Germany 2003: Extreme Riesling

During Germany's summer of 2003, the very early bud break and flowering, the paucity of rainfall, hours of sunshine, and high temperatures (­significantly above 100oF on many days in August) broke virtually all existing records. Under circumstances more familiar in South Australia or California ­ but not entirely unknown to German vintners in recent times, heat and drought put the accumulation of sugar well ahead of the development of flavor. The vines merely marked time during the worst dog days of August, achieving their early elevated must weights as much through dehydration as through metabolism.

Most growers with access to water took advantage of a new legal dispensation to irrigate. Without such supplemented water, vines were frequently better off in heavier, deeper soils-but not always, because the depth of roots at times proved more critical to quality, and in stonier, shallower soils the roots have often been forced to go deeper. Younger vines were at a distinct disadvantage in extreme heat and drought conditions, but all were at risk, and most quality-conscious growers performed late and at times ruthless green harvest to alleviate stress and ensure that the remaining fruit would truly ripen. Between drought and human intervention, a potential bumper crop was reduced at most estates to yields at or below long-term norms.

It's often said that riesling needs a hundred days of hang time, a point reached in 2003 by early September. Other varieties frequently could not stand to hang longer. Biffar's sauvignon blanc in the Pfalz reached 106 degrees Oechsle on September 10: to bring it in safely in the scorching heat, cellarmaster Heiner Maleton had to lay dry ice in the picking tubs. But with riesling (and pinot noir as well) there could be few successful early pickings, and growers were fortunate when the weather cooled in the second half of September. "The sugar levels were elevated in mid-September," reported Karl-Josef Loewen of Leiwen, "but the skins and pips tasted bitter and unripe." Those estates that were stampeded into harvesting by fear of falling acids paid a price in flavor. "By early October," relates Willi Schaefer of Graach, "you thought at first, 'Oh, they're all already sweet, and the acidity is no longer high, so we can harvest.' But then you went through and really tasted and there was some flavor, lots of sweetness and nothing to criticize, but the excitement was missing." "My harvest schedule was quite normal this year," says Helmut Donnhoff, "perhaps a week earlier than usual but not more. Riesling simply has to put in time in October. If I had harvested in the middle of September, I would have had virtually the same analyses, but that's about all I would have had, not the flavors." Some riesling bunches, observed Johannes Selbach, lacked flavor even after turning deep gold and beginning to shrivel. In such instances, there was nothing worthwhile to concentrate, and woe to the grower who was not assiduously tasting his or her fruit, to say nothing of those who machine harvest and thus cannot perform a triage.

Paralleling this gradual maturation of flavors in healthy fruit were instances of early and accelerated ripening of a sort peculiar to 2003. Where a blush of early botrytis had perforated the skins, the growth of noble fungus was rapidly overtaken by sheer dehydration. Photogenically shiny, shriveled, bluish-black berries were pressed into numerous record-setting Trockenbeerenauslesen-which some growers, misleadingly, claimed to have achieved without botrytis. "It used to be that growers were proud to have botrytis," says veteran winemaker Hans-Gunter Schwarz by way of explanation for such claims, "but lately that subject has become taboo." It is certainly true, though, that rampant botrytis spores of the sort brought on in 1976 by September rains were this year nowhere in evidence.

Widespread frost at the end of October resulted in a plethora of generally atypically soft and unimpressive Eisweine. Frost sent the foliage falling, after which any further concentration of flavor proceeded without benefit of plant metabolism.

The fundamental challenge of 2003, abstracting from the special difficulties of fermenting off-the-charts TBAs which, if not blended with juice from "lighter" pickings, run the risk of fermenting into 2005 and possibly never achieving the 5.5% alcohol legally required for wine, was to deal with the high sugar and low acidity that resulted from waiting to pick at optimum phenolic maturity. At least half of the successful growers I visited took advantage of a legal dispensation to add tartaric acid, nearly all of them doing this to their musts, not to young wines. Other growers staunchly rejected both options, insisting that the only justification for acidulation is pHs so high that the wines risk biological instability. The added acids, these growers maintained, would precipitate out anyway, and when it did it would take with it precious buffering material, rendering it yet more difficult to achieve balanced wines. Stories abounded of growers who acidified their musts too aggressively, only to de-acidify the resulting wine. At times-as was also the case in Austria this year-finished wines displayed acid levels higher than those measured in the must. This phenomenon was variously attributed to the production of succinic acid as a byproduct of fermentation and to tartrates having precipitated in the grapes, which had the effect of deceptively depressing the levels of acidity measured at harvest. Whatever the cause, I have never found measured levels of acidity or dry extract to be less informative guides to flavor than in 2003.

Steering a balanced stylistic course this year was far from easy. More sugar might be needed to cover bitterness and phenolic roughness and to moderate alcohol, but with such low acidity many wines ended up tasting too sweet. On the other hand, German consumers with their knee-jerk penchant for anything labeled Trocken may learn-in a year when some rieslings exceeded 14% alcohol-to be careful what they wish for. Yet, however freakishly extreme the 2003 growing season, the wines, even when extreme on paper, do not (as the 1976s did) taste freakish. I was amazed how infrequently low acidity per se seriously inhibited the clarity of flavor, elegance and refreshment value of the young 2003 wines.

Considering 2003's record must weights, low acidity, and relative paucity of botrytis, the only strictly comparable vintage in modern history is legendary 1959. But when one tastes the wines, more recent and mundane comparisons seem adequate. In line with 1997 and particularly 1999, the successful rieslings of 2003 offer an alluring and accessible combination of softly ripe, often tropical fruit and creaminess of texture, with a wafting, light sensation on the palate that often belies their sheer viscosity. Nineteen ninety-four also comes to mind, not with respect to acidity but for the combination of high sugars and intense phenolics born of thick, suntanned skins, features that do much to explain the difficulty in both vintages of achieving well-balanced dry wines.

This year's Kabinetts routinely have Auslese must weights, although some still manage to capture the delicacy and elegance of their genre. Due to an Oechsle gap between healthy fruit around 100 degrees and shriveled berries near or exceeding 200, drastic declassification extended to higher-Pradikat wines. "Last year I would have opened a bottle of Champagne-excuse me, Sekt-in honor of a TBA must weight," joked Max Himstedt of Weingut August Kesseler. "But this year I said 'That will be an Auslese, now bring me something from which to make BA.'"

Two thousand three exposed as myth the widely held belief that in vintages of extreme ripeness riesling will taste more uniform and not reflect terroir. "We found the differences from parcel to parcel and wine to wine greater than last year," observes Emrich Schonleber, a view widely shared, "even though we had expected the opposite to be true given sheer ripeness and the plants' inability to assimilate soil-specific minerals in such dry conditions." Striking differences in character and degree of success from one estate, one parcel, or one picking to another characterize 2003, a byproduct of the different ways in which both vines and vintners reacted to such extreme conditions. "For many vintners, it was as if you had driven a VW beetle all your life and then were set down behind the wheel of a Porsche," says Peter Jost. "You had to be cautious or you would lose control. Had I experienced this vintage 20 years ago, I would not have been up to it."

"Despite their low acidity," noted Pfalzer Theo Minges, expressing a majority sentiment, "the harmonious, well-balanced 2003s possess developmental potential-indeed, they require time to show their stuff." Does their slow evolution as young wines genuinely presage successful long-term cellaring? Those who answer in the affirmative are emboldened by the longevity of the 1959s. They should, however, be reminded that today's cellar treatments, while cleaner and more sophisticated than those of 1959, do not include levels of sulfur remotely as high as the often dangerous levels that were administered routinely in the earlier year, earning it the gruesome nickname "the widowmaker."

But the ranks of 2003 believers include some formidable authorities. "Only in a great vintage is such a range from Kabinett to TBA possible," insists Helmut Donnhoff, and Wilhelm Weil echoed that sentiment in virtually identical words. Based on the time-honored German standard of must weight, 2003 is certainly a "Great Vintage." Paradoxically, though, it appears to me to offer somewhat fewer truly extraordinary wines than its two immediate predecessors.

The following wines, with exceptions noted, were tasted from bottle in late July and early August, in the course of my visits to 67 estates. My notes, covering somewhat fewer than half of the total number of wines I tasted, generally appear in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve the wines. If a grower is not mentioned in the text that follows, not even briefly in a regional introduction, then I have not yet tasted his or her 2003s. Wines rated "1 star" were particularly impressive, while "2 stars" signifies a wine of profound complexity. Due to space constraints, other recommended wines are merely listed. I have hedged my bets more frequently than usual this year by characterizing as "potential 2 stars" wines whose further evolution will be telling. Under no circumstances should my ratings, usually based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from the accompanying tasting notes. In the interest of space, recommended wines that did not merit a star have, except in rare instances, been relegated to a list appended to the tasting notes; these lists also include a few starred wines that are unlikely to be available in the U.S. market.