Invitations are scarce and attendees hand-picked to ensure that the Kurhaus Kolonnade is for three days a year filled with the world’s leading German wine experts. Justerini & Brooks was privileged to be invited this year to join for an in-depth look at the latest releases from all over Germany.
With impeccable organisation, the tasting is conducted in perfect conditions. Approximately 500 wines are submitted for tasting, comprising all the major German grape varieties, meticulously arranged in flights organised by region, village and individual vineyards. Over the three days, I focused on 2016 GG Rieslings from the Nahe, Rheinhessen and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, as well as the latest 2015 Spatburgunders from the Rheingau, Baden and Pfalz.
Here are my overall impressions by region, of what is clearly a beautifully classic, enjoyable, and graceful vintage for the top dry wines of Germany.
Nahe was a joy. Possibly the most consistent of all, the region is on a fine run of form at present. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that in pure quality terms it is currently the leading region for dry Riesling, benefitting as it does from an overt melange of body, shimmering fruit, elegance and minerality; squaring the most desirable elements of the Rheingau and the Mosel in to one. Donnhoff have raised the bar in 2016 with an awesome spread of wines, as the depth, power and complexity of the great Hermannshohle juxtaposes the juicy, crystalline Felsenberg effortlessly - one for the cellar and one for now.
Then came a run of wines pitting our very own Emrich-Schonleber against Schafer-Frohlich - the top two GG focused growers in the Nahe, going head to head. A superb comparative tasting that epitomised two contrasting philosophies. Emrich-Schonleber as usual turned out reverential Rieslings of clarity and precision, resplendent with stylish noble fruit and saline flavours, body and wonderful structures. Schaefer-Frohlich by contrast encourages spontaneous aromas, spicy bramble and lavender sensations in an uncompromisingly reductive, distinctive style. Three estates at the top of their game.
Rheinhessen Rieslings seem to me the most meditative. In my opinion, the best were not necessarily the most exuberant or showy, just beautifully controlled. Certainly, they do not have the raw cut and thrust of the more powerful Nahe vineyards, instead offering a more contemplative experience of bright succulent fruit, dancing floral flavours, chalk and stone. Diamond-cut purity and powdery minerals producing wines of nuance and delicacy. This too was a beautifully consistent spread of wines and the great Rheinhessen vineyards really delivered, particularly Hipping and Pettenthal. Of those, my picks came courtesy of Kuhling-Gillot and Weingut Keller. Wittman's clear, lemon grass, lime leaf and spearmint inflected Kirschspiel was also a very attractive wine. Kuhling-Gillot's Rothenberg "Wurzelecht" was overall my top Rheinhessen Riesling though, and it is with great excitement that Justerini & Brooks will be importing it this year for the very first time.
As to be expected the Middle Mosel produced wines of intrigue and grace, while demonstrating extraordinary diversity in some of the country’s most acclaimed vineyards. Wehlener Sonnenuhr for example was cast in different lights; Loosen’s a clear, fruity, enjoyable wine of ease and charm, while Wegeler’s reflected the vineyard’s “non-fruit” characteristics and thus produced a more mineral, savoury wine. Schloss Lieser’s Graacher Himmelreich, the most reductive of its flight initially, exemplified Thomas Haag’s penchant for pure, compact, citrusy Riesling; a model of clarity, refreshment and classic Mosel flavours.
The flagship vineyards of Bernkastel, Lieser and Brauneberg all yielded classic, finely tuned Rieslings but are not widely represented in the dry wine category. More often their talent is in the traditional off-dry and Pradikat Rieslings, particularly fetching at Kabinett and Spatlese level.
Reinhold Haart shaped an enjoyable Piesporter Goldtropfchen of bold fruit, but Schloss Lieser can be very proud of their debut Goldtropfchen release. It is a wine of salt and smoky spices with firmer, clearer acidity against its peers; a bounty of golden apples, melon and guava fruit flavours. It will provide oodles of early drinking pleasure.
Wines from neighbouring Leiwen and Trittenheim, in this warmer part of the Middle Mosel verged on the oily and for me lacked the spark of other villages. This was true too of the Lower Mosel in general where Rieslings tend to be more substantial. Stylistic differences aside, it seems that those who either had to harvest late or whose vineyards suffered from intense heat late in growing season produced GGs of moderate acidity and fuller body. Pleasurable, forward and easy to taste, but perhaps shorn of full aromatic splendour.
To the Upper Mosel, and the Saar, Hano Zilliken's tiny crop sadly precluded submission, but overall quality was high albeit concentrated around a limited number of producers (again, not a traditional region for top dry wine). Van Volxem picked up the mantle for the Saar and the wines showed well. Finally, the Ruwer region in general proved more delicate and herbal in style, less animated I suppose, epitomised as always by the cool, classy wines of Maximin Grunhaus.
Harvest was late in the Pfalz as heat stress had hindered ripening in the weeks preceding. Nature had forced their hand and growers needed to hold fire and risk falling acidity in order to reach the defined minimum must weight to produce GGs. Nevertheless, a leading Pfalz estate suggests that 2016 in the Pfalz is not defined by warmth in the same way that 2015 is. There are Pfalz 2015 GGs that have matured earlier than anticipated, something they ascribe to steady heat from the outset. 2016s are overall fruity, ripe and easy to taste.
2015 is clearly a great Spatburgunder vintage. Lush, noble fruit flavours, muscular structures and spicy slate profiles define the wines. August Kesseler’s Hollenberg is exemplary. Suggestions of clove, bramble and balsam are lifted atop slate spices, strawberry, redcurrant, black cherry and star anise. Simultaneously serious and seductive. What more can you ask for?
The Pfalz offered up a mix of vintages, reflecting current releases, but being spread over a large area it is difficult to pinpoint a definitive "Pfalz" style. Overall I found the wines disappointing. Much of the initial quality and intrigue when the wines were first poured fell away and ended green or blocky. The handling of oak is still a hot topic here and variously successful. Okonomeiriat Rebholz was a clear standout, providing outstanding flavour delineation, clear red and black Pinot fruit, roasted herbs, and ripe, round edges – a harmonious, generous balance.
It has to be said that, like the Pfalz, it’s hard to establish a clear sense of the region. Again it is big, and in large part dominated by co-operatives, the vineyards are somewhat ill-defined, and a gamut of grape varieties is permitted. The excellent 2015 Pinots here today were clearly the cream of Baden, and it is obviously a region with remarkable potential. Particularly around the Kaiserstuhl, the best Spatburgunders speak of volcanic minerality, furnishing the wines with more piquant, high-toned red fruit, extract and structure versus those of the Rheingau and Pfalz. Almost the full spread of Bernhard Huber GGs was submitted and, unsurprisingly, Wildenstein 2015 was Baden’s shining star. It is a remarkable step up in intensity and concentration from an already vivid Bienenberg. Fewer bramble and herbaceous notes and more radiant, bright red fruit and rocky spices dominate. Bracing and intense in the best possible way, coiled around minerals, salt, rock and compact wild berry flavours. Unbelievably long and virile, with ripe but grippy tannins and a mouth-watering acid line. It has decades ahead of it. Is there another German Pinot that comes close? I’m not so sure.