Terry has returned from Germany after tasting at over 30 estates from the Mosel to the Pfalz and his latest vintage report is in!
I have a bad habit of burying the lead. This time I won’t. Nearly every vintage, even good, excellent or great ones, has a shadow side that expresses as a common flaw. It completes the sentence, “When XXXX doesn’t work it is usually because of…” 2016 does not appear to have a dark side. At least where I tasted, it is almost never not delicious, almost never ungainly, unbalanced or unappealing. I can hardly remember a more adorable vintage.
I don’t know where I’d place it on some grid of profundity or Solemn Importance. Neither do I care. I was too blasted by repeated inputs of joy, sheer joy, grinning, giddy, animal joy. But, not merely animal. Because this vintage can address the most humane, civilized, decent and grateful parts of us. It never clamors or fusses for our attention. It never preens or puts on some gaudy show. It doesn’t get its freak on because it doesn’t seem to have a freak at all. It is, instead, calmly and serenely delicious. Actually, fucking delicious.
It is a medium-weight vintage and its weight is elegantly and gracefully dispersed.
It is graceful overall, and also lithe, limber and lissome. It is strong when it needs to be, but it measures its strength judiciously and with restraint.
It shows every aspect of superb German Riesling, but doesn’t emphasize any at the expense of the others. It is neither a fruit driven nor floral driven nor mineral driven nor acid driven vintage – it is all of these. Whatever you like about these wines, you’ll find it in plenitude. Except, perhaps, for brash acidity. If you really are someone who craves a yelping brusque acid profile, you might find 2016 too demure.
But I don’t. I find it nearly perfect, with gazelle grace but with the gazelle’s sinewy energy when it wishes to leap and run.
If there is a “flaw” (which there isn’t) it is one of homogeneity, in which everyone’s wines are good in the same way. The same fine way, mind you, but if you like quirks and angles and clunky elements you might find 2016 too “correct.”
But I don’t. I find it wonderful. Ordinary growers made nice wine, good growers made excellent wine, outstanding growers made wonderful wine, and great growers made stellar wine, and none of them sacrificed anything that made their wines unique. The wines are beautiful in their own various ways, but they are almost always beautiful.
The vintage is good-natured and generous in the Pfalz and Rheinhessen, and it appears to be really vigorous and expressive in the Rheingau. The Nahe is both serene and piquant; the region shows its best. It was only in the Mosel and Saar (I don’t taste in the Ruwer these days, alas) where there was light-and-shade. This wasn’t so much because growers misfired, but rather because the omnipresent silkiness of the vintage worked against a grower whose wines are meant to be crunchy. The consolation prize is that growers whose wines were over-acidic in 2015 were just fantastically balanced in 2016.
You need to cherish qualities of serenity, moderation and grace to appreciate this vintage. In its gentle luminosity it shows everything we look for – it’s fervently mineral, markedly salty, replete with fruits and flowers and herbs, and shows a clear and visible intricacy. A taster who’d find it too “smooth” is probably a taster whose sensibilities have been coarsened by wines they feel are “quirky” but which are really imbalanced.
Growers demurred when asked which previous vintage might be comparable to 2016. (Growers dislike that question on principle.) But hell, I’ll take a whack at it. In some ways the minerality and saltiness of ’16 reminded me of the young 2003s, though with less body and greater acidity. Certain aspects of ‘16s florals and fruits reminded me of 2002, though with far less botrytis and with less pointed acids. I thought at times of 2011, or of what ’11 may have been with ten degrees less Oechsle. 2016 in general isn’t a strikingly ripe vintage, and there is very little botrytis anywhere. I wondered, tasting wine after graceful wine, whether anyone needs a Spätlese with over 100º Oechsle or a Trocken wine with more than 13% alcohol. The vintage is almost always bacterially stable (with often extremely low pH – 2.85 was by no means a rarity) and in the few cases where pH was high, growers gently acidified their musts to lower it, using a technique they’d found useful with the 2003s. (They use tartaric acid, which binds to potassium and falls out of the wine as tartrates, leaving no extra acidity but protecting the wine from spoilage. This is bad news to anyone who enjoys spoiled flavors, but I don’t understand people like that.)
You’ll hear that ’16 is a “Kabinett vintage” but I’d rather say it’s a proper Spätlese vintage, i.e. Spätlesen with normal ripeness for that echelon.
If I have any hesitancy about 2016 it’s to wonder whether the explicit mineral and saltiness I taste now will survive bottling and the first years in-bottle. I rather think it won’t, but I’m not sure that would be tragic. My instincts tell me that ’16 will develop in a waxy-flowery direction, but instincts like these are things you sniff in the air. Seekers of wine-GPS devices that will plot a developmental route (that will get you to Grandma’s) are gonna be frustrated with wine, cuz it ain’t be possible on this earth. Meanwhile, that’s my instinct and I could be wrong, and I kind of hope I’m wrong because it’s more interesting that way.
It was difficult in the vineyards. Early on there was frost, and then a protracted period of too much rain (giving rise to infestations of both downy and powdery mildew), and then, bizarrely, a long stretch in late-Summer early Fall with no rain at all, and by the end of the season there were even reports of drought. But most growers reported timely rains near harvest, and everyone said it was a relaxed time gathering, which helped make up for the frenzy of the rainy period. Crop size is good, which surprised some growers. I heard reports of large numbers of bunches but with small berries, which gave markedly aromatic musts (and wines), and after the early-season frosts and rains, growers didn’t green-harvest as aggressively as usual. We have wine.
HIGHLIGHTS AND SUPERLATIVES
It’s the same old problem: what to do with the greatest-of-the-great who would dominate here? Do I retire their numbers, so to speak, or do I leave them in and let them dominate? This year I think I’ll try to split the difference. Alert readers will also notice I’m speaking in the plural here, and yes, there is now a second estate who has reached the status of dangerously outstanding, and that estate is of course Selbach-Oster. No sane person can plausibly challenge the sheer magnificence of what Johannes is doing here, and 2016 takes its place in a chain of superlative vintages stretching back to 2005 (and further), and encompassing 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012 (especially), 2015 and now this resplendent new crop.
THE WINERY OF THE VINTAGE IS:
[It would be a steel-cage match between Dönnhoff and Selbach were they included, but as they “officially” are not, then]…
Von Winning, who themselves are becoming candidates for number-retiring, but to whom worshipful credit must be given for an incomprehensibly superb and steady group of Rieslings.
OTHER MARKED SUCCESSES:
(Regardless of whether the wines are plentiful or scarce, based on sheer quality alone…)
Eugen Müller (best-ever vintage for this fine, honest grower)
Goldatzel (which had me struggling to find any wines to omit)
Merkelbach (their finest vintage that wasn’t in some way extraordinary, as in 2010 and 2015, but which is simply and purely classic)
Loewen (nothing to do but shake your head dazed and grateful)
Schaefer (for me, a considerable improvement even over 2015)
Müller-Catoir (wizard-juice here!)
VINTAGES FAR ABOVE THE RECENT STANDARD:
(That is, most improved performances and/or those that offered the most pleasant shock and surprise)
Meßmer (In many ways the exact vintage Gregor Meßmer was born to make)
Meulenhof (the first proper vintage here since 2009, and a superb and reassuring collection)
A FINAL CONSIDERATION:
No one had an ordinary vintage, and it seems unfair to exclude, for example, Diel or Künstler (among others) from being highlighted merely because they were predictably excellent.
THE WINE OF THE VINTAGE:
Loewen – 1896 Riesling Feinherb.
(This pains me no end, because there’s hardly a drop of it, so I apologize in advance to you. But really, credit must be given to an astonishing and profound masterpiece.)
THE RIESLING WINE(S) OF THE VINTAGE INCLUDING SELBACH & DOENNHOFF:
[Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese]
Merkelbach Uerziger Wüzgarten Spätlese Urglück
Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Spätlese #5
[Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlese 1-star]
THE GREATEST NON-RIESLING WINE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
Müller-Catoir Gimmeldinger Schlössel Rieslaner Spätlese
THE GREATEST TROCKEN WINES (AN EVER-LARGER GROUP)
Müller-Catoir both the village (Haardt) and vineyard (Mandelring) Scheurebe are high-water marks for this kinkiest of varieties)
Von Winning Riesling Pechstein GG, for reasons already adumbrated.
Diel Riesling Schlossberg “Erstes Gewächs” which is a ludicrously delicious and fascinating wine below the lofty heights of “GG.”
Goldatzel Riesling “Bestes Fass” (best cask) Goldatzel Spätlese Trocken
Künstler Riesling Hölle Kabinett Trocken
THE GREATEST FEINHERB WINES:
THE VERY GREATEST VALUES (ESTATE RIESLINGS, KABINETTS, etc):
Künstler estate Riesling Trocken, which punches above its weight and also your weight plus my weight; the wine is ridiculous.
Vols Wiltinger Kupp Riesling Kabinett
[Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, which was also WINE OF THE VINTAGE material.]
EISWEIN, ALL OF IT ASTONISHING:
Three from Hexamer and one from Selbach are as good as they get.
A GLANCE BACK AT 2015
A very famous grower asked me, over dinner, near the end, when all of us were loose and unguarded, what I “really” thought of 2015. I replied that I liked the vintage for its virtues but was alert to its flaws. You have to appreciate such lusty hale fruit, such forthright flavor, such easy companionability and such visible tangible characters. The dry and almost-dry wines were very good (except for a few where ripeness got away from them; these were ungainly and crude) and many of the “sweet” wines were fine in their extroverted way.
My interlocutor knew me well, though, and knew there was a “but” hovering in the vicinity. “And?” he asked. Well, I replied, there are a lot of sweet wines with too much acidity. Including, I added, yours. At this point he rose from his seat and stretched out his hand in a high-five gesture, saying “Yes, exactly! And you’re the first person to say so.”
I went back to my notes to see if I’d been seduced by all the ingratiating charms of the ‘15s – but as it happens, I wasn’t. It was clear at the time which wines were balanced and which weren’t, and I suggested the vintage should be drunk young, before those pronounced acids decoupled from fruit, forming a crevasse whose sides, I feared, would never join.
So, I really do like the good ‘15s, and there are plenty of them, and if you’re a taster/drinker who relishes a jabbing acid attack then you’ll lick your lips over the exact wines I furrow my brow about. As a young wine lover I relished high acidity – I don’t really know why – but over time I grew suspicious of any single component that shrieked out from the whole. Hans Selbach (Johannes’ father and a wise man of wine) said “It’s better if the whole chorus sings than if one voice screams,” and it is that exactly.
It’s not too great a digression to observe that no single flavor element matters at all unless we notice it missing, or unless it is annoyingly blatant. Nor is this small-t truth obviated by our many different palates. It’s self-evident that we differ in our sensitivities; some tasters do not perceive pyrazine, others don’t pick up the ingredient that confers the black-pepper aroma in many Rhône Syrahs. But every single taster has a sense of proper balance, among the parameters of her subjectivity; she doesn’t need to have mine and I can do without hers, but we both know when a wine feels complete and synergistic, and we both know when it doesn’t.
Who is imparting this to young wine drinkers? Is anyone? From what I observe, too many of them are seduced by some individual quirk that impresses them as novel or “interesting” and no one’s told them that’s all very well, but it isn’t enough. I count the minutes until they outgrow this callow attitude, and take a wiser view of quality. What makes a wine interesting, ultimately and fundamentally, is that it’s distinctive but not merely weird, and that it’s delicious. And so, returning to 2015, I admire and enjoy its many delicious and interesting wines, and take a gimlet-eyed view of most of the bad-boys.