Crib Sheet: Your Guide to Off-Dry Riesling

Welcome to "Crib Sheet," your monthly shortcut to what's hot in wine right now, in four bottles, courtesy of Jon Bonné. This month: a look at the growing crop of excellent, slightly off-dry German rieslings—often bottled as feinherb.

The German love of precision is legendary. No other culture could have given us not only the essential word fremdschämen (feeling embarrassed on someone else’s behalf) but also Schnapsidee (an idea you must have conceived when drunk), which might also describe our editorial process at PUNCH.

Such precision shows up in German wine, too, and for decades any lover of German riesling found herself in an endless spiral of very specific, and at times seemingly contradictory, terms. And no divide was more precise than the one between dry and sweet. Dry (trocken) riesling was meant to be austere and fragrant—a riesling equivalent of great Burgundy. On the other side were fruity (fruchtig) rieslings, not necessarily sweet but certainly with ample amounts of sugar.

Reasonable people could quibble over these two styles. And the Germans themselves made their preferences known: Even today, rieslings can acknowledge their origins from the country’s grands crus, or grosses gewächs, only if they are fully dry. Yet that dry-sweet schism really only came into being a generation ago, with the arrival of the country’s 1971 wine laws, meant to precisely codify terms like kabinett (wine from fully ripe but not late-picked grapes).

Just one problem: All that precision didn’t exactly make the world swoon for German riesling, even if they remain some of the world’s most interesting and perennially underappreciated wines. Today, the country exports less than half the amount of wine it did 25 years ago (not entirely a fair comparison for a variety of reasons, but still relevant). Even those who adore German riesling, like me, struggle to make sense of what we’re drinking.

But what if German winemakers stopped being so precise and made riesling that landed in the middle, with the best attributes of both dry and fruity wines?

Following that third path has in fact become one of the great hopes for German wine today. Many top winemakers have turned to rieslings with more generous flavors than a fully dry wine, but less obvious sugar than a fruity one.

For a while, the term for such wines was halbtrocken, or half-dry, but nowadays, the term of art for these wines is feinherb. It has no precise definition, in that a winemaker decides a wine is feinherb based not on specific levels of sugar, as halbtrocken was, but rather when he knows it’s not quite dry, yet also isn’t sweet; it’s a sense, rather than a calculation, that the wine has slightly softer edges.

This, needless to say, is a shockingly imprecise turn of events for our German friends. And they’ve gone even further. Ever more rieslings are being labeled without any designation at all—occasionally with the sort of fanciful names that got them into trouble in the 1980s, but sometimes simply as an “estate” wine: a signature effort from a winery, often from multiple vineyards. These popular choices are inexpensive—almost always under $25, even from a heralded producer like Dönnhoff—and they tend to vanish quickly. But increasingly, the best producers are also making some of their best vineyard expressions as feinherb, like Günther Steinmetz’s Dhroner Hofberg.

In fairness, this isn’t actually new. In fact, it’s an echo of the style of German riesling prior to World War II, before cooling technology became common and fermentations could be stopped at will. Those older wines often fermented to a point just shy of dryness—yet weren’t really sweet. When you get them on the topic, winemakers like Florian Lauer will recount how their grandfathers made these styles, not so much intentionally as accepting the results of mostly uncontrolled fermentations. That gives this style an old-fashioned cred that appeals to Germany’s winemaking minimalists, which includes not only Lauer but producers like Immich-Batterieberg and Clemens Busch.

At the same time, these wines are also a countermeasure to a recent arms race of sweetness in German wine, driven by critics’ praise for flashier wines in the 1990s and early 2000s. Better farming allowed for more overall sugar, and winemakers were rewarded for leaving more in. “They were perfect wines for rating,” says Batterieberg’s Gernot Kollmann, “but people had nothing to drink.”

These new, in-between wines have found a captive audience—especially among sommeliers, who not long ago worried about selling the older, precisely designated styles. Once everyone sidestepped all that precision and just focused on the wine, they found just how irresistible this style can be.

I’m not exaggerating, by the way. Our recent tasting of more than two dozen off-dry rieslings was the best of the year, hence the large number of recommendations below. We had the benefit of trying the 2015 vintage, one of the best in the past decade, but even in the leaner 2014 wines this style also stood out. And unlike some of the riper fruity rieslings—the ones usually marked with terms like spätlese—these wines are ready to drink right now.

The Classic | Tie

2015 Peter Lauer Barrel X Mosel Riesling | $18 
No single wine better embodies this new movement than Florian Lauer’s Barrel X, and perhaps it’s fitting that it comes from the Saar valley. This tributary of the Mosel was once thought to be too cold to make dry wine—much less sweet—but now hosts not only Lauer, but Van Volxem, whose not-quite-dry Saar Riesling helped spur this trend about 15 years ago. Florian’s frustrated relationship with sugar has become the stuff of geek fascination and has resulted in beautiful wines like his Fass 6 Senior. But in the end, I always come back to the Barrel X, blended from three Saar villages. With its slightly exotic fruit, white-pepper spice and just a bit of amplitude from leftover sugar, it remains a snapshot of all riesling’s best traits. Importer: Vom Boden [Buy]

2014 Weingart Bopparder Hamm Engelstein Am Weissen Wacke Feinherb Riesling Kabinett | $27
The tiny Mittelrhein is generally overlooked among German wine regions, and Florian Weingart’s wines are shy creatures, rarely expressive at first. So we were happy to catch this in an extroverted mood. What hits you first is the glossy, ripe texture and notes of parsley, pear and nutmeg. But there’s also what I noted as “BLUE STEEL,” which is to say that a jolt of acidity suddenly shoots through that tranquility. A perfect expression of feinherb. Importer/Distributor: Terry Theise/Skurnik Wines [Buy]

See also: Strub Roter Schiefer Feinherb, Selbach-Oster’s Feinherb and Ur Alte Reben, Zilliken Butterfly, Von Schubert Maximin Grünhaus QbA, Kruger-Rumpf Feinherb Schiefer, Hexamer Porphyr

The Star | Tie

2014 A.J. Adam Im Pfarrgarten Feinherb Mosel Riesling | $23
The quality of Andreas Adam’s wines has returned focus to the part of the Mosel near the town of Dhron, which was largely forgotten despite being just a couple miles from the famous Piesport vineyards. His amazing In Der Sangerei was one of the best wines of the tasting, but the Im Pfarrgarten, from a recently acquired 50-year-old parcel on flatter land, has the benefit of being nearly half the price, and thus better suited to everyday drinking. A flinty mineral aspect here comes together with a light-honey bit of sweetness to round off the edgy, fruit peel flavors. And it hints at a lot more under the hood, like a turbocharged Honda Civic. A bit of time to let it breathe in the glass (it’s under screwcap, as many of these are) will make it even better. Importer: Terry Theise/Skurnik Wines [Buy]

2015 Schlossgut Diel Von der Nahe Feinherb Riesling | $24
This more or less equates to Diel’s estate bottling, and once again, Caroline Diel shows why her family’s estate deserves perennial attention. This blend of vineyard parcels is intended as a snapshot of the lower Nahe. It shows the warmer, riper flavors of that locale along with a mineral side reminiscent of sun-baked stones and a perfect fulcrum of sugar—just enough to let you know it’s there, never enough to make you think “sweet.” Importer: Terry Theise/Skurnik Wines [Buy]

See also: Robert Weil Tradition, Leitz QbA Feinherb, Dönnhoff Estate Riesling, Karthäuserhof Ruwer QbA, Müller-Catoir MC

The Upstart | Tie

2015 Weiser-Künstler Estate Mosel Riesling | $22 
Alexandra Künstler and Konstantin Weiser are one of the Mosel’s great recent success stories—reviving old parcels around the historic town of Enkirch. Their wines (along with those of their neighbor, Kollmann of Immich-Batterieberg) have returned focus both to the area and to this not-quite-dry style, especially their estate wine, which exudes the delicacy and white-tea quietude their wines often do. The 2015 is perhaps their best yet: focused, tangy, with just enough sugar to underscore a mix of green quince and riper yellow fruit. A bright Mosel mineral aspect is completely etched into every corner of the wine’s flavors. Importer: Vom Boden [Buy]

2015 Goldatzel Johannisberger Feinherb Rheingau Riesling Kabinett | $25 
The Rheingau—once the source of Germany’s coveted “hock” wines—has arrived somewhat late to this style. But young Johannes Gross has reinvigorated his parents’ estate. If this wine’s name feels a bit old-fashioned, perhaps it’s because outré only goes so far in Johannisberg, probably the country’s most established wine town. But it’s also flat-out delicious in a modern way, full of tangy energy, and all about squeezed lime and white nectarines, with ripeness that’s counterbalanced by a juniper herbal side. Importer/Distributor: Terry Theise/Skurnik Wines [Buy]

The Minimalist | Tie

2013 Clemens Busch Vom Roten Schiefer Mosel Riesling | $31 
Clemens Busch is that rarity in Germany—determined to work as close as possible to that French-minimal definition of “natural”: organic farming, no additions beyond a dab of sulfur. He, too, farms in a part of the Mosel largely overlooked, in Pünderich, just downriver from Enkirch. This is from his steep red-slate (roten schiefer) parcels, and it’s as smoky as wines from red slate often are (you see it in Strub’s Roter Schiefer, as well), with an austerity to it even after three years—as well as a clove-spiced intensity. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections [Buy]

2014 Günther Steinmetz Dhroner Hofberg Feinherb Mosel Riesling | $18 
That one-quarter of the wines in our picks come from Dhron should indicate how being overlooked in recent history might actually benefit German wine villages today. Doubly so because Stefan Steinmetz is himself based in better-known Brauneberg. Like Busch, Steinmetz is hardcore about tradition—mostly organic farming, no yeasts, no additives—and the wines can take time to shake off a yeasty side and fully open. But it matches that lacy talc-like Mosel minerality to green papaya and peach nectar, and a pleasant green side. It’s an intense glassful, dense and notably acidic, with a wisp of sugar coming at just the right moment. Importer/Distributor: Grand Cru Selections [Buy]

See also: Immich-Batterieberg Zeppwingert Feinherb, Jochen Beurer Kieselsandstein Riesling