The Vintage Report: Germany 2017

28 August 2018

Julian Campbell

2017 was a vintage that threw up its fair share of challenges across Germany’s various winemaking regions– a summer like spring causing a super early start, frost, troubled flowering, hail for the unlucky, and early onset botrytis forcing a highly selective and early harvest.  Despite these conditions the ingenious Riesling grape, particularly in the hands of Germany’s greatest growers, by and large fared amazingly well. There are very many wines here that will not look out of place when viewed next to their sibling vintages of ’16 and ’15 – albeit in a markedly different style. And after all, isn’t that why we buy these wines year in and year out?

If there was one sentiment that prevailed across most of the growers about the quality of their 2017s it was surprise. After some or all of the above events impacting their growing season, growers simply weren’t expecting to find such great wine in their tanks and fuders after fermentation.   But as the recent run of great vintages has shown us, Riesling has a knack of adapting to the vagaries of any season and in the hands of skilled winemakers, will produce excellence when other varieties would struggle to find their footing.

There are plenty of very serious wines in 2017 – indeed there’s exceptional concentration in many wines, high levels of dry extract and very good but also very ripe acidities. The key factors in creating this unusual combination were a) a hard hitting bout of late April frost which reduced yields across the region, b)  generally troubled flowering conditions which gave rise to loose and sporadic and small berried bunches and c) a growing season characterised by dry rather than hot weather, which saw small concentrated berries further intensified. Acidity levels sit somewhere between 2015 and 2016 (occasionally, according to Julia Keller, more like 2010); and extract levels are way higher than are generally found in other early vintages.

Crucial to understanding 2017 is that while it was certainly early, it wasn’t necessarily as a result of the heat of summer. In fact, Frank Schonleber told me there were very few days over 30 degrees in the growing season. What really kicked started this vintage were the summer like conditions in March – when the temperature was at an almost unprecedented 30 degrees for a number of days.

The boost this gave the vines was to provide the staging ground for the one weather event that almost everyone felt to a greater or lesser degree. On the 20th April the mercury plunged and temperatures dropped to -9 in places. Waking up on the 21st growers from Rheinhessen to the Saar feared the worst – the March heat put many vines four weeks ahead of schedule, leaving precious new growth perilously exposed. Hardest hit were those without the steepest sites but even mighty Mosel vineyards like the  Wehlener  Sonnenuhr  and  Brauneberger  Juffer  Sonnenuhr were affected.

Fortunately, almost to a winery, the damage was far less severe than originally thought. The frost’s indiscriminate hand either took just a few buds from a single cane, or growers, particularly in the Nahe and Pfalz reported strong second generation growth. In Frank Schonleber’s opinion, the secondary growth was practically indistinguishable from the first by the time harvest arrived – and given the utter beauty of his top wines, one is inclined to believe him. Down in the Pfalz at Rebholz, Hansjorg marvelled at the twofold cool and warm nature of his vintage, the result of harvesting wonderfully flavoursome and ripe first generation grapes with crisp fresh incisive second generation bunches. The results here are also stunning.

In most growing regions there were reports of smattered rains in August and September, particularly up in the Mosel-Saar & Ruwer valleys, often helping to alleviate previously dry conditions, plumping up the small intense concentrated berries. Nights were reported to be cool throughout the season, even during the full flushes of summer, so the grapes had no difficulty maintaining acidity. According to many growers I spoke to, this cool/warm dry/rain cycle creates a strong interplay between the vines roots and the soil, which in turn seems to have imbued many of the wines with a wonderful sense of salty extract which tends to manifest right on the finish, rounding off the fruit profiles with a saline freshness that makes you come back for more again and again.

Of course regular showers are also perfect for the spread of botrytis. As result of this, and depending on where you were,harvest was either a relatively relaxed affair or undertaken at speed. Serious growers in most regions had a huge amount of negative selection to carry out before the harvest proper, as rotten and shrivelling berries posed a further threat to already precarious yields. Both JJ Prum and Willi Schaefer ended up harvesting just half an average crop, the latter commenting that the whole harvest required levels of selection normally reserved for harvesting Beerenauslese quality fruit, an incredible level of dedication. Also in the Mosel, Thomas and Oliver Haag at Schloss Lieser and Fritz Haag both reported plenty of botrytis in their top end sweet wines, and the resulting, but sadly rare, BA and TBA bottlings are impeccable and well worth hunting down…

Further south, in the Rheinhessen and Nahe regions, harvests were more measured. The Kellers suffered one final blow in August as a localised hail storm swept through some of their top vineyards, in Morstein and Westhofen specifically, leaving one side of each vine “like a warzone” – yields took a significant battering here, a great shame as the range is characteristically brilliant.  Hans Olivier Spanier reported very few issues, noting “2017 was a very easy vintage to be biodynamic - we had a dry harvest of small concentrated berries with a very beautiful stable acidity. These wines are very intense”. The sometimes taciturn Frank Schonleber was understandably delighted with his range and with only a 20% loss in volume, one of the luckier ones, “After the frost we had no hail, no water stress and we could pick when we wanted, mostly between the 4th and 18th October. To me these really feel like they are somewhere between 15 and 16, more elegant and finessed than the ‘15s, riper and more charming than the ‘16s”

To sum up 2017 in a nutshell would be to say that there are a number of exceptionally delicious wines with great ripe acidities and some of the most fabulous, intense fruit profiles I can remember tasting. They do not suggest they are going to take forever to come around and yet they are far from lightweight. Their sheer concentration and relatively high pH levels means they coat and caress the palate rather than etching themselves upon it. Some growers talked of it being akin to 2001, some said they thought somewhere between the 2002 and 2004 vintages, many referenced some kind of hybrid of 2015 and 2016. What seems clear is that they are going to give a huge amount of pleasure, probably earlier than both ’15 and ’16. In many cases we expect a wonderful generosity of creamy, supple fruit to emerge with up to a decade in bottle– one it will likely be very difficult to resist. There are many excellent dry Grosses Gewachs wines on offer, wines of structure, texture and concentration, while the best of the Kabinetts, Spatlese and Auslese are some of the most lip-smackingly delicious of the past decade. There is plenty to get excited about in this surprisingly good vintage – we hope you enjoy the wines as much as we do.