January 10, 2013

The Riesling Doctor


- As written by T.Philp and published in the summer 2012 edition of the King Tapestry



On the ziggurat of white wine greatness there are many plateaus.  The top spot however is reserved for a matter of personal preference – and for many, that element of vinous superiority is none other than Chardonnay.  I rest with one foot firmly planted in this camp, while the other travels the world making regularly stops on the banks of the Mosel River

Riesling is the ‘other’ white grape; it has been for centuries and likely always will be.  Cut from a different cloth than the white knight of Burgundy, Riesling is of greater purity – arguably.  Foregoing the influence of oak, it projects an individuality and clarity unique to the variety.  The word used to describe a wine’s uniqueness of place is terroir, though when discussing Riesling I also like to include the term transparency.   Riesling leaves little to the imagination and nature dictates the character of the resultant wine.  Better winemakers will do little to tamper with this process.   

Riesling is successfully grown throughout the world, but unlike many of the warmer climate varieties, these vines excel in cooler growing regions.  The banks of the Mosel in Germany and France’s great Alsace lead the world in quality Riesling (though differing styles) while honourable mentions go to several other regions including Australia and our very own Niagara peninsula.  The focus today however, is on a plot of land that experts of the vine unanimously consider the source of the purest and most expressive Riesling in the world. 

Before I introduce the wine, let’s discuss a few theoretical points; for greatness usually comes at the expense of simplicity:

German QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) standards dictate the classification of the wine based on the natural sugar content (brix level) of the grapes at harvest. Logically, the longer the grapes are allowed to ripen, the higher the brix level.  At this level, chaptalization (the addition of sugar) is not allowed and the resultant wines can range from bone dry to the ultra-sweet nectar of the Gods known as Beerenauslese.

Listed below by increasing levels of brix are the various grades of German QmP wine:

    Kabinett ¦ Spatlese ¦ Auslese ¦ Beerenauslese ¦ Trockenbeerenauslese

* It is important to note that higher brix does not necessarily dictate a sweeter wine.  The first three levels of the QmP, if allowed, will ferment until fully dry. Ascending through the levels, German Riesling becomes richer in both flavour and intensity.   

The Legend of the Doctor vineyard
Just as Bordeaux has its First Growths and Burgundy its Grand Cru plots, Riesling has its legendary vines as well.  ‘The story goes’ that in the 13th century, the Archbishop of Trier was passing through the Mosel Valley when he became deathly ill.  After countless failed attempts to cure his ailing health, he was offered a glass of Riesling as a form of comfort during his final days.  Miraculously, after drinking the wine, his health was quickly regained.  From that point on, the vines on the steep slopes above the village of Berncastel that produced his miracle cure were renamed ‘The Doctor’…  Sounds like a bad case of the flu to me but it does make a good story nonetheless.


The entire Doctor vineyard measures only 8.1 acres in total and is comprised of century old vines that existed before the devastating phylloxeria louse decimated nearly every grape vine in Europe at the end of the 19th century.  The vines have a root structure that extends over 10 metres below the surface of the vineyard which is said to be most expensive agricultural land in Germany.  The question remains: are the vines of Berncastel’s Doctor actually responsible for the greatest expression of Riesling in the world? 

‘The Doktor’ has stained my mind on a few occasions now, at various levels of the QmP, and most recently via a bottle of '09 Kabinett. 

2009 Dr. H. Thanisch - Erben Müller-Burggraef, Berncasteler Doctor, Riesling Kabinett

If you thought the name was a mouthful, you really ought to try the wine.  The deep yellow colour might cause one to mistake this for a much older bottle.  Aromas of peach leap from the glass to reveal notes of spiced honey, apricot, and hints of almond extract – Initial impressions have me questioning the Kabinett (first harvest) status – and tasted blind I would likely label this a Spatlese wine; evidently all Kabinett is not created equal. Incidentally, the origin of the term kabinett dates back to when German winemakers held on to a few of their best bottle for personal consumption.  These prized bottles were stored in the winemakers own ‘cabinet’.  On the palate, this wine redefines the definition of balance.  Nothing is out of place: sweetness, acidity, and body all resonate in luxurious harmony with no one note projecting its tone above the others.  Sensations of ripe red apple, juicy Bartlett pear, and hints caramel on the finish define the flavour profile beautifully.  This is a truly fantastic wine and when compared to a label of comparable quality from the Chardonnay camp, the ’09 Thanisch, Berncasteler Doctor is an unimaginable bargain at $42.  

A wine like this will change the way you view the sea of Riesling on the store shelves.  If you do manage to locate a bottle or two, I strongly recommend that you do not hesitate. 

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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine