As you plunge into the world of German Riesling, like so many other novice wine geeks, you are quickly greeted with a reminder of why these wines remain so hard to understand for the general drinking populace. First off they are indecipherable to the uninitiated. Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben is the producer (and not the only one whose name starts as Joh. Jos., eg. Prum), Urziger Wurzgarten is the vineyard name and Riesling Auslese is the type of wine. The final part means the grapes are picked at advanced levels of ripeness (often starting to dry out on the vine) and more often than not sweet (Trocken Auslese, or dry, is somewhat rare). The three stars are part of the producer’s scheme for designating different styles of Auslese that would otherwise have an identical name. Other producers commonly use capsule color or a number for the same purpose.
Confused? Good, that confusion is why I can spend 25$ on a bottle of very well crafted Auslese that has decades of age ahead of it, from a well-respected producer. A Napa Cabernet that fit that same standard would cost me three or four times as much. Unfortunately sweeter wines are stilled viewed by the uninitiated as synonymous with cheap. Nicki Minaj’s brand of Moscato, that sweet low alcohol club beverage, is proof that if it is sweet and low alcohol, than it is not worth a look.
There are two reasons Riesling is worth the effort to understand. First, world class Riesling typically costs less than 100$ for the finest examples and even then there are plenty of top bottles with decades of potential selling for less than 40$. Second they are a glorious food wine, pairing with typically difficult Asian dishes, heavy spice, and frequently desserts (though not chocolate).
Today’s Riesling was chosen in part because I was able to secure it at auction for such a reasonable price. I have loved the young Rieslings I have tried recently but wanted more to experience the grape with some age. While 2003 was viewed as a extremely hot year in Europe, many producers made fine wine regardless, and this one was said to be among them. At 14 years old, I reasoned an Auslese from a ripe vintage would be drinking very well and offer a lovely opportunity.
A somewhat understated nose of petrol and beeswax greeted me (along with a wet rock kind of minerality), and though the aromatics never got as expressive as I wanted, the taste was perfect. Acid and sweetness were both quite robust and in balance. Tart tropical fruits like pineapple and stone fruits like white peach were in full force with a bit of green fruits and herbs playing second fiddle. This made my very unconventional pairing of Cacio e Pepe (Pecorino cheese and black pepper on spaghetti) a surprising match, though not the ideal on. Next time I will try a mild yellow curry, or a tart fruit dessert. That said, on its own is pretty darn special too.