Germany 2018: The Nahe – Leading by a Nose
BY DAVID SCHILDKNECHT | JUNE 04, 2020
There is a lot to like from 2018 in Germany: both multiple attractive features and a lot of wines to exemplify them. And then there are the exceptions, including the vintage’s genuinely exciting Rieslings, of which, yet again, many are found on the Nahe.
“The heat and drought of 2018 had us breaking out in a sweat, both literally and figuratively,” wrote Rheingauer Andreas Spreitzer in introducing his report on the vintage. “We were feverish out of concern for our grapes, in anticipation of much too low acidity and too high alcohol. Luckily that anticipation went unfulfilled.” His concerns were shared by German Riesling growers across the board, along with worried expectations of a small crop that, to say the least, also failed to transpire. But the factors to which Spreitzer attributed his luck – “the combination of a high percentage of old vines with deep roots, and soils with good water retention” – are at most just two among numerous contributors to vintage 2018 success.
The steep, secluded vineyards farmed by Hildegard von Bingen's 12th century Ruppertsberg Abbey are undergoing an exciting revival at the hands of Kruger-Rumpf.
A Well-Watered Drought Year
The winter of 2017–18 – from November 2017 on, really, but especially January 2018 – was unseasonably warm and rain-rich. That wetness was to prove an enormous blessing in view of what followed, because even in traditionally dry sites, enough water accumulated deep down to last most vines through the growing season. Fortunately, too, February brought a hard cold snap to Germany’s Riesling growing regions, killing off potential vine pests, forestalling premature, frost-susceptible budding, and offering at least a belated invitation for the vines to go dormant. A rude awakening was not long in coming. April smashed average temperature records throughout western Germany, bringing 80-degree (Fahrenheit) days to many sectors. “Nothing like this had ever been experienced,” Pfälzer Jan Eymael stated flatly. As a result, just as in so many recent years, flowering was extremely early by long-term standards – and extremely rapid, too. Almost unremittingly balmy spring and early summer weather, punctuated in some sectors by a brief post-flowering stretch of heavy rain, meant that treatments against fungal afflictions of any sort could be minimized, and an absence of fungicides with their retardant influence further accelerated grape maturation.
One conspicuous vintage 2018 phenomenon is most easily expressed anthropomorphically, but reflects sound science: Vines compensate for growing seasons in which their yield is small by setting a potentially large crop the year following. And any doubts as to whether a huge potential crop would follow the penury of 2017 were removed once growers had gotten through the successful flowering of 2018. “Two thousand eighteen is what was traditionally known as a Mastjahr” – a “year of plenty” – explained veteran Helmut Dönnhoff, “one in which there was an overabundance of everything, and as a result there weren’t any invasions of birds or incursions of deer or wild boar into the vineyards, because they already had all of the ‘natural’ food they could want from the woods and meadows. There were just tons of acorns falling from every oak tree, so many that the squirrels couldn’t even get their footing underneath, and portions of the roadbed where the tractors passed repeatedly became covered in acorn flour. The excess of edible fruits was unbelievable. I think it was a reaction to the frost of 2017. Nature was saying, ‘We need children to survive!’”
High potential yields in what turned out to be a dry, hot summer (albeit without the huge heat spikes that would characterize 2019): It certainly sounds like a recipe for vine stress. Some parts of Riesling Germany – though local variations were considerable – saw virtually no rain for eight or more weeks running from late June. Low water levels brought barge traffic and in some places even ferry traffic on the Rhine to a standstill. Young vines or those in especially rocky, thin-soiled places could be seen yellowing and drooping. But these were the exceptions, and as Dönnhoff’s characterization suggests, the plant world was well enough supplied thanks to an accumulation of water during the winter and spring. “I was really worried,” relayed Johannes Leitz, “given past experience as well as everything that theory tells you about a vintage with such heat and drought. Every time I drove by [my vineyards] I kept expecting to see the foliage start yellowing... but it stayed green.” Karsten Peter made a similar observation, but added, “year of plenty” notwithstanding, that “by the very end of the summer, grapevines were practically the only foliage that was still green along our stretch of the Nahe.”
To be sure, though, retaining sufficient acidity to enliven one’s eventual wines was going to be critical. And a producer’s viticultural regimen will arguably have had as significant an influence on acidity as did picking dates and processing decisions, implicating such factors as composting, ground cover and especially canopy management, about which there remain two dramatically divergent schools of thought. Increasingly, many growers emphasize the importance of shading the fruit zone as well as of letting vines leaf out in a manner intended to divert energy away from the fruit, thus extending ripening while mitigating excessive potential alcohol. Yet there is an argument to be heard from others who, out of those very same concerns, repeatedly hedge their vines and aggressively remove leaves from their fruit zones. “The advantage of this,” insisted Andreas Spreitzer, “is that early sun exposure thickens the grape skins, which in turn retards both photosynthetic activity – delaying sugar accumulation – and respiration of acidity.”
Earliest Starts and Longest Durations
Nearly every estate that I visit (even Spreitzer came close) recorded in 2018 its earliest-ever starting date for harvest, typically anywhere from several days to a full week earlier than in 2017, which for most of them had set the previous all-time record. Only a small minority of growers cited outright phenolic immaturity as a worry, which isn’t surprising, since the entire 2018 growing season had been so precocious that come the first week of September, most sectors of Riesling Germany had already chalked up the proverbial hundred days since flowering. But while most growers’ early starts were prompted by fears of slumping acidity and spiking must weights, nothing remotely resembling the precarious pHs and desiccated berries of 2003 or the galloping sugar accumulation of 2011 ensued. And rot was certainly the least of anyone’s concerns.
“Received opinion about 2018 is that it turned out to be an easy, for some even a leisurely harvest,” noted Karsten Peter. “But for me, deciding when to pick has never been more of a nail-biter, and I’m convinced that the choice of date has never been more critical.” Gut Hermannsberg also recorded a record early starting date, but then Peter hesitated, dissatisfied with the flavor of grapes in his top sites. “Even after just a single cold night once the weather turned in late September,” he reported, “you could detect the improvement in aromatic potential. Now it was time to get serious about picking Riesling. And that’s what made the eventual difference in freshness, elegance, finesse and personality.” Klaus Peter Keller, who has long emphasized just this connection between aromatics and chilly nights, remarked: “The first late September morning when we had to scrape frost off our windshields, that’s when we knew it was time to begin picking Riesling in earnest.” As the third week of September ended, Hansjörg Rebholz in the southern Pfalz wasn’t satisfied with the must weights in his top sites, much less the flavors, and told his pickers to take the next seven days off. As if to order, frost hit Siebeldingen on September 30, and over the ensuing eight days, Rebholz harvested his Grosse Gewächse.
And yet the eventual stabilizing of acids and sugars seemed to have carried its own risk – namely, of false reassurance and a masking of less desirable but unquantifiable changes in the grapes. When I returned to Germany at the end of October 2018 for a second round of vintage 2017 tastings, I was amazed to see so many grapes still hanging. To be sure, this was often because growers had reached their legal limit of must. But even among the quality-conscious vintners on whom my reports concentrate – especially among ones on the Nahe and Mosel – a number were still actively picking, a few well into November, making 2018 for them not just the earliest but also the longest harvest in estate history. This leisurely schedule reflects the aforementioned health and apparent (quantifiable) stability of the grapes – it was a challenge to find enough ennobled or shriveled berries to produce Beerenauslese or TBA. But it does not strike me in retrospect as though hang time per se was the grower’s friend. In wines picked from mid-October on, I frequently have an impression of grape skins that were turning flabby and losing whatever crunch and aromatic diversity the chill of late September and early October nights may have bestowed. The window for Riesling perfection was thus arguably quite narrow.
A few growers I visit even left grapes hanging for Eiswein. Most of them then had to wait until January 21 to be rewarded with a sufficiently hard frost – if one considers the wines that resulted to represent a reward. With must weights that were already very high going into the frost, and not a very deep frost at that, it should hardly be surprising that the results lacked Eiswein typicity; and given that the grapes in question had been hanging, thoroughly ripe, for 17 weeks, it should also not be surprising that they were in less than robust shape. Recent experience has left some producers with impressive Eiswein credentials publicly pondering the possible end of the genre.
Not only the names have changed: Niederhäuser Klamm (left) is demonstrating its outstanding potential under the Dönnhoffs and Jakob Schneider, while In der Rossel (right) and Auf der Kertz (top of the hill at right) are being restored by Gut Hermannsberg and Jakob Schneider, who have recently registered those vineyard names.
A Crush Deserving of That Description
Even among growers who had dropped bunches and cut clusters in an effort to unburden their vines and stave off shutdown, grapes were still abundant. But nearly all those growers had convinced themselves based on the exceptionally dry summer that the yield in juice would end up being low. Surprise! The well-watered winter and late spring had left enough reserves for the vines to not only pull through, but deliver on their promise of high yields... and then some. “It stood theory on its head,” insisted Leitz. “You know that 75% juice extraction is about the top that you can expect. Yet when the first grapes from Hochheim got pressed [for Leitz’s generic bottling], there was a 78% yield of juice and 112 hectoliters per hectare!” It was not quite a repeat of notorious 1992, in which wineries were commandeering any available swimming pool into which to pump juice. But 2018 left many cellars bursting at the seams, and before the autumn was over, proprietors who aren’t shy about yields anyway were liable to discover that despite an official increase in hectoliter-per-hectare limits, they had to leave some parcels unpicked.
Not a few producers who had lacked a means to cool their incoming vintage 2017 fruit had in 2018 arranged to rent refrigerated trucks or installed expensive cooling chambers so as not to repeat their 2017 experience. These proved to be wise investments – though, in a pinch, dry ice got tossed into the waiting lots of grapes – because the weather was still very warm as most grapes began coming in, risking both further attrition of precious acidity and galloping fermentations. Moreover, growers attempting to make haste were stymied by the sheer volume of fruit, risking backups at the press. Both fruit-chilling and rapid processing conduced to desired acid retention, and so did gentle pressing and press-fractioning: discarding the juice that ran later from the press. (Whether wines underwent malolactic transformation proved relatively unimportant from the standpoint of eventual balance, since malic acid – burned off by the heat of late summer – represented a nearly negligible percentage of total acidity in the vintage 2018 grapes.) Growers were allowed to acidify their musts. But although neither taste nor testimony serve as entirely reliable guides to how widespread that practice was, I am convinced that a majority of those whom I visit refrained from acid adjustment, or acidified only selected musts destined for generic bottlings.
Among growers who generally favor pre-fermentative skin contact, some elected to direct-press their 2018s, but others expressed a belief that phenolic enrichment from the grape skins would lend “structure” to replace the usual influence of acidity. Low levels of buffering potassium and consequently relatively low incoming pH levels seemed to compensate for the pH-enhancing effect of skin contact; and seldom did I encounter collections where I felt that bitterness or a hard phenolic edge – as opposed to invigorating piquancy – resulted. Those relatively low pHs are indeed an important flavor factor. An almost universal refrain among growers is that their vintage 2018 Rieslings taste brighter and livelier, and are lower in pH, than their total measured acidity would indicate. The answer lies in what are generally low levels of (sugar-free) dry extract, a phenomenon typical of years with a very dry late summer, levels that cash out primarily as a paucity of buffering, pH-enhancing potassium (that same stuff from which vintage 2017’s high-acid Rieslings so amply benefited). But there is another compensatory factor common in very warm years as well: the generation during fermentation of efficacious and enlivening succinic acid.
Hard to Complain
On balance, German Riesling growers expressed delight with the combination of quantity and quality that vintage 2018 delivered (although as bottling time for 2019s approached, one began hearing worried rumors about unsold wine; and then the Covid-19 crisis hit). Despite an overall paucity of nobly sweet wines, vintage 2018’s high volumes, combined with a characteristic reluctance among many producers to blend away distinctive virtues, led to some of the largest collections I have encountered since back in the 1980s, which is to say, back when German producers felt a commercial need to bottle nearly every combination of vineyard designation, Prädikat, and level of dryness or sweetness that their holdings, the vintage and the law allowed. In a couple of instances, the sheer number of 2018s regrettably led to my tasting a slightly smaller share of a producer’s wines than usual; in one case, by mutual consent, I stopped halfway through and shall taste the rest of that grower’s 2018s when I return to assess 2019s.
Growers had to make proper decisions from early in the season, not to mention at harvest, if one were going to generate genuinely delicate and lively Kabinett Rieslings, but lovers of that genre will still find some gems. Much the same can be said about Beerenauslesen or Trockenbeerenauslesen: They are few, and reflect a combination of localized conditions and extreme grower determination, but the best are memorably fine. Succulent sweet Spätlesen and relatively full – but, for the most part, thankfully, alcoholically moderate – dry wines dominate vintage 2018 proceedings, the best of them vibrant and harmonious. An increasing recognition among proponents of Grosses Gewächs that bigger is not better; a recognition (albeit still insufficient) among producers of sweet Prädikat Rieslings that levels of residual sugar have become excessive; and widespread growing recognition that grape sugar is nowadays not just a wholly inadequate proxy for ripeness but a false friend, have all – along with some lucky breaks from Mother Nature – stood growers in good stead when it comes to mitigating 2018’s potential to generate overly alcoholic and insufficiently lively results.
For all of 2018’s bounty in aggregate, there are only a few addresses where this vintage’s Rieslings not only give great pleasure but generate genuine excitement. I say this not to suggest that only the minority of 2018s exhibiting poise, productive tension and dynamic complexity will reward cellaring. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that the health and stability of vintage 2018 grapes will generally be reflected in the bottle-stability of even those more vintage-typical Rieslings that are relatively serene, plush and fruit-dominated. My advice to choose carefully what one cellars is thus issued less as a matter of caution than as a matter of sheer pickiness in the face of abundance. That said, there are certainly instances of outright acid deficiency, awkward acidulation, excessive alcohol or overbearing sweetness, and these are surely far more frequent once one leaves the realm of the quality-conscious producers on whose work I concentrate. My coverage will once again be broken into reports by growing region, with the Mittelrhein and Rheingau treated together, and the Saar treated separately from the Mosel proper, which will in turn be split geographically over two reports.
In German, to have your Nase vor is to have the edge over (literally your nose ahead of) the competition, and I find myself applying that expression often to the Nahe, for reasons discussed in previous reports on that growing region. Once again in 2018, one can say that the Nahe benefited from certain meteorological advantages, though most of all from a preponderance of acutely quality-conscious and adept growers... plus, of course, outstanding Riesling sites. “This year you could ripen just about any grape variety you had planted, almost regardless of where,” remarked Helmut Dönnhoff, “even Riesling where Riesling doesn’t really belong. But even in such a warm year as this,” he added, “Rieslings from the top sites still demonstrate their superiority.” Late May and early June brought two weeks to the Nahe during which, as Karsten Peter of Gut Hermannsberg related, “it seemed as if every cloud that appeared in the sky dumped rain on us.” This additional accumulation of water just ahead of flowering, coming on top of the wet winter enjoyed throughout Riesling Germany, guaranteed that even in such steep, rocky sites as abound in this region, vines were going to make it through the heat and drought that followed stress or shutdown.
This report is based on visits with eleven Nahe producers in late August, September and November 2019, supplemented by subsequent stateside assessment of samples. Following usual Vinous practice, scores on those few wines that I have not tasted since they were bottled are expressed in parentheses as point ranges. Wines that I rated 86 points or lower are occasionally alluded to but generally not accorded a tasting note. I make exceptions to that rule for wines I still deem good values or where I think a tasting note will demonstrate some important point (which might be that I believe the wine in question is routinely overrated, or perhaps that its latest, disappointing performance requires special explanation).
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