When to Drink German Rieslings

by Robert Millman

There is a sort of rule of thumb when it comes to good white wines: drink them young or wait until five years from bottling. This works pretty well for most dry white wines. But what are we do with German Riesling wines, which come in at least seven “flavors” with many gradations at the upper levels—from the fully dry to the fully botrytised and numerous in-betweens.

First let me tackle the dry Rieslings. Starting about 2001 the association of growers called the VDP developed a new classification of German wines: Grosses Gewachs. This is German for “Grand Cru” or “Great Growth”. There are perhaps two hundred sites throughout Germany that have been unofficially recognized as the source of the best German Rieslings (and Sylvaners I might add). Growers could now apply to the VDP for the inclusion of their best vineyards but only and exclusively for dry wines made at the estate. The wines had to be fermented to under 9% residual sugar and made from healthy, ripe grapes that had not experienced any botrytis during the growing season. The grapes for the GGs (as they are affectionately abbreviated) were usually picked at the upper Spatlese or lower Auslese level of ripeness (more about this shortly). None of an estate’s wines with residual sugar above 9% could be labeled by just the name of the vineyard without the name of the Village where the vineyard is located. Thus a dry Riesling from the superb Himmelreich vineyard in the town of Graach can be labeled at Himmelreich Grosses Gewachs. For the sweet wines the name of the town must precede the name of the vineyard as had been the case for decades. But isn’t a Grand Cru defined by its terroir and NOT the ripeness level of the grapes grown on the site? Not for the VDP association of over 200 estates in Germany. This of course was a political, not a natural classification. (One can argue that politics is always involved in classification. But in this instance politics took absolute priority). Why this emphasis on fully dry Rieslings which wind up being at 13% in alcohol, if not more? The new Grosses Gewachs were meant to compete with French dry white wine, especially white Burgundies. Many growers were concerned that Rieslings with residual sugar did not work well with dinner food. They were expected to be served as aperitif or after dinner wines but not wines for entrees and main courses. Of course, there were plenty of dry Rieslings from Alsace and Austria on the market if alternative to Chardonna- based wines from Burgundy was at issue. Germany was losing out in the competition for dry white wines at the table!

I must confess that I am not a great fan of the Grosses Gewachs style of Rieslings.  While more than credible dry Riesling wines are made all over the world nowadays, there is simply nothing in the world like a German Riesling with some level of residual sugar. Nowhere else can the enlivening tension between sugar and acidity, at low levels of alcohol, reach such heights of sensory brilliance. No one sits down to drink even a fine Meursault by itself. But a good Kabinett or Spätlese is so delicious and stimulating that it can be enjoyed by itself or with many hard cheeses, blue-veined cheeses, spicy food, salty cuisine or perhaps a roast chicken. Fear of residual sugar in wine is entirely over-done. The German ways of ripening Riesling allow the taster to choose the ripeness level of her or his choice. A little experimentation at a good wine bar will enable a person to decide what she or he likes best. There is even an unofficial level between dry and Kabinett called Fein Herb. These are Rieslings with between 12-20 grams of sugar. They do not taste sweet so much as round and smooth compared with the drier versions of the wine. Often there is an herbal note in these Rieslings.

Back to the issue with which I began: when is the optimal time age range in which to enjoy German Riesling wines? From experience the Grosses Gewachs often tasted best when about one to three years from bottling (meaning two to four years from the vintage). They will do well for another five years following, but in my experience, do not change significantly. With the many available pradikats (categories identified by levels of natural residual sugar) the decision is more complicated. At the lower levels the so called Kabinetts are often elegant, refreshing wines to drink from their second to fifth year in bottle. The best can age a decade without losing their refined charm. The sweetness is in the background. It has become more difficult to make genuine Kabinetts in this era of global warming. Still there are good Kabinetts than can be found. Spatleses (or Spätleses, in German) typically have 50% more sugar than Kabinetts. Here the balance shifts so that there is an increased perception of sweetness, but usually balanced by higher levels of total acidity. Alcohol is lower than in a Kabinett as the wine retains more of its natural sugar. Helmut Dönnhoff of the famous eponymous estate in the Nahe believes that Spatlese is the most perfect expression of Riesling in the best terroirs in Germany. I am inclined to agree. It is best to wait five years for a Spatlese to achieve harmony though it is rarely a crime to drink them young! Auslese begin where Spatlese end and can have yet 40% more residual sugar than a comparable Spatlese. It is up to the growers to pick over their vineyards for suitably ripened grapes to achieve these different levels of sugar. The acidity in an Auslese is relatively high to maintain the proper tension in such extravagant low-alcohol wines. Perhaps too sweet when very young—although amazingly delicious—well-made Ausleses need to be at least five years in bottle to become their full selves. (Above the Auslese level are the completely botrytised wines labelled as Beerenauslese (grapes that have become small berries and are almost all hit by noble rot) and Trockenbeerenauslese (grapes that have shriveled into the size of raisins and are completely hit by noble rot). These wines are hard to find, expensive, can age for decades, and taste like nothing else on earth.

To summarize:

Grosses Gewachs—best consumed 1-3 years from bottling, 2-4 from the vintage

Kabinetts  2-5 years from bottling, 3-6 from the vintage.

Spatlese  4-6 years from bottling. 5-7 years from the vintage

Auslese—6-10 years from bottling, 7-11 years from the vintage

Robert Millman

Robert Millman’s wine career began in the early 1980s, when he began working from Morrell & Company, one of the USA’s top wine retailers. During that time, he co-founded Executive Wine Seminars (EWS) with Howard Kaplan, which over the years became one of NYC’s most highly regarded wine events companies. EWS organized and conducted over 1000 wine events during its prestigious thirty-three year history. High points included Robert Parker being a regular guest presenter at the tastings, and through 2011, the results of the tastings were published on the Wine Advocate website. Having reached an age where taking a step back from the wear and tear of life in the wine fast lane made sense, Millman currently enjoys being a taster and wine writer for Grapes the Wine Company, an excellent, leading e-retailer based in Westchester (NY). 

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Robert Millman