Peach blossom and razor sharp – Riesling

Some winemakers emphasize that grapes have to suffer in order to be able to produce fine wine. According to others, the suffering of the grapes does not have any beneficial effect on the outcome of the wine, in the same way that it isn’t any good for winemakers to be stressed. Tokaj winemaker István Szepsy has an apt response to put the whole question in its right place: “struggle makes it noble, but suffering makes it crippled.” 


Indeed, there is no doubt that in the birthplace of Riesling in Germany – on the steep slopes of the riverbanks of the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer – vintners and grapes both undergo a struggle. However, on tasting the outcome, there’s no sign of the adversity conditions: German Riesling is a vigorous, dynamic and multifaceted wine. 

Great wine regions are almost always picturesquely beautiful. However, few of them can compete in terms of beauty with the one from where German Riesling hails. On top of that, it seems that God devoted this land to grape growing. If we visit the place, or even when we just see it in a photo, one cannot avoid feeling curious to know the kind of wines which are born under such dramatic circumstances. In less blessed wine regions, winemakers are keen to show the loess dolls, and the fist-sized stones, proving that that the soil is not just pure loess.


The grapes of the Mosel are grown on real hillsides, often on steep cliffs, sometimes with hardly any soil, with the roots clinging on through the cracks in the slate. Grape growers are quasi-alpinists; the harvest and the cultivation are helped by wire ropes to hold onto. This is the northern limit of grape growing, and the only hope for achieving ripeness is that the hillside collects the rays of sunshine like a sort of satellite dish. The grapes are ripened by the light, not by the heat. Riesling sparkles like a crystal, but it doesn’t get cooked. The only other contestant for the title of the world’s greatest white variety is Chardonnay, in Burgundy. But while Chardonnay there grows on gentle slopes and plains, the life of Riesling is a constant challenge: on the edge of dizziness and ripening. The characteristics of those two wines are also fundamentally different. Chardonnay is not an aromatic variety; the wine made from it is broader and more approachable. Riesling belongs to the more aromatic varieties, but it is the only one that is not perfumed. It might be the fruitiest among them: its aroma spectrum goes from citrus fruit to pineapple to peach and apricot. The fruit is often accompanied by floral notes, and that highly prized minerality, especially petrol. Still, what makes Riesling unique is its structure. It’s an almost weightless energy pack. If it’s made from not very ripe grapes, the acidity strikes us, like the ding-dong of a chiming bell. It galvanizes and refreshes us. It cleanses us like mountain air. 



An association beyond the law

A tasting last September in Berlin brought a watershed moment for us, one in which we learned about VDP wines, including the highest standard Grosses Gewächs category (see below). We brought back some of the wines and after several steps, we picked the most convincing ones for us, narrowing the list down to eight wineries. The history of VDP goes back to 1910. Initially, it comprised estates that only sold their wines through auctions, but later it lost its importance. Its current members are mainly small- and medium-sized wineries, of whom only a small proportion own an estate that is larger than 50 hectares, and altogether they cultivate approximately 5,000 hectares. They mostly work with traditional, local grape varieties. They pursue natural cultivation methods, while there’s fixed yield control in every category of the classification. The picking of grapes by hand is compulsory in the highest category. VDP membership cannot be requested or purchased: the association is organised strictly according to an invitation-based system. Such top-notch wineries as Dr. Loosen, Robert Weil, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf and Clemens Busch belong to the association.

Since 2000, VDP has had its own classification system – which places itself outside (or rather above) the German wine regulation that is currently in operation – for which the most important aspect of categorisation is the grapes’ sugar content at harvesting. The VDP’s classification system follows the Burgundy example, which means that it classifies the territory, not the winery. It differentiates four classes, which are indicated on the label of the wines: the basic level is the Gutswein category which is composed of regional wines, with the name and the grape variety of the region on the label. It is followed by Ortswein, lit. ‘village wine’ (the same classification as the village level in Burgundy). The name of the village is indicated on the label. Above that, on the Erste Lage wines, both the name of the village and the vineyard are indicated, with the classification put on the capsule. On the highest, most outstanding category – the Grosse Lage – based on the Burgundy example, most often only the name of the vineyard is indicated. 


Riesling ≠ Olaszrizling:

Olaszrizling is Hungary’s most planted white grape, which is a completely separate grape variety and has nothing to do with Riesling.


VDP - Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter:

VDP is the national German association of producers committed to top quality wine production. The VDP has more than 200 of Germany’s finest estates as members, and promotes their wines through a new, three-tier hierarchy and a more restrictive classification than the government provides. Its symbol is a stylized eagle clasping a cluster of grapes and appears on the bottles’ capsule.


Grosses Gewächs:

GG is the ‘Great Growth’, the German equivalent of the Grand Cru – the quality indication for the top wines originating from the most seriously classified (Grosse Lage) vineyards. The GG sign can appear on the label, on the capsule or embossed on the bottle. 


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