What’s Wrong With Riesling? Nothing That a Little Information Won’t Fix

Times Wine Writer

The last time I attended a dinner at which a bottle of Riesling was served with one of the courses was two years ago. I selected the wines for that dinner party.

The time before that, when Riesling was served at a dinner party, was about 1982. On that occasion, I was asked to assist with the selection of wines, and it was I who suggested the wine.

What I’m trying to say here is that in the last six years, no one I know has selected a bottle of Riesling to serve with food. And in the many years I have been a wine lover I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times this grape variety has been served with food other than dessert.


And since I like Riesling with food, I’m surprised more people haven’t discovered the match.

The other day, John and Janet Trefethen of the Napa Valley winery that bears their name staged a cook-off to see which foods best went with their dry Riesling, which annually is one of the most attractive in the state. The winner, a Far East-leaning chicken dumpling sort of concoction, won by only a shade over six other excellent matches.

The point was thus made: The classic Johannisberg Riesling grape variety, when made into a relatively or completely dry wine, produces a beverage of incomparable quality that does, surprising as it may seem to some people, go with food.

German Wine Sales in U.S.

That prompted me to call Rudi Wiest, an importer of fine German Rieslings (Cellars International of Carlsbad, Calif.), to find out what’s happening with German wine sales. Since almost all German wines sold in the United States are Rieslings, and since Wiest handles one of the top lines, I figured he would be a good barometer of Americans’ interest in Riesling.

“Oh,” he said with a moan, “they are so hard to sell.” Well, tell me something I don’t already know, Rudi.

Not that there’s anything wrong with these wines. Quite the contrary, so many of them are exceptional it’s amazing they sell slowly here. But there is a reason they haven’t done well in the market, and Wiest has seen this problem, too, and he is addressing it.


In the past, German wines were labeled with ornate labels containing multisyllabic words in German that were not only long but supposedly helped you understand the wine better. But what good is it to you if you see the phrase Weingut Okonomeirat August E. Anheuser Niederhauser Hermannshohle Trockenbeerenauslese Eiswein Qualitatswein mit Pradikat Erzeugerabfullung on a label? Will that help you decide if the wine will go with your sole Mornay?

More importantly, will that obfuscating phrase even tell you if the wine is sweet or dry? It will if you know a bit of German or if you know wine, but the average person is going to have a devil of a time with that tongue-tripper.

Wine labeling laws in Germany require such information be on these bottles, so the sweeter German wines will continue to have these complex terms. But Wiest has found that he can demystify one level of German wine, that of the QbA --wines that are not as sweet as dessert wines, and also cheaper.

Labels for Dry Wine

QbA is an acronym for a lengthy German term that means “quality wine from specific areas”--but it has been the use of specific area names on labels that caused part of the confusion. To make them simpler, easier to read and less threatening, Wiest has obtained approval from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to use labels that say, merely, the name of the producer, and the word dry when the wine is literally or nearly bone dry.

Wiest calls this new approach to German wine labeling the Estate Riesling program, and it is a major step forward for simplifying the complex and clumsy-appearing rat’s nest of words strewn hither and thither on the labels of German wines. And after all, if you’re buying a $6 bottle of wine, you don’t want to have to take a Berlitz course to figure out what the label says.

I have tasted a range of Wiest’s Estate Rieslings and have found most of them excellent value and, most importantly, most of them work very well with food. And best of all, the most expensive of them has a suggested retail price of $9.25, meaning restaurants can offer such wines between $13 and $15, make a full markup, and provide a unique experience.

The average price of the dozen Estate Riesling wines being imported is $6.50.

What the Estate Riesling concept offers, Wiest says, is wine from grapes grown on the producer’s estate and made in a drier style, intended to be served with food. And since the name of the producer is what counts, the consumer should have more confidence in them since Wiest brings in only top-quality producers’ wines.

“A hundred years ago, the most expensive wines in the world were dry German Rieslings,” said Stuart Piggott the other day at lunch.

Piggott is an Englishman who is in the process of moving to Germany. His soon-to-be-published book, “Life After Liebfraumilch,” is about the complex question of making and marketing German wines.


Vintage charts, Piggott said, never talk about the quality of Germany’s dry wines, which never get the same press attention in the first place as the sweet ones-- Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).

“People only think of great German vintages in terms of how much BA and TBA are produced, and if a lot of BA and TBA are made, people say it has to be a great year,” he said. Thus a vintage chart’s rating of 1985 on a scale of 10 would be probably a 7, 1986 would rate a 5, and 1987 would rate a 2 or 3, Piggott said.

Yet there we were, sipping dry German wines that were amazingly well-balanced and delightful with lunch.

“It would never show up on a vintage chart, but 1987 was a very good year for the dry wines,” said Wiest.

We started with wines at a higher level than the Estate Rieslings.

The 1987 Ungsteiner Weilberg Spatlese from Pfeffingen ($12.50) has a full, floral, ripe-fruit aroma and is dry to the palate, even though it has 1.6% residual sugar. (Thus the wine is perfect for people who say they don’t like dry wine, yet it would please a connoisseur.) It would match well with fish in a cream sauce.

Another intriguing wine was the 1987 Iphofer Kronsberg Muller-Thurgau (a grape variety widely planted in Germany but not well known here) Kabinett Trocken from Wirsching. Wiest said Wirsching may be the finest producer in Franken, and this wine was an amazing experience, being spicy and floral and having great flavors to match with food, especially lightly grilled chicken dishes with herbs.

At $11, it’s a good value and a rare chance to try a great Franken wine. (It is bottled in the traditional squat/round, flat bocksbeutel.)


Another great wine was the 1987 Ungsteiner Honigsackel Kabinett from Pfeffingen ($9.50). This bone dry wine nonetheless offers a sweet, spicy floral aroma with a very crisp, almost austere aftertaste--an absolutely marvelous wine to match with seafood, especially grilled salmon or scallops.

Notice, however, that these wines still have long vineyard-designated names that are hard to remember. So let’s return to the Estate Rieslings, with their simpler to remember names and lower price tags.

One of the best was Fritz Haag Dry ($6.50), with a typical honeysuckle aroma and tart finish. I also enjoyed the 1987 Zilliken Forstmeister Geltz Dry ($6.50), with its delicate fragrance and marvelously fruity finish.

Amount of Sweetness

In years past, German producers tried to put the terms Trocken and Halbtrocken on their wine labels to indicate the amount of sweetness in a wine. Trocken means dry and Halbtrocken means half dry. Both terms merely added to the already confusing set of “explanations” about these wines that helped no one.

Instead, Wiest has chosen to list the residual sugar on the side labels so you can see what you’re getting. Moreover, German wines always are low in alcohol, and the alcoholic content of each wine is listed precisely. In the wines I tried recently, the average was 7.5%. The average California Chardonnay, by comparison, is 13.5% to 14% alcohol. This means you could have a glass of German Riesling at lunch and still go back to work without feeling much of anything.

Wiest, who has been struggling to sell Germany’s finest wines to an unappreciative audience since 1980, got the idea for a simplified label when he and Phil Crowley at the Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar did a test.


They put on the wine list the same wine with different designations. One might have said Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnnenuhr Spatlese; another listing would have said Fritz Haag Riesling. “We sold far more of the second wine,” said Wiest, shaking his head, “even though there was less information. That told me the label had to be simplified even further than the German government has already tried to do.”

Piggott said the simplification is valid, too, because “the producer means more than the vineyard. If you have a great producer, you will get a great wine.”

Wine of the Week: 1985 Fetzer Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.50)--This wine is a stunning example of how Mendocino County fruit can combine with brilliant wine making and a great vintage to produce opulent flavors and great potential to age. The chocolate, herb and spice aroma leads to a marvelously rich currant taste and a slightly toasty aftertaste from French oak barrels. I rate this near the top of all the 1985 Cabernets. It competes head up with the $25 wines from the Napa Valley.