Germany '04: A Classic Spatlese Vintage

Last year's 2003 vintage was highly rated-in fact slightly overrated-before anyone had done much tasting of the wines, and in many cases it has not lived up to early expectations. With their higher levels of alcohol, stunted acidities and overt sweetness, few of the standard rieslings of '03 have the graceful elegance, much less the drinkability, that I expect of a stellar vintage in Germany.

On the other hand, some of the wine press turned up their noses at 2004 before they had seen, much less tasted, the full scope of the vintage, and their early criticism, also prevalent in wine writing circles in Germany itself, has turned out to be equally wrong. After the cool, wet summer there were, it is true, very few winemakers who in late August had high hopes for the vintage, but those who took the necessary risks were able to make wines of incredible personality. Fifty years ago a vintage like 2004 would probably have turned out to be mediocre at best, but a new generation of winemakers has taken vineyard management, the notion of late harvesting, and the sheer will to make the finest possible wines, to a height unimaginable only a decade or two ago. Canopy management, crop thinning, the use of wild yeasts, and a willingness to take risks have enabled an ever wider number of estates to make great rieslings even under difficult conditions.

Difficult, though, is too strong a word to describe 2004, for the unexpected Indian summer from mid-September until well into November is what makes great vintages, albeit only for those with low yields and late harvests. The majority of the fruit in 2004 was brought in far too early, and overcropped at that, because the estate owners were averse to taking risks or saw little hope that conditions would improve sufficiently to allow them to make much more of their grapes. Those estates are not portrayed here, and consumers who taste only the cream of the crop will not understand how thin, bitter and green many of the lesser wines have turned out to be.

When all was said and done, must weights for the 2004 riesling kabinetts and spatleses were very similar to those of 2003. The difference is merely that the 2004s ripened during autumn, the 2003s during summer. In short, that means that almost everyone was able to harvest mature fruit last year. And thus, even though there were relatively few highlights, the overall quality in 2003 was somewhat higher. Vintage 2004 was, for reasons mentioned above, much less regular, but the finest wines are pure, crisp and unblemished, and for that reason more attractive, lively and classical in style than those bottled from 2003. And it must be said that the total number of fine wines at the kabinett and spatlese level is higher in '04 than ever before.

On the other hand, there was not much botrytis, and winemakers were often ill-advised to wait too long for ever-higher must weights that never appeared. There came a point where overripeness set in and tarnished the allure of the fruit. As Johannes Selbach told me, "the berries turned brown and lost their bright fruit acidity. "The 21st of December, however, brought some consolation for those who held out to make eiswein, as freezing temperatures allowed them to bring in small quantities of these singular wines.

Thus, if you rate vintages in terms of the amount of auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese produced, 2004 will not go down in history as a special year. But if you base your judgment on the number of exceedingly drinkable kabinetts and spatleses, you should take a close look at this vintage. Further, if you are willing to take risks with dry rieslings, be assured that there has never before been such a wide range of sumptuous wines made in this style in Germany. As always, though, the vintage was not only irregular within a given region, it was also irregular from north to south-with, on the whole, the finest wines being produced in the Rheingau and on the Nahe. "Although I was never certain what tomorrow was going to bring," Werner Schonleber assured me, "everything worked out perfectly. "Johannes Leitz, who with Werner Schonleber and Klaus-Peter Keller produced one of the finest collections in 2004, saw the vintage in similar terms: "I don't know what else I could have asked for. "Farther north, even those producers who harvested late were often not able to fully ripen their crop. In vineyards farther south, the rieslings tended to be fleshier but seldom had the same vibrant balance and sheer minerality that is the hallmark of this vintage at its best. The most successful 2004s are characterized by ripe, concentrated and yet crisp green fruits with lipsmacking textures, juicy acidities and crystalline clarity.

Looking back, it is very clear that 2003 brought forth a number of stunning wines, but they dominate 2004 only in the categories auslese and above, especially on the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer, where the earlier vintage can rightly be compared to 1959, another hot, dry year with little botrytis. Two thousand four is, in its youth, more comparable to 2002, even to 2001, which remains for me the benchmark of the new century, or perhaps to 1998. It makes little sense to compare this vintage to earlier mythic years like 1990 because there were only a handful of producers back then making wines at today's level of quality. As 2004 was a classic spatlese vintage, however, I have frequently heard comparisons to 1975.

Each year I do a ten-years-after tasting to see how the greatest dry rieslings, which are so popular in Germany, have matured. This year there were some 60 wines from the 1995 vintage on the table. As so often before, estates like Kunstler, Dr. Burklin-Wolf and Georg Breuer stole the show. Besides Heyl zu Hernnsheim and Koehler-Ruprecht there were few other estates at that time that could compete at this level in this category. Today there are not 5, but at least 25 that vie for top honors. I believe that their 2004s will develop much more successfully than many other recent vintages due to the purity and density of the fruit in '04, the ripe but spicy acidity, and the fine concentration that the best wines display.

Sure, dry riesling may not be what Americans are drinking today, but this development is symptomatic of what is happening in Germany as a whole. A larger number of estates, including some that were previously unknown, are making finer wines today and that in turn has ratcheted up expectations. The leading properties are under intense pressure to stay ahead of the pack, whether it be with their dry rieslings or with their luscious spatleses. However, where Dr. Manfred Prum can still show you a lovely 1983 spatlese and Egon Muller a stunning 1959 auslese, the number of excellent dry wines is a relatively new phenomenon that merits closer attention.

Personally I believe that American importers and distributors are missing an opportunity in not talking more about the dry rieslings. I think these wines are some of Europe's finest and certainly most underrated whites and in their youth work much better with food than a succulent spatlese or auslese, which need years of bottle aging before they shed their baby fat and sweet fruit. Further, the dry wines mature much better than anyone would ever imagine, developing complexity for years before they peak.

Granted, German nomenclature is already difficult, so adding a dry spatlese to a portfolio and teaching the clientele the meaning of the German word trocken is often not worth the investment. And we Americans like our drinks sweet, be it Coca-Cola or chardonnay, so dry riesling seems almost to be a contradiction in terms. Whether the tastes of our generation will change appreciably is an open question, but the Germans are trying to make the dry option more palatable. Although the concept of grand cru-Erstes Gewachs, Grosses Gewachs or Erste Lage-is still in its infancy in Germany, and still too complicated even for long-time German wine lovers, there is no question that the finest dry wines produced in Germany today are marketed in the long bottle embossed with a large "1" and a cluster of grapes-the symbol for these grand crus.

The idea behind the concept of grand cru in Germany is a good one:the use of terms like trocken and halbtrocken will be eliminated; kabinett, spatlese and auslese will become flavor profiles with varying degrees of residual sugar; and only the finest vineyards will be highlighted on labels. However, as this concept is still a private initiative other than in the Rheingau, it has begun in fits and starts and is different from region to region. In particular, the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer, where few dry wines of merit are produced, want, as their major proponent Reinhard Lowenstein declares, "that the vineyard be classified, whether it be for a dry wine, a spatlese or an eiswein. "In theory he is correct, but until all the machinations have been put to rest the consumer's best guarantee of a good wine is still the name of the producer followed by a classified vineyard.

One other thing that few wine drinkers in America might suspect is the extraordinary development of German red wines over the past decade, with 2003 being the pinnacle to date. I have never tasted so many excellent pinot noirs here in the more than 20 years I have been writing about German wine, but only a few of them are mentioned in this article for want of space. Just as important, owing to limited distribution in the American market, reds from the finest producers of the Ahr, Baden and Wurttemberg are not included here because they are hardly ever seen in the U.S.

I began seriously tasting the 2004s in the spring of 2005 at the annual fair organized by the VDP, the association of Germany's finest producers, at which they give the trade a first glimpse of the new vintage. Over the course of the summer I visited, as always, numerous estates in each growing region in order to have a firsthand account of the growing conditions, and to see market forces at work and assess the general level of satisfaction with the new vintage. Although I often taste wines with the producers at that time, I only write notes and score those wines that I have tasted again under neutral conditions, so as not to be influenced by the presence of estate owners, winemakers or sales directors, who always find a way to hype the vintage that they are just bringing to market.

At about the same time I receive wines from all prestigious estates. I first taste each collection in its entirety in order to ascertain how a given producer dealt with the climatic conditions of the vintage, and I then conclude each growing region with a comparative tasting of the better wines. At that time I line up the dry rieslings with the dry rieslings, the spatleses with the spatleses, and so on, in order to compare them, and to see how they are evolving. In particular, this allows me to see if a promising wine from a little-known estate truly has more potential than a seemingly innocuous wine from a famous estate.

Finally, in late September I do a final comparative tasting across the regions, in which the finest wines in each category are analyzed again and a final score drawn.

There is thus little question that the highest marks here are reserved for those wines that have consistently proven their mettle. There may be a couple of wines that have fallen through the cracks, but in most cases I have tasted the grand crus-Erstes and Grosses Gewachs-a fourth time since the outset. I also asked a number of the better-known producers to provide additional samples of wines that I might have underrated so that I could look at them one more time before making a final call for this article.

As the 2004s are, at their best, dense and bracing in their acidities, they are evolving all the time. This characteristic of the vintage was already a problem for the producers in the spring and summer, as they were determining when to bottle their wines, and it has continued to be an interesting topic of conversation ever since. Any one of us who ignores the fact that judging the personality and quality of such wines at this early stage is difficult is only deceiving himself. Nonetheless, I believe that the reader will find here an accurate portrait of who in Germany did the best work in this unusual vintage.

That Germany's labelling system can be confusing for the average consumer is a well-known fact. I assume, however, that the interested reader will understand how to interpret the wines portrayed on the following pages and have provided additional information such as a #16 only when that number is necessary to differentiate between two bottlings of what would otherwise appear to be the same wine. This is generally the "amtliche Prufnumme(A.P.), which is the quality control board's bottling number that by law must appear in small letters on the label. For many, however, they are impossible to decipher, as they are long and only end with 16 05, which means the 16th wine submitted to the board for approval in 2005.

Generally, if there is a difference in quality between two bottlings the producer will note this additionally with stars, gold capsules or the like, but there is sometimes no other piece of information to distinguish between two wines that might be quite different in style. Occasionally, as with Karthauserhof, the #53 refers not to the A.P. but to the cask number; but as this is prominently noted on the label the consumer will understand which wine I am referring to in such cases. Similarly, the term "auction wine" is used only when that piece of information best distinguishes between two bottlings.