Germany Improbable 1998s

Germany's 1998 vintage commenced with a precocious, uniform bud break and successful flowering. Early summer growth proceeded in dry weather, braked somewhat by frequently cloudy skies. Then came a searingly hot, sunny August. Many vineyards experienced sunburn and not a few growers were asking what it was and how to deal with it. (The answer, as any Californian knows, is to ignore it, provisionally at least, because the affected bunches usually dry up and abort spontaneously.) In mid-September, it began to rain, something growers have become increasingly used to of late. This time, though, the Mosel, Rhine and Nahe overflowed their banks, growers nervously marked time, and still it did not let up.

"Twenty-seven days of rain in October and yet, somehow, the best collection we've had, certainly including our best dry wines of the last ten years." That's how Armin Diel sums up the delicious paradox of 1998, echoed by most of his colleagues. "No one knows," he continues, "why riesling withstood so much rain, but we assume it has to do with its having been so stressfully hot and dry in August that the grape skins toughened in reaction." "I still cannot understand what happened," says Wilhelm Haag. "The berries must just have been so healthy. And the good flowering was decisive. It took place in only three or four days of warm, dry weather, after which there were showers that washed off any bud that was left, so in the end we had very early, uniform ripeness and loose bunches. Still, if you'd told me during the rain that we'd end up harvesting Auslese, and that with almost no botrytis, I'd have said 'You're nuts!'" Of course, rigorous pruning and overall care of vines was necessary for quality, too. "You had to have done your work beforehand," says Helmut Donnhoff, "otherwise you didn't stand a chance of making good wines."

Late in October, there were a few days when the sun sheepishly showed its face before hiding again. Some growers rushed out and picked surprisingly healthy, ripe fruit. Then, in the last days of October, the rain departed on the heels of a gusty, dry Fohn, a warm wind that literally scoured the skies, leaving the weeks until November 21 fog-free and dry. In most vineyards, this period was critical to the rapid, rot-free evolution of the grapes. Critical too for the ripeness, the vivid aromas, and the intensity of flavors in the best '98s was not just "hang time" per se, but a prolonged period of photosynthetic activity. "Where in '97 the early frosts of October had caused the leaves to fall," continues Donnhoff, "in 1998 there was full foliage until the third week in November, a critical advantage of nearly three weeks. You had a long, gradual ripening of all flavor elements." "To see so many super, healthy green-gold grapes still hanging in early November was simply fantastic," beams Willi Schaefer. "And during the period that followed, the weather never put us under pressure. We could wait a bit and pick the best, bit by bit. This year proved once again why riesling is the ne plus ultra in our vineyards!" Even with such surprisingly good-looking fruit, the evolution of flavors took many growers by surprise. "As the wines came out of their shell in February," says Peter Geiben of Karlsmuhle, "we couldn't believe what we were smelling. How could they be that good? It was as though a hex doctor had gone through the cellar and cast a magic spell."

The wet early autumn certainly gave the vines ample opportunity to "feed" from the soil, and '98 resulted in some of the highest-extract wines of recent years. Due to the dehydrating effects of wind, the yield of juice, as in '96, was low. Acids are ample, yet appealingly ripe and well integrated. Only in the Saar does one encounter fruit that was often not ripe enough going into the warm windy phase to benefit fully. For the most part, the '98s are improbably ripe and delicious. Only a few of them showcase noble rot as opposed to rude good health. At their best, they combine a mineral concentration, density and compactness born of high extract and thick skins with an engagingly juicy, elegant play of fruit acids and an utter lack of austerity. "I am very, very happy with this vintage," as Johannes Selbach puts it, "because the ordinary consumer will appreciate it, and not just the German wine freak like you! They are mineral, but coated with fruit." The '98s are frequently long on flavors of red fruits, nut oils, sweet green herbs and brown spices, even from vineyards where you wouldn't expect some of these. Gentler and more affable than the '96s, the '98s will charm you. I asked specialist importer and German wine guru Terry Theise what vintages he has most liked since 1990 and he unhesitatingly replied: "1996 and 1998."

Three successive days of hard frost from November 21 through 23 brought the '98 harvest to an unexpectedly early but at times spectacular close. It's rumored that many growers had their largest-ever harvest of Eiswein, though some are reluctant to show you their production figures. Certainly many harvested their best Eisweins ever. Getting juice from these frozen grapes could be quite a job. "Our modern presses don't like Eiswein," says the Saar's Eberhard von Kunow. "They operate so gently. You really needed a screw press like those used in the old days, but most people long ago threw them out." A pricing trend for these relatively plentiful '98 Eisweins in light of the high number of generally inferior Eisweins released in several recent vintages is not yet easy to discern. Many '98 Eisweins are being held for later release or floated at auction. That prices in all categories have risen at many of the best addresses can come as little surprise given memorable quality, the modest '98 crop and unprecedented worldwide price increases.

All of the reviewed wines were tasted at the estates during the first half of August and from bottle, except where otherwise noted. All are 1998 vintage and all are riesling unless another grape variety is indicated. Where the usual order of village and site has been reversed in naming a wine (for instance: "Johannisberg Wallhausen") without indication of Pradikat or style, this is to reflect the labelling of so-called "Ersten Gewachse" (literally "First Growths"). Such a wine is in effect a dry Spatlese. (That was 48 words of fatuous explanation, for the necessity of which you may thank German "marketing genius.") Except in rare instances where it clarified my explanations, I have listed the wines, which represent fewer than half of those tasted, in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. Wines designated with an asterisk were particularly impressive. Two asterisks signify wines of clearly profound complexity. I have hedged my bets or anticipated likely improvement by means of parenthesis. In view of space limitations, few notes have been included for wines that did not rate an asterisk. The exceptions represent wines that offer an especially excellent price/quality rapport or have particularly widespread U.S. availability. Under no circumstances should these ratings, nearly always based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my tasting notes.