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  • September 29, 2014
  • 1971 (Continued)

  • by Eric Steinberg

gottesfuss_kochAs I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I tasted my first German wine in 1971; I was inspired in large part by reading Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine. At the time, Schoonmaker was the closest thing America had to a wine guru. He wrote articles on wine for various magazines, produced some classic works on wine, including the aforementioned Encyclopedia and The Wines of Germany, and his name appeared on the necks of many German wine bottles imported in the US as “Frank Schoonmaker Selections.” As a devotee of Mosel wines of long standing, I have to confess I was disappointed with my first German wine, a 1967 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger that I found somewhat austere. Shortly thereafter, however, I was captivated by a series of 1966 Rheingau Spätlesen: von Simmern’s Hattenheimer Nussbrunnen, the Eltville State Domain’s Rauenthaler Gehrn and Steinberger, and the Schloss Vollrads noted above. It is possible that my inexperience affected by judgment, my tastes have changed or my memory is distorted; however, since that time I rarely have tasted a collection of Rheingau Spätlesen as satisfying as these. In any case, I was bitten by the German wine bug, purchased a copy of Schoonmaker’s Wines of Germany and began to explore promising sources of German wine.

In 1971, most good wine shops in Manhattan and suburban New Jersey carried a small group of estate-bottled German wine, usually from the 1966, 1967, and 1969 vintages; a few even had a bottle or two of German wine from older vintages. Perhaps because at the time there were only a small number of importers of German wine, one frequently came upon bottles from the same well-established, moderate to large estates in these shops. In addition to the three Rheingau estates mentioned above, Schloss Eltz, Schloss Schönborn, J.J. Prüm, S.A. Prüm, Zach Bergweiler-Prüm Erben, Dr. H. Thanisch, Egon Müller, Karthäuserhof, Maximin Grünhaus, Schloss Johannisberg, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, Bassermann-Jordan, Franz-Karl Schmitt, and a few others were well represented. Yet, there was one shop that transcended the others and seemed to specialize in German wines: Ambassador Liquors on East 86th Street in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, historically an area with a large German-speaking population. If Schoonmaker’s Wines of Germany was the sacred text, Ambassador was a pilgrimage site. There one could find a large selection of wines, including many from producers Schoonmaker had recommended but were unobtainable elsewhere.

By the time I discovered this store, the drums were already being beaten in newspaper and wine magazine articles for the 1971 vintage in Germany. When I visited Ambassador one day in the fall of 1972, I learned that it was offering more than 85 different German wines from the vintage at exceptional, pre-arrival prices, including some from estates that were new to me. I was a graduate student in those days and bought as much wine as I could afford. Little did I realize that this sale constituted Ambassador’s swan song. Soon after the New Year, it went out of business. I continued to purchase 1971 German wines for the next few years, especially in late 1974 when some very fine wines from the vintage suddenly appeared on the market at quite reasonable prices. Rumor had it that this was stock that importers had to liquidate because of the downturn in the economy.

What can I say about the 1971 vintage and its wines? Before answering this question I have to offer a caveat. In the 1970s, when I purchased and drank many of the wines, annual comprehensive evaluations and tasting notes from critics like David Schildknecht and Joel Payne were non-existent. I bought many of the wines based on Schoonmaker’s views about the reputation of estates but, as I eventually learned, reputations can change and particular wines from good estates can be mediocre. Furthermore, some of the wines may have been drunk past their prime, while others may have been consumed much too early. Quite a few were disappointing, and there’s reason to believe that the general level of winemaking in the early 1970s was not as high as it is today. Still, I’ve tasted a multitude of outstanding wines from this vintage, particularly in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and to a lesser degree in the Rheingau, whose wines at times were dull. Moreover, the best 1971s have constituted the standard by which I have judged non-dry German wines from subsequent vintages, as well as the vintages, themselves. In general, these wines had rich fruit, complexity, and refreshing but not obtrusive acidity. Although the depth of fruit of the 1971 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wines I tasted resembles that in many wines from the 1990 vintage, I don’t believe their acidity was quite as prominent. In the case of the Spätlesen and Auslesen, the closest parallel for me is with the very best wines of 1997. One additional feature of the 1971 vintage is that the best Kabinett wines and even some Spätlesen from the Mosel had a lightness that one doesn’t usually find in similarly classified wines from recent vintages. No doubt this is a reflection of lower must weights and residual sugar levels at the time.

gruenhaeuser_abtsberg_kabinett_1971My very favorite 1971s include a few from the Rheingau, among them the superb Steinberger Auslese and the von Simmern Hattenheimer Mannberg TBA, a 20/20 wine when tasted in 2005. In the Mosel proper, the list would have to be headed by the fabulous Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese from J.J. Christoffel. In my opinion, however, it is the tributaries of the Mosel, the Ruwer and especially the Saar, that most consistently produced the best wines in 1971. I had the good fortune to drink two outstanding Ruwer wines—Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Auslese and the somewhat lighter Eitelsbacher Marienholz Auslese from the Bischöfliches Konvikt—on more than one occasion. My favorites from the Saar would have to include Apollinar Joseph Koch’s Wiltinger Gottesfuss Kabinett,  Gebert's and Rheinart's Ockfener Bockstein Spätlesen, the Vereinigte Hospitien’s Scharzhofberger Auslese, and Egon Muller's two exceptional GKA (gold capsule) from Scharzhofberger (AP 61), and the Le Gallais Wiltinger braune Kupp (AP 62). Many other fine 1971 Saar wines could have been added to this list. Three of the Saar estates I’ve mentioned (Koch, Gebert, and Rheinart) were included in Schoonmaker’s list of “great producers” but no longer exist and are unlikely to be known to many readers. Koch, who also owned a portion of the Scharzhofberger (and made a very good 1971 Auslese from the vineyard), was considered one of the finest producers of Saar wines for decades prior to the sale of the estate to von Kesselstatt. For a while subsequent to the sale, the wines were still marketed with the distinctive Koch label. With changes in ownership of prime parcels in Ockfener Bockstein, outstanding wines from this vineyard were seen much less frequently in the United States, except for occasional bottles from Zilliken, until the importation of wines from von Othegraven and particularly St. Urbans-Hof began about a decade ago. ♦

<< 1971

Images courtesy of Eric Steinberg.

Eric Steinberg is a former professor of philosophy and administrator at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He wrote an e-book titled Understanding Mosel Wines and has continually enjoyed fine Mosel wines since 1971.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Interesting observations – thanks!

    On the subject of 1966 in the Rheingau, even though I did not (at least, knowingly ;- ) taste any of the German Rieslings of that vintage until they were two decades old, the best of those from the Rheingau were indeed glorious. In fact, I’d say that in general about this far too little-appeciated vintage. (And the best 1969s from the Rheingau were benchmark wines, too.) During my early days as a retail merchant there were quite a few 1971s still available and most of them from the Rheingau. Schloss Eltz was my foremost source of supply, but Schloss Reinhartshausen had an impressive assortment of older wines on offer including though the mid-80s ones from 1971. During the late ’80s and early ’90s when Trimpopp was cellarmaster at Siegfried Gerhard and Terry Theise was importing their wines, there were still a couple of ’71s offered.

    I have fond memories of Koch offerings from the Gottesfuss through vintage 1983 (the last, I believe) which I sold as recently-bottled wine in my early retail days. On the subject of Ockfener Bockstein our recollections disagree. It’s mine that the Dr. Fischer wine from this site was ubiquitous on the U.S. market as among “Frank Schoonmaker Selections” that outlived that great man. Does anybody recall how and when the association between Schoonmaker and Fischer came about? He hadn’t “discovered” them yet when he first wrote his book.

    Wine from the Winzerverein Irsch was pretty prominent in some U.S. markets too, as I recall – Bockstein representing their most important holdings – and among the bottlings from the Friedrich Willhelms Gymnasium that rather regularly featured stateside, I am pretty sure that Bockstein also figured.

    Incidentally, the von Othegraven wines were imported at least briefly during the ’80s (or perhaps also the early ’90s) by Rudi Wiest, and included 1975s among other treasure cellars. This was the period when Heidi Kegel was trying (eventually with success) to steer that estate back to greatness and Wilhelm Haag was helping her with advice as well as the Wiest contact. But I am not sure that this estate was even bottling Ockfener Bockstein back then – can somebody answer that? I only recall having tasted Kanzemer Altenberg before the turn of the millennium.

    • Eric Steinberg says:

      David, thanks for your interesting comments and recollections. It’s true that Dr. Fischer’s wines from Ockfener Bockstein were widely available. However, I found many of them from the 80s and 90s lacking in the qualities that made wines from the producers I mentioned above exciting. I believe that Dr. Fischer’s wines were available in NYC as far back as the early 1970s; this makes me wonder why there is no mention of the estate in editions of the “Wines of Germany” published about this time.

      When I visited the von Othegraven estate during the period from 2003 to 2006, I recall that on one occasion Karl Kegel mentioned that it had new holdings in Ockfener Bockstein or Wiltinger Kupp.

  • Carl York says:

    What most of us would do to try a 75 kanzemer altenberg? The answer is a lot. David my thanks to you for frequently posting on this website. It has become an invaluable source for information (mostly experiential and some academic) on German wine

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Eric,

    Thank you for the “sequel” to your original article. I actually enjoyed a 1971 Rheinart Ockfener Bockstein Herrenberg Auslese a few years ago, which I found at a Boston retailer. Incidentally, it’s the only bottle that I’ve ever had that was labeled as an Arthur Hallgarten Selection. The only Schoonmaker bottle listed in my notes is a 1976 Schloss Eltz Eltviller Taubenberg Riesling Spätlese that I enjoyed this summer.

    Gebert is a completely “new” name to me – “new” in quotes because the estate no longer exists.

    Also, I take it from your mention of Franz-Karl Schmitt that they used to make far better wines than they did in their latter years (sadly, all I ever had from them). Am I right in thinking that Keller bought their parcels in Niersteiner Hipping and Pettenthal?

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