Several decades ago, a Blue Nun arrived on the shores of the U.S. and in a short time pushed the reputation of German wine production into a barrel, sealed it, then rolled it into a corner to be forgotten. Sweet, sticky, poorly blended, inconsistent and inexpensive, the liebfraumilch inside the unmistakable blue bottle had a short and destructive moment of fame before fading from glory, taking the centuries-old reputation of German wine with it.
But, let's digress. Germany and its history of wine production have been stomping grapes together since the Romans called the area home and began their agrarian traditions. Think 100 B.C. Recognizing the south-facing slopes rising along the Rhine River as prime for growing grapes, the Romans dug in. From their ingenuity sprung a 2000-year-old enterprise. Charlemagne, Christianity, monasteries and churches joined in the production of German wine throughout the ages, until the setback of that notorious Blue Nun that took the reputation of sweet German wines back to the middle ages.
All was not lost. Quietly tilling the soil were German viticulturists who appreciated good wine, had the terroir to produce first class rieslings, and recognized that sophistication in wines was taking hold around the world. France was capitalizing on it, with Italy and Spain close behind. One thing was limiting the success of German wines outside of Germany, however – people reading the labels had no idea how dry or sweet the wine inside was.
What’s in the Bottle?
For nearly a half-century, German wine producers tried to classify their production according to the amount of sugar in the grapes at harvest, resulting in a scale that measured the wines from dry to sweet, albeit in German. Consumers outside of Germany who had little background in the language or the grape still grappled with the terminology. This was partially rectified in 2012 when producers of the higher-quality German wines stepped in with a less confusing scale, but one that still depended on knowing German geography, its language and the grape varietals produced.
Enter the International Riesling Foundation with its Riesling Taste Profile. Now, consumers looking at the back label on a bottle of German riesling have a simple sweetness scale that indicates how dry or sweet the bottle of wine is.
The Red, White and the Return of the Blue Nun
To best understand German wine, think beyond just white and red, or sweet and dry. The 13 growing regions within the country reflect the production of a variety of blends.
Nothing starts an evening off more glamorously than a good bottle of sparkling wine. Modeled after the world-renowned Champagne district's production of bubbly in nearby France, German sparkling wine is known as sekt, and is native to the Mosel region of Germany. The thin strip of land bordering the Mosel River in Western Germany produces primarily the riesling grape, the base of German sekt, and in fact, the base of most German wine.
Sekt is dry, crisp and has floral overtones. A bottle of sekt labeled "brut" will pucker the lips more than one marked "dry," and both are available in the United States. Prices range from around $15 to $25 for a bottle.
A German sekt pairs with spicy foods. Sip with a curry-based appetizer, Indian samosas, Thai skewers or a Mexican guacamole flavored with Hatch chilies, all of which complement the dryness of the sekt, with the lingering bubbles merrily bouncing down the throat.
Dry German White Wines
An indication of dryness in a German wine is the word "kabinett." Made from riesling grapes that are mature and harvested early in the growing season, the result is a dry wine with more acid than fruit and a lower alcohol content. Its name derives from the word cabinet, meaning the wine matures with age and is best left in the cabinet for several years before serving.
Known as pinot gris in France and pinot grigio in Italy, this dry, white wine is grown in the volcanic soil of Kaisersthul/Baden along the upper Rhine in Southwest Germany and harvested from the powdery-purple grauburgunder grape. Grauburgunder is thinner and more acidic than its close cousin rulander, which is aged in oak to give it a fuller body and deeper color.
Not easy to find yet still available in the United States, the grauburgunder wines are priced at just under $20. If you're serving chicken, pork, salmon or shellfish on a hot summer day, forget the pinot grigio and go for the more sophisticated grauburgunder or rulander. They'll also mix well with a platter of cheese and fruit.
In German, the word trocken means "dry." Just how dry an individual bottle will be depends on the methods used by the vintner, but be assured that the fermentation has cast out the sugars and converted them to alcohol. "Bone dry" has often been used to describe trocken rieslings.
Drinking a glass of trocken riesling is like magic in your mouth. The first taste is of minerals, but by the time it's moved from your tongue to the back of your mouth, baskets of fruit thunder through. The rich sauces found in coq au vin or a hollandaise-smothered piece of salmon pair well with this dry white wine, which is generally priced at just under $20.
Edging into Sweetness
Rheinhessen, Franken and Gewurztraminer
As we tip-toe into the sweeter German wines, rheinhessen and franken start to populate shopping carts. Made from 100-percent riesling grapes grown in south-central Germany, both are semi-sweet, aromatic, have a hint of citrus and are fruity. A good bottle of rheinhessen should be priced around $13. A light meal such as a platter of charcuterie pairs well with these slightly sweeter white wines.
Gewurztraminer is aromatic, with fruit and spices running through. The extra sugar from the grapes that make this wine a bit sweet can be tempered by serving it with spicy food, Asian treats and sweet-and-sour dishes.
Spatleses, Ausleses, Beerenauslesses and Eiswines
Inching up the sweetness scale is the spatlese. This grape is left on the vine longer to produce more sugar. The color is more dense and the flavor richer than the dry wines. Combine sweet and savory to bring out the flavors of a sweet spatlese wine. Fruit tarts and cheese souffle are suggested.
Auslese is even sweeter and deeper in color than is spatlese. This ages well and pairs perfectly with a cheese platter.
Grapes that go into making beerenauslese have been left on the vine until they have been attacked by the botrytis fungus, or noble rot. Just below the sweetest of the German wines, a beerenauslese makes a perfect accompaniment for dessert. Serve in small sips.
Eiswein, also known as ice wine, is made from grapes that are left behind to pucker, wilt and freeze. The sugars in the grapes are concentrated, making this the sweetest of the German wines. It's also the most expensive. It should be served chilled.
German Red Wines
We cannot leave the topic of German wines without mentioning the red wines the country produces. Nearly a third of all grapes grown in Germany yield red wine, and not all is sweet.
Spatburgunder, or pinot noir, is made from grapes grown in the Baden area of Germany, near the French border. Vignerons differ in the taste they wish to impart with their pinot, making the wine inconsistent in its definition and taste profile. But its quality is increasing, and some varietals compete successfully with pinots from major producers in other countries.
Dornfelder is still making a name for itself outside of Germany, but this blend lacks complexity if opened young. Aging it in a barrel adds spice and depth.
Portugieser is pale, light and is often the base of German rose wines. It doesn't age well, so look for a bottle that has been produced recently.
Back to the Blue Nun
And finally, a positive word about that Blue Nun. After being sold to another maker, the wine was not only reconfigured, it was also re-marketed. Now a big seller in and outside of Germany, there is even a Blue Nun Lite to appeal to the health-conscious consumer, and a sparkling gold Blue Nun containing bubbles and gold specks within the bottle. Its target market is young women and the producers seem to be hitting their goals. The Blue Nun is back!