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2002 - another very useful German vintage

24 Oct 2003 by JR

Just after finishing the following article I went out to a new local (rather good) Indian restaurant in north London (Eriki, Finchley Road near Swiss Cottage). I ordered an unusual-sounding German white with a brand name which turned out to be a dry Rheinhessen Riesling put into in a Bordeaux bottle specially for a UK importer of which I had never heard. As the Indian waiter put the bottle on the table he nodded at it and said authoritatively 'the market for this sort of wine is really picking up'. So there you are, the Riesling renaissance is a fact.

I would also add to British readers that one good place to find good-quality dry German wine is The Winery, London W9 and it's also worth trying Noel Young. See More young Germans in wine news and my tasting notes in purple pages.

Financial Times, 25 October 2003

'Life is too short to learn German wine laws'. So wrote Martin Tesch, an ambitious and talented young wine producer in the Nahe region in a long letter to me this week. He followed it up with several emails bemoaning the fact that the sort of wines he most enjoys making (with some success) are so unappreciated outside Germany.

There has long been a curious divide between the sort of German wine the Germans like to drink and non-Germans' conception of German wine. For a significant proportion of the 20th century, foreigners thought German wine was Liebfraumilch whereas the Germans themselves had never heard of it. (It was a sweetened-up blend of rather ordinary wine made specifically for export, children.)

Today, within Germany and with a very few, very expensive exceptions, German wine has to be dry (trocken) - whereas the great majority of wine professionals outside Germany have a deep dislike for dry German wine, perhaps engendered by the horribly hard, tart, thin specimens they were shown as prototypes in the early 1980s.

But things have changed enormously since then. The climate for a start. Thanks to global warming, grapes routinely ripen much more successfully in Germany today than they did 20 years ago. This means that dry German wines have much more body than they used to and are much better balanced. A natural alcohol level of 12.5 per cent is virtually routine today (only half a per cent less than the average New World white).

Nowadays it is not difficult to find fruity, well-balanced dry whites from Germany. The easiest for non-Germans to appreciate are Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) and Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) from the most southerly wine regions Pfalz and Baden. Top practitioners include Bergdolt, Koehler Ruprecht, Salwey, J L Wolf, and Rebholz who is a particular star in this firmament.

The big juicy bone of contention between German wine producers and their customers abroad is whether the Riesling grape can make seriously fine dry wines. On the basis of recent history I would say that it certainly can, frequently does not, but that the success rate among dry Rieslings is fast approaching that among the more traditionally styled sweeter Rieslings that are still so popular on export markets. Great, and disappointing, German whites exist at all sweetness levels - it is all a question of dedication in the producer and balance in the glass.

The VDP, the 93 year-old association of Germany's most aristocratic wine estates, recently showed off wines of the new vintage, 2002, qualifying for its new designation for superior dry (and very sweet) wines supposedly expressing the particular characteristics of a specific site, growth or Gewächs (the Germans attempting to translate the already widely accepted French word cru as directly as possible).

I wish I could explain this concept in a pithy phrase or even one sentence but this is German wine, so of course it is all gloriously baroque and complicated. Basically, these top wines are designated Erstes Gewächs in the Rheingau region where the local producers have already managed to get the term enshrined in local law. They are to be called Grosses Gewächs elsewhere, except in the all-important Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region where they are to be called Erste Lage.

Not that there is anything as simple as finding these terms on the label. Oh no. That will take thousands of man-hours of committee session and local law-making. Plans for a special bottle stamped with a bunch of grapes sitting next to the numeral 1 are in hand, but for the moment there is no sure way for the consumer to know which wines have received this honour except by supplementary literature such as a special section on a wine list. Ah well. Perhaps this is just as well because the label is already cluttered with long and complicated vineyard names; terms which indicate how ripe the grapes were such as Kabinett and Spätlese; and now two new names dreamt up for marketing reasons: Classic and Selection (don't even go there).

There is also the fact that these particular VDP wines are just a sub-section of what is supposed to be Germany's best; many excellent producers are not or have chosen not to be part of this scheme. There has of course been all manner of politicking about and objection to the particular sites that were chosen as great Gewächs - and even some of those producers who are part of the scheme, while applauding its demands on yields lower than 50hl/ha, ripeness levels at least as high as the official Spätlese level, manual harvesting etc etc, think it a bit ridiculous that they are still allowed to raise the final alcohol level by adding sugar at fermentation, so-called chaptalisation.

Anyway, how were the wines? Very variable would be a usefully succinct report, but there were some truly delicious dry Rieslings from Peter Jakob Kühn (closed with a smart variation on the beer bottle's crown cap), Fürst Löwenstein, Robert Weil, Wegeler and Domdechant Werner'sches in the Rheingau; Bassermann-Jordan, Josef Biffar, von Buhl, Bürklin-Wolf and Rebholz from Pfalz; Schlossgut Diel and Schäfer-Fröhlich in the Nahe; and a quite stunning Westhofen Morstein from Wittmann in Rheinhessen. But other examples of these supposed 'great growths' were variously raw, heavy, dull and/or too slack to show the race that characterises Germany's best Rieslings.

The 2002 vintage follows one about which a great deal of fuss has been made but may actually be easier to drink - certainly in youth. While 2001 was saved by the end of the season, the 2002 vintage was robbed of absolute record book greatness by an October that was too wet to produce much really sweet wine, the sort produced by the famous botrytis, or noble rot, mould that concentrated late-harvested grapes so beautifully the year before. The result is that 2002 yielded some deliciously open, plump, easy wines of Kabinett and Spätlese ripeness.

Weingut Robert Weil in the Rheingau, for instance, reports that 2002 was the first vintage in which they reached 13 per cent alcohol without any difficulty, with 9.3 gm/litre of tartaric acid (more than the malic) and masses of extract to provide flavour and weight. The 2001 vintage may have been particularly exceptional in the middle Mosel but elsewhere many growers seem more impressed by their 2002s. Virtually all are agreed that the opulently aromatic 2002s will be ready to drink sooner than the much more withdrawn, mineral-laden 2001s.

This was also evident at a recent tasting of 2002s organised by Sebastian Taylor of Howard Ripley, a merchant which specialises in the sensual hedonist's choice of wine regions: Germany and Burgundy. Chez Ripley the most successful wine producers seemed to me to be (yet again) Dönnhoff in the Nahe; Toni Jost, by far the most famous grower in the tiny Mittelrhein region; and J J Christoffel, Karlsmühle and Carl Loewen of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.

Others whose 2002s have already impressed me include Schloss Saarstein of the Saar, Dr Loosen of the Mosel, Emrich Schönleber of the Nahe and Josef Leitz of the Rheingau but many more are just releasing their wines on the market.

I asked Sebastian Thomas why there was such a preponderance of sweet wines from the Mosel in his selection and was told that that was all his customers were interested in. It seems as though it will be some time before the German wines sold at home and abroad start to converge. This is a shame since Germany may miss out to the likes of Australia and Austria whose Rieslings are enjoying such popularity among younger wine drinkers in markets such as the UK and US.

See my tasting notes on some recommended 2002 German wines in purple pages.

Financial Times, 25 October 2003

'Life is too short to learn German wine laws'. So wrote Martin Tesch, an ambitious and talented young wine producer in the Nahe region in a long letter to me this week. He followed it up with several emails bemoaning the fact that the sort of wines he most enjoys making (with some success) are so unappreciated outside Germany.

There has long been a curious divide between the sort of German wine the Germans like to drink and non-Germans' conception of German wine. For a significant proportion of the 20th century, foreigners thought German wine was Liebfraumilch whereas the Germans themselves had never heard of it. (It was a sweetened-up blend of rather ordinary wine made specifically for export, children.)

Today, within Germany and with a very few, very expensive exceptions, German wine has to be dry (trocken) - whereas the great majority of wine professionals outside Germany have a deep dislike for dry German wine, perhaps engendered by the horribly hard, tart, thin specimens they were shown as prototypes in the early 1980s.

But things have changed enormously since then. The climate for a start. Thanks to global warming, grapes routinely ripen much more successfully in Germany today than they did 20 years ago. This means that dry German wines have much more body than they used to and are much better balanced. A natural alcohol level of 12.5 per cent is virtually routine today (only half a per cent less than the average New World white).

Nowadays it is not difficult to find fruity, well-balanced dry whites from Germany. The easiest for non-Germans to appreciate are Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) and Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) from the most southerly wine regions Pfalz and Baden. Top practitioners include Bergdolt, Koehler Ruprecht, Salwey, J L Wolf, and Rebholz who is a particular star in this firmament.

The big juicy bone of contention between German wine producers and their customers abroad is whether the Riesling grape can make seriously fine dry wines. On the basis of recent history I would say that it certainly can, frequently does not, but that the success rate among dry Rieslings is fast approaching that among the more traditionally styled sweeter Rieslings that are still so popular on export markets. Great, and disappointing, German whites exist at all sweetness levels - it is all a question of dedication in the producer and balance in the glass.

The VDP, the 93 year-old association of Germany's most aristocratic wine estates, recently showed off wines of the new vintage, 2002, qualifying for its new designation for superior dry (and very sweet) wines supposedly expressing the particular characteristics of a specific site, growth or Gewächs (the Germans attempting to translate the already widely accepted French word cru as directly as possible).

I wish I could explain this concept in a pithy phrase or even one sentence but this is German wine, so of course it is all gloriously baroque and complicated. Basically, these top wines are designated Erstes Gewächs in the Rheingau region where the local producers have already managed to get the term enshrined in local law. They are to be called Grosses Gewächs elsewhere, except in the all-important Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region where they are to be called Erste Lage.

Not that there is anything as simple as finding these terms on the label. Oh no. That will take thousands of man-hours of committee session and local law-making. Plans for a special bottle stamped with a bunch of grapes sitting next to the numeral 1 are in hand, but for the moment there is no sure way for the consumer to know which wines have received this honour except by supplementary literature such as a special section on a wine list. Ah well. Perhaps this is just as well because the label is already cluttered with long and complicated vineyard names; terms which indicate how ripe the grapes were such as Kabinett and Spätlese; and now two new names dreamt up for marketing reasons: Classic and Selection (don't even go there).

There is also the fact that these particular VDP wines are just a sub-section of what is supposed to be Germany's best; many excellent producers are not or have chosen not to be part of this scheme. There has of course been all manner of politicking about and objection to the particular sites that were chosen as great Gewächs - and even some of those producers who are part of the scheme, while applauding its demands on yields lower than 50hl/ha, ripeness levels at least as high as the official Spätlese level, manual harvesting etc etc, think it a bit ridiculous that they are still allowed to raise the final alcohol level by adding sugar at fermentation, so-called chaptalisation.

Anyway, how were the wines? Very variable would be a usefully succinct report, but there were some truly delicious dry Rieslings from Peter Jakob Kühn (closed with a smart variation on the beer bottle's crown cap), Fürst Löwenstein, Robert Weil, Wegeler and Domdechant Werner'sches in the Rheingau; Bassermann-Jordan, Josef Biffar, von Buhl, Bürklin-Wolf and Rebholz from Pfalz; Schlossgut Diel and Schäfer-Fröhlich in the Nahe; and a quite stunning Westhofen Morstein from Wittmann in Rheinhessen. But other examples of these supposed 'great growths' were variously raw, heavy, dull and/or too slack to show the race that characterises Germany's best Rieslings.

The 2002 vintage follows one about which a great deal of fuss has been made but may actually be easier to drink - certainly in youth. While 2001 was saved by the end of the season, the 2002 vintage was robbed of absolute record book greatness by an October that was too wet to produce much really sweet wine, the sort produced by the famous botrytis, or noble rot, mould that concentrated late-harvested grapes so beautifully the year before. The result is that 2002 yielded some deliciously open, plump, easy wines of Kabinett and Spätlese ripeness.

Weingut Robert Weil in the Rheingau, for instance, reports that 2002 was the first vintage in which they reached 13 per cent alcohol without any difficulty, with 9.3 gm/litre of tartaric acid (more than the malic) and masses of extract to provide flavour and weight. The 2001 vintage may have been particularly exceptional in the middle Mosel but elsewhere many growers seem more impressed by their 2002s. Virtually all are agreed that the opulently aromatic 2002s will be ready to drink sooner than the much more withdrawn, mineral-laden 2001s.

This was also evident at a recent tasting of 2002s organised by Sebastian Taylor of Howard Ripley, a merchant which specialises in the sensual hedonist's choice of wine regions: Germany and Burgundy. Chez Ripley the most successful wine producers seemed to me to be (yet again) Dönnhoff in the Nahe; Toni Jost, by far the most famous grower in the tiny Mittelrhein region; and J J Christoffel, Karlsmühle and Carl Loewen of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.

Others whose 2002s have already impressed me include Schloss Saarstein of the Saar, Dr Loosen of the Mosel, Emrich Schönleber of the Nahe and Josef Leitz of the Rheingau but many more are just releasing their wines on the market.

I asked Sebastian Thomas why there was such a preponderance of sweet wines from the Mosel in his selection and was told that that was all his customers were interested in. It seems as though it will be some time before the German wines sold at home and abroad start to converge. This is a shame since Germany may miss out to the likes of Australia and Austria whose Rieslings are enjoying such popularity among younger wine drinkers in markets such as the UK and US.

See my tasting notes on some recommended 2002 German wines in purple pages.

Tags:  germany
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