Germany 2008: Crisp, Pure and Refreshing

In late autumn of 2008, few producers thought that the vintage would develop as well as it did. While the general level of quality is not as homogeneous as 2007, the finest wines are of similar quality, if not better. Given the wines' moderate alcohols, lively acidities and refreshing style, I actually prefer many of them to their predecessors, at least today. Even the Grosses Gewächs in the Pfalz, which were often slightly overblown last year, are crisp, animated and more attractive than any vintage since 2004. Whether they will mature as well as the 2007s or 2004s, though, remains to be seen. Some estates, pushing credibility to its limit, speak of a cross between the bright acidity of 2001 and the pure fruit of 2002. Given the acidity levels of the 2008s, 1996 is a comparison more often heard.

Any winemaker who did not make good 2007s should probably change careers: in terms of climate, it was a cake walk. The 2008 growing season, on the other hand, was a roller coaster ride from start to finish. Anyone who was not attentive, and especially those who harvested too early, made acceptable wines at best. Far too many, though, were thin, acidic and even bitter.

The 2008 growing season. A cool spring followed a warm winter. Both bud break and flowering, the latter often accompanied by rain, which decreased potential volume, occurred as much as two weeks later than usual. Although the summer was warmer, it was accompanied by hefty rains, flooding, and in some areas devastating hail storms. Only August was in any way normal. On its heels followed a cool, moist September that forced the better estates to postpone the start of the harvest until well into October. Most did not finish until mid-November—or, for those making eiswein, until December 30, when the temperatures finally fell to almost -10oC.

As in other challenging vintages, quality was uneven from region to region and estate to estate—and even within the collection of a single producer. Some wineries that made a stunning dry riesling or an excellent spätlese often had an entry-level wine or two that was, at most, sub-par.

Even among the wines harvested as late as November, it was not a year for noble, botrytized rieslings. Some estates made only dry wines and many made little or nothing beyond spätlese. Even when they did, the ausleses were often not better than the spätleses or, sometimes, even the kabinetts. As most Germans drink primarily dry wines today anyway, this was not a problem for the domestic market. The export markets, however, will certainly revel in the wide range of classical kabinetts made in 2008.

In a nutshell, 2008 was nonetheless a potentially great year for the patient producer who knew how to take advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the vintage. From the kabinetts on the Mosel to the Grosses Gewächs in the Pfalz, there were plenty of excellent wines, with kudos going to Molitor on the Mosel, Schäfer-Fröhlich on the Nahe, Leitz in the Rheingau, Keller in Rheinhessen and Bürklin-Wolf in the Pfalz for the most successful overall collections.

I should note that there are a number of other German wine-growing regions that I do not cover here—in most cases due to the fact that the wines are little seen in America—that nevertheless deserve brief mention, especially as distribution is beginning to change. The U.S. market may see more of them in the future. Baden, the region on the eastern banks of the Rhine across from Alsace, is a good example. With 40,000 acres of vineyards ranking it as 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 Hubert (Valckenberg International) and Salwey (Rudi Wiest) both make exceptional dry wines. In fact, Bernhard Huber made two of Germany’s best pinot noirs this year, with his 2007 Wildenstein (95) and Schlossberg (94) being my favorites. Salwey also makes excellent pinots, but it was a 2007 Eichberg (94) from his neighbor Gleichenstein that surprised me the most. The same estate also made a 2008 pinot gris from the Henkenberg (93) site that ranked among the ten best wines of its ilk in the vintage. Equally important was the renaissance of old estates like those of Dr. Heger and Bercher that make Baden an entity not to be overlooked.

In neighboring Württemberg, with its nearly 30,000 acres making it Germany’s fourth-largest growing area, the red wines have always merited the most attention. Gert Aldinger again made the region’s best lemberger, the same grape that the Austrians call blaufränkisch, with his 2007 Fellbacher Lämmler Grosses Gewächs (92). Rainer Schnaittmann (Rudi Wiest) took similar honors for pinot noir with his 2007 Simonroth “R” (91).

Although it is the large wineries in Würzburg that are the best-known estates from Franken in export markets, the leading producer there today is Paul Furst (Rudi Wiest) in Burgstadt, who this year shone both with his 2008 Pinot Blanc “R” (92) from the Centgrafenberg vineyard and his 2007 Pinot Noir Grosses Gewächs Hunsruck (93) from the same site. The other great estate in Franconia is that of Horst Sauer, who made the best silvaner (91) and riesling (91) there, both Grosses Gewächs from his Lump vineyard in Escherndorf. With only 15,000 acres of vineyard this region is small, but it’s still larger than the Nahe, Rheingau or Mittelrhein.

With only slightly more than 1,000 acres of vineyard area the Ahr is not only tiny but also one of Germany’s most northerly regions. Global warming has made producing pinot noir on the steep, south-facing schist slopes somewhat less of a climatic challenge 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. My two favorite pinots noirs from the Ahr this year, though, were the 2007 Ahrtaler Rosenthal Grosses Gewächs (93) from Jean Stodden and the 2007 Walporzheimer Gärkammer Grosses Gewächs from Adeneuer.

In fact, 36% of Germany’s over 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%, and most of that crop was 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.

Germany's "grand crus." Just how dry a riesling should be is a matter of contentious debate. Many writers in America believe that wines with 20 to 30 grams of residual sugar are not only more than dry enough, but also better reflect Germany’s winemaking tradition. This might be true of spätlese; but at the cutting edge of dry riesling, with less than 9 grams of residual sugar, stand the German grand crus: Grosses Gewächs. These are the wines that make headlines in Germany and the wines that most consumers drink when they go to the finest restaurants in the country.

The same system applies not only for riesling, but for pinot gris, pinot blanc, silvaner and pinot noir as well. As the Grosses Gewächs are certainly Germany’s best dry wines, and dry or off-dry styles now account for about three-quarters of domestic consumption, American consumers should at least give them a try.

German wine exports to the U.S. Although German exports to America had risen dramatically over a number of years, the economic crisis and weak U.S. dollar have put brakes on that development. The American market is now apparently adrift in pessimism. It entered 2009 overstocked with unsold wines and is still working to deplete them. This is why the segment below $20 or at most $30 is still relatively healthy: those wines are consumed, not purchased to lay down.

While Rudi Wiest, one of the foremost importers of German wines in America, expects his 2009 sales to be about what they were last year, the weakness of the dollar is a cause of major concern for the industry as a whole. The big question many have, is what it will take to drive a German renaissance. Riesling certainly has its place, but Terry Theise notes that “although riesling's reputation is better than it was, it’s still a variety more talked about than purchased. I’d describe it as a solid niche market.” “Overcoming the misconceptions about riesling is challenging,” adds Sabrina Bochen of Truly Fine Wine in San Diego, “and it will take the support of the larger industry to break down these stereotypes.”

Although I’ve been impressed by the increasing 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. Terry Theise, who beyond the Mosel now offers twice as many dry rieslings as he did only two years ago, concedes that his “actual sales lag seriously behind the number of offerings, which makes me think people like the sound of their own voices praising dry German rieslings, but when it’s time to actually pony up, well, oops, they spent the budget on a Paraguayan Carignan that just got 93 points somewhere or other.”

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

[Editor’s note: Ascertaining which German wines will be available in the U.S. retail market before deciding which tasting notes to publish is a nearly impossible task. Many U.S. importers select different bottlings from their long-time client estates each year, and some have delayed purchases of 2008s. A number of German producers have lost their U.S. importers in the past year, and some of these are just now initiating relationships with new agents. Moreover, many estates in Germany work with local brokers and thus have only a vague idea of where their wines will eventually end up in the U.S. market. Thus I asked Joel Payne to limit his tasting notes to wines that are now available in the U.S. market, or are likely to be in the coming months, as well as to a selection of other excellent, representative wines from the estates he has profiled in detail. Many of the wines that are technically in the U.S. market are available only in microscopic quantities and will require a special search. Payne has also listed other wines he tasted from each producer, in order to give readers the benefit of his quality assessments. Thus under the rubric of “also recommended,” you will find ratings on many additional wines, most of them unavailable in the U.S. but some of them numbering among the producer’s best.—ST]

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.