Riesling 101: A Short Trip to the Mosel River


I had been wanting to write about wines for a while. A few weeks ago, I went on a short trip to the Mosel valley in Germany. On the steep slopes leading down to the winding river, some of the best German Riesling wines grow. I figured this would be a great occasion for a post covering some basics about this grape and the wines made from it, especially since there are some misconceptions out there – and to review a few highlights of our trip…

Our recent trip to the town of Cochem on the Mosel was a bit of an ad-hoc excursion. We were in Germany with our friends from the US and I wanted to show them good wines and food. Little did I know that Cochem isn’t quite the place for that. It’s a beautiful town with an amazing castle. But as far as fancy dining and wining is concerned, it turned out not to be the right spot. Frequented nearly exclusively by chain-smoking dutch pensioners, Cochem has a food scene that seems to specialize in Schnitzel restaurants rather than fine dining. All of them close their kitchens promptly at 9 PM, when the town collectively immerses itself in the smoke of cheap cigars. Hmph.

But of course we managed to finally find our wines. So here are some educational takeaways:

1. Riesling does not equal sweet wine.
People’s first reaction upon hearing Riesling is often: “I don’t like sweet wines.” Neither do I. But Riesling is not necessarily sweet. I think this misconception stems from the negative experiences people have made with some New York Rieslings or cheap imported wines from Europe. If you invest some time, you’ll discover complex and crisp wines that are dry or off dry and don’t taste like an instant headache in a bottle.

2. Riesling has a special flavor profile.
This brings us to the reasons for why we encounter so many sweet Riesling wines. The grapes have a lot of acidity – more than many other white wines. The easiest way to balance this is to keep the wines sweet. However, there are some excellent winemakers that know to tie in the acidity and bring out a whole variety of other flavors. What is most exciting to me about good Mosel wines is their minerality – imagine a hint of salt. Stemming from the regions slate soils, it can make the wines taste quite exceptional.

3. German Riesling wines of high quality are traditionally categorized in six classes.

  • Kabinett is the lowest class. Kabinett wines can be dry, off dry or sweet. As you will see, the higher up we go in classes, the less likely it is for the wines to be dry.
  • Spätlese (literally “late harvest”) grapes are collected later in the year than Kabinett. Therefore, they have more sugar and more flavor.
  • Some of the grapes in an Auslese (“selection”) need to have been harvested even later after they had been subjected to the so-called “noble rot” on the vine. Simply by hanging on the vine, the grapes catch a little mold and dry into something like raisins. Those grapes need to be harvested by hand – often on slopes or hilltops.
  • Beerenauslese (literally “select berries”) is similar to Auslese, but the percentage of “nobly rotted” grapes has to be higher, which means more work, more sugar and more flavor (and sweeter wines).
  • Trockenbeerenauslese (literally “select dry berries”) – like Beerenauslese, but even more raisin-like dry berries. As you can imagine, you need a lot of these “raisins” to produce some grape juice. Moreover, this only works in a good year, when it’s dry and warm for a long enough time.
  • Eiswein (“ice wine”) is the same as Trockenbeerenauslese, BUT the grapes need to be frozen, when they are harvested. Eiswein is considered a delicacy in Germany and it can be really expensive.
IMG_0039 copy
Excellent wines in excellent company. I’m glad our posse found the cellar of Walter J. Oster in Cochem.

4. Start tasting!
Having said all that, I would like to emphasize that there can be great Kabinett wines and awful Auslese wines. And then there are winemakers that don’t follow the traditional German categories. It’s worth choosing a vineyard and exploring their wines. To be honest, it’s hit or miss. While on the Mosel, we did two tastings. One at Walter J. Oster, whose wines we loved. Incidentally, the Osters don’t follow the traditional quality labels, but have their own system. It’s well worth drinking your way through all levels of quality and finding your favorites.

Then we did a tasting at an undisclosed small vineyard that was fairly challenging to our taste buds. And while we usually enjoy the comical moments of a not-so-good wine tasting, this one really drove me nuts, because it came with an endless stream of not-so-funny sexual anecdotes told by the winemaker. The food was offered only in very modest portions and the seemingly never-ending anecdotes about the winemakers wife* kept us from getting back into town before 9 PM. As you may remember from my initial outline of the town’s gastronomic scene, in Cochem this means you go to bed hungry.

IMG_82655. PS: Sekt
On a second thought, who cares about dinner, when there is Sekt? Sekt is what sparkling wine is called in German. I cannot recommend it enough. Vineyards on Mosel and Rhine are no stranger to bottle fermentation and sell their top-end sparklers as Winzersekt. A good Winzersekt costs about $20-30/bottle and for me it surpasses a lot of the cheaper champagnes I have tasted in my life. If you know of a wine importer that carries them in the New York are, please let me know!


*Ok, one anecdote about the winemaker’s wife – for some local color, as we say: It’s the winemaker’s wife’s 50th birthday and he wants to give her a special present. “Is there anything special I can get you?” he asks. “Hmm, yeah, maybe. I would like to take a bath in our best wine.” The winemaker gives in, it’s her birthday after all, uncorks 50 bottles, since it’s her 50th birthday. He fills the bathtub. After 2 hours or so, the wife is done bathing. What a waste to let all that expensive wine go down the drain! “You know what,” says the wife, “let’s just bottle it again and sell it.” And that’s what they did, bottled it, put in the corks and put 51 bottles back on the shelf.

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