Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, GG, Fienherb and Trocken–what does it all mean? In my opinion, German Riesling can be one of the most confusing categories in the world of wine. At a recent tasting, I asked a producer, “What’s the difference between the designation of ‘R’ versus ‘RR’?,” and their answer was, “The ‘RR’ is like an extra reserve.” In other words, a reserve, uh, reserve? Exactly.
The confusion may also happen to have something to do with the Tolkienesque script on many of the bottles. Or, maybe it’s that the average wine and liquor store doesn’t provide a quality selection, or one that even comes close to representing what the region is capable of. In the end, it’s probably a mix of all of these things.
However, one thing I’m sure of is that Riesling is worth overcoming all of these challenges.
First and foremost, you may be surprised to learn that the preferred style of Riesling in Germany these days is bone-dry. Many of the sweet and incredibly ripe Rieslings you see on store shelves are being produced for our benefit, but that’s not to say that the styles of Spatlese and Auslese aren’t worth your attention. The first thing to understand is that these designations are about the level of ripeness the fruit is picked at. This is an entire controversy in itself, as riper fruit doesn’t necessarily mean better wine. However, you can have a Trocken Spatlese or Auslese—a dry Riesling made from late harvest fruit.
The good news is that the old idea of riper fruit equaling better quality is becoming a thing of the past. Now we are seeing attention being paid to the importance of place, soil, and climate—terroir.
I know it’s confusing, but bear with me as we talk about the individual styles.
Trocken (Dry to The Bone)
If sweet wine isn’t your thing, then you owe it to yourself to find a Trocken (Dry) Riesling. Trocken is a bone-dry style of Riesling that’s crisp and fresh with precise and focused fruit and minerals. They can be achingly enjoyable, as the acid seems to almost sear your gums but then coaxes your taste buds to water, releasing an intense wave of fruit. The experience is one like you may have never before witnessed in your wine-drinking life. For me, finding a wine that produces this effect is truly thrilling. In the case of a Spatlese Trocken, you will have more depth and more texture, yet the wine will still be dry. This is a style that I truly adore.
2012 Emrich-Schönleber Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Trocken – The bouquet on the Emrich-Schönleber was drop-dead gorgeous, starting with intense wet slate and minerals, then opening up to reveal peach, apricot, smoke and a hint of undergrowth. On the palate, it was rich yet focused with pulsing acidity giving way to green apple, minerals and lime. So youthful and tightly coiled yet wanting to burst from its seams with a tense, structured finish. This wine was stone, fruit, and earth personified. (94 points) Morrell
Feinherb (A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down)
Feinherb is a relatively new term in German wine, which could be compared to the designation, “Halbtrocken” (half-dry). However, what Feinherb is all about is finding a perfect balance. The fruit is intense with all the minerals and acid that I love in Riesling. Yet, there’s also a small dose of balancing sweetness, which give these wines a truly jubilant feel. They are not sweet, they are not dry—they are perfectly balanced. In many cases, the intensity in the glass is simply incredible, and you can feel the weight of the riper fruit on your palate, but it stays within the lines and never bubbles over. Instead, it’s a wine that’s teetering on the edge, and it’s on that edge where I find the most enjoyment.
2012 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese feinherb Ur Alte Reben – A beautiful and truly seductive Riesling, the 2012 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr “Ur” Alte Reben exploded from the glass with aromas of ripe pear, yellow flowers, roasted walnut, saline minerals, and hints of brie. On the palate, it was silky yet fresh with sweet and sour tropical fruit, lemon pith, slate and a hint if green olive. Lemon zest lingered long on the finish, as the mouth watered, slowly melting away the oily textures and revealing a lingering note of pineapple. (94 points) Producer’s Website
Kabinett (Hitting the sweet spot)
A Kabinett can be one of the most enjoyable glasses of Riesling you will ever have. The Kabinett style is racy with vibrant acidity and a hint of residual sugar. Typically, these are low in alcohol and incredibly refreshing, making them some of the best wines for a hot summer afternoon.
2012 Schloss Lieser Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett – The nose showed gorgeous richness balanced by fresh floral tones with notes of baked apple, mulling spice and lemon curd, giving way to sweet floral tones and hints of savory herbs. It flooded the palate with juicy acidity, sweet lemon-tinged peach, green apple and hints of spice. The finish showed lemon pith with a balancing note of sweet peach and herbal tones which lingered for over a minute. Very nice! (92 points) Producer’s Website
Spatlese (Late to harvest)
Spatlese comes from late harvest fruit, usually about one week after the general harvest. These can have noticeable sweetness, but are in no way a dessert wine. As mentioned above, a Spatlese can be fermented to dryness, and the haunting depths they reach will drive a Riesling lover mad. What’s more; in good vintages, they can age amazingly well. These may not have the refreshing quality of a Kabinett but make up for it with their balance and vibrancy. I’ve often heard that Riesling is a red wine for white wine lovers; this saying makes perfect sense when you taste an aged Spatlese.
2012 Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spätlese – This was truly beguiling on the nose in the best possible way, as savory and mineral tones led the charge, followed by intense notes of lemon peel, smoke and crushed stone. It was vibrant on the palate yet wrapped up tight in its youth with textures that seemed to come in dense waves of fruit and acid. Lemony citrus saturated the senses with clinging minerality as the palate-coating finish lingered on. This is in need of time to soften and unfold, yet it should bloom with time in the cellar. (92 points) Karthauserhof at Morrell
Auslese (The pick of the liter)
The Auslese style is made from extremely ripe fruit and is hand-selected in the vineyard. These can be fermented to dryness, but you’ll more often find them in a sweeter style. Some may even show notes of Botrytis, which should be no surprise considering how much time the fruit hangs on the vine. The fact that the majority of these are sweet shouldn’t detract from your decision to try one. In the end, they are big, intense wines of incredible balance that teeter on the edge of complexity and ripe fruit. I can think of nothing better to pair with spicy Asian cuisine or Indian food, and just like Spatlese, the best can age for decades.
2004 Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Auslese trocken RR – Truly captivating. The nose just seemed to pull me in and kept me coming back to find a striking bouquet of ripe peach and lime with notes of smoky flint, minerals, sweet floral tones and a hint of white cherry. It entered the palate broad and soft, yet quickly came to life, expressing notes of orange-tinged pear, lemon, saline minerals and crushed shells. The finish was long with a saturating note of sweet lemon, as the mouth began to water, begging for another sip. A stunning wine. (95 points) Producer’s Website
Grosses Gewachs and Erstes Gewachs (The Grands Crus of Germany)
Grosses Gewachs translates to “Great Growth,” and it is the catchphrase of German wine today. These are dry wines made with the best fruit from the best sites at optimal ripeness–and the prices reflect that. Just like any other region, not all “GG” are created equal. The best are works of art, yet some can’t hold a candle to a good Trocken Auslese. That said, this is the future of German wine. These are intense wines of crystalline purity, mineral thrust and teaming acidity. Will they age well? That’s an excellent question, and one we won’t have an absolute answer to for some time, yet that is the hope. Many GGs are almost too much to handle in their youth. I guess we’ll find out. (“Erstes Gewachs” is used in the Rheingau in place of “GG”)
2012 Schäfer-Fröhlich Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Großes Gewächs – An impressively fresh, yet rich bouquet of spicy floral notes, grapefruit, kiwi and an intense wave of minerals reached up from the glass. On the palate, it seemed poised to attack yet held back in its youthful state, showing rich and supple textures with flavors of young peach, kiwi and minerals. However, you can sense the tension in this wine. On the finish, notes of grapefruit and exotic spice lingered long. (94 points) Morrell
Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (The Sweetest Perfect)
I’ve grouped these together, as they are the least likely for you to come across in your travels. These are the dessert wines of German Riesling. Beerenauslese is produced from overly ripe grapes which are usually affected by Botrytis. They are big, sweet, intense and expensive. That said, you might never experience a more decedent, yet balanced dessert wine. As for Trockenbeerenauslese—well, this is German Riesling made from raisins. Just imagine that.
2013 Keller Beerenauslese Cuvee Pius Rheinhessen at Morrell
If you made it this far, then you are true fans of German Riesling, and you are armed with enough knowledge to easily shop for your next wine. The producers above are all worth checking out, as are the different styles of Riesling.