Monday, February 28, 2011

Phil Bernstein’s Third Annual German Riesling Tasting with the German Wine Society, Washington DC Chapter - Rieslings With a Touch of Sweetness

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Phil Bernstein

Phil Bernstein from Addy Bassin's MacArthur Beverages, one the great Wine Stores in Washington DC, presented his new wines to the Capital Chapter of the German Wine Society of America. So, you had a combination of two - American consumers who are really into German Wine and one of the best retailers in the American market.

What Americans Select When They Drink German Wine

The wines were extremely skillfully selected. Phil really knows what he is doing. And again, as last year, the wines selected by Phil reflected very well what the American market wants. We tasted, with one exception, only Rieslings, no dry wines, all wines had a touch of sweetness, no red wines and wines mostly from the middle Mosel.

Picture: Alan Knapp, President of the German Wine Society Washington DC Chapter

Well Established Winemakers

All wines were from very well established winemakers - from the cream of the crop. Johannes Leitz is this year’s Gault and Millau winemaker of the year. See here. Helmut Doennhoff was just awarded the Best German Dry Riesling Award by the Feinschmecker. See here. Ernst Loosen is among the top 16 German winemakers in the Feinschmecker WeinGuide 2011 (with Doennhoff). See here.

There are about 50.000 winemakers with more than 0.5 hectares and 5.000 winemakers with more than 5 hectares of land, of which about 1000 are listed in the Gault Millau WeinGuide 2011, including all the winemakers whose wines we tasted. So, we were in the 2.5% top echelon.

Red Wines

There were no red wines on the list, although there is a red wine boom in Germany. The share of red wines in terms of production has increased from 10 percent in the 1980s to about 35 percent now in Germany. Of course, given its location, the German red wines tend to be not like the fruity red wines we know from warmer countries, but lean and more elegant, with a lot of finesse. 30 years ago, in the international scene, people would not talk about German red wine. But this has changed. Germany now produces red wines that can compete with the best of the world. The red wine boom has not yet reached the US and it is very difficult to find these wines in the US.

Wines with a Touch of Sweetness

These were all wines with a touch of sweetness. There were no dry wines among the wines tasted. I recently attended the 1st International Riesling Symposium at Schloss Rheinhartshausen in the Rheingau in Germany, where they had usefully categorized the wines into four groups: (1) Aged Rieslings, (2) dry Rieslings, (3) Rieslings with a touch of sweetness and (4) lusciously sweet Rieslings. Phil Bernstein’s wines were all in the category of wines with a touch of sweetness.

Wines with a touch of Sweetness – what are they? To start with, there are the nobly sweet Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein and Schilfwein wines from Austria and Germany, the Sélection de Grains Nobles from France, the icewines from Canada and other wines, made from botrytized, dried or frozen grapes. The grapes that go into these wines have such a high sugar content that there is nothing you can do to make dry wines out of these grapes. They inevitably produce nobly sweet wines. But apart from these exceptions, which account for only a tiny share of total production, Riesling grapes in Germany, Austria, Alsace, the US and Australia have normal sugar content at the time of fermentation and tend to produce dry wines, when fully fermented.

Pictures: Phil Bernstein from Addy Bassin's MacArthur Beverages

However, modern cellar methods allow winemakers – in particular in Germany - to produce wines with a bit of residual sugar with these grapes. There are principally two methods applied in Germany – but not in neighboring Austria - for making these wines with a touch of sweetness.

First, you do not let the fermentation run its course and stop it. As a result, you get less alcohol but also some sweetness in the finished wine. The sweet and low alcohol Mosel wines have made this approach famous in the whole word.

Second, you let the wine fully ferment to a normal alcohol level without any remaining sweetness and then add Suessreserve (sterilized juice) to achieve the desired degree of sweetness.

The wines with a touch of sweetness have lost popularity in Germany, although there are some signs of a comeback. The Germans overwhelmingly produce and drink dry wines. But the wines with a touch of sweetness remain popular outside of Germany, notably in the US market. Two of the three German wines on this year’s Wine Spectator Top 100 List belong into this category: St-Urbans-Hof Riesling Kabinett Mosel Ockfen Bockstein 2009 and Schloss Vollrads Riesling Kabinett Rheingau 2008.

Noble-Sweet Wines

There were no noble sweet wines - the German flagship wines, the noble sweet Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein, made from botrytized or frozen grapes. Of course, they are expensive and this explains why they were not included in the tasting, although they would have been much appreciated.

Grosses Gewaechs Wines

There were no Grosses Gewaechs (Erstes Gewaechs) wines. This is a new category of wines introduced a few years ago with the view of pushing super premium dry wines. Grosses Gewaechs wines are at a minimum Spaetlese and mostly Auslese wines, but fully fermented and bone dry … and expensive, of course.

The Grosse Gewaechs label is thought to resemble the Grand/Premier Cru designations in neighboring France. Here and there, these wines are bone dry. Grosses Gewaechs refers to a top dry wine from a top vineyard. What is very confusing is that the Grosses Gewaechs wines are – as a rule – marketed as a QbA wine. One implications of this is that they can be chapitalised (as the Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines from neighboring France are).


All the wines were Rieslings. Of course, Riesling is the king of German wine. But there are other grapes, which are popular in Germany, like Silvaner or Grauburgunder. We indeed tasted one very interesting Silvaner. But overall, these other white grape varieties are largely absent from the American market. American lovers of German wine go mainly for Riesling, sweet Riesling.

Worldwide, there are about 34.000 hectares planted with Riesling. Germany – with 22.400 hectares – accounts for 2/3 of the total. The second largest Riesling producer is Australia, with 4500 hectares. But this is only about 1/10 of the total. Nevertheless, Australia was a bit underrepresented at the 1st International Riesling Symposium. Alsace follows with 3500 hectares. Austria, the US with Washington State and New York State as well as New Zealand make up the remainder. But overall Riesling is really a niche wine, accounting for only less than 1 percent of total wine production in the world - but a very special niche wine.

The Wines Phil Bernstein Poured

2009 Leitz Riesling “Leitz Out”
2009 Dr. Loosen Riesling "Dr. L."

Johannes Leitz is the current winemaker of the year (Gault Millau WeinGuide 2011), based in Ruedesheim in the Rheingau. I visited him last year. Ernst Loosen is among the top 16 German winemakers in the Feinschmecker WeinGuide 2011. Leitz Out and Dr. L. are wines where Johannes Leitz and Ernst Loosen buy the grapes from other growers. Leitz Out is produced only for the American Market, while Dr. L. is available in all export markets. In fact, Dr. L. is Germany’s best selling wine worldwide. Both are very good entry level wines from two outstanding German wine producers. “These are two very food friendly wines. They go very well with the kind of food we eat today” said Phil.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Eva Fricke, Winemaker Weingut J. Leitz, in Ruedesheim

2009 Krueger Rumpf Riesling Feinherb "Schiefer"
2009 Krueger Rumpf Scheurebe Spaetlese

Weingut Krueger Rumpf is a 3 Gault Millau Grapes producer in the Nahe region with 20 hectares of vineyard area. “In the last couple of years, the quality of the wines of Krueger Rumpf has increased. This is in my view mainly due to the fact that son Georg Rumpf has become more involved and basically taken over the winemaking” said Phil “he is very good”. I fully concur. What does “feinherb” mean? This is a new term that is being pushed to replace “halbtrocken” (off-dry).

Picture: Georg Rumpf in Mainz

2009 Uerziger Wuerzgarten Riesling Kabinett Moenchhof
2009 Uerziger Wuerzgarten Riesling Kabinett J.J. Christoffel Erben

Initially, I thought this was a very exciting flight: same vintage, same vineyard, same grapevariety, same ripeness level of grapes at harvest, but different winemakers. It turned out that Robert Eymael from Weingut Moenchhof has been leasing Weingut JJ Christoffel Erben. But the wines were quite different.

These were excellent wines, but Weingut Moenchhof and Weingut J.J.Christoffel Erben do not play in the same league as Doennhoff, Leitz and Loosen, and Krueger Rumpf (a bit behind the former three in my view).

2009 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spaetlese
2009 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese

Two outstanding wines from an outstanding winemaker. The main question for the audience was if they would pay about the double amount for the Auslese (reg. $65), compared with the Spaetlese (reg. $32). What I heard from the tables next to me was “no”. Anyway, two incredible Mosel Rieslings, a fascinating flight.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Ernst Loosen in New York City

2001 Doennhoff Kirschheck Riesling Spaetlese
2009 Doennhoff Kirschheck Riesling Spaetlese

The only difference here was: a different vintage. You had a baby in one glass – “ a baby that shows a tremendous amount of potential” as Phil said – and a senior citizen, a bit aged but still in extremely good shape, in the other glass. This comparison also showed very well what the 2009 Riesling would give you in 10 years down the road. I love aged wines and for me the 2001 Doennhoff Kirschheck Riesling Spaetlese was the highlight of the evening.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Helmuth Doennhoff in Mainz

schiller-wine - Related Postings

Visiting Agnes and Fritz Hasselbach at their Weingut Gunderloch in Nackenheim, Rheinhessen, Germany

Visiting Weingut Josef Leitz in Ruedesheim – Johannes Leitz is Germany’s Winemaker of the Year, Gault Millau WeinGuide 2011

1.International Riesling Symposium

Impressions from the Riesling & Co World Tour 2010 in New York

When Americans Drink German Wine - What They Choose

Terry Theise's Top German Wines of the 2009 Vintage

Germany's Top 16 Winemakers - Feinschmecker WeinGuide 2011

Aging Potential of Riesling – A Wine Tasting at the 1st International Riesling Symposium in Germany Led by Jancis Robinson

German Wine Society Tastes Outstanding German Wines at National Press Club in Washington DC

A Combination of Extraordinary Wine and Art: Peter Winter's Georg Mueller Stiftung in the Rheingau

Impressions from the Riesling & Co World Tour 2010 in New York

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

An Unfortunate, uninformed Article in the Decanter about Dry German Riesling

Wine Caravan from Germany Visiting the East Coast, US: Dr. Fischer, Fitz Ritter, Bolling-Lehnert, Schneider, Dr. Thanisch


  1. Guten Morgen Herr Schiller,

    an dieser Stelle wollte ich mich kurz für die wirklich gut geschriebenen Artikel in Ihrem Blog bedanken!! Wenn Sie sich mal an die Nahe "verlaufen", sind Sie natürlich gerne bei uns im Weingut willkommen.

    mit freundlichen Grüßen

    Georg Rumpf

  2. Thank you for the press Christian!