Rheingold: the German Wine Renaissance by Owen Bird

by Stevie on August 31, 2010

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In Rheingold – The German Wine Renaissance, Owen Bird enthusiastically advocates for German Riesling while simultaneously criticizing the industry’s ability to successfully market it as the preeminent white on the international stage.

I want to appreciate Riesling but I'm not sure how...

In this age of red wine consumption, has German Riesling become a fashion casualty? Bird, at one of his funniest moments, writes, “Fashion is fickle but, as anyone who has ever bought a Hawaiian shirt knows, some boomerangs just don’t come back.” That’s not to say that he thinks that German Riesling is like a Hawaiian shirt: quite the opposite. Paradoxically, our contemporary red obsession might actually be in Riesling’s favor, as that’s the most complex of whites. Rather he points to ineffective marketing, a confused and confusing classification system, failure of producers to export fine examples of Riesling abroad, unappealing and often incomprehensible bottle labeling, not capitalizing on terroir, and the German desire for egalitarianism as many of the culprits in the under appreciation of this finest of whites.

The classification system still puzzles me, though I’ve read this book with rapt attention. Bird offers a basic course of “German for beginners” which already has helped me decipher some baffling Riesling labels at my local wine shop. Kabinett is like a cabinet or a special place to store fine wine if you don’t have a cellar. Lese means “harvest;” spat– is “late;” aus– is “out;” –beeren, “berry;” trocken, “dry;” and Eiswein, which is fairly obvious if you just pronounce the German while thinking English, comes from grapes literally frozen on the vine. So putting it all together, the tongue-twister, Trockenbeerenasulese means “dry berry out of harvest.” Wow, I’m reading German, Mom! Though what that incredible word has to do with the drink in my glass remains a mystery.

And really, that’s Bird’s point. The classification system was set up based on levels of ripeness of fruit and amounts of residual sugar. There’s no recognition that acid and sugar interact to determine the subjective experience of sweetness. Nor does this system take regional distinctions into account. So long as the wine comes from fruit that are ripe to the correct degree and has enough sugar, it’s an auslese, for example. But not all ausleses are created equal: some taste dry, others sweet; some are significantly better than others (I have to believe Bird here as I’ve hardly had any thus far, though I aim to change that after reading this book.) Hence more confusion!

As a remedy, Bird makes a number of suggestions. First, consumers need to be educated about German Riesling. By this he doesn’t mean the details of the very complex classification system. Instead, we must learn and truly grasp that Riesling is the king of whites. Of course, the classification system should be revised to be both simpler to follow and make the greatest of the great wines stand out. The elites will then define local styles, and therefore, regional distinctions, will become more clear to Riesling drinkers. That makes sense, I guess.

He’s all for simplifying labels, focusing on pairing Riesling with Indian and other Asian foods rather than German ones, and rejecting the notion that customers must think a lot about the wine in order to purchase and successfully enjoy it. Finally, he advocates marketing elite, terroir-driven Rieslings differently from more affordable, fruit-forward, internationally styled ones. That’s not to say that these “affordable” wines are the same as Bird’s “sweet and cheap” plonk. In fact, he’s all over the huge German wine manufacturers who, he claims, “strangled if not kidnapped the game for their own motives to the expense of the industry as a whole.”

There’s a lot of attention focused on new classifications of Rieslings. He’s a real believer in the system developed by the Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter (VDP) that re-organizes German wine areas into regions then subdivides them based on quality. The last section of the book offers a somewhat detailed description of these. Living in Northern California, I struggle with Bird’s preoccupation with these total systems. He writes, “the aim of the classification system is to bring to the attention of the wider wine public a method of quality declaration.” So it’s a kind of shorthand for what’s good. We don’t really have that here. Sure, there are regional distinctions: California Counties like Sonoma, Napa and Monterey, for example. We’ve even got some of these larger areas subdivided. Just think Dry Creek Valley, Stag’s Leap, or Santa Lucia Highlands. But that’s it. We’re on our own after that, so good luck finding a wine that’s right for you!

I still think that taste is subjective and truly wonder if there really is such a thing as a grand cru in an absolute sense. On the other hand, there are certainly some winemakers that produce better stuff than others. Bird characterizes California wines as “Old New World” due to our increasing focus on terroir (as compared to Australia, Chile, etc.) Maybe there’s something to that?

Rheingold is packed with ideas and the author clearly adores his subject. The book itself could have stood a more thorough editing. It tends to be repetitive; the style frequently veers off in wild directions, making it seem rough and unfinished; and there are numerous distracting typos and grammatical errors. That said, it’s impossible to come away from this short book without absorbing some of Bird’s excitement for German Riesling. It makes me thirsty…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

tasteofbeirut August 31, 2010 at 10:09 am

I have had German Riesling which was good, but not earth shattering for me. I still prefer reds.

Stevie August 31, 2010 at 11:14 am

I agree with you, Joumana, reds are more exciting. Bird talks endlessly about aged Rieslings that have “petrol notes” on the nose. Have you had that? I’m terribly curious now, especially since reading another book, Tyler Coleman’s A Year of Wine, where almost all of the sommeliers are extremely excited by it. In fact, we went to a Bay Area gay food bloggers meeting the other day and one of the guys trained as a sommelier. I said that “You must love Riesling, then.” He said yes but how did I know? Turns out that Michael prefers Alsatian! So maybe the Germans can really learn something from the French.

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