Indeed, parts of the Rheingau had recently seen serious flooding. But nevertheless, the growers we visited, the elite by anybody's books, were cheeringly upbeat. As Carl von Schubert put, 'Riesling is the most innovative weed there is, capable of coping with even the most inauspicious of seasons'. The universal sentiment was that 'The vines maybe two weeks behind but they'll catch up. Nothing to worry about'. Plus ça change from the slightly more pessimistic 2013 outlook in other parts of Europe. By the time we left, temperatures well into the 30s seemed to confirm their optimism.
But of course, we were there to look at the 2012s; an unusual growing season that has produced a range of startling wines with characters and qualities that are almost incomparable in recent vintages.
The most universal and important theme for understanding the style of the wines in 2012 is the lack of botrytis. Across Germany rain at flowering led to coulure, or poor fruit set, which in turn produced loose bunches of small-berried, thick skinned fruit. As Klaus Peter Keller remarked, 'you can’t put in an order for berries like this, even if you’d always like to have them'. These loose bunches would become crucial to the success of the vintage, allowing botrytis preventing air to flow freely over the grapes as harvest approached. Widespread frost in October forced many to harvest then and there, with others such as Keller preferring to leave the grapes on the vines for a further week. Those that weren’t so badly affected by hail or frost, and who held their nerve, found themselves harvesting into November under sunshine and blue skies; ‘A golden autumn’ as Oliver Haag put it. This extremely long hang time allowed all the elements of the great Riesling grape to achieve full maturity in harmony, which, coupled with almost complete lack of botrytis, has given rise to grapes of startling purity, good must weights, fresh but most importantly ripe acidities and truly beautiful fruit characteristics. The only negatives are the small quantities and almost complete lack of noble sweet wines.
In the Rheingau, where, as of 2012 the top dry wines will carry the Groses Gewachs designation rather than the Erstes Gewachs of old, we visited Spretizer in Oestrich, Weil in Kiedrich and further west, just around the corner from the great Rudesheimer Berg, August Kesseler. At Spreitzer the harvest came later than Andreas can remember in his 20 years of making wine at the estate, yet still they report acidities as high as ever before. Crucially, the long hang time meant their high levels of acidity are tartaric rather than malic, giving a ripe and juicy character to the wines rather than anything aggressive. Add to that the extended maturation of the flavours in each grape and the combination is one of flavoursome power, freshness and extract; a recipe for success in anyone’s book. The inimitable August Kesseler, in Assmanshauser described the vintage as a little 2001, a little 2004, and a little something else altogether. High ripe acidities and crystal clear flavours abound in August’s dry 2012s, while his reds from the richer 2011 vintage as good as we’ve seen from this estate – they will demand attention and further cement his reputation as one of Germany’s great Spatburgunder producers.
Across in the Mosel the word on everyone’s lips is ‘classical’. Yield are low, acidities are technically fresh yet come across as ripe, fruit flavours are clear and bright. It is telling that more than one producer we saw referred us back to vintages of old. The wines from Prüm, the Haag brothers, Willi Schaeffer and Zilliken (Saar) show high levels of finesse and elegance with strong slate characteristics and gloriously fresh Riesling fruit. The gamble for some was waiting to make the most of the Indian summer, which meant vineyard health had to be spot on. Those who had put the work in were rewarded with tremendous harvest conditions, giving rise to some of the most fleet of foot and alluring Rieslings we can remember at Spatlese level, the wines are masterclasses in effortless delivery of flavour and terroir definition, while at Auslese level the wines are intense yet immensely refreshing; the 2012 vintage truly shows off the Mosel at its dancing best.
In the Nahe both Helmut Dönnhoff and Frank Schönleber reported incredibly healthy grapes at harvest, indeed neither reported any botrytis whatsoever until as late as October. The rain that did fall in October was accompanied by cool temperatures allowing for a ripening of flavours and aromas without a great increase in sugars. As a result none of the Emrich-Schönleber elegant Grosses Gewachs bottlings exceed 12.5% abv this year – a factor which merely enhances their pure drinkability without imparting any loss of flavour. Dönnhoff's range, tasted at the end of a long day, should have been exhausting such is its size, but instead it simply blew us away. From the basic trockens up through some gloriously pure Grosses Gewachs and into the fruchtig range, Helmut, with the aid of his son Cornelius, continues to craft singularly pure Rieslings stamped with incredibly precise terroir characteristics. Together, these two growers continue to prove that the Nahe can produce wines on a par with any in all of Germany.Our final stop was with Klaus-Peter Keller in Rheinhessen, a producer with a cult following who is doing more for the region than perhaps anyone else. Klaus-Peter was evidently and justly proud of his 2012s, describing the vintage as 'an affair of the heart; one of our favourite vintages' – and frankly we’re not about to argue. Keller’s wines are always marked by a sublime minerality. In 2012, the long hang time, 'like slow cooking', cool summer and large diurnal temperature swings at harvest time have produced multi-layered, profoundly clear wines, dry and sweet, of the highest pedigree. They will last a long time, yet like the very greatest of wines, are almost impossible to resist now.
**All the above wines will be offered in September following our annual German En Primeur tasting.