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Kabinett Trocken: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

 
Photo by Corina Rainer on Unsplash

 

Kabinett Trocken: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

By David Schildknecht

 

It’s an unfortunate paradox: the very climatic conditions that leave us thirsting for lightweight, refreshing and soul-satisfying dry wines render these hard to achieve. Yet, rather than leading the way in surmounting this viticultural challenge, Germany’s Riesling establishment routinely throws up roadblocks. That’s a crying shame. 

 

The Curiosity of “Kabinett”

To understand what’s become of “Kabinett trocken,” we must first retrace the steps leading to “Kabinett.” “Cabinet,” as a term applied to German Riesling, dates to 18th-century Rheingau, a derivative of “Cabinetstück” (alternatively, “Kabinet[t]stück”), in use for diverse objects worth displaying in a cabinet of curiosities or, by extension, worthy literary and musical compositions. The choice of “C” appears to have been an anglophone affectation, but it stuck. (“Kabinet[t]” got a small boost when the Nazis tried to banish “un-Germanic” spelling.) As a sign of distinction, “Cabinet” often appeared on labels of Rhenish Riesling conjoined with “Spätlese” or “Auslese.” Eventually, “Cabinet”-labeling spread to the Mosel and by the mid-20th century was so ubiquitous that Germany’s lawmakers couldn’t resist co-opting it. 

 

© Paula Redes Sidore

 

Ever since the mid-1800s, when social crusader Ludwig Gall employed Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal’s insights to mount a promotion of sugar- and water-addition for “improving” wine musts (tempering screeching acidity and enhancing eventual alcohol), a veritable war had been fought over the issue of Naturwein, defined essentially as wine from musts untainted by either of Gall’s additives. So successful was the Naturwein counterinsurgency — witness Germany’s foremost growers’ association having in 1910 styled itself “Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer” — that despite this concept running counter to their egalitarian sentiments, those tasked with redrawing Germany’s wine law were fearful of jettisoning it. 

 

Enter: “Kabinett”? Strangely, yes. The 1971 law distinguished between Qualitätsweine, for which sugaring of must was permitted, and Qualitätsweine mit Prädikat, for which it was not. And to those “predicates” already associated with selectively attainable sorts of wine — “Spätlese” and degrees of “Auslese,” now redefined solely in terms of must weight — was added this new one, intended to trade on the luster of “Cabinet.” 

 

The minimum must weight set for Kabinett drew ridicule from avowedly quality-conscious quarters. But the chosen standard reflected a backdrop not just of egalitarian sympathies, but also of chronic hardship, among growers of Riesling in particular, who could count on at least several vintages each decade in which not even that minimum was achievable. As average must weights commenced a persistent ascent, and as 1987 began to look like the last genuinely unripe vintage, the Wine Law’s Prädikat standards were widely mocked as an obsolete embarrassment. At least, until global warming flashed its warning lights and it dawned on savvy growers that sugar in their grapes at harvest had not just ceased being a useful proxy for ripeness but exposed itself as a false friend.

 

From Legacy to Lost Art

Vinous levity has had a bad rap for as long as sugar ( = potential alcohol = energy) was coveted. A turning point as regards German Riesling came with the mid-19th -century emergence of Mosel wine — for the first time in its history — as a fashionable and, by the 1880s, downright prestigious beverage, flatteringly compared with the heftier wines for which the Rheingau and Pfalz were renowned. 

 

Low in alcohol, high in acid and bone dry: fin de siècle fashion turned those destinies into advantages.

 

It’s no coincidence that the Mosel was hardest-hit among German growing regions by the poor harvests and social upheaval of the 1840s, and most receptive to Gall’s message of financial redemption through vinous Verbesserung. Vines and growers there had to struggle to accumulate sugar and shed acidity. The risk of failing to achieve must weights translatable even into stable wine was historically higher than elsewhere in Germany. Mosel Riesling was inherently low in alcohol, high in acid and bone dry; fin de siècle fashion turned those destinies into advantages. (Nor was the contemporaneous notion of Rheingau Riesling as weighty — based on the renown of late-harvested, botrytized exemplars — entirely accurate, as can be witnessed in 100-plus-year-old wines of 9-11% alcohol and negligible residual sugar that still dazzle when drawn from the cellars of Kloster Eberbach.)

 

While the reputation of Mosel wine faded after the First World War, the notion of levity as a virtue continued to influence perceptions of German Riesling abroad. In the foreword to his seminal 1957 The Wines of Germany, Frank Schoonmaker avers that these “are the lightest in alcohol of the fine wines of the world and for this reason are never oppressive, never tiring, always refreshing and easy to drink.” 

 

Increasingly, though, appreciation of German Riesling became linked to residual sweetness. Through its 1970s and ‘80s editions, The World Atlas of Wine declared of “Germany’s best vineyards” that “their chances of giving the world’s best white wine look slim” but “their secret is the balance of sugar against acidity” — a sentiment that would have astonished Hugh Johnson’s counterparts of the previous century. In retrospect, albeit with some exaggeration, German critics, growers, and other industry trendsetters came to think of a “sweet wave” as having engulfed German Riesling in the 1960s and 70s. The “dry wave” reaction that set in was no longer favorable to levity and — as yet unbeknownst — had carbon-emitting humanity at its back. Facing corresponding headwinds, Kabinett trocken was few growers’ idea of a stylistic goal. Nor was crafting lightweight yet substantial dry Riesling something for which they had inherited any knack. 

 

The Purge

As so often happens in ideological history, the VDP’s case against “Kabinett trocken” stems in part from tacitly accepting fundamental premises of the very wine law that this organization purports to hold in contempt. It can at least be plausibly argued — although, experience with German consumers of the 1980s and 1990s suggests otherwise — that cognitive dissonance results from attaching “trocken” to either “Spätlese” or “Auslese,” whose origins are associated with selective late harvest and botrytis. Well, you argue, “Kabinett,” by law, is just another Prädikat; ergo “Kabinett trocken” oxymoronic. 

 

A fundamental favoritism toward potential alcohol is profoundly rooted in traditional viticulture.

 

But deeper motivations are at work, including that very “Oechslemania” at the heart of Germany’s 1971 Wine Law. A fundamental favoritism toward potential alcohol is so profoundly rooted in traditional viticulture that even the latest, major revisions of Austrian and German wine law, promulgated under looming threat of global warming, persist in coupling alcoholic minima with quality levels, while setting no upper bounds. 

 

The VDP’s “We, too” Movement

Then there’s that other fixation which has driven the VDP for nearly four decades: the determination to demonstrate that “we too” can render iconic dry wines by establishing an internationally recognized luxury class, now known as Grosses Gewächs. The threat presented by Kabinett trocken was twofold. Once the launch of this prestige category was couched as a vineyard classification, sites deemed worthy of informing a Grosses Gewächs weren’t to be named on the labels of any competing dry wines. (Sweet Rieslings were exempted as of no concern; plus, there was justified fear of facing a lobby led by Wilhelm Haag, Egon Müller, and Manfred Prüm.) “We too” motivation, moreover, hardly favored low alcohol delicacy or refreshment, not even if complete, complex wines that did were something “only we” Germans, with Riesling, could consistently accomplish. Typical was one grower’s stated determination early this century “to demonstrate that we too on the Mosel can go head-to-head in dry Riesling with the Pfalz and Rheinhessen.”

 

The purge of Kabinett trocken, like the blandishment of Grosses Gewächs, has resonated beyond the VDP.

 

As a Rheingau partisan of Kabinett trocken put it in 2012, on condition of anonymity, “The message we have gotten explicitly is: ‘If you want to go on featuring such weak, little wines, it’s your party; but don’t expect any promotional support from the VDP.’” Soon thereafter, the party line hardened into an outright Verbot. Today, the grower in question bottles those same wines without Prädikat, without vineyard designation, and with geologically inspired nicknames of the sort that have, unsurprisingly, become ubiquitous. 

 

The purge of Kabinett trocken, like the blandishment of Grosses Gewächs, has resonated beyond the VDP. Yet, those growers who continue to dedicate themselves to crafting gracefully and digestible low-alcohol dry Riesling are finding they can’t keep up with demand. And the notion that somehow because a wine is lightweight, its vineyard identity won’t be expressed and should be concealed from consumers rather than used as a selling point, strikes these practitioners of Kabinett trocken as just what it is: baseless and ludicrous. If anything, delicacy brings distinctive details into greater focus.  

 

Many VDP growers who pleaded the case for Kabinett trocken to the bitter end weren’t concerned with perpetuating a style — diehard Gunter Künstler’s estimable dry Kabinetts occasionally reached 14% in alcohol — but rather a marketing advantage inherited from that old notion of Naturwein. A popular phobia of sugar addition — whether to must or wine frequently not distinguished — was unremittingly reinforced in the German press (newsmagazine Der Spiegel being a prime example) while covering scandals of adulteration and fraud in the wine industry that peaked in the 1970s and ‘80s. Even as chaptalization has waned dramatically in the face of global warming (though the VDP continues to permit it for Grosse Gewächse), large numbers of German consumers still look to “Kabinett” as a quality imprimatur — but not in search of levity, and with no more than the vaguest notion why. 

 

The Case for Revival

If few growers strive for it, fewer are skilled at achieving it, and even many who cling to it in name fail to be motivated by any allure of levity, then how can — and why should — Kabinett trocken be saved? Ask those who insist on introducing wine lovers to really well-made dry, low-alcohol German Rieslings, watching the reactions turn from momentary shock to amazed delight and next-sip compulsion. Such wines’ potential appeal is at least as strong today as in the similarly decadent if climatically cooler late-19th century: invigoration, refreshment, and digestibility paired with scents and flavors as intriguing as they are corporeally irresistible. 

 

What’s more, Kabinett as a category of residually sweet Riesling has already staged a remarkable recent comeback. Younger Germans are flocking to Mosel and Saar exemplars. Early this century, the VDP’s Rheinhessen branch declared wines labeled “Kabinett” unworthy of vineyard-designation. A decade later, not only had that decision been reversed, but Mosel-inspired Rheinhessen vintners, led by Klaus Peter Keller and Kai Schätzel, were setting price records for sweet Kabinetts from Nierstein’s top vineyards. Influential Pfalz VDP vintners who once thought that even seasoned observers of Germany’s Riesling scene needed tutoring on why Kabinetts made sense for the Saar, Mosel, or Nahe, but not elsewhere, were returning them to their price lists after a  generation-long absence. Some of those same vintners refer to lighter dry wines as “the type formerly known as ‘Kabinett trocken’” or just “Typ ‘Kabinett trocken’” — and if they’re not careful, they’ll slip up and remove the scare quotes from around that forbidden pair of words. Why not indeed? 

 

Those growers who dedicate themselves to crafting gracefully and digestible low-alcohol dry Riesling  find it hard to keep up with demand.

 

The trick to restoring Kabinett trocken as a category is hiding in plain sight on the website of the Germany Wine Institute and informational bureau, where Kabinett is defined, not with any reference to residual sugar, but as “fine, light wines from ripe grapes, with low alcohol content.” Kabinett = light, simple as that. The same must weight that yields a sweet Riesling Kabinett of 8-9% alcohol can result in a dry wine that, at 10-11.5%, is still startlingly light when nearly every other wine genre — even that icon of levity and refreshment, Muscadet — now begins at 12%. 

 

But distinguished Kabinett, dry or sweet, isn’t easy to render. Mosel envoy par excellence Erni Loosen was probably only exaggerating slightly when two decades ago he declared: “Nowadays my Kabinetts are the real Auslesen” meaning literally, the products of selective harvest, “whereas Auslese can be picked straight off the vine.” He immediately added that “for all the effort that is required, I can only sell Kabinett for a fraction of the price.” And still today, a recent flurry of VDP auction Kabinetts notwithstanding, profit margins for most growers remain trapped by the popular perception of Kabinett, not as an increasingly precious pearl of German viticulture, but — thanks to that misbegotten Wine Law — as the lowest rung on a qualitative ladder. 

 

Strategies for Success

If well-balanced sweet Kabinett has become a challenge, Kabinett trocken — its acidity and texture not tempered or swathed by residual sugar — is even more so. When everything works, though, the effect can be transparent, kaleidoscopic, and electric. And how many of today’s sweet Kabinetts really keep felicitous company in their youth with wide-ranging cuisine, much less satisfy al fresco at sweltering summer temperatures? (Kabinett with just ten or twenty grams of residual sugar: that’s another matter, another endangered species, and a subject for another occasion.)

 

© David Schildknecht

 

Ulrich "Ulli" Stein, who puts great stock in achieving a St. Aldegunder Himmelreich Kabinett trocken each vintage, insists that only his oldest vines, thanks both to genetics and traditional single-post training, are capable of achieving the right flavors at sufficiently low must weights. Even then, he has capitulated to climate change by backing off of his former target of 10% alcohol — always provided the wine in question meets his sensorial standards of levity, which no 2018 did — and by on occasion experimenting with blending results from two harvests, the first for sheer low Oechsle, the latter to improve flavor. 

 

Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler also point to old vines and single-post training in select locations as conducive to Kabinett trocken, a contention consistent with long-running results from their Trabener Gaispfad vineyard. Weiser believes they achieved their ideal of levity “even in 2018,” while noting that “of course these were the first-picked grapes.” Under the onslaught of 2019’s searing heat and sunburn, the wine reached 12.5%, but the couple reports relief at a 2020 of 11.5%. They acquired vines in Wolfer Sonnenlay with low must weight in mind, and were rewarded with delicious dry Kabinetts from 2016 and 2017 – the former at just 9.5% alcohol! But this side-valley site is also a fog trap, courting botrytis in warm autumns; subsequent interpretations have been sweet. 

 

Weiser-Künstler’s neighbor Martin Müllen says: “I don’t know why it is, but certain of my old- vine parcels just have this ability to develop complex flavors at low must weights. I target just 78-80 Oechsle for Kabinett,” he adds, “but when you taste the grapes you swear they are as ripe as those at 90 Oechsle elsewhere.” Even in warm recent years like 2015, 2018, and 2019 — or in 2017, when frost and consequent irregular ripening led him to harvest late — Müllen’s expressive dry Kabinetts from Kröv and Traben-Trarbach have topped out at 11% alcohol. When pressed, he suggests that a combination of vine genetics, location, and canopy management are at work. He is sparing in leaf removal and often leaves shoot tips unshorn (thought to inhibit a hormonal stress response that would enhance sugar accumulation by triggering lateral growth). Kabinett trocken from his flagship Hühnerberg often involves vines he replanted less than two decades ago, but with old-vine selections; and massale selection is, after all, designed to promote desired traits, among which can be achieving ripe flavors at low must weight. 

 

© Weingut Max Ferd. Richter

 

Constantin Richter — who perpetuates the Max. Ferd. Richter tradition of riveting Kabinett trocken (seldom much over 11% in alcohol) from various sites — emphasizes a choice of elevated, breezier locations. Prime instances are in Mülheimer Sonnenlay, the Goldwingert (officially part of Graacher Himmelreich) high above Bernkastel, and the Hasenläufer sector of Brauneberger Juffer where, he notes, “high up against the woods there are cooler conditions that virtually every year are conducive to this sort of wine.” 

 

© David Schildknecht

 

The large-scale recent face-lifting and replanting of another slope famed for late-harvest elixirs, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, didn’t interrupt Martin Kerpen’s three decade streak of site-typically perfumed, at once bright and subtly creamy dry Kabinetts. He picks for Kabinett confident that some musts will display a “desire” to keep fermenting to dryness. When a 2014 Graacher Himmelreich galloped disconcertingly to undetectable sugar, the reward was dramatically distinctive, and a new “Zero” bottling began sporadically gracing a portfolio already annually featuring two to three trocken Kabinetts. 

 

 
© David Schildknecht

 

No German estate turns out more consistently vibrant, minerally complex or refreshing dry Rieslings of 10-11% alcohol than Hofgut Falkenstein, situated in a broad, well-ventilated side valley of the Saar. And on this point proprietor Erich Weber and his son Johannes are adamant: Kabinetts are products of the same single, “flat” (as opposed to bowed) cane and low yields as their Spätlesen or Auslesen. Even though it would reduce must weights, “leaving two canes per vine isn’t the way to make light wine,” insists Erich Weber, “it's a way to make thin wine.”

 

It’s not hard to glean insights into methodology from the Webers or from Lars Carlberg, a seasoned observer of the Mosel who has represented their wines since 2011 and after completing a state-authorized two-year apprenticeship with them in 2017 became their full-time vineyard and cellar employee. But trying to get at the root of their striking success in the realm of Kabinett, and specifically Kabinett trocken, requires some prodding and sifting. 

 

They cite aspects of their regimen conducive to high but ripe acids and complex flavors at low must weights: green cover, negligible leaf-pulling, delayed hedging, whole-cluster pressing, press-fractioning. But, like short pruning and low yields, those factors apply to all Hofgut Falkenstein Rieslings. Most of their vines are old, but all are trained to wires, and fine Kabinetts have issued from young vines. Certain sites — especially within the Einzellage Niedermenniger Herrenberg — are typically singled-out for Kabinett, but the Webers deny that microclimate or vine genetics in any way predestine this; a parcel that yields Auslese or Spätlese one vintage might be chosen for Kabinett the next. What makes the difference, by process of elimination, is simply the point at which they choose to harvest.

 

Winegrower Randolf Kauer, who holds a unique professorship in organic viticulture at Geisenheim, consistently demonstrates that Mittelrhein sites in Bacharach and nearby Oberwesel — especially ones in side valleys and that face southeast rather than due south or southwest — are still capable of delivering complete, complex dry Kabinetts. Occasionally, these violate a taboo that might seem every bit as intuitive as the correlation between higher yields and lower alcohol. A 2015 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Kabinett trocken was palpably extract-rich and, at 11.5%, higher in alcohol than the estate norm for that genre, but animatedly bright and buoyant, even though 15% of the fruit had been affected by botrytis. No need to fear, insists Kauer, provided it’s “clean.” In any case, he adds, “I can’t make two passes on this one small parcel.”

 

 
© Paula Redes Sidore

 

Rheingau veteran Hans-Josef “Hajo” Becker, who with his Geisenheim-trained wife Eva runs the J. B. Becker estate, was going his own viticultural and vinificatory way when what counts today as “old school” Rheingau was considered novel. Becker’s regimen, like the Webers’, involves short pruning and annually yields multiple dry Kabinetts. The results from diverse Walluf sites display not just levity (at 11-12% alcohol) but rare transparency to nuance and stamina in bottle. 

 

Red Kabinett?

© Valerie Kathawala

 

While Riesling is uniquely able to dazzle with dry wine of 10-11.5% alcohol, “Kabinett trocken” is still widely applied to wines from other grapes, and not always just to signify modest quality and price, or to trade on dim memories of Naturwein. Although long-time Koehler-Ruprecht proprietor Bernd Philippi insisted that “Kabinett” didn’t stand for “light,” then as now — under the able direction of Dominik Sona and Francesca Schmitt — Riesling Kabinett trocken from the Kallstadter Saumagen in this Pfalz estate’s singular, leesy, lightly oxidative style weighs in routinely at slightly lower alcohol than the corresponding Spätlesen or Auslesen. Modest weight characterizes its Kabinett trocken from Gelber Muskateller, Pinot Blanc, even — a curious notion for most — Pinot Noir. Ulli Stein began taking that notion dead seriously after a client asked him: “What if you picked and vinified Pinot Noir to achieve the red equivalent of your Riesling Kabinett trocken?” The consistently tangy, vivacious, far-from-simple results have been steadily fine-tuned since 2014, never breaching 11.5% alcohol. Stein’s Red Light might well be part of a new dawn for Kabinett trocken.