Germany 1999: Generous to a Fault

The easy and agreeable personality of Germany 1999 rieslings reflects a warm spring and summer that were stress-free for both vintners and vines. Average temperatures along the Mosel and Rhein were the highest recorded in 50 years, higher even than in legendary 1959. There were no extreme heat spikes or prolonged periods of drought. During the unusually warm, muggy first half of September, at most a few steep, exposed or thin-soiled vineyards were beginning to wilt. Then arrived what has become a virtual common denominator of the 1990s: autumn rain. The last week of September and first ten days of October were wet ones in every German growing region. Thereafter, fine weather returned, lasting for a month. But the rain, falling on an already generous crop of relatively large berries, had taken the edge off the vintage's concentration.

Nineteen ninety-nine, then, fits the general recent pattern of warm summers and unwelcome autumn precipitation. Yet the '99s taste in stark contrast to the wines of '91, '96 or '98, when extremes of summer drought and heat, then cold and rain, somehow managed to produce some singularly intense, complex results. It is well known that the alternation of warm days and cold nights builds aromas by stressing grape skins, and boosts sugar while retaining acidity. It seems that in the same way, the violent week-to-week fluctuations in vintages of storm and stress build dynamic flavor complexity and formidable structure. And it is precisely dynamism and structure that are frequently found wanting in the wines of the warm, even-tempered '97 and '99 vintages.

Like 1997, '99 brought especially fine results along the Saar and Nahe, but without the earlier vintage's dramatic demarcation along lines of yield. The spring 1997 frost and hail that ravaged the Saar and Ruwer as well as much of the Nahe and Mittelrhein ushered in levels of concentration surpassing those witnessed in '99, when sugars-but not acidity or extract-reached towering heights. While the average level of ripeness and overall quality was higher in 1999 than in '92, in both years only a few growers managed to produce multiple extraordinary wines.

I caution collectors against assuming that the higher-acid and higher-extract wines of more stressed vintages will necessarily cellar more successfully. Plenty of '73s, not to mention '92s, are still thoroughly delicious, and '99 offers a similar personality with much higher ripeness, and indeed higher average quality. I suspect, however, that the '99s might with age retain their original charm more than they will actually gain in complexity. While that charm lies largely in generous folds of soft and tropical fruits, one can't say that the '99s lack minerality. The best of them display a peculiarly saline expression of those imponderables which, for lack of a better explanation, we ascribe to trace elements from the soil. But the '99s do not so clearly display the differences from one town or vineyard to another-their terroir, if you will-as the '96s or '98s. And while acid levels are low (baked out, some growers maintained, by the unremitting early September heat) and measurable dry extracts are modest, pHs in the '99s are also inexplicably low, giving many of them a tart edge to cut their textural fat and offset their residual sugar.

Not surprisingly, rain in 1999 ushered in botrytis, but the rate of infiltration varied greatly according to region, site, and a grower's viticultural regimen. A surprisingly high percentage of fruit remained rot-free. Some growers who bottled significant quantities of botrytis wine said that more fruit had to be discarded than was used. Willi Schaefer largely steered clear of botrytized fruit. When he took one of his Graacher Domprobst Auslesen to the annual Trier auction, he found that virtually all his colleagues were auctioning "gold capsule" Auslesen redolent of botrytis. Schaefer's wine, however, received a better reception, at least as measured by price. "Perfect botrytis," what Wilhelm Weil correctly attributed to his own '99 TBA, the sort that concentrates, adds complexity to, and complements all facets of a wine, was attainable only at the price of ruthless selectivity and a measure of microclimatic luck.

In what has become another '90s norm, a majority of growers allowed grapes to hang into December in anticipation of Eiswein. They were not rewarded, as rain and relatively warm weather rang out the old year, if not the millennium. (And as I write this, growers look to have an even lousier shot at millennial Eiswein from 2000.) I don't deny that many wines were bottled as Eiswein. But few of these will genuinely reward the consumer who pays the high prices asked for these rarities.

The ripeness and generosity of 1999 make for Kabinett wines that are often technically declassified Auslesen. But true Kabinett, with its fine, delicate interplay of flavors and effortless natural balance, is a joy, and one scarcely to be found in '99. If there can be such a thing as too generous ripeness, then '99 must plead guilty. Helmut Donnhoff pointed out that, for him at least, the ripest-looking golden bunches in '99 often tasted disappointingly burnt and bitter, and he found himself scrupulously selecting for green-gold fruit. One wonders to what degree this observation might offer a general key to understanding the vintage. Schaefer, on the Mosel, echoed Donnhoff's comments, and it seems noteworthy that these two growers succeeded in transcending the limitations of both the '97 and '99 vintages.

That there is a bitter, sometimes even coarse underbelly to much of the '99 vintage is evidenced in certain dry wines. In their nakedness and low pH, without buffering, ameliorative residual sugar, many '99 trockens reveal blemishes, although the best of them manage to deploy the juiciness and low acidity of the vintage to advantage. I cannot hazard a scientifically informed guess as to why the savage August heat spikes and sunburn of 1998 should ultimately have led to less bitterness than the long, even baking Nature administered in '99. Both vintages were rained on at around the same time, the '98s quite a bit more so. Perhaps the critical difference is to be found earlier in the growing season and, as previously noted, in the extremity of temperature swings.

The ways of wine are as mysterious as the whims of human taste. Some tasters favor dynamism in riesling even if at the price of harmonious resolution. For others, harmonious waves of fruit, or even a becalmed ocean of Oechsle, are bliss. Recent German vintages divide pretty clearly along this stylistic axis of tension and relaxation, and long-time readers will by now know where my own preferences lie. To the extent that inquiry and intrigue motivate your wine drinking, you'll be less captivated by 1999 than by some other recent vintages. But surely, few friends of riesling can entirely resist a gentle titillation of their taste buds, and that is the seductive prospect offered by the better '99s.

The following wines, all riesling unless otherwise noted, were tasted from bottle between June and December, 2000, and represent fewer than half of the '99s I have sampled thus far. A rating of "1 star" following a tasting note designates a wine that was particularly impressive. "2 stars" signifies a wine of profound complexity. But under no circumstances should these ratings, frequently based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.