Seeing the Light 

On reconsidering German wine.

Although I used to pilfer mom's Andre sparkling wine and guzzle it with my post-pubescent friends, the first "serious" wine I ever tried was Black Tower. I still remember the syrupy-sweet sensation smacking of steel not fruit and the cloying aftertaste. I'm surprised I ever tried wine again.

Unfortunately, many Americans cling to this image of German wines, and no amount of marketing can erase it. It was only a couple of years ago, after 10 years of wandering in the restaurant and wine business, that I saw the light, long after my colleagues started worshipping German Rieslings. I was converted, and I'm here to spread the word that there are, indeed, lots of delicious German wines out there.

Because of the cool climate, Germany's best wines are whites. The best of those are Rieslings, a noble grape with deep roots in Germany. The chameleon Riesling can be fermented dry or crafted into a rich dessert wine. Because of this versatility, Germany invented a six-level PrÑdikat labeling system, signifying the ripeness -- or sweetness -- of the fruit at harvest: Kabinett, the least mature; SpÑtlese; Auslese; Beerneauslese; Eiswein; Trockenbeerenauslese. The last three are the nectar-like wines, made with dried, shriveled, or frozen grapes, whose sugar is naturally concentrated.

But wait, wait, there's more confusion. Since it is legal in Germany to add sugar and/or grape juice during the winemaking process to counteract the high acidity, the PrÑdikat level doesn't necessarily indicate the level of sweetness in the final wine. If you're searching for the bone-dry German Rieslings -- and there are many -- look for "Trocken" (dry) on the label. Speaking of sweet, who decided drinking wines with some fruitiness was dÇclassÇ? Americans consume everything else laden with sugar, so why is sweeter wine the bastard child? A German SpÑtlese or Auslese is a beautiful thing with spicy food, and we should really embrace them as much as Coke, Twinkies, and milkshakes.

The Gothic lettering on German labels is pretty confusing to those not fluent in the language. Like most European wine, Germany labels the wines with the area the grapes are grown. The long names you find on the label indicate the vineyard where the grapes live. For example, Bernkasteler Badstube, literally translated, means "the district of Bernkastel's Badstube vineyard." Also listed on the label is the main wine-producing area. The biggest: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Pfalz, and Rheinhessen.

An up-and-coming fad in Germany is Dornfelder red wines. There's a pocket in the southern Pfalz region that has enough heat to ripen red grapes. It yields an earthy, cherry-driven, fingerprinted drink, kind of like the unique Pinotages in South Africa.

With white wines back in favor as summer fast approaches, 'tis the season to eschew the anti-German, anti-sweet cobwebs of the past and embrace the future of wine: Drink what tastes good. There's a helluva lot in Germany to love.

Recommended Wines

Thanisch 2002 Riesling Kabinett Bernkasteler Badstube Mosel -- The long, sultry finish equals the long name. Silky with flowery honeysuckle and honeydew melon. Some sugar present but it's so balanced, you love it. $14.

Josef Leitz 2002 Riesling Kabinett Rudesehimer Klosterlay Rheingau -- A bit richer than most of the Kabinetts I tried for this column but sports a gushing apple tartness on the finish. $13.

Dr. H Thanisch 2002 Riesling Classic Mosel -- This is the Riesling for non-Riesling people. Dry, Sauvignon Blanc-like, with grapefruit and tart green apple. Definitely a food wine, especially good with seafood. $14.

Graff 2001 Riesling Auslese Urziger Wurzgarten Mosel -- Damn nice stuff. Bathes the tongue in honey and a touch of lime zest. White grape-y yet elegant; sweet yet not cloying. Melt down into this wine. $22.

Anselmann 2001 Dornfelder Pfalz -- A unique red wine, and Dornfelders are worth exploring. Earthy, cherry, and steeped with wood-like flavor. Fascinating. $13.



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