- July 18, 2013
Riesling, Then and Now
- by Keith Levenberg
André Simon wrote in Vintagewise—his 1945 “Postscript to Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar Book”—that the wines of the Mosel saw "a very marked and most regrettable difference not only in the individual quality but in the general style of the wines made after 1915 and those made before 1914." That is an intriguingly specific place to draw a line. Style is more often a fluid thing, evolving slowly based on changing tastes and the whims of fashion. But a few very specific things happened in 1914.
There was, of course, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War, but (as Leslie Nielson might have said in the movie Airplane!), that's not important right now, except perhaps as the event that closed the book on the era when "Piesport" and "Wehlen" were wine-list staples as obligatory as Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is now. But it was also in 1914 that some changes in Germany's wine laws began to have important ramifications. As Loeb & Prittie relate in their 1972 book Moselle, a wine law was passed in 1909 in response to growers' lobbying for more official codification on permissible types of additions in the cellars—in other words, just how much a Doctor could be doctored. Mosel growers lobbied for the right to add sugar to their wines up to a staggering 25 percent by volume; the measure was opposed by growers in favorable climates such as Baden, who didn't stand to benefit from it, and by "purists" on the Saar, who could have benefited from it but stubbornly "wanted to keep all their good and medium quality wine natural and therefore distinctive, and turn over their less good wine for the making of Sekt." Ultimately the 1909 law legalized sugaring up to 20 percent of the wine. There followed several vintages so disastrous that sugaring wouldn't have redeemed them, and one vintage so successful that "[s]ugaring was barely needed, and the wines of the lesser-known vineyards required, not sugar, but a higher acid content."
Everyone has a different pet theory on what it is that makes wine age. One of the popular theories is that the key is "balance." In table wines, that generally means sufficient structure for long-term support (in the form of tannin for reds and acid for whites) with a concentration of fruit material roughly proportionate to the structure, so that the wine tastes neither too flabby nor too harsh. "If it tastes too tannic, then it is too tannic" is the slogan attributed to the late, great Henri Jayer. The fruit and structure will each soften at a certain pace, the theory goes, so the key is to make sure that neither one overpowers the other during the life of the wine, or is left behind when the other is all gone. Balance.
The equation is never so simple, of course. In Riesling, it is not even remotely that simple, because there are at least two other variables at work. The first of these is sugar.
The US importer Terry Theise's catalog essay on "How German Wines Age" proposed the following theory:
The mature flavor begins as a kind of singe around the edge of the fruit. Finally that singe—as though the fruit had been flambéed—seems to encompass the fruit, to subsume it. The fruit is not devoured, but it has crystallized into a brighter and richer thing. An entire panoply of secondary flavors begins to appear, and the wine becomes truly vinous; it is born as wine, leaving the placenta of grapiness behind. If it is a fine wine, especially a wine with botrytis, these flavors constitute a real elixir, the effect of which is completely seductive. But even smaller wines take on a patina of poise and mysteriousness.
There are also strict chemical reactions wherein acidity softens and sugars polymerize, so that each is less pronounced as the wine ages. In the 1990-vintage zeitgeist the idea was to make “sweet” wines as dry as possible, but many of these wines now seem obdurate and lumpen, with still-prominent acids and not enough fruit; yang, but no yin. Sometimes it’s necessary to allow apparently-excessive sweetness in a baby-wine as a guarantor of great cellaring. A few of the 2005s appear to have more sweetness than they strictly need, but from the right cellar I’m actually glad to see it; it denotes a grower who’s thinking years ahead to the wine’s maturity.
It's not clear how many growers in 1909 were thinking ahead to maturity and how many were instead concerned mainly with early palatability, but the thinking is parallel nonetheless. Today, the sweetness is more likely to be purchased with riper fruit and stopped fermentations than with a naked sugar addition, although a dosage of unfermented Süssreserve also occupies a place on the doctoring spectrum and incorporates aspects of both methods. Either way, the idea is that the natural acidity level of Riesling in certain climes—obdurate, if you will, but it's not unfair to call it shrill—absolutely demands some sugar as a balancing agent. In the race to maturity, the fruit will develop at a certain rate (let's leave aside the flambéeing to avoid mixing metaphors), while the acid and sugar together will trot in symbiotic three-legged-race fashion to the finish line—the perception of each fading at a roughly proportionate rate so even if the wine tastes less sweet, it doesn't need to taste as sweet to achieve balance with the diminishing perceptible acidity (or, conversely, even if the wine tastes less acidic, it doesn't need to taste as acidic to achieve balance with the diminishing perceptible sweetness).
Sweetness is not the only additional variable, however. There is also carbon dioxide. As far back as 1935, H.R. Rudd remarked in Hocks and Moselles on "that natural sparkle or spritz that is so attractive in the Moselle wines. . . . Very delightful it is too, as long as it is only just a prickle." Not nearly enough is said about this, or its significance, in discussions of Riesling. We neatly categorize wine into buckets labeled "sparkling" or "still," but the effect of carbon dioxide on a wine that's nominally "still" is very much analogous to the effect of sugar on a wine that's nominally a table wine: in neither case does it tend to alter the thing so fundamentally as to push it into another category ("sparkling wine" or "dessert wine," respectively), but in both cases the character of the wine would be fundamentally different without it.
Carbon dioxide does much the same thing that acidity does. It makes the wine livelier, racier, more precise and refreshing. If you doubt this, try drinking flat beer. The spritz of carbon dioxide also enhances the element of the tactile in many young Rieslings—that relief texture that feels positively craggy when it is there in abundance, and what is so often called "filigree" in its more refined and intricate forms. But one of the important characteristics of carbon dioxide is that it doesn't "evolve"; it doesn't integrate or mature or develop or soften or polymerize. It just goes away. And thus a wine that tastes balanced on release, with acidity and sugar in perfect equipoise, becomes soft and shapeless, all yin, no yang, when the acidity loses its silent partner and suddenly the sugar executes a hostile takeover.
But aging is never so simple as it sounds, and there are no easy formulas. Sometimes sweetness integrates, and sometimes it takes over; sometimes acidity all but vanishes, and sometimes it emerges from nowhere. Sometimes fruit evolves, and sometimes it just decays. When there are so many variables at work, whether a wine will retain its precision while adding complexity or whether it will decompose into a formless mush is not a prediction that can be made with measurements of grams per liter, nor is it a judgment one can make from the gut by gesturing at amorphous ideals like "balance."
Over the last few months, I tasted through a large proportion of the Prädikat, or predicate, Rieslings I have been cellaring from the 2005 vintage and was astonished how few of them are better today than they were on release. Most are softer, and some of those manage to compensate for the loss of precision with somewhat less primary flavors. But some are on a trajectory that leaves an unsettling premonition that the sugar will be the last man left at the end of the race. It was difficult to imagine how an apparently excessive sweetness could have benefited or stand to benefit any of them, since in many of the wines the sweetness is only becoming more excessive. The acidic structure and sweetness are not tethered together in a three-legged race; sometimes everything else keeps moving and leaves the sugar behind. That is not to say that the vintage itself is disappointing. The year left the growers with beautiful fruit that enabled the production of some spectacular wines, many of which will stand the test of time. But it also left many growers with perhaps too much of a good thing—or rather, too much of some things without enough of the other things necessary for the wines to age as one might have hoped. My disappointments lie primarily in my own failure to apprehend at the outset, which would be which. Thus, even the wines that have developed admirably so far forced me to reconsider which may be worth holding longer and which should probably be consumed before the lightning in the bottle is snuffed out.
Among the more illustrative examples are the Dorsheimer Goldloch Spätlese and a trio of Auslesen in the 2005 Schlossgut Diel collection from the Nahe region. On release, the Spätlese was one of my wines of the vintage—and it still is. Almost seven years in the cellar has done nothing to diminish its glistening fruit or diamond-cut texture, and it seems to be developing glacially. The Auslese rendition was thicker from day one with creamier, almost gelatinous fruit that made me remark at the time that it could be bottled in toothpaste tubes. Drinking them in their youth, trading off precision for thicker and sweeter fruit was a losing proposition on both fronts: it didn't actually taste any better, and the flabbier texture made it a far less thrilling drink. The only sense in which the Auslese might have been more desirable is if its richer material could carry it to a place well into the future that the Spätlese can't reach, but checking in on them at age seven suggested to me that the opposite is more likely to prove true, with the interplay of fruit and structure in the Spätlese more capable of sustaining it over the long term while the aging process does its thing. The Auslese is maturing faster, the fruit deepening in complexion and losing a lot of its luster to the point that I would have guessed it to be 5 to 10 years older than it was—the exact opposite of the cryogenically preserved Spätlese. The Pittermännchen Auslese was even more concerning—so listless and faded that I've reserved the possibility of an off-bottle. The Burgberg Auslese, fortunately, was a success, or at least successful within its idiom. The sweetness was certainly at a level one could call excessive—you could drink it through both dinner and dessert—but the result was damn delicious, luscious but still very bright.
I might have expected similar results with the standard Spätlese and Spätlese feinherb renditions of the 2005 Carl Schmitt-Wagner Longuicher Maximiner Herrenberg Riesling, but in this case the wines confounded all theorizing as the feinherb seems to have gotten sweeter and the Spätlese seems to have gotten drier to the point that they may actually have experienced a point of convergence. You would probably have to drink them side-by-side to determine that the Spätlese is the sweeter wine. The 36 grams per liter of sugar in the feinherb tasted mostly dry on release—Theise called it "virtually undetectable sweetness," and while I wouldn't have gone that far, I noted in early 2007 that it was at most off-dry. Today, it is closer to a standard Spätlese profile, although the Schmitt-Wagner style was never about excessive sweetness and both wines have improved in the cellar. The feinherb may taste sweeter (and richer) than it used to, but it is still racy. It will be interesting to see if it ages from this point the way the Spätlese aged up until this point and the sweetness again finds itself moving towards the background.
I have a particular fondness for the style of Alfred Merkelbach, whose wines are well known for staying truer to their predicates than virtually anyone in the Mosel. The sweetness of the Merkelbach Spätlesen was even more modest on release than in the Schmitt-Wagner wines, and the 2005 Alfred Merkelbach Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese was one of the most achingly beautiful Rieslings I have ever consumed. The word "consumed" almost seems inapropos because the material of the wine was so ethereal as to feel incorporeal—like an Impressionist painting, it felt like experiencing Riesling as pure light rather than object. It remains astonishingly elegant, though it has added some weight in the cellar and fleshed out a corporeal presence. I admit to wishing I had drunk more of my bottles on release to have experienced more of the magic I loved so much at the time, but even if it's moved on from that, it remains perfectly put-together and surely has a few more tricks to show us. Merkelbach also made an impressive Spätlese from Kinheimer Rosenberg in 2005, which is heavier and more obvious than the Würzgarten, but that measure is still by the civilized standard of Merkelbach and its fresh acidic spine supports the fruit nicely.
I was craving more acid in a number of 2005s, though, including J.J. Christoffel's Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese, Dönnhoff's Oberhäuser Brücke Spatlese and Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Auslese, Zilliken's Saarburger Rausch Spätlese, and even the spectacular Müller-Catoir Haardter Bürgergarten Spätlese. The last of those was an absolute thrill ride on release, similar to the Diel Goldloch in its diamond-studded texture—"like star charts flickering on the roof of your mouth," I wrote in 2006—and that textural dynamism made a compulsively drinkable table wine out of fruit material that was so ripe, so sweet, and so deep and brassy in its fruit tones that it otherwise could practically have functioned as a dessert wine. It is no less delicious today, but the acidic cut has mellowed considerably and it is now essential to keep the wine ice-cold to preserve any crispness or definition. The 2001, incidentally, remains crisp and precise with the acidity suppressing its overt sweetness exactly as one would hope, but that was the last vintage from the great winemaker Hans-Günther Schwarz and only time will tell whether the 2005 will develop similarly. At the moment, to me, it seems marginally more likely to turn into an after-dinner Auslese—a delicious one, to be sure, but not the feat of intricate detail that it used to be. (The Dönnhoff Hermannshöhle Auslese is, of course, an Auslese in name as well as function and is now essentially a tropical fruit dessert in a glass, excellent if that is what you are in the mood for but a letdown if you are looking for precision or complexity.)
Jakob Schneider, however, made a Hermannshöhle Spätlese in 2005 that is now among the more impressive wines of the vintage—not just because it is a classic Hermannshöhle but because of just how much it's improved in the cellar over the last few years. I did not find it very impressive on release, when it paled in comparison to the Dönnhoff version (but justified itself by only costing sixteen dollars, delivered). Now, however, it's as textbook an example of Hermannshöhle as I've ever seen, as good as all but a few Dönnhoffs (though I've not had the opportunity to revisit Dönnhoff's 2005). One of the signatures of this vineyard is a fruit complexion that is vividly, and incongruously, red, more like deep cherry than any of the white or yellow fruits typically associated with Riesling, and the Schneider exhibits it as clear as a bell with vivacious acidity, too.
There were no 2005s I was looking forward to more eagerly than A.J. Adam's—because they bring us full circle back to 1914. Adam's collection features both a Dhroner Hofberg Spätlese and a Dhroner Hofberg Reserve, among other bottlings from this illustrious site. Here is Terry Theise's description of the latter rendition, which he offered a year later than the rest of the vintage:
First offering of a wine still fermenting when I was last in Germany in June 2006. This is a deliberate reenactment of the style of Mosel wine which existed between 1871 and 1914; it sat on its fine-lees in Fuder for 16 months, and has only the sweetness (12 grams per liter) it stopped with. Oddly it reminds me most of Nikoloaihof’s Vom Stein bottlings—“odd” because Andreas and Nikky Saahs were roommates at Geisenheim—but this is a lovely soulful thing, full of leaf-smoke and verbena and quinine and a pronounced mineral tang atop the quince. It’s masculine but not overblown; its 12.5 percent alcohol is testament to how much flavor can be packed into even such moderate body.
The Spätlese and Reserve made for the starkest of contrasts when they were both young—the former with a blatant botrytized character and fruit so tropical that I thought it could be served with a cocktail umbrella, the latter exhibiting similar flavors but with no perceptible sweetness, and consequently enthralling for its chiseled texture and sense of traction that felt like it was actively gritting your teeth for you. The Reserve then spent several years in a somewhat closed-down phase in which the fruit turned pale and aggressively dry. It has now reopened and is back to the way I remember it, with the texture of chain mail and the sugar barely, if it all, perceptible, but the sweetness not at all missed. It is still young—and so is the Spätlese, as it happens. In fact, the fruit in the Spätlese may taste even fresher and purer now than it did on release when it sported that obvious botrytis influence. Its rich and creamy material is in Auslese territory and could not be more different from the rapier-like Reserve, but it is a difference in personality and does not appear to be leading the Spätlese to an earlier decline (I have opened a few of each and neither one seems the more advanced of the two, with the Spätlese on one occasion seeming like it may even be fresher). Nevertheless, I consider the almost-dry wines like the Reserve the house specialty for A.J. Adam—they simply come across more effortless and comfortable in their own skin than both the residually sweet wines and the Grosses Gewächs-style wines he has made in recent vintages from Hofberg and Goldtröpfchen, which vividly illustrate the difference between a wine that tastes dry and a wine that actively torments with its dryness. I find it somewhat telling that Adam achieved that perfect equilibrium in his Reserve with no premeditated effort to reach a certain point of dryness or to sweeten it up, and am very happy that this style has not been lost to history. ♦
Andreas J. Adam standing above his 0.5-ha plot of old vines in Sängerei, one the best parts of Hofberg. (Photo by Lars Carlberg.)
Keith Levenberg writes an online column about wine at Cellar-Book and is a regular contributor to the London, UK-based The World of Fine Wine.