Vintage Report: Germany's 2013 Rieslings - "Top quality, tiny quantity..."

19 May 2014

Julian Campbell

These days there seem to be no end of people desperate to evaluate a vintage as early as possible. Everyone wants the first scoop, regardless of whether the wines are in a state that allows fair evaluation. During this most recent trip I even heard of notes being published from cloudy, still fermenting tank samples. Now I may be wrong, but it seems to me that unless you are a highly practiced winemaker, this is surely simple conjecture? Be that as it may, many had put forth their views and as a result my mood as I prepared for my trip was somewhat pessimistic. To put it bluntly I feared painful teeth and tart, rather aggressively acidic wines.

But let it be known here, straight away: my fear was unfounded – there are some very good wines in this vintage. Indeed there are some that rank in the realms of truly excellent.  Make no mistake, no-one is suggesting that this was an easy vintage. In fact, as late as the start of October many growers feared a truly disastrous vintage.

View over a vineyard field with houses in distance

The village of Oberhausen, in the Nahe.


Refreshingly, none of the growers I saw tried to pretend that October was a delight. There was no golden autumn here. There was plenty of warmth, but it was accompanied by plenty of rain. The conditions were perfect for the spread rot, which would have been fine if ripeness had already been a fait accompli. But as it was, the final days probably caused more than a few local grey hairs as ripeness, acidity, and botrytis (the last bringing with it a rapidly decreasing yield) converged upon a sweet spot with lightning speed.  Blink, and you would have missed it.

The problems started at flowering. After a cool, damp start to the year, a protracted flowering started later and lasted longer than usual. In many places it was still going on right up to the end of June. Such a delayed, stop start beginning to the season laid the (rather unstable) foundations for the vintage, producing uneven clusters of grapes that were going to require ripening well into late October. July and August provided a crucial fillip being hot and relatively dry, but come September cooler weather had returned, notably during the nights. By late September acidity levels were high, ripeness seemed a long way off, and neither situation looked like changing any time soon.

So far so bad, eh? Well, it certainly seemed that way, and yet somehow I saw an enormous amount of wines to get excited about. I should caveat this by acknowledging that the growers I saw represent the crème de la crème of Germany’s winemaking talent, but truly growers from all regions reported their own surprise at what a successful and balanced set of wines they had turned out. Certainly this is a vintage of high acidity, but not so high as to make the wines either difficult to taste or difficult to enjoy. And while acidity levels are definitely higher than in 2012 and 2011, they are actually slightly lower than in 2010. Furthermore, the type and character of the acidity seems completely different to 2010 being riper, less nervous and less concentrated. The wines have edge and a certain driving focus, but it seldom comes across as aggressive, in spite of marginally lower than usual Oeschle levels.

River running next to village

The view from the top of Wehlener Sonnenuhr, looking downstream to Graach and then Bernkastel, in the distance.


How is this balance so? Put simply, the presence of high levels of extract with very complex minerality seem to have bonded with these high levels of tartaric acidity to form a tripod of structural elements that against all the odds have created wines of high focus and balance. These are not Rieslings which drip with sun-drenched fruit. They are built on more earth-bound lines than that. But that is not to say they have no fruit - many have wonderful fruit of sometimes startling clarity, but it is invariably set amidst scenes of high minerality and palpable extract. Savoury,  salty notes compete with clear golden fruit and botrytis, when it is present, is almost exclusively of the very fresh, clear and pure type.

I have no doubt that it would have been a very easy vintage in which to make bad wine. Talking to people across the regions it seems there are no shortage of wines which have required excessive de-acidification resulting in flat wines that lack energy. Growers had to make the correct decisions not just at harvest, but right the way through the season. If you didn’t put the work in from day one,  this was a vintage which would really show it. If your vines weren’t in exceptional condition come October you were in for some serious problems. Furthermore, come harvest, at breakneck speed you had to make the right call as to what and how many wines you were going to attempt to make. At JJ Prum, Katharina decided that to make a range of Spatlese she would have had to pick wines with acidities and unripe fruit profiles that simply would not have made for harmonious wines. As a result it was a brief tasting at this great estate; we started with an estate Kabinet, moved straight up to four Auslese and finished with a pair of Auslese Goldcap. What they’ve made is glorious, how much they’ve made is not.

For virtually all the growers I saw the greatest problem this year is quantity. Yields for growers in the Saar, Mosel and Ruwer are down by approximately 50%. In the Nahe, perhaps the region least affected by the weather gods, they are down about 20%. In the Rheingau, depending on where your vineyards were, you had between 20% and 40% less wine. The biggest reason for these figures was the accelerated onset of botrytis. Come harvest, day by day, growers saw their yields decreasing as grapes shrivelled in front of their eyes.

rive running between fields

The Helden vineyard in Niederberg, with Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr in the distance.


So how will it go down in history? One thing that is clear that this is a vintage for Riesling lovers. From recent vintages there are elements from 2004 and 2008, some 2010 and maybe a touch of 2012 too. It will appeal to people who enjoy wines with mineral, cool fruit characters, but also those that love Germany’s diversity, for amongst all these factors, including the presence of much botrytis, the specific characteristics of site are particularly well articulated. It should appeal to lovers of the Grosses Gewachs, built as they are in the mould of the 2004s, or 2008s, with alcohol levels perhaps a degree lower than 2011 and half a degree lower than 2012, and highly complex mineral flavour profiles. And it will appeal to those who are interested in buying focussed, filigree and classically styled ‘pradikat’ wines with strong mineral personalities, very clear fruit, high ripe acid levels and the core density to last an extremely long time in the cellar.

The run of top quality Germany vintages continues. Lovers of these great wines have arguably never had it so good.