JOHN WINTHROP HAEGER
Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright and Dry
University of California Press, Oakland, 2016, 369 pp.
Reviewer: Christian G.E. Schiller
There are approximately 47,000 hectares planted with Riesling worldwide. Germany—with 22,500 hectares—accounts for about half of the total. From a global perspective, Riesling is a niche grape variety, accounting for less than 1% of world wine production. From a global perspective, it is the fruity-sweet style (with the fermentation stopped so that the wine remains sweet and the level of alcohol low) and the rare noble-sweet style (lusciously sweet wines due to noble rot or frost in the vineyard) that are receiving the attention of the connoisseurs of premium wines. Dry Riesling has played a minor role in the world of wine, but this is changing. The Rieslings from Alsace and Austria, both considerably smaller producers of Riesling than Germany (Alsace produces approximately 15% and Austria approximately 7% of what Germany produces), have always been in the dry category (although the Rieslings from Alsace have shown a trend toward an increasing level of remaining sweetness in the wine over the past decades), and, importantly, Germany, the dominating Riesling force in the world, has undergone a major trans- formation in the past 40 years: The fruity-sweet Rieslings have been crowded out from the wine lists in Germany, while the “dry wave”—“Trockenwelle”—has swept the country. When you go to a wine bar, wine store, or restaurant in say Frankfurt, Berlin, or Munich, it is very difficult to find a fruity-sweet Riesling. The wine lists are dominated by dry Riesling.
It is against this background that John Winthrop Haeger has written Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright and Dry. There is nothing in the book on what some of my wine friends in the United States consider the best Rieslings of the world: the low-alcohol Kabinett and Spätlese wines from such iconic winemakers as Egon Müller, JJ Prüm, or Forstmeister Zilliken from the Mosel. Rather, it is all about dry Riesling, and the only Mosel producer included in the description of the world’s top dry Riesling producers is Clemens Busch, who makes outstanding ultra- premium dry wines in Pünderich.
In 350 pages, Haeger provides a comprehensive account of what dry Riesling is all about. The style of the book shows that the author is a researcher and not a journalist (Haeger is a China scholar). The book is not an introduction for a newcomer, but a solid piece of research work for somebody who is familiar with the subject. The book combines academic rigor with a passion for dry Riesling.
Unfortunately, the book covers only the Northern Hemisphere, omitting in partic- ular such important producers of dry Riesling as Australia and New Zealand, but also countries like Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is a wide-ranging discussion of dry Riesling. Haeger brings together a wealth of information on various aspects of dry Riesling, including the history, the styles, the clones, the culture, and the habitats. He addresses the issues of the definition of dry Riesling and the balance in dry Riesling in useful boxes. The section on the dif- ferent Riesling clones is the most thorough and complete write-up on the issue that I am aware of.
Haeger provides a detailed review of the shift from dry to sweet Riesling (the Trockenwelle) that has happened in the past 40 years in Germany. He underpins his reasoning with fascinating details such as the change on the wine list of the trendy restaurant Ente in Wiesbaden that one could observe over time. Chef Klaus-Peter Wodartz of the Ente was one of the leaders in the Neue Deutsche Küche (New German Cooking) movement in the 1970s in Germany, which is cred- ited with being a driving force in the Trockenwelle. Other factors are climate change, a spillover effect from Alsace, and the desire by the young winemaker gen- eration, led by the late George Breuer of Weingut Georg Breuer in Rüdesheim, to produce premium dry Riesling that can compete with the best white wines in the world.
As we all know, wine is normally dry. Riesling is the only noble grape variety in which the wine can be dry, fruity-sweet, or noble-sweet. I would have loved to see a clear delineation of dry Riesling from the other categories, in particular from the fruity-sweet style. The German Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese wines are not sweet because Mother Nature was more generous with the grapes, but because of skillful intervention of the winemaker in the cellar. Without the winemaker inter- rupting the fermentation, all these wines would be dry. In this context, a discussion of the widespread view that generally dry Riesling is inferior to sweet Riesling would have been useful.
The second part is a detailed study of the best vineyards for dry Riesling in the (northern) world and an in-depth description of the key producers of dry Riesling in these vineyards and their wine-making approaches. Haeger identifies 89 superior sites and groups them under five headings: Rhine Basin (with Alsace and German Wine Regions), Danube Basin: Lower Austria, Adige Basin: Alto Adige, Eastern North America, and Western North America. Haeger provides most interesting descriptions of these top sites.
The reviews of the winemakers and their wine-making approaches are com- prehensive with many interesting details. I found each one of them fascinating to read. However, I would have preferred a greater number of reviews, each with a shorter text. Quite a number of leading producers of dry Riesling, at least in Germany, are not mentioned in the book. The Franken area, an early producer of bone-dry Rieslings, is completely left out. Other obvious omissions include Dönnhoff, Schäfer-Fröhlich, Sybille Kuntz, Klaus Peter Keller, Franz Künstler, Karthäuserhof, and Immich-Batterieberg, to name a few. That Dr. Loosen is not mentioned is because the major dry Riesling ini- tiative of this producer is too recent. Still, many of the big players in Germany are discussed.
The book is very different from many other wine books in that it does not take a fresh look at a subject that has been treated before by other authors. This is the first book about dry Riesling. It has a bit of the character of a doctoral dissertation in that it covers new ground—and it does so in a detailed and comprehensive manner. For somebody like me who grew up with dry German Riesling, it was a great pleasure to read, but really, anybody interested in the story of dry Riesling will enjoy reading this book.
Christian G.E. Schiller
International Monetary Fund (ret.)
Emeritus Professor University of Mainz, Germany