Germany 2011

Although Germany has largely benefited from global warming, 2011 brought a new twist on what is generally referred to as climate change.  After cooler temperatures in 2010, and the lowest yields in more than a generation, came one of the earliest vintages in history, even more precocious than 2003 or 1976.  In fact, at the legendary Schloss Johannisberg estate in the Rheingau it was the earliest crush in their 295 years of written records.  Fortunately, though, given the shortage of stock in many cellars and the rising demand for riesling, volumes were slightly above normal.

"After having said no to so many clients last year, I am happy not only with the excellent quality, but also with the fact that I have wine in my cellar," rejoiced Johannes Leitz from Rüdesheim in the Rheingau shortly after harvest.

Situated at the northern limit of vitis vinifera's historic range, Germany has often struggled with the vagaries of weather.  In 2011, a mild winter and a very warm spring led to flowering almost a month earlier than average.  Frost in May and rain in June took their toll in some regions, but for the most part, in particular in the Rheingau, producers were worried only about the consequences of the slowly developing botrytis during the warm, moist weeks in late August and early September as harvest approached.  However, an Indian summer with cool nights allowed the quality estates to extend hang time, with some of the properties on the Mosel still crushing as late as early November.

Joachim Heger, owner of the Dr. Heger estate in Ihringen on the Kaiserstuhl in Baden, was optimistic from the very beginning:  "Two thousand eleven could hardly have been better, even if Mother Nature had asked me to design it.  We harvested perfectly ripe grapes in absolutely healthy conditions.  The young wines were already so seductively aromatic before the first racking."

Whether 2011 will live up to the legendary 1911 and 1811 vintages is a question most producers are still asking themselves.  "The potential was there," believes Steffen Christmann, the president of the Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter (VDP), the association of Germany's finest estates.  "Our grand crus look extremely promising, but let us wait a few years to see how they develop before making any brash statements."

My feeling is that analogies with the great vintages of the past are a tad more hype than reality.  With the exception of the Saar, Nahe and to an extent the Ruwer, all of which made stunning wines across the board, the reality is more finely nuanced, especially in those regions that produce most of the wine.  Not only do early harvests have the distinct disadvantage that crush generally takes place with considerably warmer ambient temperatures, the risk of higher alcohol levels and too little acidity is ever-present.

Indeed, beyond problems of less-than-noble rot that inflicted damage through much of the Rheingau, my only true criticism of the vintage is that many of the wines would have shown better balance with half a degree less alcohol and a touch more acidity.  In less technical terms, many wines appear somewhat broad-shouldered or overly unctuous and lack the refreshing crispness that I generally associate with fine riesling.

Not everyone would agree.  Manfred Prum, the magician from the Mosel who has more than 50 vintages under his belt, told me that "riesling can often have too much acidity, but never too little."  He went on to compare these young wines with his 1959s at a similar stage of their development.  When I see that the 2003s, from another warm and precocious vintage, which I did not particularly admire in its youth, are beginning to show more charm today, there may be some truth to his point of view.

One thing, though, is certain.  These are wines that most readers will love to drink, if not admire, over the next several years.  The more balanced acidities make the young rieslings less austere and more approachable, and easier to drink in their youth.  Further, the higher alcohols make them appear richer, sweeter and more akin to many New World offerings with which American consumers may be more familiar.  With the exception of the somewhat more consistent 2009 vintage, there have been few years in recent history with such a large selection of appealing wines.  And at their best they are beyond even the most critical reproach.

Moreover, although I prefer the finest rieslings from 2010 or 2008, those vintages were across the board not only much less consistent but also, with the exception of the few stellar bottlings, not as good.  In fact, the likelihood that you will stumble on a poor or undrinkable wine in those years is high.  Not many consumers are willing or able to look for the needle in the haystack.  In 2011, on the other hand, there are few disappointments.

Other regions of Germany. In the full coverage of the individual regions below, I have focused primarily on those producers and individual wines that are likely to be available in the American market.  Germany, though, has more to offer. The following paragraphs highlight regions that are in great demand domestically, but not so often seen beyond the border.

The region on the eastern banks of the Rhine across from Alsace is the best example.  With 40,000 acres of vineyard, and thus Germany's third-largest growing region, Baden is far more popular domestically than the Mosel.  Here, estates like Bercher, Dr. Heger (Rudi Wiest), Huber (Valckenberg), Salwey (Rudi Wiest) and Reinhold Schneider make exceptional dry wines. In particular, their Grosses Gewachs from pinot noir, pinot gris and pinot blanc are at the cutting edge of what these varieties can do on German soil.

As always, Bernhard Huber made several of Germany's best pinot noirs, with his 2010 Wildenstein (97) and Schlossberg (94) being two of the true stars of the vintage.  That Joachim Heger is now also making such exceptional pinot noir was a surprise only for those who have not followed his progress over the past few years.  I rated his Hausleboden from the Winklerberg site in Ihringen at 93 points.  Reinhold Schneider's Engelsberg (92) was my other favorite from the well-known estates, but rising stars like Claus Schneider in Weil and Hanspeter Ziereisen in Kirchen both presented pinot noirs that highlight the true potential of that grape in this region. With 15,000 acres, Baden has one of the largest plantings of pinot noir in the world.

In white, Dr. Heger rules.  His pinot blanc "v.B." from the Winklerberg (93) and pinot gris from the Schlossberg (92), both Grosses Gewachs, set the tone.  Thomas Seeger's Pinot Gris Oberklamm (92) and Reinhold Schneider's Weissburgunder *** (91) also held their own against their colleagues from the Pfalz.

In neighboring Wurttemberg, with not quite 30,000 acres Germany's fourth-largest growing area, red wines merit the most attention.  Gert Aldinger again bottled one of the region's best lembergers with his 2010 Fellbacher Lammler Grosses Gewachs (91), but Rainer Schnaittmann (Rudi Wiest) took top honors not only for his Lemberger Lammler Grosses Gewachs (92), but also for his Pinot Noir Grosses Gewachs (92) from the same site.

Although the large wineries in Wurzburg are the best-known estates abroad, the best producer in Franken today is Paul Furst (Rudi Wiest) in Burgstadt.  His 2010 Centgrafenberg Hundsruck Pinot Noir Grosses Gewachs (95) was one of the two or three finest of the vintage.  In white, three Silvaner Grosses Gewachs, the region's signature variety, shone with 91 points each:  the Sonnenstuhl from Störrlein & Krenig, the Lump from Horst Sauer and the Lump "L" from his neighbor Rainer Sauer.

With only slightly more than 1,000 acres of vineyard, the Ahr is not only tiny, but also one of Germany's most northerly regions.  Global warming has made vineyard management on the steep, south-facing schist slopes more routine and there are now more than a half dozen producers of note there, the most famous of whom is certainly Werner Nakel from Meyer-Nakel (Rudi Wiest) in Dernau, but Jean Stodden in Rech and Marc Adeneuer in Altenahr also generally make excellent pinot noir.  That said, 2010 was a difficult vintage.  Most estates  produced no Grosses Gewachs. My favorite was the 2010 Pinot Noir Alte Reben from Jean Stodden.

In total, 36% of Germany's more than 250,000 acres of vineyards are now planted with red varieties, and with 30,000 acres of pinot noir, it has one of the largest productions outside Burgundy, more than Australia and New Zealand combined.  For the American market it remains at present merely a curiosity, but its importance will certainly continue to grow.

How I taste.  I began seriously tasting the 2011s in the spring of 2012, first at ProWein, Germany's Vinexpo, and later at the annual fair organized by the VDP, 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 have a firsthand 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, once bottled, 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 the estates, tasting first 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 spatleses with the spatleses and so on in order to compare them and to see how they have evolved since my earlier tastings.  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 producer.

Although over the summer I had already tasted most of the Grosses Gewachs, which are so coveted in Germany itself, the first official presentation of the 2011 vintage for the press took place in Wiesbaden in late August.  This gave me another opportunity to look at the finest dry wines.

Finally, in late September I did a comparative tasting across the regions in which the top wines in each category were again analyzed and final scores assigned.  It is hardly unusual that a riesling that showed charmingly well in the spring might have lost some of its character by autumn, or that a slow starter turns out to have a lot more potential than it showed shortly after bottling, but that is the nature of wine.  This is why I taste them as often as possible.  In fact, until late November I was still following certain leads, looking again at certain wines or tasting additional items to provide more depth to this coverage.  Nonetheless, there are still some late or even not-yet-bottled 2011s that I have yet to see.

Exports to the United States.  While German exports to America virtually tripled over the decade up to 2008, the economic crisis and weak dollar put brakes on that development.  Imports plunged.  While the year ending in December 2011 brought stability, the lack of availability of the 2010 vintage stymied potential advances.  "Exports this year are almost back to their 2008 levels," explained Steffen Schindler, the export marketing manager at the German Wine Institute, "but the higher prices for good German wine today continue to preclude any astronomic growth."  Nonetheless, the United States still accounts for about a third of all German wine exports.

On a positive note, the off-dry style, be it halbtrocken or feinherb, is gaining in popularity and even the dry trocken wines are better accepted today, especially in restaurants, than ever before.

Joel B. Payne, an expatriate American who has lived in Germany since 1983, is a regular contributor to Germany's leading wine magazines, Falstaff and Vinum; he is also a founding member of the Grand Jury Européen. His German Wine Guide has appeared annually for the past 20 years. Payne, who has covered Germany in the IWC since the 2004 vintage, served as president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV, from 2007 to 2010.