Beloved by sommeliers but often overlooked by customers, Does German Riesling live up to the hype? Clinton Cawood joins a tasting panel of somms on a stellar adventure
In the unspoken grape variety popularity contest within the wine trade, Riesling gives prom queen Pinot Noir a run for its money, wooing sommeliers with elegance, steeliness, abundant acidity and lots of food-friendliness. And Germany, obviously, is one of its foremost producers.
But while savvy US and Scandinavian consumers see it as a byword for white wine chic, Brits are (annoyingly) taking some convincing of Riesling’s charms. Complicated German classifications don’t help, although these are improving. VDP (Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) producers, for example, make use of an arguably simpler classification system, only using the traditional prädikats (like kabinett and auslese) for sweet wines.
Regardless of classification, the reputation that the country’s Rieslings have within the industry is strong. So does it all add up to an untapped gold mine for the on-trade? We called in a selection of German Rieslings available in the on-trade and assembled a panel of sommeliers to find out.
How it works
We asked a bunch of UK suppliers of German wines to submit Rieslings from their portfolios, both still and sparkling. To ensure we received wines with low levels of residual sugar, submissions were limited to kabinett trocken and spätlese trocken from non-VDP members, as well as trocken wines from VDP members. These wines were tasted blind by a sommelier panel, with tasters only aware of each wine’s price. Each wine in the tasting was scored out of 20, with scores collated to attain a percentage score for each. All wines mentioned are exclusive to on-trade and independents in the UK, and all prices are ex-VAT trade.
Rudina Arapi, Galvin at Windows; Gergely Barsi Szabó, Sager + Wilde;
Oleg Buyalo, Luca; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe;
Carlos Ferreira, The Sign of the Don; Gabriele Galuppo, Theo Randall;
Sumita Sarma, Sumilier; Masahito Suzuki, Sosharu;
Lukasz Walkowiak, Oxo Tower
82 Reichsrat von Buhl, Riesling Sekt Méthode Traditionelle 2014
‘An outstanding wine with great fruit complexity. An intense nose with candied citrus peel and grapefruit, as well as some mango notes, and bread and pastry, too,’ RA.
‘An intense nose with strong varietal character, with tropical fruit and tart acid on the palate. An aperitif style, and a great example of German technical precision translated to sparkling wine, at a fraction of the price you’d pay for this quality!’ OB.
£16.20, Hayward Bros, 020 7237 0576
79 Schloss Vaux, Cuvee Vaux Dt, Sekt Brut 2014
‘An attractive sparkling wine. Subtle in terms of expression, but with an elegant appeal to it. Floral honeysuckle notes are followed by soft apricot, leading to a pleasant minerality backed by mouthwatering freshness,’ SS.
‘Very clean and bright citrus fruit on the palate, with a fine, silky mousse, following ripe stone-fruit aromas, with a touch of brioche for added complexity,’ CC.
£14.46, Enotria&Coe, 020 8961 4411
88 Paulinshof, BJ Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Trocken 2015
‘Deep, golden marmalade notes alongside luscious, zesty lemon. Crisp acidity and minerality balance impressively with mouthfilling, nutty, creamy, buttery caramel notes. Elegant, with outstanding complexity. This would pair equally well with either rich, buttery dishes or summer fruit salads including pineapple and mango. And all of this at a great price!’ SS.
‘Yellow and green apples, as well as some sweet orange skin to start, leading to a dry, clean palate with spice and good acidity, yet creamy, too. I’d have this with cheese,’ CF.
£17.70, Enotria&Coe, 020 8961 4411
88 Balthasar Ress, Hattenheim Engelmannsberg Riesling Trocken 2012
‘An intense combination of lemon, grapefruit, apple and pineapple on nose and palate, with a touch of ginger, and some aromatic herbs, like sage. A fresh and floral wine with great complexity of flavour,’ RA.
‘Archetypcal Riesling, with fresh, zesty fruit, as well as some apricot and dried fig, and a diesel note, while the palate is steely and slightly saline. Beautifully poised, and worth that price tag,’ CC.
£24.34, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7670 0967
84 Dönnhoff Felsenberg Felsentürmchen Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2014
‘Soft lemon and grapefruit lead to explosive acidity and minerality. There’s strength and power here, but also some soft, elegant jasmine that helps to give it some grace, too. Peach and pear notes, with hints of pineapple and guava, add to its versatility,’ SS.
‘This wine is all about the subtlety. It has great complexity, but takes some time to understand, with its minerality, as well as lychee notes. Its light character really complements its high concentration of flavour,’ OB.
£22.70, Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
84 Leitz Rudesheim Berg Schlossberg Dry ‘Ehrenfels’ Grosses Gewächs 2014
‘A very delicate nose, with lemons, limes, honey and almonds, leading to very high acidity, but that’s very well balanced, giving nice freshness. Lots of options for food matches here,’ CF. ‘Leaning towards the Alsatian style of aged Riesling, this is an absolute stunner, with herbal, medicinal notes. This would easily pair with red meat in Roquefort or gorgonzola sauce,’ OB.
‘Citrus peel alongside some pineapple, peach and apple, which leads to an off-dry palate with plenty of acidity, and more apple notes. Great complexity in this well-structured wine, and some real potential for ageing too,’ RA.
£22.63, Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
84 Schloss Johannisberg, Riesling Silberlack 1st Growth 2015
‘So delicate on the nose, full of lime and lemon, leading to a dry palate, with fresh acidity, plus almond and honey notes. An incredibly long finish, too,’ LW.
‘There’s impressive structure to this concentrated, mouthfilling Riesling. Jasmine notes, as well as honeysuckle, follow on from tangy lemon sorbet. With great mineral structure on the palate, this is very poised yet expressive. A balance of apricot and peach notes, with tingling acidity and a long, lemon-and-spice finish make this a perfect complement to Indian, Thai, or even Mexican cuisine,’ SS.
£39.39, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, 01582 722538
84 Weingut Weegmüller, Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Mandelring ‘Der Elegante’ 2014
‘Intense on the nose, with some ripe lemon, lime and mandarin, plus a touch of lemon grass too. The palate is fresh, with balanced acidity and an intense lemon custard note that fills the palate, while also cleaning everything,’ GG. ‘Textbook Riesling. This is sharp and zingy, with some good flint in the background,’ GBS.
£14.39, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, 01582 722538
83 Dr Loosen, Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2014
‘A very refreshing nose of limes, fresh almonds, white flowers and honeysuckle. It’s full of citrus fruit on the palate, with crushed almonds and a touch of apricot. Very delicate, with great acidity, and a long, persistent aftertaste. A higher-priced by-the-glass option. A meditation wine!’ LW.
‘Very complex and elegant on the nose, with a well-balanced palate full of lemons, apples and stone fruit, leading to a clean finish with more green apple and some spice,’ CF.
£15.33, Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
83 Dr Wehrheim, Riesling GG Kastanienbusch 2015
‘Very elegant, with great ripe lemon notes, and some slatey minerality on the palate,’ GBS. ‘A marine-like note upfront, as well as some stone fruit and pear notes. Overall, a light body, and light fragrance. It’s great to see delicacy at this price point, with pristine stone-fruit character and astonishing balance. A high-end treat with a twist,’ OB.
£30, Wine Source UK, 020 3574 4031
83 Gunderloch, Als Wär’s Ein Stück Von Mir 2015
‘Tight and precise on both nose and palate, starting with some light nectarine aromas, and leading to a very fresh and acidic finish. Elegant, but still very characterful,’ CC.
‘Ripe lemon and honeysuckle on the nose, before a slightly off-dry palate, with honeyed citrus fruits and a touch of spice. A great option for spicy food,’ LW.
£10.94, Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
83 Schätzel, ReinSchiefer Riesling 2013
‘A very good wine that’s showing some evolution, with candied citrus and a hint of petrol. This all leads to a persistent, very good finish. A complex wine,’ RA.
‘A great style, with floral notes contributing towards a complex aroma, leading to a very well-balanced palate with a sharp finish,’ GBS. ‘Floral aromas, like quince, as well as a slate note – a great aperitif wine or a match for starters,’ MS.
£14.92, Top Selection, 0845 410 3255
83 Schätzel, Nierstein Pettenthal Riesling 2006
‘Acacia flowers and cooked quince notes lead to a mineral palate, with some umami notes, too. A match for foie gras,’ MS.
‘A beautiful nose of lemon and stone fruit, with a touch of cinnamon, too, leading to spice and lemon cake on the palate, with some dry stone-fruit notes. I’d pair this well-balanced wine with lobster or king prawns,’ CF.
£26.19, Top Selection, 0845 410 3255
83 Schloss Johannisberg, Riesling Grünlack Spätlese Green Seal 2015
‘Lemon, lime, pink grapefruit and flint lead to an off-dry palate, with a nice balance between freshness and sweetness. And some time on the lees gives this its tannic sensation typical of Riesling,’ GG.
‘A candied apple and lemon aroma lead to some sweetness on the palate, with pear and peach, balanced with good acidity. Best served with floating meringue on a bed of exotic fruit,’ RA.
£30.07, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, 01582 722538
82 Dr Bürklin-Wolf, Wachenheimer Riesling 2015
‘A delicate nose, but with lots of flavour, like citrus, spice, white flowers, honeysuckle and almonds. The palate’s very fresh, with great length. A very well-made wine. A second bottle, please!’ LW.
‘Great citrus, like mandarin, leading to a balanced body with a yeasty, lactic finish. A serious, grown-up wine that feels very layered and complete, and absolutely overdelivers,’ OB.
£12.92, Tanners Wines, 01743 234400
81 Knipser, Laumersheimer Kapellenberg Riesling Kabinett Trocken 2015
‘Light and perfumed, and overall quite restrained on the nose. Lots of zesty grapefruit follows on the palate – a well-balanced wine,’ GBS.
‘Some light floral notes on the nose, as well as some quince, and a touch of pepper, leading to some lovely acidity, and a touch of minerality on the palate, too. A good match for poultry or pork,’ MS.
£11.92, Enotria&Coe, 020 8961 4411
81 Leitz Eins Zwei Dry 2015
‘Very fruity, with red and green apple, as well as some stone fruit, and a bit spicy, too. Very good balance and acidity,’ CF. ‘Ripe fruit, like mango, on the nose, along with some candied lemon peel and some sage, too, leading to a dry palate with ripe citrus and some good length,’ RA.
‘Unpretentious, and ticks all the boxes for an entry-level Riesling.’ OB
£7.96, Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
80 Schloss Johannisberg, Riesling QbA Feinherb Yellow Seal 2015
‘Lightly structured, but with some tropical aromas, and a touch of diesel. There’s some sugar evident on the palate, alongside some citrus pith and some spice. A very interesting, versatile wine,’ CC.
‘Delicate flavours of candied lemon, white flowers like acacia, chalk and wet stones. The palate is elegant, with good balance between acidity, alcohol, fruit extraction and texture, finishing with lemon and candied lime,’ GG.
£17.02, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, 01582 722538
80 Tesch Riesling Krone 2014
‘Wet grass, stone fruit and spicy red apple lead to a well-balanced palate, with that grassy note making this quite clean. A perfect wine for big, fatty fish like salmon,’ CF.
‘Lemon cheesecake aromas lead to a very fresh palate, with high acidity and ripe lemon flavours that make this a great match for rich dishes,’ LW.
£14.47, Enotria&Coe, 020 8961 4411
79 Balthasar Ress, Von Unserm Riesling 2015
‘White grape juice notes, as well as some red and green apples, and a touch of grass with lots of minerality. Very well balanced overall, with a dry, fresh finish,’ CF.
‘Good intensity and complexity, with ripe apple, pineapple and white peach, as well as some candied lemon peel. A very good, well-structured wine with a long finish,’ RA.
£12.18, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7670 0967
78 Schloss Johannisberg, Riesling Kabinett Trocken Red Seal (Rotlack) 2015
‘An intense nose of lemon, lime and flint with this wine, leading to a fresh and long aftertaste, with lots of lemon,’ GG.
‘A light Riesling, but with some exotic fruit, like lychee, alongside bright citrus notes. Unusual for this style of wine, but potentially very useful, with its touch of RS, and some good ripeness,’ CC.
£21.36, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, 01582 722538
77 Reichsrat von Buhl, Bone Dry Riesling 2015
‘An aroma like a lemon tree leads to a palate full of citrus fruits, but delicate nevertheless. Fresh, crisp and very persistent – an amazing option for by-the-glass, and a perfect match for fatty dishes like pork belly with leeks and apricots,’ LW.
‘Lemon yoghurt, ripe yellow apricots and grapefruit, as well as some tender jasmine notes, and some zesty vibrance. There’s a long finish, with some white pepper and some soft toasty notes. Good for summer salads,’ SS.
£9.64, Hayward Bros, 020 7237 0576
76 Rings, Riesling Kalkmergel 2015
‘A real summer wine, floral and youthful, with refreshing acidity, pear and peach flavours, as well as some lemon,’ SS.
‘Aromatic herbs and citrus notes on the nose, such as rosemary and lime, as well as some fresh lemon and green apple. More apple notes follow on the dry palate, with some more lemon citrus, too,’ RA.
£11.63, Tanners Wines, 01743 234400
74 Reichsrat von Buhl, Riesling Trocken Pfalz Qba 2015
‘Intense and complex, with apple and pear, as well as ripe stone fruit like peach and apricot. Citrus notes on the palate finish with a saltiness that makes the finish clean and dry,’ GG.
‘Crisp acidity stands out for this refreshing Riesling. A vibrant and zing-backed wine with lots of floral notes, too. The mouthwatering acidity balances well with the body, finishing up with a charming green pear and white peach note,’ SS.
£8.36, Hayward Bros, 020 7237 0576
74 Van Volxem, Saar Riesling 2015
‘Lovely zippy fruit, with citrus and nectarine, and a nice long, fresh finish. For the price, this would make a great pub wine, to be enjoyed in the sunshine with grilled fish,’ CC. ‘Lemon, lime and green apple on the nose, as well as some peach, all joined on the fresh palate with a touch of spice. Very well balanced,’ CF.
£9.57, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360
67 Villa Wolf Wachenheimer Belz Riesling Premier Cru 2014
‘A delicate wine, and a great aperitif, with quince notes and a hint of candy, as well as some mineral notes, all backed up by some lovely acidity,’ MS.
‘Some lemon and lime peel on the restrained nose, leading to a creamy, chalky mouthfeel, with some green apple on the finish,’ GG.
£9.63, Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
The scores here speak for themselves. Panellists had hardly a bad word to say about this entire flight, lavishing praise on almost every wine, and awarding these an exceptional average score of 81%.
Riesling’s reputation as a food wine was confirmed by our tasters, too, who paired these wines with everything from light fish to dessert, with pork and red meat in between, and covering cuisines as diverse as Thai, Indian, Mexican and more. A lot were nominated as being good aperitif wines, too.
A little residual sugar didn’t put our tasters off, and in some instances was seen as a positive when it came to food matching, provided this sweetness was well balanced. In most cases, it was.
These didn’t come cheap, with the majority clocking in above £10, and nearly a third occupying the £20-£40 bracket, but our tasters weren’t fazed by this. And the scores proved that you get what you pay for when it comes to German Riesling, with the sub-£10 examples all occupying the bottom half of the results.
Sparkling Riesling from Germany, although in small numbers, shouldn’t be overlooked, offering a refreshing alternative for this part of your wine list, and at good prices, too.
The consensus among panellists was that these generally had everything required to succeed in the on-trade, lacking only some exposure on wine lists. But with hand-selling and by-the-glass positioning, they should fly.
Rudina Arapi, Galvin at Windows
‘I was expecting wines with lots of acidity, sometimes some sweetness, and sometimes a bit of ageing, and that’s what I found. I think some of the off-dry wines would work well with light fish dishes, or as an aperitif. I thought the lower-priced wines here were particularly reasonable.’
Gergely Barsi Szabó, Sager + Wilde
‘I’d be happy to list any of the wines here. The mid-range in particular was crazy-good. Everyone in England is into crisp, dry white wine – well, here it is. Were they all dry? No. Do I care? No. These wines are about balance. The way to sell these wines is to put them on your list, and start selling them.’
Oleg Buyalo, Luca
‘Riesling is probably how I fell in love with fine wines. That said, I thought the lower-priced wines here were the best. Around £10 was the sweet spot. These wines have great purity that really shows off ingredients, so I think it’s best to go with simpler food matches, lightly seasoned. Fatty, acidic cuts of meat are fine, but the simpler the dish the better.’
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘An exceptional line-up of wines, demonstrating real consistency when it came to quality. These really are indispensable for many wine lists, whether for a gastropub or a fine-dining restaurant. The pair of sparkling wines were a revelation, too – hopefully we’ll see more of these. Overall, it seems all that German Riesling needs is to get on to more wine lists, into glasses and in front of consumers.’
Carlos Ferreira, The Sign of the Don
‘Other Riesling regions like Austria and Alsace are sometimes only about the acidity, while Germany has always done a good job balancing that with fruit, alcohol, finesse and the finish. It makes these great for restaurants – you get some serious white wines
that you can match with food, as well as examples that would work on their own on a sunny day like this.’
Gabriele Galuppo, Theo Randall
‘Germany is the mother country for this grape, and we saw some nice expressions of the style here today. And in terms of food friendliness, I think Riesling is one of the best matches for cuisines like Mexican, where you have the balance of lime and acidity with tropical fruit, and spice, too. The off-dry wines are a good match in particular.’
Sumita Sarma, Sumilier
‘Germany seems to be trying to make its wines less austere, in an expressive style. I was quite pleased to see those zesty examples. There were just a few that had that typical Germanic character – those late-harvest, golden wines. Versatility was a theme overall here. About 80% of these, for example, would pair well with Asian food.’
Masahito Suzuki, Sosharu
‘I think we can really make more of a market for these wines. Price-wise, if you compare them to Alsace Riesling, or white Burgundy, these are really good value. I’ve got six VDP Rieslings on my list. I think the VDP system is a good thing. It’s similar to Burgundy’s system, and makes it easier to communicate with guests about these wines.’
Lukasz Walkowiak, Oxo Tower
‘Riesling is the sommelier’s favourite grape. It’s like the teacher’s favourite pupil, but when it actually goes out to play football with the other kids it ends up on the sideline. At the lower end, these are great by the glass, while higher up the price scale they’re so complex. Pair with spicy food, fatty fish or creamy sauces.’
Many thanks to the team at M Victoria for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day.