bottoms of bottle stacked

Germany 2016 En Primeur: The Vintage Report - All’s well that ends well

5 September 2017

Julian Campbell

Unsurprisingly it is impossible to state that 2016 can compete in the sheer breadth of its brilliance. And yet, if we narrow our field of vision, there are undoubtedly plenty of individual wines in 2016 which will happily stand shoulder to shoulder with their 2015 counterparts – and in a refreshingly different style.

Where 2015 gave us wines with huge reserves of fruit and concentrated, intense characters, 2016 is more subtle and charming, with cool fruit flavours, complex minerality and often a touch of herbal freshness. There is an exemplary purity and old fashioned refinement to the best of these 2016s which makes them an absolute delight to taste. As one grower noted, “they are more Art House than Blockbuster”. Acidities are ripe, integrated and often play in the background, making way for clearly presented, precise Riesling flavours to take centre stage. They are going to be tremendously drinkable.

The early vintage conditions were testing. The rain soaked months in the first half of the year lead to near constant outbreaks of peronospera. Spraying is an effective preventative against this yield-reducing mildew, but a window of dry weather is needed in which to spray. Growers had to be on constant guard. Left unchecked it can spread with alarming speed, causing bunches to shrivel and dry on the vines. The net effect on quality is negligible, but for quantity it can be devastating.

As mid-July approached, many growers feared the worst. Their nerves were shot, their teams were tired. Not only had one third of the total rainfall for 2016 fallen in May and June, but there had been localized hailstorms, problems with caterpillars eating young shoots, and finally a late, uneven flowering. Expectations for a vintage of quality or quantity were low.

Fortunately change was afoot. The weather was about to conduct the most exceptional volte face. As if a switch had been flicked, from mid-July onwards, the sun shone and dry, fine warm weather conditions prevailed. Late August and September were particularly hot, helping the vines catch up after the early season depression, while October and November proved to be fair, cool and dry – providing the sort of relaxed harvest conditions nobody thought possible just a few months earlier. If these sound increasingly similar to the Bordeaux 2016 vintage conditions, it’s because they were.

Speaking to growers about the vintage was a delight. Not only were they all positively beaming at the surprisingly high quality, but they were also scratching their heads as to how to categorise this vintage. Being neither ‘crispy’ like a cool vintage, nor warm like  ‘03, ‘09 or ’11, the wines possess what can only be described as an effortless charm. They possess slightly lower alcoholic strengths than the 15s, and in general they have a touch less acidity. Helmut Dönnhoff likened them to a blend of 1990, 2004 and 2008, while Frank Schönleber put them down as “a dialled down 2015, with more elegance”.  They are refined and seamless. The fruit profiles are cool, calm, with plenty of pale fleshed fruits, balanced by fresh earth and slate flavours. Botrytis was rare, neither the loosely formed bunches (the result of the uneven flowering), nor the late season dry weather proving particularly conducive to noble rot.

Unsurprisingly many growers produced a reduced crop. The lack of botrytis means there are not many wines at the very sweet end of the scale, though there are one or two beautifully pure Eisweins. The Auslese we find are of the clear, pure, refined type with a delicate sweetness that will prove especially beguiling a decade on.  At the dry end of things, quantities are generally reduced as producers had to carry out severe selections to ensure only those grapes that carried enough aromatic complexity were  included in the blends for the top Grosses Gewächs. The very best are exquisitely fine-tuned and harmonious wines that will impress for their caressing natures and clarity of flavours.

Perhaps the sweet spot for the vintage is at the Kabinett and Spatlese levels so beloved by the British market.  Here we find aristocratic wines that have both intensity and delicacy.  Many of our growers ended up producing the majority of their harvest at this level, simply because this window possessed everything you could want from a great bottle of Riesling – fantastic flavour development, balance, tension and weightlessness.

The best of these 2016s, many of which appear in this offer, are wines that do not shout and demand attention. But they are characterful and fluent, speaking clearly of the particularities of their sites. Furthermore they should appeal in the near term, while offering plenty of capacity for ageing.

Julian Campbell

Justerini & Brooks’ German Buyer