Joel Payne on Germany 2005

As 2003 was generally slightly overrated and 2004 wrongly underrated by pundits, many writers were very careful about making any dramatic statements about 2005.Given the uneven quality from region to region and, more so, from estate to estate, that is certainly a good thing.For as stunning as it was on the Saar, Mosel or Nahe, 2005 was only a very good vintage on the Ruwer and in the Rheingau.In Rheinhessen and the Pfalz quality was spotty, with only a few estates making wines that could match the vibrant fruit of the previous year.

As in all of Europe, the effects of global warming are being felt in Germany.Long at the northern limits of potential ripeness for making fine wines, the geographic lines of sunshine hours and heat summation are moving north.While the southern reaches of the country now have weather patterns more like the Mediterranean, the northern parts of the country seem to be enjoying very good conditions year after year.It is no longer a question of simply getting the fruit ripe, but of prolonging the hang time to achieve maximum flavor.Where only little more than a generation ago the Mosel, Nahe and Rheingau often had only one excellent and two or three good to very good vintages per decade, while having to contend with an equal number of poor or even disastrous crops, it has been a long time since Mother Nature punished winemakers with devastating conditions.

The problem today is to achieve full phenolic maturity while maintaining sufficient acidity, without producing too much
alcohol.Riesling, like pinot noir, is a fickle grape that does not take well to extremes.When alcohol levels rise too high, as they did this year in the more southerly parts of the country, "riesling loses its elegance," contends Ernie Loosen, who has kept the potential alcohol levels at the J. L. Wolf estate in the Pfalz at 12.5%, far below the average.This effect is especially apparent when the acid structure, which provides a fine riesling with backbone, loses its rigidity.Seldom do wines like this have the vibrant balance and sheer minerality that are the hallmarks of a great vintage at its best-the ripe, concentrated and yet bright and crisp green fruit with lipsmacking texture, juicy acidity and crystalline clarity.

While the 2005 vintage will certainly be remembered for the wealth of auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese bottlings that were produced, these wines are only a fraction of the total production-"the icing on the cake, if you will," to use the phrase of Dr. Manfred Prum from Joh. Jos. Prum in Wehlen. What put the Mosel, Saar and Nahe on center stage this year was the Indian summer in October that shriveled the berries under almost perfect conditions.That worked here with riesling grapes, because they were the last to ripen.Other varieties, which ripened earlier and were picked in September, did not benefit from the fine October conditions. "The botrytis that followed made superlatives out of an excellent crop," said Tim Frohlich from Schafer-Frohlich in Bockenau on the Nahe.

Not all producers, however, were consistent.If I had to name the success stories of the vintage they would be Muller and Zilliken on the Saar; Haart, Lieser, Loosen and Prum on the Mosel; and Diel and Schafer-Frohlich on the Nahe.This is not to say that Leitz and Weil in the Rheingau, Donnhoff and Emrich-Schonleber on the Nahe, Keller and Wittmann in Rheinhessen, or the leading estates in the Pfalz did not also make some excellent wines; they merely have had other, better vintages.The aforementioned properties, on the other hand, made some of the finest wines that I have ever tasted from their estates.

Although, as I wrote, the vintage will be remembered for its succulent spatleses and ausleses, that is not where the market is moving in Germany itself.This is why I do a "ten years after tasting" each year to judge how the greatest dry rieslings, which are so popular there, have matured.This year there were over 50 wines on the table from the 1996 vintage, which was extremely closed in its youth.Although there had been much better vintages before '96, with 1990 being the obvious example, I had never tasted so many wines that still showed so well at this stage of their development.Not only had the best '96s held the promise of their youth, but they had matured gracefully.In fact, many rieslings that began life with a tart quality-and thus were not understood by the press at the time-still needed four or five years to digest their bold acidity, much as succulent spatleses often need bottle aging to incorporate their sweet baby fat.

Sure, dry riesling from Germany is still not what Americans are drinking today, but this development is symptomatic of what is happening in the country as a whole.Further, many importers who refused even to talk about dry riesling three years ago now realize that there is truth in the "rumors" circulating in Germany and have purchased as much of the finest wines as the producers could allocate. "America bought more dry riesling this year than ever before," said Klaus-Peter Keller. "I'm sold out."Some well-known estates now even sell more dry wine in export markets than sweet.Some, in fact, now export only dry or off-dry riesling.In the more southerly regions of the country that is certainly the right decision.

It must be noted, however, that most of the "Grosses Gewachs" are made only in limited quantities:50 cases for the American market is often a tall order, and 100 is the exception.In that light these wines are like the finest crus from Burgundy ? and as I wrote last year, I think they are some of Europe's most underrated white wines.In their youth they work much better at table than a succulent spatlese or auslese, which needs years of bottle age before it settles down, shedding its baby fat and sweet fruit and beginning to taste dry enough to work well with food.Young spatleses generally are best consumed on their own.

Granted, German nomenclature is already difficult, so that adding a dry spatlese to a portfolio and teaching the clientele the meaning of the German word trocken is often very time-consuming for the small volumes available, but there is a wealth of dry riesling for everyday drinking as well.Although the concept of grand cru-Erstes Gewachs, Grosses Gewachs or Erste Lage-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 comprehensible to a wider public.They are the couriers of a new message, and one thing is certain:the finest dry wines produced in Germany today are marketed in the long bottle embossed with a large "1" and a cluster of grapes.

A word on wine labels.That Germany's labelling system can be confusing for the average consumer is a well-known fact.I assume, however, that the interested reader will understand how to interpret the wines 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 Prufnummer" (A.P.), which is the quality control board's bottling number that by law must appear in small letters 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 06, which means the 16th wine submitted to the board for approval in 2006.

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 Karthauserhof, the #36 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 Pradikat level are put on the block.As these lots sometimes comprise just 24 to 60 bottles, they sometimes 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.