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Taste test a German wine

POSTED: May 1, 2013 1:00 a.m.

If you are a typical American wine drinker, chances are very good your first choice in wines is not from Germany.

No, you’ll pick California, Australia, France, Spain, Italy, etc ... but not Germany.

And that’s a shame. Why? Because Germany produces some of the best, highest-quality wines in the world. And we overlook them primarily because they are not red and fruity and semi-sweet in the mouth.

We need to get over that.

The most popular grape from Germany is the Johannisberg Riesling, otherwise known as the white riesling or simply riesling. This is one of the world’s greatest white wine grapes, rivaling chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.

At one time, in the mid- to late-19th century to be precise, German wines were held in the same lofty regard as the French wines from Burgundy. Britain’s Queen Victoria latched on to rieslings from Hochheim. Vicky quickly labeled all wines from Germany, whether from Hochheim or not, “Hock.” And the label — and popularity — stuck.

What happened?

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version. The phylloxera invasion, in which a root louse imported from America decimated Europe’s vineyards in the 1860’s, halted development of German wines. (Ironically, it was American rootstocks that later saved Europe’s vineyards.)

A worldwide depression in the 1880’s clamped down on discretionary spending. Wine was rated second to bread and cheese.

World War I put wine production in the tank. Another worldwide depression dampened enthusiasm for wine.

World War II churned up vineyards throughout Europe, including Germany.

And perhaps the most damaging event: German wine makers introduced liebfraumilch to American wine drinkers.

Remember Blue Nun, Black Tower, Zeller Schwartze Katz? These were the semi-sweet, not very good, blended white wines Germany thought would blitz America. What happened is American wine drinkers sampled the mongrel white wines, thought all German wines tasted like them and promptly dismissed quality wines from Germany.

I’m here to tell you there are quality wines from Germany — red and white. And here’s a little bit about them.

Riesling remains the dominant grape. It produces white wines that give a first impression of sweetness, but they’re really not; you are tasting the fruity aspect of the grape. Riesling wines also are quite acidic, which makes them a good match with spicy foods.

Good medium rieslings are great with pork dishes, too. Bake a pork roast with apples and pop a riesling. Nice match.

There are quality designations for German wines telling you exactly what’s in the bottle. German wine labels give you more information than you ever wanted, although they are getting more simple.

Look for the following terms on the label:

The basic wine from Germany is called Landwein, country wine. You won’t see much of it here

Next comes tafelwein, or table wine. Perfectly good, everyday drinking wine, but not great.

Next comes qualitatswein, or quality wine. These wines have to adhere to the regional appellation laws and are tested for compliance by an official committee. They must come from one specific growing region, be made from approved grape varieties and reach a specified level of ripeness.

Pradikatswein comes next. Used to be called qualitatswein mit pradikat. And these wines are subdivided into several different pradikats. These predicates, from the least to the highest, are kabinett, so-called because they were considered of such quality as to be found in the winemaker’s cabinet; spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenausle. Those last three are sweet dessert-style wines. And all are white.In the past decade, Germany has tweaked its red wine production to the point folks need to reconsider them.

Spatburgunder is what they used to call the German version of pinot noir. Today, with all the hoopla about pinot noir, that’s the name on the label.

Is it red Burgundy? No. But German pinot noir is soft, light in color, fruity and generally palatable wine.

The other German red to consider is dornfelder. But be sure to read the label. Dornfelder comes in dry, semi-sweet and sweet variations. The dry and semi-sweet versions are tasty, kind of like a heavier white zinfandel; the dry ones are good food wines.

I did a class recently at Brenau University and the students reacted positively to the two dornfelders I offered.

German vineyards are at roughly the same latitude as Nova Scotia and that’s cold territory. To make up for that, most vineyards have a southern exposure, to maximize sunlight. Also, great numbers of them are planted along the slopes of the rivers Rhine and Mosel. The rivers act as radiators; capturing the sun’s warmth during the day, and releasing it at night to counter the frigid temperatures.

Give some thought to presenting German wines to your friends and company. Get away from the wines you always serve — white zinfandels, pinot grigios and merlots.

Do something different. You’ll be glad you did.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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