Germany 2010

Situated at the northern limit of vitis vinifera's historic range, Germany has by and large benefitted from global warming. Two thousand ten, however, was a much cooler, more classical vintage, with rain at harvest that presented growers with a multitude of challenges.  More unusual, though, was the fact that acidity levels in the grapes remained high even as ripeness levels soared late in the growing season.  In November, as the well-known estates on the Mosel were harvesting gold capsule ausleses, acidity levels were still higher than those normally associated with unripe grapes.

Moreover, it was the smallest crop in a generation, with the German Wine Institute calculating total harvest at just over seven million hectoliters, approximately 25% less than in 2009, which was already a slightly short vintage.

As the better estates had record sales in 2010, few had any 2009s left in stock.  Given that shortage and the rising demand for riesling, pundits expected a slight hike in prices.  However, with the current state of the economy, few producers were able to demand more for a bottle, forcing them for the second year in a row to tighten their belts.  The small crop, however, was on strict allocation.

"The small yield was principally due to the reduced fruit set caused by low temperatures at the time of the blossoming," explained Norbert Weber, president of the German Winegrowers' Association.  However, rigorous selection during harvest after the cool summer and damp weather in August further shortened yields at the top estates.  Although many producers harvested far too early, the patience of others was rewarded with a Golden October.

Steffen Christmann, the president of the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) and estate owner in Gimmeldingen, spoke of the smallest vintage in decades.  "The cool nights favored excellent aromatic composition, with bright crisp acidities," he noted.  "The wines remind me of those from 2008 or, looking further into the past, perhaps 1996 or even 1990."  Those were monumental vintages in the Pfalz, whence he hails.  Difficult to appreciate in their youth, they have matured gracefully.
Although many, if not most, of the 2010s are at best mediocre in quality, what is good is extremely good--and especially at the level of the hundred or so producers featured in this article.  Those few bunches that were harvested in late autumn still had thick skins and very little juice, but what a juice it was!  The rieslings have concentration levels that are analytically higher than anything on record, packing intense flavors without being heavy, broad-shouldered or ostentatiously dense.

Klaus-Peter Keller in the Rheinhessen also compares 2010 to 1996 because of the "concentrated acidities."  His neighbor, Philipp Wittmann, the other star of that region, speaks of a vintage that played well only for late-ripening grapes like riesling in the finest sites.  "The precocious varieties had to be harvested too early," he observed, "because the warm, humid weather in late August and early September had already induced rot."

"The cool summer was probably due to the fine silica particles that were catapulted into the atmosphere by the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in the spring," believes Gunter Künstler from Hochheim in the Rheingau.  "It reminds me a bit of the summer in 1980 after the explosion of Mount St. Helens in Washington.  That vintage was also a small harvest."

Even in well-drained sites in Rüdesheim at the western edge of the Rheingau, star producers like Josi Leitz thought in late September that 2010 might be a total wash-out.  "The stunning weeks in October turned a potential disaster into an excellent vintage," he claims.  Wilhelm Weil from the Robert Weil estate in Kiedrich in the Rheingau also sees similarities to either 1998 or 1996, but with somewhat riper grapes and thus higher must weights in 2010.  Again, the bitter medicine to swallow was that the better estates brought in a maximum of two-thirds of a normal crop.

Armin Diel in Burg Layen on the Nahe vividly describes the problem many producers faced.  "On the same bunch, we had grapes that were unripe and others that were severely affected by botrytis," he concedes.  "Without a severe selection, it was impossible to make good wines."  While Werner Schönleber from Emrich-Schönleber further up the valley in Monzingen draws parallels to 1994, his colleague Tim Fröhlich from the Fröhlich-Schäfer estate in neighboring Bockingen likens the vintage to 2001.  These are both vintages that I enjoy drinking today.

On the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer the opinions are even more upbeat.  Given the high acidity levels, though, it was a better year for sweeter wines, which are in any case what this region generally does best.  "And there are some magnificent noble late-harvest rieslings," adds Egon Müller from Wiltingen, whose Scharzhofberg vineyard fared extremely well in the unusual weather.  Although here again comparisons with 1996 or 1990 are common, in particular because of the brisk acidities, neither of those vintages had such a wealth of pure botrytis.

In short, the 2010s are less overtly full-bodied than those of 2009, characterized instead by crisp fruit and vitalizing acidity.  As this is a style generally appreciated more by experienced wine lovers than by neophytes, casual consumers will need to choose especially carefully among the wines on offer--and, given the short crop, be prepared to pay a bit more for the finer bottles if they are able to find them.

Other regions.  In the full coverage of the individual regions below, I have focused on those producers and individual wines that should be available in the American market.  Germany, though, has more to offer.  The following paragraphs highlight regions that are in great demand domestically, but not often seen beyond the border.

Baden, the region on the eastern banks of the Rhine across from Alsace, is the best example.  With 40,000 acres of vineyards, making it Germany's third-largest growing region, it is far more popular domestically than the Mosel.  Here, estates like Bercher, Dr. Heger (Rudi Wiest), Huber (Valckenberg), Salwey (Rudi Wiest) and Schneider make exceptional dry wines, in particular their Grosses Gewächs from pinot noir, pinot gris and pinot blanc, which are at the cutting edge of what these varieties can do on German soil.  As always, Bernhard Huber made several of Germany's best pinot noirs, with his 2009 Wildenstein (95) and Schlossberg (94) being two of the true stars of the vintage.  Bercher's Feuerberg (93) was the third from Baden in the top ten of the German vintage.  In white, Schneider's Weissburgunder *** (92), Salwey's Henkenberg Grauburgunder (92), Bercher's Feuerberg Grauburgunder (91) and Heger's Winklerberg Grauburgunder (91) held their own against their rivals from the Pfalz, taking four of the top ten listings.

In neighboring Württemberg, with not quite 30,000 acres Germany's fourth-largest growing area, red wines merit the most attention.  Gert Aldinger again bottled the region's best lemberger with his 2009 Fellbacher Lämmler Grosses Gewächs (92).  Among the pinot noirs, his Gips Grosses Gewächs (92) also shared top honors with Rainer Schnaittmann's (Rudi Wiest) Lämmler (92).

Although the large wineries in Würzburg are the best-known estates abroad, the top producer in Franken today is Paul Furst (Rudi Wiest) in Burgstadt.  His 2009 Centgrafenberg Hunsruck Pinot Noir Grosses Gewächs (93) was also one of the top ten pinots of the vintage.  In white, three Grosses Gewächs from silvaner, the region's signature variety, shone with 91 points each:  the Stein from Juliusspital, the Kronsberg from Wirsching, and the Pfulben from Schmitt's Kinder.

With only slightly more than 1,000 acres of vineyard, the Ahr is not only tiny, but also one of Germany's most northerly regions.  Global warming along with better vineyard management has made quality on the steep, south-facing schist slopes more regular and there are now four or five producers of note there, the most famous of whom is certainly 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 pinot noir.  My two favorites this year were the 2009 Gärkammer Grosses Gewächs (93) from Adeneuer and the 2009 Long Gold Capsule (93) from Stodden, both of which ranked in my top ten.

In total, 36% of Germany's over 250,000 acres of vineyard are now planted with red varieties--and with 30,000 acres of pinot noir, Germany produces more than Australia and New Zealand combined.  For the American market it remains a curiosity, but its importance will certainly continue to grow.

How I taste.  I began seriously tasting the 2010s in the spring of 2011, 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 in order to get a first-hand account of the growing conditions, the market forces at work and the 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 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, tasting first each collection in its entirety in order 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 estate might not have more potential that an innocuous wine from a famous one.

Although I had already tasted over the summer most of the Grosses Gewächs, which are so coveted in Germany itself, the first official presentation of the 2010 vintage for the press took place in Wiesbaden in late August.  This gave me another opportunity to look at the finest dry wines.

Finally, in late September I did a comparative tasting across the regions in which the finest wines in each category were again analyzed and final scores drawn.  It is hardly rare 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, looking again at certain wines or tasting additional others to provide more depth to this coverage.  Nonetheless, there are still some late or even not-yet-bottled 2010s that I have yet to see.

Exports to the United States.  While German exports to America had risen dramatically over a number of years, the economic crisis and weak dollar have put the brakes on that development.  Two thousand ten was a better year for German riesling than was 2009, but few importers were euphoric about the short-term possibilities.  The first half of 2011 has brought stability, but the short crop has stymied potential advances.  According to Monika Reule, the head of the German Wine Institute, "from January to June 2011 volume was stable and revenue up about 5% to 52 million Euros."  With that, the United States now accounts for about a third of all German wine exports.

The finest estates appear to be holding their market, says Johannes Leitz, "but even the better restaurants are selling less expensive wine than three years ago."  At the retail level, sales have been less affected, but the volume of noble late-harvest wines in the mix continues to decline, and these kinds of wines are what the 2010 vintage brought in spades.

What works for riesling--and its star is still rising--are price points up to $15.99, explains Johannes Selbach, "with estate-bottled German wines still moving up to about $23," and these two segments are still growing.  Above that, sales slow markedly.  That said, wine as a whole appears to have weathered the crisis better than other consumer goods.  "The potential uptrend for German riesling will be a function of disposable income," believes Mat Damon from Truly Fine Wine in San Diego.  Currently, observes importer Terry Theise, most consumers that traded down have stayed down. "The guy in the $10-$20 price range is still going to Trader Joe's, Costco and Bev Mo." On a positive note, the off-dry style, be it halbtrocken or feinherb, is gaining in popularity, and even the "bone-dry" trocken wines are more widely accepted today, especially in restaurants, than ever before.

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 19 years. Payne, who has covered Germany in the IWC since the 2004 vintage, served as president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV, from 2007 to 2010.