Cool wines for a sizzling summer

By Michael Brenton

If you’re looking for refreshment, you should brush up on your German

As the heat of summer continues for a few more weeks there is no better time to get acquainted — or re-acquainted — with the refreshing wines of Germany, one of the world’s coolest growing regions. The wines typically are vibrant, fruity and refreshing, and often present with bracing acidity. Some of the same grape varieties that thrive in Germany also thrive in Michigan’s cooler grape growing climate, particularly varieties Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris.

But it is Riesling that really puts Germany on the map in this country. The best German wine grapes are grown on steeply banked, mineral-laden vineyards in river valley regions such as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Pfalz, and Rheinhessen. German law establishes quality designations for German wines. The highest quality (and the one to look for on shelves) is Qualitätswein Mit Prädikat, or QmP. Quality wines may be distributed that do not contain the QmP designation, but certainly maintaining that designation sets a minimum bar for quality.

German wines do not seem to fly off the shelves in American wine stores, which is a shame because the wines tend to be high-quality, versatile, food-friendly and crowd-pleasing. Perhaps one reason they are ignored by some buyers is that German labels can be confusing. The wine label typically indicates whether it is a QmP wine and specifies the grape variety — e.g., Riesling. It also contains significant information describing the place the grapes were grown, and the style of the wine as a measure of the sweetness of the grape at harvest. This usually, but not always, translates into the sweetness of the finished wine.

For table wine, the key words to look for are Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese. Kabinett wines are the least sweet and typically would appeal to dry white wine drinkers. Spätlese refers to grapes that are picked later and riper. Because they have reached higher sugar levels, these wines may be richer and usually are sweeter. Auslese grapes are picked very late and ripe and almost always are finished as a very sweet wine that most people would view as a dessert wine. Spätlese and Auslese wines can be great companions for spicy Thai food. If seeking a dessert wine is your objective, look for the labels Beerenauslese and Eiswein.

As a consumer, it is frequently helpful to benefit from the palate of an acknowledged expert. Here in Michigan, Paul Mann is one of the most renowned importers of German wines. His wines, typically designated as “a Paul Mann selection,” can be found in the finest wine shops in Michigan. The Paul Mann sticker on a bottle serves as assurance that several due diligence measures already have been surpassed before the wine has reached the shelf.

A recent tasting of Mann’s wines during a Greater Lansing Vintners Club event put that theory to the test. All quoted prices represent recent prices at Goodrich’s on Trowbridge.

Dr. Loosen Riesling Sekt ($14.69) was a refreshing, lightly sweet bubbly. The 2008 J.L. Wolf Gewürztraminer from the Pfalz ($12.99) had a bone-dry presentation with lots of flowers in the nose; this one probably is only for acknowledged Gewürztraminer fans and may have narrower appeal than the rest of the wines that were tasted. The 2008 Studier Deidesheimer Herrgotacker Riesling “Dry” from the Pfalz ($18.99) had very nice fruit, spiciness on the finish and a bit of petrol in the nose. The 2010 Von Kesselstatt “RK” Riesling from the Mosel ($11.99) was a bit more delicate on the palate, but had just the right balance of sweetness and acid and represents a great buy. I would lean towards paying the extra dollar to choose the 2009 Selbach Bernkasteler Kurfuerstlay Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel ($12.89), which presented with stone fruit in the nose and full, soft fruit on the palate. It might even go down too easily.

Stepping it up a notch, a 2007 Willi Haag Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel ($21.69) provided an unusual, earthy bouquet and flavor profile, accompanied by a full-bodied, viscous presentation and broad flavors of pear and peach. A 2009 Dr. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel ($21.99) was fruity and sweet with mineral on the nose and petrol on the palate. It is distinctly different from most Michigan Rieslings many readers may have enjoyed.

One fact experienced tasters probably have discovered over time is that quality does not always follow price point. In this case, however, the $31.99 price point for 2009 Schloss Marienlay Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese from the Mosel became self-explanatory. Good wine is all about balance and this wine showed very sweet fruit, a broad and viscous palate, and a sweeter presentation balanced by acid and minerality — an excellent wine.

Unlike most white wines, Rieslings tend to be relatively age-worthy because of the high acids that balance the sweetness. Thus, it can be fun and educational to purchase Rieslings and intentionally set a few aside to monitor their maturation over a period of time. It would also be fun and educational to enjoy a tasting in which German Rieslings are compared and contrasted with, for example, a west coast Riesling and dry or semi-dry Michigan Riesling. Here’s a toast to the warm summer sun: Prost!

In Vino Veritas