You have probably never heard of Weingut Liebfrauenstift, but look closely at the name. Say it aloud a few times even — particularly if you’re a wine lover of “a certain age” — and you might remember Liebfraumilch, that non-descript German white wine from the 1970s and 1980s.
Cheap and plentiful, the sweet and oh-so-middling Liebfraumilch originated at Weingut Liebfrauenstift, in Worms, in the Rheinhessen region in the 1800s. But like many things that have become cliches, the wine started out as top-notch. Imitation ultimately diminished its reputation.
“My family started out to make the wines available worldwide in the 19th century,” said Wilhelm Steifensand, the winery’s current director, during a recent visit to Washington. “Others made Rhine wine using the same name — it was not protected.”
When the first German wine laws were implemented in 1909, the family was given the option of claiming exclusive rights to the Liebfraumilch name. They opted to let regional wineries continue to use it, fearing the local economy would collapse if they kept it to themselves. Over time, Liebfraumilch became synonymous with cheap, pleasant, but flabby and sweet German wine.
Today, the Weingut Liebfrauenstift produces a bone-dry Riesling from the Liebfrauenstift-Kirchenstuck vineyard, the original 30-acre parcel where the mother’s milk originated. (Kirchenstuck means “the backyard of the church,” Steifansand explained.) The 2009 Trocken (for “dry”) offers intense aromas of apricot and peach, with great focus and a long finish. Far from a traditional German wine, the Trocken is a fine example of the newer dry-style of Riesling — a style that does not come easy to a winemaking culture that specializes in the delicate balance of sweetness and acidity.
Steifensand also imports German wines to the United States, and he was traveling with Katharina Prum of the Weingut Joh.Jos.Prum estate in the Mosel. “J.J. Prum,” as its American fans call it, is one of Germany’s most revered wineries. Prum wines are old-fashioned, if you think of German wines as “sweet.” Yet while Prum’s Rieslings do feature a noticeable sweetness, they are impeccably balanced with acidity; they are not at all cloying and should not be considered dessert wines. (Well, most of them, anyway.) And like most leading Mosel estates, Prum offers wines from several top vineyards in the region, each providing a different expression of Riesling.
“The focus on sweetness misses the picture,” Prum told me. “Thirty grams of residual suger per liter can be ridiculously sweet or it can be well balanced.”
We didn’t discuss the residual-sugar levels of the various wines she brought, because such nerdy detail didn’t matter. I found the vintage variation more relevant between the 2009 and 2008 Rieslings from the Graacher Himmelreich vineyard. (Both were Kabinett, on the drier end of the German ripeness scale.)
“It depends on the characteristics you prefer,” Prum said. “The 2008 is more classic, mineral and refreshing, while the 2009 and the 2007 were riper vintages, more fruity and rich.” The 2008s might be suitable for sipping with friends on the patio on a warm summer day, while the riper vintages prefer food, she explained.
Both wines were delicious testaments to the versatility of Riesling and the mastery of Germany when it comes to this grape.
(The Weingut Liebfrauenstift 2009 Trocken will be available this spring in the Washington area. It and the Joh.Jos.Prum wines are available through Valckenberg International Inc. of Tulsa, Okla. Phone: 918-622-0424. The Joh.Jos.Prum wines are distributed by Constantine Wines in Maryland and the District of Columbia, Monument Fine Wines in the District of Columbia, and Service Distributing in Virginia. The best stores are Bell Wine & Spirits and Calvert Woodley in the District of Columbia, and various Wegmans in Northern Virginia.)