The public generally appreciates the more luscious style of Riesling from warmer vintages. Collectors, however, prize the cooler, more classical years that bring nerve, drive and purity. There should be plenty of all three in 2012. The only downside may be smaller yields that might generate shortages and perhaps a slight rise in prices, writes Joel Payne who focuses on white wines from the five main growing regions in Germany in his vintage report. Pictured: The Mosel wine-growing region
Following the warmer, almost Mediterranean weather in 2011 which, like 2009, had many producers buying into the global warming conspiracy, 2012 is again a cooler, more classical vintage and, as in 2010, another one with low yields.
After a warm spring, the summer was cool, with more than enough rainfall to keep plant metabolism on track. In places, in fact, there was even too much rain. Hail also affected certain vineyards in September. However, for those who waited, a Golden October followed with ample sunshine and chilly nights which allowed producers to harvest perfectly ripe grapes under excellent sanitary conditions, at leisure.
Estates whose focus is Pinot Noir, like Bernhard Huber in Baden across the Rhine from Alsace, in the far south of Germany, also reported an excellent vintage. These wines, however, will not come on to market until 2014. In the following, therefore, I focus primarily on white wines from the five main growing regions, many of which will be released next spring.
PFALZ With 23,400 hectares, the Pfalz is Germany’s second largest growing region. Although Pinot Noir from certain estates in the south can be excellent, the centrally located Mittelhaardt is better known as a powerhouse for dry Rieslings in an almost Alsatian style.
After a warm spring, the summer played its hand in two distinct halves. May, June and July were cool and damp; August was hot and dry. By mid September, entirely healthy grapes were approaching higher levels of maturity. The problem was that due to uneven flowering and then draught in August, the grapes were often at very different stages of development. Further, even well into October the skins were still quite firm and the resulting yields low for those who harvested early, because there was comparatively little juice. Those musts also often lacked flavour as the grapes had, in spite of their high sugar content, not yet reached true physiological ripeness.
Parts of the southern Pfalz were struck by hail just before harvest, but most of the region was left untouched, such that Volker Knipser in Laumersheim at the northern edge of the Pfalz near Rheinhessen speaks of ideal conditions. “We harvested perfectly ripe grapes at optimal levels of ripeness,” he says.
Further, as it was drier along the Mittelhaardt than elsewhere in Germany, most estates had lower incidents of disease. “The rain that fell came always just at the right time,” added Stephan Attmann from the von Winning Estate in Deidesheim.
Hans-Günther Schwarz, who has trained most of the current generation of winemakers, remembers only 2003 with such perfectly healthy grapes, although he notes, “They had higher alcohols and less acidity, which caused other problems. The 2012s appear to have vibrant purity with only moderate levels of alcohol.”
Stylistically, the young wines “remind me of the 2007s and 2005s,” says Hansjörg Rebholz of the eponymous estate in Siebeldingen. His neighbour, Franz Wehrheim in Birkweiler adds, “If you prefer elegance, 2012 will have more to offer than the richer 2011s. This is a cool climate year, the kind we’d like to see more often!”
RHEINHESSEN With 26,300 hectares, Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine growing region. Only slightly north of the Pfalz, it enjoyed similar weather patterns as its southern neighbour. The summer, though, lasted well into September, allowing Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to mature evenly. Most of these grapes were harvested by the end of the month. Pictured: Vineyards overlooking the Rhine
Late September and early October, on the other hand, were again cool with scattered showers, so that most of the better estates only began harvesting Riesling around the 15th.
Although many producers, at the time of this writing, were still working long days to bring in the remaining fruit at optimum levels of maturity, the general chorus of voices was more than upbeat about the 2012 vintage. “It has been a long time since I have seen such healthy grapes,” beams Hans-Oliver Spanier from Battenfeld-Spanier in Hohen-Sülzen,. “The sugars and acidities are in perfect balance,” he added. Like several of his colleagues, he is already comparing the vintage to 2002, which most consider the best year for Rheinhessen this millennium.
“The cool nights in October provided perfect conditions for a long, slow maturation of the grapes on the vine,” says Klaus-Peter Keller. In particular, the aromas developed more concentration. As in the Pfalz, though, uneven flowering means that yields are down by up to 20% compared to 2011.
Rheinhessen, however, has always been a region of light and shadow. Many producers overcrop their vineyards, in order to produce the volumes needed for fighting varietal price points, and harvest early. How those wines will evolve remains to be seen, but as Philipp Wittmann from Westhofen states: “2012 will be remembered as a cool vintage with a late harvest, ripe grapes and only moderate levels of alcohol, a welcome change after the more fleshy 2012s.”
RHEINGAU With only 3,000 hectares, the Rheingau may appear small, but it is one of Germany’s most well known regions. Just north of Rheinhessen, it overlooks a unique stretch of the Rhine where the river flows over a short distance from east to west. Thus, the finest vineyards all face south, with the sunlight reflecting off the water to provide extra warmth.
That said, after a warm, precocious year in 2011, the weather in 2012 was for the most part cool through the summer, with August and September being particularly dry. These more classical weather patterns had quite a different impact on each vineyard. The steeper, higher sites often suffered from a lack of water and were thus not able to assimilate. Even when harvested late, the “sugar levels were low, but the aromatic ripeness extraordinary,” relates Theresa Breuer from Rüdesheim.
The lower, flatter vineyards, on the other hand, exploded both in quantity and ripeness. The grapes at harvest were “perfectly healthy, with a high percentage of tartaric acid,” said Gunter Künstler in Hochheim. As this is vitis vinifera’s own natural acidity, it is a good sign. Interestingly, he compares 2012 with 2009, which for most estates was s richer, warmer vintage.
At the other end of the valley, Johannes Leitz, like Breuer also in Rüdesheim, speaks instead of cooler weather during October’s Indian Summer. “Volumes were slightly below normal,” he says, “and in spite of the flavour ripeness, the sugar levels were not that high.” That is fantastic for producers who, like him, specialize in drier or at most off-dry styles of Riesling. Most of them had finished their crush by the end of the third week of October.
For those like Wilhelm Weil in Kiedrich, on the other hand, the harvest is not yet over. Well known for his succulent Spätlese and luscious Auslese, most of his grapes were still on the vine as we went to print. “We are very optimistic,” he smiles. “The vineyards are in perfect condition and the grapes ripening slowly! All we are waiting for now is a touch of botrytis.”
NAHE With 4,000 hectares, the Nahe is a contorted mirror of the Rheingau. A confluent of the Rhine flowing from west to east, it spills into the larger river near Bingen, where both then change course and flow together northwards. As the wines from the Nahe were sold as Rhine Rieslings until 1971, this region’s name has yet to garner the same standing as that of the Rheingau. However, at their best, the wines can be equally good, sometimes even better. Pictured: The Nahe wine region of southwestern Germany, a relatively small area along the Nahe River, a tributary of the Rhine.
Armin Diel in Burg Layen at the lower end of the valley describes the vintage as cool and still shrouded in mystery. “We are very happy with the high must weights of our Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, but will only begin harvesting Riesling in late October.” As in the Rheingau, the vines were still in perfect health when we last spoke and so he also remains very optimistic. Bitter medicine? “The yields are far below those of the past two years,” he says.
At the cooler, upper end of the valley, the conditions were similar. Warm days and cool nights through most of October has led many of the leading players to play poker with nature and postpone their crush. “We will certainly still be harvesting well into November,” thinks Karsten Peter from Hermannsberg, who was just named Rising Star of the Year by the influential Gualt Millau Wine Guide.
“The must weights are rising, but not yet high, and the acidities are still refreshing,” adds Werner Schönleber from Emrich-Schönleber in Monzingen. “As long as the weather forecaster predicts warm and dry weather, we are in no hurry to harvest.”
MOSEL With 9,000 hectares at the northern reaches of Europe’s vineyard area, the Mosel is Germany’s best known region. Given its position, the grapes here ripen later than even the Rheingau, and the harvest takes place over a longer period. For that reason, many producers had only just finished a first selection of their best vineyards when we went to print. Pictured: Harvesting grapes on a hillside on the Mosel
Further, given the Mosel’s geographical complexity, with its confluents the Saar and Ruwer, it is generally more difficult to provide a general picture of the overall quality, but the region basically enjoyed the same weather patterns over the summer as did the rest of country.
“We have only just finished a selective early harvest to cull the vineyards and prepare for the definitive crush in late October and early November,” says Thomas Haag from Schloss Lieser. “It would appear, nonetheless, given the excellent weather conditions, that we are set for a classical vintage.”
What makes this region special are the long hang times that only seldom lead to higher levels of alcohol. Flowering was generally completed by the 15th of June, so at least part of the harvest will come in with 130 to 140 days of ripeness, far higher than the 100 often touted in France. “In spite of that,” says Ernie Loosen, “I want my Kabinetts to remain light and elegant.”
“This was a surprising year for us,” explains Johannes Selbach from Zeltingen. “None of us would have thought in August that conditions would improve as they did. What many predicted would be an average vintage is on its way to becoming a great one.” This is again proof that not a warm but an Indian summer is the hallmark of legendary years.
As elsewhere in Germany, the grapes were still ripening slowly on the Mosel as I pen these lines, with refreshing acidities and lower than average yields, in particular – as in Wehlen – where Peronospora decimated half of the crop. As the weather is forecasted to be warm during the day, cool at night and dry until well into the second week of November, the best may be yet to come.
A light frost with -5°C in the night from the 29th to the 30th of October changed, though, the equation for many producers, especially those in villages like Brauneberg that were the hardest hit. “The canopies are now essentially dead,” laments Dr Dirk Richter of Max Ferdinand Richter in Müllheim. “As the grapes can no longer assimilate but only desiccate, we will move quickly to finish the harvest over the next week.” As there was little botrytis and even fewer dried, raisin like grapes, this will probably be a vintage for Spätlese. Noble late harvest Rieslings will be few and far between.