In marked contrast to their tongue-twisting names, unreadable label scripts, and absurdly complicated official nomenclature, the sensory appeal of German wines is instantaneous. Combining abundant fruit with lively, refreshing crispness, German wines have a knack for charming the palates of novices and experts in equal measure. In the $5 to $10 price range, the selection of German Riesling Kabinetts is an embarrassment of riches, and there is no better time to explore these refreshing potables than in the warm, waning days of late summer.
Here is a quick overview of German Kabinetts with recommendations of top producers, as well as illustrative recommendations of specific wines that are available locally. Light and usually slightly sweet, Kabinetts are at the entry level of the so-called "QmP" wines, the top category of German wines, which are made from grapes that reach a minimum level of natural ripeness without chaptalization (the addition of sugar prior to fermentation). It must be said, however, that there is nothing magical about the Kabinett designation, and that many good wines are made in a similar style in the lower "QbA" category and are also worth exploring.
With so much being shipped to us that is unrepresentative of the virtues of German wines, consumers must look for growers who are meticulous about quality and who own the most favored vineyards. The following recommended producers and wines are organized by region to provide an introduction to the basic styles of the five major wine-producing regions of Germany. Where noted, retailers may order from the wholesaler/importer listed in brackets. Prices are approximate.
Rheingau Germany's most aristocratic wine region, arguably its finest, but often its most disappointing owing to an all too prevalent element of greed among some owners, who, despite high prices, don't deliver a quality commensurate with the region's reputation. At its best, however, no region packs more vitality into its Kabinetts, wines with power and force combined with delicacy.
Recommended producers: Abteihof St. Nikolaus, Deinhard, August Eser, H. H. Eser (Johannishof estate), Siegfried Gerhard, Gabrueder Grimm, Baron Knyphausen, Franz Kunstler, Schloss Reinhartshausen, Riedel, Schumann-Naegler, von Simmern, Sturm.
Recommended wines available locally: Sturm 1988 Rauenthaler Wuelfen Riesling Kabinett ($10; Weygandt-Metzler); Abteihof St. Nikolaus 1988 Geisenheimer Kilzberg Riesling Kabinett Trocken ($8-$10; Terry Thiese Selections/DOPS); Knyphausen 1987 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling (Halbtrocken) ($6; Pearsons).
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer One regional name encompasses all three vineyard areas, which share the brightly lit, yet subtle style of Riesling. The Middle Mosel (Mittelmosel) is perhaps the most famous wine region of Germany, and encompasses the familiar Piersporter Michelsberg and Bernkasteler Doktor (though many less renowned wines offer better value). Ruwer and Saar wines tend to be more steely and hard than Mosels, though in years of great ripeness they excel.
Recommended producers: Upper and Middle Mosel: J.J. Christoffel, Christoffel-Berres, Deinhard, Eymael (Moenchhof estate), Immich (Batterieberg estate), Justen-Ehlen (Meulenhof estate), Heribert Kerpen, Karp-Schreiber, Willi Haag, Fritz Haag, E. Loosen (Johannishof estate), Matheus-Lehnert, Merkelbach, J.J. Prum, Miltz (Laurentiushof estate), Willi Schaefer, Selbach-Oster.
Lower Mosel: Haehn (von Schleinitz estate), Heddesdorf, Ratzenberger, Weingart, Weiler.
Saar: von Hoeval, Johann Koch, Egon Mueller, Dr. Wagner, Zilliken (Forstmeister Geltz estate).
Ruwer: Deinhard, Geiben (Karlsmuehle, von Schubert (Maximin Gruenhaus estate), Karthaueserhof.
Recommended wines available locally: Deinhard 1988 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett ($10-$12; Kobrand); Selbach-Oster 1987 Zeltner Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett ($8-$10; Terry Theise Selections/DOPS); Schimper 1989 Braunenberger Klostergarten Riesling Halbtrocken ($6-$7; Terry Theise Selections/DOPS); Dr. Wagner 1988 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett ($8-$10; Chapin Cellars/Handpicked Selections); von Schleinitz 1988 Koberner Uhlen Riesling Kabinett ($6-$7; Terry Theise Selections/DOPS).
Nahe Perhaps the best buy in Germany, the wines of the Nahe fall between the Rheingau and Mosel in style, with much of the power of the former and the raciness of the latter. Wines from famous vineyards in the Nahe sell for a fraction of the price of the better known Mosels and Rheingaus. Supplies are short for some of the Nahe's at this time -- if you spot a bottle or two of the fabulous Staatsdomaine or Crusius wines, snap them up.
Recommended producers: Crusius, Doennhoff, Hehner-Kiltz, Petri-Essling, Rapp, Winzergenossenschaft, Rheingrafenberg, Salm- Dalberg (Schloss Wallhausen estate), Jakob Schneider, Staatsdomaine.
Recommended wines available locally: Salm-Dalberg 1988 Wallhaeser Muehlenberg Riesling Kabinett ($7; Valckenberg/Pearsons); Petri-Essling 1986 Monzinger Fruehlingsplaetzchen Riesling Kabinett ($6-$7; Terry Theise Selections/DOPS).
Rheinhessen Nierstein has the best vineyards of Rheinhessen, the wines having a distinctive flavor of smoked meat. Ripeness levels run high here compared with the rest of Germany, so Kabinetts and other light wines are less common.
Recommended producers: Brueder Dr. Becker, Gysler, Ohler, Freiherr Heyl, G.A. Schneider, Strub, Seidel-Dudenhoefer.
Recommended wines available locally: Gysler 1988 Weinheimer Mandelberg Riesling Kabinett ($5-$6; Terry Theise Selections/DOPS); Freiherr Heyl 1988 Niersteiner Auflangen Riesling Kabinett Trocken ($8; Valckenberg/Pearson's).
Rheinpfalz Many of the best of the lighter wines are bottled in full liter bottles in the Rheinpfalz, often at very attractive prices. Wines tend to be rich and earthy, with generous fruit.
Recommended producers: Bassermann-Jordan, Buerklin-Wolf, Koehler-Rupprecht, F. Kimich, Lingenfelder, Messmer, Mueller- Catoir, Neckerauer, W. Spindler, Pfeffingen, Werle, Winzergenossenschaft Hohenburg.
Recommended wines available locally: Kimich 1988 Deidesheimer Herrgottsacker Riesling Kabinett ($7-$9; Chapin Cellars/Handpicked Selections); Mueller-Catoir 1987 Gimmeldinger Meerspinne Riesling Kabinett ($8/liter bottle; Terry Theise Selections/Pearson's).
Ben Giliberti is a Washington freelancer who writes regularly about wine.