On the table in the kitchen, eight tall bottles of wine lined up like a Radio City Rockette kickline. In the dining room, a big pot of alpine cheese fondue sent wafts of fragrant steam into the air.
Before my wine group got down to this comforting holiday tasting, I wanted to know: When you hear the words “German wine,” what do you think?
Riesling, said one. Cool climate, said another.
“Mostly white, very little red,” said David, a friend who worked in the beverage industry for many years. “German wines tend to be food friendly with heavier comfort foods.”
Did we still think all that riesling is sweet? Not necessarily, but the connection between fruity and sugary is strong, even when it’s not entirely accurate.
“There’s very little bone-dry wine I’ve had from Germany,” said my friend Chris, whose partner skipped this tasting for that very reason. “They’re lower in alcohol, minerally, with petrol and high acid. They’re among the more age-worthy of white wines.”
Our host for the November tasting traces his family heritage to Germany and Switzerland. To pair with a heavy table of fondue, crusty bread, sausage and grainy mustard, he asked each of us to bring a bottle from one of those countries.
We kicked off the tasting with what might be my favorite bottle of bubbles I’ll get to have this holiday season. Made from pinot noir, known in Germany as spätburgunder, the 2010 Weingut Messmer Spätburgunder Rose Sekt Brut (pulled from the host's cellar, retails about $42) was tart, fresh and dry with flavors of rhubarb and unripe plums.
Importer Terry Theise’s notes on this “wacked-out gorgeous weirdo-wine,” as he put it, are too good not to share:
“Hibiscus and rhubarb jelly, echoes of wood, a finishing kiss of rosewater,” Theise wrote. “Serve a three-eyed alien wine that's not only without flaws; it also tastes good!”
If I were to put out my own pot of cheese, the first thing I’d pour is the 2017 Cave de la Côte Chasselas Romand ($15.99 at Steve’s on University) a crispy, pithy white that cut right through the nutty cheese. We got flavors of apple and wet rocks, and more than one person noticed banana.
I picked up our bottle, the 2017 Muller Catoir “M-C” Scheurebe Trocken, at Table Wine ($21.99), where owner Molly Moran clearly has learned my palate. This wine was lovely, lightly spritzy with flavors of underripe peach.
With a flowery perfume on the nose and crisp citrus backbone, the M-C scheurebe (“shoy-reb-beh”) tasted like a blend of gewürztraminer and sauvignon blanc. (In fact, according to wine expert Jancis Robinson, scheurebe was a invented from a cross between silvaner and riesling.)
One German white wine flavor note that sounds weird but not considered a flaw is petrol or kerosene, caused by a compound called TDN. Some say corks absorb TDN while screw cap wines show it more, but either way it can be a good sign for age-ability.
The 2013 Wittmann “100 Hills” Pinot Blanc from Rheinhessen ($18 at Square Wine Company) was definitely showing some of those petrol notes when we opened it. That gave way to a slightly bitter pithiness and flavors of tart apple and preserved lemon. I loved the high acidity on this wine.
The first sweet wine lovers’ crossover contender was the 2015 Dönnhoff Riesling Kabinett from the Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl vineyard ($23 at Square Wine Company). With flavors of honey, lemon and pear, this one reminded us of lemon soda pop. At only 9 percent alcohol by volume, this riesling was “exquisitely chuggable,” as one friend pronounced.
Our next riesling, a spätlese, tasted like a sweeter version of the Dönnhoff. The 2016 Georg Albrecht Schneider riesling from the Niersteiner Hipping vineyard ($12.99 at Woodman’s East) had about the same ABV but more candy-like flavors.
Tasters shouted “crunchy sugar” and “dried pineapple” and, according to my notes, “yay riesling!’ If you’re looking for a bottle to bring home for the holidays, the Georg Albrecht could be a crowd-pleaser.
The prettiest, most golden riesling of the bunch was the last one, a 2011 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen from Weingut Reuscher-Haart ($23.99 for the 2015 at Steve’s on University). Chris brought this wine up from his cellar, and while we liked its dried apricot flavors and round body, we thought it needed more acidity for balance.
This tasting ended on a less promising note than it had started, with the only red wine in the lineup. The 2016 Dalea Marengo Merlot ($21.99 at Steve’s on University) was made in Ticino, a southern part of Switzerland that dips down into northern Italy. For better or worse, this was nothing like the ripe, plummy versions most of us were used to. It tasted green, with flavors of sour cherry.