THE GERMANS ARE COMING & THEY ARE STAYING FOR DINNER!
While the wine fraud scandal and sky high auction prices have grabbed all the headlines this year, the German wine industry has, like mild mannered Clark Kent, slipped into the phone booth and emerged with a new persona as Superman. A nation known largely as a producer of traditional sweet wines, is now producing predominantly dry wines and domestic sales within Germany of traditionally styled spätlese and auslese wines have largely evaporated. Like their fellow wine drinkers in the U.S., France and Italy, Germans now favor dry wine, in their case, Riesling. In fact, industry leaders now have French Burgundy growers in their sights, and Germany’s most famous producers have gotten the message and are now making complex, concentrated dry wines from Germany’s greatest vineyards. A generation ago the tafelwein was slightly sweet, today trocken, or dry, is the operative word.
Major worldwide wine regions have undergone dramatic transformations in the last century. Winemaking techniques that often resulted in quickly oxidizing Italian and Spain wines have changed so that fruit is preserved and cleaner cellars have produced more stable wines. French wine has also changed as corporate money has transformed many of the old family run estates, and young winemakers travel the world as part of their education, learning the latest techniques in Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The U.S. mass market taste has also evolved from favoring off sweet white zinfandel and chardonnays, a la the Kendall Jackson “Reserve” bottlings, to now dry chardonnay.
In the last few decades, German producers must have looked across the border to France and were no doubt envious of the prices white Burgundy producers were achieving. At the beginning of the 19th century, Auslese from the best German vineyards sold for prices higher than French First Growths. In 1982, the better Ausleses were in the $20-30 range and ’82 First Growths came to market for $25-35 per bottle. Current Auslese vintages from the top producers are $50-80 per bottle, but First Growth Bordeaux tops $1,000!! The Germans are no doubt amazed by this disparity and must have wondered, ‘how do we get on board?’
Observing the success of the French, designating certain vineyards as Grand and Premier Cru, the Germans decided to do the same thing, albeit in German. They classified their vineyards—Grosse Lage and Erste Lage, great site and first sites as explained by Fisch and Rayer in “Mosel Fine Wines.” The recently introduced designation of Grosses Gewächs and Erstes Gewächs, great growth and first growth, will disappear from the labels of German wines in most regions. However, there is no national uniformity or control. The Rheingau region is rumored to be considering changing their dry wine designation from Erstes Gewächs to Grosses Gewächs as the small GG symbol on bottle labels was very successful at alerting the public to very special bottles of wine.
Apparently the designation of top and premier quality will be done regionally by the various local wine organizations in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Nahe, Rheingau and other regions. Of course for this to be really meaningful, one would assume a panel of judges would blindly evaluate several vintages of a particular vineyard to judge its quality.
The Verband Deutscher Qualitäts und Pradikätsweingüter, abbreviated as the VDP, is the most esteemed German wine industry organization of producers. In meetings held in January and June 2012 they stated that the new top tier designation, Grosse Lage will be the German version of “Burgundy Grand Cru” and the second tier, Erste Lage, will be comparable to “Burgundy Premier Cru.” VDP Ortswein will be like “Burgundy village wine” and VDP Gutswein will be like “Bourgogne.” Grosse Lage yields are not to exceed 50 hl/ha and Erste Lage and Orstwein up to 60 hl/ha. At this point they retain Grosses Gewächs for dry Grosse Lage wines.
However, the VDP has decided to classify all currently designated vineyards as Grosse Lage, and, in the future, other vineyards will be designated Erste Lage. If this is indeed the policy, one would have to conclude that they may have shot themselves in the foot before taking their first step—you can’t give every student in your class an “A” and expect anyone to respect your grading system.
For this vineyard rating system to be successful it really needs to be based on a current, objective assessment of quality. While the 1855 French classification still stands, the marketplace has largely determined the chateaux that are most sought after. German wine authorities counter that there is century old support for their position, and German wine authority, Stuart Pigott, writes that the Prussians rated various vineyard sites in the early 19th century, probably for purposes of taxation. A 1901 cartographic publication on the Nahe region clearly designates certain vineyards as being the top sites, and the Rhine and Mosel have similar historic maps.
Reviewing the official website of the VDP and reading through their posted documents, one has the distinct impression that this whole change in labeling is in a state of flux and that further refinements will probably be made every year. One of the great challenges currently facing the German wine industry is whose vineyards get classified with the top rating of Grosse Lage? The website states that there must be some history of the vineyards being noted on historical maps, and that they should have been identified in the past by the departments of taxation. Growers know that only the top sites will be successful at charging top prices, so it is in every grower’s best interests to have his vineyards designated as Grand Cru equivalent. At the moment there is no plan for the wines to go through any blind analytical tasting to come up with a ranking order. It is quite possible that all or most vineyards designated on recent maps will be deemed Grosse Lage.
Outsiders looking at the vineyard designation mess are likely to conclude that Grosse Lage and Erste Lage are useless designations and that all the time spent on it is a wasteful exercise unless a really meaningful classification of the vineyards and estates comes out of this. Simply classifying the vineyards and ignoring who makes the wine is perhaps a political hot potato that no organization wants to attempt to address, but for those who don’t know, many growers actually own parts of the same vineyards, like in Burgundy, and the wines made from them are vastly different. Bernkasteler Doktor from one producer is quite different from another, and Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr differs when coming from the houses of two cousins, Fritz Haag and Willi Haag, and now two brothers with Schloss Lieser making the wine as well. As in Burgundy, the marketplace will decide who makes the best wine. We hope they have not shot themselves in the foot undergoing this evolving process. Time will tell.
Dry wine has always been made in Germany, but frequently it was an after thought and represented a very small portion of the producers’ portfolio. The dry wines were labeled trocken and halb trocken, dry and half dry. One really had to hunt for these wines, but bottles from the great ’89 and ’90 vintages have held up well and are still enjoyable. With each successive vintage better and better dry wines have been made with improved grape selection so that now many growers will tell you that only the finest grapes go into the “Grand Cru” bottlings. Winemakers conduct a strict selection eliminating any grapes showing signs of botrytis and vinify the wines to a point of dryness. All the sugar in the grapes is converted by yeast into alcohol, so the wines have a higher alcohol level than we traditionally associate with German wines 12.5-13% vs. 7.5-8%. Natural Riesling acidity helps to slow aging and the resulting wines are very good food companions.
This strict selection process has been accompanied by a rise in the price with better wines in the $30-75 range. Top producers who feel their wines can compete with some of the best France has to offer are now charging $100-200 per bottle, notably the bottles produced by Keller which have an international cult following. For those who are shocked by these prices and can’t imagine them being sustained, we need look only to Napa where the ‘staggeringly priced’ $25 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernets of a generation ago have been eclipsed by the $triple digit fruit bombs of today. But, the Germans are going the other way and increasingly producing dry wines with bigger stickers. So “watch out, world,” the Germans are coming! And, yes, they will be staying for dinner!
RECENT VINTAGE REVIEW AND RECOMMENDATIONS
2010 was a vintage that was full of every type of climatological and oenological challenge, bad weather, great weather, maturation issues, diminished crops, questions on when to harvest, etc. Those who made all the correct choices made spectacular wines, wines for the ages. The crop was down as much as 30% of normal in some villages, so the winemakers were not happy with the economic realities, but many made great wines. 2011 was a long, growing season with abundant sunshine, an Indian summer that allowed full ripening and resulted in a large crop of excellent grapes.
This spring a trade tasting hosted by Rudi Wiest, the great houses of the VDP were represented: Fritz Haag, Karthäuserhof, von Hovel, Zilliken, Schloss Lieser, Mönchof, Gunderloch and J.J. Prüm, F. Weins Prüm, von Bühl, Schloss Schönborn, Haart and Schäfer Frölich were all represented. Almost all the wines were very delightful and it is interesting that the category that stood out to several experienced German wine connoisseurs at this tasting was the kabinett wines. Some vintages are known as spätlese vintages, others featuring botrytis are famous for their ausleses and extra sweet wines. For some reason everything seemed to go perfectly well this year at the kabinett level and the wines showed great complexity, spiciness, requisite fruit and perfect balance at this level. Particular standouts were the Zilliken and Schäfer- Frölich wines. One could not go wrong buying any of the wines from the above producers and challenging them with different cuisines of food will provide many evenings of enjoyment.
For those interested in trying dry German wines, Zilliken Saarberger, Diel Burchberg, Keller and Schäfer-Frölich produced very successful wines with intense fruit, finished dry with long lingering flavors. Where possible, one should buy the Grosses Gewächs offerings. Some of these are made from late harvested grapes of exceptional concentration. In some cases this produces very successful wine to enjoy throughout a meal. In other cases the concentration complements savories and cheese better than the main courses of a dinner.
The following are successful Rieslings from the 2010 and 2011 vintages with an emphasis on dry wines.
2011 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Kabinett – Highly Recommended **
2010 Schäfer-Frölich Bockenauer Felseneck Grosses Gewächs (Dry) – Highly Recommended **
2010 Schäfer-Frölich Felsenberg Grosses Gewächs (Dry) – Highly Recommended **
2011 Schäfer-Frölich Felseneck Kabinett – Highly Recommended **
2010 Schäfer-Frölich Felseneck Kabinett – Highly Recommended **
2010 Schloss Schönborn Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg Erstes Gewächs – Subtle slate with medium full fruit, hint of slight residual sugar in long finish. Recommended *
2010 Schloss Schönborn Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg Erstes Gewächs – Honeysuckle in the nose with full fruity extract and a long finish. Recommended *
2010 Schloss Schönborn Erbacher Marcobrunn Erstes Gewächs – Excellent concentration, full body, floral with honeysuckle dominance. Outstanding ***
2011 Wagner Stempel Siefersheimer “vom Porphyr” Dry – Sourced from two vineyards, great floral and spicy nose, medium full mouth feel, spicy Finish. Recommended *
2010 Wagner Stempel Höllberg Grosses Gewächs Dry – Very good acid fruit balance with great harmony. Slight botrytis elements. Highly Recommended **
2010 Wagner Stempel Heerkretz Grosses Gewächs Dry – Very good concentration with keen balance, concentrated flavors and a long finish. Outstanding ***
2010 Rebholtz Im Sonnenschein Grosses Gewächs Dry – Moderately full body with good acid balance and a moderate finish. Recommended *
2010 Rebholtz Kastanienbusch Grosses Gewächs Dry – Stone and slate in the nose, complex fruity essences, herbal and honeysuckle with a long finish. Highly Recommended **
It has long been our view and one shared by many wine authorities that the Riesling grape produces the world’s most versatile wines. We have long enjoyed all the different bottlings of varying sweetness that the German winemakers have produced. Few winemakers can state that the products of their vineyards are so versatile that they can pair with everything from smoked trout to apricot pie.
The sweetest wines are rare jewels and frequently priced as such. They can be marvelous by themselves as each mouthful summons the diverse tastes of summer and autumn fruit. We applaud the Germans for using their keen winemaking skill to focus on perfecting an emerging dry style of German Riesling wine; however we hope it is not at the expense of the great German wines that have pleased wine drinkers for generations.