A fifth of all of the wine grapes planted in Germany are riesling, so to talk about German wine, you have to start with this iconic grape. There's a lot to love: Riesling can taste like peach or apricot, with a bolt of lime-like tartness. It's also incredibly aromatic, all jasmine and honeysuckle.
German riesling also offers a beautiful clarity: drinking a bottle from grapes grown on blue or red slate, you'll swear you can taste straight through the fruit flavors to the minerals at the wine's core.
If riesling grapes stay on the vine long enough to be affected by botrytis—called 'noble rot'—then the wines will take on flavors of ginger and honey. You won't find much German riesling aged in oak barrels: winemakers prefer to emphasize the freshness of the grape rather than weigh it down with oaky hints of vanilla and clove. Riesling also ages incredibly well—bottles taste amazing 10, 20, even 30 years after the vintage.
Not all German rieslings are sweet, but you shouldn't steer clear of a riesling with a little residual sugar. Riesling grapes are naturally very high in acid, and the cool, northern climate of Germany means this ripping acid stays in the grapes even into the fall harvest season. So winemakers let the fermentations stop before the wine is completely dry, retaining a little sweetness in order to strike balance in the wine.
Think of it like this: Have you ever made fresh lemonade? If you taste it and it's too tart, you add some sugar until the flavor is right: plenty tart, with just enough sweetness to soften the edge a little.
That slight sweetness also makes these rieslings handy at the dinner table. Sugar will help moderate spice: try an off-dry German riesling with fiery Indian or Thai food. Bring in something fatty (say, crispy pork belly) and you'll discover the true triumvirate of deliciousness: acidity, sweetness, and richness are amazing together.
Kabinettis the least-ripe of the spectrum, and wines in this category are usually light and fresh. Grapes forSpätlesewines were left on the vine a little longer to get more sugar, and the resulting wine is likely to be more powerful and rich, plus sweeter than the Kabinett.Auslesewines are even more honeyed and bold, made from riper grapes than Spätlese. These wines age beautifully, though they're also excellent accompaniments to a cheese plate whenever you're ready to pop the corks.
Looking for a sweet wine for after dinner?
Look forBeerenausleseorTrockenbeerenauslese. Yep, that's the sweet stuff: trocken means 'dry,' but here the term refers to the dried berries on the vine rather than the wine. These sweet wines are made with late-harvest grapes attacked by botrytis or 'noble rot'—the same fungus that makes the renowned wines of Sauternes.
Finally, grapes forEisweinare picked and pressed in winter when they are frozen. Freezing concentrates the sweet grape juice, and these wines tend to be the sweetest—and most expensive—of the bunch.
How Do You Know How Sweet the Wine Is?
So you are at the wine shop and staring at the wall of German riesling—how do you know if you are getting something bone dry, off-dry, or made for dessert?
I wish it could be as simple as always paying attention to the ripeness levels—the Prädikat categories above. But sometimes winemakers will decide to take a wine made from Spätlese-level ripe grapes and call it a Kabinett.
"The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine will be."
Here's a handy trick: Look at the alcohol percentage. The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine will be. This is because not all the sugar has been converted to alcohol through fermentation. Is the ABV 8%? Then it's gonna be on the sweeter side. 13%? That'll be pretty dry.
There are a couple more German words that are worth learning to help you determine sweetness.
If you seeTrockenon a label, that means it's dry. (This is true even if there's also a Spätlese on the bottle—that term refers toripeness, and the Trocken is the final word on dryness.)
Halbtrockenis off-dry: perfect for that Thai or Indian dinner. If you seeSelectionon the bottle, that wine will be dry (and sourced from a single vineyard) while a wine labeledClassicis off-dry, like Halbtrocken.
A wine labeled with 'GG' will also be dry. This is short forGrosses Gewächs("Great Growth"). This means that grapes from a really good vineyard site were used to make a dry wine. Theses great sites are a bit like a 'Grand Cru' vineyards in Burgundy. These wines will generally be more expensive than bottles labeled 'Trocken' or 'Selection,' but will also be powerful and complex.