Germany 2009: Everybody's Darling

“Two thousand nine was an excellent year,” says Helmut Dönnhoff from Oberhausen on the Nahe, “but, please, let’s not talk about a vintage of the century. I am tired of superlatives. Why does everyone want to put the cart before the horse? We’ll only know in a few years how these wines have developed.” From one of the grand old men of Germany’s wine world, the words carry considerable weight.

It is not as if he were unsure about the quality of his rieslings: they are all first-class. It is merely that there are so many variables in play. Some originally lesser vintages have evolved beautifully in unexpected ways. Will a purportedly great vintage such as 2009, like a child prodigy, perhaps not live up to our expectations? I doubt it. This does look to be a great vintage for Germany: pure, rich and well-balanced.

Yes, the spring began cool, but it was followed by a mild summer and an almost perfect autumn that allowed all estates to harvest at leisure under ideal conditions. “Producers who were not able to make interesting wines in 2009 are beyond help,” noted Josef Leitz from Rüdesheim in the Rheingau. Indeed, the regularity of the vintage is what sets 2009 apart from 2008, which was excellent at its best, but with a large mass of boring, often bitter wines. Even second-rate estates bottled enticing wines in 2009.

If there is any criticism to raise, it would be that the rieslings, for which Germany is so well known abroad, may have a bit more alcohol and less acidity than the 2008s. However, this is a style that plays well in the market. If you prefer the more vibrant brilliance of the 2008s or 2004s, fine, but you’ll have to be more selective in your buying. On the other hand, 2009, like 2007, can be purchased blind, and is already being compared to other vintages that I admire today, like 2002 and 1997.

“The wines are perhaps not as brilliant today in their expression as the best 2008s,” explains Johannes Selbach from Zeltingen on the Mosel, “but they have more depth and greater potential. Unfortunately for the general impression during the first presentations, they were often quite closed over the summer when you tasted them. I think, though, that they will develop into some of the finest wines that Germany has produced in recent years.”

In the same vein, Hans Joachim Zilliken from Ockfen on the Saar compares the year with 1983, another vintage with high levels of ripeness but little botrytis. This is why many producers speak of an excellent spätlese vintage. Like the 1975s, which had a more lively backbone, the 1983s have aged gracefully. My bet is that the 2009s will throw off their baby fat and opulent fruit, with their inner balance allowing a complexity to evolve that is now only barely discernible in many of the wines.

South of the Mosel, Nahe and Rheingau, however, the picture becomes more confusing. In some regions acidity levels were so low that the legislators allowed the wines—more often pinot gris and pinot noir—to be “corrected.” My gut feeling is that truly great wines are not made in years that need to be acidified, and this may be an issue across much of southern Europe in 2009.

A more troubling aspect for the market was, and still is, that frost during flowering cost some estates as much as a third of their crop. With 2010 again down in volume (the overall crop level was probably the lowest in a generation) this is likely to place pressure on pricing. On the bright side, a second cold snap shortly before Christmas, this one awaited with smiles, ensured a wealth of eisweins, even though trockenbeerenausleses were rare.

One of my pet peeves since I moved to Germany in the early 1980s has been the increasing opulence and sweetness of rieslings that I had so long admired for their grace and elegance. Indeed, only a generation ago even kabinetts were often only harvested in better vintages and, at that, not until late November. Now spätlese can be harvested almost every year. Not surprisingly, you might say, the finer spätleses, ausleses and upwards have become richer and sweeter and will need more bottle aging before they find their equilibrium than did their peers 25 years ago. But I prefer the drier styles that are also more popular among German consumers. Indeed, until a change in the law in 1971 that allowed chaptalized wines to bear residual sugar, most German wine was dry. This development is thus not a trend, but a return to the roots. Be that as it may, this style has yet to prove popular in the American market, where kabinett and spätlese are still the revered names.

In Germany, the market is moving instead towards the Grosses Gewächs, which must have less than 9 grams per liter of residual sugar. As I have indicated in the regional chapters, I believe this is too little for the Mosel and too much for the Pfalz, but that goes beyond my impression of 2009 and into politics, which I will cover in a separate piece. That said, while I’ve been impressed by the increased number of dry rieslings being imported into the American market, I am not certain that they are moving as they do elsewhere, in particular in the Scandinavian markets where they have overtaken French white wines as the benchmark, both in price and volume.

Other regions. In the full coverage below, I have focused on the best producers from regions that are readily available in the American market. Still, Germany has more to offer. The following four paragraphs highlight regions that are in demand in Germany, but not often seen beyond the border.

Baden, the region on the eastern banks of the Rhine across from Alsace, is a good example. With 40,000 acres of vineyards, making it Germany’s third largest growing region, it is at the forefront of domestic demand, far more popular in Germany than the Mosel. Here, estates like Bercher, Dr. Heger (Rudi Wiest), Huber (Valckenberg) and Salwey (Rudi Wiest) make exceptional dry wines. As always, Bernhard Huber again made several of Germany’s best pinot noirs this year, with his 2008 Schlossberg (95) and Wildenstein (94) being among the stars of the vintage. The most exciting development, however, was the re-emergence of the once-great estate, Dr. Heger, which placed a 2009 Chardonnay (94) and Pinot Gris (93), both from the Winklerberg site, in the top ten of their class in this vintage.

In neighboring Württemberg, Germany’s fourth-largest growing area with almost 30,000 acres, it has always been the red wines that merit the most attention. Gert Aldinger again made the region’s best lemberger with his 2008 Fellbacher Lämmler Grosses Gewächs (94), as well as the best wine from this variety, which the Austrians call blaufränkisch, that I have ever tasted in Germany. Rainer Schnaittmann (Rudi Wiest) took similar honors for pinot noir with his 2008 Simonroth “R” (93).

Although it is the large wineries in Würzburg which are the best-known estates abroad, the top producer in Franken today is Paul Furst(Rudi Wiest) in Burgstadt, who this year made some of the finest pinot noirs of his career. Both of his Grosses Gewächs, the 2008 Centgrafenberg Hunsruck (94) and Schlossberg (93), were among the top ten of the vintage.

Lastly there is the Ahr. With little more than 1,000 acres of vineyard area it is not only tiny but also one of Germany’s northernmost regions. Global warming has made it possible to produce good pinot noir more regularly on the region’s steep, south-facing schist slopes and there are now four or five producers of note there, the most famous of whom is Werner Näkel from Meyer-Näkel (Rudi Wiest) in Dernau, but Jean Stodden in Rech, Marc Adeneuer in Altenahr and Wolfgang Hehle in Mayschoss also make excellent pinots.

In fact, 36% of Germany’s more than 250,000 acres of vineyard are now planted with red varieties. When I moved to Germany 25 years ago, that number was more like 10%, with most of the crop used to make rosés. Today almost all of the harvest is fermented to red wine. With 30,000 acres of pinot noir, Germany cultivates one of the largest areas of this grape outside Burgundy and some of it can be extremely good, as I have highlighted where appropriate.

I know that German pinot noir still remains a curiosity. Although wine writers like Jancis Robinson adore it, it remains unclear whether it will have a sustainable place in the export market, whatever its quality, because it is too close to its paradigm of Burgundy in price. If someone has $50 to spend on a European pinot noir, he’s infinitely more likely to do so on Burgundy than on any of the unusual alternatives.

How I taste. I began seriously tasting the 2009s in the spring of 2010, first at ProWein, Germany’s Vinexpo, and later at the annual fair organized by the VDP, the association of Germany’s finest producers, at which they give the trade a first glimpse of the new vintage. Over the course of the summer, I visited numerous estates in each growing region to get a first-hand account of the growing conditions, market forces at work and general level of satisfaction. Although I often taste wines with the producers at that time, I only write notes and score those wines that I have tasted again under neutral conditions in my office so as not to be influenced by the presence of the estate owners, winemakers or sales directors.

At about the same time, I receive samples from all the estates portrayed below and more, first tasting each collection in its entirety to ascertain how a given producer dealt with the climatic conditions of the vintage. I then conclude each growing region with a comparative tasting of the better wines. At that time I line up the dry rieslings with the dry rieslings, the spätleses with the spätleses, and so on, in order to compare them and to see how they have evolved since my earlier tastings. In particular, this allows me to see if a promising wine from a little-known winery might have more potential than an innocuous wine from a famous estate.

Although I had already tasted over the summer most of the Grosses Gewächs, which are so coveted in Germany, the first official presentation of the 2009 vintage for the press took place in Wiesbaden in late August. This gave me another opportunity to look at the finest dry wines.

Finally, on September 20 and 21 I did a comparative tasting across the regions in which the finest wines in each category were again analyzed and a final score drawn. It is hardly unusual that a riesling that showed charmingly well in the spring might have lost some of its character by autumn or that a slow starter turns out to have a lot more potential, but that is the nature of wine. This is why I taste them as often as possible. In fact, until late November I was still following certain leads or tasting additional wines to provide more depth to this coverage. Nonetheless, there are still some late bottled 2009s that I have yet to see.

Joel B. Payne, an expatriate American who has lived in Germany since 1983, is a regular contributor to Germany's leading wine magazines, Falstaff and Vinum; he is also a founding member of the Grand Jury Européen. His German Wine Guide has appeared annually for the past 17 years. Payne, who has covered Germany in the IWC since the 2004 vintage, was elected president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV, in 2007.