Raw, Early Observations About the Decidedly Wacky 2013 Vintage in Germany

evan 2013 German Vintage Report  By Evan Spingarn, German Brand Manager at DBW I just attended the VDP Mainzer Weinborse (the annual tasting in Mainz, Germany of the top 200 growers in the country) and made a few key visits to winemakers in the Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Nahe. Here are my raw, earliest observations to share with you about the decidedly wacky 2013 vintage. Remember 2010? Get ready for its short, nervy, slightly A.D.D. younger brother. The main things for which the 2013 vintage will be remembered are its precipitously low yields and ragingly HIGH ACID. You can’t taste a hundred or so of these wines at an afternoon’s tasting and come away without a toothache (although it’s nice to get a free whitening without paying a dentist, I guess). Accompanying high extracts in most wines helped ameliorate their textures, and for die-hard acid-freaks like me, some vivid juiciness is always welcome, especially in the sweet wines. That said, winemakers had a serious job to do in 2013. When you’re a grower looking at grapes on the vine in October clocking 10-12g of natural acidity instead of the usual 7-9, you have some decisions to make. How each winemaker chose to “manage” the excess acidity in his/her grapes, directly impacted the success of the wines. First things first, why did such conditions arise and what other factors are in play? A very cool spring led to a late bud-break and flowering, marred in some places by frost and flooding in some areas, was followed by uneven weather in the summer months and plenty of rain (accompanied by rot) at the harvest. Terrific! Just what everyone wants to hear. But God is in the details. With an early “thinning of the herd” comes greater concentration in the remaining fruit. That’s important, because sheer concentration helps absorb some of that acid when you are tasting the finished wines. Also, while rain was ample it wasn’t a washout---there were drying periods that allowed the growers to do the necessary work. They simply had to be quick about it. Harvests that normally take four to six weeks had to be telescoped into two. Many estates worked with their crews day and night. More than one grower told me about waking up one day and seeing green skins and healthy looking grapes and waking up the next day to purple fruit with split skins already filling up with botrytis. It was a race against time in many, many places. The name of the game was TRIAGE, picking the right sites at the right time and sorting out the bad fruit. In some cases, there wasn’t time to pick every vineyard properly and those sites either disappeared from the roster or yielded quantities too small to be commercially viable. Everyone’s yields were down, for better or worse, and everyone had to deal with those extreme acidities. By far these conditions saw their most extreme manifestations in the Mosel. In 2010, the good, nervy growers were rewarded by waiting for good weather and picking late, thus letting the acids drop naturally in the vineyard. That was not possible in 2013, because the wet weather wouldn’t let up. So the next strategy was to give the wines a nice long soak in the tanks, preferably with lots of lees contact. This worked for many Rhine and Nahe winemakers, and resulted in richer wines with heightened perfumes, which I found very appealing. I believe that this strategy resulted in a collection of some of the finest Silvaners and Pinot Blancs I have ever tasted. Another interesting theory of softening the onslaught of 2013’s acids came from the “natural” growers. Rebholz, Schloss Lieser, Schafer-Frohlich, and Reinhold Haart all pursue spontaneous fermentations with native yeasts and agreed unanimously that doing so helps soften the extremes in any vintage, be it a softer year like 2011 or a spiky one like 2013; the wine finds “its own level,” so to speak, and achieves more balanced numbers on its own. The proof was in the tasting. Rebholz’s wines were vivid and fantastically perfumed; I loved Haart’s wildly aromatic, open-seeming wines; Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser had incredible Kabs and Spats to offer (some of the highlights of the tasting for me—and incidentally my #1 winemaker choice in 2011). Schafer-Frohlich was perhaps the star of the show, showing perfectly modulated wines at all levels with their perfectly clear, minerally, ultra-elegant personalities. But maybe mentioning Tim isn’t quite fair; his genius is a special case. Like JJ Prum he seems to transcend the entire “good vintage-bad vintage” dichotomy. He just makes great wine every single year. Of course, the final and most carped about method of reducing acidity is to physically remove it using chalk or the “double-salt” method of de-acidification. Many producers did this as a matter of course on their basic estate wines in both 2010 and 2013, especially for the trockens. Some took the middle road of de-acidifying a minority number of tanks and then blending those with the normal wine. Most conscientious producers de-acidified before the fermentation, not after, thus avoiding wines that seemed shocked or disjointed. That’s reassuring, but the overall question persists: is “de-assing” an okay thing to do, or is it one step too far into meddling with the vinification? For the record, I don’t like it and I prefer the winemakers who eschew it. But that is an entitled position for me to take. I’m just a middle-man, a salesman in an office with a global portfolio of wines to choose from. I don’t feed my children by selling wine I struggled to create from a plot of land left to me by my grandfather. On a less philosophical note, most de-acidification occurs at the intro level, i.e., the gutsweins and unclassified growths, the most commercial sector. If long aging or high prices were a concern for those wines, I would rail against this practice, as I do against all egregious winemaking manipulations, as I perceive them. (Hell, I give white wines made in new oak the fish eye—I am clearly in the minority on that one.) But frankly, for wines meant to drink early and sell at modest prices, I can’t get too exercised about the practice. Are we talking about some carefully applied makeup or a full surgical facelift? Maybe somewhere morally in between, depending on your point of view; but if it makes the wines taste better in the first 2-3 years and remains imperceptible to the normal human palate, I feel like there are far greater evils in the wine world than this. If the Burgundians chaptalize their Bourgognes and AC Villages, and the Californians water back their Zins, the Germans can de-ass their QbA’s in a tough vintage, and I say let the matter rest there. How did the individual regions fare? NAHE   The clear winner was the Nahe, whose star producers made gorgeous wines and complained very little about anything. So acids hovered around 9 or 10 instead of the usual 7 or 8? That’s a plus in most cases, at least when yields are low and concentrations are high as they were in this vintage. Late picks efficiently handled and gentle pressings and vinifications were the name of the game. Tim Frohlich’s Kabinett is a masterwork of purity and precision. His Spatlese contains 90g of RS which you don’t taste. His 2013 GG’s are still in tank, but with rock solid weights of 100 Oechsle, extremely late harvesting in November, and those sizzling, aroma-lifting acids in place, the finished wines are going to be monumental. Purists who seek ultimate precision and minerality in their wines should go for the GG’s from slate sites: Bockenauer Felseneck (Tim’s favorite) and Monziger Halenberg. Those who prefer power and broader character in their wines will likely prefer the volcanic Schlossbockelheim wines, Felsenberg and Kupfergrube. The Monziger Fruhlingsplatzchen (a beautiful red slate vineyard whose name means “a nice little place in springtime”) is for me the most exotic, perfumed, and “wild” of the GGs here. The GG Bockenauer Stromberg (first declared GG in 2012) comes from 65+ year old vines on calcareous soils, and is already a darling of the German press. All six wines are rare collectibles. RHEINHESSEN   Thin skins and rampant botrytis made this a dangerous year to pick late. But holy mackerel, the early grapes like Silvaner are intense little flavor bombs! Also, wines on limestone soils with good drainage seemed to fare best in the wet weather versus the wines in heavy clay. At Gunderloch, where fermentations always run long and lots of lees contact is de rigeur, the wines are slightly reduced at the moment but promise to be awesome! Rigorous (read: horribly expensive) selection in the vineyards, no de-acidification in any of the estate wines, long macerations, and increasing use of old barrels in the winery all helped make balanced, elegant wines of gorgeous aromatic complexity. I must observe here that Johannes makes less overtly opulent wines than his father; he is pursuing his own style through open-minded experimentation and highly detailed work in the vineyards and cellar. In 2013, a hell of a vintage for a young winemaker to have to negotiate, he adapted to circumstances with incredible thoughtfulness and great success. The 2013 Jean-Baptiste Kabinett is a bright, young, crunchy winner, hitting American shores in just a few weeks. RHEINGAU   A lot of bitter trockens (endemic throughout Germany in ’13, but most prevalent here) make the Rheingau a minefield. Lots of hard candy and high-pitched grapefruit in the wines. But at Schloss Schonborn where they picked as late as humanly possible, Oechsle levels around 100 in many wines and acids between 8.5 and 10 make for pretty spectacular drinking. The wines I tasted from the Pfaffenberg were enormous. Winemaker Stephan Rohl is transforming this estate, largely by steering the enormous ship toward organic/biodynamic practices. In June when things are knit a little better, we will pick the winners. PFALZ   Some really nice wines here in 2013. Again, earlier ripeners like Silvaner, Pinot Blanc and Scheurebe excelled. Pfeffingen made the entire range of Scheu from dry to full-on dessert, which is thrilling. Rebholz made jaw-dropping Pinot Blancs and his signature array of energetic, laser-precise wines. But as in other Rhine areas, the dry wines are notably phenolic. That means you feel the skin tannins on your teeth in many instances, a drying feeling which speaks well of the wines’ powers to last in bottle, but makes them a little tough to enjoy young for some tasters. I found the minerality in these wines extreme, with varying results on the pleasure scale. The wines from chalk are super-chalky and saline; the clay wines are thumping; the loess-loam wines are earthy to the point of caricature. The Pfalz is a region for geologists. MOSEL   Here is where the craziness happens. While most of Germany saw diminished yields of 7-9% from normal, the Mosel was down 25%! You name it they got it in the Mosel in 2013: hail, flooding, late flowering, up-and-down weather all summer, and rain at the harvest. No BA or TBA was made to my knowledge. Auslese was a rare entity. Zilliken didn’t make any wines above Kabinett level! (That said, the Rausch Kab is a pristine, exciting wine with terrific tension and unusual green papaya character). Von Hovel had a completely insane vintage with lots of grapefruity wines reaching almost 10g acid yet sporting low alcohols---they need to settle in. The Unter-Mosel had better luck: Clemens-Busch is pleased with his 2013s, and presented an interesting conundrum: wines with very high sugars and acids yet modest oechsle levels. They seemed simultaneously tangier and gentler than in previous years, and I liked them quite a lot. Ditto the Schloss Lieser wines, which were some of the most successful of the vintage! It’s cheating a little bit to say that, because I am judging more on the sweet wines than the dry ones and a vintage like this favors wines with residual sugar. That said, the Lieser Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Spatlese is a supercharged turbo-Riesling with 90g RS and 11g acid and I almost fainted when I tasted it. Thank you, Thomas. In sum, 2013 is a year to select from carefully. It is not going to be easy or plentiful to sell (it resembles 2013 Burgundy in this respect). It comes on the heels of the magnificent 2012s (which everyone will now look at more closely for restocking) and offers pleasure in fits and starts. I think if this vintage had happened in the 1980s, it would have been a disaster. But now with the advent of more educated growers, better technology, more competition, and yes, the specter of global warming looming over everything, it’s a vintage from which we can cherry-pick a selection of truly distinctive wines. Our growers from Rudi Wiest and Louis/Dressner are the best at what they do because they know how to make great wines in years like this. Focusing on the best ones, securing them early, and selling them confidently—especially to the acid-lovers out there!—is the strategy for the coming year.

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