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German wines can be sweetly complicated
2013-09-06
By John H. Isacs

Wine lovers often associate Germany with sweet wines. While the nation does make some very fine dry wines, its claim to fame in the international wine world is still predominantly sweet wines.

Just understanding the names and styles of German wines, both dry and sweet, can be a significant challenge. This week I’ll take a look at the best German sweet wine styles.

Ice wine

German ice wine, or Eiswein as the Germans call it, is certainly one of the world’s greatest sweet wines. In Asia, Canadian ice wines may be all the rage, but the granddaddy of all ice wines comes from Germany.

Legend has it that the first ice wine was made in Franconia, located in Germany, in 1794 when a vineyard owner accidently left his grapes on the vine too long and they froze.

His employees picked, pressed and fermented the grapes anyway and a new, magically sweet wine was discovered. Nice story, but ice wines were most likely made by the Romans in northern Italy, Austria and Germany as early as the 1st century AD. That great Roman wine-loving author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder, wrote fondly of wines from the north made from frozen grapes.

Making ice wines is extremely difficult and yields are low. In the 19th century, there were only six documented ice wine harvests. Newer technology and greater expertise have led to more frequent ice wine vintages but making these wines is still risky business.

Because the harvest date for grapes used to make ice wines is so late, a plethora of calamities may befall the grapes before they are harvested. They may rot before freezing or be eaten or destroyed by foraging animals.

Though a few ice wines may actually have some botrytis effect — named for a fungus that produces a distinctive sweet wine — the best examples are made from healthy fruit to keep their clean qualities.

There’s a very short time window when the grapes are frozen for the first time and need to be harvested and pressed within several hours before they thaw. When everything goes right, one of the world’s great sweet wines is born.

Beerenauslese

The term means “berry select harvest” and refers to a sweet style of German wines that are frequently, though not always, botrytis affected. We often call wines made from botrytis affected grapes “noble rot” wines.

Dating back to at least the early 18th century, German noble rot wines have an even older documented history than ice wines. But as with ice wines, they most likely date back to the Roman Era. These wonderfully sweet, yet balanced wines have charming aromas and flavors of honey, caramel and tropical fruits with a fresh acidic backbone.

Trockenbeerenauslese

Exceedingly difficult to pronounce for non-native German speakers, Trockenbeereneauslese wines are sometimes called TBA wines and referred to the “king of German dessert wines.” In German, the name means “dried berry select harvest” and refers to the grapes that shrivel up like raisins due to noble rot.

Just think Beerenauslese, but even sweeter. The extremely shriveled, almost dry grapes result in an extremely sweet wine of syrupy consistency that’s still remarkably fresh.   

Think producers

As complicated as the world of German sweet wines may seem, your most reliable way to pick the right wine is to choose top producers. Despite weather extremes and vintage variations, the best German producers are remarkably consistent in making wines.

Some of the best German producers of sweet wines available here in Shanghai are Schonberg, Joh Jos Prum, Kracher, Bassermann Jordan and Herman Donnhoff.

Age or not

Because most great German sweet wines are made from the noble Riesling variety and their very high residual sugar content, Eiswein, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines can be cellared for many years after bottling. Whether they actually improve with aging is a rather new controversy.

Traditionalists say yes, claiming the wines acquire additional complexity and distinction with age. However, there’s a new school of German winemakers and international connoisseurs who believe the wines express their purest fruit characteristics while still young. They claim older wines lose their lively fruit, distinctive acidity and vibrancy with excessive aging.

Food pairing

The old wine adage that one’s wine should be a little sweeter than one’s food still holds true in the modern world, but with some notable exceptions.

Naturally, Eiswein, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines go well with a wide range of desserts and other sweet foods. Some classic pairings include German cakes and cookies as well as tarts of all types and thick creamy puddings.

But not all the foods we pair with these sweet nectars must be sweet. In fact, some of the most enlightened pairings include these wines with very rich, very plain or even stinky foods.

The richest of foods like goose liver find a natural companion in German sweet wines, especially top Beerenaulese wines that combine concentrated sweetness with good doses of acidity.

While I still prefer bone dry whites with most seafood dishes, many of my friends who favor sweet wines adore top German sweet wines with rich seafood like lobster and oysters.

Another natural companion for Eiswein, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines is stinky foods like blue cheese and even Chinese stinky bean curd. The intense sweetness of the wine offsets the stinkiness of these foods, soothing the palate while also facilitating digestion.

I have to admit that I recently savored a deep-fried stinky tofu dish with German ice wine and the combination was delightfully harmonious.

All quality German sweet wines should be served quite chilled, preferably 5-7 degrees Celsius. I prefer a rather generously sized glass as they allow the aromas to develop as the wines slowly warm in the glass.

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