Germany 1997: Easy?Access Ripeness

While 1996 was characterized by a late catch-up in ripeness made possible by a sunny October, 1997 is a vintage that featured early ripening under dry conditions, followed by refreshing rain in September, then unremittingly sunny but cool weather in October. The harvest took place anytime from mid-October to mid-January. Despite sporadic rain in November, the grapes remained virtually botrytis-free. The value of late harvesting, however, is widely disputed.

According to Wilhelm Weil, "The extraordinary sunshine of August and September, after a June and July with good ripening and ample moisture, was what made greatness possible in 1997, but this was only possible for those who harvested very late. That why it's not in general a great vintage, but rather a vintage with certain great wines." Other growers saw only negatives in allowing a crop already low in acidity to hang out after the foliage had yellowed and photosynthesis had ended. Helmut Donnhoff saw no point "if in the end you bring home grapes with 95 degrees Oechsle, but only eight grams per liter acidity, some of which they lose in becoming wine. It gets freezing cold and the tartaric acid drops out, so you have something utterly topheavy; and then in some cases botrytis on top of that!"

The truly critical difference between the good wines and the great wines of this vintage lies largely along a fault line separating a few regions (upper Nahe, lower Mittelrhein, Saar and Ruwer) whose crop was clobbered by early frost, poor flowering and in some cases hail, from the rest of the riesling-growing regions. You may read that the '97 crop in Germany was devastatingly low as a whole. But this statistic results from the susceptibility of non-riesling grapes to poor flowering and frost, particularly in Franconia and Baden-Wurttemberg, areas not covered by my annual reports and scarcely represented in the United States. When it comes to those classic riesling vineyards that nature did not savagely trim, the crop set was abundant. Full yields, the sheer ripeness of fruit and low acidity define the character of most '97s.

These are relatively soft, exceedingly generous rieslings--at times generous to a fault. Where the grapes of '96, even at high ripeness, remained green and full of acidity, with thick skins and high phenols and extract, 1997 is a vintage of soft yellow fruits. Corresponding flavor differences run through the wines. Cassis leaf versus black fruit; citrus versus tropical fruit; Grannie Smith versus Golden Delicious are typical '96/'97 contrasts. Brown spices abound in '97, something you didn't find in '96. Botrytis was again scarce, but a significant number of the truly great '97s from outside the "frost and poor flowering belt," particularly in the Rheingau and Pfalz, are those bottled in tiny quantities from selected botrytized and air-dried berries. With tiny exceptions, late frost really didn't cooperate in concentrating the grapes either. That didn't stop growers who had let healthy fruit hang well into the new year from eventually harvesting slushy grapes with low acid, labelling them as Eiswein, and asking us to pay $100 a half bottle. Many of these folks ought to be ashamed at their opportunism. In the gamble with nature, man can stack the deck, but often only by turning a blind aesthetic eye to the results.

There is a close similarity to the largely unappreciated '92 vintage, whose least wines were a bit facile and loose but whose best, while relaxed and appealing out of the starting gate, have held reasonably well until now. 1992's dry wines often had trouble dealing with their alcohol, and '97 follows suit. The '92s also retained significant CO2 and this is exactly what happened in '97 as well, thanks to cool ambient temperatures during fermentation and clean, healthy juice that required minimal filtration. Of course, one might worry a bit about already soft wines when that faux acid crutch drops away.

A few growers-Gunderloch, Kunstler, Muller-Catoir and Schaefer are notable examples--harvested wines with atypically firm structure and acidity even after escaping a springtime drubbing from Mother Nature. If you want '97s to cellar, buy the exceptions and buy the wines from reduced crop loads, especially from the Saar, Ruwer and Nahe. But do it soon! Even where the crop was large, demand for '97s is huge. Consumers on both sides of the Atlantic have welcomed them for their cooperative ripeness and accessibility after a streak of high-acid years. I found myself unable to taste certain wines at some of the 60 estates I visited in September because scarcely a bottle was left.

Changes and contemplated changes in the German wine laws and labelling deserve polemical consideration. But that is largely work to do another time and, frankly, in a German-language forum, since in my opinion it's a matter of steering the growers away from the same sort of colossal confusion and at times sheer suicidal stupidity that have crippled them in the past. Readers need to know that more and more wines will be showing up labelled without Prakat and without attribution of vineyard or at times even of town. Such simplification, often well-intentioned, will cause confusion if it is not in any way standardized. Classification is a hot topic and in most regions' special wines are being bottled as Erstes Gewachs, literally "first growth." Other than the unoriginality and ugliness of this new technical term, it may cause consumer confusion. These dry, full-bodied wines from top sites will look, on the label, like (possibly sweet) QbAs. But weigh the bottle: Italian designer glass will give them away! The terms feinherb and fruchtig are now optional replacements for, respectively, halbtrocken and for printing nothing on the label relating to sweetness. But feinherb, while intelligible to a German-speaking wine geek, is as untranslatable as halbtrocken. And as for fruchtig, let's face facts: anything you say on the label about sweetness may be used against you in the court of public opinion. When it comes to contemplating pulling the trigger on more wine laws, the attitude of too many eager Germans seems to be: "Look! I've still got one good foot and five bullets left in the chamber."

All of the wines discussed below, around a third of those I sampled, are riesling and were tasted from bottle, except where otherwise noted. I have rated with an asterisk wines that seemed particularly compelling; two asterisks denote those that seemed unmistakably profound and ageworthy. Bets are hedged by means of parentheses, in the sincere belief that to sweat over whether to award one star or two (or to sweat over whether to purchase on that basis) is to be misled by a spurious sense of accuracy. Remember, I am rating one showing of a constantly changing motion picture. In the few cases where a wine was tasted more than once, I may have generated a composite tasting note. Retail prices are provided for wines currently available in the U.S. market or on order by their American importer.