By Bennett TraubThe Wine Country’s German Wine Buyer
It is a wine of gorgeous delicacy, as fragile as the petals on those first tentative blossoms yet possessing a tensile strength that comes of perfect balance. It is a captured moment, evocative more than impressive, fleeting rather than penetrating, whispered nuance, not high volume.
—Eric Azimov, New York Times
German Riesling appears to be at a kind of crossroads. The wines themselves have never been better, as a string of very good to excellent vintages, and improved winemaking, has generated an enormous number of high-quality wines from a greater number of producers than ever before. Yet the German wine market has become rather polarized.
In Germany, wine drinkers have voted (with their pocketbooks) overwhelmingly in favor of DRY wines. Many producers of the fruity/sweet style of wine report that this style of wine has become virtually unsalable in Germany itself. For most of the world, however, the image of German wines is unquestionably SWEET, and the sweeter the better. And as global warming has increased the ripeness of grapes in what was once a marginal, cold region, the fruity/sweet style of German wines has been getting sweeter and sweeter, with many wines that used to be considered off-dry or only slightly sweet being picked at sugar levels that used to be used only for the sweetest dessert-style wines.
Somewhat lost in all this is that middle-range of lightly sweet wines called Kabinett. This designation represents a style of wine that only Germany, and no other wine-growing country, can produce. Lightly sweet, with crisp balancing acidity that balances the sweetness and renders the wine light and refreshing, low in alcohol (usually 7%-8%), effortlessly delicious and oh-so-easy to drink, Kabinetts represent a kind of golden mean in wine, beauty without makeup, gentle and pure. But it’s a kind of beauty that’s becoming increasingly difficult to find, and seems to be rarely celebrated in a wine world that favors impact, boldness, and high scores from critics.
We think it’s time to change that and celebrate Kabinett as one of the world’s greatest styles of wine—unique, beautiful, precious, and delicious.
The Story of Kabinett
Kabinett was at one time more highly valued than today. The term, in fact, was a derivation of the word "Cabinet" that was often used to designate a producer's "reserve" level wines (to be kept in cabinet for safe keeping), regardless of sweetness.
But in 1971, when Germany codified the wine terminology that was to be allowed for German wines from that year forward, "Kabinett" became one of the "Prædikats" used to identify sweet-style wines based on the ripeness of the grapes used to make them. These terms, (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese) were intended to simply identify how ripe the grapes had gotten on the vine before being vinified into wine. In this system, Kabinett wines were less sweet, off-dry wines, lighter and more savory than the sweeter and richer Spätlese, Auslese, etc., but equivalent in quality to those sweeter wines. As a general guide for the consumer to provide some idea of the style of the wine, this made perfect sense.
Unfortunately, the designations, intended originally to simply identify a wine by style, quickly became treated as a hierarchy of quality, something they were never intended to be. The result was that Kabinett was too often seen as a "lesser" quality wine compared to a Spätlese, which was in turn of lesser quality than an Auslese.
Without meaning to, many wine critics reinforced this misperception by repeatedly giving a given producer's Kabinetts a lower score than their Spätleses, which in turn got lower scores than the Ausleses, etc. Was it any wonder that eventually many consumers came to view "Kabinett" as a kind of “entry level” wine, less serious or desirable than a Spätlese or Auslese?
This kind of thinking is so wrong on so many levels. It's almost like considering Beethoven's piano sonatas to be inferior to his string quartets solely because the quartets employ more musicians. Sweeter doesn't mean better—only sweeter!
Versatile and Food Friendly
Kabinett-level wines are among the most versatile and food-friendly styles of German wine you can buy. The light degree of sweetness never overwhelms food, and the crisp acidity and light body refresh the palate and work with the food in surprisingly delicious ways. What kind of food? Glad you asked!
Let’s start with a basic proposition that works surprisingly well when considering wine/food matches: where it grows, it goes. This simply means that the wines grown in a given region almost always pair beautifully with the cuisine of a region. So what do the Germans traditionally eat? Sausages, of course, and cured meats and hams; in fact, pork of any kind and other white meats like chicken work beautifully with a Kabinett. Also vegetables in the cabbage family (think sauerkraut), Brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, etc. And freshwater fish like trout, and richer, oilier fish like salmon all are delightful with delicately sweet Riesling Kabinett.
But “where it grows, it goes” shouldn’t be viewed as gospel. Sometimes a wine pairs surprisingly well with foods that are as far removed from the wine’s place of origin as you can imagine. Like Thailand, for example. It’s hard to think of a country more remote geographically, or in culture or cuisine, as Thailand is from Germany, but the fact is that fruity German wines are simply amazing with Thai food. The best Thai restaurant in America, Las Vegas’ Lotus of Siam, has a wine list filled with fruity-style German wines, and they work perfectly with the food.
In fact, most Asian cuisines love German wine like no other wine. Bring a bottle of Kabinett the next time you go out for Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Indian food (since most restaurants serving these foods have either crummy or non-existent wine lists), and you’ll see what we mean.
We’ve brought in some of the finest Kabinetts we could find to help you explore this delightful style of wine. Recent vintages have produced a plethora of delicious wines, and prices remain quite reasonable for wines of such exceptional quality. Most are from the Mosel, the German region that seems to most consistently produce Kabinett wines of grace, balance, and beauty, but don’t ignore Kabinetts from other regions as well. These wines are totally irresistible and should be a part of every wine-lover’s repertoire!
2011 Karthauserhof Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg
Riesling Kabinett, Ruwer
Tasting through dozens of 2011 vintage German wines from all the best wineries, those from the most famous estate in the Ruwer Valley, Karthauserhof, were among the most impressive of all. The trademark for this estate is its fresh and elegant style, and this wine has that and a lot more. This Kabinett really stood out for its elegance and seamless precision, with perfectly balanced depth, richness, fruit and acidity all playing their part to create a brilliant whole that is truly more than the sum of its parts. This is the Kabinett of the vintage! Not to be missed for all true lovers of German wines.
$35.99 per bottle
2011 von Hövel Oberemmeler Hütte
Riesling Kabinett, Saar
The cold Saar Valley just to the southeast of the Mosel River produces some of Germany's most crystalline, brilliant wines, and the von Hövel estate is one of the most highly-regarded producers there. Every year it seems they bottle a wonderful Kabinett that is a textbook example of what makes a Kabinett so captivating: great purity, delicious fruit evocative of pippin apple, tangerine and flint, a lightness of body paired with great intensity of flavor. 2011 was very good at von Hövel, and their Kabinett from the Hütte vineyard is always outstanding, but never more so than this year. The price is amazingly low for the quality, which is a good thing because we can't stop drinking this delicious wine!
$21.99 per bottle
2011 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Riesling Kabinett
The slate-covered Saarburger Rausch vineyard is one of the Saar's greatest vineyards and from which Zilliken's best wines come. This fine Kabinett is a superb reflection of just how good the 2011 vintage is in this region, expressing purity and minerality in a mouthwatering structure. The fruit is more like citrus (lime/lemon) and seems to float across the tongue. What's amazing is just how good this wine is right now, yet it is capable of improving with cellaring for years to come. As Zilliken's fame has spread and demand for its wines becomes more competitive, prices have risen, but slightly higher production has allowed the estate to actually LOWER the price a bit from the (also excellent) 2010 version of this wine. How often does that happen? An outstanding wine of great class and brilliance.
$27.99 per bottle
2011 Mönchhof Urziger Würzgarten
Riesling Kabinett, Mosel
Monchhof is our single most popular producer in the Mosel for very good reason: consistent quality, class, and value. His wines from the great Würzgarten (“spice garden”) vineyard are always very special, and this 2011 Kabinett is a terrific example of the qualities that make Monchhof’s Rieslings so good. Perfectly balanced, round and suave, with gentle sweetness perfectly married to crisp acids that let all the fruit and spice interact to create a wine of pure beauty and delicious drinkability. I could sip on this all day long (the low alcohol has its advantages!), but it really shines with Asian foods like Thai or Vietnamese, or anything smoked (like fresh salmon smoked on the grill—fantastic!).
$20.99 per bottle
Call this one an "almost -Kabinett", as it's made in the Kabinett style even though it's not so designated. In a few short years young Tim Schafer has vaulted over much more established vintners to become one of the brightest talents in all of Germany. Working in the very trendy Nahe region, he uses natural yeasts and his non-interventionist, natural winemaking style has made him the darling of wine critics and collectors alike. When we had the opportunity to sample this off-dry release from the exciting 2009 vintage, we found it wonderfully fresh and pure. With great Riesling flavors and expertly balanced acidity, the fruit is firm and it seems to go from fruity to nearly dry in the mouth in a most delightful way. Whether you call it a Kabinett or not, this is a terrific off-dry Riesling that you won't want to miss. Less than one case available and no longer available from the winery, so act fast!
$26.99 per bottle