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Germany's dry dictators

13 Sep 2002 by JR

The Institute of Masters of Wine publishes an annual report on the most recent vintage, with eye-witness accounts from MWs around the globe that are in general mercifully free of wine merchant hype. The most heartfelt comment on the 2001 vintage comes from German Master of Wine Jürgen von der Mark: 'Why was my daughter born five weeks too late? I would have loved to collect these wines for her.'

Germany has been blessed with a run of pretty good vintages (2000 apart) for many a year, but 2001 delivered something so special that even the many non-believers in German wines are taking note - not least because it was far from a big crop.

Fine wine traders Fine & Rare Wines of London, W10, for example, like their peers regard red bordeaux as their stock in trade. Business has been slow for most of them, not helped by sluggish sales of Bordeaux's 2001s. So Fine & Rare decided to try to bolster their August turnover with an unusual foray into German wine. This special offer of the 2001 vintage is reported to be a 'most (unexpectedly) stunning success'.

Some Middle Mosel vine-growers are describing 2001 as their finest vintage since the famous 1971s, and some have even had their arms twisted sufficiently by their importers to venture a comparison with 1959. What's so thrilling about the wines made from Germany's finest grape Riesling is that they have such concentration of both acidity and ripeness, the two vital poles of fine German wine.

This is entirely because of the weather in September and October last year. Spring and summer were unremarkable. September seemed disastrous. It was horribly wet, threatening all the rot that made Germany's 2000 vintage so difficult. But in 2001 it was much, much cooler than in 2000, too cool for moulds to develop. At the end of September the grapes were healthy but with extremely high levels of acidity.

This could have been disastrous but the sun shone so reliably throughout October that it gently built up sugar levels and flavour - by proper photosynthesis rather than desiccation (which can happen after leaves have fallen). For most of the best growers, the regular harvest lasted well into November, and the ratio of grape solids to juice was unusually high, resulting in wines high in extract and guts as well as sugars and acids.

Only tiny quantities of wines were sufficiently botrytised to qualify as a Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese, but these wines are the icing on the cake, and available only in tiny quantities to those with limitless budgets.

What is of interest to most wine lovers are more affordable wines. And German wine prices are still remarkably low compared to the fine wines of most other countries - despite the fact that yields have been falling as winemaking skill and overall wine quality has been rising remarkably.

One of the great perks of global warming has been a steady increase in average ripeness levels in Germany's relatively cool wine regions. This has made grapes sweeter and wines potentially stronger. It has also caused deep divisions between German wine enthusiasts.

The domestic German market insists on wines that are as dry as possible, while those few importers in the United States and Britain who kept faith in German wine through the dark days when Liebfraumilch had so sullied its image that you could hardly give it away see dry German wine as a pernicious perversion of a unique wine style the country has to offer the world. Rather than seeing it converted into alcohol, the traditionalists want the grapes' natural ripeness left to sweeten a low-alcohol symphony.

All of this has had the effect of making German wine nomenclature and labels even more of an impenetrable, and increasingly anarchic, tangle than ever. It was already difficult enough to remember that wines were classified upwards in quality - measured by grape ripeness - from straight QbA up through Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese to the late-picked BA and TBA and frozen Eiswein. Nowadays there are dry regional wines labelled Classic selling alongside others that are dry but not labelled as such, together with those deliberately labelled trocken and halbtrocken ('dry' and 'half-dry'). And now we are presented with dry wines from supposedly superior sites labelled Erste Gewächs. If 'Classic' seems an oddly unGerman term, this last seems a positive export deterrent.

But Germany's 2001s are already selling fast. Fine & Rare of London W10, Howard Ripley of London SW18, Lay & Wheeler of Colchester, Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh and Tanners of Shrewsbury have already made serious offers and O W Loeb of London SE1 will do very soon. Justerini & Brooks of London SW1 are planning to wait until next January. Then there are specialist German wine importers Montrachet Wines of London SE1, Morris & Verdin of London SE1 and Walter Siegel of Odiham, all worth trying (along with the Wine Society of Stevenage) in order to get your hands on this unmissable opportunity - especially for those born in 2001.

In the US, one of the best reads on the subject is raver-taster Terry Theise's catalogue, available from Michael Skurnik Wines (www.skurnikwines.com). This is worth it for The Thiese Manifesto alone, which begins: 'Beauty is more important than impact.' Another (the other) importer with a particularly fine rollcall of great producers is Rudi Wiest of Cellars International (www.germanwine.net). The Age of Riesling is an important specialist retailer based in Berkeley, California (tel +1 510 549 2444).

Producers who did particularly well in 2001 include many of the usual suspects - Hermann Dönnhoff, Keller, Peter Jakob Kühn, Dr Loosen, Egon Müller, Selbach-Oster, Emrich-Schönleber and Robert Weil - but there are many more.

For detailed tasting notes, prices, importers and scores see purple pages.

Tags:  germany
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