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  • October 17, 2014
  • A Bizarre GG Love Triangle

  • by Justin Christoph

I love German wine. I love GG. I love Mosel wine. Yet, perhaps, not always at the same time.

flat_iron_moselle_wines1. A Love Affair from Abroad

I must confess that when I first traveled to Germany over seven years ago tasting at the VDP’s Mainzer Weinbörse (a trade show in Mainz of many of Germany’s top wines), I didn’t really know what GGs, or Grosse Gewächse (“great growths”), were and, at the time, I was not terribly sure if I even liked them. During lunch, the conscientious waiter kept asking if I was sure that I wanted the fruity Kabinett I had ordered because it was sweet. My apprehension morphed very quickly with more frequent trips to Germany in 2008 and 2009. Soon, I found myself on the dry GG bandwagon. My wine-business colleagues back in the States were confused by the change in my tastes. My girlfriend confirmed her fears that I was crazy; now she is obsessed with trocken, or dry, German wines. The GGs were, and still are to an extent, difficult to find and often expensive in the US. The main importers of fine German wines just didn’t seem to understand, giving us a good excuse to go to Germany more often and to drink as much dry Riesling and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) as possible. I even began importing several estates’ wines, partially and selfishly so I could regularly drink the ones I liked. But now, I tend to drink a Kabinett feinherb at lunch.

2. A Brief History of German Wine Nomenclature

Such are the rapid vagaries of individual taste and general fashion. Fifteen years ago, the category Grosses Gewächs did not exist and now it’s the darling in the home country. The release is almost as anticipated as the crowning of the German Wine Queen, and GGs are making an increasing impression abroad. Grosses Gewächs is an elaboration of Erstes Gewächs (“first growth”) that several Rheingau growers had initially devised in 1992 (an offshoot of the Charta wines christened in 1983), before finally the VDP Rheingau wines that were formally designated Erstes Gewächs all changed to Grosses Gewächs.

vdp_pyramidNow, in the VDP quality pyramid, there is Grosse Lage (“great site,” or grand cru) and Erste Lage (“first-classified site,” or premier cru, and not to be confused with Erstes Gewächs, which has now merged with Grosses Gewächs), in addition to Ortswein (village wine) and Gutswein (a basic wine from around the block). However, not all German wine regions have the Erste Lage category. For example, the Mosel region skips this level. In addition, all Grosse Gewächse are Grosse Lagen, but not all Grosse Lagen are Grosse Gewächse (for instance, the Prädikat wines Kabinett, Spätlese, or Auslese from Grosse Lagen). In other words, the wines have to be legally trocken, or dry (i.e., under 10 grams of sugar per liter), to be GG. Yet what is technically dry and what tastes dry and, more importantly, what makes a balanced wine? And where do the VDP quality pyramid and GG category leave our beloved Mosel?

The Nahe, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz are the heartland for Riesling Grosses Gewächs. In these regions, the vineyards, the climate, and the winemaking converge in making high-quality dry wines. The Rheingau, on the other hand, is still trying to experience a renaissance, and the unheralded regions such as Württemberg and Franconia are beginning to be heard. The Grosses Gewächs category and the Mosel might be less compatible and not just the pursuit of quality. Is it possible or even desirable to try to render wines in the style of another region or for all the regions of an entire country to aspire to a particular style?

3. The Mosel Style and Grosses Gewächs

The two most famous and revered producers in the Mosel region, J.J. Prüm and Egon Müller do not even bottle a Grosses Gewächs or a wine that remotely resembles a GG in style. The excellent 4.2-hectare family estate of Willi Schaefer makes a splendid GG in small quantities but only if the vintage allows for this style of wine. Other important producers with great vineyards, like Van Volxem or Heymann-Löwenstein (2011), have—in most vintages—a touch more than the legal amount of residual sugar (RS) in their dry wines and were even allowed to present their high-end Grosse Lage wines at the VDP’s Grosses Gewächs event, but for some reason this dry-tasting style was not included in this past VDP tasting. Peter Lauer, a new VDP member on the Saar, showed its GGs from the 2012 vintage but not from 2013. Zilliken makes a lovely GG, but I prefer their Diabas, which is essentially the same wine in a just off-dry style. Interestingly, Dr. Loosen has begun to make an additional GG called Reserve, which matures in wooden casks for two years, harkening back to the style of wine made by his grandfather that Ernie Loosen once thought would have been too oxidative. Now consumers, even the informed ones, fear German wine labels, the ever-changing designations from the authorities and the VDP, plus all the regional variations, which complicate matters even more.

The aforementioned examples suggest that the strict GG model does not exactly fit the Mosel, particularly in sinewy, acid-driven vintages, such as 2013. Even in somewhat warmer regions, 2013 recalled the dilemma of making legally dry wines, which we experienced in 2010. The winemakers were either de-acidifying (or stripping the wine of its texture and ageability) or leaving more residual sugar (thus not being GG or sexy to sell). Another option was to be more non-interventionist by trying to better integrate the acidity with longer lees contact, but that takes more faith and at least patience. Nothing is as patient as the past, particularly while waiting for us to rediscover it.

4. When German Wines Ruled

What were the great German wines that garnered international renown before the World Wars? What was the style of these wines and how were they made? Which Mosel and Rheingau wines sold for higher prices than Château Lafite and other cherished clarets at Christie’s auctions? Which ones sailed on the Titanic?

On luxury cruise ships or at fine-dining restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the 20th century, the red wines were from Bordeaux, the sparkling wines from Champagne, and the white wines from the Rhine and Mosel(le). There were even German red wines in New York City, and not much Burgundy on particular wine lists.

How dry or sweet were most of the German wines that were listed alongside the great growths of Bordeaux and the grand marques of Champagne at the finest restaurants at the turn of the 20th century?

The image above is a menu from the Flatiron Restaurant & Café 1905, in the iconic building of the same name in NYC. On the 1905 wine list, representative for its time, there were 16 Champagnes, 12 Moselle Wines, 15 Rhine Wines, 10 Clarets, 6 Sauternes, 5 Burgundies, and only 2 California Wines on the list. Several Champagnes topped out at 4 dollars a bottle, but the most expensive wine on the list was an 1893 Steinberger Cabinet from the Rheingau that would set you back 5 dollars, while an 1881 Mouton-Rothschild was 50 cents cheaper, and a Chambertin was only 3.50 dollars. I think Lars would probably go for the 1900 Scharzhofberger for 2.50 dollars. The Mosel(le) and Rhine (which included both the Rheingau and Rheinhessen) wines were listed separately, as many restaurants did in the day (showing differentiation and importance), rather than, as is the case now (which often lumps the wines under the heading “Germany,” or even worse, under “Germany/Austria” or “Rieslings”). And they were usually listed Mosel and Rhine right after the Champagne—i.e., before Bordeaux and everything else. But what did these German wines taste like?

Most of these German Rieslings were probably somewhere between what would be termed halbtrocken (a term more or less phased out because “half” of anything is bad in German) and the higher reaches of feinherb (a legally undefined term that sounds better than halbtrocken, at least in German) or what we euphemistically call off-dry, or medium-dry. You will notice that on the 1905 list there were no Prädikats (like Kabinet or Spätlese), other than a lone Auslese. Many of the wines were listed by village—such as Trabener, Graacher, Piesporter—or hillside/site (Brauneberger, Scharzhofberger), while others included the vineyard name, for example, Zeltinger Schlossberg (which, back then, designated an area around the castle ruins of the present-day Zeltinger Sonnenuhr). In Germany, chaptalization was controversial and deemed unnatural. It was first legalized in 1892.

There were nobly sweet wines made when vintage conditions allowed for it, but as sterile filtration had not been invented, most of the wines were probably not close to being sweet, like today’s fruity Kabinett or Spätlese wines. There was , however, the designation Cabinet (also spelled Kabinet or Kabinett), which meant a special reserve wine, rather than a particular style (i.e., besides just Cabinets, there were also Auslese Cabinets and so on.) As the British wine author Stuart Pigott writes in his new book The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story, “…back then [referring to a tasting at the famous Kloster Eberbach of vintages 1893–1909], dry wines were the norm unless it said, Auslese, BA, or TBA on the label.” In the past, German wines aged much longer in wooden casks, like a Rioja Gran Reserva. These were the traditional so-called natural wines of Germany, or, better put, the naturally balanced wines coming largely from the Mosel and Rhine.

5. Back to the Future of Riesling

So what about now? We keep hearing German Riesling is going to be the next big thing again. But what do we do now that Paul Greico’s Summer of Riesling is officially over in the coming winter of our esoteric wine discontent? How do we capture that elusive style on the edge of dry and sweet that is naturally balanced, fairly difficult to make, and even more difficult to classify. Do we need to change the existing nomenclature, especially for the Mosel, or do we need another term? Feinsteherb? Do we really want another rule, or do we want rules at all? Is it better to have the wines labeled with simply the village or vineyard name, or a fantasy name? The advantage is the winemaker can do whatever they want or let the wine do whatever it wants. The disadvantage being the consumer must learn each producer’s terminology and wines. I realize that I am raising more questions than answers, but these are crucial questions to discuss in the evolution of German winemaking, wine marketing, and, most importantly, wine drinking. Rather than all GGs are good or bad or all wines must be sweet or dry. Pushing the edges and asking questions can help move us beyond these either/or paradigms. Experimentation and looking at the old methods may provide some of the answers, as well as keeping in touch with nature, climate change, and vintage variation. My suggestion would be to give the wines more time in cask and bottle, instead of rushing to release the wines before they are ready. I would also suggest more flexibility with residual sugar depending on the vintage and region. The Charta wines from the Rheingau that helped spawn Erstes Gewächs and later Grosses Gewächs, have residual sugar up to 18 grams, with a minimum acidity of 7.5 grams per liter, but sadly no vineyard names on the label. Moving to the Mosel region, several younger vintners have shown the willingness to explore these boundaries, especially Julian Haart, A.J. Adam, and Stefan Steinmetz (of Weingut Günther Steinmetz). Some of the VDP members are making exceptional (in both meanings of the word) off-dry wines; Zilliken Diabas, Emrich-Schönleber Halenberg “R,” and Keller “RR.” As wines themselves are a living entity, so is the wine culture as it moves forward.

6. 2012 Mosel Grosses Gewächs

Wiesbaden_GG_TastingI have included tasting notes for my twelve favorite 2012 Mosel GGs, as I feel this vintage is much better suited to the GG style for the Mosel than 2013 vintage, and many producers did not make an official 2013 GG, or at least did not show them at the VDP tasting in Wiesbaden. Van Volxem’s Scharzhofberger "Pergentsknopp" was the jewel of the non-GG, off-dry Grosse Lage wines, included at the end of the tasting. I was also impressed by the 2012 GGs of several members of the Bernkasteler Ring at another tasting, particularly Martin Conrad, von Beulwitz, Schmitges, and Paulinshof.

  1. Saarfeilser, Peter LauerAll three Lauer GGs shown were amazing, a grand entrance after being elevated into the VDP, and only went from strength to strength tasting them again several months later. Saarfeilser has a dark, gingery nose, with a deep and powerful palate, firm and savory, long and lively finish. 97 points.
  2. Himmelreich, Willi Schaefer—Initially very closed; quite different in style, feminine with tender peach fruit, citrus, and periwinkle; very fine, focused, and long; precise and balanced. 96 points.
  3. Marienburg "Falkenlay,” Clemens Busch—Fruit, flower, and rock, the real deal, great fruit. Very structured, hints of kiwi, tea, and honeydew; restrained by a great acid structure. 95 points.
  4. Goldtröpfchen, Reinhold Haart—This has a rather sponti nose, golden apples, and yellow spices; layered and long, medium full, almost pineapple, and balanced by citrus and acidity. Smooth and classy. 95 points.
  5. Rausch, Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken—Dark and spicy, almost incense; plush and creamy mid-palate, medium body but muscular, with a long spicy finish and integrated acidity. 95 points.
  6. Karthäuserhofberg, Karthäuserhof—High-toned white flowers, with apple skins; piquant-lime nose, a jewel in the glass. Filigree, pretty, and nuanced; great length, good concentration, yet light on its feet; noble presence, yet understated. 94 points.
  7. Marienburg "Fahrlay," Clemens Busch—Rather closed, but great potential; taut firm, very structured; deep, concentrated, chiseled stone, lots of layers that are tightly wound. 94 points.
  8. Schonfels, Peter Lauer—A sublime sponti nose, with ripe fruits drenching the minerals; key lime, rounder, but lively, with many layers. 94 points
  9. Kupp, Peter Lauer—Pleasantly herbal and savagely stony; broad, dense, and herbal; quite dry and dense like a great novel; needs lots of time to unfurl its length, may ultimately be the top GG in 20 years. 94 points.
  10. Juffer-Sonnenuhr, Fritz Haag—A wet-stone and hung-game nose, medium bodied, plush, and polished; quince, not the driest sensation, great balance, very pretty. 93 points.
  11. Uhlen "Blaufüßer Lay," Heymann-Löwenstein—Higher tone, wildflowers, and earthy; becoming quite slaty and stately, with a chewy, firm finish. Needs much more time to show itself. 93 points.
  12. Laurentiuslay, Urbans-Hof—Classic fall fruits, salt, and smoke; medium-full body, fairly dry, with good length and balance. 93 points.

7. 2013 Mosel Grosses Gewächs

As mentioned above, 2013 was a more inconsistent and difficult year for producing Grosse Gewächse and other dry German Rieslings, especially on the Mosel. I have included details on six favorites, which is in keeping with the only 28 Mosel GGs that were at the 2013 vintage tasting, as opposed to 45 Mosel GGs for the 2012 vintage. Heymann-Löwenstein’s wines were not included in my notes below, as these were very difficult to taste in August. I think they need much more time than they even usually require due to the vintage. I would really like to taste these and many other wines in the spring. I also wish, perhaps, that the wines had a smidge more RS and thus technically not GGs, as they were in the 2011 vintage.

  1. Juffer-Sonnenuhr, Fritz Haag—A spicy and smoky nose, with apples and limes; fairly weighty for the vintage, oily on the mid-palate, but racy on the long finish. A great success for the vintage with an added dimension. 93 points.
  2. Marienburg "Rothenpfad," Clemens Busch—This is quite earthy, with green fruits; taut and elegant; quietly powerful. An interesting interwoven texture, harmonizing the fruit and minerality. 92 points.
  3. Goldtröpfchen, Reinhold Haart—A sponti nose, really sings; white peach, more restrained than usual; fine fruity, layered, medium body, and a very long finish. 92 points.
  4. Ohligsberger, Reinhold Haart—White flower nose, fruity, round, and powerful; stony with good balance; full-bodied, round, and luscious. 91 points
  5. Marienburg "Fahrlay," Clemens Busch—A spicy, chalky nose, rather dry, with a great body, almost chewy. Fine citrus, needing quite a bit of time in bottle. 91 points
  6. Marienburg "Falkenlay," Clemens Busch—More citrusy, with apple peel, medium body, but lots of layers brooding beneath; fine acidity. 91 points. ♦

 Images courtesy of Justin Christoph.

Justin Christoph has worked in the wine business (auction, wholesale, retail) for 15 years. He currently imports German, French, and Austrian wines through his company Crystalline Selections. An avid Riesling lover, he often organizes tasting events and enjoys sharing Riesling-related news via his Facebook page called Riesling AC.

<< The 2012 Mosel GGs: A Report from Wiesbaden

  • As editor, I could have been even more critical here and there. Yet, as Justin knows, I made a number of corrections and suggestions in proofreading his article for my site, despite working full time during the harvest at Hofgut Falkenstein.

    For instance, a subscriber/contributor rightly points out that Erstes Gewächs has a different history (which I failed to address) and that the Rheingau definitely is the heartland of Grosses Gewächs, even if the region first began with Erstes Gewächs and is still underachieving. The same smart reader also says that Baden should have been listed. But I think Justin wants to focus on Riesling GGs in his article. There are more remarks that would be best discussed here. That’s one reason why I like to have articles by contributors. It gives a platform for other writers to provide their thoughts and opinions on Mosel wine, which is open to discussion.

    Note: The 1905 Flatiron Restaurant & Café wine list has a “Piesporter Ausbruch” wine. According to Wikipedia, Ausbruch “exists only in Austria and Hungary, not in Germany.” But this is untrue. The term was used for sweet wines made from botrytized grapes (which “broke out”) in Germany, too. In my glossary, I also define the term Moselblümchen, which is a brand of Mosel wine and means “little Mosel flower,” not a bad name for a light Mosel wine at the turn of the 20th century. But it mostly pertained to lesser-quality wines.

    • Justin Christoph says:

      Lars, Thank you for your edits. Yes, one could make a strong argument to include Rheingau, particularly with its history, to be included in the heartland. I made my comments based on tasting the GGs over the last five vintages and being disappointed with the Rheingau, and 2013 was the strongest set yet, especially, Weil, Kunstler and Eser. There are still too many producers underachieving in great terroirs in the Rheingau, however, and the strongest Rieslings are still from the Nahe, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz. I did not include Baden because the focus of my tasting and the article was Riesling.

      • You’re welcome, Justin. Thanks for writing a GG report for my site. I understand why you left out the Rheingau. The anonymous reader just felt that, regardless of quality, the Rheingau is the heartland for EG/GG wines.

  • Robert Dentice says:

    Nice article on GG’s in the Mosel.

    Lauer Schonfels is my favorite Mosel GG. The Heyman-Lowenstein GG’s blew me away at a visit to the domain in August. It is sad that they don’t really make it to the US.

    I hope the Mosel producers don’t follow producers in other regions (e.g. Nahe, Pfalz and Rheinhessen) and continue to raise their prices over $100 which is where the top GGs seem to be heading.

    • Robert, I’m glad you liked Justin’s article. Peter Lauer’s Schonfels is an excellent wine, even before it was designated GG. In a previous vintage, it had more than 9 grams of sugar and that was good. I’ve yet to taste Heymann-Löwenstein’s 2013 GGs. In the past, he was against this category, as his wines often didn’t ferment down to trocken.

      If the demand increases for Mosel GGs, then so will the the prices. Yet, as you know, many of the best dry(-tasting) Mosels aren’t from VDP members, and thus not GGs.

    • Justin Christoph says:

      Thank you Robert for your complement and comments, may I ask did you taste the 2012 or 2013 Heyman-Lowenstein GGs?

  • In my book review of “Wine Atlas of Germany,” I point out that the VDP prefers its members to write the “great sites” (Grosse Lagen) without the village names. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, only certain vineyards on the Saar and Mosel had no village name attached. These were often named after the hillside, like Brauneberger. Most German wines, however, were listed under a village name, such as Piesporter. Others had both the village and site: Zeltinger Schlossberg. The VDP now wants to be like Burgundy with its grand crus and list all of its top sites with no village name. This will be an issue for sites with the same name, such as Herrenberg, Kupp, Schlossberg, or Sonnenuhr.

  • Robert Dentice says:

    Justin – I am almost positive they were the 2012s. It was a wonderful overall tasting and vineyard(s) tour.

    • Justin Christoph says:

      Thank you for the clarification, Robert. That makes sense as the Heymann-Löwenstein wines in particular need another year after the official GG release date to really show.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Thank you for the article, Justin. Fortunately, many of the GG wines have become easier to find in the US than they were just a few years ago.

    For the Rheingau, I’ve also had impressive GGs from Spreitzer and Schönborn from recent vintages. Leitz makes some excellent dry wines as well, although these are not labelled as GGs even though he is a VDP member. I do agree that there are still many underachievers in the Rheingau, but the situation is gradually improving. Hopefully, the 2013 GG that you tried from Eser is indicative of progress at that estate.

    • Justin Christoph says:

      My pleasure, Andrew. Yes, thankfully easier, but it would be nice to see some more of the up and comers as well as the big names. I definitely agree Spreitzer is making great wines and the prices are very reasonable even after importation.

      • Who are your up-and-comers for GGs?

        Apropos Spreitzer, Stephan Reinhardt had mentioned that he recently tasted there and wonders how they will designate their dryish Kabinetts (two trocken and one halbtrocken) for the 2014 vintage, now that the VDP wants to keep this Prädikat only for fruity-sweet wines.

        • Andrew Bair says:

          Interesting comment on Spreitzer and their Trocken/Halbtrocken Kabinetts. I recently had a 2012 Kabinett Feinherb from Schloss Johannisberg that was quite good, and the same issue would certainly apply there.

          Speaking of Johannisberg, I haven’t tried enough to say whether or not I think they are “back”, so to speak. Reinhardt is certainly high on Johannisberg, although in The Finest Wines of Germany (2012), he said that their GG was not yet at the same level as their fruity-sweet and sweet wines.

          I’ve heard Eva Fricke mentioned as an up-and-comer – she was previously the vineyard manager for Leitz before starting out on her own in Lorch. Her top dry wine from Lorcher Krone is labeled as QbA Trocken.
          Unfortunately, I have not seen her wines yet – have you tried any of them, Justin?

          • Several years ago, Dan Melia and I visited Spreitzer, as their wines are considered among the best in the Rheingau. We wanted to learn more about the estate. I still feel that the Mosel and Nahe have more exciting wines. Nonetheless, I like the Rheingau and I’ve been to Schloss Johannisberg a few times, most recently with my then-girlfriend last year. I’ve liked the few wines that I tasted there.

            In March, I visited Eva Fricke, who gave us a tour of her vineyards, but I was less impressed by her 2013s from tank. Yet I had a delicious 2007 Krone at Die Adler Wirtschaft in Hattenheim. She works with Farm Wine Imports in California and Bonhomie Wine Imports in New York and New Jersey.

    • Andrew Bair says:

      Since no one has mentioned Peter Jakob Kuhn, I’ll do so now. I had a Mittelheimer St. Nikolaus GG from Kuhn a couple of years ago, and thought that it was excellent, though certainly unusual. Very much in the spirit of Gravner and Radikon.

  • Al Drinkle says:

    Andrew, to me Eva Fricke makes some of the most balanced and vividly flavoured wines in Germany (I don’t say the Rheingau because considering that all of her single-site wines are from Lorch or Lorchhauser, they are quite different from her colleagues’ wines from elsewhere in the region). Within her own portfolio, she considers Lorcher Krone (typically legally dry) and Schlossberg (usually feinherb) to be the top wines, but I usually get the most enjoyent out of her Lorchhauser Seligmacher – the “premier cru” that usually retains what I think David would consider “hidden sweetness.” There’s also a Schlossberg Spatlese and village wines from Lorch and Kiedrich, as well as an estate Riesling.

    Lars – I visited Eva a few months after you this spring and agree that early on her ’13s were a bit obstreperous. However, should you have the chance to re-try any I think that you’d find them to be of much greater charm at this point, though the Krone is still wound really tight. The other night the ’13 Seligmacher was pure, expressive and a joy to drink. I feel that across the board her ’12s were minor masterpieces.

    (note – I couldn’t figure out how to employ umlauts here. I know that “Lorchhauser” and “spatlese” require them…)

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