France vs. Germany: battle of the rieslings

My memory of GCSE history is pretty hazy, but I do remember one thing: France and Germany just did not seem to get along. In the 19th and 20th centuries, their relationship was marred by conflict: we’re talking invasions, the Franco-Prussian War, some bloodshed, World War 1, some more bloodshed, World War 2, a few more invasions… the list is quite extensive and a little bit repetitive. The good news is that these two European powers are friends now.

Until today.

This evening, France and Germany will battle it out on the pitch in Rio for a coveted place in the World Cup semi-finals. The prize is up for grabs and at this point it truly is anyone’s game.

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(I’ve admitted in previous blog posts that I am unqualified to be a meteorologist or etymologist. I’ve also been told by my football-obsessed friends to refrain from speaking with authority on matters related to football – like half of the female population, I have been bitten by the World Cup bug and think I’m now an expert. I have no doubt that my self-proclaimed prowess will be replaced by apathy at the end of next week.)

The quarter-final match between France and Germany got me thinking: while the two countries have gone head to head in the trenches, and now on the football pitch, they also challenge each other in the vineyard.

There is no doubt that the French lead the way in terms of quantity. France produced approximately 44 million hectolitres of wine last year – this blows Germany’s ostensibly paltry 8 million out of the water. France consistently competes with Italy and Spain to be the ‘head honcho’ wine producer in the world; Germany teeters on the edge of top 10. But it isn’t particularly fair to compare quantity; a better comparison would be a specific wine style that they both place emphasis on as a core component of their national portfolio.

In case the title of this blog post didn’t give it away, I am of course talking about riesling.


Riesling is pretty great (in case you don’t believe me, Kanye West drinks it too). The grape results in aromatic wines that range from bone dry to lusciously sweet – I mean really REALLY sweet. Two European regions are famous for producing the best rieslings: along the Rhine river in Germany (the ancestral home of the grape), and Alsace in France (ironically one of the regions that Germany invaded in 1870 and maintained control of until the end of World War 1). Although the grape is the same, the style of wine varies depending on which country it is produced in.

1. The sugar level: although both regions produce both sweet and dry styles of riesling, generally speaking German rieslings tend to be slightly less dry than Alsatian rieslings. This is because German winemakers tend to retain a little bit of unfermented grape juice in the wine (which in turn gives it an off-dry or medium-dry profile), whereas their Alsatian counterparts tend to ferment all of the grape juice.

2. The alcohol content: German rieslings tend to have an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 8-10% while Alsatian rieslings are often slightly between 11-12% (so if you are at a boring dinner party and want to get drunk, steer clear of German riesling. It’ll take longer). The difference in ABV is, in part, a result of the point above – Alsatian winemakers tend to ferment all the juice which means more alcohol. It is also because of location (location, location) – the climate in Germany is slightly cooler than that of Alsace; wines produced in cooler regions tend to be lower in alcohol.

3. The labelling convention: Germany has adopted a fairly complex system of labelling its rieslings. It labels its wines according to the level of ripeness: kabinett (least ripe and the driest style), spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese (sweet), trockenbeerenauslese (sweeter), eiswien (sweetest). Bit of a mouthful unless you speak German! Wine producers in Alsace don’t do this – their labels feature the name of the vineyard, appellation, producer, and also the name of the grape variety (Alsace is a major exception as generally the French don’t state the grape varieties used. They like to make us work it out for ourselves).

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So there you have it. Don’t ask me which I prefer (it’s like asking which child is your favourite – although some parents find this question easier to answer than others!). They’re different. What I will say is riesling wines, regardless of whether they are German or Alsatian, are very versatile food partners – they have the backbone to handle spicy cuisines such as Chinese, Indian and Mexican, and the sweeter style wines are delicious with dessert (in fact the German eiswien is practically a dessert in its own right).

By the way, New Zealand makes some pretty high quality rieslings too. But I’ll tell you about that if New Zealand qualify for the World Cup in 2018.


Grapeful is a mobile app that helps you pair wine with food, discover new wine styles, view wine lists of certain restaurants, share wines with friends, impress a date with fun facts about wine, and much more. The app is available to download for free from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

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