Germany's 2003 vintage - best since 1540?

14 Dec 2003 by JR

I have just received the following rapturous report of this year's grape harvest in German from the VDP association of classical estates. You will want to filter out the hype, and it may be completely over the top, but since I have the feeling this site attracts a higher-than-average proportion of enthusiasts for Riesling in general and German wine in particular, I thought I would publish it as it is - especially since it contains so much techno-detail, fodder for wine students.

'Exceptional' is the word echoing throughout German wine country to describe the results of this year's harvest. Except for the parcels reserved for potential Eiswein, which would add a crowning touch to this extraordinary vintage, the harvest was completed in November. And now that the grapes are in the cellar, members of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, or Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) are euphoric about the quality of this vintage.

On average, one of the earliest harvests in decades began three weeks earlier than normal with excellent prerequisites for a great vintage. The vineyards were blessed with abundant sunshine and were in top shape during the harvest. Remarkably beautiful, very aromatic grapes – healthy, juicy, with a ripe acidity and extremely high must weights – could be harvested. It is now up to the producers to fine-tune the fruits of optimal, quality-oriented vineyard management. Wine fans the world over await the results. [Make that 'breathlessly']

Seldom have reports from vintners from all regions been so unanimous as in 2003. Regional reports differ only slightly.

'Consistent yield controls were significant from the beginning...' (Zehnthof, Franken)

In all regions, a very healthy crop was harvested, thanks to extremely limited outbreaks of downy and powdery mildew. As such, wines of the vintage 2003 are expected to show especially pure varietal tones. Weather conditions were so warm and sunny that foliage removal could only be recommended for red wine varieties, such as those in the Ahr, to promote the deepening of skin colour. In primarily white wine regions, such as the Rheingau or Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, where sunburn is a risk, relatively little foliage management was necessary and regular leaf removal was minimal. Starting in July, a very early 'green harvest' took place, to offset the effects of the dryness as well as to control yields.

'Vegetation periods that were especially warm and rich in sunshine resulted in ripe grapes with unusually high must weights.' (Karl Schaefer, Pfalz)

The onset of 'noble rot', the desirable fungus that fosters the concentration needed to produce lusciously sweet dessert wines, was sporadic in many portions of Baden, Franken, Württemberg and the Nahe, yet fairly widespread in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Mittelrhein and Rheingau regions. Lovers of these rich wine rarities have much to look forward to from the new vintage.

In all, an unusually high seven per cent of the total quantity of the grapes harvested to produce such wines had record-breaking starting must weights. In the Nahe, VDP members such as Kruger-Rumpf and Schlossgut Diel both reported must weights of 250 degrees Oechsle – the highest in either estate's history — and at Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich, 280 degrees Oechsle. In the Rheingau, there were even more spectacular results. The Rauenthaler Baiken and Steinberg sites of the Hessian State Wine Domains Kloster Eberbach each yielded a Trockenbeeren-auslese that registered over 300 degrees Oechsle. Schloss Vollrads harvested three TBAs, one of which had 302 degrees Oechsle and 16 pro mil acidity. These are the highest must weights ever recorded in the state of Hesse. In the realm of red wines, Schloss Sommerhausen in Franken harvested a Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) TBA with 273 degrees Oechsle in the Eibstadter Kapellenberg site.

Note: the German wine laws prescribes a minimum starting must weight of 150 degrees Oechsle (for most of Baden, 154 degrees) to qualify for TBA status.

'In 2003, water resources were the crucial factor in the vineyard.' (Dr. Deinhard, Pfalz)

The average amount of precipitation from June through September was less than half of the long-term average. Vines planted in medium to heavy soils that are rich in humus and have a high capacity to store water, as well as older vines with well-developed root systems, were able to survive this dry period. These sites yielded good quantities and very high qualities. Yields in sites with light, stony soils were considerably smaller.

The latter was also true of the steep sites in the Nahe and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer with shallow, weathered soils. Major damage due to dryness was prevented through concerted efforts, such as spreading straw mulch over the soil, as well as radical bunch pruning. In regions where heavier soils predominate, such as Franken, the Pfalz and Baden, there were only isolated cases of drought damage. Paradoxically, top sites were at a disadvantage, because the temperatures in steep south-facing sites were simply too high in July and August.

'Harvest dates this year were determined primarily by acidity levels rather than must weights.' (Schlossgut Istein, Baden)

The long heat wave fostered an early development of glucose and the reduction of fructose, which is why an early harvest was necessary this year: to preserve the 'typical' characteristics associated with German white wines. Particularly for low-acid white varietals [varieties], such as the Pinots, a timely harvest was very beneficial. The average acidity of Riesling in 2003 is ca. 8 grams/litre. In all, the harvest was speedy and uncomplicated, thanks to good weather, the ripeness of the grapes and little undesirable rot. In the Pfalz there was more pressure on growers, because many varietals [ditto] ripened simultaneously or within a short period of time, whereas in the Nahe, grapes developed at varying rates, and as such, successful results depended a great deal on selective harvesting. Red wine grapes are considered to be the absolute 'winners' of the year – seldom have they had a chance to thrive under such optimal growing conditions.

The statistics of the weather service in Geisenheim/Rheingau corroborate the above. The hours of sunshine in the first half of 2003 – some 300 more than the norm of 1140 and more than in any other year of the 20th century – are usually not reached until the end of August. By the end of September, figures exceeded the heretofore record number of sun hours in the same time period (January through September) of the great 1921 vintage. Furthermore, the temperatures measured by the German weather service in Offenbach (near Frankfurt) in June were 5.3 degrees Celsius (41.5°F) higher than the long-term average of 15.4°C (60°F).

President of the VDP, Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm: 'We have combed our archives and cannot find a single vintage of the last few centuries that even approaches this year. Indeed, we have to go back to 1540 to find comparable weather conditions. I quote Konrad Caspar Häulen, who said the following about vintage 1540: "The most rare and precious wine of this century, albeit in small quantities. The summer was so hot, that everything should have died of thirst... yet the grapes yielded wines that were so exquisite, the likes of which we have never seen."' With this year's vintage still developing in cask, Prince Salm admitted that it would be premature to assume that the wines of vintage 2003 will be as 'exquisite'. His generation and his ancestors have experienced similar years, but none with the extreme conditions of 2003.

'The vintage brings with it new and exciting challenges with regard to the terroirs of our vineyards. With the extreme circumstances of vintage 2003 we were able to become even better acquainted with the superior quality and character of our top vineyards. The quality of the vintage now moves to the cellar, where it poses new challenges to the skills of our winemakers' (Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm, Nahe).

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