The other night I opened a bottle from one of my favorite German producers, Joh. Jos. Prüm. It was a 2001 riesling kabinett Wehlener Sonnenuhr – the famous sundial vineyard in the town of Wehlen. It was such a beautiful wine, with a delicate, sheer texture and those benchmark Mosel flavors of slate and minerals. It’s not an exuberant wine. Rather, it’s restrained and gentle, fine in the strict sense of the word, like a soap bubble floating in the air or a spider web in the wind. You wonder how it can possibly hold together, but it does.
As happy as I was to drink the wine, I’m even happier that I still have a few bottles left that I haven’t opened, because it seems nowadays that real kabinett-level rieslings are a thing of the past. Oh, I know you can find kabinetts in any shop that has a good selection of German wines, but they aren’t really kabinetts, at least not as I used to understand the wine.
Under German wine rules – please bear with me here, I can already sense the eyes glazing over – kabinett is an indication that the grapes were picked at a normal level of ripeness, just as spätlese indicates grapes that were picked at higher sugar levels, and auslese grapes that are yet another step up. Strictly speaking, these terms say nothing about the wine in the bottle, only about the ripeness level of the grapes.
Traditionally, though, kabinett grapes made wines that were light, delicate and low in alcohol, that you could drink immediately as you aged your spätleses and ausleses.
I’ve always loved these wines, and I resented it when a producer or importer would pull me over and whisper confidentially that the kabinett I was about to taste was actually made from spätlese grapes, as if that were a wonderful thing. If I wanted spätlese, I would buy spätlese. But I wanted kabinett!
“Nobody’s really making them anymore,’’ the importer Terry Theise told me recently. “It’s impossible. The grapes would have to be harvested before they were physiologically ripe.’’
Not that Theise needs me to translate, but what he means is that grapes are far easier to ripen today than, say, 25 years ago, and when the grapes achieve kabinett-level sugar, they are not ripe enough to be picked. Theise attributes this partly to global warming, which has given Germany far riper vintages in the last 10 years than ever before, and partly to great improvements of viticulture, like lowering yields and better management of the vines.
“It’s an unanticipated consequence of an otherwise completely positive thing,’’ Theise said.
The 2001 vintage is often considered one of the last in which traditional kabinetts were made, especially by producers like Prum, whose methods have barely changed in decades.
Of course, tradition is subjective. Lyle Fass, the German wine buyer and manager at Chambers Street Wines, says that 25 years ago, many kabinett wines were essentially unripe. Back then, when the producer told you his kabinett was made out of declassified spätlese grapes, it really was a good thing.
David Bowler, an importer and distributor with many German wines in his portfolio, offered another reason for the disappearance of kabinett. He points to the increase in the German thirst for dry rieslings. “They’re letting the vineyards go longer and riper so they can make a good dry wine with 12 or 13 percent alcohol,’’ he told me.
There’s no question that dry rieslings are the rage in Germany, and that the dry wines have greatly improved in the last 10 years, even from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, where it was once difficult to make a tolerable dry riesling.
Fass suggests that kabinett lovers look for wines labeled “feinherb,’’ a somewhat new term that stemmed from a German effort to simplify wine labels, but that, in typical fashion, has caused even more confusion.
“Feinherb is what kabinett used to be, a light, refreshing wine with a little bit of residual sugar,’’ he said. Personally, I find most feinherbs to be a little dryer than what I think of as a kabinett, but maybe my taste gauge has shifted unconsciously.
Some people have described Germany’s 2007 vintage as a return to typical kabinetts, but that, too, may not be quite accurate. “Standards have changed and what we now taste as ‘typical’ would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,’’ Terry Theise has said. Fass echoed that point, pointing to the example of Joh. Jos. Prüm.
“Prum made no kabinett in ’05 or ’06,’’ he said, “but in ’07 they’re fabulous, they’re absolutely fantastic. But they’re a different animal than the ’01.’’
In his recent trips to German, Fass says he’s noticed that some producers are replanting vineyards that had been abandoned, perhaps because years ago grapes planted in those vineyards did not ripen sufficiently.
“There can be real kabinett again,’’ he said, “but the producers are going to have to think outside the box and find cooler areas to replant.’’
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