Monday, September 15, 2008

A Slightly Incomprehensible Riesling from Beate Knebel

Riesling feinherb – “feinherb” means something along the lines of “delicately dry” – is a stylistic term that’s started to appear with greater frequency on German wines over the last few years. For many producers, it’s nothing more than a preferred synonym for halbtrocken, a style (or at least a term) that’s started to fall out of favor on the contemporary German market. For others, though, feinherb provides a subtle distinction, crossing over between the richer end of the halbtrocken spectrum (up to 18 grams of RS) yet stopping short of the amount of RS usually found in a fully fruity-style Kabinett, Spätlese or Auslese. A handful of the wineries in this latter group have even been known to produce halbtrocken and feinherb wines from the same vineyard and at the same pradikat level in a single vintage.

Mosel Winninger Hamm Riesling Kabinett feinherb, Weingut Reinhard und Beate Knebel 2005
$19. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Mosel Wine Merchant, Manhasset, NY.
In the simple context of residual sugar, Beate Knebel’s 2005 Winninger Hamm Kabinett feinherb seems to slot right into the feinherb category, most likely at the drier end of its possible spectrum. There’s nothing delicate about it, though. The sprightly minerality, light, fresh fruit and lithe acidity I’ve come to associate with most other Kabinett level wines from the Terrassenmosel aren’t in evidence. Instead, the wine expands across the palate with earthy, pungent flavors of slate, displaying a breadth and darkness of flavor along with the muscular expression of acidity I’d expect more from a Spätlese trocken from the same area. Flavors are less of crisp apples and white peaches than of apricots and baked apples. At 12.5% alcohol – even though Winningen is considered a warm spot – it’s also way up the scale relative to what I’d expect from a Kabinett feinherb (something more along the lines of 10-11% perhaps).

In case the notes above left you wondering, I liked it but it definitely caught me off guard, made me scratch my head a little. My translation: I’d hazard a guess that this is declassified Spätlese, fairly ripe Spätlese at that, fermented long and slow. This is speculation on my part, not backed up by technical specs from the winery or importer, so I’d be more than happy to hear from anyone with more experience with Knebel’s wines.


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

You're right, it is a declassified spätlese.

Best regards

Matthias Knebel

David McDuff said...

I'm taking the liberty of reprinting an e-mail response from Lars Carlberg, Knebel's importer at Mosel Wine Merchant.

Hi David,

That's an excellent write-up. Your summary of feinherb is correct. For example, Steinmetz in Brauneberg does bottle halbtrocken and feinherb differentiating between the two as you summarized, but usually feinherb is used as a synonym (euphemism?) for halbtrocken. In the old days, German growers called really dry wines "herb." Feinherb is a modern term.

I like your tasting notes for Knebel Hamm Kabinett feinherb. It's true, it's only a Kabinett in name. She has had in the last several vintages no must weights near Kabinett levels, hence forced to bottle for her price list higher must-weight wines in lower categories. She cannot list all her wines as Spätlese (or, better Auslese trocken and above).

There are several factors involved. Growers notice climate change. Recent vintages have been early and ripe. Winningen traditionally has weightier wines than the Saar, for example. It's micro-climate, although further north is much warmer. The best sites are steep and terraced, and the soils have a diverse slate, sandstone, and quartzite. Then, there's the question of vineyard care, yields, and harvest time. Knebel harvests late. The wine-making is geared to a more oxidative style; that is skin contact, wild yeasts, long (warmer) fermentations, aging on fine lees, no fining, and late bottling. Hamm is a fabulous and underrated site, one of my favorites.

I hope this helps.

Best, Lars

David McDuff said...

Matthias and Lars,

Thanks very much for your input. It's of course edifying to be proven correct but, more importantly, I appreciate your time, feedback and, Lars, your extensive notes.

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