Perhaps you remember last year I said I was getting weary of minute meteorological explanations for a vintage, finding them otiose. Perhaps you don’t know what “otiose” means. It means futile or ineffectual, but isn’t quite exactly either of those things, having also a quality of irrelevance or uselessness. It’s one of those cool words that threads the linguistic needle. Anyway, I don’t think you want to know each detail of the growing season, so I’ll spare you.
What matters is this: early in the cycle right around or just before flowering, the weather wasn’t ideal and they had either fungus infections (peronospora, or downy mildew) or coulure, a failure of the blossoms to “set.” This was more pronounced as one went north, and most growers in and north of the Rheingau reported a 30% reduction in crop size, whereas the Rheinhessen and Pfalz were closer to normal.
The summer was cool and damp everywhere. Growers began to think the small crop might be a blessing in disguise. No one expected great results. The weather changed in late August, and remained almost constantly dry and sunny for a remarkably long time, giving producers a chance to pick what they wanted when they wanted (“We actually took weekends off,” was a common refrain) as opposed to needing to bring the crop in before the next storm or cold front.
Leitz wrote me, in his quite special style, “The late summer was fantastic. Middle of August 40 degrees. Harvest really BEST!!! and stress less- like never before. Dry and sunny and decent degree daytime and nearly freezing at night. Means no shitty fruit flies or wasp assholes who spread the vinegar rot the last 3 vintages. So we picked the most healthy grapes since a long time. And!!!! Funny thing, the sunshine for 5 weeks was not turned into oechsle (they stayed very low) it turned into fruit. I never tasted as fruity juice before.”
This echoes an often-repeated trope for 2012 – the welcome lack of botrytis. In fact there was almost none. This gave growers all the leeway they could desire to wait to pick, and fruit was concentrated by dehydration. An American living and working in the Pfalz named Bill Hooper wrote this to me, speaking only for the Pfalz but in fact generally applicable: “What sets 2012 apart from other recent vintages is that due to a long, cooler season, [the] physiological ripeness has been achieved before a significant drop in acidity.” And 2012 is indeed a high-acid vintage at least for Riesling. (It was permitted to add acidity to other varieties.) Yet we’ve come to see this through the prism of vintages that have generally been lower in acidity than was the case up to and including 2002. We’re spoiled. 2010 was a freak, of course, yet there were few instances where I felt acidity on the palate, high though it may have been on paper.
This is because the wines are amazingly dense and full, materially rich in substance, yet not even slightly fat. German has two perfect words for these things: dicht (meaning a many-layered palpable density) and fülle (meaning not just fullness but a concentrated juiciness that’s almost semi-solid), and so the wines are markedly generous and concentrated for a so-called “high-acid” year. Extracts were such as to prompt an image of liquid geology in many wines.
You’re going to have to call this an outstanding vintage, especially in points north. Yet the Pfalz offered its own share of surprises. The season was 2-3 weeks earlier there, and one heard tales of a rush to pick for fear of rot, anticipated due to a warm front. But then the Pfälzers took it on the chin in the last decade, and can be indulged if they seem skittish and pick hurriedly. But not all of them did. And for each estate whose wines seemed perhaps unfulfilled, there were others who made their best vintages in memory, and at least one who emerged transcendent.
A cold night on 25/26 October gave hope of Eiswein but it wasn’t cold enough. The grapes “looked like sorbet,” several people told me, and what they did pick that morning had a subtle Eiswein tang, and went into the few Auslesen the vintage gave. Afterwards there was a drop in acidity, and the picking continued well into early November. This meant several things. One, because the picking was so late, fermentations were colder and therefore slower, and for growers seeking to make wines with sweetness, they had plenty of leisure to consider the perfect moment to stop those fermentations. Two, and more important for me personally, the wines were about 3-4 weeks later than last year, and my visit was one week earlier, which means I was tasting substantially less developed wine than I’d tasted a year before. (This will also be true for any colleague who tasted much before April 1st.) Some of what I tasted seemed atypically raw, and I’m sure this was the reason.
Some growers’ wines go through a sharp angular stage before fruit emerges and the flavors thread together. I saw it here and there, and allowed for it. But in some instances there was a sourness present, for which I could find no explanation. Please understand, sourness is something you taste as a flavor on the tongue, whereas acidity is a felt sense of something caustic. High-acid wines can be smooth, and low-acid wines can be sour; think of the bitter finish of most Gewurztraminers, for example; a very low-acid variety.
Most growers will have had among their best vintages of the last decade in 2012. But what is it like? It’s loaded. It’s seldom tensile, but neither is it spherical. The wines are crammed with saltiness. “Mint” was a common descriptor. 2011 tasted facile next to it, and 2011 is not a facile vintage. But `12 is of another order.
It’s hard to compare to earlier years. One could say it’s like `09 but less yellow-fruit, more mineral, and richer. It’s nothing like `10, not as spiky. It’s like a much riper sibling of `08. It’s not flowery the way `07 was, and it’s much cleaner than `06. It’s a little like `05 without the botrytis but with similar concentration; indeed it was Selbach’s best vintage since `05, to which it nearly compares.
It’s a fabulous vintage for Muscat, and a perplexing vintage for Scheurebe, but Scheu is often tardy and I was a lot earlier than usual. Some were clean but varietally mute, while others (Minges!) were full-throttle kama-sutra kink.
HIGHLIGHTS AND SUPERLATIVES
THE WINERY OF THE VINTAGE IS:
Bearing in mind that Mr. Dönnhoff’s number has been retired, as it were – well what is it? I struggle between an estate who have clearly and dramatically ascended, and one who has again shown a markedly powerful performance such as they have often done over the last 10-15 years. But attention must be paid, we have a new Belle-of-the-ball, and ladies and gents, leave your shoes at the door for you enter a holy place – the winery of the vintage is VON WINNING, who have attained a stunning crescendo that fully realizes the lofty ambitions they began with.
OTHER MARKED SUCCESSES:
It won’t surprise you to learn that Leitz continues to perform at a stellar level. My number-1 runner-up to Von Winning has got to be Selbach-Oster, who have their best vintage since 2005 and who again conveyed a virtuosity over a very large range of wines, making it look easier than I know it to be. Von Othegraven is strongly expressive and aristocratic, wines of both dignity and deliciousness. Carl Loewen shows again that he’s the sleeper in this portfolio. Both Adam and Willi Schaefer were superb. It’s a lot of names, but it’s a shit-ton of good wine!
THE WINE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Kabinett.
This disqualifies it from being Kabinett of the vintage, but wow, I don’t remember a more amazing Kabinett from this estate.
(a couple of Auslesen that were amazing plus a fiercely spectacular and equally fiercely expensive dry wine…)
von Winning Kirchenstück Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Loewen Ritsch Auslese
Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese #10
Strub Niersteiner Oelberg Riesling Feinherb
THE AUSLESE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
(other than those already cited above)
THE SCHEUREBE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
Minges Gleisweiler Scheurebe Trocken
THE KABINETTS OF THE VINTAGE ARE:
(excluding those already cited elsewhere)
von Othegraven Kanzemer Altenberg Riesling Kabinett
von Othegraven Wawerner Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett
Merkelbach Uerziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett #18
Schmitt-Wagner Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett
Weingart Bopparder Hamm Engelstein Riesling Kabinett Feinherb
THE BIGGEST SURPRISES OF THE VINTAGE ARE:
In fact, and amazing as it seems, I was most (pleasantly) surprised by tasting the Regionals at Selbach. They are wonderful and full of integrity; in fact they show as much if not more commitment to quality then the estate wines do, because one assumes regional wines will be mundane and “commercial,” and you’d be happy if they were merely clean and drinkable. But in fact they’re good. They’ll never be lionized, or get high scores, or attract the enthusings of wine aesthetes, and no one will give as much as a pat on the back to Johannes Selbach for troubling to make his “humble” wines this good.
I call this honor.
THE GREATEST DRY WINES ARE:
The entire range at von Winning, with the Kirchenstück GG reaching the absolute apex, and the Paradiesgarten Riesling Spätlese Trocken offering the most ri-freaking-diculous value.
Leitz Hinterhaus is again a masterpiece.
Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken.
von Othegraven 2011 Altenberg Riesling Alte Reben GG.
Adam Goldtröpfchen Riesling GG
Spreitzer Wisselbrunnen Riesling GG
Strub Niersteiner Rosenberg Riesling Trocken
THE ABSOLUTE TOP VALUE:
Schneider Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese, offering the elite stature of this supernal Grand Cru at a still-attractive price. Fella’s on the way up, so don’t expect this to last….
THE MOST DROOLINGLY STUPID_TOTAL_FUN WINE:
Gysler Scheurebe Halbtrocken LITER