Monday, October 1, 2012

2011 German Riesling: Stock Up

The hot springs of Wiesbaden in southwest Germany have been drawing visitors since ancient Romans discovered that the soothing waters were just the balm their saddle-weary bodies needed so they could resume sacking the rest of Europe.

When I visited there recently, however, I never got to dip my own weary flesh into a single spa, largely because healing waters of another sort were foremost on my mind. Wiesbaden not only is celebrated for its thermal pools, it's recognized as the gateway to several highly regarded wine regions, including Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz, each recognized in large measure for its riesling.

Tasters at work in the Kurhaus of Wiesbaden
One goal of my trip was to attend Vorpremiere Wiesbaden, a preview tasting of wines mostly of the 2011 vintage and all from "erste lage" vineyards, ranked as the top grape-growing sites of the nearly 200 members of VDP. Die Pradikatsweinguter. That's a trade group whose mission is to upgrade the quality of German wines via strict standards of growing and processing while remaining vigilant against practices that result in wine "nondescript, uniform and artificial." The German wine bottle is busy with detailed information, but a shortcut to identify the group's wines is to find on the capsule a stylized drawing of an eagle bearing a cluster of grapes.

Through production standards and sensory evaluations, wines from the top vineyards are grouped into three or four tiers, depending on preferences of the regions in which they originate. The two top tiers are "grosse lage" and "erste lage." "Grosse lage" wines, for example, can only be made with grapes from vineyards where the yield has been restricted to a maximum 50 hectoliters per hectare. (To further complicate matters, the designation "grosses gewachs" on a bottle of wine, often abbreviated to "GG," denotes that the wine not only is from a "grosse lage" site but is dry, or without evident residual sugar.) "Erste lage" wines, on the other hand, can come from vineyards with a maximum yield of 60 hectoliters per hectare. "Grosse lage" wines cannot be released before Sept. 1 of the year after their grapes were picked. "Erste lage" wines can be released as of May 1 the year after their grapes were harvested. These standards have as their inspiration the belief that wines should represent their place of origin, and that small yields and a bit of aging encourage that expression.

The day-long tasting was held in a conference room of Wiesbaden's cultural center, the Kurhaus of Wiesbaden, a vast complex of ballrooms and parlors fronting a sprawling plaza lush with lawn and lively with the waters of a central fountain. It was a warm day, but the tasting quarters were cool, evenly lit and comfortable. Tasters, mostly writers, were, in short, pampered, but in a manner meant to keep them focused on the work at hand, which was to get both an overall impression of the nature of the wines and to zero in on   those that represented above-average quality.

Pourer dispenses a spatburgunder during tasting
The tasting was a marvel of efficiency. Participants took their places at assigned tables. Speeches were eschewed, talking was virtually verboten. Tasters got promptly to work and broke only for lunch. Each had a directory listing the 436 wines, of which 272 were riesling. With 66, the second largest group was spatburgunder, what the Germans call pinot noir. Most of the wines - 89 - were from the region of Pfalz, but large contingents also were from Baden, Rheingau, Wurttemberg, Franken, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheinhessen.

More than 400 wines is too many to taste in one day, so as I leafed through the directory I limited myself to mostly rieslings from estates I would be visiting, estates with long track records, and estates that have generated buzz in the wine media, regardless of age. By the end of the day I'd tasted 83 wines.

In addition to the directory, each participant also had a small pad on which he or she was to jot the number of his assigned place and the flight to be tasted. The directory had been organized by regions and by coded flights of up to six wines each. A runner would grab one of the completed slips, dash into a back room, and return in a flash with a carrier containing the flight. Tasters could taste the entire flight or specify just the wines he or she particularly wanted. This was billed as a "sneak preview," but it wasn't a blind tasting, and with that I had no quibble. Noted British wine writer Jancis Robinson had participated in the tasting the day before and has posted this video of the format.

Sometimes I fret that I'm such a fan of riesling, respecting it for being so refreshing and for being so baldly representative of where and when it originated, that I'm too accepting, too reluctant to judge it fairly. I'm not cured entirely of those doubts, but the breadth of the rieslings in VorpremiereWiesbaden persuaded me that not all rieslings can be embraced without qualification. By the end of the day, my notes included many I would like to revisit, but just as many that I don't care whether I ever see again.

Overall, I was mightily impressed by the quality of the 2011 rieslings. VDP officials were excited early on by the nature of the 2011 growing season - more even than erratic and difficult 2010 - and their excitement only has accelerated with the release of the vintage. They stopped just short of claiming that the 2011 wines would be equal to releases of the legendary vintages of 1811 and 1911, but they didn't shy from suggesting they might be.

I found rieslings of confidence and complexity from each region, but the Rheingau was the source of a disproportionate number of those to get my highest rankings. As a group, they were the most exotic, their flavors running from apples and limes to hazlenuts and chestnuts. A surprising number carried whiffs of autumnal leaf fires, or a thin trail of smoke from the bowl of a pipe packed with a rare tobacco. Their structures almost invariably were solid, their acidity razory, their finishes exceptionally long for a white wine. Mostly, they were dry, though a few tasted delicately sweet.

Rieslings from the Rheingau vintage 2011 that I especially will be looking for:

- Graf von Kanitz Lorch Pfaffenwies: Bright gold filigree in color, medium-bodied, rich with multiple layers of fruit, complicated with suggestions of leaf smoke, one of the more intriguing and longer rieslings of the day.

- Prinz von Hessen Winkel Jesuitengarten: Already roundly developed, with a depth and length that said, "This is really a vineyard you have to visit." I don't know a thing about the vineyard, just that it yields an unusually richly textured riesling whose vibrancy and balance suggests it will live and evolve gloriously for decades.

- Josef Spreitzer Lenchen Rosengarten: Rich without being ponderous. Exotic for its evocation of some kind of sweet tea leaves smoked over a pine-wood fire, as well as a suggestion of lychee nuts.

- Kunstler Hochheim Kirchenstuck: By riesling standards, quite muscular. The first whose smell could be said to bound effortlessly from the glass. If it were tobacco, you could pack it into a pipe, light it, and delight everyone in the room - and it could be a large room - with its cool sunny suggestions of late summer and early fall.

- Kunstler Hochheim Holle: Seemingly cut from the same fine cloth, but for all its power it is lighter, leaner and more brisk than the Kirchenstuck, which makes it overall a shade more demure and elegant.

Only an empty bottle was unwelcome
All five of these Rheingau rieslings, incidentally, are classified "erstes gewachs;" no rieslings classified "grosses gewachs" from Rheingau were in the tasting. "Grosses gewach" rieslings from other regions that most impressed me were:

- Mathias Muller 2011 Mittelrhein Boppard Mandelstein: Rich yet buoyant. Apples at their fall prime, sweetly fruity and refreshingly crisp, no pie crust needed to be complete. Its smell kept saying, "Come hither," while its lingering finish urged you to say, "Thank you."

- Von Winning 2011 Pfalz Forst Pechstein: One of the bolder rieslings of the day, its smell as earthy and as animalistic as it was fruity. Clearly, the most voluptuous riesling of the tasting, with a ripeness and roundness that says "California" more than "Germany," yet compelling for its strength and focus.

- A. Christmann 2011 Pfalz Konigsback Idig: The peach side of riesling comes through here with pure sunny juice. It is one lush and viscous riesling, but also possessed of a complexity and length rare for the varietal.

- Furst Lowenstein 2011 Franken Homburg Kallmuth: A searingly icy take on riesling, almost as if you might find stinging shards of crystal in the glass, but also possessed of gloriously ripe and sweet fruit. Great acidity, great balance.

If I again were to attend Vorpremiere Wiesbaden I'd make more of a point of tasting spatburgunder, which is what Germans call pinot noir. I was so interested in riesling, however, I put off exploring the spatburgunders until late in the day. German vintners acknowledge that they are having a difficult time getting wine consumers in English-speaking countries to recognize spatburgunder as pinot noir. It is a variety that German winemakers are taking to enthusiastically, however, and nearly all those I tasted said that here is a source ready to compete with interpretations of the varietal from New Zealand, California, Oregon and even Burgundy. My favorites:

- Knipser 2009 Pfalz Grosses Gewachs Laumersheim Kirschgarten: You want the grace and charm of Burgundy? The richness and oak of California pinot noir? It's all contained in this one attractive German package. The color is deceptive; it's as faint as a rose. But the smell is glorious, all strawberry and cherry fruit set off against a flinty texture that speaks of terroir and a smoky note that speaks of toasty oak.

- Knipser 2009 Pfalz Grosses Gewachs Grosskarlbach Burgweg: A somewhat heftier cousin of the first, its color deeper, its fruit richer, its oak a little less obvious. This is one luxurious spatburgunder, which should be served in nothing less than one of Germany's grander castles.

- Okonomierat Rebholz 2007 Pfalz Grosses Gewachs Siebeldingen Im Sonnenschein: I've no idea what all that verbiage means, but it could translate as "I may be light in color but I smell like pinot noir at its most embracing, and on the palate I'm snappy, playful and enduring."

- Bernard Huber 2010 Baden Grosses Gewachs Bombach Sommerhalde: Also lightly colored, and lean in build, but with thrusting and layered fruit that keeps drawing you back for another taste.

- H. Schlumberger 2010 Baden Laufen Altenberg Wingerte: If you insist on deep color in your spatburgunder/pinot noir, this is your baby. It has that, along with sweet lush fruit that not only is up front but long-lasting in the finish. It's a big take on the varietal, somewhat plump, but in delivery it carries all of pinot noir's legendary charm.

So, after tasting 83 German wines what were my take-away impressions? By and large, they are cleanly made, uncontrived and balanced wines. German vintners clearly rely on the grape, the site and the vintage for their wines to say whatever they have to say. They aren't tricked up wines. There's a naturalism to them, their highest calling being to provide an accurate and proud representation of place. Not all were necessarily exciting, and because suggested retail prices in the U.S. weren't available I couldn't evaluate value. (The average price in Europe for a bottle of "grosses gewachs" wine, incidentally, is 28 euros, around $36 in U.S. currency at the current rate of exchange.) Nevertheless, to judge by German wines I did buy while in Germany, I'm confident that if the wines singled out here can be found in the U.S. the prices will be fair for the quality in the bottle.


  1. Great posting. For more on the pre-release VDP 2011 Grosses Gewaechs tasting see my posting on schiller-wine

  2. We are holding our 2011 JJ Prüm tasting today. I've been telling out customers to stock up. As of right now I'm tasting ahead of time. 2011 is textbook and perfect. Holding these back in the cellar is going to be the real challenge for us!