Saar and Ruwer 2015: Rain in the Nick of Time


Throughout Riesling Germany, the summer of 2015 was noteworthy for its sometimes record-breaking dearth of precipitation. What’s more, it rivaled 2003 for heat. The resulting wines came as a shock to many – and perhaps even most – growers, because it’s hard even for them to avoid fixating on whatever meteorological factors happen to be setting records. But a careful look at the growing season of 2015 explains why it generated Rieslings utterly unlike those of 2003, 1976, 1959 or indeed other prior vintages notorious for summer heat and drought. Those all resulted in early harvests, off-the-chart must weights and abnormally low acidity, whereas 2015 yielded high but not freakish must weights, high acidity, and – especially along the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer – a harvest that didn’t begin until early October and often stretched well into November. Paradoxically, considering the challenges presented in so many recent vintages by late summer or autumn, substantial September precipitation was precisely what made for incontrovertible excellence in 2015.

Carl von Schubert and cellarmaster Stefan Kraml turned out the finest collection in more than two decades from the Ruwer’s historic Maximin Grünhaus and its monopole vineyards (left to right) Herrenberg, Abtsberg and Bruderberg

The 2015 Growing Season

A mild winter and warm, dry spring offered 2015 two critical advantages. First, they triggered metabolic reactions that prepared vines for the dry, hot summer that was to follow, whereas, for example, the searing drought of 2003 had followed on the heels of abundant rainfall and seasonally “correct” temperatures, thus catching the vines metabolically ill-prepared for the shocking turnabout. Second, those balmy conditions led to a picture-perfect flowering and set in most vineyards, thus ensuring that although berries stayed small, there was a compensatory abundance of them, and persistently high skin-to-juice ratios reflected skins tough enough to resist both summer sunshine and the rain that was to arrive in early September. Opinions varied regarding the extent to which vines shut down during the summer, and local meteorological conditions varied as well. Some growers noted that despite a cumulative lack of precipitation from June through August, what little there was fell at useful intervals, a situation unlike that which prevailed in 2003. Still, there is little question that September rainfall was needed to jump-start ripening in many vineyards, though the prevalence of ancient, deep-rooted vines along the Saar and Mosel had no doubt helped to alleviate stress. To be sure, the amount of rain that fell was more than what was required to ensure further ripening, but the nervousness of growers proved unwarranted.

Finally, what happened after September’s rains let up was critical. The weather cooled dramatically, then turned clear throughout October. The result was that must weights moved only modestly but flavors developed apace; acid levels remained elevated but with an increasing ratio of tartaric to malic. Intriguingly, the finished wines also boast relatively high levels of dry extract, another dramatic departure from the norm in dry, hot vintages and a further indication that what took place in the grapes after the rain hit was more significant than were the conditions that prevailed over the summer. Where ripeness was most advanced and grape skins already sensitive in early September, growers generally began picking immediately, reasoning that there was no need to wait and that if the weather were to remain warm, rot and rapid diminution of acids might ensue. 

As a result, growers in the Pfalz, and some in Rheinhessen and the Rheingau as well, in effect experienced a different 2015 vintage from the one lived by their Riesling-growing countrymen elsewhere in the Rhine Basin, including the Mosel, whose grapes spent four to eight weeks longer on the vine and who were able to strategize their picking with careful deliberation and strategic precision. The hypothesis entertained by many Riesling growers, Rheinhessen’s Klaus Peter Keller prominent among them, that serious chill is essential to conferring the last measure of finesse, animation and aromatic allure on their beloved variety, was certainly not refuted by the chilly but breezy and overwhelmingly sunny October and early November of 2015. Cool temperatures are of course also the ideal means of keeping botrytis at bay. What little of that began growing in the immediate aftermath of September’s rain could generally be removed with ease, and some of it was genuinely noble. A small crop of nobly sweet Riesling was also gleaned from very late picking, although in many instances that was more thanks to breeze-driven desiccation than to botrytis.   

Ancient fuders in the tiny cellar of Erich Weber’s Hofgut Falkenstein, source of distinctly memorable Saar Rieslings even by the standards of Germany’s most stylistically diverse Riesling-growing sector

Collectability with a Caveat

If there is a vintage to compare with 2015 – and many growers favor this analogy – it is probably 1990, a year that combined high ripeness with high acidity and robust phenolics and one that, while it engendered relatively little botrytis, nonetheless yielded an impressive albeit small crop of nobly sweet elixirs. Nineteen ninety, though, was a vintage that blindsided and disappointed Riesling lovers when within a few years its acids and phenols began turning decidedly edgy, then in many instances distressingly grassy and hard. Eventually, many 1990s –primarily those with significant residual sugar – lived to once again tell a happy tale and are delicious today, but that was after a depressingly long period during which they gave little pleasure. Could something similar happen with 2015? Even as I tried to handicap the potential of these wines – writing, say, “Now-2030” under “Drinking Window” – I found myself thinking “yeah, but conceivably not much fun to drink between 2018 and 2026.” Anybody who tries to tell you that they can predict qualitative dips or even dumb periods is at best dealing in specious specificity.

But I find reason for hope that the 2015s will not experience anything like the deep funk into which most 1990s descended, because the acids taste riper in 2015 than I recall from 1990, an observation lent some credence by analyses revealing positive ratios of tartaric to malic acidity. What’s more, some of the susceptibility of dry 1990 Rieslings to hardening, awkwardness and early decay could probably have been mitigated if not avoided had growers then practiced the degree of selectivity and patience both at harvest and during “élevage” on the lees that are de rigueur today for Riesling trocken at any top address. And, incidentally, 1990 was also, like 2015, a year in which Pfalz growers effectively experienced a different vintage from their Riesling-growing peers, though in that instance it was to their advantage, since the 1990s grown there (and, for that matter, in neighboring Alsace) largely escaped the awkward fate of Rieslings grown elsewhere in the Greater Rhine Basin.

The German Riesling-growing regions most favored in 2015, as my subsequent reports will demonstrate and attempt to explain, are the Middle Mosel, Nahe and (selectively) Rheinhessen. But the excellence of Rieslings from the usual suspects in other regions should come as no surprise. The Saar was also favored by this growing season (although, for reasons that elude me, less so than the Middle Mosel) and it is gratifying – indeed a relief – to have witnessed a collective level of success along the tiny Ruwer that I haven’t experienced in far too many years. All of this having been noted, Riesling lovers primed to imagine that the 2015s will be across the board superior to their 2014 or 2012 counterparts will have set themselves up for disappointment. A better way of looking at things is to recognize the underappreciated virtues of 2012 as well as the remarkable 2014 performances that certain growers turned in against all odds.

I usually try to avoid “running numbers” or putting major emphasis on point scores, but curiosity got the better of me. My mean score for vintage 2014 Saar Rieslings was 89.75, and for 2015s, 90.35 – a significant difference, but one that suggests both vintages are highly successful. Yet, I suspect that these numbers are quite misleading, since 2014’s stiff challenges could only be surmounted by extremely skilled and quality-conscious growers – i.e., precisely the sort I visit. What few 2014s I have had a chance to taste from Saar estates other than those I profile in my reports confirm that suspicion. And it is such considerations that lead me to indicate a wide discrepancy when rating 2014 and 2015 for the Vinous vintage chart. To echo a popular refrain among wine growers: If you rendered outstanding 2014s, congratulations! If you rendered weak 2015s, you should consider another line of work. (The gap between 2014 and 2015 scores among Middle Mosel growers whom I profile will be wider than among those on the Saar, but not for that small subset of Moselaner who truly beat the odds in 2014.)

In 2015, Egon Müller’s Scharzhofberger is yet again home to the Saar’s most compelling Rieslings

Saar and Ruwer

As Germany’s coolest Riesling-growing sectors, the Saar and Ruwer unsurprisingly offer an accentuation of vintage 2015’s hallmark high acidity, and in fortuitous instances the results can be described as electric. These are also the regions in which growers were most tempted in 2015 to de-acidify, but the vintage’s thick, healthy grape skins offered natural buffering, especially to the extent that growers indulged in pre-fermentation maceration. High levels of dry extract no doubt often played an additional role in offsetting acidity. Among the growers on whom I regularly report, de-acidification was the exception, and then usually confined to musts destined for generic bottlings. The Karlsmühle’s Peter Geiben expanded that procedure to encompass most of his dry wines, but given that his 2015s represent the most consistent quality at this estate in many years, I am not going to complain. (For further background on those regions, see the introductions to my reports devoted to each of them in vintage 2014, Rescuing Ruwer Riesling in 2014 ... and Beyond and The Saar 2014: Stress for Success.)

This report is based on my visits to the 17 cellars in question in September, 2016, supplemented by subsequent sampling. The many excellent Saar Rieslings of Markus Molitor and Nik Weis (St. Urbans-Hof) will be covered in my companion report on the Middle Mosel, since that is where those estates are located. I was unable to include the von Kesselstatt collection in this year’s report due to scheduling complications attendant on Annegret Reh-Gartner’s struggle with cancer, to which she succumbed just as the 2016 harvest was commencing. Wolfgang Mertes remains von Kesselstatt’s cellarmaster and vineyard manager, and I’ll try to catch up on the highlights of 2015 and 2016 at that address when I return to Germany this summer.     

Notes on Nomenclature

Please consult the extensive introduction to my coverage of Germany’s 2014 Riesling vintage for further details on the evolution of German site names and wine identities along with further explanations of the conventions I follow for consistency’s sake. To recap as briefly as possible: the penultimate group of digits in a wine’s long official registration number is included as part of a wine’s description if and only if this is necessary to distinguish two wines whose names are otherwise identical, such as “Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett Alte Reben A.P. #3” from “Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett Alte Reben A.P. #4.” Official German Einzellagen (the single-vineyard entities created in 1971) are always accompanied by the name of the relevant village with the grammatically appropriate “er” ending—e.g., “Ayler Kupp”—even if (as is increasingly the case due to VDP affectations) the village name has been relegated on the actual label to fine print or appears there without the “er” ending. Site names from the cadaster that have been officially registered by a grower under recent provisions of the individual German states will appear either in addition to the name of the relevant Einzellage—such as “Ayler Kupp Unterstenberg Riesling”—or as a replacement for it—e.g., “Ayler Schonfels Riesling”—depending on how that grower has chosen to label the wines. (My examples are drawn from Weingut Peter Lauer, where Florian Lauer has with good reason retained reference to “Kupp” only for sites where that designation is historically appropriate. The Ayler Kupp Einzellage is absurdly overextended, covering far-flung, geologically and microclimatically disparate locations anywhere within the communal boundaries of Ayl.) 

In 1999, Roman Niewodniczanski, among the 7th generation owners of the Bitburger Brauerei, acquired the estate that had been purchased after Napoleon’s secularization by another brewer, Fleming Gustav van Volxem. Niewodniczanski’s restoration and revival of the Weingut Van Volxem has had profound effects on Saar viticulture. Restoration of the van Volxem’s domicile is the least of it, but still impressive. Here, the 1899 interior that serves as tasting room, housing remnants of van Volxem’s renowned ancient map collection and ringed by Niewodniczanski’s empty trophy bottles

Emboldened by these recent provisions allowing for the registration of narrowly defined site names drawn from the land records, many growers have taken to placing such names on their labels even if these have not been officially registered. In such instances, I have avoided placing them in direct conjunction with the name of the relevant Einzellage, the same approach I would adopt with a nickname or cuvée name (like “Alte Reben”)—e.g., “Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Steinmetzrausch.”  (So far, surprisingly few growers from the Greater Mosel have chosen to register site names under the recent Rheinland-Pfalz provisions.)

Producers in Ruwer

van Elkan
Von Schubert Maximin Grünhaus

Producers in Saar

2014 on the Mosel: Man Bats Last, David Schildknecht, October 2016

2014 Mosel: A Hard But Often Rewarding Harvest, David Schildknecht, October 2016

Rescuing Ruwer Riesling in 2014 ... and Beyond, David Schildknecht September 2016

The Saar 2014: Stress for Success, David Schildknecht May 2016

2014 Germany: Riesling Resists Rain on the Rhine, David Schildknecht May 2016