A few years ago, I had the great fortune of visiting the majority of the wine regions along Germany's southwestern boundaries. While tasting through a wide variety of wines from the Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Baden and Wurtemburg, I was struck by the vast array of German dry wines, from red Portugieser, Lemberger and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) to white Silvaner and dry Riesling.
Returning to the US, I've managed to uncover a handful of these dry-style German wines, but the discoveries are few and far between. Last year, I sat in on a seminar at TexSom given by Master Sommeliers Laura Williamson and Tim Gaiser that focused primarily on the beauty of Germany's dry wines and the growing demand for them among German consumers, particularly younger ones.
If you aren't from Germany, or if you don't have the chance to frequent the German wine regions, you may not be aware that the perception of German wines as predominantly off-dry or sweet is largely inaccurate. The truth is, more than 90 percent of German wine consumed within the country is dry.
While the mass American wine market was first introduced to German wines through the cloyingly sweet allures of Blue Nun, many wine enthusiasts have delved deeper into the wines of Deutschland to find an intricate structure of artfully balanced off-dry and sweet Rieslings categorized within the Prädikatswein classification system.
Most wines that make it to the United States are mass produced sweet wines or Prädikatswein, and in terms of demand, it's what the American market seems to like--perhaps because it's the only style with which most Americans are familiar. A contributing factor may be that America’s very diverse array of restaurants serves up many spicy foods, with which sweet or sweet-ish wines are very successful.
But within Germany, dry wines rule the day, and even more so in recent years. Some of the shift toward dry wine consumption is a result of climate change. Higher temperatures during growing seasons have led to changes in the methods winemakers use to produce wines.
"For sure, climate change came along with higher ripeness levels," says Rowald Hepp, the managing director and winemaker for the historic Schloss Vollrads in the Rheingau region. "Together with lower yields (green-picking, etc.), this leads to balanced acidities even in dryer wines."
In many ways Germany also has its younger generations to thank for the change...assuming you believe the change is something to be thankful about. Many younger German consumers regard the traditional styles of Prädikatsweins as old fashioned. Gaiser referenced a growing contingent of young winegrowers, cellar masters and estate directors called "Generation Riesling" who represent a younger group of ambassadors in the German wine industry. Not only to they champion Resling, but also dry wines made from varietals such as Silvaner, Lemberger or Spätburgunder. Regarding this last varietal wine, you might be surprised to learn that Germany actually ranks third in the world in acreage planted to Pinot Noir.
"More than anything I think younger German wine drinkers like dry wine and they're eating cuisines that demand dry wine," says Gaiser, who has seen first-hand the increase in dry wines on German menus during his many visits to the country over the past 15 years. "Once you're outside the Mosel, dry wine is whatever everyone is focusing on."
Hepp agrees, referencing German cuisine as the primary reason for the dry wine demand among German consumers.
"Overall our entire production is about 60 percent dry, 20 percent semi-dry and 20 percent fruity-sweet. This percentage has held roughly steady for years, at it reflects our winemakers’ as well our customers’ preferences," says Hepp. "But the cuisine is completely different here than in the US -- we eat lots of pork and potatoes, where the dry style fits."
While Hepp would like to see a larger American market for German dry wines, the reality is that most of them are consumed in country, leaving little left to export. In addition, "the vast majority of our shipments to the US is comprised of Riesling in the fruity style," says Hepp. "There may always be a small market for dryer style Riesling in the US, and it may grow slightly, but it is still in single digits as a percentage of the total."
Whether dry or sweet, the most important consideration when assessing German wines factor lies in seeing the many ways in which they can bridge a broad range of tastes. This is particularly true of Riesling.
"I think it is all about understanding Riesling," says Hepp. "It's a variety which shows amazing versatility! Riesling is one of the few grapes that can work well in any style from dry to fruity to noble sweet. And let's not forget the bubbles. The coexistence of all of these styles is what makes the fascination of Riesling. No other variety can compare to Riesling in this!"
Exploring Riesling’s remarkable range should be a high priority for all of us who love wine, and while you’re at it, don’t neglect to try the rising tide of drier styles now reaching our shores.
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