Germany 2000: Rot and Redemption

The decade of the 1990s was an extraordinary one for German vintners. At its midpoint (back in Issue 64), I wrote: "We are in the midst of a streak of vintages utterly unprecedented in the history of German viticulture." And I hadn't seen or tasted the half of it! Extreme summer heat and drought have so often been followed by September or October rain that weather patterns exceptional by long-term standards came to seem commonplace. "Every year starts out like it's going to be 1976 all over again, but then it rains," is how Johannes Leitz put it. In some years, rain has ushered in benevolent botrytis; in other vintages, riesling has resisted to such an extent that it came up rot-free. How often have I heard, in one or another variation, the adage that riesling can resist the rain if only the sun eventually returns? The gustatory evidence for this adage has been compelling. But for the harvest of 2000, neither Mother Nature nor the vintners were smiling.

In 2000, German riesling's remarkable lucky streak was broken. But so were yet more records. April ushered in freakish summertime temperatures and, after the flowering, growers found themselves four or more weeks ahead of schedule. "If you were keeping score at half time," Johannes Selbach jokingly put it, "2000 looked like a sure win." Then came a dramatic reversal, a cool and very rainy July. Warmth and sun returned in August. In September, the warmth continued, but not the sun. By October, several major growing areas had amassed 50% or more in excess of average annual precipitation.

Grapes were rotting on the vine: not just botrytis, but penicillin and other fungi had their way with them. As the skins of swollen grapes gave way under mounting water pressure, they were set upon by fruit flies and other pests that flourished well into autumn thanks to the balmy temperatures. In the worst cases, such as in Hochheim, or in the Mittelhaardt between Ruppertsberg and Wachenheim, vineyards literally reeked of vinegar, a phenomenon growers could not remember happening and one that struck fear into their hearts. Understandable anxiety led many growers to spray more and later than they had ever done before. As Mosel vintner Stefan Justen put it: "either you sprayed and sprayed, then prayed the grapes would still ripen, or else you held off, you played poker, and you ended up with a lot of botrytis, then found a way to deal with it through strict selection at harvest and treatment of the musts in the cellar." Growers faced an analogous dilemma with the young wines. Racking them off their lees early might help prevent the development of off flavors, but could also rob them of the richness they needed to balance the sharpness of the acids.

The harvest in 2000 was thus a generally dismal and dispiriting affair, a race against rot that even some of Germany's most ambitious and talented vintners simply couldn't win. Others, by dint of ruthless selection, discarding or leaving behind tainted fruit, managed to achieve success. For 2000 is not a wash-out in the ugly, underripe tradition of vintages like 1978, 1980 or 1984 (and how many wine lovers even remember that there can be such a thing?). Most conscientious growers had ripe material in 2000, and one tastes as much in their wines, flawed or not. But time and again, botrytized fruit, once selected and vinified, proved to harbor the seeds of decay. Some wines "ate" huge amounts of sulfur, becoming aromatically stunted in the process, then gradually revealing the negative side of rot or downright acetification. Many are the BAs and TBAs of 2000 that made it into bottle but will wisely never be released. There are certainly a few nobly botrytized wines in this vintage worth your attention, but they are rare exceptions. "It was hard to tell good from bad botrytis," says Wilhelm Haag, "but you could smell the difference."

And now we come to the queerest part of this year's saga, certain wines that botrytis spared. A few of the successful 2000s are truly extraordinary in quality and exhibit an elegance, a buoyancy and a purity of fruit that utterly belie the horror from which they barely escaped. The growers themselves often seem at a loss to account for such results. Perhaps precisely the fragility of the skins resulted in unusual aromatic complexity and delicacy of flavor from those few plots or bunches that eluded the taint of botrytis. "You should remember," says Helmuth Donnhoff only partly in jest, "that from the viewpoint of a grapevine, this was a wonderful year. All fall there was warm weather and more than ample rain. It's only if you view things from the above-ground standpoint that they look ugly." The fact is that happy vines pumped huge amounts of extract and retained green foliage that kept working well into November, provided it had not been stripped bare in a panic by growers seeking to increase air circulation and exposure to the sun. (Unfortunately for them, there was little air circulation or sunshine.) Ultimately, the relative absence of botrytis in the best wines remains a testiment to scrupulous vineyard practices year in and year out; to human labor and determination; but perhaps also in some critical measure to a caprice of nature.

Consumers should without doubt be on their guard in exploring the vinous products of vintage 2000. On the other hand, those who avoid the exploratory effort will miss out on some excitement and some breathtaking beauty. Collectors who love German riesling will want a handful of the best 2000s in their cellars, though more typical wines of this vintage, even the successful ones, are probably better consumed in the near term. The exceptional wines of 2000 are in a truly glorious way typical of our winemaking era. Neither the will nor the skill existed until very recent times to salvage anything decent from a year like 2000, let alone to render some rieslings worthy of awe.

The wines detailed below were tasted in the course of more than 60 estate visits in July and August 2001. A few wines were tasted or retasted in autumn. Except in rare circumstances where it served some explanatory purpose, the wines are listed in the order in which they were presented by the grower. They represent at most a third of the total number of wines tasted; indeed, out of considerations of space the bar has been set higher than usual for publishing complete notes. Regrettably, it was not possible in this issue to publish notes on the 1999s from estates on which I did not report in Issue 94. I have alluded to some of these at appropriate points. Notes followed by a rating of "1 star" refer to wines of particular merit. "2 stars" signifies a wine of profound complexity. Under no circumstances, though, should these ratings be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.