2014 Germany: Riesling Resists Rain on the Rhine

Mittelrhein, Nahe, PfalzRheinhessen, Rheingau

Two thousand fourteen will be remembered in Germany for an extremely stressful growing season and challenging harvest. But in Rhine regions that had luck with the weather, circumstances conspired to permit outstanding quality from growers whose viticultural regimens are scrupulous and who had skilled, motivated and outsized picking crews.

A Hot Spring and a Miserable Late Summer

In years when there is scarcely winter weather to speak of, wine growers become justifiably nervous contemplating pests that will eventually rear their ugly heads in greater than usual numbers, as well as vines that never really get the deep dormancy they crave. Two thousand fourteen was such a year. When spring then comes early and is unusually warm, growers at least sigh in relief at a head start that promises eventual ripeness. That also occurred in 2014, when budbreak in many of Germany’s Riesling vineyards, for the umpteenth time already this young century, set a new record. (For Wilhelm Weil in Kiedrich it was April 7.) 

As unseasonably warm, dry weather continued through May, there was inevitable worry that one or two frosty nights might destroy the vines’ tender shoots, thereby jeopardizing both quality and quantity. But no frost materialized. June was extremely dry and downright hot, with disruption of flowering in some sectors resulting in millerandage, thus assuring limited yields from loose clusters and in the process further moving up the date on which it could be anticipated that the crop would ripen. As has been the case repeatedly during the last two decades, even growers of Riesling harbored well-grounded fears that the harvest might have to begin disadvantageously early amid still-warm conditions.

July brought slightly cooler weather as well as timely rains to ward off shutdown or drought stress in the vines, and these conditions further accelerated the crop’s evolution. Then came a thoroughly miserable August. Almost everywhere on the Rhine and Mosel it was rainy and gloomy, the luckier regions being those where temperatures also dropped significantly, putting the brakes on vine metabolism as well as pest populations. “I’ve never seen an August so dark and damp,” remarked Martin Franzen of Müller-Catoir, “and yet, it was sometimes 21, 22, maybe 24 degrees [i.e., 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit], which was perfect for drosophila. And once a tiny hole gets bored into a berry, it becomes a microbiological time bomb.” Reports differed wildly among growers as to how much of the toll inflected on Riesling was from the invasive species Drosophila suzukii that literally bores into even unripe grapes but is known to prefer red ones (it devastated Pinot Noir vineyards in Baden and the Pfalz), and how much instead from “plain old native fruit flies,” not to mention yellow jackets. Either way, late August and September insect damage was widespread and enormous.

Wagner-Stempel’s Heerkretz Vineyard before and after pre-selection    

From Many, Few: Much of what hung on the vine in 2014 was incompatible with excellence. Some growers, such as Daniel Wagner, were able to manage a thorough “pre-harvest” of top sites before returning to collect what was left. And what was left at Wagner-Stempel formed the basis for an exciting collection by any standards.

Even though September brought significant breaks in the rain, growers found their grapes targeted by both acescence (the process of acetous fermentation) and rot, the spread of each accelerated by marauding insects. (Though, in a role reversal that no grower I spoke with could explain, Burgundy varieties—including Pinot Noir insofar as it managed to escape suzukii—often resisted rot even more successfully than did Riesling.) In some vineyards, it was beginning to smell and look frighteningly like 2006 or even 2000. But fortunately, only for brief periods did 2014 approach the outright tropical conditions that had turned those earlier rained-on harvests into veritable routs.

The relatively loose clusters were another godsend at this point. Depending on location and, above all, on how adeptly and assiduously growers pulled leaves, removed problematic bunches in advance, and in general managed their vines, many of them still had a decent-sized and largely healthy Riesling crop headed into October. (If you had chosen to apply any fertilizer in 2014, you had rotten luck.) But by then the margin between success and disaster could be thin indeed, especially when measured in days. Daniel Wagner put it this way, and had the photographic evidence to prove it: “one day a berry was beautiful; on day two you could just make out tiny tears or punctures in its skin; on the third day you had full-fledged, furry botrytis.” Simultaneously, as Martin Franzen testified: “In a matter of hours the grapes could go from green to acetic.” And as if all this were not bad enough, heavy rains hit most regions again in early October.

Obviously, circumstances like these made for an extremely stressful and challenging harvest. “Sometimes the clusters would look fine on one side; then when you turned them over it was a horror,” explained Geisenheim viticulture professor and Bacharach vintner Randolf Kauer, who concluded that “the assignment this year was to be highly selective of your material and then to not make any mistakes with that material. There could be no compromising: you were either going to have vinegar or good wine.” A concern articulated by many growers in recent years is that climate change, by shifting the harvest into the generally warmer early autumn and enhancing susceptibility to rot, will truncate the time available for picking. What Johannes Hasselbach of Gunderloch dubbed “the turbo vintage” of 2014 certainly forms a fat, dark data point along the line plotted by that hypothesis. Records were set throughout Riesling Germany for the shortest number of harvest days as well as for the most pickers ever employed.

An Uphill Battle: Steepness alone could not protect Riesling or its growers from encroaching botrytis and rampaging fruit flies in September of 2104, and the Jochen Ratzenbergers, father and son, had their work cut out for them in the four weeks after this photo was taken to achieve a Steeger St. Jost worthy of the moniker Grosses Gewächs

Improbable Luck and Refined Results

The wonder is that so many gorgeous wines managed to make it into the bottle. Especially in those Rhine regions that had luck with the weather, circumstances conspired to permit outstanding quality from those whose viticultural regimens are scrupulous and who had skilled, motivated and outsized picking crews. In the Pfalz and much of the Rheingau and Rheinhessen, Riesling had managed to fully ripen already by early October, and while the Nahe is nearly always at least a week behind in grape evolution, that region, along with parts of the Rheinhessen Wonnegau, was spared some of the worst rain that fell elsewhere, on top of which, as Tim Fröhlich observed, “we had the enormous luck that the nights turned cold here during those rainy early October days.” And like Klaus Peter Keller, Fröhlich strongly believes that chilly nights are in themselves conducive to ideal Riesling aromatics and filigree structure, which the best 2014s, contrary to nearly all expectations at harvest, certainly display. Even so, added Fröhlich, “those grapes that were still healthy at that point [i.e., in early October] ripened just in the nick of time, because they would not have held out against rot one week longer.” (Keller’s fruit, amazingly, held out in part until month’s end.) The Mittelrhein, like most of the Greater Mosel, was more likely to have been caught between the unpalatable alternatives of not-quite ripe grapes and spoiled ones. But even on the Mosel, as my subsequent report will detail, distinctly satisfying and occasionally even memorably lovely results were possible.

Almost universally, acid levels along the Rhine in 2014 were not just close to optimal, they heavily favored tartaric over malic acidity thanks to balmy autumn temperatures combined with what, despite the rushed harvest, amounted to long total hang times. And to the extent that full ripeness arrived, it was at modest levels of potential alcohol, which prompted many growers to allow their trocken Rieslings to ferment to unusually low levels of residual sugar. The results served to highlight the benevolent influence of high but far-from-aggressive acidity combined with modest alcohol levels, inasmuch as the number of dry wines that came off as uncomfortably bitter or austere proved smaller, despite their very low levels of residual sugar, than I would have expected to encounter in any given recent German Riesling vintage. Significant amounts of charcoal fining took place to remove possible residues of rot from the musts (a procedure that does nothing to eliminate traces of acescence). Yet, among growers who confessed to having taken that precaution, I was surprised to experience no obviously deleterious effects on their wines. Very little of the rot that characterized 2014 was noble, so Auslesen or Beerenauslesen are relatively rare. The more successful sweet Spätlesen are nearly as likely as the Grosse Gewächse to have been the product of “negative selection” to avoid botrytis, and allowing fruit to hang in hope of Eiswein would have been crazy. 

It lifted one’s odds this year in most sectors to have fruit- or must-cooling capability, which even though still not in place at some top estates is becoming increasingly widespread in response to warm harvest conditions in many recent years. (Kauer wisely rented a refrigerated beer delivery van on short notice.) In general, pre-fermentation skin contact was minimized and pressing was cautiously gentle, actions which could be seen not just as further precautions against traces of rot, but in retrospect also as having enhanced this vintage’s virtues. There is a lot of subtle flavor interplay in the best 2014 Rieslings, allied to levity, animation, and a clarity that is hard to reconcile with what one knows about the meteorological circumstances. Comparisons with 2002, at least on the Rhine, are already often noted by growers. So, if like me, you were or have become a fan of that unjustly maligned vintage, let those comparisons serve as impetus to believe in and explore 2014.

Rumpfs on a roll: Georg and Stefan Rumpf’s recent collections from their lower Nahe vineyards, especially that of 2014, confirm their ascent into the elite of a region that already boasts one of the highest concentrations of over-achievers in any of the world’s Riesling-growing regions.

It goes without saying that even assuming you confine your purchases to the elite growers profiled in this report, selectivity is in order when choosing 2014s for your table or cellar (more so with Mosel Rieslings than with those of the Rhine)—but not nearly as much selectivity, I daresay, as was incumbent on the growers at harvest! As with any vintage in which background botrytis is destined to be a widespread problem, it can often be masked early on by youthfully exuberant fruit and lingering fermentative aromas. It would thus be wise to retaste any 2014s that were purchased based on tasting impressions registered in the summer of 2015.

In an interesting parallel to Austria, a number of prominent growers have suggested that what happened in 2014 might have beneficial lasting effects on their viticultural regimen and stylistic templates. As Tim Fröhlich remarked, “we didn’t achieve quite as high must weights as we usually have, but in retrospect that made this a very educational vintage.” “The beauty and fascination of what resulted,” opined Martin Franzen, “is to have this levity and yet concentration.”

Since VDP politics continues to denigrate the very concept of “Kabinett trocken” (whether the expression itself gets jettisoned is less important) and sensational dry Rieslings are in some regions still repeatedly rejected as candidates for Grosses Gewächs status on account of perceived alcoholic weakness, I intend to stand by my oft-repeated refrains that German growers are liable to end up as the last men standing who still believe that “bigger is better” in matters vinous and they have yet to turn their attention from an obsession with trying to demonstrate what “we too” can accomplish to focus instead on wines that only Riesling in German vineyards can achieve. Even under today’s climatic conditions, satisfying ripeness and mesmerizing complexity can be achieved with Riesling at well under 12% alcohol. Fortunately, there are signs of changing attitudes toward alcohol and toward what constitutes optimal ripeness for Riesling, as witness the comments VDP president Steffen Christmann made in introducing his excellent 2014 collection. True recognition of German Riesling’s unique potential would also require an entirely open mind and palate when it comes to beneficial residual sugar. Prejudice in that regard remains a stubborn feature of the Rhine Riesling scene, but one argued about so often that I shall refrain from engaging in further polemic on this occasion. 

Up from Obscurity: Riesling Germany is still liberally littered with vineyards of exciting potential whose names are unfamiliar even to most growers. The inaugural, 2014 crop from Daniel Wagner’s vine selection in the melaphyric-volcanic Fürfelder Eichelberg, at 360 meters the highest spot in all Rheinhessen, leaves little doubt that this site is headed for well-deserved fame. 

The present report and my upcoming article covering the Greater Mosel are based on tastings conducted in the course of September 2015 visits with 105 growers, supplemented by extensive tastings of samples between December 2015 and March of 2016 that included experiencing the 2014 bottlings of more than a dozen additional growers. In rare instances where a wine had not yet been bottled when I tasted it in September and I did not have the chance to revisit it, I offer a point range in lieu of a specific score. Any wines reviewed in this report from vintages other than 2014 (which include selected 2013 vintage Pinot Noirs) represent late releases that either have yet to enter the market or, more often, did so in 2015. While notes are rarely included for wines that I did not score at least 87 points, in a few cases I deemed it important to publicize my concerns about such wines. Since this is my first report on German wines for Vinous, I have taken the liberty of incorporating into some of my introductions to individual estates general observations about recent trends and developments at the address in question.

Deserving of recognition: The vineyard Hinterhaus, today officially part of the Rottland Einzellage and one of the last terraced sections of the Rüdesheimer Berg, was already being touted as Rüdesheim’s apex when Jefferson visited to taste in 1788. Johannes Leitz has revived some of these terraces, resulting in one of several sensational successes he scored in the challenging 2014 vintage. Old site names like Hinterhaus that were eliminated as part of Germany’s 1971 Wine Law may now also be revived for use on labels.

I hugely regret the omission from my coverage of Bürklin-Wolf, whose wines are among Germany’s most consistently excellent. But I was made painfully aware that I am unwelcome at their establishment, and the manner in which their highly coveted single-vineyard bottlings are allocated across far-flung export markets kept me from being able to assemble a collection of samples stateside.

A Few Conventions of Nomenclature Followed in this Report

Despite any wine writer’s best efforts, German wine labels remain at least as confusing, and perhaps even more so, than they were 30 years ago—just in different ways. The VDP set out with the avowed intention of simplifying labeling, but has notoriously added—not to mention repeatedly altered the meaning of—wine terms. Their regulations can’t invalidate practices among non-members, much less State or Federal law, so divergent labeling conventions run parallel. And a VDP fixation on limiting vineyard-designated dry Rieslings to only the most expensive offerings—and then from only an increasingly restricted range of vineyards—has driven an increasing number of growers to invent and liberally apply idiosyncratic “fantasy names” or their own proprietary labeling conventions. Please don’t shoot me for dragging you through the terminological maze that follows: it is not of my making, and I am only trying to help us both get our bearings and find a way out!

A not insignificant concern in describing German and Austrian wines is to avoid inessentials that would lengthen already long names. Any wine in this report that offers on its label (or on its official “back label,” and in however tiny print) a legally authorized indication of its sweetness or lack thereof, has had the relevant descriptor—“trocken,” “halbtrocken” or “feinherb”—included here as part of its name. But since Grosse Gewächse must be legally “trocken,” I have omitted that word in identifying them. (Warning: “feinherb,” unlike “trocken” or “halbtrocken,” is legally undefined and thus signifies whatever detectable sweetness a grower wants it to.) And while “Grosses Gewächs” defines a category of wine and is thus essential to its naming, terms referring solely to the alleged quality potential of a vineyard, notably the VDP-internal designations of Grosse- and Erste Lage, are omitted in this report on account of being superfluous for unambiguous identification, not to mention tendentious.

Speaking of disambiguation, if you encounter a reference in a wine’s description to “A.P. #” followed by one or two Arabic numerals, these appear only because a grower bottled more than one wine under exactly the same description and those multiple wines’ registration numbers are the only means of distinguishing one from the other. The numbers in question represent the penultimate in a long string of digits found in tiny print somewhere on the wine’s label. The last two digits in that string designate the year in which the wine was approved, meaning that for nearly every wine they are its vintage plus one. In rare instances in which a wine was not approved for sale in the year following its harvest (which can happen, for instance, with TBAs that take more than a year just to finish fermenting) but reference to its A.P. # is essential, the last two digits might also be included, e.g. “A.P. #1 15,” signifying the first wine from the grower in question to have been approved.

Reason to Smile: Von Winning director-cellarmaster Stefan Attmann and his veteran vineyard manager Joachim Jaillet weren’t just putting a good face on the 2014 vintage. They are among many Riesling growers across Germany’s Rhine regions who turned in memorably complex and age-worthy collections.

I have followed longstanding convention in naming single-vineyard wines for their village as well as their vineyard, the letters “er” that appear after the village’s name being a matter of correct German grammar. There is an increasing tendency among growers to either place the village name, without the “er” ending, somewhere other than in front of the vineyard name—or else, in keeping with a widespread affectation of aping Burgundy grand cru labeling, of eliminating the village designation entirely. I have stubbornly retained the “er’s” for the sake of consistency as well as grammar, and the village names just in case any readers might actually want to know where the “great vineyards” in question are located! (At last count, the VDP roster of Grosse Lagen included four each of “Altenberg” and “Sonnenberg,” five of “Herrenberg” and “Rothenberg,” to say nothing of eight “Schlossbergs” and innumerable triplicates or duplicates.) Following the conventional sequence of {village + vineyard + grape + Prädikat + taste descriptor}, I have relegated to last place any other designations essential to unambiguously picking out the wine in question, notably including fantasy names, geological descriptors, cask numbers, or the ubiquitous “R” (for “Reserve”) and “Alte Reben.”

One more detail apropos vineyard names: their spelling, just as in Austria or for that matter Burgundy, is not standardized, so if for example you read “Rotenberg” one place and “Rothenberg” another, “Dhroner Hofberger” here and “Dhronhofberger” there, that is because those are the spellings the growers in question have chosen. (And yes, this means that to search in our database for wines from a given vineyard, you might occasionally have to submit their names under more than one spelling.)

In an important and shockingly liberal development, it has recently become legal in most Riesling-growing regions in Germany to register and then utilize in labeling any place name that is already enshrined in the official land record (i.e., cadaster). Such names may then be utilized in conjunction with the name of the relevant Einzellage (sites defined since 1971 by Germany’s federal wine law), or may stand alone. Prior to this liberalization, growers tried various methods of getting around the fact that only official Einzellagen were permitted as site names on labels. Some employed “front” and “back” labels with different vineyard designations; some tried sneaking in references to old sites as alleged “fantasy names” or wrote those names in local dialect; and some benefited from a local Kellereiinspektor who overlooked their infractions.

Unsurprisingly, now that the law has been liberalized, many growers, without going to the trouble of registering cadaster names, have been emboldened to add to their labels those names or others that refer to vineyards more specifically than do official Einzellagen. In instances where I have not verified the legal status of what looks like a vineyard reference or suspect it of officially being a “fantasy name,” I have placed it at the end of a wine’s description. Where I know that the cadaster name in question has been registered, I have placed it either after the name of the relevant Einzellage or immediately after the name of the village, depending on whether the grower in question has chosen to incorporate or omit the Einzellage on his or her label.

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Austria 2014: A Catastrophe? Not Qualitatively!, David Schildknecht February 2016

2013: A Great Vintage for Austrian Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, David Schildknecht November 2015

Photo Credits: David Schildknecht and Daniel Wagner

-- David Schildknecht