The Sweet and The Dry
As summer, and the Summer of Riesling, comes to an end we examine the endless debate on sweet and dry riesling.
Last month, in the New York Times, Terry Theise (the importer whom the Wall Street Journal referred to as “near the pinnacle” of wine “hipness”) expressed his displeasure that his beloved low-alcohol, sweet styles of riesling are being usurped in Germany by dry, or trocken, riesling — what Theise called “a highly invasive species that wants to swallow up every other style.”
So frustrating for Theise is the change in taste from sweet to dry that he reached for a rather unfortunate national stereotype: “The omnipresence of dry wines within Germany is a dubious example of this country’s temptation to do things in large, implacable blocs,” he said. Ahem.
We’ve come to expect declarations like this during the Summer of Riesling. For six summers, the riesling evangelists have appeared on the scene to hector wine lovers, telling them they must learn to embrace sweet riesling. At bars and restaurants across the United States, they beckon sinners into the tent: Leave your dry whites behind, come to Jesus, and be saved. We are indoctrinated with our annual primer on traditional German wine nomenclature based on sugar weight: kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese.
On the menu at Terroir, the influential wine bar owned by Paul Grieco, who also is the founder of the Summer of Riesling, there has always been a an aggressive sweet wine evangelism: “The greatest wines in the history of mankind have all been sweet…Christ at Cana with the amphorae…yep, sweet wine.”
On riesling, Grieco does not mince words: “yes, there may be some residual sugar in some German examples. But who cares. In America, we talk dry but we drink sweet. Don’t deny it; other than New York City school kids, someone is drinking all that Coke and Dr. Pepper and Snapple.”
But a problematic truth has slowly begun to complicate the evangelists’ message: Back in riesling’s spiritual home, Germans overwhelmingly prefer dry riesling. The sweet styles with the confusing nomenclature are in danger of dying off.
“Trocken dominates in Germany,” says Johannes Selbach, winemaker at acclaimed Selbach-Oster in the Mosel Valley. “We can show sweeter rieslings until the cows come home. You can talk about them and write about them. But put them on the shelf, and people will buy the dry.”
This is not an atypical story in the world of wine. Fashions and tastes go in and out of style. For decades, cheap, sweet German wines like Blue Nun and Black Tower were bestsellers.
But as Germans turned their back on sweet rieslings over the past decade, something curious happened. The American wine cognoscenti took up the mantle of the old-fashioned sweet styles of German riesling. “Americans are keeping the tradition of sweet riesling styles alive,” said Christof Cottmann, a marketing manager at Schloss Vollrads. “This is absolutely true.”
A lament by famed sommelier Rajat Parr in his 2010 book Secrets of the Sommeliers is typical of the American response to the rise of dry riesling. “Unfortunately, young German wine drinkers have almost given up on the off-dry style, preferring instead wines that are so austere and sharp as to be almost without pleasure. Who is going to save the off-dry style? Sommeliers.” By off-dry, Parr means sweet. And by sommeliers, Parr means American sommeliers.
Which is why I’ve actually started to dread the Summer of Riesling. Perhaps it’s the small Teutonic part of my heritage flaring up, but I happen to love dry riesling, so pure and precise and full of minerality. So when I turn up at one of those hip places with their summer riesling menu, I always ask: “Are any of these on the dry side?”
The server or bartender or sommelier, in that schoolmarmish tone, will inevitably retort, “Well, riesling always has a little bit of sweetness.”
“Yes, yes,” I say. “Why don’t you just pour me your driest?” Inevitably I will be poured something like a spätlese with lots of residual sugar. At one spot this summer, with one particularly pretentious server, the “dry” option she poured was a 2011 Schloss Vollrads spätlese, with eight percent alcohol. I know perceptions can be different, but I defy anyone to tell me that wine isn’t sweet.
When I tasted that exact same wine back at the Schloss Vollrads winery in Rheingau, Cottmann told me: “This is a wine that has absolutely no market in Germany.”
The problem, of course, is not that Germans prefer dry, or that American sommeliers want to talk your ear off about the traditional sweet styles. For those of us who love riesling, the problem is that the message of evangelists like Theise and Parr and Grieco actually confuses people.
It’s no wonder that riesling enthusiasts have started simply looking for the word trocken on the label — the word trocken thankfully ensures you’ll get something pretty dry. Also, check the alcohol content. As Selbach told me, “If the alcohol is one digit, it’s going to be sweet. If it’s double digits, it will be at least dry-ish, or dry.”
In other regions, such as Alsace and Austria and Australia, riesling is almost always dry. When I visited Alsace last fall, for instance, many winemakers were not onboard with the Summer of Riesling’s focus on the sweeter German styles. “I am not a fan of German riesling,” said Arnaud Baur, the young winemaker at Charles Baur. “People are now confused that riesling has to be sweet.”
“I am against sweet riesling,” said Jean-Daniel Hering, the 5th generation winemaker at Domaine Hering. “A winemaker must write on his label if it’s sweet riesling.”
However, even putting a sweetness scale from one-to-ten on the bottle — as many Alsace producers do — doesn’t solve the issue. Even though one represents the driest and ten the sweetest, there is no scientific equation. It’s all based on perception.
When I visited Andre Scherer, the winemaker Christophe Scherer declared, “For me, riesling needs to be a “one.” If it’s not, I don’t want to drink it. A riesling needs to be dry.” Yet as he poured the wines, I noticed that some of scales on the bottles he poured were definitely not “ones.”
“Wait,” I said. “This one’s a ‘three’ and this one’s a ‘three’?”
Scherer smiled. “Well yes. Three is still dry. But not too dry. Anyway, in Alsace we call this confit. It’s not sweet.”
Perhaps riesling is always destined to be confusing. That seemed to be the message in the Mosel. In the tasting parlor of his Dr. Loosen estate, overlooking the Mosel River, Ernst Loosen became very animated as we discussed the sweet/dry divide. “The problem of riesling is that there is not one face! We never get out of this corner of being a sweet wine!” Loosen said. “I hate that it has to be one way or the other. But with wine people, you know it always has to be one way or the other.”
The same day, a little further up the river, at Selbach-Oster, Selbach told me, “Sweet is politically incorrect now. We say ‘fruity’ rather than sweet.”
Selbach spoke cheerfully and calmly, but clearly the endless debate over sweet versus dry riesling was something that grated. “This feels like a religion. It’s like they ask you to swear on the Bible or the Koran. It’s black and white, and wine is not black and white.”
As if to underscore the point, we tasted Selbach’s transcendent 2001 Zeltinger Schlossberg spätlese trocken. It was somehow both sweet and dry at the same time. It was like a memory of biting into the freshest, greatest late-summer peach of childhood. This is the kind of riesling that the wine critics are always referring to as “thrilling.”
“There is a difference between balanced and sweet,” Selbach said. “Over time the sweetness slowly melts away. After ten, 20 years, the sweetness integrates.”
Mosel, with its steep, cool vineyards, is the last bastion of the sweet riesling style. In the rest of Germany, as the climate changes, most winemakers in regions like Rheingau or Naha or Rheinhessen have no problem getting to alcohol levels of 12 or 13 percent so they can make excellent dry riesling.
The winemaking has also dramatically improved. The early dry rieslings in the 1980s were like pure acid, wines that would rip the enamel off your teeth. “We used to call those ‘Three-Man Wines.’ Because it took two men to hold you down and one to pour it into your mouth,” said Cottmann.
While tasting the exquisite wines of Philipp Wittmann, at Weingut Wittmann in Rheinhessen, it’s hard to believe those days even existed. “The focus is on the dry here,” Wittmann said. “In Rheinhessen today, you see much more focus on dry riesling. We have good acidity, freshness, and a cooling aftertaste, and the alcohol levels are perfect.”
We tasted some of his entry-level trocken (“the business card of the winery”) full of racy acidity and fresh stone fruit (and less than four grams of residual sugar). As we did, Wittmann told me that Terry Theise had once been his importer, but not anymore. He said that Theise pushed him to produce a sweeter style.
“Terry Theise has decided to be on one side of riesling,” Wittmann said. “I wouldn’t change our wines. Terry and I had a lot of discussion about sweet and dry. A three-year discussion. At the end of the discussion, we went our separate ways.”
“Maybe this is why riesling will always be for the geeks,” said Klaus-Peter Keller, with a sigh. Klaus-Peter said this to me on a cold March afternoon — months before the Summer of Riesling — as the sun set over Rheinhessen. We were sitting at his kitchen table tasting his beautiful Von der Fels trocken, and he sighed because we got talking, of course, about the sweet and the dry.
He was clearly tired and so was I. For him, this was the first time home after being abroad, including a trip to New York to spread what he called “the riesling virus.” For me, this was the last day of a long week running around Germany’s various regions, meeting producers and tasting dozens of rieslings.
Klaus-Peter, who may be Germany’s finest young winemaker, patiently listened as I aimlessly expressed my preference for dry whites. Then, as if to gently make a point, he brought out a 2007 Grauer Burgunder beerenauslese — a sweet wine from pinot gris — which had been made by…his ten-year-old son, Felix Keller. It was…yes, thrilling. It was a thrilling sweet wine. Klaus-Peter smiled, so proudly, as we tasted.
“In the end, we all believe in the same religion: Good wine,” he said.
“There are, of course, always religious wars,” I said.
He took a sip and sighed very heavily. “Religious wars are bad for everyone.” • 20 September 2011
Keller Riesling Trocken 2012 (12%alcohol by volume, $20)
Weingut Wittman Riesling Trocken 2012 (12%, $24)
Wagner Stempel Riesling Trocken 2011(12.5%, $16)
Gunderloch Riesling Dry 2009 (13%, $20)
Selbach Dry Riesling 2011 (12.5%, $11)
Dr. Loosen Red Slate Riesling Dry 2011 (12.5%, $14)
Fred Loimer Riesling Kamptal 2010 (12%, $20)
Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling 2009 (11.5%, $24)
Trimbach Riesling 2010 (12.5%, $17)
Schoenheitz Riesling Linsenberg 2008 (12.2%, $20)
Hugel Riesling Classic 2011 (13%, $19)
Pikes Riesling Traditionale 2011 (12%, $22)
Clare Valley, Australia
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin), writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post, and is the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits. Follow him @boozecolumnist.