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Germany's Great White Hope

Jack Smith

The Sturdy Stone Mansion that serves Manfred Prüm’s family as both their home and the headquarters for their J. J. Prüm winery stands on a southwesterly bank of the Mosel River in Wehlen, Germany, a place of unrelenting charm. Through a window in the parlor, I see a river cruiser coming around one of countless bends. The boat is a smudge of white and red against the curtain of green vineyards behind it. Down the river, houses built sometime in the Middle Ages stand between the vines and the water’s edge. A castle ruin overlooks the town from a nearby mountain.

Given the view—not to mention the excellence of the Prüm family’s wines—one might think this a perfect spot for an outdoor café. Just put out a few tables, as well as parasols for shade, and it would be a delightful place to sit and enjoy the Riesling wines created by the people who reside here.

But Katharina Prüm, who, at 27, is the youngest member of her family to ascend to the position of winemaker, shudders at the thought. “We do not sell wines by the bottle here,” she says. “If somebody finds us and asks if they can buy some wine, we will recommend several good shops in the area. But we would not sell them one. If we did, people would think of us as a shop. If you have a shop, then it becomes superficial, a show.”

Why, she might as well don a dirndl, have “The Lorelei” playing on a CD in the background, and set up a roadside tasting stand with a sign out front saying Weinprobe. This is not, says Katharina, who, like her father, Manfred, earned a law degree before becoming a winemaker, the Prüms’ style. “We want to be taken seriously. You can’t be if you are seen as something like Disney.”

Make no mistake about it, Katharina and Manfred Prüm are taken very seriously. Their vineyards include some of the best-known in Europe: Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich, Graacher Domprobst, and Wehlener Sonnenuhr (Sundial), the last of which looms seemingly vertically on the other side of the river. This angle of elevation is important, as the slopes capture the sunlight that the river reflects. At night, slabs of Devonian slate slowly release the heat they absorbed during the day, thereby warming the vines, some of which are a century old.

These conditions enable the Prüms to produce what some say are the world’s finest Rieslings. At the very least, those which Katharina calls “special occasion” wines—Beerenausleses and Trockenbeerenausleses, wines made from grapes picked one by one after they have been shriveled by botrytis, or noble rot—are among the most coveted. Nine years ago, a half bottle of the Prüm’s 1938 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Trockenbeerenauslese sold at auction for 7,500 euros (about $9,600). More recently, half bottles of the Prüm 2000 vintage were selling for 2,500 euros each (about $3,200), outstripping prices for Château d’Yquem. Those that Katharina calls “everyday wines”—Kabinetts, Spätleses, and Ausleses—are superb examples of each category and run a gamut of ethereal flavors from flinty and dry to lush and fruity.

Even so, says Katharina, Rieslings are misunderstood, and she is about to demonstrate how, as she pours two glasses from a bottle with a label she has been careful to conceal. After I take a preliminary sip and express delight, she asks me to name the grape. Given the wine’s lightness, complexity, low alcohol content, and overtones of citrus and apples—and the fact that we are sitting in the middle of one of the world’s greatest Riesling-producing regions—I surmise that it is a Riesling, probably a Spätlese, a late-harvest wine.

And from which vineyard? Katharina inquires. Looking across the river toward the spot where a huge sundial has been mounted amid the vineyards, I guess that it is a Wehlener Sonnenuhr. “Very good,” Katharina says, though she does not seem very impressed. “Now, tell me the vintage?”

This is more difficult to pin down, but given the abundance of fruit, the freshness, and the citrus flavors, it undoubtedly is a young wine, perhaps a 2004, I venture. At this, the young winemaker smiles broadly: I have fallen into her trap. “That’s what everybody says,” she says, removing the napkin to reveal the label: 1981 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese. “It’s 25 years old,” Katharina observes, “and it’s still improving with age.”

It is an interesting demonstration, however humbling, and there is no denying that it is a delectable wine. On the other hand, this Sonnenuhr Spätlese probably would have been marvelous if it had been consumed a year after harvest. Riesling’s capacity to be drunk immediately or to benefit from decades of aging in a cellar has been familiar to oenophiles since the days when winemaking was the purview of the church. Today, these properties make Riesling one of the most intriguing items in the world of wine since, well, since the Rieslings of the late 1800s.

In the late 19th century, wines from the Rhine and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer valleys commanded prices that were at least equivalent to those of Bordeaux first growths. When American robber barons of this country’s Gilded Age dined at Delmonico’s in New York, they were handed a wine list comprising mostly Rieslings. The grape’s domination lasted well into the century that followed; a 1937 price list from Sherry-Lehmann, the Manhattan wine and spirits merchant, shows Schloss Johannisberg Riesling—the name would later be co-opted as a generic term for run-of-the-mill wines—costing four times more than Cabernet Sauvignons from Châteaux Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, and Mouton-Rothschild.

In the wake of World War II, however, the popularity of Germany’s once-fine wines plummeted as sharply as their quality had when the country industrialized its agriculture, including the winemaking sector. Alas, the ethos of high-quality viticulture was at odds with the principles of the Wirtschaftswunder, Germany’s economic miracle of the 1950s, when the country became the most productive nation in Europe.

Vineyards were planted on flat land, horrifying Riesling classicists, who knew the grape belonged only on hillsides overlooking a river. But flat land was easier to harvest. By 1971, the output of grapes per acre was four times what it had been prior to the war. But only an efficiency expert could love the wine from those grapes. For the next 20 years, the state of the German wine industry could be summed up in two words: Blue Nun. It reflected the spirit of the 1970s as much as leisure suits and disco did—not in Germany, where the prosperous burghers were drinking better wines from France and Italy, but in the United Kingdom, where Blue Nun was the most popular wine of the times, and in the United States, where it was high kitsch. “We’re still paying the price for the popularity of Blue Nun,” says Fritz Hasselbach, proprietor of the Gunderloch estate in Rheinhessen. “Some people still think of German wine as sweet and cheap.”

Others are just now discovering what Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, and other critics have been saying for decades: that the German Riesling grape produces the world’s most elegant white wine in seemingly endless variety.

The revenues from German wines exported to the United States—almost all of them Rieslings, says the German Wine Institute—have risen each year since 2000 and increased by more than 200 percent since 2002. For the past five years, in response to the demand from its clientele, Sherry-Lehmann has been buying entire U.S. consignments of Trockenbeerenausleses from certain German winemakers, a practice it had abandoned 35 years ago.

 

If a new age of Riesling indeed has dawned, the underlying reason is clear, says Heinrich Breuer, manager of the Georg Breuer estate in Rüdesheim am Rhine, which makes such dry, mineral-rich wines as the Rauenthal Nonnenberg Riesling. “It’s as simple as ABC,” he says with a chuckle, invoking the “Anything But Chardonnay” mantra popularized by the British wine critics Johnson and Broadbent. “People are bored with Chardonnay,” says Breuer. “Wine drinkers are looking for something new. Connoisseurs want a sense of purity in their wine. Nothing offers this component more than Riesling.”

 

According to Phillip Wittmann, cellar master at the Wittmann Westhofener estate in Rheinhessen, Riesling is a wine whose time has come. “It’s the perfect companion to modern living. It’s a light, elegant wine that pairs marvelously with Asian and fusion dishes. And it is low in alcohol, so you can enjoy more of it at any occasion.”

German winemakers are not alone in trumpeting the virtues of Rieslings. “German Rieslings are like Mozart’s music,” says Samuel Cohen, associate professor of wine and food at Drexel University. “A beginner can appreciate Mozart because it is so simple. But then, after years of learning and appreciation, you begin to recognize the underlying complexity. For the collector, Rieslings are treasures. There are so many different styles. They’re the antithesis to the so-called international-style Cabernets and Merlots, which all taste alike.”

Remarkably, some of the most vaunted Rieslings can still be had for $20 a bottle or less. Still, these are heady times for German Riesling growers, some of whom speak of a Riesling renaissance. There is even talk that owning a Riesling estate might be on the verge of becoming fashionable. “German wine estates are different from Bordeaux,” says the cellar master Wittmann. “Lots of outsiders own châteaux in Bordeaux. It’s considered quite stylish. But wealthy people never used to buy vineyards on the Mosel or the Rhine just for prestige.”

 

Now, estate owners all along the Rhine, Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer are abuzz over the newcomers to their ranks, wealthy outsiders who have acquired vineyards to put their own stamps on German viticulture. Of course, as status symbols, Germany’s vineyards have a long way to go to catch up to the French châteaux, which are championed in the United States by such societies as the Ordre Mondial of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the Commanderie de Bordeaux, the Commanderie des Costes du Rhône, the Chevaliers du Tastevin, and numerous other Francophile organizations.

Nor, until recently, had there been any phrase in German viticulture to rival the mystique of France’s “Grand Cru.” But now, thanks to the Verband Deutscher Prädikats und Qualitätsweingüter (VDP), an organization of 200 of Germany’s leading vintners, this is all changing. Indeed, the VDP envisions the day when American oenophiles will stroll into wine shops and ask to see something in a Grosses Gewächs. Literally, the term means “Grand Cru,” but more important, because wines bearing this designation must meet stringent criteria and be classified as dry, Americans may soon be enjoying the kind of Rieslings that, heretofore, have been reserved for the German market: dry, ripe Kabinetts and Spätleses.


Some winegrowers, however, view the VDP’s initiative, with its complex system of conditions and criteria, askance. “It’s confusing,” says Heinrich Breuer. “A vineyard we’d abandoned long ago was designated Grand Cru while one of our best was rated non–Grand Cru.”

He will continue to sell his wines in the United States, Breuer says, but he will not identify any of them using the new nomenclature, at least not for the time being.

For decades, a staff perhaps 8 feet tall has been planted in the uppermost reaches of the Schloss Johannisberg vineyards overlooking the Rhine River. At the top of this pole is the emblem “50°.” It marks the planet’s 50th latitude, and among Germany’s winemakers it is an article of faith that this is the northernmost point at which grapes of any sort can be grown. “We’re as far north as Labrador or Winnipeg, Canada,” says Johannisberg’s winemaker, Christian Witte, as he leads the way through the vineyards that descend from the bright yellow walls of the Johannisberg palace, former home of the princes von Metternich-Winneburg, to the fast-moving Rhine River below. The Riesling grapes grown in this setting require a longer maturation cycle—four to six weeks longer than in Bordeaux. This allows them to absorb more mineral trace elements from the soil—thus some oenophiles’ claims of detecting hints of Roman armor in their glasses.

The Benedictine monks had been cultivating grapes in Germany for almost a thousand years before they learned that the Riesling grape possessed another intriguing property. The tale of this discovery is familiar to every schoolchild in the region. Throughout the 18th century, the Catholic Church supervised winegrowing, with the presiding bishops granting permission to plant or to harvest. But in 1775, the monastery’s courier was slow in traveling from Johannisberg to the bishop of Fulda to request permission to begin picking. When he returned, the grapes had been attacked by a fungus that transformed them into a mushy mass. Nonetheless, the monks proceeded with the harvest. When they tasted the wine after it had fermented, they deemed it the most delectable that they ever made. Thus the Spätlese, or late-harvest wine, was created.

Unbeknownst to those 18th-century winemakers, a rot had transformed the grapes and elevated their sugar content. The same rot—called Edelfäule in German, noble rot in English, pourriture noble in French, or botrytis in laboratories—also produces the German Ausleses, which are harvested later than the Spätleses, the Beerenausleses, which are picked later than the Ausleses; and so on, to Trockenbeerenausleses, the “special occasion” wines. Many estates also produce an Eiswein, made from grapes picked after the first frost.

The discovery of botrytis did more than expand the range of Riesling wines: Ultimately, this 18th-century accident also spawned the German classification system. “Every country uses a proxy for the quality of their wines,” says Lynn Hoffman, author of The New Short Course in Wine (Prentice-Hall, 2006). “The French, as is widely known, use their terroir, a hierarchal system bound up with history, romance, tradition, and prestige. The Germans could have come up with a similar system, something evoking a sense of place.”

And why not? Few parts of the world are as picturesque, as charged with legend and myth, as the Rhine and Mosel wine country are. With its steep valleys, half-timbered houses spilling down to the riverbanks, and castles brooding on the hilltops, the landscape has fired the imaginations of poets, princes, and tourists for centuries.

But instead of referencing the quasihistorical dimension of Riesling and other grape varieties, the German Wine Law of 1971 instituted the Öchsle scale, a system completely devoid of such cultural pretensions. “Rather than using a wine’s flavor—or, as was the case in Bordeaux in 1855, the price—this system uses a wine’s sugar content at harvest to determine its quality,” says Hoffman.

Although some differences exist from one winemaking region to another, a wine ascends in quality from Tafelwein, or inexpensive table wine, through Qualitätswein, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese. “Why did they base their classification system on sugar?” asks Hoffman. “It may be because people prize whatever is rare. And in Germany there’s nothing rarer than sunshine, which correlates directly to ripeness.”

Not everyone thinks this system is the greatest thing since noble rot. “You don’t need a high sugar content to make a great wine,” says Drexel’s Cohen. “The 2001 J. J. Christoffel Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett certainly deserves to be rated higher than a Kabinett, though the Öchsle system classifies it as such.”

Heinrich Breuer is no less dubious about the classification system. “Under this system only 5 percent of all the wines in Germany are table wines,” he says. “The other 95 percent are superior quality wines or higher. Now, do you really believe that 95 percent of the wines in Germany are superior quality wines?” He pauses to give his visitor a look that says if he does believe this, Breuer has a bridge that he would like to sell him.

Because of the Trockenbeerenausleses’ position at the summit of this sugary pyramid, they are the most expensive German wines. In fact, given the disparity between Robert Eymael’s Kabinetts, some of which are priced in the $20 range, and his Trockenbeerenausleses from the Prälat vineyard, which sell for as much as $675 for a half bottle, you might wonder why Eymael, proprietor of Mönchhof, in Ürzig on the Mosel, does not specialize in these high-priced dessert wines. To do so would be folly, he says. “With a Trockenbeerenauslese, you’re taking a big risk. We sometimes have to wait until early December before we know if we will even have a Trockenbeerenauslese.”

When such a harvest does present itself, it takes four employees working every day for four weeks to produce a vintage of Mönchhof Trockenbeerenauslese. At most, that vintage will total 50 liters of wine. “It is not a business,” explains Eymael. “It is a prestige thing. We sell out the entire vintage in two days.”

Considering the prices that some Trockenbeerenausleses command, one might conclude that Germans prize sweet wines above all others. Paradoxically, those wines produced in the greatest volume—the Kabinetts, Spätleses, and Ausleses—present a completely different picture of German tastes and drinking habits. It is axiomatic among Riesling producers that while 90 percent of the wines consumed in Germany will be dry, 90 percent of those they send to the United States will be sweet. The reason for this is simple, says Eymael, whose Mönchhof produces both fruity wines and marvelously dry ones. “Our importers always tell us Americans don’t buy dry wines. So we give them sweet wines,” he says. “But I think if Americans don’t buy dry Rieslings, it’s because they never get the chance.”

Or it is because they are confounded by German wine labels, those mystical documents that so often are crammed with arcane Teutonic script, drawings of medieval castles, cryptic acronyms, fine print, and seemingly gratuitous numerology. Besides baffling consumers, they have long been a source of complaint among German winemakers, who felt themselves at a disadvantage to growers from other countries—i.e., France—whose labels were far simpler and more comprehensible.

With the advent of the VDP’s classification system, life becomes simpler for connoisseurs of Riesling. Vintners whose wines are designated as Grosses Gewächs are entitled to place a small embossed symbol on the bottle, and reduce the nomenclature on the labels while adding the words Grosses Gewächs. As with any rule, there are exceptions to this one: Instead of Grosses Gewächs, the labels of wines from the Rheingau can bear the words Erstes Gewächs—First Growth—along with a logo depicting three Roman arches. The Mosel region, too, will have its own nomenclature: Erste Lage, or First Reserve.To qualify for the new designation, wines from Rheinhessen and the Rheingau with a classification of Spätlese or lower would have to be dry, while those from the Mosel could be either dry or sweet.

But Heinrich Breuer is not the only prominent holdout. The Prüms have decided not to label any of their wines Erste Lage. “We don’t understand it,” says Katharina.

At Schloss Schönborn in the Rheingau, they do label some of their Rieslings as Erstes Gewächs, but as winemaker Günter Thies points out, “It will be 20 years before we know if it is a success or not. Image is a delicate thing.”

The new terminology is not the only sign of change at the 650-year-old winery. For generations Schloss Schönborn Rieslings have been identified by the estate’s ancestral Wappen, its coat of arms on the label. “Our older buyers like it, but it occurs to us that the younger generation doesn’t necessarily care for coats of arms,” says Thies. “So we’re doing a selection of wines in a dry style with no Wappen.”

He looks around the winery’s old tasting room and seems to sigh as he adds, “What we really have to do is change entire lifestyles. If we had more top German restaurants, that would help. As it is, we have to place our Rieslings in French and Thai restaurants for people to appreciate them.”

So saying, he picks up a bottle of Spätlese Riesling, looks at the Erstes Gewächs on the label, and says, “I hope Americans don’t find this too hard to pronounce.”

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