Germany 2006: An Unusual Auslese Year

If 2005 in this part of the wine world was uneven in quality from region to region and estate to estate, 2006 was even more so. As impressive as some noble late-harvest rieslings are on the Mosel, it was only a good vintage on the Saar and Nahe, and at most a fair vintage on the Ruwer and in the Rheingau. In Rheinhessen and the Pfalz the quality is extremely uneven, with only a few estates making wines that merit extended coverage.

Where 2005 and especially 2003 were marked by the positive effects of global warming, with each of those vintages being warm and dry, 2006 was plagued by problems that Germany has so often known in the past: hail, rains during the harvest and rot. Only a generation ago, a vintage like this, or like 2000, would have been a catastrophe. Today, with better vineyard management, meticulous culling at harvest, and scrupulous selections in the cellar, most of the good estates were able to make at least a few first-class wines and many of the top producers did a remarkable job under difficult conditions. I gave more than 100 wines scores of 90 points or higher, but with the exception of the noble late-harvest wines from the Mosel, which old hands like Egon Müller compare to excellent vintages like 1999 and 1976, there were few rieslings that will go down in history. These, though, will age marvelously well, as have the finest 1976s. However, given their low acidities and relatively high levels of alcohol, most other 2006s should be consumed over the next five to ten years.

Because rains in late September and the ensuing rot forced many estate owners to harvest not only ahead of schedule but also exceedingly quickly, the flavor profile of 2006 is a moving target. As Armin Diel from the eponymous estate on the Nahe noted, “in a single bunch you would often find both unripe and overripe grapes as well as some inflicted with rot or botrytis.” Not surprisingly, there are weedy, green wines that were harvested before physiological maturity, diluted ones brought in by machine during the rains, tainted wines that taste of gray rot, and overblown rieslings that have too much alcohol. The latter often came from grapes that were harvested well after the rains. As the skins broke, the grapes desiccated and reached must weights—often in conjunction with botrytis—far higher than their true physiological maturity would normally have attained. Many producers, in fact, brought in nothing below the must weight of ripe ausleses.

That said, in order to satisfy market demand for kabinetts and spätleses, the lightest of these ausleses, and those with the least botrytis, were often bottled as kabinetts and spätleses. Seldom, though, do such wines have the vibrant balance, sheer minerality and lipsmacking textures that are the hallmarks of great riesling. Most are a touch heavy and quite sweet, and lack the refreshing character that consumers expect.

While 2006 will be remembered for the wealth of ausleses, beerenausleses and trockenbeerenausleses that were produced, these wines are only a fraction of the total production. But even at that level, not all producers were consistent. If I had to name the success stories of the vintage it would be Müller and van Volxem on the Saar; Fritz Haag, Lieser, Dr. Loosen, Joh. Jos. Prüm, Heymann-Löwenstein and Clemens Busch on the Mosel; and the leading quartet from the Nahe: Diel, Dönnhoff, Emrich-Schönleber and Schäfer-Fröhlich. This is not to say that Breuer, Leitz and Weil in the Rheingau, Keller and Wittmann in Rheinhessen, and the leading estates in the Pfalz did not also make some excellent wines, but they have all had better vintages. Interestingly enough, in the Pfalz it was estates such as Becker, Rebholz and Wehrheim from the lesser-known southern part of the region that fared the best. The classical Mittelhaardt was less fortunate, with Dr. Bürklin-Wolf and Pfeffingen holding the best cards.

Although readers may be impressed by the high scores for the sumptuous ausleses highlighted here, that is not where the market is moving in Germany itself, and in particular in the Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz. The dry and off-dry rieslings that are in such demand in other markets were on the whole not as good as those from last year—and they are certainly not up to par with vintages like 2004, 2002 and 2001. Sure, dry riesling is still not yet what Americans are drinking, but demand is beginning to move in that direction.

Exports of German wine were up 10% in volume and 20% in value last year, marking a trend toward higher quality. Shipments to America, in fact, grew at an even faster pace: up 20% in volume and 30% in value. And a much larger percentage of this wine was dry riesling than ever before. Even more surprising was the fact that red wine, in particular pinot noir, now accounts for almost a third of all exports. As most of these wines come from two southerly regions not treated here, Baden and Württemberg, this development does not truly come to light in this article.

In fact, though, 37% of Germany’s 250,000 acres of vineyard are now planted with red varieties. When I moved to ermany 25 years ago, that number was more like 10%—and most of the crop was used to make rosés. Today almost all of the harvest is fermented to red wine. With 30,000 acres of pinot noir, the most widely planted red variety, Germany cultivates one of the largest areas of this grape outside Burgundy and some of it can be extremely good. Fortunately for readers, Fritz Becker from the Pfalz, arguably Germany’s best red wine producer, now has an American importer, as do Rebholz and Wehrheim from the same region. Bernhard Huber, who I named “Producer of the Year” in my annual guide, and Reinhold Schneider in Baden as well as Gerd Aldinger and Reiner Schnaitmann in Württemberg, also merit serious attention.

Germany’s grand crus. Just how dry a riesling should be is a matter of contentious debate. Many pundits in America believe that wines with 25 to 40 grams per liter of residual sugar are not only more than dry enough, but also better reflect German winemaking tradition. While this might be true of the spätleses, at the cutting edge of dry riesling, with less than 9 grams of residual sugar, stand the German grand crus: Erstes Gewächs in the Rheingau (but with a maximum of 13 g/l r.s.), Erste Lage in the Mosel [Erste Lage on the Mosel means only “great site”; these wines can carry no Prädikat and are to be dryish in style, with a maximum of about 25 g/l r.s., or bear kabinett, spätlese and the like if they are sweeter] and Grosses Gewächs for most of the rest of the country. Although the concept of grand cru is still in its infancy, and still a bit too complicated, it is being simplified and the producers are now investing time and money to make these wines understood to a wider public. I will be doing seminars in several American cities this summer to present a selection of my favorites.

It must be noted, however, that most of the Grosses Gewächs are made only in limited quantities. In that sense these wines are like the finest crus from Burgundy. Though white Burgundies have less than four grams per liter of residual sugar, most German “grand crus” are not perceptibly sweeter. As I wrote last year, I think these rieslings are some of Europe’s most underrated white wines. If you can find a bottle of Dönnhoff’s 2006 Hermannshöhle, try it! It was my highest-rated dry riesling of the vintage.

How I taste. I began seriously tasting the 2006s in the spring of 2007, first at ProWein, Germany’s Vinexpo, and later 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 numerous estates in each growing region in order to get a first-hand account of the growing conditions, market forces at work and general level of satisfaction. 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 the estate owners, winemakers or sales directors.

At about the same time, I receive samples from all prestigious estates and first taste each collection in its entirety in order to ascertain how a given producer dealt with the climatic conditions of the vintage. 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 spätleses with the spätleses, and so on in order to compare them, to see how they have evolved. In particular, this allows me to see if a promising wine from a little-known estate might not have more potential than an innocuous wine from a famous estate.

Finally, in late September I do a last comparative tasting across the regions in which the finest wines in each category are analyzed again and a final score drawn. Quite often, a riesling that showed charmingly well in the spring has lost some of its character by autumn, or a slow starter turns out to have a lot more potential. But that is the nature of wine, and why I taste them as often as possible. In fact, until late November I was still following certain leads or tasting additional wines to provide more depth to this coverage.

A short note on 2007. After two very unusual and, in many cases, very difficult vintages, 2007 appears to be taken right out of a fairy tale. Conditions during most of the growing season were, if not always perfect, at least manageable; but it was the long, beautiful autumn that made life for most producers a dream. Almost all were able to harvest at leisure over a prolonged period in order to bring in all desired qualities in suitable volumes, from graceful kabinetts to sumptuous trockenbeerenausleses with record must weights. Then, on the night of December 18th, temperatures fell so sharply that a bountiful ice wine crush was harvested, a boon after the dearth of such wines in 2006. More important for the American market, though, is the fact that there will be a large quantity of refreshing kabinetts and elegant spätleses available next fall, both of which were in short supply from vintages 2005 and 2006.

A word on wine labels. I have assumed that the interested reader will understand how to decipher wine names 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 Prüfnummer" (A.P.), which is the quality control board’s bottling number that by law must appear in small characters on the label. For many, however, these codes are impossible to decipher, as they are long and only end with a pair of numbers like 16 07, which means the 16th wine submitted to the board for approval in 2007.

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 Karthäuserhof, the #35 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. Although most other regions also stage similar events, the most famous of these auctions is still the one held in Trier every September by the members of the Mosel chapter of the VDP, the association of Germany’s finest producers. At that time choice bottlings of what are generally each producer’s finest wine of a given Prädikat level are put on the block. As these lots sometimes comprise just 24 to 60 bottles, they often fetch astronomical prices when diehard fans try to outbid one another. It is thus not unusual that an auction wine I might rate only one point higher will have a price that is three times that of the normal bottling.

(Editor's note: Ascertaining which German wines will be available in the U.S. retail market before deciding which tasting notes to publish is a nearly impossible task. Many U.S. importers select different bottlings from their long-time client estates each year, and some purchased less wine than usual from the 2006 vintage, as they may still be backed up with ‘05s or concerned about selling the ‘06s, which must be purchased with a weaker dollar. Further complicating matters is the fact that many estates in Germany work with local brokers, who in turn find outlets for their wines in America. So the estates themselves may have little idea where their wines will turn up Stateside—and which bottlings were purchased. For these reasons, Joel Payne has limited his tasting notes to wines that are, or are likely to be, available in the U.S. market, as well as to a selection of other very good, representative wines from the estates he has profiled in detail. Since Payne samples a huge number of German wines each year in the course of writing his annual buyer’s guide, I have also asked him to list other the wines he tasted from each producer, in order to give readers the benefit of his labors. Thus under the rubric of “also recommended,” you will find ratings on many additional wines, most of them unavailable in the U.S. but some of them numbering among the producer’s best.)

Joel B. Payne, an expatriate American who has lived in Germany since 1983, is a regular contributor to Germany's leading wine magazine, Weinwelt, and to the food and wine magazine Gault Millau; he is also the German member of the Grand Jury Européen. His German Wine Guide, co-authored with Armin Diel, has appeared annually for the past 15 years. Payne, who covered Germany’s 2005 and 2004 vintages in the IWC, is chief editor of Meininger’s Wine Business International and was recently elected president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV.