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Saar Riesling 2019-2020: Selective Excellence


Pearls from the Saar

While you aren’t likely to mistake a 2019 German Riesling for its 2020 counterpart – least of all in the Greater Mosel – the two growing seasons had surprisingly much in common. And from that, there’s a lot to learn.

Both 2019 and 2020 dramatically illustrate a general trend toward precocity of vine evolution along with warmer and drier summers. You can get an argument going among growers – and, naturally, this will vary according to region – as to which year featured more or fiercer heat spikes, which had more sunburned grapes, or which was, all things considered, harder on a Riesling vine. It’s not that the summer of 2018 was significantly cooler or witnessed more precipitation, but the winter of 2017–2018 restored the water table, whereas in both 2019 and 2020, soil went into the growing season precariously bereft of underlying moisture thanks to meager winter snow and rain. And, while the 2019 and 2020 growing seasons suffered from lack of rain, in both instances harvest was plagued by lots of it.

From the resulting wines, it’s clear that Riesling with elevated and efficacious acidity, finesseful flavors and (especially in 2020) alcoholic levity, even in the realm of analytical dryness, is fully compatible with global warming, at least as we are thus far experiencing it. And for Riesling lovers, that’s a big deal. Moreover, clearly gone are the times that might have justified Frank Schoonmaker’s 1957 claim that for Saar Riesling, only “once, twice, or at most three times in a decade, nature is kind,” or Hugh Johnson’s contention of the 1970s that “[the] battle for sugar in the grapes rages fiercest in this cold corner of [Germany and] is won perhaps three or four years in ten.” The 2021 growing season – an almost unremittingly cool and rainy contrast with 2020 and 2019 – represents only the third or fourth time since 1987 when too little sugar accumulation seriously worried any halfway conscientious German Riesling grower. Chaptalization, while still widespread, has dropped dramatically in both frequency and degree, and nowadays it is driven by stylistic preference, not fear that Riesling will be too thin and weak to stand on its own.

Historically, on the Saar, the prime portion of Ockfener Bockstein (foreground) was second in reputation only to Scharzhofberger, but neighboring Geisberg (recently reclaimed from trees and scrub by Van Volxem) and the Herrenberg sector of today’s expansive Bockstein Einzellage (upper right) were among several close contenders.

Self-Correcting Summer?

To some extent, the drought and heat of summer 2020 seem to have ultimately corrected for the very challenges that such conditions appeared to present, and especially for those that were to follow once rain arrived near the end of September. Where vineyards and their soils were farmed meticulously with the goal of healthy fruit, this, in conjunction with the dry, hot summer temperatures, seems to have nipped botrytis in the bud. On top of any conscientious efforts in vineyard and especially canopy management to insure that must weights did not become too elevated for balanced dry Rieslings (let alone Kabinett), summer 2020 conditions appear to have allowed sufficient periods of vine shutdown that phenolic development could proceed while sugar production lagged behind. Where rain dilution might have permanently taken the edge off acidity, not only had shutdown aided in keeping levels high during the summer and early autumn, but the drought had also insured low levels of dry extract, specifically of potassium, that would otherwise have buffered or muted acids by elevating pH. And thanks to a sufficiently long and warm growing season – although imponderable factors can be relevant in this regard – acidity, just as in 2019, was preponderantly of the more positively efficacious tartaric as opposed to malic sort.

Note, of course, my having resorted to such qualifiers as “meticulously” and “conscientious.” One could devote paragraphs – and I have done so in past reports – to the myriad considerations and hypotheses relevant to determining the best soil- and vine-management approaches for Riesling, particularly in a time of global warming and extreme weather. Suffice it to say that if you farm without acute awareness of potential soil depletion or desertification, using chemical applications or machines to substitute for hands-on weed control and vine tending, or in general follow strategies and protocols that dominated even at top estates during the 1980s, then you are not likely to have achieved memorably fine 2019 or 2020 results. And then, there is the matter of harvest date, which naturally is driven by vineyard and vine management as well as by stylistic goals and psychological proclivity.

One of several classic rock and soil combinations prominent on the Saar (here in Ockfener Bockstein) is grey slate threaded with quartz.

Human Psychology Versus Grape Physiology

The contrast between 2019 and 2020 is reflected in dramatically divergent yields. May frost hit hard in many Riesling vineyards, the Saar and Mosel being especially affected. Then, after mid-September 2019, botrytis became a problem, due to even more rain falling than in 2020 and arriving earlier and amid warmer temperatures. If you tend toward risk-taking, then 2019 was likely not your friend. I have to say that my own observations and grape tastings during the first half of September 2019 left me wondering why so few growers were out there picking their Riesling (or, for that matter, their Pinot) but were instead talking, a bit like broken records, about achieving “just that bit of extra ripeness.” “Aren’t they failing to learn a lesson from 2018?” I asked myself. On the other hand, for anyone who wasn’t already picking assiduously before mid-September, the inclination to protect your bottom line was likely deleterious, because only rigorous selection and rejection of rot-tainted fruit from a crop already reduced by frost and by low juice-to-skin ratio (due to the drought) could insure vinous excellence. I kept hearing the comment, “This was our most expensive harvest, with the highest number of labor hours yet.” And I fear that 2019 indeed set new records in that regard.  

As to why grape skins seem to have been less toughened and hence less resilient, and why acidity that looks ample on paper and is overwhelmingly tartaric – not to mention accompanied by low buffering potassium – so frequently fails (at least in my assessment) to balance sweetness among 2019s, I am unable to offer any hypothesis. Beyond that, one has to cite similarly imponderable differences in fruit character, with the 2019s tending toward tropicality and extreme, sometimes overripe flavors. Where 2020 disappoints among German Rieslings generally, it is often on account of strident phenolics that probably trace to tougher grape skins might have been ameliorated by a bit more residual sugar and concomitantly lower alcohol.

Once among the Saar’s three or four most renowned sites, the Geisberg – in a side valley between Ockfen and Schoden – was largely reclaimed from trees and scrub by Van Volxem’s Roman Niewodniczanski beginning in 2015, and from vintage 2020 is the subject of his first dedicated bottling, a Kabinett.

What is indubitable about both 2019 and 2020, including in the Greater Mosel, is that both delivered many Rieslings of extraordinary beauty and inevitable longevity. From 2019, these come especially in the range of residually sweet Spätlese and of relatively full-bodied dry wines, naturally including Grosse Gewächse. That conjunction is hardly surprising, since often the same parcels harvested at around the same time – or even the very same musts – are responsible. I was amazed that, beyond those few estates (like Hofgut Falkenstein) that began picking in earnest after the first week of September, there were any 2019s truly illustrative of Kabinett levity, transparency and animation, but there are quite a few, even allowing for the pervasive tendency of today’s Kabinetts to come off as Spätlesen in terms of both ripeness and sweetness – tendencies accentuated in 2019. Once the wild card of noble rot comes into play, 2019s run the gamut from disappointing to glorious. On the Saar, there are lots of wines that Schoonmaker would recognize as the products of an exceptional vintage for this region. From 2020, the Saar and Mosel are especially successful in the realm of residually sweet Kabinett, and selectively with Spätlese and dry-tasting wines, including ones in which some hidden sweetness helps balance acidity and catalyze complexity. My hunch is that, as a group, the Saar 2020s will fare well in bottle, retaining their animating brightness without turning excessively lean or shrill.

I tasted the hugely impressive Van Volxem 2020s from a perch in their vast new facility that overlooks Schodener Herrenberg, a near-monopoly of the redoubtable Claudia and Manfred Loch’s Weinhof Herrenberg.

Vintage of the Half-Century?

While I shall be praising many hundreds of individual 2019s, my reports on German Rieslings of that vintage virtually demand that I address a major discrepancy with received opinion. As readers will by now realize, 2019 has been widely heralded as among the greatest or even the greatest vintage for German Riesling in recent memory – like a second coming of 1947 or 1971. My suspicion is that the 2019s will, as a group, seem better balanced while still benefiting from the inevitable liveliness generated by dissolved CO2 and the general tendency for acidity to seem most efficacious during the first year of a Riesling’s life. But it’s also true that German Rieslings often enter a relatively inexpressive if usually short-lived phase during their second year in bottle, which is precisely when the majority of my assessments had to be rendered.

I don’t wish to come off as arrogant; I am acutely aware of my own limitations and of how often wines have made a fool of me. Yet, I wonder how many experienced tasters might have read too much into their early impressions of 2019 because the wines seem to check so many encouraging boxes: conspicuous flavor ripeness, ample acidity, low pH relative to total acidity, extremely low overall yields that naturally suggest enhanced concentration (even if a significant share of that yield reduction came only from rejection of negatively botrytized fruit). In the end, though, quality often comes down to chemical imponderables. My assessments of potential longevity of 2019s are conservative when compared with many that I have seen, but if these wines’ character traits were in fact more completely revealed in their second year than in their first (let alone in their first six months), then I expect not to significantly revise my long-term expectations. Cellar selectively as well as cautiously, and you won’t end up kicking yourself.

Finally, assessing 2019s and 2020s at this relatively late date practically compels me to engage in very brief hindsight of 2021, which, as I previously mentioned, is one of only three or four vintages since 1987 in which Riesling in top German locations genuinely struggled to reach optimal must weights. Harvest was nail-bitingly delayed well into October solely on that account, leaving aside assessments of acidity or flavor. There will be lots of high-acid, genuinely lightweight Kabinetts from this vintage and relatively little Spätlese, let alone Auslese. A preponderance of wines will (as in 2010 or 1991) reflect de-acidification. And a substantial share of dry wines – likely including a predominance of Grosse Gewächse – will have been chaptalized. How many winegrowers and cellarmasters out there are well-practiced in the arts of de-acidification and chaptalization? Few younger than 60, that’s for sure. Of course, a grower could elect to forgo or greatly reduce his or her number of analytically dry bottlings (which at least one of Germany’s most prestigious Riesling growers plans rather dramatically to do). One thing is for sure: 2021 will only enhance the perception that we live in exciting Riesling times.

An upper portion of remaining old vines on Egon Müller’s famed share of Scharzhofberger – source for this Kabinett Alte Reben – was afflicted with phylloxera, plainly visible in this late summer 2020 photo, and had to be grubbed up after that year’s harvest.

Delectable Diversity

I once subtitled a column “No Czar for the Saar.” And my present report demonstrates vividly why I thought that region exemplified the points I wished to make, most notably that inimitable reflection of a region or terroir by no means presupposes shared stylistic traits. Consider those proprietors whose vintage 2020 collections most consistently impressed me: the Webers at Hofgut Falkenstein, Egon Müller at the famed Scharzhof, and Roman Niewodniczanski at Van Volxem. It might seem hard to imagine three more different stylistic visions. And yet those of the Lochs and Florian Lauer (who happen to be close friends) are as different from one another as they are from any of the aforementioned three; the same could be said of Von Othegraven and Zilliken.

The imitative following of fashion, the emphasis on “typicity,” and an urge to establish recognizable stylistic categories across estates have been around for generations. But these phenomena have been especially noticeable in contemporary Germany, where, for example, the concepts of “taste corridors” (Geschmackskorridore) and “uniform taste” (einheitliches Geschmacksbild) have been discussed in VDP circles seemingly without the least self-consciousness, never mind embarrassment. How fortunate that Saar Riesling so deliciously cuts against that grain!

The precipitous Schonfels – between Ayl and Saarburg – continues to rise in reputation as Van Volxem’s Roman Niewodniczanski joins Florian Lauer and others in farming what, until early this century, was a site dominated by decrepit vines and scrub.

This report is based on tastings between late summer 2021 and late winter 2022, but primarily on visits with a dozen Saar growers in mid-November 2021. (Three further estates were canvassed solely via sample bottles.) In nearly every instance, a visit enabled me to taste a complete or virtually complete collection of 2020s, whereas my account of the 2019s includes significant gaps based on remaining availability at the estates and limitations on stateside samples or purchases. The one Saar address conspicuously and regrettably absent from this report – as it was from the one prior – is that of Dr. Wagner, and I shall try to be more persistent in seeking an appointment there when I come to tasting 2021s. I remind readers that growers are grouped in my reports based on winery location, so this one omits the extensive and important Saar Rieslings of Markus Molitor, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt and Nik Weis (St. Urbans-Hof), which will be reviewed as part of coverage of the Middle Mosel and Ruwer.

Conventions regarding nomenclature and scoring are those followed in my previous reports and detailed in the introductions to my coverage of vintage 2015 and 2014 German Rieslings. I reference A.P. (official registration) numbers only where this is necessary to disambiguate two otherwise eponymous wines; and the registration number is assumed to be that of the year following the vintage, unless otherwise indicated. Wines that I rated 86 points or lower are covered only selectively, at my discretion. All of the wines tasted for this Saar report were already bottled.

© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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