The 2018 vintage provides the perfect excuse... A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See our 400+ tasting notes on German 2018s.
A friend, married to a Frenchman, asked me to choose wines for her birthday party. One of my suggestions, a fine white from Alsace, was rejected on the basis that the tall, thin flute bottle was an unfashionable shape.
Pity poor Germany, most of whose white wines have been sold in flutes and don’t even have an association with the French classics to make them acceptable to the average wine buyer. This is such a shame as German wines have never been better-made, nor better value relative to most other wines. Germany, along with England and Canada, has been a major beneficiary of climate change. Vines that used to struggle to ripen and whose wines used to need added sweetness to compensate for searing acidity now produce fully ripe grapes capable of producing thrilling dry wines of all three colours.
These include some fine renditions of the red burgundy grape Pinot Noir, now the country’s third most-planted, and almost overtaking the prolific Müller-Thurgau that used to be responsible for a sea of Liebfraumilch, once scourge of German wine’s reputation. And 2018, the vintage whose white wines are just being released, was the best one many growers can remember, for both quality and quantity – this last prompting some concerns about high yields and a lack of concentration that I think are generally unwarranted.
In Mainz at the end of April I tasted about 160 Riesling 2018s – mainly Mosel and Nahe – and enjoyed them a lot. As growers in Champagne are discovering, climate change can be a mixed blessing. Warmth and sunshine may increase sugar levels in grapes but they also reduce levels of acidity, the vital spark of sparkling wines. Some concern was expressed in Germany about last year’s hot summer in northern Europe – so hot that England has produced its first serious crop of still wines. (I have already enjoyed earlier vintages of Gusbourne’s Pinot Noir and Guinevere Chardonnay so look forward eagerly to trying more still English 2018s.)
But Hanno Zilliken, owner of one of the finest estates in the Saar, the country’s emblematic source of feather-light but extraordinarily long-lived Rieslings, refuted any worries that Germany’s 2018s might be too ripe and fat, pointing out that the wines of the Saar tributary of the Mosel have never been short of acid. These are wines that are surely perfect for those seeking wines that are low in alcohol but strong on flavour and character.
But there is a problem with Germany’s most widespread grape Riesling. For some it simply has too much flavour and character. I love it. I love its raciness, its breezy refreshment, its ability to go with so many foods, its crystalline precision, its stately progress to an even more complex old age, and am thrilled that there are now so many great dry Rieslings in Germany as well as the sweeter, fruitier sort I was brought up on. But I do realise that I will never turn the whole wine-drinking world on to the delights of Riesling. Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio may be more popular precisely because they are much less assertive, and Sauvignon Blanc’s reputation is untainted by memories of the sort of sugar water that came gushing out of Germany in the late twentieth century.
Perhaps the reputation of German wine outside Germany has to wait for all those who were ever exposed to dreary Niersteiner Gutes Domtal and the like to die off. This is such a shame as there really has been a revolution in German wine, by no means all of it nowadays packaged in a tall, thin flute bottle. Wine drinkers in Germany can choose from a massive range of exciting, thoroughly modern wines, not just Riesling and Pinot Noir but dry whites from all three members of the Pinot family – Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (called Grauburgunder in German) and Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) – as well as the distinctively earthy speciality Silvaner that is characteristic of Franken east of Frankfurt.
I was disappointed in Mainz to hear several really excellent producers at this showing of the latest vintage report that they have been unable to find an importer in the UK, where the German flag is waved by too small a handful of specialists. Notable are Howard Ripley, and Justerini & Brooks, who seem to be successfully transmitting the message of the German wine revolution to their relatively traditional customer base. The Winery in Maida Vale and The WineBarn in rural Hampshire are two more retailers who persist with modern German wine, but that is just about it unfortunately – although The Wine Society usually has a superior German selection.
I admit that one problem may be that some wines that sell well in Germany are probably too austere for the British palate – particularly the basic Gutswein, the one carrying simply the name of the producer (as opposed to the name of a village or a single vineyard). There seems to be a certain segment of the German market that is reacting so strongly against the old fruity styles of Riesling that for them, the drier the better. Trocken, German for dry, has become a badge of honour. But Riesling is naturally light-bodied and high in acidity, so responds well to having just a little bit of residual grape sugar retained to counterbalance all that acid.
Even wines described as trocken on the label may contain as many as 9 g/l of residual sugar in Germany provided the acidity is high enough. It’s all a delicate balancing act. The actual residual sugar level is much less important than how the wine tastes. But some consumers, particularly in Germany, have become so dangerously obsessed by numbers that producers such as the admirable J J Prüm refuse to provide analyses of their wines, preferring to have them judged on their merits.
For a while, trocken wines seemed to be venerated above all others in Germany, with the old fruitier categories Spätlese and Auslese rather out of fashion, and Kabinett wines, the driest of them made from grapes just a little less ripe than those for Spätlese, almost forgotten. This was a shame since the Kabinett style is probably German Riesling at its most quintessential – with the merest suggestion of fruitiness but low alcohol and the ability to age for a good 10 years.
I was delighted to hear from several producers in Mainz that demand for Kabinett wines is growing again, both in Germany and abroad. Though probably not, alas, in the UK.
RECOMMENDED 2018 RIESLINGS
Clemens Busch Pündericher Marienberg Spätlese and Auslese, Mosel
Bürklin-Wolf Ruppertsberger Hoheberg PC trocken, Pfalz
Dönnhoff Kreuzbacher Kahlenberg trocken, Nahe
Emrich Schönleber Mönzinger Frühtau trocken, Nahe
Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer feinherb and Kabinett, Mosel
Willi Haag Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett, Mosel
Reinhold Haart Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Spätlese, Mosel
Gut Hermannsberg Kabinett and Schlossböckelheimer Vom Vulkan trocken, Nahe
Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Spätlese, Mosel
Kruger-Rumpf Münster-Sarmsheim Im Pitterberg Kabinett, Nahe
Peter Lauer Ayler Fass 25, Mosel
Schäfer-Frölich Bockenauer Schiefergestein feinherb, Nahe
von Othegraven Ockfener Bockstein Kabinett, Wawerner Herrenberg Kabinett and Kanzemer Altenberg Spätlese, Mosel
von Schubert Maximin Grünhäuser Abstberg Spätlese and Auslese, Mosel
Dr Thanisch Berncasteler Doctor Kabinett and Berncasteler Badstube Kabinett, Mosel
Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Spätlese, Mosel
You can find full tasting notes in our tasting notes database. Retailers via Wine-Searcher.com.