After the excesses of the festive season many drinkers opt for a short period of abstinence. Some won’t even touch a drop of alcohol for a month. For those of us who are not so abstemious, it’s still a good idea to cut down on alcohol by seeking out wines made in a lighter style.
Initially, this may seem about as appealing as a fat-free yoghurt, but you don’t have to forgo aroma, flavour or interest if you turn to grape varieties that are naturally low in sugar, grown in regions where they have been carefully cultivated through the ages, such as Riesling and Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder) grown and vinified in Germany.
German wines have improved dramatically in the last few decades and bottles from the best domains are now fetching the prices they deserve. The reputation of German wines suffered from overproduction; insipid bottles of very poor quality drunk in volume by British consumers who didn’t really like wine. Those days have long gone, but the reputation for making sweet white wines persists despite the fact that Germany produces some fabulous reds and that two-thirds of German production is of dry wines.
The ancestral reason for so much sweetness in wines of the Rhine is the same reason these wines have extraordinary longevity: the cold northern climate. Cold cellars often halted the alcoholic fermentation leaving high levels of residual sugar in the wines, while vineyard temperatures preserved the acidity. Nowadays, the winemaker can use techniques to guide the fermentation, ensuring most of the sugar is converted into alcohol. Even so, alcohol levels in Riesling remain light at 10-11 per cent by volume. And in Alsace, where they prefer a drier style, the alcohol level of Riesling seldom rises above 12 per cent. One can enjoy a glass of these wines at lunchtime without drowsy after effects, and the bottles keep well once opened due to high levels of acidity, which also give Riesling a cool, lime-edged cleanness on the palate.
If you can resist early drinking, your patience will be rewarded; these wines can age for anything between 10 and 20 years, or more, after which, the very best of them will become utterly ethereal, taking on a high menthol note that lends them even more lightness. They will have reached the perfect balance where ripe fruit and sharp acidity mingle and soften to produce pure nectar. Among the best Alsace producers are Zind-Humbrecht and Rolly Gassman; while from the Mosel, the Rieslings of Joh. Jos. Prüm are spectacular long-keepers.
Another myth about German wines is that late-picked grapes produce only sweet wines. But this is not the case. Auslese is made from specially selected ripe grapes but can be fermented to dryness, and to very good effect. But beware: the riper the grapes, the more sugar there is to convert to alcohol and the bigger a punch it will pack. If you are keen to cut down at the start of the year, resist these richer styles—guard them for next year’s festive season.
Germany’s pale reds, made from Pinot Noir, also offer a characteristic lightness. The best are Spätburgunders, a variety of late-picked Pinot Noir. Skilled producers create perfumed wines with a low pH that proudly express flavours of cherry and raspberry, and offer something fresh, elegant and satisfying. Among the best examples are the wines of Weingut Meyer-Näkel made from Spätburgunder grown on the steep slopes of the Ahr Valley. These much sought-after wines are in short supply, but if it is quality rather than quantity you are after, one of these precious bottles will lighten your step.
Barry Smith is the editor of “Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine”