Mosel Riesling 2016 Part 1: From Extremes, Equilibrium


From Wehlen to Winningen

The meteorological vicissitudes that have plagued German Riesling vintages over the last two decades have been so relentless that readers are liable to become inured and fail to appreciate the challenges growers have faced. Those challenges are also easy to overlook considering that when all is said and done, with only three or four exceptions, top-notch growers have had no problem getting their Riesling to fully ripen since 1987. Two thousand sixteen not only perpetuates the streak of vintages that rewarded growers with ripe fruit, it also delivered weather conditions that were extreme by absolutely any standard. And yet, the resulting Rieslings are anything but extreme, either statistically or organoleptically. In fact, if one were seeking a Latin motto for the 2016 vintage in Riesling Germany, it might be “ex extremis aequilibrium.”

Thanks to talented growers like native Markus Hüls, Martin Müllen and Daniel Vollenweider, the vineyards of Kröv – here the Steffensberg – are among many downstream from Erden to once again demonstrate why they were so highly-rated during the late 19th century heyday of Mosel Riesling

A Drama in Three Acts

The vintage unfolded in three dramatically contrasting acts. The first of these featured the wettest, most unrelentingly dreary – and consequently most worrisome – late spring and early summer that any grower could recall, one in which peronospora (downy mildew) ran rampant up and down the Mosel. Even with more frequent than usual helicopter sprayings in most sectors and with growers applying treatments (whether organic or not) on an almost continuous basis – often on foot, since many top Mosel vineyards are too steep for tractors – the rain kept washing them away. Many estates could not keep up, or reach their vines in time, and suffered severe crop losses, especially since conditions did not improve during a spun-out late June flowering. (With peronospora, “in time” can be measured in hours: a part needed to repair the Zillikens’ tractor was one day late in arriving and it cost them half of their crop.) “It can be depressing,” reported biodynamic pioneer Clemens Busch with obvious understatement, “when you work so hard while watching yields drop in front of your eyes.” 

Against that frightening background, it seemed little compensation to Mosel growers that they had been largely spared the brunt of an historic late April wave of frost that marched across much of northern Europe, or that May hail damage on the Mosel was largely confined to two sectors (around Graach, and subsequently between Hatzenport and Winningen). How well Mosel growers ultimately fared during this distressing and depressing first act of the 2016 viticultural drama depended not just on viticultural skill and tenacity but to a large extent on sheer luck. Some sectors, such as around Erden and Ürzig, simply escaped the ravages of downy mildew. 

Act two of the 2016 drama arrived in mid-July with whiplash speed and intensity. After having in many places delivered rain equivalent to the average for an entire year, the weather turned hot and dry even by standards set in such scorching summers as those of 2003 and 2015. In fact, September of 2016 – largely on account of its first half – set heat records on both the Rhine and Mosel. “At the end of August, we had three days in a row that reached 38 degrees C. [100 degrees F.],” noted Reinhard Löwenstein, echoing the reports of many growers. This turn in the weather certainly burned off remaining peronospora, but the sun also burned exposed grape bunches to an unprecedented extent. And although conditions were largely conducive to letting ripening catch up and even out, young vines and those in exceptionally fast-draining, bare rock sectors of the Mosel (most notably between Hatzenport and Winningen) suffered drought stress, with consequent vine shutdown and crop losses to berry dehydration.

Sundials often mark especially choice spots. Here, In der Kranklei within Ürziger Würzgarten. This stretch of Mosel was largely spared from peronospora in 2016, though some growers harvested at precariously low acidity

This was an interesting vintage against which to test the hypothesis that conditions in spring and early summer are critical to how Riesling vines react to subsequent heat and drought. Whereas in unremittingly dry 2015 not only were acid levels conserved but the foliage stayed green through harvest, in 2016 some sectors experienced plummeting acid levels and foliage that began to shrivel or turn yellow by harvest time. Presumably, those vines (as had been the case throughout Europe in 2003) had set themselves up metabolically for water without end before being suddenly struck by drought and heat. And yet, other sectors and growers boasted of acid levels in line with late 20th- and early 21st-century norms. Access to underground sources of water, moisture retentiveness of soil, and depth of root penetration were among the obvious factors that made a difference in what is clearly the most widely varying parameter among 2016 vintage Mosel Rieslings. (Lower acidity appears not to correlate with peronospora; in fact, several villages that were conspicuously spared that scourge were ones in which unusually heat-retentive, fast-draining soils led to plummeting acids.) But regardless of whether acid levels were in the 6 to 7 or the 8 to 9 grams-per-liter range, they seem to have been overwhelmingly of the more efficacious and pleasant tartaric sort, rather than malic. That observation is supported by experience at those addresses where Riesling frequently undergoes malolactic transformation, in the course of which total levels of acidity generally dipped only slightly in 2016 and the resultant wines retained liveliness and refreshment value.

Act three of the 2016 drama commenced in late September with the sudden arrival of chilly but clear weather. Most growers maintain that this was a godsend, and many believe it was critical to the positive aromatic evolution of their grapes. Certainly the refinement, complexity and animation shared by so many 2016s bear them out. The Mosel’s growing season is always late relative to that of most Rhine sectors, so very few growers felt compelled to begin picking before the cool weather arrived, and because it stayed clear and virtually free of rain, most ended up harvesting at their leisure, often well into November. “You had time to strategize, and to rest up on weekends,” was how many put it – an improbably welcome conclusion to what had begun as one of the most nail-biting and fatiguing seasons in any grower’s memory. 

Even though it seems intuitively reasonable that growers whose yields had been severely cut by downy mildew early on might end up with prematurely elevated must weights, I encountered almost no instances on the Mosel where this was the case. Perhaps the shock administered to vines by those infections set back their evolution, thus compensating for the fact that there were only a small number of clusters left to “feed.” And that small minority of Mosel growers I visited who were seriously picking before the end of September, and at potential alcohol levels already at 12% or higher, turned out wines of harmonious ripeness (Reinhard Löwenstein being a prime example). Overwhelmingly, in fact, 2016 is a vintage of modest must weights, which is one reason why so many dry Mosel Rieslings from this vintage are delightfully buoyant, infectiously drinkable, and transparent to their sites.

One of several long-renowned sites within today’s Ürziger Würzgarten, the Weltersberg is being championed by German wine trade veteran Dr. Enno Lippold in a collaboration with Benedikt Pfeiffer that is barely more than hobby-sized, but has established important stylistic benchmarks

Relishing Restraint 

In sum, 2016 is a vintage whose wines are quite remarkably restrained and consistently fine considering the overall extremeness and local heterogeneity that characterized the growing season. I have seldom enjoyed Rieslings that were so effusively floral, a characteristic that conspicuously charmed tasters during the Mosel’s first, late 19th-century triumph on an international stage. And if how often you find yourself resorting to mineral descriptors is one measure for you (as it certainly is for me) of a Riesling’s appeal as well as its profundity, then 2016 won’t disappoint. Texturally too, the 2016s often flatteringly caress without sacrificing animation or forgetting their duty to refresh. And their alcoholic levity is scarcely ever accompanied by meagerness – on the contrary, they often evince a welcome sense of stuffing. To be sure, though, tasters who crave surmaturité of fruit flavors and who find green herb, lime or green mango accents a bug rather than a feature in Riesling will likely not count 2016 among their favorite recent vintages.

A common denominator among 2016 Mosel Rieslings is the relative paucity of noble botrytis, although some collections appear – at least superficially – to belie that, because certain growers whose reputations are significantly vested in upper-Prädikat wines managed to select sufficient overripe, wind-desiccated or nobly rotten fruit to render a range of them, albeit in very small volumes per bottling. At times, such nobly sweet 2016 results are strikingly successful. But there are also many instances where too little acidity or less-than-pure botrytis (often engendering overtly fungal scents) calls into question the wisdom of having attempted upper-Prädikat bottlings, not to mention their futures in bottle. A widespread frost on the morning of November 30 resulted in the most significant number of Eisweins in several years, many of them benefiting from that relatively early picking date to display admirable purity of fruit and transparency. That said, some Eiswein bottlings, as usual nowadays (especially given the widespread employment of plastic film to deter birds, which also traps humidity), betray fungal hints of botrytis. And for fruit that did not freeze sufficiently on November 30 but did on December 5, the intervening thaw and hang time were often conspicuously less than beneficial.

Old vines in Enkirch’s Ellergrub – among many sites along the towering Starkenburg massif – feature in superb recent wines from Immich-Batterieberg and Weiser-Künstler

Deliciously Drinkable – But Don’t Forget To Cellar Some

Readers who have followed my writings will know that I take a highly skeptical view of prognoses of ageworthiness in wine, and consider the most important rule governing bottle evolution to be: The wine always has the last laugh (and may well make a fool of you and me.) That having been noted, I find a strong correlation between harmonious, unexaggerated wines that display youthful equilibrium and ones that impressively stand the test of time. I expect that the best Mosel Rieslings of 2015 – and certainly those in the realm of noble sweetness – will outlast their 2016 counterparts. But, on the whole, I expect the better 2016s to nicely repay time in the cellar. What strikes me as obvious, though, is that few of them demand delayed gratification. And I will also be surprised (as I won’t be with 2015s) if they go through awkwardly closed or difficult periods. 

This report and its successor (which will cover the stretch from Longuich to Graach) are based on visits between late July and mid-September of 2017 with 49 Middle and Lower Mosel growers, supplemented by subsequent stateside retasting as well as the assessment of one additional collection entirely via samples. The Saar and Ruwer, nowadays subsumed by wine law under “Mosel,” will be covered in a subsequent report, although outstanding Saar Rieslings from Markus Molitor and Nik Weis (St. Urbans-Hof) are reviewed as part of my coverage of the Middle Mosel since that is where those estates are based. Following usual Vinous practice, notes on those few wines that I have not tasted since they were bottled are expressed in parentheses as point ranges; and wines I rated 86 points or lower fall below the usual cutoff for publication. I make occasional exceptions to that last practice, though, if a wine represents a good value due to its low price, or in instances where I think I owe readers an explanation of my reservations concerning a wine that disappointed high expectations or that has received praise from fellow critics. Details regarding the conventions of nomenclature and scores followed in my reports, including an explanation of when and why I reference A.P. (official registration) numbers, can be found in the introductions to my earlier articles on 2015 and 2014 German Rieslings. 

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