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I made my first serious forays into the world of fine wine 25 years ago. Bordeaux of the middling-good sort was what I could afford — and what I drank. On balance, I learned a lot — and enjoyed myself. Back then, though, most of the really interesting wines that came my way happened to be German rieslings. Whether from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region (easily identifiable by their long green bottles) or from the Rhine region (in similarly shaped brown bottles), they were cheap and plentiful, especially after the record-sized 1976 vintage. There were just so many good ’76s available that one got spoiled. Only a tiny few — the wines of J.J. Prum and Egon Muller, for example — were really expensive; but, as I also discovered, they were always worth the extra money. Today I see German wines far less often than in the past. It saddens me. For when I do, the quality level seems, if anything, higher than ever. Still, it’s been a long time since America had a love affair with German wines. Why? I wonder. German wine labeling is certainly a major reason. You have to remember not only the name of the village, but also the vineyard — and the grower, not to mention the vintage. Then there’s the classification system. “Qualitatswein” is the designation for wines that have been chaptalized (or sugared). After that comes the big step up to “kabinett.” These, and all the succeeding designations, are unsugared. Kabinetts are low-alcohol and fairly dry. In a good year, from a good grower, they can be aged for a decade. The next step up, spatlese wines, are late-harvested and thus naturally sweeter (since riper). Sweeter still are auslese wines, but the typical German acidity fairly rips through them: The best are great. Beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese represent the pinnacle of German wine-making. They are that country’s Sauternes, necessarily expensive because they’re harvested berry by succulent berry. A word on recent vintages: I love the 1990s and 1996s, but the ’97s and ’98s are both good, even very good. As for growers, the two greatest names are still Prum and Muller. But there are many other fine growers. The historic Rheingau domaine Robert Weil, for one, has been on top form lately. Things are looking up in Germany. Now, if I can just get my friends to try these terrific wines. Mostly mosel: 1998 Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett (J.J. Prum). $17 1997 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett (J.J. Prum). $17 1997 Scharzhofberger Kabinett (Muller). $18 1997 Graacher Himmelreich Spatlese (J.J. Prum). $30 1997 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese (J.J. Prum). $30 1997 Scharzhofberger Spatlese (Muller). $30 1996 Graacher Himmelreich Auslese (J.J. Prum). $40 1990 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese (J.J. Prum). $40 1996 Scharzhofberger Auslese (Muller). $50 1999 Kiedricher Grafenberg Spatlese (Weil). $50 1996 Kiedricher Grafenberg Auslese (Weil). $100 1996 Kiedricher Grafenberg Beernauslese (Weil). $215, half

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