The 2018 Vintage
The “story” of this vintage is so singular that its telling might well supersede detailing how the wines taste. I don’t want to bury the lead, so I’ll start with taste and type, and the story will follow.
2018 is a homogenous vintage with a very high general level, below which it seldom falls (at least in this portfolio) and above which it only occasionally rises. It is, usually, a flowery and lyric vintage, neither muscular nor “powerful.” It leads with blossom. It is perhaps 80% delicious and 20% fascinating. It isn’t demanding. The wines are not inscrutable, they are forthcoming and attractive in fresh and vital ways. They feel unclouded, serene; it was consistently joyful to drink them.
Come behind the curtain for a minute. I worry I’m damning with faint praise. Am I? After all, my job is to attract you to the vintage, to the idea of the vintage. But my deeper job is not to bloviate or hype, by which I try to guard my cred. Every vintage cannot possibly be magnificent. 2018 is delicious in its melodic fetching way. Embedded within it are several wines of surpassing beauty and brilliance. For some growers, it’s their best vintage of the last 7 or 8 years. By its very nature it is undemanding, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial or mundane. Rather, it can show us how to cherish those virtues by which we are simply yet richly delighted. I’m willing to predict you’ll come away from our vintage-presentations thinking “Man that is one tasty vintage, and everything was good…” It may not shatter you with sub-atomic spasms of bliss, but if we find a vintage that does, I need you to trust me and you won’t if I cry wolf all the time.
2018’s wines resulted from unprecedented growing conditions, a very long and dry summer veering from warm to hot but without the violent spikes of heat we’ve seen in other hot years. Drought vintages, as you know, favor old vines (and their deeper root systems), water-retaining soils, and local microclimate factors. At times the differences between two neighboring villages depended on who got the thunderstorm and who didn’t. But everyone reported the cleanest fruit they had ever seen. “We had to look everywhere to find even a little botrytis,” they often said. Grower after grower showed us photos of picture-book grapes, perfectly ripe and completely unblemished.
Considering the dry season, the crop size was larger than average. Acids sometimes needed to be boosted – one guy told me “Everyone acidified but not everyone will admit it” – and I learned how to phrase the question so as not to make a grower feel defensive. Nor do I object to augmenting acid, because when my “principles” collide with their survival, they win. I do think that if one is acidifying, the best time to do it is before fermentation by adding tartaric acid. Just a theory, mind you, but it seems less manipulative than to layer acidity atop a fermented wine, with which it almost never combines or pools. Pre-fermentation tartaric acid will fall out of the wine as tartrate crystals, so that total acidity isn’t enhanced but pH is reduced to healthier levels.
And yet many growers said they were struck by how low and stable their pHs were, and there are many wines where low pH is a kind of stand-in for analytically “moderate” acidity. If you are a drinker who relishes prominent acidity in Riesling, 2018 may disappoint you. To which I can only say, have you tasted a 2003 lately? The good ones are nothing short of magnificent, from another low-acid vintage some people supposed would not age.
A common thread of 2018 is one of growers feeling they had to use skin-contact (and the phenols it imparts) to provide “structure” usually provided by acidity as such. When it was done well it was harmless, it worked; it may not have had the desired effect, but it gave a nice little note of dust and scree to a finish that could have been too “smooth.” When it didn’t work – and one needed to be really careful with this – it imparted either a coarse tannic texture at the end, or even worse, a bitter/sour finish that was most often tertiary, so that you had to wait 20-30 seconds after tasting to see if you’d be ambushed by sourness. You couldn’t taste too fast.
I’ve noticed that a young vintage with a lot of that rock-dusty texture will often shed that texture after bottling, or in the bottle. I have to report what I tasted when I tasted, but it won’t surprise me to see that element fade over time.
Everyone talked about “structure” but people meant different things by it. I myself feel that all wines have “structure;” the question is how they are structured. There are vertical wines and horizontal wines, spherical wines and square wines, loose-limbed wines and stand-at-attention wines, sinewy wines and muscular wines, straight-lined wines and curvaceous wines. And there are even symmetrical wines and asymmetrical wines, both “structured,” but differently so. So in effect, you can’t avoid having structure in your wines. What growers seemed to mean when they said they did this-or-that to aid their wines’ structures is, they wanted something to fill in for the role usually played by acidity. Usually that meant phenols, which often worked but sometimes didn’t. Consider what this says about them, and how they view their wines. They want a tangible skeletal shape to the wines, they want visible outlines and contours, they want a discernible progression of flavor; they don’t want fluidity, they prefer solidity. At times when we were tasting – and I was having a ton of fun with these lovely floral beauties – I sensed a grower who wasn’t quite sure what to make of the wines. They’d had an easy clement harvest, they had plenty of wine, the wine turned out to be more than “pretty” but it wasn’t behaving according to type. Which was fine by me! Indeed, playing the game of comparing the new vintage with previous ones was quickly seen as useless, because there is literally no precedent for 2018, and I’m not sure it resembles any vintage I can recall. At one address I said, somewhat incoherently, that 2018 reminded me of a liaison between 1997 and 2011, which the grower was kind enough to say was “fascinating.”
There are few regional distinctions except perhaps for a macro-distinction between the Mosel and other regions. Mosels (and Saars) tasted different, more (if you will) classical and certainly less unusual.
The dearth of botrytis meant there were either few-to-no dessert wines, or else there were a bunch of them, where rain fell helpfully. So if you only went to Hexamer and Selbach you’d suppose the whole vintage was replete with multitudes of mega-sweets (Selbach has so many TBAs that Johannes put one in barrique, just, you know, for shits and giggles), but elsewhere there’d be none.
You might also surmise the low-acid vintage would suit the Trocken wines, and mostly you’d be right. I find I have to think about it; I don’t see Trocken Rieslings as a sub-species any more. They’re just a part of the picture, one of the chords in the progression. They were indeed good, but were they markedly good? Because of the vintage? I can’t say.
It would stand to reason that a large crop in dry conditions would have lower than normal dry extracts, and while this was sometimes true it wasn’t predestined. Dartings had higher extracts than they normally have. Elsewhere extracts were unremarkable.
The vintage seems to favor growers who already make lyrical and finely-textured wines, for whom it aligned to their strengths. Künstler, Schaefer, Hexamer, Christoffel, were markedly successful. Growers making more muscular, rugged wines were sometimes bemused, often more than I was – I like those swaying, rippling Rieslings. Everything doesn’t have to kick ass all the time.
Finally, 2018 is what used to quaintly be called a “restaurant vintage,” by which I suppose they meant a vintage that gave expressive, candid and tasty wines that didn’t need to be “explained” and would assert their charms in a noisy distracting environment. If that’s what was meant, then yup, 2018 is just exactly that.
HIGHLIGHTS AND SUPERLATIVES
These will be fiendishly difficult in such a homogenously lovely vintage. And remember, I ask you to presume that Selbach-Oster and Dönnhoff are invariably superlative, so I will try to find a way to give them their richly earned status while also hailing the many other talents in play.)
THE WINERY OF THE VINTAGE IS (OR ARE):
WILLI SCHAEFER gets the nod, has to get it, because not since 2011 have I seen a vintage more aligned with Schaefer’s deepest most fundamental strengths than 2018 is here. It’s a serene, fruit-forward vintage with a succession of beauties that finally stills you and leaves you silently grateful.
THE WINERY I MOST EXPECT TO HAVE BEEN WRONG ABOUT IS:
Carl Loewen, and only because the dry wines were in a tantrum of unreadiness, from which I expect them to have emerged by June, when I’ll taste them again.
OTHER MARKED SUCCESSES:
(That is, either noteworthy by dint of sheer quality or by dint of improvement over their norm. I’ll put those wines in italics.)
Goldatzel, as is just about inevitable now.
Weingart, Florian’s best vintage since 2011.
Meulenhof, a steadily excellent collection showing this (now) underrated grower at his best.
AND WHAT OF VON WINNING?
It is hard to “rank” the estate vis-à-vis the others only because we don’t offer the top wines – the splendid series of GGs – until next year. Tasting those wines in embryonic form suggests emerging masterpieces in Grainhübel, Langenmorgen, and Kirchenstück. By any sensible reckoning Von Winning belongs in the very highest echelon of this (or any) portfolio.
THE WINE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
The candidates are: Künstler Kirchenstück Riesling Trocken 1er Lage – Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett – Diel Burg Layer Schlossberg Riesling Trocken – Loewen Riesling “1896” – Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 1-star – and finally Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese #5.
The award goes to……(drum-roll)…..Dönnhoff, whose “little” Kabinett from the Leistenberg shows every conceivable virtue of great German Riesling in a form thought to be a little appetizer to lead into the more “serious” range of Spätlesen. But believe me, nothing is more serious than the tiny diamond of greatness that is this prismatic and rapturous Kabinett.
THE GREATEST NON-RIESLINGS:
MINGES for no fewer than three wines, the Scheurebe Feinherb, the Rieslaner Spätlese, and finally the Gewürztraminer Spätlese “Rosenduft.”
MULLER-CATOIR for one great wine and one true masterpiece. The Haardt Scheurebe Trocken is wonderful, but the Rieslaner Auslese from the Haardter Herzog is simply as great as wine can be. As. WINE! Can. Be.
VON WINNING, you will not be shocked to hear, for two among the Sauvignon Blancs, the 2018 “I” and the 2017 “500.”
WHICH REMINDS ME – THE 2017 SAUV. BLANC FROM VON WINNING – WHAT ABOUT OTHER VINTAGES? THE BEST AMONG THESE ARE:
BREUER 2017 Nonnenberg Riesling
DAUTEL 2017 Steingrüben Riesling GG
THE GREATEST FEINHERB WINES:
Hors Classe among these is MEßMER’S astonishing 2018 “Muschelkalk,” probably the best-ever vintage of this always-excellent wine.
SELBACH-OSTER and their always wonderful Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese Alte Reben, as well as their Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Ur-alte Reben Spätlese Feinherb – and finally KRUGER-RUMPF’S surpassingly lovely Münsterer Dautenpflänzer Langenberg Riesling Feinherb.
WE’RE AT THE POINT WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT PINOT NOIR!
(the best among the many we’re tasting and offering now include…)
BRAUNEWELL 2016 Spätburgunder Essenheim
DAUTEL 2016 Spätburgunder Schupen GG
ZIEREISEN 2016 Spätburgunder Rhini
THE GREATEST VALUES, AT ANY PRICE:
GEIL 2018 Riesling Geyersberg “GG”
STRUB 2018 Niersteiner Hipping Thal Riesling Spätlese
BRAUNEWELL 2018 Scheurebe Halbtrocken LITER
KUNSTLER 2018 Estate Riesling Trocken
DONNHOFF 2018 Riesling “Tonschiefer” Trocken
DARTING 2018 Pinot Blanc Kabinett Trocken
MEULENHOF 2018 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese
PEERING BACK AT 2017
There’s always a moment-of-clarity tasting the year-old vintage alongside the gooey new wines. Sometimes the newbie is flattering to the yearling – and other times not. 2017, for instance, was markedly kind to 2016 (which didn’t really need the help; I still adore ’16) whereas 2018 is decidedly unflattering to 2017. It makes sense; a sinuous waving flowery crop like ’18 would be likely to make the more rugged ‘17s feel brutish, just as ‘18’s squeaky-clean profile would exaggerate the botrytis of the ‘17s. Put another way, the colors worn by the ‘18s don’t look good on the ‘17s, and I grew aware I was looking at ’17 through a churlish lens. I do think 2017 is a vintage of a particular type, it has big feet and a unibrow, but it’s not as cloddish as ’18 makes it appear. Remember that if/when you taste the vintages side by side.