It was a sunny but cool afternoon by the Main river in a tiny village near Würzburg, Germany. I’d had my first taste. I was awakened. The love affair had started.
But the story really started around Christmas of 2005 in the island of Villamendhoo in the Maldives. My husband (we weren’t yet married then) and I were seated with a German couple, Moni and Wolfgang, for our meals. We sat together, the four of us, for every breakfast, lunch and dinner for two weeks. We had a lot of fun and celebrated that New Year’s eve together in style.
I lived in Germany at the time and went to visit them one weekend in the spring of 2006. Wolfgang’s family owns a winery in that little village where I fell in love. In love with German wine. This region of Franconia (Franken in German) is known for its lively wines that are full of minerality. Franconia produces some of the best quality German wine. It is also known for its Bocksbeutel (see picture below) shape of bottle which is protected in the EU. Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner (Sylvaner in German), Bacchus, and Riesling are all grapes that grow well in this region.
We’d just had a hearty brunch before walking a few doors down to the winery (I think it was this one or close to it anyway). They had a large picnic bench set up on the opposite side of the street and close to the Main. The conversation and the wine flowed. Moni and Wolfgang were great hosts that weekend and on subsequent visits. Sadly the number of bottles of wine I could carry back was limited as I had to lug them back home by train to Cologne. But what I did carry away was my love for German wine and an understanding of the German classification system for Riesling.
The classification system for Rieslings helps a lot in deciding what wine to buy especially if you are trying to pair it with food or don’t care for ‘sweet’ wine. The further down on the list, the later the riesling grapes are harvested, and the sweeter and more expensive they get in general.
Table wine (Tafelwein) & Land Wine (Landwein) are harvested the earliest and have the lowest residual sugar. They are the lowest quality and very affordable so that anyone is able to drink it. Though they are said to be ‘low’ quality, they are very drinkable wines and are on the ‘bone-dry’ end of the Riesling spectrum. These wines are typically consumed regionally and almost never exported.
Kabinett – the grapes are harvested a little bit later. This is great wine for pairing with food. Even spicy food. And if you think you don’t like Rieslings because they are too sweet, try Kabinett Riesling. You will be surprised.
Spaetlase (pronounce schpate-lay-zuh) while this wine can still be dry and acidic, it has more residual sugar than the above.
Auslese (pronounce ous-lay-zuh) - you start noticing the sweetness from the higher residual sugar at this level. But it is still a well-balanced wine with hints of acidity.
Beerenauslese (bear-en-ous-lay-zuh) – only made in a vinatge that produces a lot of grapes and the best ones can be selectively picked.
Trockenbeerenauslese (troh-ken-bear-en-ous-lay-zuh) – the picked grapes are dried and very little can be extracted from them but the flavors are intense.
Eiswein (Ice Wine) – here the grapes are left on the vine till the first frost and are then hand-picked. Expect to pay $$ for a decent bottle of this dessert wine.
So if you are looking at German wines at a store and trying to find a Riesling that will pair well with food, your best bets are Kabinett, Spaetlese or Auslese. The higher residual sugar in the Auslese is particularly good for contrasting the heat in an Indian or Thai curry. While Washington State produces great Rieslings, they are not labeled with the above classifications. And you have to experiment or go with a wine you’ve had before. Silvaner wines are also fantastic for pairing with food but are much harder to find in the US. I’m told Bacchus wines should pair well with Asian food but haven’t had a chance to test this personally yet. Gewurztraminers are easily found in the US and pair well with dishes.
Watch out for a couple more wine related posts. I’ll be sharing my German mulled wine recipe and general tips for selecting wine with spicy food before the winter is over.
1. Müller-Thurgau grapes were developed by Professor Müller from Thurgau, Switzerland and are a cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royale grapes. This grape grows well along the Puget Sound and Oregon coast.
2. Rivaner is another name for Müller-Thurgau.
3. Bacchus grapes are a cross between a Riesling-Silvaner cross and Müller-Thurgau.
4. The letters ä, ö, ü are pronounced as ‘ae’, ‘oe’ & ‘ue’. They can also be written out as such which is useful if you don’t have a German keyboard. The double dots are called ‘umlaut’.
5. If you do find yourself in Bavaria and close to Würzburg, I’d recommend renting bikes and cycling around the country side in addition to wine tasting! Many wineries also have a couple of rooms to rent.
6. The Rhine and Mosel valleys also produce fantastic wine. I would also recommend visiting this area. You can cruise down the Rhine and stop off at villages to visit castles and go wine tasting as well. The many castles atop hills along the river make for a very picturesque tour.
6. Germany also makes many red wines like Spaetburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder. I didn’t mention them in the post for brevity and because I’m more interested in German whites.
7. In my experience in Germany, ordering bottled water at a restaurant is typically more expensive than ordering beer or many wines!