Germany 2001: Golden October?

The tale of German vintages is always one of rain and sunshine, but in the past dozen years there has simply been much more of both. The 2001 growing season and harvest followed that pattern in spades. A warm spring and an exceptionally early flowering got the year off to an excellent start, but before the summer was out many areas were suffering from drought, with growers hoping for a thundershower here and there to stave off shut-down in the vines. The vines did not have to wait long for relief, as September let loose with what looked like a repeat of 2000. In fact, some regions experienced even heavier rainfall than they had the year before, and all of them saw fewer hours of sunshine. Hopes were sinking, and growers were all thinking "2000 again."

But there was one saving grace amid four weeks of steady rain. Unlike in 2000, the temperature in 2001 turned e dramatically cool, so rot remained merely sporadic and at a low level. The healthiest riesling grapes, most of them with relatively thin clusters, were in a September holding pattern. If the rain let up and there was some sunshine, the vintage could still be excellent. As if on cue, that is what happened as October arrived. Was this the "golden October" of German wine lore? It depends which growers you ask, and in what growing areas. Many vintners reported they were simply relieved that the rain had let up. Others, like Graach's Willi Schaefer and Johannes Leitz of Rudesheim, testified to an October "like in a dream, simply fantastic," during which one harvested amid green foliage and in shorts and shirtsleeves.

Curiously, while acid levels gradually fell, sugars were slow to rise past the relatively high point they had already reached in early September. The critical determinants of success this year - as indeed they are in any vintage - were the health and ripeness of the skins, influenced by myriad microclimatic and human factors. No grower I spoke with claimed that his or her fruit was ripe at the beginning of October. Fortunately, the foliage remained green, in some cases through November. No significant rain fell again until early November, and even then it was only for a few days. The range of sugar levels was surprisingly narrow, and only by dint of severe selection and considerable luck was it possible to achieve Beerenauslesen or TBAs, despite there being tantalizing hints of noble rot in many a Spatlese and sometimes less desirable notes of botrytis as well.

The timing and ferocity of 2001's periods of drought and rain were perhaps most reminiscent of 1996. And there was another striking similarity to that year of occasional greatness because the grapes yielded very little juice. Given high skin-to-juice ratios and an extended period of rain during which the plants' roots fed voraciously, the 2001s show huge levels of dry extract. A number of them, in fact, rise to the point of near-bitterness, or exhibit a not always well-integrated tactile tartness. This was especially evident in, but by no means confined to, dry wines. I confess to some perplexity about many of the 2001s: is it sheer extract, abundant phenols, or a brush with early rot that give many of them a hint of finishing hardness? The measurable acid levels of the wines are frequently lower than in 1990, and certainly far lower than in '96 or '98. At times, though, the acids seem slightly out of harmony with the sugars, resulting in what I repeatedly found myself describing as a lemonade-like flavor.

In a year with so much rain, there can be an almost invisibly fine line at harvest separating delicacy from dilution in the resultant wines, and a similar knife edge dividing botrytis richness from roughness. It was clearly in the Middle Mosel that the largest number of 2001s walked the right side of the line, and comparisons with the great 1975s do not seem farfetched for wines with a subtle, vanilla-tinged expression of ripeness and botrytis ennoblement, a dynamic yet harmonious interplay of sugar and acids, and subtle but insistent, salty minerality perfectly folded into the fruit. And it goes without saying that today vintners uniformly take for granted a level of risk in the vineyards, selectivity at harvest, and cleanliness in the cellar that very few of them accepted a quarter century ago.

Growers who missed out on sporadic mid-November frosts were offered an Eiswein opportunity in the week before Christmas. Given the high sugar levels of the grapes going into that frost and the now virtually universal use of humidity- and botrytis-trapping plastic film to protect fruit left hanging, the results generally exhibit less than the classic high acidity or flavor clarity of the best Eisweins. There are some quite ravishing, elegant and approachable exceptions, but seldom are these wines truly profound. Most growers (as in 1999) would have done their customers a favor by eschewing Eiswein or subsuming the results (if not entirely legally) into other cuvees.

Many readers have already been urged by rumor and by early reports in the trade to pursue 2001s aggressively in the marketplace. In those instances where the quality merits it, particularly among Middle Mosel rieslings, I can only second this recommendation, particularly as yields were low. Growers repeatedly reported that top wines were restlos ausverkauft (sold out without remainder), at times backing this up by noting how lucky I was that they had saved one last bottle to taste with me. (In some cases they hadn't. If a significant wine was missing from my tastings, I have in the interest of full disclosure ruefully noted this in the text.)

The following wines were tasted in August of this year, in the course of my visits to 69 growers. I have generally listed the wines - representing far fewer than half of those I encountered - in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. This year's earlier date of publication rendered it impossible for me to significantly supplement my report with notes on sample bottles sent to me by growers whom I did not have time to visit. If a grower is not mentioned in the text that follows, not even briefly in a regional introduction, then I have not yet tasted his or her 2001s. Wines marked "1 star" were particularly impressive and in my experience correspond roughly with those of other regions rated between 88 and 91 in these pages. "2 stars" signifies a wine of profound complexity. Under no circumstances should these ratings, frequently based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my full tasting notes. In the interest of space, recommended wines that did not merit a star have, except in rare instances, been relegated to a list appended to the tasting notes; these lists also include a few starred wines that are unlikely to be available in the U.S. market.