Vintage Report: 2011, an extraordinary German Riesling vintage

22 May 2012

Giles Burke-Gaffney

If only Bayern Munich could show such brilliance and consistency, then I would not have been commiserating on Saturday night. But like the 2011 Riesling, I am not bitter.

This run of great German vintages is quite frankly embarrassing. 2011 is yet another. However the growers I met with on my buying trip to Germany last week certainly weren't blushing, they were too delighted with what they had in front of them. Karthauserhof's Christoph Tyrell thinks this will prove to be one of the benchmark vintages in the estate's 200 year history, producing 4 different cuvees each of BA and TBA, something they have never done before. Whilst Helmut Donnhoff considered the quality and health of the grapes "some of the best I have ever seen."

More detail will follow in our German Riesling 2011 offer that will be launched later than usual, in mid September, but in short this was a season that started early and finished as usual at the end of October and beginning of November. The "hang time" was therefore very long, thanks to unseasonably cool wet weather during the summer that slowed down an early Spring. This, the hot September and an October of uninterrupted sunshine have really made the vintage. A potential spanner in the works was hail at the end of August. The stones were reportedly somewhere between golf and tennis ball size but mainly effected roof tops and car windscreens (oh and one of Prum's neighbour's cats.) In the vineyards there was less concern, the stones being big enough to wipe out entire branches or bunches rather than leave individual, rot-inducing split berries on the vines. The fact that dry fine weather immediately ensued also helped to prevent the onset of rot. The Schaefers wryly commented "we had planned to carry out a green harvest at that time, but nature did it for us in the end!"

Growers struggle to compare the wines with other years, 2009 and 2007 being the closest they can get, but I don't feel this really does the 2011s enough justice. Thanks to the hot and sunny end of season this is another "powerful" and ripe vintage like 2009 but the wines are clearly different. For despite, analytically, betraying similar lower than average acidity levels, the wines taste fresh and very mineral. Terroir and vineyard definition are as transparent in the sweeter wines as I can ever remember them being over the last 10 years. The dry, sunny end of season meant that late harvest grapes were either shrivelled without the aid of botrytis or the noble rot that did appear was a very pure dry form. There are some great dry wines, powerful Kabinetts and utterly stunning Spatlesen and Auslesen. The Auslesen and BAs ranked among my favourite wines, though. The lack of traditional noble rot means they are not clouded but heavy honeyed and dried apricot richness, rather they are pure, bright and light in colour, intense - magnified versions of Kabinett and Spatlese. This to me makes it a uniquely German late harvest vintage, where the sweeter wines mix great intensity of flavour with a sublime delicacy. As August Kesseler says, "German Riesling on slate stands for lightness, intensity and drinkability." I could not agree more.