WINES WORTH THE HYPE?
Germany's 2001 vintage is one of the best in decades, but it still pays to be selective.
Germany's 2001 vintage is one of the best in decades, but it still pays to be selective.
The drums of hype have been beating over Germany's 2001 vintage for a long time. By the end of August 2001, the rumors had already started to circulate. Germany, after a warm, dry summer, was headed for a great vintage. Quantities were down, but quality appeared very promising. Then came September, and the rain. For an entire month, it rained—not every day, but close enough. Like a Teutonic queen crushing the opposition, Mother Nature seemed to have asserted her cruel will.
Thankfully, the rain was accompanied by cool weather, with temperatures only occasionally reaching above 60 degrees. Without the rot that warmer weather would have brought on, the grapes just hung on the vines, their ripening suspended in time, with decent sugars but high acid levels. Growers hung on too, biting their nails to the quick, hoping for a break in the weather.
Come October, their prayers were answered. Warmth and sunshine flooded the vineyards, boosting sugar levels and bringing the acids into balance. The pristine weather gave growers ample choice of picking dates, resulting in a good selection of kabinett, spätlese and auslese. But the clear skies retarded the development of botrytis necessary for the production of beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese—although some were made, those treasured dessert wines will be in short supply.
Of course, in a country with 13 wine-producing regions, there is some variation—the weather was not identical over the entire country, and certain growing regions seemed to fare better han others. Some growers even prefer their 2002s, a less-heralded year. Johannes Leitz, a rising star in the Rheingau, calls his 2002s "my best vintage ever. The acidity is better, the balance better." Based on tastes of a few cask samples in January, Leitz may be right. "Because of the well-drained soils at my [vineyard] sites, I need wet, cold summers," he says.
It's the other way around in the Mosel, where 2001 is the clear favorite. Martin Kerpen, who is based in the famous village of Wehlen, explains that "the 2002 harvest in the Mosel was marred by rain, but the kabinett and spätlese will be very good."
The 2001 vintage is the best vintage since '71," importer Terry Thiese bubbles. "It's a 'spätlese' vintage," he continues, "that's where the strength is." Thiese is bullish on the 2001s—and not just because he has wine to sell. Fact is, most of his top wines were allocated and sold out (at the wholesale level) months ago. Fortunately, that doesn't mean consumers just getting on the bandwagon are entirely out of luck. There are plenty of 2001s still available at retail, and even more on restaurant wine lists.
Over the past few months, European Editor Roger Voss and I tasted more than 250 wines from the 2001 vintage. Our conclusion? The vintage is strongest in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, with other regions lagging slightly behind. Look for Rieslings from the villages of Erden, Ürzig, Zeltingen, Wehlen, Graach, Bernkastel and Piesport—this stretch of the Mosel is as close to "can't miss" as you'll find in 2001. Stick to the top producers and einzellagen (single vineyards) and your odds of striking gold will be even higher.
With our guide to reading German wine labels in hand (see facing page), there are only a couple of pitfalls between you and the best Germany has to offer. First, like Burgundy, there are a number of estates that share portions of their names. If someone offers you a Prüm wine, do they mean J.J. Prüm, S.A. Prüm or Studert-Prüm? It makes a big difference. Another notorious example is the estate of Dr. Thanisch, partitioned in 1988. The two parts are now run as separate businesses: Dr. H. Thanisch (Erben Thanisch) and Dr. H. Thanisch (Erben Müller-Burgraef). The labels are distressingly similar and the vineyard sites identical in many cases, so be sure to read the fine print.
The other snare for unwary consumers is the controversial grosslagen. Masquerading as single-vineyard sites, they actually lump together several sites to be sold as if they were one. Where narrowly defined, some grosslagen can be worth buying, but the best-known names—Zeller Schwarze Katz and Piesporter Michelsberg—are also the best to avoid. Anonymous blends from undistinguished vineyards, these wines fail to convey the sense of place that can make German Rieslings so very special.
In contrast, an einzellage wine from a top producer can transport anyone who has seen the precipitous vineyards of the Mosel to that place. The tension between sweet ripeness and taut acidity perfectly captures the struggle of the vine to ripen its fruit under a watery autumn sun. The combination of floral delicacy and sinewy strength mirrors the beauty of the vineyard slopes and the enormous human effort required to farm them.
These qualities make German Rieslings the wines to drink for almost any occasion, whether a classic picnic with sandwiches and potato salad or a formal holiday dinner complete with roast goose or pork. But for all the versatility of these German gems with meals, they may shine most brightly when sipped appreciatively on their own. There, away from the "distraction" of food, one can begin to discover the layers of flavor and uncanny ability to transmit terroir that make Riesling one of the world's greatest white grape varieties.
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Most labels will show the names of the town and the vineyard in large type, such as Graacher Himmelreich (the town of Graach, Himmelreich vineyard). In much smaller type will be the terms Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (often just Qualitätswein, or QbA), indicating a "quality wine," or Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), denoting a quality wine picked at designated minimum ripeness levels. These ripeness levels will be indicated on the label as follows:
Kabinett The least ripe of the prädikat levels, and typically the lightest of a grower's offerings. With their low alcohol levels and touch of sweetness, these wines make ideal picnic quaffs and mouth-watering apéritifs. Most often consumed in their youth, they can last for 10 years or more.
Spätlese Literally, "late picked." If vinified dry, they can still seem less than optimally ripe. Traditionally made, with some residual sugar left in or added back, they are extremely food friendly. Try them with anything from Asian food to baked ham and roast fowl. Most should be consumed before age 20.
Auslese Made from "select" bunches of grapes left on the vine until they achieve high sugar readings, these wines often carry a hint of botrytis. While some are sweet enough to serve with simple fruit desserts, others are best sipped alone. With age, some of the sugar seems to melt away, yielding wines that can ably partner roast pork or goose. Thirty-year-old auslesen can smell heavenly, but sometimes fall flat on the palate. Enjoy them on release for their luscious fruit, or cellar for 10-20 years.
Beerenauslese "Berry select" wines are harvested berry by berry, taking only botrytis-affected fruit. While auslesen are usually sweet, this level of ripeness elevates the wine to the dessert-only category. Hold up to 50 years.
Trockenbeerenauslese These "dried berry select" wines are made from individually harvested, shriveled grapes that have been heavily affected by botrytis. Profoundly sweet and honeyed, their over-the-top viscosity and sweetness can turn off some tasters, while others revel in the complex aromas and flavors.
Eiswein Made from frozen grapes that are at least equivalent in sugar levels to beerenauslese, but usually producing wines with much racier levels of acidity. The intense sugars and acids enable these wines to easily endure for decades.
You can also expect to see the terms trocken and halbtrocken on some labels (their use is optional). Trocken, or dry, may be used on wines with fewer than 9g/L residual sugar (less than .9%); halbtrocken (half-dry) refers to wines with between 9 and 18g/L. Given the allowable ranges, these wines may be truly dry or verging on sweet, depending on acid-sugar balance.
In an effort to simplify German labels, new terms have cropped up that supplement, replace or partially replace the traditional labeling system. Erstes Gewächs wines, or "first growths," come from designated sites in the Rheingau. Classic wines must be "harmoniously dry" and omit references to specific villages or vineyards. Selection wines are dry and bear a single-vineyard designation on the label.
Now that you've waded through the label permutations, check out the photos of some of our top-scoring bottles. Once you see the labels and taste the wines, the terms become much clearer.
94 Dr. Pauly Bergweiler 2001 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $265. The color of polished brass, this extraordinary dessert wine boasts delicate floral scents layered over intense aromas of dried apricots and orange-blossom honey. It's immensely sweet and viscous, yet balanced, thanks to a lime edge to the flavors of honey and apricots. The finish lingers, coating the mouth in a web of complex flavors. Cellar Selection.
91 Alfred Merkelbach 2001 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese Fuder 15 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $23. Würzgarten translates as "spice garden," and this example displays the powdered cinnamon and clove nuances befitting its name. The fruit is fleshy, almost berry-like, finishing with a citrus tang. Sweet yet lithe, and a steal at the price. Editors' Choice.
91 Baron zu Knyphausen 2001 Erbacher Steinmorgen Riesling Spätlese (Rheingau); $22. Tons of stuff in here: waxy, paraffin-like scents, peach, citrus and tarragon. Ripe pears and peaches, graced by hints of anise and mint, combine elegantly in this surprisingly light-bodied wine. Racy acidity frames the mouthwatering finish.
91 Grans-Fassian 2001 Trittenheimer Riesling Kabinett (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $14. This is an atypically big, mouthfilling kabinett, full of stone fruits, such as peach and nectarine, as well as some red fruits—perhaps cherries. Despite its richness and kaleidoscopic waves of fruit, it never seems heavy, coming elegantly to a long and mouthwatering close. Best Buy.
91 Joh. Haart 2001 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $20. Citrusy-sweet, this epitomizes the strengths of the 2001 vintage: good ripeness allied to firm acids. Lime and quince aromas develop into green plum flavors, finishing long and juicy, sweet but balanced.
90 Dr. H. Thanisch Müller-Burggraef 2001 Berncasteler Doctor Riesling Kabinett (Mosel-Saar Ruwer); $27. This is expensive for a kabinett, but it comes from perhaps the most famous vineyard on the middle Mosel. That pedigree shows through in its polished mineral core. There's a slight citrusy tang to the green apples and crushed stones, plus a delicacy and lightness that belie the wine's intensity.
90 Dr. Loosen 2001 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $38. This lean, racy auslese has plenty of sweetness and ripe apple and pear fruit, but those elements play a secondary role to the intense mineral notes. Racy acidity gives great life and verve to this wine, which should age beautifully for 10 years or more.
90 Georg Breuer 2001 Terra Montosa Riesling QbA (Rheingau); $20. Dusty and smoky, the emphasis is on dried earth and spices, with mere hints of baked apple. It's a rather full-bodied, muscular Riesling that shows the essence of the earth it comes from, enlivened by a bracing lemony finish. Editors' Choice.
90 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt 2001 Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $25. Does a great job walking the knife's edge—it's ripe, yet racy. The apple and pear flavors are crisp and inviting, so fresh that they transport you to an apple orchard at the instant the fruit is picked. Great balance.
90 Von Othegraven 2001 Ockfen Bockstein Riesling QbA (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $25. Like slices of fresh-cut Macintosh at first, but then folds in lime and mineral notes. Tart zesty limes and powdered minerals are packed together in a light, refreshing wine that tastes almost dry.
89 P.J. Valckenberg 2001 Riesling QbA Trocken (Rheinhessen); $10. Surprisingly complex and good, blending clove and ginger complexities with pear and peach fruit. Finishes long and vibrant, ending on a slight bitter note that adds rather than detracts. Best Buy.
88 Schloss Saarstein 2001 Riesling QbA Trocken (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer); $11. While the bouquet mixes exotic aromas of tropical fruit (guava?) with vanilla, the flavors are lean and focused, ranging from green apple to lemon and lime. It's dry, crisp and refreshing, a great apéritif wine at a great price. Best Buy.
No, not the kind you took after high school, trying to score your way out of freshman English. Each German wine carries on its label an Amtliche Prüfnummer (AP), which identifies specific bottlings as having passed a series of required chemical and sensory tests. It is of interest to consumers because some wineries have multiple bottlings of the "same" wine, which can then only be differentiated from one another by checking the AP number. If there is sufficient demand, Wine Enthusiast may begin tracking AP numbers for reviewed wines, but for now, we'll leave that to the realm of the über-wine geeks.