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German Wines Are a Jigsaw Puzzle

German wines have always been a jigsaw puzzle for us to put together. Confusing categories ranging from dry to sweet, names hard to pronounce, and varying degrees of quality have challenged us to both understand the wines and then like them. Their absence on store shelves and many wine lists indicates we’re not the only ones who find German wines an enigma.

Tom was able to add a couple of pieces to the puzzle during a recent river cruise along the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Vineyards planted on incredibly steep mountainsides in this cool northern region show the difficulty wine producers face to make decent wines. The Bremmer-Calmont vineyard on the Moselle River, for instance, is the steepest in the world at 65 degrees. Pickers defy death every day they take to these vineyards, which not surprisingly has one of the highest fatality rates in the world.

Because mechanical harvesting is impossible under these conditions, man hours spent in the vineyards are seven times higher than in the flatter lands of Bordeaux. Tom saw a hodge-podge of vertically and horizontally planted vines as if the growers weren’t sure which pattern was safer to harvest. The vines planted vertically on these steep mountainsides are not trained on wire to allow workers to safely cross horizontally between plants. In some vineyards, a mechanical cart on tracks help to transport grapes to pick-up spots on roads above the vineyards. How these vineyards survive the erosion that must come in heavy rainfalls is mystifying.

It’s not as if the Germans haven’t had time to figure this out. Romans planted vines in the 1st century AD to stock their garrisons with local wine instead of transporting it from Italy or Spain. Still, there isn’t much you can do about the terrain. No wonder the Germans wanted Alsace so bad in its war with the French. They crossed the relatively narrow Rhine River to occupy Alsace four times and slake their thirst for the drier French wines using the same grape varieties.

The visit to these beautiful vineyards was an important piece of the puzzle, but hardly the only one. Grapes grown on these terrains have a hard time fully ripening, which means the wines are often low in alcohol and body. But the primary attribute of its prize variety – riesling – is its finesse. What sacrifice the wines make in body, they soar with intensity and elegance.

More than half of the wines made here are riesling. Although the Germans have made progress with their red spatburgunder made from pinot noir, it hasn’t achieved any notable success in our opinion.

Alas, Germany’s wine industry struggles to shed an image that up until the 1990s was associated with the likes of liebfraumilch, sweet and mass-produced dreck that led to many college hangovers. But even after focusing attention on quality, German wines struggle to gain shelf position in this country. Go into any store any you’ll see more rieslings from the West Coast than Germany, even though the U.S. is one of Germany‘s best wine markets.

If growing grapes in this region isn’t challenging enough, producers struggle to educate the public about its unique styles. Spatlese means late harvest but they are typically semi-sweet and riper than Kabinett. Auslese means “select harvest,” but are sweet enough to classify as dessert wines. Let’s not even go into beerenauslese and trockenbeerenaulese. Still, find a dry or semi-dry riesling made in the hands of a producer who strives for quality and you’ll be immensely rewarded. Those made by Egon Müller, Weingut Keller, and Erben Thanisch, for instance, are good examples. A good riesling will have powerful, stone fruit aromas, apple and pear flavors, good acidity, and minerality. They are great matches with delicate fish, quail, and apple-based appetizers. We particularly like to use riesling in sauces associated with cornish hens.

However much more we understand about these intriguing wines, we remain challenged to get guests to like them. Maybe they’re looking for pieces to the puzzle, too.

Mount Peak

Many vineyard operations were lost to Prohibition. One was Mount Peak, a winery built in 1886 high atop the Mayacamas mountain range. Mount Peak was one of the top 10 producers in California when Prohibition forced them to close. Since then, the ghost vineyards have been smothered by weeds and brush. However, in recent years they were rescued by the Gallo family.

The wines we tasted from this property were incredible – what you expect from mountain-grown fruit from the Monte Rosso vineyard. The initial 2014 of the Mount Peak Sentinel Cabernet Sauvignon was winemaker Mark Williams’ debut. But the 2015 showed a big step up in concentration and integration.

At $60, it isn’t cheap, but we’ve seen a lot of less worthy wines for much more money. The grapes come from Napa and Sonoma county because the vineyards straddle those two regions.

These wines are gaining high scores from top critics and we understand why. The 2015 is a muscular wine with firm tannins that beg for cellaring. Lush lavender and black cherry aromas with layered dark fruit flavors and hints of spice and caramel.

Mount Peak also produces a full-body Gravity Red Blend ($45) of eight red varietals, including petite sirah, zinfandel, and cabernet sauvignon. Inky color with loads of jammy blackberry and blueberry flavors.

Wine picks

  • Mi Sueno Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($75). This iconic wine from Rolando Herrera clearly is fit for a cellar, but it’s also a wine that despite its complexity and tannin can be enjoyed without further aging. Deep in color it has firm tannins, black cherry, and plum aromas with hints of chocolate and anise.

  • Pagos de Galir Mencia 2016 ($17). We just loved this northern Spanish wine made entirely from mencia grapes. Plump, ripe flavors reminiscent of plums with an earthy mouthfeel and hints of chocolate. Simple but perfect for barbecued food.

  • Niner Wine Estates Grenache Blanc Reserve Paso Robles Heart Hill Vineyard 2017 ($30). Grenache blanc is an essential building block in many Southern Rhone wines. From an estate vineyard only two acres in size the fruit from this source has produced a wonderful white wine that exhibits a honeyed fat and rich experience in the mouth, almost like a semillon-based wine but with more acidity. Maybe more winemakers should consider this grape.

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