Late last year I finally caught German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk live when they played Auckland Town Hall. At once serious and focused while infused by a pop sensibility, it was amazing how fresh they seemed after so many years in the business, and still able to inspire a younger generation the world over. Mein Gott, I thought, these musical musings could equally apply to the wines of their homeland!
We don't see a great deal of German wine here, but what we do have is largely lapped up by a small group of wine lovers aware that it's the source of some of the world's greatest rieslings. Germany does produce other varieties - such as muller-thurgau and grauburgunder (pinot gris) in the whites that dominate its vineyards, plus reds such as spatburgunder (pinot noir) - but riesling is by far its most important grape, covering an area comparable with New Zealand's entire land under vine.
Much of the excitement of German rieslings is derived from their purity and poise between the sweetness found in many examples with the freshness that's heightened through being grown in such a cool land - something that can make them feel far drier than their sugar levels suggest.
Though often light in body and alcohol, they can also be amazingly intense, with a profile that's intriguing to the aficionado and accessible to the uninitiated.
"Although New Zealand and other countries produce some very good riesling, with harmony and balance between fruit and acidity, the wines of Germany combine this with extraordinary power while remaining so pure and elegant," says Mark Dixon of Christchurch's Decant, who brings some of the great names of Germany into the country. "And they're capable of amazing longevity, particularly from the great producers in great vintages." With the recent run of great years, there's never been a better time to try them.
However, in the same way that the seminal sounds of Kraftwerk didn't result in a sellout performance on our shores, German wines suffer from a similarly low profile here. For most wine drinkers, they've remain below the radar, while some still harbour memories of the mediocrity seen in the liebfraumilch era of the 70s - a bit like Kraftwerk's dodgy remixes of the 90s, but both band and wines are now largely back on track!
Their popularity has also not been helped by Germany's complex labelling, which can make a trip through the country's wines feel less like a smooth ride in a BMW down the autobahn and more akin a trek up Baldwin St in a stalling Holden. It's because German wine classification is primarily based on the ripeness (or sugar content) of a wine's grapes; you need a bit of knowledge to work out what you're getting.
Qualitatswein (QbA) is its standard quality wine category; its wines tend to be off dry unless the term dry (trocken) is indicated. Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (QmP) is the step above and split into different quality levels. These start with kabinett, the lightest and potentially driest style; then the later harvested, richer and frequently off- to medium-dry spatlese; followed by auslese made from selected extra-ripe bunches, which tend to be on the sweeter side.
Then with beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and eiswein you're in dessert wine territory.
While German's finest wines are arguably its sweet ones, more producers are now making drier styles. In an attempt to make these more easily identifiable, new classifications for dry wines - Classic and the higher, Selection - were introduced.
Like my heroes Kraftwerk, Germany's wines remain classics and definitely still have what it takes to satisfy sophisticated modern tastes.
Villa Wolf Pfalz Pinot Blanc 2007 $19.99
From the estate of the ever reliable Dr Loosen, try this minerally bone dry pinot blanc with its ultra tangy palate of citrus, apple and almond as an uber-cheap alternative to chablis. Delicious.
A Prum Essence Mosel Riesling 2007 $25.90
A great everyday riesling with pure fleshy peach fruit, notes of mineral and a hint of sweetness nicely juxtaposed by racy grapefruit acidity.
(From Scenic Cellars.)
Grans-Fassian Trittenheimer Apotheke Mosel Auslese Riesling 1997 $40
Given German riesling's ability to age gloriously for decades, Chris Carrad from Huapai's Wine Circle suggests a bottle makes just a good a christening gift as vintage port, and a good deal cheaper too I'd say. This is an affordable taste of a marvellously mature specimen that oozes rich sweet notes of honey on toast and spiced apple underpinned by zingy lemon. Yum.
(From Wine Circle.)