Is It Truly ‘Aus’ with Auslese?

AI-generate image of an Auslese wine pouring from a green bottle.
Image Credit Craiyon

Those with an ear to the ground in German wine circles undoubtedly will have  registered the question “Is Auslese finished?” on more than one occasion. While there is no definitive answer, this much can be confidently conjectured: production of Auslese wines, so-labeled, has fallen to levels unseen since the 1960s. And thereby hangs a tale or two.   

Auslese’s Auspicious Ascent

From its inception, “Auslese” referenced picking only grapes fitting certain criteria, as opposed to every cluster that presents itself. Often the practice was advocated for mixed plantings to single out individual varieties, or, at least, red grapes from white. But primarily, the reference was made to degree of ripeness and state of health. A 1751 translation of excerpts from Philipp Miller’s seminal Gardener’s Dictionary,  renders as “Auslese” a practice attributed to Champagne “that one take care at harvest …not to mix-in either unripe or rotten grapes.” Georg Gottfried Strelin’s Dictionary for Public Administrators and Estate Managers [Kameralisten und Oekonomen] of 1783 supplies us with this concise definition encompassing not just the practice but the resulting product:

“Auslese, Auslese must, Auslesen is the affair of a winegrower who goes through his vineyards and takes out the best and ripest grapes, handles and presses them specially, and thus achieves the very best wine. Such a must processed from ausgelesene grapes is, rather obviously, called Auslese or Auslesemost.”

Ausbruch or Ausstich were sometimes treated as equivalents — the former, incidentally, not due to the “eruption” of botrytis (though accounts are likely led astray by Ausbruch having traditionally stood in for Hungarian Aszú, which refers to shriveling), but rather because relevant portions of grape clusters were laboriously ausgebrochen, or ausgestochen

In an 1840 address published in the Proceedings of German Wine and Fruit-Producers that quickly garnered much, largely favorable discussion a Hochheim proprietor referenced solely as “G. Hoffmann” made the case for Auslese as practiced in the Rheingau:

“A harvest that yields the best wine is one in which only completely rotten overripe grapes are allowed to be pulled out [abgebrochen]. … For wines of the second quality, one should utilize subsequently rotted [nachgefaulte] and transparent grapes and, for the least quality wine, leave the green grapes or those retarded in ripeness to hang for as long as weather permits, since leaving hang (late ripening) has very beneficial consequences. … True, Auslese costs more and yields less wine; on the other hand, if one considers that one can sell such a wine at a 50% premium, or even more … then Auslese is of great value since thereby the aim of a winegrower to receive the highest possible return is achieved.”

The wonder is not that von Babo’s endorsement helped solidify Auslese as a qualitative touchstone in Germany, but only that an equivalent thinking never happened in Austria. 

This approach — and Auslese as a category — became a dominant theme in Rheingau viticulture for the rest of that century. An obvious question with hindsight is: “Were these Auslesen sweet?” If at all, then not very. Prior to sterile filtration’s invention in 1916, residual sugar risked refermenting — unless it reached a level where the effect of bateria-bursting osmotic pressure kicked-in, as when syrup preserves fruit, which would have been the case only with wines whose musts corresponded to Trockenbeerenauslese, or possibly Beerenauslese, genres first recorded by name after 1880.  Moreover, it’s clear that higher must weights achieved through harvest of botrytized or overripe grapes weren’t advocated for the sake of sweetness, but for that of concentration — plus any direct organoleptic effects of botrytis that may have been deemed desirable — and that higher alcohol wasn’t just taken into account, but actually valued. Here’s Hofmann again: “Through continued fermentation, sugar in wine from overripe grapes develops alcohol. Thus, the more overripe grapes utilized in its preparation, the stronger the wine.” He didn’t need to repeat what he’d just stated in his previous paragraph: The more overripe grapes the better.

In 1855, pomologist Friedrich Jakob Dochnahl’s Catechism of Winegrowing — widely cited and republished across four decades — offers another extensive and vigorous plaidoyer on behalf of Auslese, advocating its employment with “the noblest black varieties” as well as “the Traminer, the Riesling, often the Rulander [sic] and the Gutedel.” A gospel of Auslese was being spread to “noble” grapes other than Riesling, and soon also to that second cradle of Riesling viticulture, on the cusp of international fame: The Mosel. That same year, by then world-renowned Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig listed both “1848r Schwarzhofberger [sic] Auslese” and “1848r Grünhäuser Auslese” (for the same prices as two vintages of Lafite listed an inch below). An 1862 exhibition of the Deutscher Zollverein (German Customs Union) records two Mosel producers — Böcking and Niessen — as having entered wines identified as Auslesen. In fact, all 11 wines shown by those two estates, from vintages 1857-59, were so-advertised. You couldn’t exactly say that Auslese had caught on yet, though: These were two exceptions among nearly two dozen prestigious Mosel and Saar exhibitors.

But increasingly, as one approaches the fin de siècle heyday of Mosel wine, reference is made to Auslesen. Wilhelm Koch, in his 1881 Der Weinbau an der Mosel und Saar that accompanied a reprint of Clotten’s since-famous tax map, declared: “[N]othing is more important for the elevation of our viticulture than a sensible Auslese, through which alone we can make it possible that the reputation of Mosel wine very significantly ascends.” That the cachet of Auslese as a wine descriptor had entrenched itself on the Mosel is demonstrated by price lists beginning in the 1880s, and by Koch’s having sought, in the introduction to his and co-author Heinrich Stephanus’s 1898 Die Weine im Gebiete der Mosel und Saar, to discredit the many smaller producers purporting to render Auslesen, something Koch was convinced they lacked the vine surface, personnel, dedication, know-how, or facilities to properly execute. 

Writing in 1876 as director of the K. & K. Pomological and Viticultural Institute at Klosterneuburg, August Wilhelm von Babo — who would compose an extensive appendix to Dochnahl’s third edition — offered an unqualified endorsement of Auslese as “the best wine that we can under any given circumstances achieve” while lamenting that “[i]n Austria, at this point in time, it is not yet like on the Rhine; if we achieve something better through Auslesen, the prices we can receive from wine merchants don’t generally  justify the effort ….” Von Babo’s influence far outlived him; his viticultural handbook was still being re-issued and treated with scriptural reverence into the 1920s. The wonder is thus not that his endorsement of Auslese helped solidify the corresponding genre as a qualitative touchstone in Germany, but only that this never happened to anything like the same extent in Austria. 

Riding the Waves

Between the 1950s and 1990s, fate conferred on Auslese a prominence and popularity unreachable during its previous decades of prestige. While widespread use of sterile filtration beginning in the 1920s made possible Riesling Auslesen of unprecedented sweetness, a “sweet wave” engendered by formerly sugar-starved Germans beginning to prosper amid the ruins left by their Third Reich set the stage for propelling overtly sweet Auslesen to hitherto unimaginable levels of consumption. Widespread use of unfermented or par-fermented must as Süssreserve supplemented what the grapes at harvest had given, and a wealth of grape crossings — Bacchus, Ehrenfelser, Huxelrebe, Kerner, Ortega — were devised or revived that could accumulate sugar far more readily than any traditional varieties, especially Riesling. 

The epochal (long since notorious) German Wine Law of 1971 unleashed a corresponding wave of Auslesen. By focusing obsessively on grape sugar as a determinant of quality, it discounted entirely the role of grape variety. Auslese’s prestige in an earlier time rubbed off now on insipid stuff, as the new law, in a misguided spirit of democratization, encouraged the perception that Auslese was Auslese, whether of Riesling or Bacchus, from revered slopes or former potato fields. Moreover, the grape sugar minima whose terms defined Auslese and other so-called Prädikate set low bars, lest Riesling growers routinely fail to reach them. Not only was Auslese now possible without auslesen — i.e., selection; it could even be harvested by machine. Ironically, though, on the heels of Germany’s 1971 Wine Law came one of Riesling’s all-time finest vintages, followed four years later by another, and, in 1976, by a Riesling harvest so freakishly high in must weights and far gone on noble rot that Auslese was effectively the starting point. Growers who left behind only those levels of residual sugar to which they had recently become accustomed, often ended up with unheard of 14-15% alcohol.  This trio of abnormally ripe vintages — 1971, 1975, and 1976 — coincided with a cresting of American and British demand, encouraging anglophone Riesling lovers to treat Auslese as a readily achievable qualitative benchmark.

Being defined in terms of grape sugar implied applicability to dry wine as well as sweet. And that proved a further godsend for Auslese’s career, because the “sweet wave” eventually engendered an equal and opposite “dry wave” reaction. By the late 1980s, prosperous Germans who counted themselves wine-knowledgeable or at least up-to-date began treating “trocken” on a label as an indispensable imprimatur of quality. (No such attitude took hold in export markets; in fact, these largely rejected Germany’s “new” dry Rieslings.) The VDP’s plan for an internationally recognized prestige category showcasing top vineyards reflected these circumstances, and while Spätlese trocken emerged as the dominant prestige category of the 1990s, an increasing number of growers opted for Auslese trocken. Ironically, Auslese soon hit a trough, thanks in part to the realization of that very plan. Once the category of Grosses Gewächs was institutionalized, “Auslese trocken” was replaced on growers’ labels and price lists by “G.G.” Moreover, to eliminate alleged consumer confusion, the VDP enjoined its members from labeling dry wines with any Prädikat designations, thereby establishing an early 21st century trend influential outside that organization as well. The VDP also emphasized “traditional” grape varieties, excluding many formerly popular crossings.  The cachet of Auslese rested increasingly, with notable exceptions, on sweet Riesling — including “gold“ and “long gold capsule” Auslesen regularly featured at VDP auctions – whose like enjoyed a strong early 21st century market in Switzerland, Japan, and the U.S. But not one that would last. 

Revelation and Retrenchment

Market or no, very early in the new century an unprecedented future appeared to loom for Auslese, as winegrowers registered the effects of climate change. “I might soon be unable to harvest anything below 90 or 95 Oechsle in most of my sites,” fretted Mosel winegrower Erni Loosen in 2007. He seriously entertained the thought — though, thankfully, that hasn’t come about (due in part to diligent viticultural efforts) — that “Kabinett might soon become impossible” in his prestigious locations, adding: “Nowadays my Kabinetts are the real Auslesen” — i.e., products of selective harvest — “whereas Auslese can be picked straight off the vine.”  As late as 2009, Nahe headliner Helmut Dönnhoff remarked of a Spätlese: “There was a tiny bit of perfectly dry botrytis here, and to get much over 90 Oechsle you usually need that.” Subsequent vintages taught this veteran otherwise. “It was a revelation to me,” he exclaimed in 2015, “and something I’d been trained to believe impossible: that perfectly healthy Riesling grapes could reach 95 or more Oechsle.” Auslese without botrytis became not just a possibility but, in some quarters, a fashion and a bragging point.  

A trio of abnormally ripe vintages coincided with a cresting of demand, encouraging anglophone Riesling lovers to treat Auslese as a readily achievable qualitative benchmark.

All of which would have been wonderful news for the sweet Riesling Auslese genre, except that it was getting hard to sell. Rather than advertising “botrytis-free” Auslesen, Loosen and cellarmaster-vineyard manager Berni Schug appeared to have taken the opposite tact, when, with vintage 2009, they ceased rendering both Auslese and Auslese Goldkapsel from one and the same site and instead began bottling as Auslese only wines that met their former criteria for “gold capsule” status, notably with botrytis influence. What motivated this was partly a desire to present consumers with a clearer distinction between Spätlese and Auslese, to limit the number of individual bottlings in one of Germany’s many notoriously sprawling portfolios, and to free a larger volume of ripe, healthy fruit to meet burgeoning demand for the estate’s Grosse Gewächse. But there was also this: “We’re trying to minimize the amount of Auslese produced,” confessed Loosen recently, “due to lack of demand. Naturally the ratio of Auslese varies with the conditions of each vintage, and there is no set target. But, using Ürziger Würzgarten in 2021 as an example: of the total production, which included Grosses Gewächs, Grosses Gewächs Reserve, Kabinett, and Spätlese, the Auslese (4,000 liters) amounted to only around 5%.” 

Kirk Wille, who as vice president of Loosen Bros. USA heads marketing not just of Weingut Dr. Loosen, but also renowned Riesling Auslese sources such as Maximin GrünhausFritz HaagRobert Weil, and Zilliken, drives home the point. “Auslese currently seems to suffer from being between styles — not lightly sweet and refreshing like Kabinett or Spätlese, but also not obviously a dessert wine. Consumers want one end or the other, not the middle. And the trade no longer has any clue what to do with Auslese.” By limiting Auslese to overtly sweet wines centering on three figures worth of residual sugar, Germany’s trend-setting VDP may indeed have helped confer on it a recognizable, unambiguous “taste corridor” (Geschmackskorridor is that organization’s expression), but one that consumers avoid.   

In his later catalog offerings (including the last of these, from 2019) Riesling guru and import veteran Terry Theise devotes 600 words to the subject “Whither Auslese?,” lamenting a category that, he claims “no one wants … yet everyone adores while they are drinking it. Auslese,” he writes, “suffers when one approaches it by demanding it prove its utility. ‘How do I use it??’ And it suffers from being the eternal lost-sheep in the flock, the one in the middle.” He cites Johannes Selbach as reporting of 2018 and its grapes perfect for Auslese: “I can’t do anything else with them. So, we either let the boars eat them or we make Auslese, and if I can’t sell it then I’ll put it in the cellar and my kids will [one day] drink it.” By then, Selbach had for years already been adding products of block picking associated with his very best parcels to the many bottlings he labeled “Auslese” — even though, literally speaking, “block picking” signifies the opposite — because he feared that “Spätlese,” let alone a complete absence of Prädikat, would mislead consumers as to the rich and overtly sweet, not to mention rivetingly complex character of their contents. 

Auslese without botrytis became not just a possibility but, in some quarters, a fashion and a bragging point.

“The secret, maybe,” suggests Theise, “is to see Auslese as a Spätlese that stretched to an even higher height. Those are the best kinds of Auslese,” he maintains, “because they don’t lose vinosity, they continue to be virile, compact and driven by fruit and mineral.” Loosen and many of his VDP colleagues might object that this risks blurring a distinction they are trying to sharpen. But the expression Trinkauslese — “Auslese for drinking” — has been making the rounds increasingly of late and the wines to which that description gets applied in hopeful tones are closer to sweet Spätlese in character than to Beerenauslese. 

Proprietors of certain prestigious estates who deem botrytis essential to Auslese — on the Mosel, Andreas Adam, Julian Haart and Willi Schaefer come to mind; on the Saar, rather obviously, Egon Müller — say they wish they could harvest it more frequently. But these proprietors are the exceptions. Even among those who render Auslese regularly, few are heard wishing for more of it. Take Schloss Saarstein. If one goes back several decades, harvest of Auslese contributed enormously to that estate’s reputation. Today, its price list offers two to four wines each in every other category, but 15 vintages of backlogged Auslese. “We can no longer sell a lot of Auslese,” concedes proprietor Christian Ebert, “but on the other hand, we need it to demonstrate the full potential of our site.” 

Indeed, demand is irrelevant to any significance Auslese might have as a statement about the potential of one’s sites and vines, of a vintage, of Riesling as a variety, or about the dedication and diligence of one’s crew, one’s winemaking talents, or one’s wins in the game with nature. And it turns out that many of Germany’s top vintners consider that significance enormous. This came through in 2014, when inopportune rain thwarted what most of them thought would be a banner vintage for noble botrytis. “It was mostly a matter of trying to see whether we could manage something nobly sweet that could serve to document the vintage,” related Johannes Eser of the “extreme effort” it took to render a Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland Auslese. “Only this one small bit of Auslese was possible by dint of rigorous selection,” reported Helmut Dönnhoff of a 2014 from his foremost site, Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle. “We’ve had lovelier Auslesen,” he conceded. “But I didn’t want Auslese to completely elude my grasp.” “It felt like a sauna in there,” quipped a grimacing Bert Selbach describing the sultry early autumn of 2014 in Erdener Prälat. But it was this 40-year veteran’s last outing in that site before retiring, and he was determined that it result in Auslese. Riesling Auslese counts for many growers, and in multiple respects, as a benchmark and touchstone. Sad irony, then, that it sells poorly.

Consummate Contrarians

Among Germany’s most revered Riesling estates, two go their own utterly singular way in terms of Auslese, and as far as one can tell, they sell a lot of wine so-labeled. There’s no denying how formidable is the sheer number of Auslesen rendered by Markus Molitor: Over the past decade, these have represented anywhere from one-third to half of total Riesling bottlings, which in collections the size of Molitor’s means anywhere from 25-35 different Auslesen per vintage. And usually well over a third of those sport white capsules that he describes as indicating “dry wine,” although legally speaking, these wines often trespass into halbtrocken territory. Some 20-25% feature green capsules and only a very subtle sense of sweetness. Only those Molitor Auslesen adorned with gold capsules analytically approximate what today counts as “typical Auslesen”; and in fact, few prestigious German Riesling growers bottling any significant number of Rieslings superficially resembling Molitor’s white or green-capsuled wines, so anathema are both the notion of “halbtrocken” and wines fitting that description. Yet, few Rieslings inspire greater adulation among wine critics or higher prices than Molitor’s. 

For Molitor, Auslese signifies ripeness and concentration — with one, two, or three stars allotted to indicate degrees thereof — but seldom involves botrytis selections. Lest one associate ripeness and overall concentration with must weight, it bears emphasizing that even “white capsule” Molitor Auslesen scarcely ever exceed 13% alcohol.

“Auslese seems to suffer from being between styles — not lightly sweet and refreshing like Kabinett or Spätlese, but also not obviously a dessert wine.” 

“Kallstadter Saumagen Auslese trocken” has held singular — not just winery-internal — significance ever since long-time Weingut Koehler-Ruprecht proprietor Bernd Philippi first labeled wines that way. But until the advent of Grosse Gewächse, this labeling didn’t make them stand out, so even devotees could be forgiven for not recognizing their singularity, as Dominik Sona — who, along with Franziska Schmitt, is now responsible for these wines — explains. “The difference between a Saumagen Spätlese trocken and an Auslese trocken isn’t in must weight” — though sometimes that of the Auslese is higher — “or even in how ripe they taste. For Auslese, we prioritize clusters with lots of tiny, healthy millerandaged berries. If we don’t have those, we’ll probably stop at Spätlese in that vintage. But the final determination is always made by blind tasting what is in the cellar, and here we’re looking for lots that especially express the essence of Saumagen as a site and whose structure strikes us as especially conducive to longevity.” 

Where Molitor “grades” Auslesen with stars,  Koehler-Ruprecht — in another practice originating with Philippi — assigns an “R” or “RR” to select dry Saumagen Auslesen (and Spätlesen) judged to have unusually strong personalities and aging potential. These are released only five or seven years after harvest, respectively. Judging by the scramble and waiting list associated with these bottlings — not to mention, as with Molitor Auslesen, their prices — one has to presume that they aren’t just reputation-enhancers but also money-makers.

Far-From-Frivolous Non-Rieslings

A recent small-scale revival of Rieslaner and Scheurebe at Pfalz estates where these had fallen from favor has primarily taken the form of sweet Auslesen. Beginning in 2007, Bassermann-Jordan General Manager Gunter Hauck and cellarmaster-vineyard manager Ulrich Mell began regularly rendering Auslese not just from those two varieties, but also from Gelber Muskateller, Gewürztraminer, and Goldmuskateller (an exotic recently introduced from Alto Adige). These wines are far removed from the profoundly beautiful, animating, and minerally Riesling Auslesen such as Theise celebrates (or, indeed, Mell still crafts at Bassermann-Jordan when he judges conditions inescapably apt). These aromatically audacious and colorfully fruity non-Riesling concentrates sell so well in half bottles to restaurants that there is a hue and cry when, as in 2016, nature doesn’t cooperate.  

“Colorfully fruity” also describes the Auslesen of Heidi Schröck in Rust on Eastern Austria’s Neusiedlersee. Although Schröck refers lightheartedly to her botrytis wines in aggregate as “sugar babies” (even when communicating in German), depth and complexity are already on display with what she refers to as “die Alleskönnerin” – Auslese, namely, a feminine wine (hence the “-in“) that can do it all.” Behind that provocative billing stands decades of success in pitching to restaurants as aperitif or accompaniment to both sweets and savories her marriage of citric, nervy Welschriesling with nutty, rich Pinot Blanc and exotically piquant Furmint (which took an exhilarating solo Auslese excursion in 2019 to honor a newborn grandchild).  

What is the significance of “Auslese,” given the disparate wines to which it applies, many of which defy its literal meaning?

While Schröck’s home town of Rust, and other localities around the Neusiedlersee, have a long association with nobly sweet wine, Emmerich Knoll is among the few Wachau growers to take special pains with botrytis selection. And when there is a Knoll Auslese, it’s seldom Riesling, but instead Grüner Veltliner, Gelber Muskateller, or Traminer. “These varieties — or, at least, our selections — tend to be more susceptible to botrytis due to their compact bunches,” he relates. But there’s also this: “With Riesling, a bit of botrytis can be nicely integrated into a Smaragd, especially for our Vinothekfüllung, which always incorporates fruit from multiple sites and takes into account higher alcohol.” 

Smaragd is indubitably the Wachau benchmark and touchstone, vis-à-vis which Auslese sometimes occupies an awkward position. At the end of May 2022, Weingut Prager proprietor Toni Bodenstein was contemplating a 2021 Riesling Steinriegl. Despite some sense of elevated alcohol, there was imposing richness, flattering gloss, and intriguing complexity. “By my measurements, it has around nine grams of residual sugar,” explained Bodenstein. “But if it’s 9.1 grams, then it can’t quality as Smaragd and will have to be bottled as Auslese,” a fate to which he’d already consigned one batch of his Riesling Klaus. So, the Steinriegl remained in tank, in hopes it would ferment a bit further. Here, no character distinction between Smaragd and Auslese was at issue, and “having to” label with the latter designation clearly the less-desired outcome.

So where does all of this leave Auslese? By turns revered and marginalized. Sometimes consequential, sometimes determined on the basis of a zero-point-one technicality. It almost seems as though the most pertinent question is not “Whither Auslese?” but rather this:  What is the significance of “Auslese,” given the disparate wines to which it applies, many of which defy its literal meaning? Sure, for much of what gets so-labeled, it would be correct to say that “Auslese” signifies, with fuzzy boundaries, a certain range on scales of sweetness, viscosity, and ripeness of flavors — a pretty colorless description for what are typically such colorful wines. 

But to treat “Auslese” as purely descriptive is hopeless if we hope to cover the multiplicity of wines so-designated. Which, in a way, suits it singularly to Riesling, that nicht feststellbare — unascertainable, un-pin-downable grape variety (to adapt an expression Nietzsche applied to humankind). Think of “Auslese” instead in terms of approbation and aspiration. And when uttering it, savor the fleeting sound of its three syllables, contemplate a sphinx, and smile.  Then ponder and savor some of the liquid itself!

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