Terry Theise Squawk Box: The 2014 Vintage in Germany

Two quotes are apropos.

Some years ago Helmut Dönnhoff issued this little bon mot, which struck me as among the truest things I’ve heard said about wine. “If God were truly just, vintners could make each vintage twice.”

And a few years later, Michi Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg said, (paraphrasing) “I’m less interested in good or great vintages because everyone makes good wine. It’s in the difficult years that you really see who the good ones are.”

2014 is the sibling of 2013, and this is very odd, because consecutive vintages seldom resemble each other as these two do. They aren’t twins, and they differ in significant ways, but they’re sibs. 2014 had an earlier vegetation cycle, blessedly, because after a warm dry start the high summer was cool and damp. 2013 was a late cycle all around, and its struggle was to ripen Rieslings enough to gather before a rampant invasion of botrytis set upon not-yet-ripe berries.

Before moving ahead, it’s important to recognize a demarcation in both vintages between the Mosel (and Saar/Ruwer) and the rest of Rheinland-Pfalz and Hessen. In both years it was the Mosel which faced the steepest challenges and highest headwinds, and for much the same reasons – massive botrytis invasion onto fruit not quite ready to pick, courtesy of a mild and muggy September and early October. Other regions fared better in both vintages.

The best producers learned the lessons of 2013 and saw a chance they almost never receive, to essentially “re-make” a vintage using what they’d learned. 2014 was also kindest to growers with both know-how and technology, especially in the form of cooling capacity. Otherwise many of the grapes were warm when they reached the press house, and there were tales of fermentations beginning uncontrollably at too-high temperatures and before the musts could be cleaned. And musts had to be cleaned in 2014.

In general outside of the Mosel you could pick ripe (or ripe enough) fruit either before botrytis arrived or while it could still be sorted away. I tasted FEW IF ANY wines showing negative (or any) botrytis from any producer in the Pfalz, Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen or Mittelrhein. Certainly they all wish their yields were higher. A few of them would have liked another 5-10º Oechsle, but most of them were something between content and happily surprised by the quality of the crop and the resulting wines.

Indeed Martin Franzen at Müller-Catoir said as early as January, “The ‘14s are certainly better than ‘13s; the only question is whether it’s by a little or by a lot.”

But enough of my burying the lead! How are the wines?

Leaving aside the occasional failures and duds (which I’ll identify so you won’t have to guess or parse my meanings), the many good and fine wines of 2014 fit neatly into a sleeve along with years like 2008, 2004 and for us geezers with long memories, 1995. Indeed it’s the last of these vintages the ‘14s most resemble, in their marked acids and crunchy dense textures, but I think ’14 is actually better than the (very good) ‘95s because the growers know more now than they did then.

2014 is not driven by yellow fruits, as was the case in years like ’12, ’11, ’09, even ’07. It is less obviously ripe. There are even Kabinetts below 80º Oechsle – something we thought we’d never see again. It falls into the “green” vein of flavors; this is both metaphorical and actual. Verbena, wintergreen, aloe vera, balsam, Japanese green teas, tarragon, all dem green boys. 2014 also has a kind of silver cast, as (in my lysergic reckoning) anise hyssop, fennel, chervil, and a strong, definite, absolutely not imagistic or metaphorical taste of totally crushed and pulverized rocks. Think of scree, gravel, rock-dust, and think of a wine with so much of all this that you chew it as much as drink it.

For the ‘14s are markedly dense, tactile, chewy beasts. You may be thinking extracts must have been high, and yes they were, but this had (at times) more to do with botrytis than with anything else, though even clean wines tasted like some kind of demi-glace of stones and minerals. 2014 is also an acid-driven vintage, yet with very few exceptions the acid doesn’t show its usual sense of sharpness. It’s just present, definitely but also discreetly. I tasted few if any wines thinking “Ouch, too much acidity,” and I’m sure it’s the super-high extracts that buffered it. (That, and the growers’ increasing tolerance for judicious deacidification, which no one wants to do but which rescues some wines from being undrinkable.) I love acidity as much as the next guy, and I have the teeth and gums to prove it, but you know what? If acidity is blatant then there’s simply too much of it. This is true of any single isolated component of flavor; they ought to sing together instead of any one of them screaming.

But 2014 does show two of acid’s fellow-travelers; it is amazingly salty, and in its lesser moments it is prone to sourness. (This affected many of the dry wines.) But aren’t “acid” and “sour” the same thing? I think they aren’t. Acid is a felt sense and sourness is a thing you taste. People smarter than I – a distressingly copious group – will know the ingredients responsible for sour flavors, and I suspect they go hand in hand with those giving saltiness, but whatever they are 2014 has a bunch of them. And a number of wines showed overt tannin, which was part of an agreeable chewiness in the best wines but which could be gnarly and crude in ordinary wines.  The best situation for a grower was to not need to whole-cluster press in order to mitigate or avoid botrytis, because acids were high and that method preserves them. But that in turn means you’ll have to manage some skin tannin, and don’t be shocked if the occasional 2014 is a wee bit puckery.

The best wines of 2014 are shimmering chewy beauties, offering as much neon brilliance and phosphorescence as Riesling ever can, together with such density of texture you wouldn’t mind a knife to cut through it, and together with impressive if not amazing complexity of herbal and stony nuance. If your tastes run to big fruit, lots of flowers, or any sort of hedonism, this isn’t the vintage for you. This is the vintage where you’ll finally learn what the “H” stands for in Jesus H. Christ, because that’s what you’ll be saying over and over again.

Any vintage is three things. One is the nature and size of the community of top wines. How plentiful are they? How far do they stand out from the general quality? Do they express the best aspects of the vintage, or do they depart from it? The second thing is the nature and size of the community of failed wines. And finally it is the nature of the great normal current of good but unexceptional wines. So you got your duds, your good stuff and your masterpieces, and you wash them in the same sink and see what color the water – the vintage – is.

In that matrix, I’m sure that 2014 is better than ’13 was. The average wines are better, the top wines are usually better. But the worst wines are even worse. Luckily these are isolated and easy to recognize and screen out.

The top ‘14s are almost never glamor-puss wines. There was almost no Auslese. The year’s best wines are the best German Rieslings period: great Spätleses. Many growers apologized to me for having no Auslese, but I was delighted and told them so. Not that I don’t like Auslese; I ain’t stoopid. It’s just that I can more frequently use Spätlese, and that it seems to be the pinnacle of unexceptional quality. Auslese is the icing but Spätlese is the cake.

Again, there are few headlines about this region or that. The Rheingau seemed especially good – at least from my two stellar guys – but elsewhere it was a smooth cruise except for the Mosel – and yet the wines that impressed me most were often Mosel wines, from growers who brilliantly beat the odds and turned the vintage on its head.

 

Highlights and Superlatives

I need to ask Cornelius Dönnhoff if he minds my having “retired his number,” because I think it’s a given that he’ll have made the most profoundly beautiful wines in any vintage, but maybe he’d like an actual kudo once in a while. In any case, can you and I agree that his estate would basically constitute hors classe?

 

THE WINERY OF THE VINTAGE IS:

Oh, wonderfully, SELBACH-OSTER, for having risen to every challenge and soared above what was a good, honorable group of wines in 2013. As always at Selbach it is not only the strength of individual wines but the strength across the range, and the way the wines accumulate into something of meaning, power and dignity and beauty. Not only are the wines themselves moving and stirring, but Johannes Selbach’s skill, perspective and intelligence are almost viscerally tactile. And bless him, he knows it. “Do you know how superb these are” I asked him more than once. “Yup, I do,” he replied, without a hint of strut or smugness, because after ’13 he knew what to do, and just did it. There have been many stellar Selbach vintages of late; 2005, 2007 and 2012 spring to mind. But those were relatively easy years in which to make great wines. 2014 is most decidedly not! And so the achievement is even greater, and I am very moved to have the privilege to show these lovely, lovely wines to you.

 

OTHER MARKED SUCCESSES:

(In the order in which I tasted them)…Spreitzer was polished to a brilliant gleam across the whole range, and it’s that consistency rather than the presence of any single supernal wine that impressed me most. Kruger-Rumpf continued their upward trajectory, especially among the wines-with-sweetness, and among those especially the Scheurebe.  Künstler showed a splendid group of wines spanning ’14 and ’13; these wines have the fit-and-finish of a beautifully engineered vehicle yet they are anything but cold. He only makes it look easy….

Minges was another estate with superb consistency over the whole range. Müller-Catoir was steadily, almost serenely fine, and reached a new level with their GG. Von Winning’s wines were curiously less evolved than usual – I was there two weeks before my normal rendezvous – but they showed me the very best wine I tasted outside of Selbach or Dönnhoff, and another performance of sustained excellence. Finally I have to recognize the really stunning vintage had by Vols, and again, while there’s no single great wine, there is an entire series of good, perfect, can’t-imagine-more-archetypal Saar Rieslings.

 

THE WINE OF THE VINTAGE IS:

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 1-star, which will stand proudly among all the many great wines Johannes has made, and which is brilliant in a classically Selbach way, not a fruit-bomb, not markedly sweet, just depth upon depth upon depth, as though to penetrate to the very core of honesty.

 

THE WINE OF THE ENTIRE OFFERING IS:

I never thought these words would come onto the page, but friend, I can’t resist, because Von Winning’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc “1” is a masterpiece, both profoundly complex and insanely lovely and even with its endless unfolding depth all you want to do is suck it the hell down. I can’t wait to stage a tasting where y’all bring what you feel are the world’s best SBs and we’ll line ‘em up and watch this critter just shine and shine.

 

RUNNERS UP INCLUDE:

Strub’s Niersteiner Hipping Spätlese “Flächenhahl” which is the best wine they’ve made for a good long while.

Kruger-Rumpf’s Münsterer Dautenpflänzer Riesling Spätlese

Künstler Domdechaney Riesling Trocken

Diel Dorsheimer Pittermännchen Riesling Spätlese

Müller-Catoir Breumel in den Mauern “GG”

Von Winning Grainhübel “GG”

Adam In der Sängerei Riesling Feinherb

Loewen Leiwener Laurentiuslay Riesling Spätlese

 

A NOD TO TWO GREAT RIESLANERS:

Meßmer and Müller-Catoir each made extraordinary Auslese from this most rare and precious grape.

 

THE KABINETTS OF THE VINTAGE ARE:

Jakob Schneider in LITERS!

Selbach-Oster Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett

 

THE GREATEST DRY WINES ARE:
(previously cited wines are in brackets)

Geil Riesling Rosengarten “GG” (a new high-water mark for this producer)

Künstler Domdechaney Riesling Trocken

Müller-Catoir Breumel in den Mauern Riesling GG

Von Winning Pechstein Riesling GG (though one could also cite Kieselberg, Langenmorgen and Kirchenstück among the very top dry Rieslings)

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Trocken

 

THE GREATEST INEXPENSIVE DRY WINES ARE:

Künstler estate Riesling Trocken

Minges Scheurebe Trocken

 

THE GREATEST VERSATILE DRY-ENOUGH WINES ARE:

Geil Bechtheimer Riesling Feinherb

Weingart Bopparder Hamm Engelstein Riesling Kabinett Feinherb

Spreitzer Engelmannsberg Riesling Feinherb

Schneider Niederhäuser Kertz Riesling Feinherb

Diel Riesling Feinherb (custom-made for us, and just outstanding!)

Minges Scheurebe Feinherb

Müller-Catoir estate Riesling Feinherb

Vols  “United Slates” Riesling

Adam Im Pfarrgarten Feinherb

-And the utter best in this category, a masterpiece in any vintage, is the simply great Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Uralte Reben.

 

THE ABSOLUTE TOP VALUE:

Von Winning “Winnings,” a new wine being made for us under the guidance of the greatest living cellarmaster in Germany, Hans-Günter Schwarz, a wine jammed with charm and character and costing next to nothing!