Goethe said, “Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues”. Let’s indulge in some virtue then.
First let us play a game of Legend and Fact...
Legend: Germany is about top quality beer but not top quality wine.
Fact: Germany is one of the best producers of quality wine, right up there and sometimes even better, than France and Italy. Germany has a long and illustrious wine tradition.
As was the case in many European countries, wine arrived in Germany through the Romans. The history of German wine is as rich and complex as any. Although viticulture was well established by the 4th century CE, Christian orders like the Cistercians from neighboring Burgundy played a very important role in further developing it some 700 years later. Perhaps the most famous remnant that harkens back to this great epoch is the Kloster Eberbach Monastery in Rhinegau, which was established in the year 1135 CE. This era effectively ended when Napoleon wrested control of vineyards from many monasteries in the 19th century.
There has been a great amount growth and activity in the German wine scene in the last few decades. To be sure, this is an exciting time for winemakers and lovers of German wine.
The undisputed flagship of quality German wine varietals is Riesling. Pinot Noir, known locally as Spätburgunder has grown tremendously in quality and stature over the last few decades. Some other white varietals of note include, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc), and Kerner. Other noteworthy reds include Dornfelder, Blauer Portugieser, Trollinger, and Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier). There are 13 major classified wine regions called Anbaugebiete. For the uninitiated, it is probably sufficient to start with the knowledge that Riesling is the top German varietal and that Mosel and Rhinegau generally offer its finest expressions.
Legend: All Rieslings are alike and sweet
Fact: Rieslings offer some of the widest range of expressions of any grape, they are vinified anywhere from a dry style to very sweet and everything in between.
At the Prädikat level – the apex of the pyramid of German wine classification, Rieslings are labeled Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, or Eiswein in increasing order of their sugar levels at harvest (expressed locally in an Oechsle scale). The one thing people find challenging with this method of labeling is that this indicates sugar level at harvest, which is not necessarily indicative of the sweetness of the wine itself.
Remember, to think about wine just in terms of sweetness is really like judging someone solely based on how tall they are. Sugar level is one structural dimension which when balanced well with acid, fruit, and minerality from the terroir, can be amazing, like many Rieslings, or good Sauternes, or like biting into a perfectly ripe mango. Just having a lot of sugar without proper balance can be like drinking a cup of water with 10 spoons of sugar in it.
Legend: It is hard to be exposed to quality German wine
Fact: Dee Vine Wines offers a fantastic spread of German wines right here in the Bay Area. They will not only sell you the wine but will help guide you in your exploration.
I owe a lot of my own German wine education to scores of great bottles from Dee Vine Wines over the last few years. Founded by Dade Thieriot in 1996 and now run by him and his wife Petra Thieriot, Dee Vine Wines are importers, wholesalers, and retailers of fine German wines. Their specialty and passion is wine from Mosel but they carry wine from other regions as well. Anyone, not to mention wine geeks, that meet Dade and Petra come away clearly impressed by their passion for wine.
Dade grew up in the Bay Area. His first serious encounter with quality wine was as a salesman and a self-described “cellar rat” for a wine importing company in San Francisco almost 40 years ago. He went to Germany a couple of years later to study German and French. He furthered his German studies in earnest many years later in 1992 when he went back to Germany and studied at the Goethe Institut in Bavaria.
Petra grew up in the Mosel wine region. She studied International Wine Business and Science at the famous Geisenheim University. She came to help Dade as an intern a few years ago. They got married in 2009 and now run Dee Vine together.
Dee Vine was based out Pier 19 in San Francisco until the middle of 2012, when they had to move out to make room for the Americas Cup. I personally found it very charming to be walking into Pier 19 and tasting great wine in that warehouse setting. Dade mentions that while there were some advantages to being located in the city, it was not ideal. It has been a lot of work and tough as moves go but they are very sunny about how things are working out and the future.
Dee Vine has relocated their inventory to a temperature-controlled facility in American Canyon. They are currently rebuilding their website. The best way to order their wine or to stay informed about events at this time would be to call them (415 398 3838); e-mail them and ask to be added to their mailing list if you want (firstname.lastname@example.org) or follow them on Facebook. I love buying wine from wine geeks and having the opportunity to enjoy each others company over some bottles. You will not find many people more passionate and into their wine like Dade and Petra. It is fun being around them, buying wine or not.