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WINE SAVVY: Rich, ripe German riesling

David Devere

Some of the most delicious and most food-friendly wines made anywhere in the world are German rieslings.

Riesling is a noble grape, meaning it translates a sense of place where it is grown. The best places on our little blue globe to taste this exceptional grape are the German river valleys of the Mosel, Saar, Rewur and Rhine rivers.

Riesling evolved in Germany. It is a native plant, and it is very cold-hardy because of the hardness of its wood. This is fortunate because Germany isn’t particularly warm. When it comes to grapes, warmth is what matters. When a grape is maturing its berries, it loads the berry with acid and tannin.

Acid and tannin are not palatable. The grape knows this, and birds and people know it too — we don’t eat unripe grapes because they aren’t tasty and thus we leave the fruit alone until it matures. As the fruit matures and the seed is ready to make a new plant, the acid and tannin levels drop and sugar levels rise.

Birds and people like sugar. We find sugars tasty, so we eat the fruit and spread the seed. That’s all the plant wants. “Spread my species please” — a theme repeated by almost all living things on Earth.

The problem with Germany is that it’s cold. Too much cold and a grape can’t ripen, or at least not all of the seeds can ripen. This isn’t particularly an issue for a wild plant. It makes lots of fruit. Some will turn into viable seeds, and some won’t.

Not a big deal. But winemakers want a full crop of fruit ripened enough to start fermentation to make wine. Plus, unripe fruit is full of acid and tannin, and too much of that can spoil the flavor of the juice.

The solution in Germany is to plant vineyards on south-facing river slopes. These provide the ideal aspect for maximizing sun exposure. The blue slate soils further assist with heat retention. The result is a crop of grapes with good sugar levels. But the Germans aren’t satisfied with just leaving it at that. For their best fruit, they have also produced a system that denotes ripeness for the consumer. This classifies when the grape was harvested and from that you can infer sweetness. These words are boldly noted on the front of all German Prädikatswein (translate that as: juice of highest quality).

Here’s how it works, in ascending order of ripeness, from least ripe to most:

- Kabinett: Light- to medium-bodied wines made from the lowest level of ripeness.

-Spätlese: “Late harvest” made from grapes picked after a designated picking date. With extra ripening, these wines have a more intense flavor and aroma than a Kabinett.

-Auslese: “Select harvest” wines from grapes that have stayed on the vine long enough to have a specific required level of sugar. These wines are intense in their aroma and taste.

- Beerenauslese: “Select berries” are rich and intense dessert wines that are made from individually harvested berries which may have been subjected to a dehydrating fungus, known as Noble Rot, that concentrates the sugars.

- Trockenbeerenauslese: “Select dried berries” are considered to be among the world’s greatest dessert wines. They are made from individually picked overripe berries that have shriveled to a raisin and were also subjected to the dehydrating fungus, Noble Rot.

It is important to note that these classifications are not quality levels but rather ripeness levels and thus, knowing what the word on the label means, you should be able to infer the basic taste and style. Kabinetts and Spätleses are the most common and should cost about $15-$25. The rest will range from $25 for an Auslese to more than $100 for a Trockenbeerenauslese.

Now that you know how to read the label, I encourage you to experiment with one of the best wines in the world: rich, ripe, German riesling.

David Devere is a licensed wine educator in Minnesota. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com or visit SavvyNomad.com.

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