Releasing the power of Hidden Sweetness
by David SchilDknecht
“Dry” describes what wine drinkers overwhelmingly profess to desire. And “trocken” can only appear on labels of German Rieslings with less than 10 grams of residual sugar.
If one desires sweetness, there is no lack: Most of today’s Kabinetts are higher in sugar than were Auslesen of the 1980s. (Granted, the grapes were probably also higher in must weight.) Aesthetically as well as commercially, success in the realm of legal dryness—Trockenheit—as well as that of pronounced sweetness, can scarcely be denied. German Riesling growers have long since succeeded in proving that they too can render world-class dry wine, while simultaneously showcasing a synergy of sweetness and acidity that few if any other grapes or places can match. But for all of this success and its accompanying self-congratulation, the question should be posed: why has the realm of Riesling between ten and 20 (or, for that matter, 30) grams of residual sugar been nearly abandoned?
As we’ll see, there are fashionable and widespread answers to that question—just not good ones. And a sampling of wines from those growers profiled here should enable tasters to make up their own minds as to whether there is aesthetic justification for this abandonment, which flies in the face of longstanding tradition and consensus, not to mention of Riesling’s frequent reluctance to ferment below 10 grams.
Georg Immich of Enkirch on the Mosel can serve to illustrate opinion among winery proprietors and cellarmasters who built strong reputations in the decades following World War II. In the late 1980s, at the end of his career, Immich, who usually turned out his flagship Batterieberg Auslese in both a halbtrocken (literally: “half-dry”) and an overtly (albeit modestly) sweet version, opined that the former corresponded with what he recalled from his pre-war youth as the style deemed appropriate and traditional for Auslese. He also predicted—and in this respect he was far from typical, not to mention spectacularly wrong—that while legally trocken wines would always have an important place among German Rieslings, “today’s ‘dry wave’ has likely reached its high point, and for the Mosel I anticipate a surge in halbtrocken. Thanks to the vibrant [kräftige] acidity of Mosel Riesling, this [style] also suits many dishes better.”
Professor Gerhard Troost, whose Technologie des Weines went through six editions from 1953– 1988 and served as the standard enological textbook at Geisenheim, propounded the notion of dienende Restsüße—“residual sugar in service” to Riesling—whereby the aim was by no means that the wine should taste sweet, but rather should benefit from the extent to which low levels of residual sugar can not only promote harmony or productive tension with high acidity, but also coax or catalyze a range of desirable sensory experiences from Riesling. (In suggesting that this is always the case, and that optimum residual sugar follows a formula, Troost oversold his insight.)
In retrospect, one can recognize in Immich’s and Troost’s advocacy of what could be called “hidden sweetness” the seeds of spurious objections to this very notion that would soon become memes. What Immich considered the golden mean would be construed as middling mediocrity. Any service that sugar might render to an essentially dry-tasting Riesling would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. And the very notion of Halbtrockenheit would be ridiculed and rejected.
"Have you nothing in-between?"
Master accompanist and wit Gerald Moore loved to tell the story of a Russian bass uncomfortable with the upper range of a Schubert Lied. “No problem,” Moore told him, “I'll just put it down a half tone.” They ran through it again. “Is too low,” the bass growled. Moore gestured to his fingers—at this point in the telling he would begin slowly rocking between the adjacent black and white keys, to titters from his audience. The bass stared at them for a long time, then asked: “Have you nothing in between?” It’s a good question to ask of German Riesling growers, whose dilemma is the opposite of that Russian’s. The whole middle of the keyboard is unexplored.
German Riesling growers have succeeded in rendering world-class dry wine, while showcasing a synergy of sweetness and acidity that few other grapes or places can match.
Professed preferences for either dry or sweet Riesling, but “nothing in between”—explicable in ideological if not aesthetic terms—gained traction with the advent of Grosses Gewächs, and could be perceived as part of a trend, sadly abetted by the VDP, to narrow the stylistic breadth expected of truly fine German Riesling. The expressions “taste corridors”—Geschmackskorridore—and “unified taste perception”—einheitliches Geschmacksbild—came into vogue—cringe-inducing, if not downright disturbing as these were bound to fall on some ears.
The legacy of this trend is evident at most top estates, whose Riesling portfolios consist of legally dry 12.5–13.5% alcohol wines, culminating in Grosse Gewächse, and, if there are any others, of unabashedly sweet wines in the 7–9% alcohol range. Ironically, many of these portfolios incorporate one anomaly: a Gutsriesling that’s at most 12% in alcohol and legally halbtrocken, and is referred to as a “door opener”—Einstiegswein—even though the stepping-inside (Einstieg) must lead to insecure footing, and the door that’s opened might lead eventually to another winery offering a wider stylistic range. And what one hears from proprietors often suggests inadvertent condescension: a bit more residual sugar, it’s alleged (with lower alcohol merely a consequence), helps appeal to beginners. By implication, grown-up or sophisticated taste is for either legally dry or overtly sweet.
It's hard to credit typical comments meant to address the missing middle as arguments. It would be one thing if a grower said: “I just can’t stand how Riesling tastes anywhere between 10 and 25 grams.” But one hardly hears that. An appeal is often made to Konsequenz—a notion of carrying things to their ostensibly principled conclusion. “If dry then genuinely dry, and if sweet then genuinely sweet—we don’t do things halfway” (or halbtrocken).
Sugar ≠ Sweetness (and bad arguments ≠ better wine)
A widespread claim among German Riesling growers—and even more so growers of Champagne—is that the better one’s raw materials and one’s workmanship, the less one need rely on the alleged “crutch” of residual sugar: ergo, the drier the better. Multiple fallacies hide here in plain sight. “I prepare a fantastic meal without salt. So salt, being unnecessary, is just a culinary crutch, and salt-free cuisine tastes superior.” “Make-up can be used to cover scars or blemishes, and too much of it obscures a face’s inherent beauty. Therefore, the most attractive look is cosmetic-free.” One might be tempted to grant that while drier wine is not perforce better, it is at least a better advertisement, for having met a greater challenge. But even that claim is bogus. Picasso’s iconic “Old Guitarist” or Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand certainly speak to their creators’ talents by showing what’s possible with a limited palette or just five fingers. But who would claim that “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,” or the Piano Concerto in G major, are for that reason less demonstrative of genius?
Another popular refrain among both German Riesling growers and Champenoise is that drier wine conduces to the aim of “greater minerality” and less fruitiness. To be sure, tiny additions of sugar often reinforce fruit flavors. And to the extent that fruit flavors are inhibited, at least the share of flavors that one might be tempted to describe with mineral vocabulary increases. But does sugar inhibit “minerality”? Does “more minerality” equal superior wine? To the extent that one can make sense of those questions, it’s hard to imagine answering them save by appeal to evidence of one’s palate. Setting aside the conceptual muddle associated with “minerality,” it’s undeniable that for many contemporary German growers, a more austere and narrowly focused dry-tasting Riesling is perforce better and allegedly more “terroir-driven.” Ironically, they often treat a gram or two of sugar as essential, something that highly expressive recent Rieslings “at the zero bound” have exposed as stubborn superstition.
Part of what prompts distaste for contemplating potential benefits of sugar is widespread abhorrence of adding Süßreserve, thought of as a holdover from German Riesling’s alleged bad old days of the waning 20th century—an abhorrence shared, needless to say, by growers who have no direct experience of this now largely discredited technique. Which also means they have no experience of bench trials and could perhaps be excused for failing to realize that as sugar is added incrementally, perception of sweetness proceeds in decidedly non-linear fashion, in fits and starts, the “same” wine with an added gram or two of sugar sometimes tasting drier. (Champagne growers have no such excuse: They’ve all sat through dosage trials at some point, even if they didn’t pay attention.) Moreover, each increment of sugar has the potential to alter the taste of a wine dramatically in ways that have nothing to do with perception of sweetness. To deny this is ignorant; to ignore it merely willful.
Fein by you?
It’s nearly impossible to separate the dislike professed by so many German winegrowers for wines that aren’t legally dry but don’t really taste sweet from their detest for the expression “halbtrocken.” It isn’t hard to imagine why any vintner whose motto is “No half measures!” would hate the very notion of “half-dry.” But even growers who liked the sort of wine it stood for ridiculed it.
Enter: “feinherb.” Like “halbtrocken,” it resists intelligible translation. But it has in its favor euphony and at least a modicum of ordinary usage (among German beer aficionados, anyway); plus, it isn’t half-anything. And so began a lobby for the adoption of “feinherb” as an allowable label designation. Many advocates, which included such prominent and (wine)politically influential figures as the late Annegret Reh-Gartner, envisioned it being registered as extensionally equivalent with “halbtrocken.” But when, in 2000, it entered German wine law, “feinherb” was not moored to any analytical parameters. As such, it soon shared the fate of Germany’s Prädikats in having only winery-internal significance. At one extreme, some Riesling growers—including the Gross family at Weingut Goldatzel and the Josts of Bacharach—employed “feinherb” solely for wines in the lower range of residual sugar allowed for halbtrocken. Others—who, as the term gained in consumer acceptance, came to represent the majority—employed “feinherb” for wines of unabashed sweetness, albeit ones lower in residual sugar than the high norms that had become associated with restsüss (“residually sweet”) Kabinett or Spätlese in the 21st century.
The upshot: If you’re looking to explore Rieslings of hidden sweetness, likely involving 10-20 grams of residual sugar, don’t take “feinherb” as a guide; and don’t look for “halbtrocken” either, since so few estates still utilize the term.
What does the wine want?
If a Riesling has stopped fermenting with ten or more grams of residual sugar, there are really only four ways of achieving legal Trockenheit. The first is to simply give the wine more time. But opinions vary greatly among winegrowers concerning how likely that is to succeed. What’s more, although extended lees contact and late bottling—which represent reversions to methods of an earlier era—are enjoying a return to fashion in certain quarters (among top producers in the Pfalz Mittelhaardt, for instance), the overwhelming majority of German winegrowers, for reasons of space and bottom line if not also personal taste preference, need to have Rieslings on the market seven to 12 months after harvest. Two further techniques for reactivating fermentation are warming to encourage remaining yeasts to get with the trocken program or adding a dose of supplemental yeast culture. Finally, one can of course blend away what is perceived as problematic Halbtrockenheit.
Each increment of sugar can alter
the taste of a wine in ways that have nothing to do with the perception
Each of these approaches to achieving legal dryness can be seen as potentially disadvantageous, which is surely among the reasons why German producers, especially ones who profess allegiance to spontaneous fermentation, are often reluctant and vague in addressing them. This in turn renders it hard to assess statistically just how reluctant are Riesling musts, left on their own, to ferment past ten grams of residual sugar. Among that substantial majority of German growers who eschew malolactic fermentation with Riesling, allowing it to remain unbottled through the summer months much less past the next harvest, invites lactose-hungry bacteria to take up residence; and once resident, they can prove tough to isolate or expel. Notwithstanding the expression “neutral yeast culture”—which will seem optimistic or euphemistic depending on how committed the nose of the beholder is to spontaneous fermentation—yeasting, no less than warming, has an effect on wine aromas, which some would characterize as dumbing-down or otherwise detrimental. As for blending, it can affect integrity and ultimately distinctiveness, especially if a vintner is forced to seek legally dry raw material from outside the village or vineyard whose name will eventually appear on the label. Not to mention that a vintner might think it a shame that he or she feels compelled to intervene for commercial reasons rather than—heaven forbid!—let aesthetic considerations, aka taste, dictate protocol.
When, as so often happens, a grower’s collection of Grosse Gewächse from a given vintage differ by but a single gram of residual sugar, one has to wonder: Did they all ferment in lock step? But also: Is that the point at which every one of these otherwise very individual wines is maximally expressive? About a portfolio of wines that ranged from bone dry through sweet, and in whose fermentations he professed not to have intervened, Florian Lauer’s father Peter was fond of posing the mock rhetorical question: “Isn’t it amazing how adept the Lord God is in judging residual sugar?” This much is certain: Riesling left largely to its own fermentative devices at least very often turns out fantastically; and a gap between 10 and 30 grams of residual sugar doesn’t open up either magically or naturally. Even the approaches taken by advocates of hidden sweetness involve elements of both laissez faire and active involvement, as will shortly be shown in their own words.
It’s striking that even at addresses where virtually all Rieslings are either trocken or overtly sweet, certain exceptions have managed to achieve near cult status. Take Nahe grower, Emrich-Schönleber’s Riesling Halenberg “R.” When Werner Schönleber first revealed this wine’s existence to a certain journalist, he said: “Whereas you complain that there are no more halbtrocken Rieslings, we have two years of this in the cellar and are just releasing the [inaugural] 2005.” The late release, he explained, was “to send a message that such wines need time.” Then he added with a grin: “The best part is that the wine has the freedom not to complete its fermentation.”
That these anomalies enjoy prestige as well as high prices, speaks to a certain respect for hidden sweetness even as
its virtues are widely neglected.
Klaus Peter Keller routinely allows one portion of his Riesling from Westhofen’s Kirchspiel—always from the same sector whose limestone is especially iron-rich—to finish in halbtrocken range. It gets labeled simply as “Riesling RR,” though Keller would be the first to insist that it isn’t less reflective of its soil and microclimate than are the wines he bottles with vineyard designations. Memorable wines of hidden sweetness sometimes arise simply because certain of those lots intended for a Grosses Gewächs don’t collaborate readily. That has been the case in certain vintages at Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich, with bottlings from their home vineyard Bockenauer Felseneck, and at Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken from the Saarburger Rausch, though neither of those exceptions can be considered a standard part of the estate’s portfolio.
That the aforementioned anomalies enjoy prestige as well as high prices, speaks to a certain respect for hidden sweetness even as its virtues are widely neglected. But it’s time now to direct your attention to some estates at which this genre is fully embraced, and multiple brilliant examples are offered at modest prices.
For David Schildknecht’s profiles of "Seven Winegrowers Who Get It," with detailed recommendations for Rieslings of hidden sweetness, click here and become a Patreon subscriber. If you are already a Patron please sign in here.