Germany's Charming 2002 Vintage

by David Schildknecht

In 2002, for a third straight year, Germany's crop of riesling remained around two weeks ahead of normal from the flowering to the first softening of the grapes. As I walked the rows in warm, sunny mid-August weather, even coming across already sweet berries in a few favored sites, it was impossible not to cross my fingers in gleeful anticipation. (Impossible, too, not to think of those poor Austrian growers who were being ravaged by the flood of the century. ) Germany's riesling vines were generally free from stress, well - but not too well - watered, and with foliage as intensely verdant, and hence productive, as any grower could remember. This was quite a contrast with the heat stress of August 2001. The crop was potentially large, so the quality-conscious were busy eliminating green fruit. The potential for greatness hung in the balance, and a silent prayer hung in the air that this would be the year of "golden October," but without the September rain of 2001.

The paragraph above was crafted last autumn with the intention of conveying my mounting excitement about prospects for 2002. I was wisely convinced not to publish it then, but it still conveys several fundamental truths about the vintage that eventually was. Two thousand two continued the accumulation of statistical superlatives that has characterized most of the past dozen German vintages. It was, for instance - or so Wilhelm Weil claimed - the warmest year in the Rheingau since 1860, though 2003 was to be still hotter. By early September, it seemed unlikely that nature could confound this vintage, so rudely healthy and ahead-of-schedule were the vines. In fact, had the conditions that prevailed in 2002 through September been crowned by the October of 2001, we might have had a candidate for vintage of the centuries. But nature had another all too familiar idea:rain. Growers could not have imagined, when the storms began in mid-October, that there would scarcely be another dry day until early November. Those who had not rushed to pick were condemned to viticultural trench warfare.

Early harvest in 2002 generally involved a gathering of healthy fruit, but it could also mean the selection of fine, dry botrytis that had developed early on already ripe grapes. From mid-October, circumstances demanded great caution, and the ruthless culling of rot to prevent its harmful spread. Lightly botrytis-affected berries more quickly absorb water thanks to the perforation of skins, and wet botrytis is generally unappetizing. Conditions this year rewarded many who played the already excellent hand nature had dealt them rather than holding their cards. The high quality of so much of what was "pre-harvested" in September to encourage the further concentration of the remaining fruit - the origin of many a top-class basic estate riesling - appears to confirm this. But Helmut Donnhoff insists that wine quality in 2002 had less to do with early or late than with an unusual dependence on tiny differences from parcel to parcel, day to day, and often even hour to hour. "If anybody tells me My approach succeeded this year and for this reason, I just don't believe it. That can't be even half the story. It was stop and go, hurry up and wait. You can ask the 20 people whom I kept occupied for six weeks.'You can stare at me like I'm crazy,' I told them, 'but we will pick when we pick and that won't be today, and maybe it won't be tomorrow, either. 'And when we did pick it was sometimes like fiends until it was dark."

There were in some sense three 2002 harvests, so one must be cautious in generalizing about vintage character. First chronologically - and ultimately, I believe, in quality - are those wines harvested by early October. Next are wines picked sporadically and selectively during the largely wet period that lasted into November. Finally, there are wines harvested afterward, in some cases into December. Plummeting temperatures on the 11th and 12th of that month rendered a bumper crop of Eiswein, a category I again urge readers to approach with extreme caution since most are overpriced and many this year are downright disappointing. In general, acidities in 2002, while seldom enormously high on paper, tend to be prominent. The positive side of this is wines - even many of the botrytized bottlings - with lots of lift or, as the Germans would say, Schwung. You'll also be alerted to the charm of the best 2002s by my no doubt tiresome reiteration in the tasting notes of words like delicate, subtle and refined. Most 2002s are also possessed of distinct minerality and are readily recognizable exemplars of their sites. Dry wines seemed marginally less favored this year, not only because of the pronounced expression of acids and the frequent intrusion of botrytis, but also because, for reasons growers cannot explain, some years the yeasts and musts are more efficient in their alcoholic conversion, and this was one such year.

A common refrain among growers was the slow evolution of their 2002s. In extreme cases, vintners like Walter Strub indicated that their rieslings were for a long time dominated by the aromas of recently completed fermentations and were frighteningly lacking in fruit or personality. That was anything but the case, however, by the time I tasted Strub's collection in late July. My frequently glowing appraisals of the young 2002s might, as the wines evolve, prove conservative. But there might also be a hitch. Like so many 1996s, these 2002s may well be characterized by moody, sullen spells, and I have already collected numerous reports from consumers recording the re-emergence of yeasty or lightly sulfurous fermentative aromas in some of the young wines as they arrive in the market. Particularly in the case of Middle Mosel wines, such manifestations are common, but eventually disappear.

The 2002 vintage is notable for the number of successful wines produced across the full range of growing regions. As outstanding as 2001 is at its best, I continue to believe (as I stated emphatically in Issue 105) that the clear majority of exciting collections in that vintage are from the Middle Mosel. Even next door in the Saar and Ruwer, which are viewed by German wine law and consumers alike as extensions of the Mosel, few if any growers would deem 2001 outstanding. In 2002, on the other hand, there are successes across the board in the Ruwer, and the high points along the Saar are truly extraordinary. I take exception to the claim made by importer Terry Theise in his catalog:"There's a lot of must haves in 2002. Not quite as many as in '01, but a lot. "My own wish list seems to be even longer this year.

Nearly all of the following wines were tasted in late July and early August of this year, in the course of my visits to 70 estates. I have generally presented the most notable wines - less than half of those I tasted - in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. A few wines were tasted in the U.S. in late autumn of this year, in which case I have noted that fact. 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 2002s. Wines marked "1 star" were particularly impressive and in my experience correspond roughly to those of other regions rated between 88 and 91 in the International Wine Cellar. "2 stars" signifies a wine of profound complexity. In the interest of space, wines that are worth investigating but that did not merit a star have generally been listed under the rubric "also recommended. "Under no circumstances should my star ratings, frequently based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my full tasting notes.