At a tasting of VDP Rieslings last September I thoroughly discredited myself amongst a group of Masters of Wine by being unable to show any excitement for the wine considered to be the holy grail.
A sense of significance. The white-clothed tables in the seminar room of Christie's New York, which was about to host "The Finest German Wines", was filled with winemakers, Masters of Wine, wine importers from Hong Kong and various other members of the wine industry. And myself, the shy but devoted Riesling lover from Staten Island.
The tasting of twenty four Rieslings from members of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter) had been organized by the Institute of Masters of Wine. Lisa Granik MW welcomed everyone and introduced her fellow tasting panel members Reinhard Löwenstein from Weingut Heymann Löwenstein, Raimund Prüm from Weingut S. A. Prüm and Paul Grieco, the man behind New York City's most acidic wine bar Terroir and instigator of the Summer of Riesling phenomena.
While the first wines were being poured into our beseeching glasses Mr. Löwenstein illuminated the long history of the VDP and touched on some of the current developments within Germany's most prestigious association of winemakers. He reminded us that "even the VDP members were not fighting the wine law back in 1971 because it was mainstream thinking at the time". However, 40 years later, the association is now actively fighting the infamous 1971 law in order to "bring it back from the cellar into the vineyard." The VDP is one of the driving forces in Germany to establish a wine quality system based on terroir similar to that in Burgundy.
Reinhard Löwenstein spoke further about German labeling, admitting that the VDP has added to the overall confusion1 but that the asscociation is determined to simplify matters by removing a plethora of vineyard names, particularly the names of Grosslage "sites", these arbitrarily created appellations without meaning, which the VDP strives to abandon entirely: "If a wine bears the name of a vineyard the wine must show the character of this vineyard. This should be obvious, but unfortunately it currently isn't the case."
The central idea, on which everything the VDP stands for is based upon, is the Erste Lage ("first site")—a distinction awarded, in theory, to only the best sites in Germany. I say 'in theory', because identifying Germany's best sites is still a work in progress and the current list will see additions in the future, as well as deletions. The VDP then says that If a wine comes from an Erste Lage vineyard and is dry (which means it has less than 9g/l of residual sugar) it can be called Grosses Gewächs. If it is not dry then the predicate levels of Kabinett, Spätlese or Auslese will be used. In other words: no more wines labeled "Spätlese trocken". It is as simple as that.
The purpose of the seminar was to illuminate the concept of terroir. But also to give a first impression of the 2010 vintage. This vintage had many German winemakers scratch their head. When I asked German producers last year about the 2010 growing season (their reports in German can be studied here) Peter Lauer said that in forty years of winemaking he had never experienced such a vintage and continued "I wish I could ask grandfather […] if he had ever harvested such an abundance of age-worthy wines."
It should be noted that the word "abundance" in this case refers to the unusually high percentage of age-worthy wines and not to the actual yield, for yields were extremely low in 2010. Peter Lauer's son Florian summed up 2010 as "the big year of small bottles." Unusual quality in unusually low quantity. So what exactly had happened in Germany's vineyards in 2010?
Bad weather in spring resulted in a strong Verrieselung (coulure or poor fruit set) of the vines, a condition where the vine sheds flowers and thus develops fewer berries per bunch. Coulure is not a disease, but rather an act of self-preservation of the vine since it can't ripen all of its berries. However, in 2010 coulure was so extreme in German vineyards that it led to drastically reduced yields - 20 hl/ha and lower were not unusual. September then was wet - and unusually warm. This meant botrytis in many vineyards, but, as many growers reported, an atypically healthy botrytis, resulting in perfect berries with both very high must weights and extremely high acidity levelst.2 The high levels of acidity will make some of the 2010 Rieslings live through the rest of this century.However, the "Finest Wines of Germany" tasting demonstrated both the possibilities and unpredictabilities of 2010.
The majority of the wines in this tasting, grouped into four separate flights dry, fruity, aged and gutswein, were of very high quality and demonstrated why Germany is touted as the home of Riesling, where hedonistic fruit and mineral austerity create a heretic complexity.
The dry Grosse Gewächse were of exceptional purity. Some of the dry gutswein Rieslings (basic estate bottlings) had trouble handling the acidity, though. The grapes for the estate wines were picked early and didn't profit from the gorgeous fall weather as much as the grapes from the Erste Lage did.
The wines that stood out for me from each category were: the dry Künstler 2010 Hölle Riesling Erstes Gewächs for its perfect balance, complexity and never-ending length; the fruity Ratzenberger 2008 Wolfshöhle Riesling Auslese for elegance and invigorating finish; the aged Egon Müller 2004 Scharzhofberg Riesling Spätlese for its mouthwatering juicyness and mineral lightness and the gutswein Matthias Müller 2010 Bopparder Hamm Feuerlay Riesling for its appetizing fruit and mineral backbone.
The tasting panel members were unanimous in declaring the aged Riesling Dönnhof 1997 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese as best of the show, which genuinely surprised me as I thought this wine rather uninteresting with a shockingly short finish for a Dönnhoff Riesling. I asked the tasting panel what made it so superior. Paul Grieco answered that this wine may at first seem short on the palate but then comes back in a second wave with an explosion of flavors. I sipped again from my glass, looking for that second wave, to no avail. Which may either discredit me or simply confirm one of the most engaging aspects of wine, that it leaves room for disagreement and therefore for passionate debate. Below are my tasting notes for each of The Finest German Wines.
Weingut Karthäuserhof 2010 Karthäuserhof Riesling Spätlese Alte Reben Trocken (Mosel [Ruwer])
Very crisp, almost piercing aroma of grapefruit and iron. Dry, soft mouthfeel, high acidity. Medium alcohol and medium intensity of apple and white pepper. Medium(+) length with a peppery finish. Very good
Weingut Künstler 2010 Hölle Riesling Erstes Gewächs (Rheingau)
Very spicy grapefruit aroma. Pronounced flavors of stones, apple and bitter grapefruit, with a floral touch. Very warm, soft and spicy. Medium alcohol and medium(+) acidity. Beautifully balanced, great aging potential. Long length. Excellent
Weingut Toni Jost-Hahnenhof 2010 Hahn Riesling Grosses Gewächs (Mittelrhein)
Light and fruity aroma, citrus, apple pear. The palate is soft and creamy, tastes of bruised apple and grapefruit with a pleasant bitter touch towards the end. Medium length. Good - very good
Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich 2010 Felseneck Riesling Grosses Gewächs (Nahe)
Beautiful aroma of lime, grapefruit and flint, medium intensity. On the palate this Riesling is very concentrated and somber, boasting bitter citrus flavors and strong minerality, which comes with vigor. Medium(+) length with a spicy finish. Very good - excellent
Weingut Wittmann 2010 Aulerde Riesling Grosses Gewächs (Rheinhessen)
Very fruity, slightly candied aroma. Medium acidity. Ripe apple flavors with a hint of spice candied fruit. Alcohol noticeable. Medium length with a mineral finish. Good
Weingut A. Christmann 2010 Idig Riesling Grosses Gewächs (Pfalz)
Very floral, perfumed and slightly spicy aroma of apple and tropical fruit. Medium acidity, very soft mouthfeel, that feels a bit heavy. Spicy apple flavors. Good - very good
Weingut S. A. Prüm 2009 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese (Mosel)
Very flinty on the nose. Beautiful, piercing mineral aroma. Sweet, medium acidity and very soft mouthfeel. Peach and pear fruit flavors, elegant, but a bit too soft, the palate lacks the vigor that the aroma promised. Medium length. Good
Weingut Geheimrat Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan 2009 Deidesheimer Leinshöhle Riesling Spätlese (Pfalz)
Discreet and somewhat shy aroma of citrus and pear. Sweet on the palate, concentrated minerality, elegant, warm and spicy. Medium(+) length. Very good
Weingut K.F. Groebe 2010 Kirchspiel Riesling Spätlese (Rheinhessen)
Very fruity and concentrated aroma of ripe apple, peach. Slightly floral. Sweet, medium(+) acidity. Medium intensity of spicy apple and mineral flavors. A precise, crystalline fruit flavor with a medium(+) length. Good - very good
Weingut Robert Weil 2010 Kiedrich Gräfenberg Riesling Auslese (Rheingau)
Classic Riesling aroma: vibrant peach and apricot with a generous dash of minerality - elegant! Very soft and warm on the palate, concentrated fleshy peach flavors with a long mineral finish. Very good
Weingut Ratzenberger 2008 Wolfshöhle Riesling Auslese (Mittelrhein)
Pure fruit aroma with a hint of smoke. Medium(+) acidity. Layers of flavors: fruit, spices, licorice, which during a long length become very pure and fresh. Very good
Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Ziliken 2010 Rausch Riesling Auslese (Mosel [Saar])
Aroma of oxidized apple and minerals. Very clean, pronounced peach fruit and honey flavors. Very lively thanks to its crisp acidity. Good
Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein 2009 Uhlen Riesling Auslese Lange Goldkapsel (Mosel)
Nice aroma of forest herbs, honey and stone fruits. Very lush and rich peach flavors on the palate. Medium length with a spicy finish. Very good
Weingut Egon Müller-Scharzhof 2004 Scharzhofberg Riesling Spätlese (Mosel [Saar])
Pure, clean mineral aroma. Hint of sulfur. Medium sweet on the palate. High acidity. Light, mineral-driven Spätlese. Nice mellow spiciness overlaying ripe peach fruit flavors. Very good
Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm 2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese (Mosel)
Strong sulfur smell clouding what is diminished to simply a hint of apple aroma. Medium sweet. Fruity and lively on the palate, but also very simple, lacking structure and expression. Medium length. Average
Schlossgut Diel 2002 Dorsheimer Pittermännchen Riesling Spätlese (Nahe)
Spicy aroma of honey and stone fruits. Very thin on the palate, no substance and short length - possibly a bad bottle? First bottle was rejected by the tasting panel and replaced, but it seems it resurfaced at our table.
Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl 1997 Forster Ungeheuer Riesling Auslese (Pfalz)
Spicy honey aroma. Sweet and soft on the palate, medium(-) intensity of flavors of honey and christmas spices. Medium(-) length. Good balance and development, albeit a bit weak. Good
Weingut H. Dönnhof 1997 Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese (Nahe)
Nice aroma of honey, apple and forest herbs. Sweet on the palate with medium acidity. Very spicy, but surprisingly simple and timid. Average
Hessische Staatsweingüter Kloster Eberbach 1989 Rauenthaler Gehrn Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (Rheingau)
Dark amber color with pronounced aroma of dried plums. Very concentrated (almost too concemtrated) and spicy. Curiously dry tasting finish. Interesting, but rather difficult as it lacks freshness and balance. Average
Weingut Johannishof 2010 Johannisberg Riesling Kabinett (Rheingau)
Simple aroma of candied fruit, which also dominates the flavor profile. Nice energy due to its crisp acidity, though. Medium length. Refreshing, but simple. Average
Weingut prinzsalm 2010 Grünschiefer Riesling (Nahe)
Aroma of ripe apples, minerals and flowers. Bitter stone fruit flavors, high acidity. Medium(+) alcohol. Mouth puckering and harsh tasting. Average
Weingut Matthias Müller 2010 Bopparder Hamm Feuerlay Riesling (Mittelrhein)
Fine mineral nose, crisp and refreshing. Off-dry, high acidity. Medium intensity of stone fruit flavors, deliciously fresh with a nice mineral backbone. Medium length. Good - very good
Weingut Ökonomierat Rebholz 2010 Riesling 'S' (Pfalz)
Ripe and warm aroma of apple sauce, grapes and flowers. The palate is quite different, though: very lean and acidic, stone fruit flavors with a bitter finish. Very nervous and somewhat disjointed Riesling. Average
Weingut Wagner-Stempel 2010 Siefersheimer Riesling vom Porphyr (Rheinhessen)
Lean citrus fruit aroma. More somber stone fruit flavors on the palate, slightly bitter, but overall simple. Slightly soapy finish. Average
1 The VDP top wine is called Grosses Gewächs except for the Rheingau, where it is called Erstes Gewächs. The latter sounds confusingly similar to the term Erste Lage, which denotes a top vineyard, rather than a top wine. The term Erste Lage is mentioned on Rheingau labels but it is not allowed to be mentioned on any labels outside of Rheingau, where the VDP places an icon of a number "1" with a bunch of grapes instead.