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Bassermann-Jordan Forster Jesuitengarten Spatlese 2002
As the world’s northernmost fine wine producing region, Germany faces some of the most extreme climatic and topographic challenges in viticulture. But fortunately this country’s star variety, Riesling, is cold-hardy enough to survive freezing winters, and has enough natural acidity to create balance, even in its wines with the highest levels of residual sugar. Riesling responds splendidly to Germany’s variable terroir, allowing the country to build its reputation upon fine wines at all points of the sweet to dry spectrum, many of which can age for decades.
Classified by ripeness at harvest, Riesling can be picked early for dry wines or as late as January following the harvest for lusciously sweet wines. There are six levels in Germany’s ripeness classification, ordered from driest to sweetest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein (ice wine). While these classifications don’t exactly match the sweetness levels of the finished wines, the Kabinett category will include the drier versions and anything above Auslese will have noticeable—if not noteworthy—sweetness. Eiswein is always remarkably sweet.
Other important white varieties include Müller-Thurgau as well as Grauburguner (Pinot Gris) and Weissburguner (Pinot Blanc). The red, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), grown in warmer pockets of the country is, at its best, elegant and structured enough to rival red Burgundy.
As the fourth largest wine producer in Europe (after France, Italy and Spain), in contrast to its more Mediterranean neighbors, Germany produces about as much as it consumes—and is also the largest importer of wine in the E.U.
A regal variety of incredible purity and precision, Riesling possesses a remarkable ability to reflect the character of wherever it is grown while still maintaining easily identifiable typicity. This versatile grape can be just as enjoyable dry or sweet, young or old, still or sparkling, and can age longer than nearly any other white variety. Riesling is best known in Germany and Alsace, and is also of great importance in Austria. The variety has also been particularly successful in Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys, New Zealand, Oregon, Washington, cooler regions of California, and the Finger Lakes in New York.
In the Glass
Riesling is low in alcohol, with high acidity, steely minerality, and stone fruit, spice, citrus, and floral notes. At its ripest it leans towards juicy peach and nectarine, and pineapple, while in cooler climes it is more redolent of meyer lemon, lime, and green apple. With age, Riesling can become truly revelatory, developing unique, complex aromatics, often with a hint of gasoline.
Riesling is very versatile, enjoying the company of sweet-fleshed fish like sole, most Asian food, especially Thai and Vietnamese (bottlings with some residual sugar and low alcohol are the perfect companions for dishes with substantial spice), and freshly shucked oysters. Sweeter styles work well with fruit-based desserts.
It can be difficult to discern the level of sweetness in a Riesling, and German labeling laws do not make things any easier. Look for the world “trocken” to indicate a dry wine, or “halbtrocken” or “feinherb” for off-dry. Some producers will include a helpful sweetness scale on the back label—happily, a growing trend.