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What Is “Classic” German Riesling?

Today’s trend towards dryness has helped redefine German riesling. But detractors argue that naturally sweeter wines are truer expressions of the country’s winemaking past. Whom are we to believe?

Grosses Gewachs German Riesling

In a certain Facebook photograph (from which I’ve since untagged myself), a shirtless, lamentably skinnier version of me grins at the camera. My two index fingers direct the viewer’s gaze to my left flank, where the letters of a hastily applied temporary tattoo spell out the word “Riesling.”

The photo dates to one of the first “Summer of Riesling” campaigns, a season-long celebration spearheaded in 2008 by the pioneering Terroir sommelier, Paul Grieco, to evangelize for that perennially misunderstood grape. Despite the campaign’s official dedication to extolling riesling in all its myriad styles, a major part of the marketing effort involved hammering home the message that riesling—particularly German riesling—isn’t categorically sweet.

To many, this push toward dry—or trocken—wine was synonymous with a specific category: Grosses Gewächs, or “GG” for short. Translating to “great growth,” the designation was created in 2002 by the Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), an association of over 200 of the country’s most prominent estates. Since entering the market, this premium class of densely structured trocken expressions has emerged as a new paradigm for seriousness in German wine.

Most American drinkers might not realize it, but the category represents a logical extension of the direction that Germany’s domestic market has been headed for decades. As author John Winthrop Haeger explains in Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright and Dry, during the last quarter of the 20th century, Germany experienced a “transformative style-based change in consumer wine taste.”

This Trockenwelle, or dry wave, radically shifted the balance of production from sweet to dry. “In 1985,” the author writes, “a bit less than 24 percent of all riesling produced in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz was legally dry,” which refers to wine containing under ten grams per liter of residual sugar. “In the same year and the same area, more than twice as much riesling was lieblich [containing 18 grams or more of residual sugar] as was dry. Fifteen years later…dry riesling had grown to almost 38 percent of Rheinland-Pfalz production while the percentage of lieblich wine had decreased by half.”

It’s a curious irony of the wine world: We’re always so quick to defend the past, but we generally make lousy scholars of history.

This period overlaps with the VDP’s larger efforts to redefine German wine, which, in its own words, had suffered under “some of the less-than-positive consequences of the wine law of 1971.” Convinced that Germany had toiled too long under the stigma of sweetness (in the form of mass-produced wines like Blue Nun), the organization sought to supplement the 1971 law’s Prädikat scale, which classified wine according to the sugar level of the grapes at harvest (i.e., Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese), with “an internal system of vineyard classification” modeled after the crus of Burgundy; this, they wagered, would return attention to terroir.

“Our big focus on Grösses Gewachs was a reaction to the fact that Germany’s image was still ‘sweet and cheap,’” explains Hilke Nagel, Managing Director of the VDP. “So in our first classification efforts, we very much focused on promoting GG as the premium dry expression of a vineyard site.”

While many of the wines managed to achieve a chiseled, muscular brilliance (“You can immediately see that the best examples are among the great wines of the world,” says wine importer Lyle Fass, an early advocate of the style) not everyone welcomed these deluxe ambassadors of dryness.

To certain riesling lovers, GG’s profile represented an aesthetic straitjacket, squeezing the wine into a fashionable commercial mold that fetishized power and intensity. For all their impressive concentration, the category’s detractors argued, the wines sacrificed the “true” or “classic” expression associated with the Prädikat designations: vibrant, lacy, low-alcohol, bracingly mineral and, yes, often sweet.

As Lars Carlberg, an expert on Mosel wine, has written, the insistence upon legal dryness sometimes forced winemakers to find ways “to get the wine below this arbitrary limit, whether by adding selected yeasts, heating vats or blending batches.” Although recent years have given rise to a more elegant, restrained style of GG, it was not uncommon for certain offerings to lack balance, with alcohol contents in riper vintages creeping above 14 percent ABV.

“At first, we wanted as much concentration as possible for this style,” says Philipp Wittmann, whose acclaimed Rheinhessen estate built its reputation upon trocken wines of depth and precision. “But over the years, we’ve learned that getting too much alcohol, especially with riesling, creates problems. It took us a little while to figure out that sometimes it’s better to have less concentration to facilitate the expression of the vineyard sites.”

This might be what Jancis Robinson (who has since praised the style) had in mind in 2002, when she labeled Grosses Gewächs “the country’s least distinctive offerings,” noting that “the typical traditional anglophone importer of fine German wine is vehemently opposed to these newer, drier offerings from the German wine trade.” Fearing for the future of the so-called “fruity,” or residually sweet style that defined German riesling for a generation of American drinkers, influential U.S. importer Terry Theise even compared trocken wines to “a predatory species whose aim appeared to be to annihilate every other style of riesling except for the very sweet.”

Its defenders, meanwhile, have framed Grosses Gewächs not only as essential to German wine’s future, but as a reclamation of its glorious past. The VDP has contextualized GG in terms of “return[ing] Germany’s outstanding dry wines to their previous renowned status.” By this, they’re citing the legendary examples that flourished along the Mosel and Rhine rivers during riesling’s late-19th-century renaissance, when it graced the tables of royalty and fetched higher prices than the finest Bordeaux and Champagne.

So whom are we to believe?

It’s a curious irony of the wine world: We’re always so quick to defend the past, but we generally make lousy scholars of history. Too often, we use “tradition” as a type of confirmation bias, serving a readymade agenda, when the actual record paints a far more complicated picture. “Tradition depends on where you’re standing and how far back you look,” Theise aptly observes. “It’s often used as a cudgel with which to flog anyone who challenges your weak argument. Thus it rears its head whenever a schism occurs, wherein each side blasts the other with it and both of them are inaccurate.”

Once we peel back the layers, it becomes clear that neither GG nor the residually sweet “classic” style can make any authoritative claim to historical authenticity.

“By the end of the 19th century, and probably earlier, the dominant riesling style—albeit one among several—was an occasionally dry but typically off-dry wine, fermented until the fermentation stopped naturally,” Haeger writes. “This was the style most associated in most markets with German white wines at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, when these were Europe’s most respected light and elegant white wines.”

This dry to “dry-ish” style—neither fully trocken, nor nearly as sweet as many of today’s supposedly “classic” expressions—prevailed until the years between the First and Second World Wars, after which, according to Haeger, the introduction of modern cellar technologies enabled “mass production of stable wines with an infinite range of sweetness.”

A widespread taste for sugar following decades of war-rationing ushered in a subsequent “sweet wave”—much like today’s Trockenwelle—which, buoyed by Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder (or “economic miracle”) of the 1950s, extended through the 1970s and ’80s, as wines became more flamboyantly sweet.

“There are so many wines that many of us like to think of as ‘classic,’” Carlberg explains. “I’m thinking of estates like Alfred Merkelbach or Willi Schaefer, which make these light-bodied, exceptionally balanced, residually sweet wines. Sure, they’re ‘classic,’ in a sense, but you have to ask: dating back how far?”

Perhaps, then, the better question is: “What do we want German riesling to be today?”

That’s a bit more difficult to answer. The usual way a wine-producing area struggles with big crises of identity involves a tug-of-war between two competing factions. Consider, for instance, Napa’s recent negotiation between the huge, over-the-top wines of the ‘90s, and the contrary push toward a leaner, more austere aesthetic, which has ultimately lead to a softening on both sides. In Germany’s case, this sort of polarity doesn’t apply. Rather than a binary, its wine culture exists across a dizzyingly broad spectrum of styles, making the task of codifying a cohesive narrative all the more challenging.

As a consumer, I’m sympathetic to the (let’s admit it, stereotypically German) impulse toward order and classification. To compete in today’s global market, it’s necessary to offer a clear and consistent framework for understanding what’s in the bottle. Over the past decade or so, the VDP has attempted to resolve the perennial confusion surrounding sweetness in German wine by, in effect, segregating trocken wines from their variously sweet counterparts.

It’s debatable whether their efforts have made German wine any more intelligible to the average drinker. But critic David Schildknecht has pointed out a larger issue. In his view, the growing divide between sweet and dry has resulted in a push toward extremes on either side, dissuading growers from exploring what had historically represented a far more nuanced range.

If the system rewards both the extremely dry (GG) and the palpably sweet (the various Prädikat designations, which the VDP now insists must contain residual sugar), then what gets lost is the undefined stylistic register in between. So often, the “traditions” that slip past us aren’t the ones we’re anxious about losing, but those we don’t even realize we’ve neglected.

Arguably more than any other, Germany’s wine culture is capable of containing multitudes of expressions. And that’s precisely what makes it the source of such endless fascination and obsessive frustration. If there’s any lesson to be drawn from the situation, however, it’s this: no “true” version of the wine exists. Only when we stop worrying so much about what German riesling is supposed to be will we be able to absorb all that it is—from the most powerful GGs to the featheriest Prädikats, and every gradation between.

It’s encouraging, then, that a handful of producers have become increasingly comfortable tolerating a certain amount of ambiguity, allowing sweetness to be determined by vintage and vineyard, rather than a unilateral stylistic formula.

“We work only with wild yeast, rather than cultivated yeast, so we end up with wines that don’t always ferment fully dry,” says Rita Busch of Weingut Clemens Busch, an organically-farmed estate in the Mosel village of Pünderich. “For this style—which is just a little too sweet to be a GG, but not sweet enough for a Prädikat—there’s no category in the VDP classification. But since some of our best wines fall into that range, we’re okay with that.”

So should we all be. It’s this incredible dexterity—the ability to modulate between whole tones and semitones and quartertones—that, to me at least, makes German riesling the most unique wine in the world, and which secured its reputation over a century ago. Rather than a liability or a marketing problem to be solved, this complexity deserves to be embraced as Germany’s most valuable asset.

Like that rub-on tattoo, you can only fix it in place for so long.

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