Generous to a Fault, Mosel 2018: Winningen to Wehlen
BY DAVID SCHILDKNECHT | AUGUST 13, 2020
The 2018 vintage in Riesling Germany was generous in both its precocious ripeness and its productivity, both of which took many growers by surprise. “Generous” also captures the extent to which most of the 2018 Mosels offer easy access with their dominant fruitiness, relatively modest acidities and often caressing textures. Preserving acidity, reining in must weights for dry wines and capturing aromatic finesse were among growers’ most urgent and by no means easy tasks, as detailed in the account that accompanied my first report in this series (which subsequently focused on the Nahe).
Joh. Jos. Prüm fielded a 2018 collection equal to this estate's iconic status, strong even at Kabinett level, thanks to an early start. “Accepted wisdom was always to wait so as to harvest with maximum ripeness," notes Manfred Prüm, but we learned our lesson with 2011 that it isn’t always best to wait."
Luck and Locality
The great luck of 2018 was a wet winter as well as considerable rain immediately following the precocious and complete early June flowering. Any further rain to relieve the hot, dry summer of 2018 was meager and varied greatly from one stretch of the Mosel to the next. For instance, late August found top sites around Traben-Trarbach – which had seen not a drop of rain for six weeks – suffering visibly from the extended drought and heat. And while outright vine shutdown would certainly tap the brakes on what were in most places record-high must weights for the time of year, acid levels were already approaching what many growers would consider the ideal point at which to pick. Yet around one large bend in the Mosel, at Erden, there had been enough August rain to turbocharge the entire ripening process. “Even in Kinheim, just three kilometers downstream from us,” noted Erden vintner Stefan Justen, “they got scarcely any rain.” But as Justen’s own collection would eventually demonstrate, the generosity of 2018 proved a mixed blessing.
The story of 2018 along the Middle Mosel is thus significantly local. And local variations, being in this case so meteorologically dependent, don’t always track with familiar expectations. The Lower Mosel’s steep, excessively drought-prone terraces are generally already drier in their prevailing weather patterns than the rest of the Greater Mosel, and especially in recent years, even Rieslings from the top producers can want have sometimes wanted for acidity. So one might have anticipated that this sector would be at considerable disadvantage in vintage 2018; yet the handful of “Terrassenmosel” proprietors whom I routinely visit rendered some very fine and adeptly balanced dry Rieslings. A period of vine shutdown probably helps account for the alcoholic moderation, while the high ratio of tartaric to less-efficacious malic acid doubtless contributed welcome animation. That ratio also explains why wines that underwent malolactic conversion (a common occurrence at leading Lower Mosel estates) shed very little total acidity in the process. What’s more, as explained further in the introduction to my initial report in this series on German Rieslings of 2018, lack of water translated into low extract levels, which cash out as low levels of potassium, so that what acidity the 2018s manage to muster (and that too varies enormously, even more by grower and individual vineyard than by sector) is not significantly buffered, thus manifesting itself as brighter, sharper and more animating than the sheer level of total acidity would lead one (or, indeed, led most growers) to anticipate. Baked or cooked aromas and flavors such as characterized 2003 and on occasion also 2011 are largely absent in 2018.
By the last week of August 2018, infantile or inadequately cared-for vineyards in some sectors such as Traben-Trarbach were withering from heat and drought, as algae saturated the shrinking Mosel.
The Qualitative Edge
It will surprise no one to learn that a grower’s overall viticultural regimen was hugely significant to vintage 2018 quality. Canopy management decisions, including when (or even if) to hedge vines, and how much (if any) leaf removal took place in the fruit zone, were surely especially significant factors in such a precocious, sun-drenched vintage. And yet, as discussed in the introduction to my first two reports on vintage 2018 German Rieslings (which focused on the Nahe and Saar, respectively), one can get into a very good argument about just what regimen was ideal.
How soon to began harvesting was also a significant factor. Nearly every estate I visit set a record in 2018, but just how unprecedentedly harvest began frequently made a considerable difference to freshness of flavors, not to mention levity. “It’s crazy to think that September 20 might have been a few days too late,” observed Daniel Vollenweider of his starting date, “but that’s the story of 2018.” And Vollenweider emphasized another critical vintage 2018 factor, because “too late” refers to his vineyards in Kröver Steffensberg, whereas he got higher-acidity and overall far superior results from Wolfer Goldgrube, where he picked considerably later. Vollenweider is convinced that this is mostly attributable to vine age and consequently root depth rather than vine genetics or terroir. Then there is the question of how long harvest extended, because stable, balmy October weather and plateauing levels of grape sugar and acidity led some growers to keep picking through month’s end or even into early November, weeks after many of their colleagues had finished. On balance, albeit with exceptions that I cannot pretend to explain, protracted picking seems not to have led to any quality enhancement.
Rapid processing and fruit-cooling capability were advantageous across the board, and fractional pressing (as detailed in my first report on this vintage) was also generally a plus, especially when it came to residually sweet wines. Given 2018 yields, a winegrower need not have shed too many tears for the juice that he or she sold off to a co-op or négociant or didn’t bother to render at all in an effort to confine estate-bottled wines to the product of gently extracted juice featuring higher acidity and fresher flavors.
In the hands of adept growers, even the steep, stony, drought-prone terraces of the Lower Mosel such as Winningen's Röttgen yielded rich but balanced dry Rieslings following the hot, dry summer of 2018.
The Stylistic Gamut
Predictably, given such precocity and heat, genuine Kabinett wines are not especially plentiful. And yet growers who set to work early were sometimes rewarded with real beauties. If one were tempted to bottle as Kabinett a product of grapes in excess of 90 Oechsle and fermentation was arrested at what nowadays count as typical alcohol levels of just 7–8%, then the resultant wines are frequently too sweet to exhibit nuance, much less to refresh. But early harvest – along with vine genetics, viticultural and terroir factors – still made possible Kabinetts from grapes at lower must weights, and if alcohol levels were allowed to creep up slightly, that tempered sweetness while preserving more than enough levity. Even dry wines that exhibit genuine lightness to accompany their ripeness of flavor are fortunately far from unknown in 2018.
The risk of excessive sweetness naturally applies even more to Spätlesen or Auslesen, of which – just as of relatively robust, full-bodied dry Rieslings – this vintage yielded an abundant crop, often from totally healthy grapes whose must weight exceeded anything that a Mosel wine grower of the 20th century would have imagined possible without the aid of botrytis or shriveling. Desiccation sometimes pushed even healthy grapes into the realm of Beerenauslese. Given how little botrytis there was overall, many practitioners of residually sweet Riesling did not venture past Auslese (or, in rare instances, even past Spätlese). But the September rain that broke the summer drought served to ignite small pockets of rot, and with diligence, skill and patience, some growers ended up fielding a wide range of nobly sweet wines, occasionally even in exceptionally high volumes. That phenomenon, too, varied considerably by locality. Wehlen and Zeltingen – where the damming of the Mosel produces higher humidity and a greater likelihood of autumn fog – were clearly primed for production in the upper Prädikat levels, but they also shared with neighboring Erden a slightly higher level of late summer rain, all of which is reflected in the outstanding collections of nobly sweet wine from Dr. Hermann, Markus Molitor, Joh. Jos. Prüm and Selbach-Oster. It goes without saying, though, that not all rot is created equal – not even all of that which any given grower deems “noble” – and there are instances where culling of clearly deleterious rot was called for, as well as instances where what got bottled as Auslese, Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese was overly fungal, did not conduce to genuine complexity, or (an acute risk in 2018) did not exhibit a concentration of acidity sufficient to balance high residual sugar.
Vintage 2018 collections also vary conspicuously in another respect that reflects how producers responded to such generosity of both ripeness and volume. Quite a few of them – and not just the minority that practiced extensive botrytis selection – fielded the largest number of bottlings that I can recall at their addresses. But others had the opposite response to vintage generosity, concluding that the number of lots to merit showcasing in separate bottlings was comparatively small, and therefore rendering wines behind which stand very large volumes.
Drought inhibited botrytis, but given high yields and elevated must weights already in healthy fruit, a few ambitious Moselaner reaped bumper crops of TBA in 2018. Most of Markus Molitor's 16 TBAs from this vintage were sitting beside me as I tasted, still fermenting in November 2019, and years form release. The card reads: "TBAs have got to ferment, please leave the heat continuously on level 3."
What to Look For
The forward personalities of the 2018s recommend them to lovers of Mosel Riesling who do not have stocks to draw on, and their abundance guarantees that many of them – though this varies greatly by estate – will remain on the market (if no longer available at the cellar door) into 2021. Those looking to add to existing collections will want to be no less selective, and perhaps even a bit more so, than they were from vintage 2017, particularly if they place value on levity and acidity. Generally speaking, I do not anticipate the 2018s meriting such long bottle aging as have Mosel Rieslings of numerous other recent vintages, but the few really outstanding collections of upper-Prädikat wine will certainly transcend that generalization. At the opposite end of the price scale, although I had anticipated that the large crop might lead to significantly less-successful entry-level wines, I was delighted by how many overachievers I once again encountered among generic bottlings.
This report, covering the stretch of Mosel from Winningen to Wehlen, is based on visits with 23 producers in September and November 2019, supplemented by subsequent stateside assessment of samples. Since I group my reports according to winery location, this part of my Mosel coverage incorporates extensive notes on the important Saar Rieslings of Markus Molitor, just as my subsequent report covering Graach to Grünhaus and 32 additional wineries will incorporate notes on Saar Rieslings from Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt and Nik Weis (St. Urbans-Hof). Conventions regarding nomenclature and scoring are those followed in my past reports and detailed in the introductions to my coverage of vintage 2015 and 2014 German Rieslings. I reference A.P. (official registration) numbers only where this is necessary to disambiguate two otherwise eponymous wines; and the registration number is assumed to be that of the year following the vintage, unless otherwise indicated. Although I have frequently stated that my convention in reporting for Vinous is not to include in a wine’s name information that does not appear on its label, technically speaking the identifications Goldkapsel and Lange Goldkapsel have represented an exception. But it’s worth noting that, happily, this will be less and less the case, as it seems that the authorities are now routinely turning a blind eye to the initials “GK[A]” or “LGK[A]” appearing on labels, thus encouraging growers to include them. Any wine that I have not tasted since it was bottled is, as usual, allotted a point spread rather than a single numerical rating. I generally do not review wines that I have rated 86 points or lower, but I make exceptions for ones that I nonetheless find intriguing, as well as for ones that represent either good value, or a disappointment about which I think readers deserve to learn in detail.
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