Riesling Rises Dry Again

Posted: June 26, 1988

"Is there life beyond Liebfraumilch?" asks Bernhard Breuer, a West German wine producer. Not a question I often ponder, but the possibilities, I'll admit, are intriguing. Then I realize that Breuer is not asking me personally. He doesn't even wait for a response to declare, "We're answering that question right now."

Well, the answer is yes (thank goodness!), there is life for West German wines beyond Liebfraumilch - and the reason is Charta, a new organization of West German wine producers from the Rheingau who are trying to save the West German wine industry by reviving an old tradition of making dry (yes, dry) white Riesling wines in the Rheingau. Breuer is president and founding member of Charta, which was formed in 1984 "to restore the reputation for high quality to the Rheingau region."

Apparently, Rheingau wines were not always sweet. Classical Rheingau Rieslings were highly regarded for their complexity, balance of dry piquant fruit and acidity, and their ability to age well. According to Breuer, it wasn't until the end of World War II that Germans developed a sweet tooth.

Breuer explains that in the midst of poverty, "interest in sweeter things is much higher than in times of affluence." Fortunately (or unfortunately), the 1950s coincided with the introduction of technology - the Zeitzfilter - that allowed winemakers to stop fermentation before all of the sugar was converted into alcohol, leaving a high percentage of residual sweetness in all wines, not just late-harvested dessert wines.

"Then the American soldiers came. They found the sweet wines and thought they were great. 'This is Germany!' they assumed," Breuer says with a sigh. ''But we lost our tradition of dry wines. We lost our identity. Somehow we were responsible. Sweet wines have led us into a dead end."

Sales of West German wines have fallen dramatically in recent years (coinciding, incidentally, with the affluence of the 1980s). From a high of 16 million gallons in 1984, imports of West German wines tumbled to 7 million gallons in 1987 (with an astounding 25 percent drop between 1986 and 1987). Sweet-wine sippers have switched allegiances to white zinfandel, and serious oenophiles contend that sweet West German wines are not compatible with food. Consequently, restaurants have dropped West German wines from their lists and, as Breuer puts it, "if you're not on wine lists, it's close to being dead."

Enter the Charta wines - dry, clean and crisp. Taking their lead from the successful "black rooster" campaign of the producers of Italy's Chianti Classico, the Charta members adopted a "double arch" symbol to identify their wines. Traditional tall, brown Rheingau wine bottles are embossed with the Charta symbol, which is repeated on the back label. Rigorous winemaking standards (stricter than West Germany's wine laws and designed to create long- lived quality wines) must be met to qualify as a Charta wine. But best of all, they're made to be served with food.

Although Charta's wines are not widely available outside New York at the moment, a nationwide marketing effort is under way. Breuer's wines have a limited distribution in New Jersey. Of the 25 Charta wines sampled, these are my favorites, with approximate prices. (West German wine labels follow the following formula: vintage, producer, village, vineyard, grape and, if applicable, the pradikat or category.)

* 1986 Staatsweingut Rauenthaler Baiken Riesling ($15). Complex aromas. Charming full, ripe, fruit flavors. Good acidity. Long finish.

* 1983 Hans Lang Hattenheimer Hassel Riesling Kabinett ($12). Lovely floral perfume. Delicate light fruit with honey and clover, yet dry.

* 1983 Deinhard-Wegeler Oestricher Klosterberg Riesling Kabinett ($14). This wine has taken on mature buttery aromas. Sweet ripe fruit with dazzling acidity. Textured and long.

* 1985 Deinhard-Wegeler Oestricher Lenchen Riesling Kabinett ($14). Closed up. Tart, lemony, acidic but mute. Needs age.

* 1984 Balthasar Ress Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling ($11). Citric and full of grapefruit flavors. Lots of fruit up front. Tart finish.

* 1985 Balthasar Ress Hattenheimer Nussbrunnen Riesling Kabinett ($14). Lovely, delicate. Clean and refreshing.

* 1985 Hans Barth Hattenheimer Schutzenhaus Riesling ($12). Pale, light and subtle. Enticing like a fine chablis. Delicate.

* 1986 Hans Barth Hattenheimer Schutzenhaus Riesling Kabinett ($14). Full- flavored assertive fruit. Gorgeous ripe fruit. Luscious peach and apricot, marvelous acidity and balance. Great future.

* 1986 August Eser Oestricher Lenchen Riesling ($11). Clean and fresh with delicate aromas of peaches and apricot. Elegant style, nicely balanced.

* 1986 August Eser Oestricher Doosberg Riesling Kabinett ($12). Big heavy hitter. Darker and richer than most of the Charta wines. Rich and nutty.

* 1986 Schloss Vollrads Riesling Grunsilber ($12). Beautiful, complex fruit character, with considerable depth and length.

* 1986 Georg Breuer Rudesheimer Bischofsberg Riesling ($12). Charming, tart and lemony. Good acid but needs time to open up.

* 1986 Georg Breuer Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Kabinett ($19). Gorgeous nose. Rich, ripe, exotic fruit flavors follow through to a long, exciting finish.

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