Berger on wine: German Riesling a wine for hard-to-pair dishes

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Trivia question: If you should hear a conversation in which Person A asks, “Is this wine sweet or dry?” and Person B replies, “Yes and no” — and is correct! — what wine is being talked about?

There is really only one answer to this riddle. The wine in question is a Riesling from Germany.

The answer Person B gave is correct because of the way most German Rieslings are made, with a trace of residual sugar in theoretically dry wines. So the wines are both faintly sweet in the mid-palate and food-friendly dry in the aftertaste.

High acid is always a feature of German wines, both whites and reds, and in the last few years, laws governing the production and marketing of German wines have changed, in theory to make it easier for consumers to understand them.

In some cases, the wines have become a little easier to understand. But in many ways, the new German rules are still so confusing that it’s hard to explain why a term that once meant one thing no longer is being used, and new terms are now in place to explain what’s in the bottle. But without much consumer education.

In some cases, a term is used to explain why a wine costs so much. But this doesn’t say anything about the wine’s sweetness or dryness. And as much as I love German Rieslings, I’m still dealing with terms that are supposed to be helpful but aren’t.

Remember the term Auslese? Decades ago, I was told (in a wine education course at UCLA) that it was a term for late-picking of fruit and generally was used for sweeter wines.

Last week, we pulled out of our cellar a 2001 Franz Kunstler Riesling Auslese Trocken. It was sensational with dinner. And that’s because it was dry. The key word on the label was “trocken,” German for dry. So although Auslese usually means “sweet,” not every wine with that designation is.

I can understand the confusion if you should get a bottle of German Riesling that doesn’t say trocken but has the letters GG on the front label, and you find it to be bone dry.

GG stands for “grosses gewachs,” a relatively new term applied to certain wines by a century-old German organization, VDP, that refers to some vineyard wines that are dry. The attempt to denote special characteristics for certain world-class German wines and a parallel effort to designate which everyday wines are similar to designations that were well known in the past, and which represent new styles of wine, has caused confusion in the marketplace.

The other problem, of course, is the tongue twister names that are hard to remember or impossible to pronounce. This has left some wine lists so confusing that I can understand someone simply saying, “I’ll have a glass of chardonnay, please.”

What’s really sad is that some phenomenal German Rieslings have been made in the last several years from a series of excellent vintages. There is more fresh fruit than in the past, better balance, and amazing food compatibility with many of the drier wines.

Since few restaurant people understand all of this, (or any of this!) they stick with more common wines, even if Riesling would be perfect with their food.

One innovative California restaurant has seized the opportunity to offer a dozen Rieslings by the glass ($9 to $14), and to sell them all by the bottle as well, plus six by the bottle only (the prices are relatively affordable at $28 to $48 per bottle.)

Sea Thai Bistro in Santa Rosa is so sure that Riesling works well with its cuisine that it is willing to make a little bit less per bottle than other restaurants would. The hope is that loyal customers will find the food/wine pairings so sublime they’ll return often.

Sea Thai’s manager and sommelier, Melissa Hotchkiss, is behind this creative program that includes nine German Rieslings with the emphasis on drier styles.

She also appreciates mature Rieslings, and recently listed the exotic 2011 Dry Riesling from Villa Maria in New Zealand ($28), which is extraordinary with most of the restaurant’s dishes.

The best part of this program is that the knowledgeable Hotchkiss can explain to diners which wines are sweeter or drier than others. And the tactic seems to be working: Sea Thai’s Riesling sales have risen dramatically in recent months.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Maximin Grunhaus Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Mosel ($29): One of the finest houses in the Mosel Valley, this brand owned by Carl Von Schubert has outrageously steep vineyards, some of the most picturesque in the world. Kabinett wines tend to be sweet, but here the wine is “trocken,” so nearly bone dry. It is remarkably fruity, still has a trace of sugar, and works brilliantly with Thai food. It is available at Sea Thai Bistro for $30.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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