Let’s talk about terroir. Terroir is this magical concept, which the wine writer Matt Kramer has described as ‘sense of place’. The French have for 100’s of years championed it as the secret to their success. It includes the soil, weather and how a particular vineyard is situated in its given location. Typically the wine from a given site should taste roughly the same year after year, if the wine making stays the same. The obvious exception to this is the weather of the vintage year… hot years with lots of sunshine produce bigger, more opulent wines and visa versa, rainy harvests result in washed out, more dilute wines. One could of course go into all kinds of permutations regarding the growing season.
The idea of terroir is primarily an old world one, as vines have been planted in Europe for over 2000 years, whereas the new world time frame is very much shorter. As such the ability to compare vintages of wines from a specific site in the old world has been an ongoing concept for 100’s of years. The same simply cannot be said for a newly planted vineyard in Niagara on the Lake for instance.
There are certain grape varieties which seem to transmit terroir better than others. I believe one of the best is the Riesling (pronounced Reezling) grape, grown throughout the old and the new world, but arguably the most important German contribution to the vinous planet. The grape has grown alongside the major southern German rivers, Rhine and Mosel for 2000 years, first planted by the Romans, and since the middle Ages has produced outstanding, age worthy white wine…all except for a rough patch in the 1970’s, where in order to meet an increased demand for sweeter style wines, standards were dropped by less scrupulous wineries.
Young German Riesling is traditionally characterized by it’s off dry or even sweet nature, balanced by a healthy dose of acidity on the finish. This interplay between sweet and tart flavours is an amazing sensation if the wine maker gets the balance right; it’s like walking on a knife’s edge.
The acidity comes in part from the marginal cool climate where the vines are grown, as this is as far north as any ‘serious’ wine is made in Europe. That the best vineyards are located on the big rivers is also not a fluke, as the flowing water moderates the cold spikes of the growing season.
The wine itself displays flavours of apple, pear and citrus fruit and it is never vinified in new oak. Charred wood would kill the delicate fruit aromas that are present, and that is one of the most charming things about the young Riesling wines. However there are some producers which instead of using the standard stainless steel aging tanks, use older neutral oak tanks, that hold between 1000 and 5000 litres of wine. The tanks are up to 50 years old and impart no flavour of oak at all, but instead change the texture of the high acid wine into something that is softer, with a slightly rounder mouth feel.
The soils of the specific growing areas mark a sense of minerality, or a perceived “stoniness” of the wine. This happens especially along the Mosel River. The best vineyards are always on steep slate, so steep that special vineyard equipment has to be used to do a lot of the maintenance of the site throughout the year. The wines consequently result in a liquid that recalls a wonderful mix of wet rock, sweet stone fruit and lemon tartness.
Wines from the most famous German river, the Rhine however are quite different. The area is much warmer, with heavier loamy soils and even though the grape is the same, the wines will be bigger, with slightly more alcohol and a perceived roundness to the wine that comes as a result of the different terroir. The flavours will lean more towards peach and sometimes apricot, versus the stone fruit and citrus of the Mosel. The whole aspect of a perceived minerality is also missing from a lot of the wines.
As of late, numerous German producers have been championing drier Rieslings, in part due to the fact that a lot of the domestic German market is now more interested in dry wines, and the fact that global warming is providing riper grapes with higher sugar levels, thus making it easier to produce drier wines with lower acidity.
The above new wave of German Rieslings is certainly commercially successful, but for my taste the most authentic and enticing is in the off dry style, which have had a long ‘terroir driven’ history.