Germany 2012

"It was an almost perfect vintage for dry rieslings," stated Philipp Wittmann from Westhofen in Rheinhessen as I first tasted his Grosses Gewächs from cask this spring. His neighbor, Klaus Peter Keller from Dalsheim, added that he was pleased with "the perfect physiological ripeness achieved at such low levels of alcohol." Indeed, many of the finest examples of 2012 have little more than 12%, a welcome relief after the titans from the previous vintage.

After almost Mediterranean weather conditions in 2011 that, like 2009, had many producers speaking of global warming, 2012 is again a cooler, more classical vintage and, as in 2010, another one with lower yields, at least for those estates with ambitions to quality. Total volume was actually just over 9 million hectoliters, which is statistically only slightly below 2011 and only 250,000 hectoliters under the ten-year average, but some estates were not so lucky.

After a warm spring, the summer was cool, but with more than enough rainfall to keep plant metabolism on track. In places, in fact, there was even too much rain. Hail also affected certain vineyards in September, but for those who waited, a golden October with ample sunshine and chilly nights allowed producers to harvest perfectly ripe grapes at leisure under excellent sanitary conditions. The resulting wines display a lovely synthesis of purity, ripeness and snappy acidity.

The lower yields at the better estates were often not even immediately apparent to most producers. Tiny berries, smaller bunches and less juice were the true cause, and they may also be partly responsible for the superior quality of the vintage.

But high quality was not a given in the beginning. Due to the very cold winter, spring got off to a very slow start. Bud break was late and flowering in early June drawn out and inconsistent as inclement weather oscillated between sunshine, overcast skies and scattered showers. 

Although there was less rain in the latter half of the summer, the grapes were still so far behind schedule in early September that most producers were until then still unwilling to make much in the way of a prognosis about the vintage. "All is not lost," is all that Johannes Selbach at Selbach-Oster in Zeltingen on the Mosel could muster at that point, adding, though, that "it could still be an excellent year if the gods smile upon us." 

That they did! September brought warm, sunny days and cool nights that favored ripening while maintaining high levels of freshness, a pattern that continued well into October. Although producers that are focused on volume had already brought in their grapes by the end of September, the better estates harvested quite late, often only beginning in the third week of October and finishing in early November.

One of the defining characteristics of the vintage was the almost complete lack of botrytis, which was a boon for those wineries specializing in dry or off-dry styles, but less beneficial for those estates with a market for noble late-harvest rieslings. Even the finest ausleses are generally defined more by ripe fruit concentration resulting at least in part from dehydration rather than from noble rot. There was little beerenauslese and essentially no trockenbeerenauslese, but there were some ice wines made after early frosts on October 25th or during the very cold nights in the second week of December. The vintage has also produced some truly sublime wines at the kabinett and, in particular, the spätlese level, with these beautifully dancing and delicately sweet wines probably the heart and the soul of vintage 2012 for those estates in the northern wine-growing regions of Germany.

"They remind me a bit of the 1988s," commented Dr. Manfred Prüm from Joh. Jos. Prüm in Wehlen on the Mosel as we tasted his 2012s together in August. As those rieslings were also crushed from extremely ripe grapes with little or no botrytis and are currently drinking beautifully, this comparison bodes well for the prospects of the vintage.

One thing is for sure, though: it is an exceptional year for dry wines, especially the rieslings. After the luscious, opulent 2011s, I was at first unsettled by the austere vibrancy of the 2012s. They remained closed until late in the summer and only began showing their true character in late September shortly before the deadlines for my annual guide book. Only time will tell where they actually stand in comparison to the previous vintage, but my guess is that the 2011s were slightly better across the board because even unknown estates harvested ripe grapes. However, at the top level, the 2012s are the finer, more balanced wines. 

It will be fascinating to follow the two vintages over the coming decade. Not only do early harvests like 2011 have the distinct disadvantage that crush generally takes place at considerably warmer ambient temperatures, but the risk of higher alcohol levels and too little acidity is ever present. In fact, not all of the 2011s have matured to their advantage over the past 12 months. The problem for most riesling producers today is to achieve full phenological maturity while maintaining sufficient acidity, but without the negative side effects of too much alcohol. That worked much better in 2012, but only for those estates that harvested late.

Situated at the northern limit of vitis vinifera's historic range, Germany has long struggled with the vagaries of weather, but it has been years since Mother Nature punished producers the way she did regularly only a generation ago. As in all of Europe, the effects of global warming are also being felt along the Rhine and Danube as the geographic lines of sunshine hours and heat summation move north. It is no longer a question of ripening the fruit, but of prolonging the hang time to achieve maximum flavor.

How I taste the new vintage. I began seriously tasting the 2012s in the spring of 2013, 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 have a first-hand account of the growing conditions, the market forces at work and the general level of satisfaction. Although I 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 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 spätleses with the spätleses, 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 I had already tasted over the summer most of the Grosses Gewächs, which are so coveted in Germany itself, the first official presentation of the 2012 vintage for the press took place in Wiesbaden in late August of 2013. 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 drawn. It is hardly rare 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--such 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 others to provide more depth for this coverage. Even so, there are still some late or even not-yet-bottled 2012s 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.  U.S. imports of German wines plunged.  While the year ending in December 2011 brought a certain stability, the lack of availability of the 2010 vintage again stymied potential advances in 2012. Both volume and value fell by roughly 13% to 34 million bottles worth approximately 89 million Euros. "It's always tougher to win back market share than lose it," wrote Frank Schulz, who is responsible for public relations at the German Wine Institute. "Our losses in 2012 were caused principally by the relatively small volumes produced in 2010," he explained. Steffen Schindler, the export marketing manager at the German Wine Institute, wryly added: "The higher prices for finer German wines today also continue to preclude any astronomic growth." Nonetheless, the United States still accounts for about 27% of all German wine exports.

The difficulty many consumers have in understanding German nomenclature is also impeding growth in the U.S. market. As Hugh Johnson once quipped, it is surprising that there is no chair at Cambridge to teach undergraduates how to read German wine labels. While some producers still offer wines like a Himmlischer Kannonenrohr Kerner Kabinett Halbtrocken made possible by changes in the legal system introduced in 1971, those estates following the VDP's ideals market their wines along more Burgundian lines. The hapless wine buyer is understandably confused. A consensus is building on what truly makes sense, but it will be another few years before it has gathered enough steam to penetrate public perception.

According to Terry Theise, a leading importer of German wine, "there is interest in pinot noir, but not very much sell-through at the asking prices for the better wines." On a positive note, the off-dry style, be it halbtrocken or feinherb, is gaining in popularity, and even the "bone-dry" trocken wines are better accepted today, especially on-trade, than ever before. As these are the wines the finest German restaurants are serving today, it is a promising sign.

Glossary of German wine label terms. In addition to the vintage, individual growing region and grape variety in a wine such as a 2012 Rheingau Riesling, all of which should be understood by most readers, the majority of the better German wines also bear the name of the specific site where they were grown plus one or more of the terms in the glossary below.
The vineyard will usually be expressed as something like Forster Pechstein, which means the Pechstein site from the village of Forst. The "er" after Forst is merely the German way of writing the possessive case, so "from Forst." Whether an individual site has any intrinsic quality is not currently stipulated by German law. Although there are old maps designating the finest vineyards, any given site could at present be a grand cru, a premier cru or even a field best set aside for vegetables.
Qualitätswein:  This term means "quality wine" and must be used together with one of the 13 growing regions, as in Qualitätswein Pfalz. Such wines can but do not have to be chaptalized. Most of the Grosses Gewächs, for example, are technically speaking Qualitätswein even though most were harvested as ausleses. I have not used Qualitätswein in the wine designations in this article as it is essentially the default setting. Further, you will only see this term on the label if you look at the fine print. Often, even though it's obligatory, it is in fact found only in small letters on the back label.

Prädikatswein: Since August 2007 this is the shortened version of Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, all of which must also carry the name of one of the 13 German growing regions and one of the various predicates such as kabinett or spätlese. These wines cannot be chaptalized and are linked to minimum requirements for potential alcohol at harvest. While these may correlate with harvest time, there are no legally defined restrictions for the date of harvest, flavor profile or upper level of total alcohol. In the wine designations used in this article I have written only the individual predicate such as Auslese, and not Prädikatswein Auslese, because, as for the Qualitätswein, the word Prädikatswein will only be found in fine print on the label.
Kabinett: These wines are made from grapes that have achieved a minimum level of potential alcohol that varies by region--less in the north, more in the south. Essentially, kabinett is the first level of those reserve grape selections that are not allowed to be chaptalized.  However, there are no upper restrictions on total alcohol or parameters defining residual sugar or flavor profile. Although the public thinks of light, off-dry rieslings when they read kabinett, I have tasted both dry versions with as much as 15.6% alcohol by volume and declassified beerenausleses with 130 grams of residual sugar labeled as kabinetts. That said, there is no reason why a certain estate's true kabinett might not be better than the spätlese from the same site in a given vintage. That is to say, more is not always better.
Spätlese: Literally translated, this term means "late harvest" and is the second tier of the reserve categories. These wines cannot, of course, be chaptalized and must have a slightly higher minimum level of potential alcohol than a kabinett. How much so, though, varies by region. Although the public generally thinks of these wines as being slightly sweet, they can also be dry, off-dry or extremely sweet. The VDP has recently decided that their members' wines must have at least 25 grams of residual sugar, but they have set no upper levels on sweetness, which means that many of the richer examples are actually declassified ausleses.
Auslese: This term means "selected late harvest" and is the third tier of the reserve categories. Although such wines can legally be dry, there is a general consensus among producers that they should be dessert styles. However, an auslese with 40 to 50 grams of residual sugar, as was standard only a generation ago, may well taste dryish after 25 years of bottle age. These were the wines that the nobility drank with their main courses a hundred years ago. Today, however, most have at least 100 grams of residual sugar and thus remain forever sweet.

Beerenauslese: At this fourth predicate level individual berries in a selected late-harvest bunch are vinified apart. The concentration of the grape juice has generally been facilitated by botrytis, which perforates the skin of the grapes, draining the juice and concentrating all remaining elements. These wines are rare, decidedly sweet and often expensive.
Trockenbeerenauslese: At the fifth predicate level only those berries infected by botrytis are crushed. The German name means "dried berries" and hints at the raisin-like quality of the grapes being vinified. Due to their extreme concentration, much like an essencia from Tokaj, these wines are very rare and extremely sweet. As it is not unusual for a famous estate to make only 300 half-bottles of such wines in a great vintage, they are also generally quite expensive.
Eiswein: "Ice wine," as the name translates, is made from grapes that have frozen naturally on the vine to reach more or less the same potential alcohol level as a beerenauslese. The grapes must be in such a frozen state at the time of harvest that the juice remains in ice form during crush, releasing a concentrated liquid from only the pulp. The taste differs from the other higher predicates because the botrytis infection is usually lower or even non-existent and the levels of acidity generally quite high.

Trocken: This is the German word for "dry" and describes wines with less than nine grams of residual sugar. This is higher than the four grams allowed in, for example, Burgundy and is considered the Germanic exception by the European Community. Our perception of sugar, though, is highly influenced by the acidity and alcohol in any given wine. A brisk riesling from the Mosel with only eight grams of residual sugar may actually taste austere if not downright sour, but a barrel-aged pinot gris from Baden with 14.5% and only seven grams of residual sugar may appear almost sweet.
Halbtrocken: This term means "half dry" or "off-dry" and describes those wines with 9 to 18 grams of residual sugar. Once more widely seen and quite popular, this category has fallen out of favor as producers endeavor to ferment wines stuck at 12 or 13 grams to total dryness. On the other hand, at the upper end of the range many now prefer wines with over 20 rather than only 17 grams in order to take advantage of the enhanced fruit and supple texture that sweetness adds to the flavor profile. Further, as no estate in Germany is under any obligation to write Halbtrocken on the label, many "off-dry" wines carry no moniker at all, generally because they are trying to hint that the wine tastes dryish but do not want to write Halbtrocken on the label.

Feinherb: Although not an official designation, this term is seen quite often today, generally to describe those wines that have more than 18 grams of residual sugar--and are thus no longer off-dry--but that do not taste truly sweet. There are official categories such as Halbsüss (off-sweet) for 18 to 45 grams and Süss (sweet) for above 45, but as they are not obligatory in Germany, but only in Austria, they are essentially never seen on labels. Instead, the producers believe that the predicate already carries a vague notion of sweetness. Traditionally, though, a kabinett would have been off-dry and a spätlese would have had at most only 35 grams of residual sugar. As most today have much higher levels of sweetness, Feinherb has gained favor to describe a more classical, dryish style of the individual predicate.
Grosses Gewächs: Literally translated, this term means "great growth," or what the French would call grand cru. However, it is not (yet) an official designation in Germany, but only one pioneered by the VDP to describe the best dry wine from a great site. This style has a tradition that is at least as old as the French versions of grand cru, but has never been codified into law. We thus write Grosses Gewächs to describe such wines in this article. The consumer, though, will see only the abbreviation GG, generally embossed on the bottle and sometimes also on the label.

Grosse Lage: This term means "great site." It was introduced by the VDP recently in order to make it clear that a spätlese or auslese could be from a first-class vineyard but not be labeled as a Grosses Gewächs because it was not dry. The Grosses Gewächs is the best dry wine from a Grosse Lage. However, as most producers do not (yet) use it only their labels, I have not included it in the wine designations in this article. A Wehlener Sonnenuhr from Joh. Jos. Prüm is, though, a Grosse Lage.

Erstes Gewachs: These two words should theoretically denote a "premier cru," a level of quality above the Ortswein and below Grosses Gewächs, a new step in the hierarchy that the VDP began introducing last year. However, as this term had already been legally registered in the Rheingau in 1999 to mean "grand cru," it cannot yet be officially used to describe the best dry wine from an Erste Lage. Given the fact, though, that the members of the VDP now label their best dry wine from their top sites as Grosses Gewächs rather than Erstes Gewächs, there is faint hope that a deal may soon be cut to allow the same names to be used throughout Germany.

Erste Lage: This term was just introduced last year by the VDP to designate those sites that the French would call premier crus--a step above most of the vineyards in a given village--but that are not considered to be of grand cru quality. Not all of the regions have adopted this strategy yet, but we will begin to see more of such wines with the 2013 vintage. However, as long as Erstes Gewächs remains a registered trademark for the Rheingau, this term will have to do double duty, describing both the spätleses and the best dry wine from a good site.

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 was also a founding member of the Grand Jury Europen. In addition, he served as president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV, from 2007 to 2010. He is best known, though, for his German Wine Guide, which has appeared annually for the past 21 years. Payne has covered Germany for the IWC for the past nine years.