Cellar Direct: German Riesling Powerhouses

3 11 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Serious wine, serious value.

You owe it to yourself to drink more German Riesling.  You may not know it yet, but you do.  I know the idea of turning to something German doesn’t conjure up the same (somewhat oversold) feelings of art or romance that something French or Italian might, but I’m here to tell you that startling clarity, absolute transparency and unfailing precision can be much sexier than you give them credit for.

And I know, I know – you don’t like sweet wine and all German wine is sweet, right?  Except (1) your palate may be more attuned to sweetness than you expect, and (2) no, no it’s not.  In fact, some German Rieslings are as dry as a bone, often helpfully highlighted by the label indicator “trocken”. A “trocken” designation doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be no residual sugar left in the wine, but any that remains will be minimal (9 grams per litre or less) and the wine will taste dry, thanks to a helpful assist from German Riesling’s often raging levels of scouring acidity.  Another hint of dryness in German whites is (relatively) elevated levels of alcohol, since this is an indication that the bulk of the sugars in the grapes have been converted to alcohol during fermentation instead of left in the finished wine.  Generally speaking, if it’s 10.5%-11% abv or higher, it probably won’t taste sweet (and frankly, even if there is some discernible sweetness, you will probably welcome it given how much else will be going on.  Trust me.)

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This duo of bottles is another sneak peek at the upcoming offerings of Cellar Direct, the updated and rejuvenated Canadian Natural Wine Club whose present offering (value Burgundy!) I recently featured on PnP.  In brief:  every Saturday, give or take, the folks at Cellar Direct will feature a new high-quality, low-intervention, attractively priced offering, let you order as much or as little as you want, and then ship it to you in temperature-controlled trucks.  This is an awesome opportunity to access some exhaustively sourced hidden gems if you’re in Alberta, and a downright steal if you’re in BC or other more archaic wine-selling provinces; you will not get anything like what is being offered here for the prices you will pay in those areas.  I’ve had a few chances to test out what Cellar Direct has on offer, including another German Riesling from the same producer, and I can safely say that these two might be the best yet.

These Rieslings hail from Weingut Ratzenberger of Germany’s Mittelrhein region, a lesser-known area at the northeastern end of the famed Mosel Valley, where the Mosel river meets the Rhine (“Mittelrhein” means “middle of the Rhine”).  Ratzenberger is located near the town of Bacharach, on the western bank of the Rhine, where it owns 8 hectares of south-facing vineyards on terrifyingly steep 50-60 degree slopes of clay and slate, of the type you tend to only find by a river in Germany.  The extreme slope and proximity to the water ensure maximum access to sunlight and heat retention in this chilly area at the northern limits of successful viticulture.  All of Ratzenberger’s grapes are hand-picked (which is unsurprising, since any tractor used would fall off the vineyard hill and into the Rhine) and vinified in extremely old neutral oak barrels using indigenous natural yeasts.  The wines may be some of the greatest values in the wine world today.

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2012 Ratzenberger Bacharacher Riesling Kabinett Trocken (Offer Date: Nov. 5)

People make fun of the lengthy and, at first blush, confusing German wine labels all the time, but once you learn how to read them, they actually tell you almost everything you need to know about a bottle before you buy it, making them some of the most consumer-friendly on Earth.  In this case, “Bacharacher” refers to the fact that the grapes were grown near the village of Bacharach (the “-er” suffix is often a dead giveaway for the village reference), “Kabinett” is a ripeness designation for quality German grapes indicating fully ripe but not overripe grapes, and “Trocken”, as noted above, means “dry”. So without doing any research or looking at more than five words on a label, I can tell you that this is a dry German Riesling from the Ratzenberger winery made from just-ripe grapes grown near Bacharach in the Mittelrhein.  That’s impressive.  Many Kabinett-level wines clock in at 10% alcohol or less, so the 11.5% abv on this bottle almost guarantees by itself that this will be fully dry, which it is.

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The Bacharacher Kabinett (which already has four years of age on it, a nice bonus) is a lively lemon colour, barely flecked with golden touches.  It smells like I imagine honey might if it wasn’t at all sweet:  beeswax, crystallized ginger, lemon cough drops and quartz, ringed by a faint aroma of glorious Teutonic diesel.  Immediately fuller and richer than your standard garden-variety Kabinett due to its dryness and heightened alcohol, there is no daintiness about it, but it remains classically, achingly linear, pristinely precise, with not a hair out of place throughout.  It’s not afraid to get a little grimy on the palate, mixing elastic bands/torched rubber with dried apple, lemon zest, haunting florals and rivers of scorching acid, leaving petrol and meringue duelling on a finish that lasts at least 30 seconds.  This is serious, serious Riesling.  I could drink this every day.  Oh, and it’s going to cost you TWENTY-FOUR DOLLARS.  Come on.

91+ points

$20 to $25 CDN

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Cork Ratings:  6.5/10 (Yes, the corks are boring, but there’s tartrates on one and mould on another – I’m a sucker for aging effects.)

2011 Ratzenberger Steeger St. Jost Riesling Spatlese Trocken (Offer Date: Nov. 26)

This label is even longer and more intimidating, but provides even more valuable information.  If you picked out the “-er” based on the last bottle, bravo – “Steeger” means that these grapes come from the vicinity of the village of Steeg, which is west and inland from Bacharach.  A proper name after the “-er” word, in this case “St. Jost”, usually refers to a single vineyard near the village in question:  the St. Jost vineyard just outside of Steeg was called the Altar of Bacchus by the Romans, who first planted wine grapes there over two thousand years (!!) ago.  “Spatlese” is the ripeness designation above Kabinett, literally translating to “late harvest”, where grapes are picked  slightly later and riper, at significant (for Germany) sugar levels.  Most Spatlese wines aren’t dry…but most aren’t a swarthy 12.5% alcohol either.  I would guess this one strains against the 9 g/L sugar maximum for the “Trocken” designation, but there’s enough going on that it’s hard to notice.

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This smells like I imagine honey might if it was just a tiny bit sweet, and on fire.  Smoke, flint and burning candles join a riper chorus of mandarin orange, persimmon, burnt maple, Asian spice and spearmint – just read those again for a second.  How can a wine smell like that??  Viscous yet vibrant on the palate, the Spatlese is all sultana and currant and Vaseline and warm rocks, a series of flavour dots that only German Riesling can connect.  This is an absolutely transportive wine, at once lifted and present, pulsating with life and not letting go until well after you swallow.  There will not be a better $29 that you can spend. 

92+ points

$25 to $30 CDN

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