately titled, but well-written “Can American Fans Save German Riesling?” by Mike Steinberger. Matters of taste certainly come into play, but it isn't as tidy as that. Germans overwhelmingly prefer soccer to American football, dislike spicy in favor of savory foods, and love Bon Jovi. With the exception of the Bon Jovi obsession (there is a Bon Jovi edition Volkswagen for chrissakes!), I’m not willing to concede that their tastes are wrong nor can I say that our American tastes are correct. Even beyond that, what worries me on both sides of the argument is that there is a tendency for people to read something, to misinterpret it, and to declare one style superior while only to dismiss the other altogether. To do that would mean missing out on some of the world’s great wines—those being Riesling both dry and those with some noticeable residual sugar.

Tradition plays a central role in the appreciation of wine for many of us, but it is also wise to understand that wine styles are a moving target and always have been (you should read about some of the stuff that used to find its way into Champagne or about the oft-made claim about Rhône wines being blended into Burgundy or Bordeaux in small vintages). The past tends to be over-romanticized, including the not-so-distant past. Trying to pinpoint a true, or authentic, style of any particular wine is as futile an exercise as debating if the 1972 Dolphins would beat the 1985 Bears in the Super Bowl, or saying that Renaissance painting is superior to those of the Impressionists. Drink what you like. I offer the following not in attempt to define the real nature of the world’s finest wine grape, but only to offer you some insight on a developing, or completed, trend as I see it, and not only as an insider but also as a wine lover.

German Riesling has been around for a long time. Written records of the grape point to 1430 for a "Ruslingwingarten," outside of Worms, the Wonnegau of Rheinhessen today, and others mentioning "Rissling" in Alsace, in 1477, then part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and again, in 1511, in what is now Germany. Since then, the popularity of German Riesling has ebbed and flowed with the tastes and trends of society over time—and more than anything with the political and economic climate in Germany and abroad. The very peak popularity of Riesling came in the half century leading up to 1914. Up until that time, the technology simply did not exist to produce stable wine with residual sugar. That technology being sterile filtration to remove yeast and microorganisms, thus preventing refermentation in the bottle (first with asbestos fibers, later with wood fibers, or cellulose) and temperature-controlled vats to stop fermentation at the desired point of residual sugar by dropping the temperature to below the point where yeast can function. Interestingly, the invention of sterile filtration in the early 1900s coincided with the implosion of the German export markets for wine. Understandably, after the First World War, followed by the Second, the export markets for German Riesling dried up for a spell. The best quote that I have read on the subject was in Simon Winder’s wonderful book Germania from a British historian who stated that after the wars, German wine just "tasted too much of steel helmet."

The only real available option for the fermentation of wine was oak barrels and casks. The size of the vessel depended on the region and the individual parcel or selection being harvested, but they were normally in the 300- to 2,400-liter range. The larger wooden casks, either Fuder or Stück, gave potentially warmer fermentation temperatures, which is more rapid than those produced with the aid of temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks of the same size owing to the more porous oak and the heat generated by the volume of fermenting must. This allows for more oxygen in a conducive temperature range and therefore a less stressful environment for the yeast, also reducing or eliminating the need for chemical nutrient supplements such as Diammonium phosphate (DAP), an often used supplement throughout the world, and one which I really don’t want in my wine. A relatively quick, warmish, gemütlich fermentation, from healthy, minimally processed, ripe (but not overripe) grapes has the very best chances of fermenting to dryness (called durchgegoren). The best, most quality-conscious producers have always sought to achieve this standard.

It has also been suggested that more wines would have gone through malolactic fermentation (MLF), resulting in creamier wines with softer acidity. This would probably only have happened in extremely warm years, when the crop came in with a relatively high pH. MLF rarely happens spontaneously at a pH value less than 3.2, and the majority of Riesling harvested, even today, when must weights are on average far higher than they were even twenty, much less one hundred years ago, rarely exceeds that number. MLF starter cultures came much later.

Botrytis has always been a problem and one that can certainly complicate fermentation. One of the most common misconceptions about winemakers in Germany is that we accept or even desire a certain amount of botrytis in the crop. This is absolutely false. Fighting botrytis is one of the biggest challenges and one of the most time-consuming measures that we undertake throughout the growing season. The exceptions being Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). There have likely been huge increases in botrytis devastation since the advent of nitrogen fertilizer, which really took off in the 1950s. Over-fertilization and high yields lead to much more plant growth: compact grape bunches, which often burst open, and a denser leaf canopy that lessens airflow and promotes fungal growth resulting in a greater need for chemical fungicide (a wicked circle, conventional agriculture can be). Today, wines made from grapes overly affected by botrytis (from poor selection during the harvest) need to be heavily processed in the winery through clarification, filtration, and heavy doses of sulfur or the resulting wines are a mess of turbidity, oxidation, and spoilage. They rarely ferment to dryness, but vinegar and mushrooms dominate the palate. I can’t imagine that highly regarded wines ever came from such material.

Stuck fermentations would always have to have been accounted for and sweet wines have always been made from the results, but they were undesirable, risky, and required far more treatments, some quite detrimental to wine quality. (Fortified wines such as Port or Banyuls from warm regions owe their existence to the stuck fermentations of long-gone eras, as adding alcohol was the only way to stabilize the wines for transport or future consumption.) With the discovery and distribution of cultured yeast strains, fermenting to dry was less of an issue than ever before and this obviously came as a huge relief to winemakers globally.

We can, with some measure of certainty, conclude that the best German Rieslings of the past, those from which Germany initially gained its high reputation, were dry with a few bottles of Auslese, BA, and TBA thrown in for good measure, but these were great rarities. Analysis of the sugar content of surviving bottles from centuries past has also confirmed this.

Cellar technology rapidly outpaced innovation in the vineyard and when filtration (led by the German company Begerow, which is now owned by Eaton), cooling jackets, and steel tanks became more available, it became possible for virtually every producer, led by large co-operatives, to produce sweeter wine at much lower prices than that of those great dessert wine rarities of BA and TBA. The addition of Süssreserve (sweet, heavily sulfured, unfermented grape-juice) or arresting the fermentation meant that low-quality (either heavily rotten or under-ripe, high-cropped, high-acid) grapes could be processed by cutting corners in the vineyard and buffering the result with sugar, in effect, covering up the flaws. The high-quality, elite producers of the era banded together in an attempt to legally block the production of such wines. When those attempts failed, and the public demand for cheap sweeter wines rose, the great producers adopted an "if-you-can’t-beat-them, join-them" attitude and Germany became known in the 1970s and 1980s as a sweet-wine producer, led of course by Liebfraumilch, which incidentally has been involved in court cases since the 1909 Wine Law became ratified as a detriment to the German wine brand. This story is not entirely confined to Germany. We can see similar parallels in the Loire Valley with Chenin Blanc, most notably Vouvray, which is rapidly getting drier as well, and to a lesser extent, in Austria. Alsace never really succumbed to the temptations of producing more fabricated wines, and it continues to be regarded as a dry-wine region.

To make the claim that every producer who made or makes sweet or off-dry Riesling in Germany is doing so with low-quality produce is absolutely false, but unfortunately for the conscientious few, the gap narrowed and wine prices dropped.

Gradually over the last few decades, improvements in vineyard management—better trellising techniques that promote air flow, green-cover to bring competition for water and nutrients as well as providing structure and oxygen to the soil, legume planting to naturally fix nitrogen from the air instead of using chemical fertilizers, improvements in canopy management, using pheromone capsules instead of insecticides to combat grapevine moths (a leading cause of botrytis), and more intensive plowing have made it possible to bring in much healthier grape material than in the past. This, in combination with global warming, has led to riper, less acidic grapes on the whole, especially in the regions of Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, and Baden, making it possible for higher-Oechsle, cleaner, lower-acid (less-shrill) dry Riesling to be consistently produced in a more natural way than ever before. The crux of the issue is that producers here are extremely proud of the very labor intensive farming measures that they undertake and feel that dry Riesling better expresses the minerality and individual character of their terroir (which comes in many different flavors other than slate). Despite the unique climatic challenges faced in Germany (far more rain than any other major winegrowing region in the world, meaning higher sensitivity to oidium, or downy mildew, and botrytis, higher frost risk, and cultivation of extremely steep slopes) there has been an enormous rise in organic and biodynamic viticulture here and the very top producers in the Pfalz have converted to these methods: A. Christmann, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, Bassermann-Jordan, Rebholz, Odinstal, Karl Schaefer, Theo Minges, Meßmer, among others. Dry, organically produced German Riesling is among the most difficult wines in the word to make and is seen as the highest rendition of art and craft in winemaking.

Talking to producers, it has become clear to me that they are making huge strides in making more friends of dry German Riesling in the United States and Great Britain and they are excited about showcasing what they feel are their best wines. There seems to be a lot more potential for growth in dry Riesling than in the sweeter styles, but I don’t believe that there is any real danger of off-dry, sweet Riesling becoming extinct. If the demand remains, there will be more than enough not-dry Riesling produced to go around, mostly from the Mosel. If you like it, buy it—sometimes there is absolutely no substitute for brilliant off-dry, steep-slope Mosel or Mittelrhein Riesling and I love it, too. Detractors might find the dry wines a little too macho, and the best trocken Rieslings have higher alcohol than their sweeter counterparts, but remain perfectly balanced and still generally fall on the lower side of the scale: 11–13 percent alcohol. I have found that a few chaptalized wines (adding sugar to the must before fermentation to raise alcohol, not sweetness) can come across a little hot as there is more alcohol, but not more fruit or mineral flavor to counteract it (though even chaptalization is becoming increasingly rare.) The higher ripeness of the wines usually provides more intense aromas and more exotic fruit flavors which are more than enough substitute for sugar and they tend to be more versatile food wines because of their lack of sweetness. They also tend to be more compact, firm, and dense with minerality. They can be delicious, beautiful, fascinating, complex and as satisfying as revenge both young and with some age on it. ♦

This post first appeared, in unedited form, on, June 17, 2012.

Bill Hooper is studying to become a winegrower and lives with his family in Neustadt an der Weinstraße, in the Pfalz.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Bill’s comments regarding malo-lactic transformation in Riesling are misleading in several respects.

    As regards the notion that such transformation “would probably only have happened in extremely warm years,” not only is there good evidence of venerable old Rieslings from less than in any way extreme years that underwent malo* (not to mention legions of contemporary examples, more about which anon), but in extremely warm and/or precocious vintages (such as, most recently, 2003 and 2011) total levels of malic acid are small, at times almost to the vanishing point, so that the issue of how malo-lactic transformation influences the flavor of the wines is essentially moot.

    As to the hypothetical setting of pH 3.2 as a bar below which malo-lactic transformation would be highly unlikely to spontaneously occur, that must surely be far too high a bar. If it weren’t, then it would be impossible to explain all of the consistently magnificent Riesling collections – from Busch and Löwenstein on the Lower Mosel to Dirler and Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace that routinely feature a substantial percentage of Rieslings which have spontaneously undergone malo, much less to explain growers like Kühn – or in Alsace, Kreydenweiss – who view malo-lactic transformation as the completion of nature’s work and a desired source of complexity and stabilization (and who most certainly would never dream of inoculating their biodynamically-rendered musts with “foreign” yeast cultures).

    In 2010, Löwenstein’s collection didn’t undergo malo-lactic transformation (even though – save for botrytis wines – it has routinely done so for some years now) and while it’s true that 2010 was an unusually high acid vintage relative to whatever part of Germany you grow in, he insisted when I quizzed him about this that he found it inexplicable and that after having administered his usual 12 hours of skin contact, the resultant must pHs certainly weren’t so low as to in themselves inhibit malo. Busch has similarly indicated that – granting the relevance of pH – differences in pH still cannot explain why certain lots or certain vintages do and others do not undergo malo.

    It’s surely fair to say that environmental circumstances have a significant influence on whether or not a Riesling goes through malo. Kühn has probably got a strong population of bacteria in his cellar by now, for example. It’s also true – as many recent examples attest – that a Riesling’s potential to undergo malo-lactic transformation increases the longer it is in barrel.

    So, as regards Riesling “in the old days,” they were characterized on the one hand by typically lower pH, which would have an inhibitive effect on malo-lactic bacterial transformation; on the other hand, they often (even Mosel wine, Lars, tells me) spent two or more years in barrel, which would in itself increase the probability that a wine underwent malo.

    Although Bill is addressing spontaneous malo, instances like Hugel are worth noting, where malo-lactic conversion is inoculated-for electively as a tool for managing high acidity in selected vintages. I have found the results there quite successful, especially in recent years where Marc used a culture and timed its application so that the transformation occurs in the midst of primary fermentation and the risk of diacetyl and other undesirable bi-products (not that I have encountered these in any of the growers I mentioned before) is apparently pretty well eliminated.

    What in my opinion makes this topic important is that the notion is widespread – very much including otherwise extremely savvy wine opinion-makers – that somehow Riesling that undergoes malo is a very strange bird both in being statistically anomalous and in being odd- (or at least obvious-) tasting and I think neither of these things is true, the latter being well-tested if one tries to determine in a given instance whether or not the wine has undergone malo. I’ve played this game with Busch and Humbrecht among others, and while I was correct in many instances, there were others where I guessed incorrectly as to whether a given Riesling had gone through malo (and this wasn’t in some freakishly ripe, low malic vintage like ’03 or ’11). I take that – given I am at least a good, i.e. above-average taster – as sufficient evidence that Riesling with lactic acid is neither odd nor obvious in taste.

    A question on which Bill touches that hopefully some reader or some source one of us will have time to dig-up might clarity: When did specific cultures for malo-lactic bacteria appear on the market? In posting this question, I would only mention by analogy that I have found the erroneous belief widespread among Riesling afficianados and even acknowledged Riesling experts that cultured yeasts for inoculated primary fermentation are a late 20th Century phenomenon and were rare or non-existent before that, when in fact I have located discussions already in the 1890s of cultured yeasts, including an amazingly prescient, modern-sounding and detailed report on advantages and disadvantages of same by a certain Herr Hegner in Der Winzer, 24. Oktober 1896, to which Roman Niewodniczanski kindly directed my attention.

    David Schildknecht

    *Analysis of great old wines (such as Lingenfelder once performed with the Werlé collection or as exist of wines from Kloster Eberbach) confirm that sometimes they harbor lactic acid, sometimes not.

  • Bill Hooper says:

    Hi David,

    I’m glad that you brought this to my attention and appreciate the discussion. I’ll try to keep it short because we are in the midst of harvest and I’m very, very tired! We actually don’t really have much to disagree about. What I should have made clear (upon re-reading my post –there is no excuse on my part) is that finished wine after must-handling and fermentation that STILL has a pH under 3,2 is relatively stable and will seldom go through MLF, but didn’t say that it never happened. I am very familiar with the producers that you use as examples –I just had a 2007 Heymann-Löwenstein Röttgen on Thursday that had definitely gone through BSA. I would add Koehler-Ruprecht to the list where MLF for Riesling is the norm (a notable exception was 2010, when the pH was simply too low according to Dom Sona.) I am certainly not suggesting that any of those producers use a culture (we farm Biodynamically as well and try to take a suitable approach in the cellar as part of that.) I would suggest that the material that they are bringing in for these wines is normally rather ripe. Obviously pH, cellar temperature, and free SO2 levels are all going to contribute to the stability of the wines that were produced in the past and today. What is less clear is just how much SO2 was used in the pre-war years, but I think that it can be assumed that the dose was much higher than what we use today and much more difficult to calculate –Sulfur would have been burned in cask after fermentation was complete –no sparging with exact measurements as is common today. Since Malolactic bacteria is very sensitive to sulfur, we can reasonably assume that lower Oechsle musts with a lower pH coupled with a higher dose of sulfur would have inhibited BSA in many wines.

    You are correct in saying that skin-maceration will strongly influence the pH of the must. During this process, Potassium (Kalium) is released from the skins which will later result in the precipitation of Potassium bitartrate (Weinstein). The uptake of potassium is easily achieved by grapevines as K is water-soluble and the resulting drop in total acidity in a must can be significant (1 g/l or more). It would not be difficult to achieve an overall rise of say 0,2 pH using maceration from healthy grape material. Questions about the ripeness and health and that of sorting, dropping unripe or botrytis-infected fruit and how that material relates to the cellar practices in turn-of the century Germany are really probably the crux of the issue –certainly the must weights are much higher today given the advancements in vine training, canopy management, soil work and of course global warming.

    To address your point on Malic acid: these days in a normal year, you see a ratio close to 50% Weinsäure, 50% Apfelsäure. In 2010 it was more like 25/75, and in 2011 75/25. Still, if you are harvesting at around 8g/l total acidity and a quarter of that is Malic and is converted into softer Lactic acid, I would still call that substantial.

    I also agree with your assertion that Malolactic fermentation does sometimes belong in the Riesling realm. Like you said, often it is hardly noticeable outside of a subtle textural element. I find that especially in larger dry wines, this can really be beneficial. I’m happy that many different styles of Riesling exist and very much hope that consumers are open to the many possibilities.

    Bill Hooper

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for the clarification including inter alia a reminder about the importance of levels of SO2, which I had neglected to consider. Also, as regards relative levels of malic acid in 2011, I think they were paradoxically even lower in some of the usually higher-acid growing areas of Riesling Germany where harvest is later. In 2003, certainly, they were freakishly low to the vanishing point (just as in that year in Burgundy – as also in 1976 – there are instances where it doesn’t appear that there’s any lactic acid in the resultant Pinot Noirs).

  • Thanks for your comments in regard to malolactic conversion. Besides a low pH value (under 3), a cool cellar temperature would seem to play an important role, too. As David Schildknecht knows, Hofgut Falkenstein even produces Pinot Noir with little or no malo.

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