Terry’s Squawk Box: The 2013 Vintage in Germany

The good news is there are plenty of good wines, a decent number of outstanding wines and a small but significant number of superb wines. My job is to find them for you, and I did my job. But another part of my job is to build and maintain trust with you, and here I run afoul of a collateral worry; I can annoy my growers if I am too blunt when they have a dud year. So I am going to tell you as much of the truth as I think you need to hear and they can bear to hear. Of course part of my job is to sell wine, and that entails being able to spin and be relentlessly positive. A grower has every right to believe I’m working on his/her behalf. I have an equal right to suggest that I am most effective for them if my customers believe me. So, watch me pick my delicate way through the thickets.

When 2013 works it gives wines of great relief and contrast; these are vivid wines. They’re almost never creamy, but they are sometimes quite silky. They can seem deliciously savage at times, like a raspy-voiced singer; it isn’t a “pretty” voice but still you love it. 2013s are high in acidity and stunningly high in extract; this is tactile and discernible, not a metaphor. That said, bottling will often subdue this component, not insofar as it exists but insofar as it can be tasted. At that point extract behaves as a buffer to acidity (and to sweetness if it is there) and confers a richness to the mid-palate.  2013s are often high in botrytis, and the degree to which botrytis was managed is a leitmotif of the vintage.

As such ’13 invites comparison to two previous vintages, 2010 and 2000. But it is both less ripe and not as monstrously high in acidity as ’10 was. It has in common with ’10 its tendency to an almost monumental solidity along with always-prominent (and sometimes unbalanced) acids. Regarding 2000, nearly every grower told me the conditions in ’13 were less challenging, there was less overall mildew, plus they’d learned from the earlier vintage and were better prepared this time. All of this may very well be true. The best 2000s have aged surprisingly well, but that “best” is a slim tip of a large iceberg.

In crude meteorological terms, ’13 was marked by a late beginning and uneven flowering. It was the year “climate change deserted us” in Johannes Selbach’s words. The summer was uneven, with cool damp periods prevailing, interrupted by one or two heat-spikes, and by September the grapes were still underripe or barely ripe.

Then came an occluded front in early October On its south side the weather was sultry, on the north side merely damp, but it wasn’t what growers on either side needed.

In the Pfalz they reversed the old military expression “hurry-up-and-wait,” because having waited and waited, botrytis arrived rampantly and now they had to hurry up. A couple growers spoke of a 6-day picking, “harvest[ing] day and night and mostly by machine,” as one of them said. Grapes went from green on Tuesday to brown on Wednesday, in effect from under to overripe in the course of 36 hours.  And yet, two outstanding collections from PFALZ growers (Catoir and Von Winning) joined  excellent lineups from Eugen Müller and Theo Minges, and it began to seem that meticulous vineyard and canopy work, combined with ruthless sorting at harvest, could give truly exciting wines. All my Pfälzers were at least very good. The wines can be said to resemble 2011s, with a little less ripeness and a little more acidity.

Moving north and west, everything I saw in RHEINHESSEN was clean and quite-good to good. Maybe not wines of legend, but you and I will enjoy drinking them. The three RHEINGAU estates I visited all had very good vintages in the rather jittery ’13 manner; the wines are like a teenager jiggling his leg constantly, such is their nervous energy. You’d seldom call them sedate. But they can exhibit something of the poise of the classic, for all that.

The NAHE seems to have drawn the winning number in 2013; everyone made excellent wines and one estate made perhaps their best wines ever – Kruger-Rumpf. Here one didn’t taste a vintage in which “challenges were surmounted,” one didn’t say These are good for ‘13s – they were just kick-ass wines through and through, though of course they show the torn-silk textures and prominent acids of the vintage.

Similarly my lone MITTELRHEIN estate Florian Weingart had a fine vintage, and one of these days I’ll figure out how to get you to love these interesting and adorable wines as much as I do.

The MOSEL and SAAR are where things get….interesting. Upending the pattern of the past decade or so in which vintages tended to improve as one moved north/west, the Mosel in general got a little roughed up in 2013. But how will you take this? If you’re reading “He says not to buy Mosels” you’re reading it wrong. There’s loads of lovely wines. But where the vintage failed, it was most likely to fail here. Yet it fails in a curious way.

The basic harvesting choice appears to have been, either pick now and get clean grapes that aren’t ripe enough, or wait and get grapes with a lot of botrytis. Oddly enough, the wines that show a little botrytis are more likely to be awkward and unbalanced than those that show a lot of botrytis, which are at least balanced in their particular context. The Mosel also had the most fruit still hanging during a decent week of weather in the second half of October, and generalities are hard to defend. Indeed throughout this collection there are estates who made delicious squeaky-clean wines (Christoffel, von Othegraven, Vols) while others made wines that didn’t defy the vintage but took its virtues and expressed them (Selbach-Oster, Merkelbach, Schaefer, Loewen).

Yet it was a week in which ones poor teeth and gums were subject to a fusillade of astringency and acidity. A week to remember how to cull and triage remorselessly. Why am I telling you this? Must we discuss the wines that didn’t make the cut? Yes, I think we must, because they also define the parameters of the vintage. I think you should know there were times I asked myself  Why is he showing me this wine? But after a while the answers became evident.

The vintage is very small. Many growers made one-third of an average year. At best it was 40-50% below average, coming on the heels of the short crops of 2012 and 2010, and so every possible wine was on the table.

Nor am I by any means certain that I got the whole picture of these ‘13s. In 28 years of tasting young German wines I have never seen a more reticent backward vintage. I lost count of the number of times a freshly-poured wine was irksome, and then returning to the glass after five minutes (or more) the wine had changed, thrown off the yuckies and started showing fruit. Snap judgments will not do these wines any justice. Especially these wines, because they are obstreperous and gaudy and wont to trip over their own feet, and often it’s just these kinds of wines that gain grace and restraint through bottling. I’ll be deeply curious to taste them again.

Let’s talk about acidity, and let’s repeat something I said two years ago when I introduced the 2010s to you. There are two kinds of vintners in 2013; those who deacidified (henceforth “d-assed”) and are glad to admit it, and those who d-assed and won’t admit it. I’m not saying every grower d-assed every wine; I’m saying every grower d-assed some wines, and if he didn’t and you drink them, baby, do two things right now – find the Pepto-Bismol and call your dentist.

I just know that some competing importer, at some sad point, will try to score some macho cred by decrying “Theise’s zombie wines” and insisting that his growers were fearless in the face of caustically high acids. If he’s been told the truth – which I doubt – then he and his customers are welcome to those wines. They are for a certain extreme taste that relishes spiky wines and if your palate runs to S&M then by all means enjoy. My palate likes vigorous acidity but doesn’t appreciate being tasered by it.

And what are we talking about here? I’m not remotely arguing that a wine with 13% natural acidity should be strip-mined down to 8.0. I’ll show you dozens of wines with acids north of 10 which at least can be drunk without gastric pain, whereas the original 12-13 could have perforated an ulcer. Mega-musts, of course: If you have dessert-wine with 140º or more (Oechsle – see glossary) then you can easily manage acids around 13-16. But for ordinary table wines? Puh-leeze.

Now, how do you feel about botrytis? Many aficionados of German Riesling align with the conventional wisdom, “welcome in sweet wines but not in dry,” and yet in 2013 they sometimes had little choice. You could sort for hours but the thing was rampant in the vineyards and even scrupulously sorted grapes often carried an echo of botrytis. You can remove most of it by fining with carbon or charcoal, but this is an intervention most growers are wary of making. You can whole-cluster press, but can you afford to lose even more volume in an already tiny vintage?

Here 2013 offers some good news. Most of the botrytis was “good” botrytis, in contrast to 2000 when most of it was ordinary grunge and mildew. Good botrytis expresses as smokiness or malt. Sometimes it is inherently bitter, but this isn’t always objectionable. All of Merkelbach’s wines showed botrytis, yet it was encased in splendidly ripe fruit and truly epic extracts, and this is a regal vintage for them, standing easily alongside the monumental 2010s. There’s just too little of it.

ANOTHER LOOK AT 2012: In part because ’13 was so scant, and in part because the two adjacent vintages are so different, I scooped up all the remaining 2012 I could find. I am also closer to thinking ’12 is a near-great vintage which may yet become great in certain regions and certain estates. A year in-bottle has unfurled a lovely mélange of creamy texture with vivid mineral brightness, along with a maltiness that made me think of the truly great 2005. At its best, I think ’12 makes a case for being the best vintage since ’05 and so yes I was greedy and don’t feel a single bit of shame.  Plus, I suspect ’13 needs every bit of time we can give it, and ’12 is sure a tasty thing to drink while we’re waiting for ’13 to turn the treble down.

OTHER KINKY GRAPES: Muscat seemed to be good in ’13, and this surprised me. Usually the growers race to pick Riesling in a difficult harvest, letting Muscat and Scheurebe fend for themselves. But Muscat seemed to better resist botrytis, and gave some scintillating wines. Scheu was either somewhat mute or else it was in full hissing glory.

HIGHLIGHTS AND SUPERLATIVES:

(For any new readers, we have in effect retired Mr. Dönnhoff’s number, because otherwise he’d have all the best wines. Cornelius might well wish to see some actual kudos – not that he needs to be affirmed by the likes of me – but I hope he and you will appreciate that his hors classe estate occupies the highest of summits, and it would be boring to see his name infinitely repeated.)

THE WINERY OF THE VINTAGE IS:

I hate giving this to the same estate twice in a row, but truth is truth, and VON WINNING is showing that their glorious collection in 2012 was no fluke, but  instead the arrival at a lofty place they shall continue to set up house in. Believe me, I wondered. Because those astonishing ‘12s might have been lavished with pixie-dust from the weightless weight of the creamy vintage style. Would the ‘13s be arch and angular again? Not a bit of it. These guys are here to stay. It is conceivable that Von Winning ‘13s will be a little tiny bit less grand than their ‘12s, but it’s definite that their ‘13s are dramatically better than almost everything around them.

I spent a couple days of R&R in Burgundy, and I took a bottle of ’12 Pechstein GG as a gift to each grower I visited. “What is it like?” they asked. I looked for an easy shorthand way to say it.  Imagine François Raveneau made Riesling in the Pfalz instead of Chardonnay in Chablis: That’s what it’s like. Any doubt I ever harbored about the impact of Stefan Attmann’s somewhat atavistic style of “winemaking” is now quelled. These wines are miracles.

OTHER MARKED SUCCESSES:

It is a markedly fine vintage at Müller-Catoir, perhaps even better then ’12, hard as that is to believe.  I was also struck by the sure hand and steadily increasing polish at Kruger-Rumpf.  I’ve already told you about Merkelbach.  My personal darling Carl Loewen keeps having outstanding vintages.

There’s a paradox in which estates who always show an intelligent hand of craftsmanship can get overlooked, just because they did it yet again. We come to expect it of them, so when they keep performing it isn’t news. But attention must be paid to the passionate diligence of Selbach-Oster and Schlossgut Diel.

2013 was especially kind to a few estates who flourished by dint of its acid-structure. These include Eugen Müller, Theo Minges, Jakob Schneider (who’s on a steady upward climb in any case) and Reuscher-Haart.

THE WINE OF THE VINTAGE IS:

Von Othegraven Kanzem Altenberg Riesling Spätlese Alte Reben. This is just an improbable miracle from this vintage, and though it won’t “create sales” as much as a less expensive nominee would, an achievement such as this must be recognized.

THE WINE OF THE ENTIRE OFFERING IS:

A late-released (because long-fermented) 2012 Selbach-Oster Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese Feinherb, an utter Mosel masterpiece, showing a thrilling and soulful pathway to a new/old dialect of slate-grown Riesling that you simply shouldn’t miss.

RUNNERS UP INCLUDE:

Müller-Catoir Mandelgarten Riesling Spätlese

Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Dautenpflänzer Riesling Spätlese

Merkelbach Uerziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese #9

THE AUSLESE OF THE VINTAGE IS:

(bearing in mind I selected very few Auslesen this year) Müller-Catoir Herzog Rieslaner Auslese, along with Selbach-Oster Schmitt, two utterly different wines, neither of them at all “dessert” like, each powerfully savory, each a thrall of masterly beauty.

THE KABINETTS OF THE VINTAGE ARE:

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett

Schlossgut Diel Dorsheimer Goldloch Riesling Kabinett

 THE BIGGEST SURPRISES OF THE VINTAGE ARE:

Schneider Norheimer Dellchen Riesling Trocken, (a markedly expressive wine from this normally opaque terroir, I can barely recall a superior young Dellchen. Dönnhoff’s was also unusually expressive at this early stage.)

Von Winning Sauvignon Blanc, because pyrene-averse little me was quite overcome by how good this was!

THE GREATEST DRY WINES ARE:

The entire Von Winning collection of GGs, especially….no, actually: ALL of them.

Schlossgut Diel Pittermännchen Riesling GG

Kruger-Rumpf Pittersberg Riesling GG

Müller-Catoir Haardt Muskateller (just show me a better Muscat, go on, just do it)

THE GREATEST INEXPENSIVE DRY WINES ARE:

Eugen Müller Forster Pechstein Riesling Spätlese Trocken

Schneider Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese Trocken

THE GREATEST OF THE GREATEST RESTAURANT CATEGORY,
THE FOOD-FRIENDLIEST MOSTEST PERFECTEST RIESLING WINE,
THE DAMN-NEAR-DRY WINE:

Kruger-Rumpf Dautenpflänzer Riesling Feinherb

THE ABSOLUTE TOP VALUE:

Merkelbach Uerziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese #7  (though its sister wine the “Urglück” is also an amazing bargain).

THE ABSOLUTE MOST FUN:

Weingart Spay Riesling Kabinett Feinherb

Darting St Laurent (2011, first being offered)