When The world was a simpler place, matching wine with food wasn't very difficult. "Red with meat, white with fish," was conventional wisdom. And when company came for dinner both red and the white would be French for all but a few adventurous souls. German wine -- white, fruity and on the sweet side -- was considered, in Hugh Johnson's phrase, "to excel in the parlor, not at the [dining] table."
For a number of reasons, an earnest young man with the imposing name Erwein Graf (Count) Matuschka-Greiffenclau accepts neither of the above Schloss Vollrads, he makes only white wine. He would like to see Germans, and the rest of the world, drink more of it. But he is a reasonable man. He realized there is a strong trend today toward drinking dry wines and, despite the fame of his sweet wines, he is willing to make dry wines as well. (West Germany is by far the leading export market for the wines of Alsace, the French province located oly a long pole-vault across the Rhine from German vineyards. The difference: Alsatian wines are dry, not sweet, and contains more alcohol.)
To make dry German white wines of high quality is a complicated process. To sell them may be even more difficult. Despite considerable publicity, dry or troken wines still account for only about 15 percent of domestic sales in Germany.
Nonetheless the count, who exports 60 percent of his production, is determined to tell the world about this development and his belief that German dry and half-dry (halbtrocken ) wines marry well to all manner of foods. (The difference is a measure of the residual sugar.) He came to Washington last week as part of a six-city American tour and conducted a tasting dinner that did credit to him and to its sponsor, the German Wine Society. Nearly 100 guests in formal dress at the German Embassy sampled a dozen wines in company with an elegant seven-course banquet and applauded the event, if not all the wines nor all the wine and food combinations.
Count Matuschka urged the guests to try the wines, mostly served in pairs, by themselves before sampling them with the food, and finally to taste the wines alone once again. Obviously not one to duck a challenge, he had intentionally chosen some strongly flavored dishes for the occasion, among them a peppery duck pate in aspic, grilled chicken stuffed with Stilton cheese and a meat, leg of lamb with mint sauce.
In addition to the suspicion with which trocken wines are regarded by traditionalists in germany and elsewhere, the count was working against several handicaps. Although the meal was skillfully prepared and served by Avignone Freres, it had been precooked and brought to the Embassy. Count Matuschka was unable to insure that the seasonings and sauces were in accord with his specifications. When a similar tasting held in London last year received a hostile critique in the prestigious British wine magazine Decanter, he blamed overly aggressive seasoning, at least in part, for the harmony. Furthermore, a previous tasting of trocken wines at the embassy had left a figurative, if not literal, bad taste in the mouth of people who attended. The wine served last week were of much higher quality, however. They had been flown in from Germany and would sell at retail here in the $6 to $10 range.
The chief taste flaws in the food were an overly sugared apple tarte and a sauce with the lamb that was only mint, rather than mint in cream. Also, there was insufficent vinaigrette dressing on an otherwise splendid salad of avocado, ham and walnuts to test the medal of its accompaniment, a 1978 Kallstadter Kobnert riesling kabinett trocken .
By general agreement, at least at my table, the wine of the night was a beautifully balanced 1979 Scharzhofberger riesling spaetlese from Egon Mueller. It also shared the food-wine combination prize, providing a very satisfying partner to a sorbet of pineapple. One of Graf Matuschka's own wines, a young-tasting but impressively fruity 1979 riesling kabinett halbtrocken , stood up quite well to the Stilton chicken, although he diplomatically said he preferred the chicken with its partner a 1978 Niersteiner auflangen riesling kabinett trocken .
A 1979 Geisenheimer Maeuerchen riesling kabinett trocken was a most agreeable campanion to poached rockfish on eggplant, but the intense citrus quality -- reminiscent of grapefruit -- of the 1979 Deidesheimer Grainhuebel riesling kabinett trocken proved a stubbon distraction rather than an ally to the fish flavor. The evening's only red wine, 1979 Schwaigerner Ruthe Lemberger spetelese trocken , was unimpressive except for its vivid cranberry color. The 1978 Alsheimer Rheinblick riesling spaetlese trocken , a white, was a better match with the lamb; but it lacked the suppleness and generosity so useful to a wine drunk with red meat.
The audience took the ups and downs in the proper spirit. Then, after the dessert course, came a major disappointment. Hedonism was invited to run rampant with two super-sweet dessert wines from the magnificent vintage of 1971, a Wehlener Sonnenuhr auslese of Joh. Jos. Preum and a hattenheimer Mannberg trockenberrenauslese made by Langwerth von Simmern. Neither one made the anticipated impression.
Count Matuschka felt the overly sugared dessert -- not to mention the dozen wines that went before -- had dulled the tasters' palates.With the fervor of a minister, he preached a message of balance and harmony: very sweet wines and foods should be kept apart, while within the wine itself acid, sweetness and alcohol must be balanced. Due to the climate, German grapes yield wines with higher alcohol and lower acid than wines made from the same or similar grapes in southern Europe or California. To counteract the a acidity, unfermented juice (must) is added to the wine in small quantities. The more juice, the sweeter the wine.
The count came to the Wine Society dinner not as a representative of his own vineyard, but as president of a group of 162 of the most quality-conscious producers in Germany. Over the years most promotion of quality wine has consisted of boosting wines of a single producer or of a region such as the Mosel, often at the expense of other vineyards or regions. This group, which accounts for only 1.2 percent of Germany's total production, is trying to set itself apart, the count said frankly, to gain the same elite reputation and prestige enjoyed by the classified chateaux of Bordeaux.
He threw out some statistics. Germans drink only 19 liters of wine per person each year, less than 1/3 of it with food. The French and Italians, meanwhile, swallow 93 liters, most of it with food. German wine sales in this country have fallen off dramatically. Dry wines from Common Market countries are flooding into Germany. "We need an image to set us apart from the general run of German wines," he said. "We must increase consumption for our wines. The people who can do this for us are the new wine drinkers.The place to do it is at the table with meals. And for that to happen, we must make dry wines."
And so they will, despite opposition from traditionalists and the burden of trying to encourage a radical change in a culinary world still dominated by largely unsympathetic French restaurateurs and chefs.