Wrestling with Rieslings – How to Decipher their Labels

Does reading a German Riesling label leave you scratching your head and running for the beer aisle? Too much information on a label can be daunting especially when the words are in German. What the heck does “Kabinett” mean anyway?  Thankfully, there is a method to the madness.   The many designations on the label are designed to be helpful so that you can select something that you will like.  Once you crack the code you can be confident in what you are buying and even (to some extent) what it will taste like. 

The striking purity of flavor is one of many reasons to love Riesling.  As an added bonus, these wines are often very low in alcohol, ranging from 8-11%.  The versatility of Riesling lends it to many winemaking styles.  The wines range from bone dry (no noticeable sweetness) to powerful honey-sweet wines.  This wide range is one of the reasons that the labels contain so much information.

The labels contain 6 types of information:  Winemaker, Quality Level, Region, Village/Vineyard, and Ripeness. 

Typically the largest words on the label indicate the winemaker.  The name may have the word “weingut” next to it.  Weingut is German for “wine-estate.”  Prominent German winemakers you may see are Joh. Jos. Prüm, Dr. Loosen, Selbach Oster, Fritz Haag and Zilliken. 

Quality Level
You will see one of two designations: QbA and QmP

QbA stands for Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet.  Whew, that’s a mouthful. This simply means the wine is of average quality. The standards for making this wine are relaxed. The prices for these wines are very affordable.  Keep an eye out for QbA wines from the Nahe Region, as these wines often offer outstanding values.

QmP stands for Qualitätswein mit Prädikat.  These are the real beauties of the Riesling world.  In order to label a wine QmP the winemaker must follow specific requirements about where he or she got his grapes and at what level of ripeness the grapes were harvested.  These wines can be pricey but are well worth it; offering a unique experience that most people bypass in favor of more well-known wines.  QmP wines are the hidden treasures of the wine world.

Just as the words Burgundy and Bordeaux conjure images of unparalleled quality and tradition, so too should the words Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau. The regions are named after the rivers that run through then.  The Mosel River twists and turns through ravines, meeting up with the Saar and Ruwer rivers along the way, which in turn follow their own courses. The grapes grow on steep terraces overlooking the water. The Rheingau region runs along the Rhine river.  After 2000 years of experimentation, German vintners have proven these regions as the finest. You can tell the difference between Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau wines in their taste and by the their bottles. Mosel wines are delicate and mineral-driven, often with a hint of slate. They also come in green bottles. Rheingau wines are fuller bodied, with more petrol notes. These wines come in brown bottles. There are many other regions but these are the finest and best places to start when trying new wines.

Villages & Vineyards
Many times, the label will contain a village name followed by the vineyard the grapes came from.  Unless you have oodles of time on your hands there is no way to learn them all.  Most likely if the wine is pricey and it uses a “village-vineyard” format, it’s a safe bet that the vintner has added the vineyard because it is particularly famous.  Here are some examples: Piesport-Goldtröpfchen and Brauneberger Juffer- Sonnenuhr.  Some labels may only have the village, in those cases, the price tag can be indicative of quality. 

I saved the best for last.  The easiest way to shock and amaze your guests is to actually remember the words indicating the levels of ripeness.  Stated simply, the words listed below indicate how ripe the grapes were at harvest time. Riper grapes were picked later in the growing season, usually all from the same vineyard.  Generally speaking, the riper the grape the sweeter the wine it makes. This fantastic nomenclature allows you to pick the sweetness level you enjoy the most. Although the wines can be very sweet, they are never sickly sweet.  This is because German Rieslings have an intense acidity that balances the sweetness perfectly. I have listed the levels of ripeness in order of driest to sweetest (which is also typically the order of least expensive to most expensive). Note that there are some Spätlese that may seem sweeter than Auslese, depending on the winemaker’s preference of how much grape sugar to convert to alcohol and how much sugar to leave in the wine. 
Kabinett – Refreshing and aromatic dry wines. They are picked first from the vineyard.
Spätlese – Typically they have some noticeable sweetness and are picked later.
Auslese – Sweet and full-bodied, these wines can be expensive ($40 and up).  They are harvested later in the season after the grapes have accumulated a substantial amount of sugar and perhaps some noble rot. 
Beerenauslese (BA) – Rare, intensely sweet and very expensive. The labor-intensive winemaking process dictates the high price.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) – The rarest, sweetest and most expensive of all, these wines are made from grapes after they have shriveled on the vine. They are carefully hand picked one berry at a time.  More a nectar than a wine, these wines are only made in exceptional years – you can tell this by the price tag if nothing else!

As for selecting a wine, try at least a couple so you can compare and decide which level of sweetness you enjoy.  The 2007 vintage was exceptional with many wines just bursting with the aroma of fresh apricots.  I would experiment with a couple from 2007 to get started.  My personal picks are Joh. Jos. Prum Riesling Kabinett (2007) and Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Auslese (2007).  Enjoy!

A Tale of Two Pinots

Last night in muggy DC, I tasted two Pinots, both from Oregon. One, a delicious ripe & lively Pinot Gris from King Estate and the other, a savory yet delicate Pinot Noir from Eyrie Vineyards.

2007 King Estate Pinot Gris- showed very ripe fruit aromas and flavors, including kingestatepeach, kiwi and other such tropical fruits. Bordered on being slightly off-dry, but the zippy acidity kept it crisp and lively and balanced that ripe fruit perfectly. A delightful aperitif wine or with a chicken or pasta dish. We enjoyed it with an arugula salad with cherries & procuitto. A definite keeper for the rest of the summer. King Estate is a great place to visit, too, if you ever get the chance. Really beautiful winery!

Second wine – 2006 Eyrie Estate Pinot Noir – Always a fan of Eyrie, this wine was a huge disappointment when first opened. I poured the wine into a decanter and put a bit in my glass to taste. The odor was terrible – acid reflux is  the best way to put it, and while I thought it may be reductive, it was unlike any reduced wine I’d had before. I changed glassware and re-swirled, only to find the same odor. The palate seemed lovely, but I could not move past the acrid smell. Luckily, my husband had more patience. As I moved on to a bottle of Syrah, he continued to swirl it around in the decanter letting more and more air into the wine. About 45 minutes after my first sip, I was given another glass. Thank goodness I took it! The odor blew off and the savory, delicate aromas that replaced it delighted my senses! Cherry, red and wild berry aromas, with a touch of spice. The palate had a good acidic backbone, with bright red fruits, some spice and a touch of meatiness to it that gave the wine the “savory” character I like. Wonderful with grilled pork (or what was left of it after the Syrah). Good length and excellent structure. Good thing we’ve got a few more of this wine left as now that I know the drill, I’ll be sure to open it well in advance and decant. I also think it will get better with a few more years in bottle. I highly recommend this wine, but give it time – both in bottle, and in the glass.

The story behind the wine- Eyrie Vineyards:

David Leyrie 1977ett had an idea. He believed the the soils and climate of the Willamette Valley of Oregon were well suited to make exceptional Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and other Pinot varieties. In the mid-1960s, he planted his first vines in an old fruit orchard just outside Portland. His theory eventually panned out and people took notice when his 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir showed well in an international competition that included the top Burgundian Pinot Noirs of the time. Oregon was on the wine map, and Eyrie’s performance in the competition even brought Burgundian winemaker Joseph Drouhin to Oregon to check out the scene. Seeing potential in the land and the wine, Drouhin founded his own Oregon winery, Domaine Drouhin, which resides near Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards.

Eyrie Vineyards produces wines that have character and a sense of place. You will taste that in both the Pinot Noir and PInot Gris –they truly represent the Oregon terroir.

Eyrie lost its founder in October 2008. Lett earned the nickname, “Papa Pinot,” as his pioneering spirit opened up the doors for the Oregon Wine Industry.  The winery is now run by his son, Jason.

Can Trading Down lead to Trading Up?


A recent Gallup poll noted that the recession has not stopped consumers from drinking. Numbers are even from last year, with 64% of the population saying that they drink, the other 36% claiming abstinence. There were other stats listed of course, showing consumption differences between men and women, young and old. But one thing the poll admitted it could not adequately estimate was wine sales. Sales may be flat in numbers, but it cannot attest to volume vs. price point. As Gallup put it, “the recession may give people more reasons to drink, but less money to do it with”.

This is what we’ve noticed at Wine.com as well. During this recession, instead of seeing sales drop, we’ve seen people buy at a lower price point, but with a higher number of bottles per order – an increase in volume, a decrease in average bottle price. Why is this? The news continues to report that people are choosing to eat in more and out at restaurants less. Perhaps the rise in numbers of bottles per order reflects that choice. Or maybe people are in fact drinking more. Hard to say.

The interesting point to make here is that the trend of consumers trading down in wine has created  created an opportunity for these same consumers to trade up.

Here’s how that works: The recession has hit people’s wallets. Instead of eating out at restaurants, they are eating in. If they are eating out, chances are they order a less expensive wine than they did a year ago. Restaurants, in turn, are ordering less from distributors. Wine once allocated only to restaurants now sits in the distributors’ warehouse. Needing to move product, distributors offer the wine to retailers, often at a hefty discount. This discount is passed along to the consumer and there you have it – the opportunity to trade up has arrived.

So while you may have had to go from $15 to $10 on your everyday wine, you can now snag some $100 bottles for $40 and a few $40 bottles for $15. The savings are huge.

It’s a good time to be a wine consumer.

Pairing Wine with Fireworks

Free-Fireworks-Screensaver As with all fun, festive celebrations, beverages are key to your Fourth of July party.  And because you’re celebrating our nation’s birthday, keeping the wine American is a nice tribute. After all, our wine industry has come a long way since Mr. Jefferson’s attempt at vine growing in Virginia. As we gear up for the grill and what will go on it, I’ve been pondering the question – What to pair with it all?

Here are some wine picks for some typical 4th of July grills – some are common matches, but that’s because they work so well!

Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah – my pick for meat

So these choices are slightly typical. But We’ve got a great deal on the Rubicon Cask Cabernet Sauvignon ‘05, and it’s one of my favorite California Cabs (organic grapes, too!) – it’s perfect for a small gathering as it’s a more pricey wine. It would be amazing with a grilled ribeye with just a little salt & pepper. Yum…

For larger get togethers, you’re going to want fun AND affordable – stock up on Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon ‘06 – good producer for under $20.

Love Syrah with meat. I’m often torn between peppery, spicy Syrah vs. Juicy, fruit-concentrated Syrah… It’s great to find a wine with both and the Havens Hudson Vineyard Syrah ‘04 does just that. But it’s also on the more pricy side, at the $40 mark – but SO worth it! If you’re really adventurous, try pairing it with grilled leg of lamb.

For the everyday (under $20), crowd-pleasing Syrah, try Bonterra’s Organically Grown Syrah ‘06 or Bonny Doon’s Le Pousseur Syrah‘05.

Oregon Pinot Gris- my pick for chicken and/or veggies

Oregon Pinot Gris is so delightful in the heat. It’s refreshing, but also so aromatic and lovely to sip over a summer evening. It’s hard to recommend producers as I have not yet had an Oregon Pinot Gris that I didn’t like! Some favorites include Adelsheim, Elk Cove, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Eyrie, Willakenzie Estate and King Estate. Most are on the ‘07 vintage, which was a cool vintage so the wines are nice and crisp. 2006 was warmer and that vintage produced a richer style of wine.

RoseMy pick for pork, chips & salsa or anything with a spicy kick!

Rose can be a great aperitif before the dinner, but a hearty one will go great with pork or another meat, especially if you have some spice on it. From lighter style to heavier style & from dry to sweet – Etude, Bonny Doon & Red Truck’s Pink Truck are nice matches. Note that the Pink Truck is off dry, so some spice is nice (try salsa on the pork).

ZinfandelMy pick for burgers

The great American grape. With the great American food. The sweet fruits & spice are a great match to a juicy burger. Bogle Old Vines or Gnarly Head are great value Zinfandels. If you want to go a bit higher, try the Murphy Goode Liar’s Dice – it’s got some kick to it. Ravenswood is a reliable producer with lots of different single vineyard wines to try and Ridge is a classic – the Three Valleys is a great burger pick. 

BubblyMy pick for fireworks

Okay, so you’re not grilling fireworks, but you definitely need some bubbles when you watch them! At the $20-ish mark, I love the Roederer Estate, Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs and Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rose. Also a great choice is the Argyle Brut – best bubbly in Oregon! So pop the cork and watch those fireworks sparkle.

Some not-so-common whites you shouldn’t miss this summer

“Off the Beaten Path” wines, or OBP as we call them, are some of my favorites to talk about. If you think about how many grape varieties there are, most would classify as “off the beaten path,’ since the average wine drinker only recognizes about 10 – 20 different varietal wines. When consumers do see varietals they don’t recognize, they often pass them over since they are unsure of what to expect.

Here are some less-common white grapes to look out for this summer and a bit about their flavor profiles:

Torrontes – This grape hails from Argentina (although its DNA roots are likely from Spain or another Mediterranean country). It is fresh & aromatic, with a nose full of white flowers and ripe pear or peach. The palate typically has crisp acid with citrus, floral and peach or pear flavors. It’s refreshing, but also has an almost creamy texture. Crios de Susana Balbo is a classic Torrontes, consistently good year after year.

Gruner Veltliner – The great grape of Austria is increasing in availability! Hurrah! Gruner (sometimes called GRU-VEE) is a wonderful grape. The aroma and flavor of white pepper is a telltale sign of a good Gruner, and adds a spicy kick to the wine. This spiciness is backed by ripe fruits and an excellent acidity. Very good food wine and at it’s best, can be very complex.

Chenin Blanc – Once over-planted and over-produced in California, Chenin can make a bad wine. But it can also make fantastically delicious wine! Wines from Chenin Blanc range from very dry to very sweet, come from France, South Africa & California, and are really worth trying! In blind tastings I often mistake Chenin for Sauvignon Blanc. The dry style has zesty acid and crisp citrus notes, but also some tropical fruit and a touch of honey, especially if any late harvest grapes were used. If you want to try the dry styles, go for Chenin from South Africa of a Savennieres from the Loire. A touch of sweetness can be found in Vouvray, Coteaux du Layon, some other Loire regions.  California Chenin Blancs can vary. so find out about the producer’s style before you buy. Dry Creek Vineyard is an great Chenin producer in the dry style.

Arneis – Hailing from the Piedmont region in northern Italy, Arneis makes interesting wines. They are nutty in aroma and flavor, with medium acidity. They can become oxidized after a few years, so drink it young. That said, the wines are delicious with peach and pear and sometimes a bit of chamomile. This wine can hold up to some food. Vietti makes an excellent Arneis and is one of my favorite producers of all things Piedmont.

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