The Rise and Fall of Sweet Riesling

Back in the States I had a colleague and friend, Bill Hooper, who was also working as a wine distributor, for another company.  He’s wicked smart, and incredibly passionate about wine. And right around the time I packed up for Croatia, he did the same, heading to Germany’s Pfalz region to study winemaking in what is arguably the finest country in the world for white wine. It’s the wine that makes my head spin and my mouth salivate at the thought, and it can get me even more excited than the thought of Champagne, to tell you the truth. I’m actually more familiar with the Rieslings of Germany’s Mosel region, of which I have a basement full of bottles, as they age incredibly, but those from the Pfalz are equally intriguing and indeed, drier in style in general.



The guy makes a good point…

The Rise and Fall of Sweet Riesling 

by Bill Hooper (and that’s not him in the photo above, Bill’s far handsomer. I wish I had a photo of him to post, but he’s as elusive as a muskie in a weedy fresh water lake. -A)

Sweet Riesling is dead:  to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that…Sweet Riesling is as dead as a door-nail. (Apologies to Charles Dickens)

That might sound dramatic to you, but if so you haven’t been to Germany lately. Depending on which generation you belong to and also to your level of involvement in the wine industry or your level of enthusiasm as a consumer of wine, this could either come across as surprising news or old hat. Either way, the truth of the matter is that it is near impossible for me to walk into a winery, wine-shop, or grocery store here to find a bottle of sweetish Riesling and I live in the middle of the Pfalz, which is the largest Riesling-growing wine region on the planet. It seems that we are almost to the point of dropping the qualifier ‘dry’ (Trocken in German –used to signify wines with 9 grams or less residual sugar) when speaking about Riesling, and substituting ‘sweet’ as the outlying indicator of style. The German wine industry has developed over the last couple of decades into a producer of primarily dry wine. How did this happen?

There has been a fair amount of controversy generated by this development and it has been written about and discussed for years by Terry Theise and recently in the unfortunately titled, but well written “Can American Fans Save German Riesling?” by Mike Steinberger. Matters of taste certainly come into play, but it isn’t as tidy as that. Germans overwhelmingly prefer soccer to American football, dislike spicy foods in favor of savory foods, and love Bon Jovi. With the exception of the Bon Jovi obsession (there is a Bon Jovi edition Volkswagen for chrissakes!) I’m not willing to concede that their tastes are wrong nor can I say that our American tastes are correct. Even beyond that, what worries me on both sides of the argument is that there is a tendency for people to read something, misinterpret it, and declare one style superior only to dismiss the other altogether. To do that would mean missing out on some of the world’s great wines –those being Riesling both dry and those with some residual sugar.

Tradition plays a central role in the appreciation of wine for many of us, but it is also wise to understand that wine-styles are a moving target and always have been (you should read about some of the stuff that used to find its way into Champagne or about the oft made claim about Rhone wines being blended into Burgundy or Bordeaux in small vintages.) The past tends to be over-romanticized including the not-so-distant past. Trying to pin-point a ‘true’ or authentic style of any particular wine is as futile an exercise as debating if the ’72 Dolphins would beat the ’85 Bears in the Superbowl, or saying that Renaissance paintings are superior to those of the Impressionists. Drink what you like. I offer the following not in attempt to define the real nature of the world’s finest wine grape, but only to offer some insight on a developing (or completed) trend as I see it not only from inside the industry, but as a wine lover.

German Riesling has been around for a long time. Written records of the grape point to 1430 for a ‘Ruslingwingarten’ outside of Worms (The Wonnegau of Rheinhessen today) and others mentioning ‘Rissling’ in Alsace in 1477 (then part of the German Holy Roman Empire) and also in 1511 in what is now Germany.  Ever since, the popularity of German Riesling has ebbed and flowed with the tastes and trends of society over time (and more than anything with the political and economic climate in Germany and abroad.) The very peak popularity of Riesling came in the half century leading up to 1914. Up until that time, the technology simply did not exist to produce stabile wine with residual sugar. That technology being sterile filtration to remove yeast and microorganisms, thus preventing refermentation in the bottle (first with asbestos fibers, later with wood fibers/Cellulose) and temperature-controlled fermenting vessels to stop fermentation at the desired point of residual sugar by dropping the temperature to below the point where yeast can function. Interestingly, the invention of sterile filtration in the early 1900s coincided with the implosion of the German export markets for wine. Understandably, after the First World War, followed by the second, the export markets for German Riesling dried up for a spell. The most perfect quote that I have read on the subject was in Simon Winder’s wonderful book ‘Germania’ from a British historian who stated that after the wars, German wine just ‘tasted too much of steel helmet’.

The only real available option for the fermentation of wine was oak barrels and vats (the size of the vessel depended on the region and the individual parcel or selection being harvested, but they were normally in the 300 -2400 liter range. The larger casks gave potentially warmer fermentations.) In wooden vat, fermentations are more rapid than those produced with the aid of temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks of the same size because the more porous oak and the heat generated by the volume of fermenting must allows for more oxygen in a more comfortable and conducive temperature range and therefore less stressful environment for the yeast (also reducing or eliminating the need for chemical nutrient supplements such as DAP –Diammonium Phosphate, an often used supplement throughout the world, and one which I really don’t want in my wine.) Relatively quick, warmish, gemütlich fermentations, from healthy, minimally processed, ripe (but not over-ripe) grapes have the very best chances of fermenting to dryness.  The best, most quality conscious estates have always sought to achieve this standard.

It has also been suggested that more wines would have gone through Malolactic fermentation, resulting in creamier wines with softer acidity. This would probably only have happened in extremely warm years, when the crop came in with relatively high pH. Malolactic fermentation rarely happens spontaneously at a pH value less than 3.2, and the majority of Riesling harvested even today when must weights are on average far higher than they were even twenty (much less one hundred) years ago rarely exceeds that number. MLF starter cultures were not available until much later.

Botrytis has always been a problem and one that can certainly complicate fermentation. One of the most common misconceptions about winemakers in Germany is that we accept or even desire a certain amount of Botrytis in the crop. This is absolutely false. Fighting botrytis is one of the biggest challenges and one of the most time consuming measures that we undertake throughout the growing season. (The exceptions being Auslesen, Beerenauslesen, and Trockenbeerenauslesen) There have likely been huge increases in Botrytis devastation since the advent of nitrogen fertilizer which really took off in the 1950s. Over-fertilization and high yields lead to much more plant growth: compact grape bunches which often burst open and a denser leaf canopy, which lessens airflow and promotes fungal growth resulting in a greater need for chemical fungicide (a wicked circle, conventional agriculture can be.) Today, wines made from grapes too strongly affected by botrytis (from poor selection during the harvest) need to be heavily processed in the winery through clarification, filtration and heavy doses of sulfur or the resultant wines are a mess of turbidity, oxidation and spoilage. They rarely ferment to dryness, but vinegar and mushrooms dominate the palate. I can’t imagine that highly regarded wines ever came from such material.

Stuck fermentations would always have to have been accounted for and sweet wines have always been made from the results, but they were undesirable, risky and required far more treatments, some quite detrimental to wine quality (Fortified wines such as Port or Banyuls from warm regions owe their existence to the stuck fermentations of long gone eras, as adding alcohol was the only way to stabilize the wines for transport or future consumption.) With the discovery and distribution of cultured yeast strains, fermenting to dry was less of an issue than ever and this obviously came as a huge relief to winemakers globally.

We can with some measure of certainty conclude that the best German Rieslings of the past, those from which Germany initially gained its high reputation were dry with a few bottles of BA and TBA thrown in for good measure, but these were great rarities. Analysis of the sugar content of surviving bottles from centuries past has also confirmed this.

Cellar technology rapidly out-paced innovation in the vineyard and when filtration (led by the German company now called Begerow/Eaton), cooling jackets, and steel tanks became more available, it became possible for virtually every producer, led by large co-operatives to produce sweeter wine at much lower prices than that of those great dessert wine rarities of BA and TBA. The addition of Süssreserve (sweet, heavily sulfured, unfermented grape-juice) or arresting the fermentation meant that low-quality (either heavily rotten and/or under-ripe, high-cropped, high acid) grapes could be processed by cutting corners in the vineyard and buffering the result with sugar, in effect covering up the flaws. The high quality, elite producers of the era banded together in an attempt to legally block the production of such wines. When those attempts failed, and the public demand for cheap sweeter wines rose, the great producers adopted an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude and Germany became known in the 1970s and 1980s as a sweet-wine producer, led of course by Liebfraumilch (which incidentally has been involved in court cases since the 1909 German wine law became ratified as a detriment to the German wine ‘Brand’.) This story is not entirely confined to Germany. We can see similar parallels in the Loire with Chenin Blanc (most notably Vouvray, which is rapidly getting drier as well) and to a lesser-extent, in Austria. Alsace is an interesting case in that they never really succumbed to the temptations of producing more fabricated wines, and it continues to be regarded as a dry-wine region.

To make the claim that every producer who made or makes sweet or off-dry Riesling in Germany is doing so with low-quality produce is absolutely false, but unfortunately for the conscientious few, the gap narrowed and wine prices dropped.

Gradually over the last few decades, improvements in vineyard management -better trellising techniques which promote air-flow, green-cover to bring competition for water and nutrients as well as providing structure and oxygen to the soil, legume planting to naturally fix nitrogen from the air instead of using chemical fertilizers, improvements in canopy management, using pheromone capsules instead of insecticides to combat grapevine moths (a leading cause of botrytis), and more intensive plowing have made it possible to bring in much healthier grape material than in the past. This in combination with global warming has led to riper, less-acidic grapes on the whole, especially in the southern regions of Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, and Baden, making it possible for higher-Oechsle, cleaner, lower acid (less-shrill) dry Riesling to be consistently produced in a more natural in a way that than ever before. The crux of the issue is that producers here are extremely proud of the very-labor intensive farming measures that they undertake and feel that dry Riesling better expresses the minerality and individual character of their terroir (which comes in many different flavors other than slate.) Despite the unique climatic challenges faced in Germany (far more rain than any other major wine-growing region in the world meaning higher sensitivity to Oidium, Downy Mildew, and botrytis, higher frost risk, and cultivation of extremely steep slopes) there has been an enormous rise in Organic and Biodynamic viticulture here and the very top producers in the Pfalz have converted to these methods (A. Christmann,Dr. Bürklin-WolfBassermann-JordanRebholzOdinstalKarl SchaeferTheo MingesMeßmer among others.) Dry, organically produced German Riesling is among the most difficult wines in the word to make, and is seen as the highest rendition of art and craft in winemaking.

Talking to producers, it has become clear to me that they are making huge strides in making more friends of dry Riesling in America and the UK and they are excited about showcasing what they feel are their best wines. There seems to be a lot more potential for growth in dry Riesling than in the sweeter styles, but I don’t believe that there is any real danger of off-dry, sweet Riesling becoming extinct. If the demand remains, there will be more than enough not-dry Riesling produced to go around (mostly from the Mosel).  If you like it, buy it –sometimes there is absolutely no substitute for brilliant off-dry, steep-slope Mosel or Mittelrhien Riesling and I love it too (luckily, a shop in the region does stock some Willi Schaefer and Egon Müller, but I have to go way the hell out of my way to get there). Detractors might find the dry wines a little too macho, and the best Trocken Rieslings have higher alcohol than their sweeter counterparts, but remain perfectly balanced and still generally fall on the lower side of the scale: 11-13% alc. I have found that a few chaptalized wines (adding sugar to the must before fermentation to raise alcohol, not sweetness) can come across a little hot as there is more alcohol, but not more fruit or mineral flavor to counteract it (though even chaptalization is becoming increasingly rare.) The higher ripeness of the wines usually provides more intense aromas and more exotic fruit flavors which are more than enough substitute for sugar and they tend to be more versatile food-wines because of their lack of sweetness. They also tend to be more compact and firm and dense with minerality. They can be delicious, beautiful, fascinating, complex and as satisfying as revenge both young and with some age on it.


Bill Hooper

Pfalz Riesling

2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Sweet Riesling

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