German wines: Wein & dine

When you think of pairing alcohol with Asian food - specifically, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and hawker favourites - which wine comes to mind? Our intrepid sommelier friends may have the answer: Old World German, specifically its versatile, finely crafted and cool climate Rieslings and Pinot Noir.

Riesling grows well in many parts of the world, but originated in the Rhine region of Germany; it is one of the few varieties that didn't originate in France. It is more aromatic and acidic than other whites, and able to withstand the continental climate in this most northerly great wine region of the world.

The other most planted grape is the Spätburgunder - known to us by its more international name, Pinot Noir. Like Riesling, the high acid and flavourful Pinot Noir performs best in cool climates. It is an early-budding and early-ripening grape which needs more time on the vine to develop full potential in its aroma and flavours.

Wein & Vin's director Boon Heng remarks: "German wines are well positioned in most fine-dining establishments and highly regarded by sommeliers in Singapore. Dry German Rieslings prove popular at restaurants including Iggy's, Guy Savoy and Waku Ghin." He predicts that German Pinot Noir will be the next big thing, although not more than 5 per cent of the production is exported now because of strong home-base demand.

This brings us to the subject of traditional Gothic-looking German wine labelling, a topic that Hugh Johnson joked should have its own course in university. As with most things German, the logic will be clearer once you get the basis of it and commit a few key words to memory.

Prädikatswein is the upper-level of quality wines, as opposed to tafelwein (table wine). These regulations were introduced in 1971, based on Germany's cool-climate vineyards, which make achieving grape ripeness a challenge. Quality levels of German wine are thus based on the ripeness of grapes, measured on the Oechsle scale based on the residual sugar in the grapes at harvest time. Two things to note: prädikat levels are not strictly a hierarchical order of quality - there are stylistic and winemaking differences as well; and a high Oechsle value does not always translate to sweetness in the finished wine, as a wine can still be dry (trocken) or fairly dry (halbtrocken).

Here then are the six Prädikatswein terms in ascending order of sugar level in the grape:

  1. Kabinett: Typically dry or off-dry, these light to medium-bodied wines are made from grapes with the lowest decreed ripeness level of the Prädikat. In technical terms, 70 degrees Oechsle (in the Mosel).
  2. Spätlese (late harvest): Usually off-dry to slightly sweet, these wines are from late harvest grapes which have developed more flavour and complexity on the vine, without approaching the sugar levels of dessert wine.
  3. Auslese (selected harvest): Richer and sweeter, these versatile wines made from selected quality, late-harvest grapes straddle the line between table and dessert wine in their density, complexity and alcohol levels.
  4. Beerenauslese (BA): Entering dessert wine territory, these wines are from individually harvested berries that often are in various stages of botrytis (noble rot), which shrivels the grapes and concentrates its flavour.
  5. Eiswein (ice wine): Made from minimum BA-level grapes frozen on the vine, which are kept as late as January. Most of the water, in the form of ice, is discarded, resulting in dense sugar levels in the remaining grape.
  6. Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): Considered to be some of the world's finest and rarest dessert wines, made from individually selected grape berries that are overripe and often turned into raisins by botrytis, which only happens naturally under certain weather conditions.

Ultimately, German wines have an uncanny affinity with intense Asian spices. Jeannie Cho Lee MW, who authored the book ,"Perfect Pairings - German Wines and Asian Flavours", encourages light-bodied Spätburgunder for stir-fried dishes with salty soy-based seasoning as well as chicken rice or Peking duck; off-dry and late-harvest Riesling balances spicy black pepper crab and grilled stingray with sambal. She writes: "A perfect pairing with German wine is when wine heightens our appreciation of most, perhaps not all, of the dishes and maintains the integrity of the food's flavours."

In summing up, we hear from Magma Trade + Consult's Dagmar Noto, whose wine shop in Singapore has the largest selection of German wines outside of Germany, with 250 bottles. She said: "On average, a winemaker in Germany owns around 14 to 16 hectares of vineyard; for this, the winemakers have not the volume to compete with French and Italian wines or wines from the New World. And prices are higher than the competitors as the winemakers are looking more for quality than quantity. Generally, I would say German wines in Singapore are a niche market, although the figures have been rising since we started in 2006."

Next week: Spain

Markus Molitor Haus Klosterberg Riesling 2011
Price: $44
Retail: Magma Wine Bistro + Shop, 2-4 Bukit Pasoh.
Tel: 6221 0634

From the vintage 2011, two winemakers achieved a perfect 100 score from the Wine Advocate: Michel Chapoutier (France) and Markus Molitor. The still-young winemaker was just 20 when he took over his family's eighth generation estate in 1984. His exacting philosophy is to make wines in the old way from enviably old vines - no selected yeasts, no enzymes or additives, no fining.

From 7.5 hectares, the estate is now the largest winery on the Middle Mosel - more than 38 hectares of some of the best vineyards in the region. The variety of locally ambient yeasts, combined with the natural weathered slate, expresses the complex, mineral-rich character of the Rieslings. Some slopes are slanted up to 80 degrees, requiring labour-intensive tending. To achieve quality in the bottle, an experienced team makes multiple passes - up to seven or eight times - at harvesting in order to carefully separate and harvest clusters at all levels of maturity.

Here's what Robert Parker noted on the 100-pointer Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese Three Star 2011: "The purity, levity and vibrancy are nearly beyond belief."

Tasting notes: The aroma is stylish, with citrus and fruit such as pink grapefruit, fresh peach and apricot. There is a vivid balance of sweetness and acidity underscored by mineral, a wet-flint character, finishing with inciting juiciness and freshness.

Bernhard Huber Pinot Noir 2010
Price: $55
Retail: Basement 1 Isetan Scotts, Shaw House, 1 Scotts Road.
Tel: 6733 1111

If there is a superstar of the German Spätburgunder, it might be Bernhard Huber, Gault Millau's 2008 Winemaker of the Year. After the four Mosel Rieslings in this edition, we now look to Baden - the most southerly of Germany's winemaking region, located on the right bank of the Rhine river among the foothills of the Black Forest mountains.

Mr Huber took over his family's five hectares of vines in 1984, though Pinot Noir cultivation on the land had been observed for more than 700 years. The story goes that Cisterciensan monks first brought Pinot Noir to the Malterdingen commune as far back as 1285, identifying the terroir of decomposed shell limestone as being similar to the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy.

Mr Huber and his wife Barbara stopped selling their grape crop to the local wine co-op, gradually building up their holdings to 27 hectares, and now produce some highly sought after 160,000 bottles a year. He practises strict yield reduction on the vine, traditional red vinification and long ageing in oak barrels. At least 70 per cent of the vineyards are Pinot Noir, with white Burgundy varieties making up the rest: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois.

A blind tasting of Grand Cru Burgundy by the Grand Jury European put Huber's "guest wine", the 1995 Pinot Noir Reserve, ahead of some notable names; French critic Michel Bettane even thought it to be a Chambertin Grand Cru from Domaine Armand Rosseau.

Tasting notes: A typical Huber's Pinot Noir is not forced or heavy, with expressions of dark cherry, cranberry, strawberry, spice and toasted oak. This entry level red is lightly coloured, with crisp acidity and a focused finish.

Gunderloch Rothenberg Spätlese 2010
Price: $80.25
Retail: Cornerstone Wines, #01-00 Cornerstone Building, 61 Lorong 17 Geylang.
Tel: 6732 0555

Winemaker Fritz Hasselbach has wrested 100 points from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate not once, but thrice for his Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) - in 1992, 1996 and 2001.

The "300-point man" didn't start out wanting to be a winemaker, although he studied winemaking at the prestigious Geisenheim University in Rheingau, and worked for the government in viniculture. In 1979, his wife Agnes Hasselbach-Usinger inherited her family's Gunderloch Estate in Nackenheim along the banks of the Rhine River, which had been established by her great-great-grandfather in 1890 and was almost bankrupt.

Mr Hasselbach implemented reduction of yield, selective harvesting - making multiple passes to harvest grapes at different ripeness levels, and introduced temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for fermentation. But the greatest advantage was the terroir: part of his estate lies where a vein of ancient red slate soil runs along the well-exposed vineyard slopes, imbuing his Rieslings with the finesse of minerals and peach flavours. Of his small parcel of 12 hectares, eight hectares lie in the outstanding Rothenberg vineyard parcel, which is considered one of the three Grand Cru A vineyards in the Rheinhessen region. Gunderloch wines are never deacidified; high-acid vintages wait in bottling for the wines to harmonise and soften. The winery's portfolio includes an entry-level Riesling simply called Fritz's Riesling, niftily packaged for the American market.

Tasting notes: Poised and lush, inviting with citrus, stone fruit and honeysuckle on the nose. The expressive fruit is weaved with filigree acidity and savoury minerality all the way to a mouthwatering finish. Enjoy now or keep for next two decades, according to Wine Advocate.

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Josephshofer Spätlese 2011
Price: $80
Retail: Basement 1 Isetan Scotts, Shaw House, 1 Scotts Road.
Tel: 6733 1111

If you've flown First or Business Class on Singapore Airlines or eaten at three-Michelin starred Fat Duck, you might have come across this decorated German Riesling label.

First, it is useful to highlight that Josephshofer is one of few in the Mosel which need not specify the name of the village on their front label due to its fame. It is a monopole vineyard site, which is exclusively owned by Kesselstatt. In this case, the estate name derives from the von Kesselstatt dynasty, with the added status of Reichsgrafen - imperial courts. Its first vineyard purchase was recorded in 1349.

In 1978, the estate was acquired by Annegret Reh-Gartner's father, and she soon took on directorial duties. Ms Reh-Gartner certainly knows a thing or two about matching wine to food; her husband is two-Michelin-star chef Gerhard Gartner, who ran Aachen-based restaurant Gala for 10 years before retiring. Her prowess in viticulture also raised the profile of the estate: she reduced the size of the viticulture areas to just 12 hectares each on steep slopes in Mosel, Saar and Ruwer valleys, with 98 per cent given over to Riesling vines. Only natural yeast is used to best express the individuality of the soils, contributing to the elegance and mineral structure of their complex whites.

In the Mosel on south-facing slopes, ancient Riesling vines benefits from a long, slow ripening period, concentrating aromas and flavours and resulting in wines with low alcohol content. The 2011 vintage is rated "excellent" - with 60 per cent of grapes reaching 91 degrees Oechsle - for fruit that was ripe and redolent of exotic peach and passionfruit.

Tasting notes: At just 7.5 per cent alcohol, the flavours are concentrated and elegant, raising peach, apricot and orange peel aromas to the nose. Fine balance of acidity, minerality and ripe fruit. Peach and apricot echo in the shapely finish, tinged with sweet spices for a lasting impression.

Weingut Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Kabinett 2011
Price: $101.65
Retail: Vinum Fine Wines, Unit 10 Shaw Centre (Level 2), 1 Scotts Road.
Tel: 6735 3700

Egon Müller is the proprietor of the Weingut Scharzhof estate in Wiltingen on the Saar River. The Saar is a cold region which manifests itself in a crystalline purity and precision - from stony, slate soil - compared to the delicacy and floral nature of the Mosel. This estate is considered to be one of the greatest estates in Germany and so, similar to Josephshofer, Scharzhofberger is one of the vineyards which need not specify the name of its village on the front label.

The estate was purchased by an ancestor of Egon Müller IV in 1797 and has remained in the family since. Mr Müller has made it a point to visit the Singapore market once a year to introduce his latest vintage and to share some of the older vintages from his private cellar. Considering that a bottle of his top wine, the Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslee is priced on average at over US$5,000, these themed dinners have been well-received. In the past two years, his Rieslings has been ably paired with Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines, particularly because of the low alcohol level (attributes needed for spicy and salty dishes), well-integrated acidity (good with spicy, sour and oily dishes), and fruit flavours (complements dishes with some sweetness).

The estate ardently believes in the philosophy of natural winemaking, with intensive ploughing up to six times a year, very restrained use of chemicals, and spontaneous fermentation. They also practise low yields, as small as 30 hectolitre per hectare.

Tasting notes: Light, pale yellow, displaying a fragrant nose of grapefruit, lime zest and exotic fruit. The delicate structure stresses the mineral spine and racy acidity balanced with a slight appealing sweetness, and will develop further complexity for 10 years or more.

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