Nature landscape

Vintage Report: Germany 2019 - Riesling’s Reign

21 August 2020

Julian Campbell

Riesling’s Reign

Germany’s 2019 vintage is clearly rather special and has even been described as a potential “vintage of the century” by one commentator. However, had this label been bandied about at harvest time you’ve have been hard pressed to find a grower to confirm that view – over repeated zoom calls during the summer I was met with surprise and delight at how the vintage has turned out. From best-ever estate wines to aristocratic Grosses Gewächs, and many a luscious-yet-lively sweetie, there are some truly thrilling wines in this years’ 2019 offer. Stylistically it is a hard year to pigeonhole as overall the wines present a wonderfully complex and somewhat rare blend of intense minerality married to ripeness. As Frank Schönleber noted, the wines have “the flavours of a cool vintage allied to the structure of a warm one” - a decidedly delicious combination and one that is guaranteed to win many friends in the years to come.

Flowering occurred later than in 2018 and was preceded by a period of unsettled weather which contributed to the relatively uneven fruit set that was to become a feature of the vintage. After the generosity of 2018, some suggested the vines simply recognised their limitations; almost all growers reported less bunches per shoot, smaller average bunch size and very small berries with thick, hardy skins – not great for yields, but great for both fruit health and wine quality.

After a hard frost for parts of the Saar and Ruwer – the Von Schuberts lost almost half a crop on the 5th May - the bulk of the summer was characterised by hot and at times scorching weather. Most regions, bar the middle Mosel, also saw a period of drought that lasted from May until the end of August. Up until this point it was looking like a re-run of 2018, a vintage that saw little let up from the summer warmth right the way through to harvest. Indeed, the heat spikes were even more pronounced in 2019, with three short periods over 40 degrees Celsius. But crucially, in 2019, they came earlier in the season, when the effects on the final grapes are felt less keenly. Even more significantly, the heat of the summer came to an abrupt halt with the arrival of sporadic mid- September rains and cool temperatures– surely a defining factor in the complex mineral and non-fruit elements that so many wines display.

Most growers did experience significant sunburn (to their grapes) – “even to the stems in places” Thomas Haag told us. Scorching days in July caused many bunches to simply shrivel and dry on the vine. From the off, sorting was going to be key, yet as Dorothee Zilliken cheerfully noted “if I had to choose one problem each year, it would probably be sunburn – all you have to do is sort and the problem, from a quality perspective, is solved”.

Small berries, loose clusters, much lost to sunburn, a touch of frost, and certain growers reporting hydric stress all adds up to a diminutive vintage. But also, given the small, loosely set thick-skinned grapes, one best suited to handing the rains that fell in September and October. Indeed “September was not a problem at all” Frank Schonleber reported, “and up until early October everything was perfectly healthy, we had regular rain but it always dried off easily. After that, when the first signs of botrytis appeared - then it was like a train, pretty hard to stop”.

Harvest for most started in the third week of September, generally one week later than in 2018, but earlier than growers had predicted at the start of the season. As noted above, the spectre of harvest rain was ever present, and this constant threat made for a complicated picking schedule. “It was a fairly dynamic harvest” Thomas Haag reported drolly.  Most growers agreed that these final weeks, layered on top of the ripeness of the vintage, are what has produced this curious but highly interesting combination of complex stony elements with a sense of innate juiciness.  As the harvest progressed many simply decided that a smaller range of top quality Auslese was a more appealing prospect than holding out hope for a break in the weather and as such quite a few ranges end with glorious Auslese produced from golden shrivelled grapes, untouched by botrytis. Others were able, through determination and sheer picking numbers to craft exceptional Long Goldkaps and even Beerenauslese, pure botrytis layered on top of extremely ripe grapes.

In the dry world, growers have produced many a truly wonderful wine brimming with complex mineral flavours and ripe acid structures. They have a character that purists will love, and a charm sure to win new friends. From the Mosel and its tributaries, we tasted some of the best dry wines we can remember – with a level of balance and ripeness that would have been rare to encounter just a decade ago. Part of that is climate, another part is surely growers’ desire to adapt and focus as fully on their great dry wines as they do their fruity and noble sweet styles. It made for some wonderful tastings this year, with highlights at all qualitative points.  The Nahe dry wines, in particular those of Emrich-Schonleber are up there with some of the best dry wines we’ve ever tasted – ridiculously precise wines that have both detail and a sense of soul. From across various regions, three or four estate wines are up there with the best I’ve ever tasted, wines of great drinkability, complexity and interest – while the best Kabinetts and Spätlese of the Mosel are thrilling wines combining ripeness with a fascinating lightness of touch.

In terms of comparisons, many growers likened the vintage to 2015, with perfect flavour ripeness and balance, though with slightly less extract, less punch, and more classicism. Some suggested 2001, one even went as far back as to suggest 1939!  It is in short, a vintage of wonderfully balanced, complex wines that show off all of this great grapes finest attributes. Even touched by rain, Riesling’s Reign continues.

On Thursday 10th September in lieu of our annual tasting, we were delighted to have hosted a Zoom Webinar with six of Germany’s finest winemakers from across the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. We welcomed Oliver Haag, Thomas Haag, Katharina Prüm, Christoph Schaefer, Maximin von Schubert and Dorothee Zilliken to our virtual round table for a discussion on all things 2019.