The VDP Grosses Gewachs Preview 2019

The VDP Grosses Gewachs Preview 2019

Friday 6th September 2019
by Mark Dearing

Here Comes the Sonnenuhr

Here comes the sun (doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

If there was such a thing, then The Beatles’ 1969 single “Here Comes the Sun” is surely the soundtrack for vintage 2018 in Germany.

But while the balmy optimism of this iconic song is much loved, the official weather stats put the kibosh on the dreamy, nostalgic idea that the sixties was the endlessly warm, happy and buoyant decade that images of the Beatles and Woodstock might have us believe. Here in Europe at least, most people spent the swinging sixties attached to their umbrellas, desperately trying to keep their mop-tops dry. Unromantic it may be, but George Harrison’s best-loved composition is perhaps but a tiny aperture; a moment of cheerfulness and sun-kissed happiness in what might otherwise be described as the “rather damp, cool and only fleetingly sunny sixties.” “Summer” in the 1960s and 1970s chiefly translated as a pleasant June and hot early July, followed by generally irregular, turbulent late-July and Augusts that often brought humidity with them. Steady hot and dry summers were a rarity.

Not so in the twenty first century. In the space of just a few decades, we have experienced global warming on an unprecedented scale. This in turn has brought about fundamental stylistic change across Europe’s most historic wine regions. Countries such as Germany, whose wine regions sit at the assumed northernmost limit of quality wine production, are regularly said to have benefited from global warming. For in a German context, the past two decades have seen more frequent “riper-styled” vintages than ever before. 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2017, and now 2018, are all vintages that, not long ago, would only have been seen two or three times a decade. It certainly seems that sunshine is increasingly the norm in Germany.

It was therefore fascinating to be back in Wiesbaden to assess how 2018’s steady dry, warm temperatures had played out amongst Germany’s top VDP dry wines (Grosses Gewachs); the category most regularly cited as a beneficiary of climate change. In the case of Riesling, it’s true that higher overall must weights and earlier, drier harvests, have allowed better selections of clean, non-Botrytised grapes (often) from the warmest and oldest parts of the vineyard. More than that though, a greater number of producers than ever before have the desire, as well as conditions, to produce beautiful dry wines alongside the traditional “fruity” styles of Riesling that have varying levels of residual sugar. From a commercial perspective, dry wines have attracted a whole new cohort of drinkers who prefer fuller, clearer, less dauntingly austere Rieslings that still represent Germany’s finest terroirs and retain a profound and uniquely German sense of minerality. In some regions, like the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, dry Riesling is still relatively nascent territory, in others, like the Rheingau, Pfalz and the Rheinhessen, dry Rieslings have a long and esteemed history.

In the case of the red wines, particularly Spatburgunder, increasingly sunny, warm years are aiding steadier levels of production. Truthfully, German reds remain a work in progress, but they are getting better all the time. And although Riesling and Spatburgunder are the two flagship grape varieties, fantastic dry wines are being produced from other varieties too.

“Grosses Gewachs” and the VDP Association

The VDP (Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter) is the oldest and most prestigious wine association in the world, established to protect and promote the very best of German wine. Membership is by invitation and accredited by peer review. “VDP Grosses Gewachs” or “GG” for short is the top dry wine classification in Germany – the ultimate expression of individual Grosse Lage (Grand Cru) site produced according to the most stringent quality selections.

At the end of August, I spent four full days of gum-numbingly intensive tasting, on the ground with the VDP Rheingau association for a day, and under absolutely perfect conditions in Wiesbaden’s beautiful Kurhaus for the following three at the VDP Grosses Gewachs preview event. This takes place every year ahead of the 1st September official release, and it has again cemented its place again as the benchmark wine event in the world. In terms of organisation, wine selection, and calibre of tasters it is simply unparalleled.

My primary focus was Riesling, and to a smaller extent Spatburgunder 2017s, from the major regions: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Nahe, Rheinhessen and Rheingau, complimented with notes from the Pfalz, Baden and a few wines from the Franken region.

The 2018 Vintage

There is plenty of information circling about the 2018 vintage in Germany. Suffice it to say, it was a hot, dry vintage, the second in a row where concerns around water stress, excessive heat and vine shutdown were front of mind, particularly on the steep slopes where soils are poorest. In those cases, attentive viticulture was needed in order to protect grapes from the sun and keep an eye on ripeness levels and harvest dates to strike the right balance between phenolic ripeness, sugar and acidities. In the main though, 2018 is a big and generous crop, a few spots of hail aside, with high levels of ripeness and slightly lower levels of acidity. For most, it goes down as the earliest harvest on record, superseding 2017, just one year later. Herewith my impressions specific to the dry wines only.

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer –

Riesling. An overall difficult year for the dry wines here, with generally ripe exotic fruits, soft acidities and big variances in style and residual sugar depending on producer and location. Occasionally fantastic, but overall caution required.

Top picks: Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser in the Middle Mosel has again produced a range at the top of the class. The whole range of GGs, which now spans across eight Grosse Lage sites, are all positively electrifying with a deep, profound sense of slate driven minerality and spontaneous smoky complexity. Clear differences between sites are stark and true.  Wehlener Sonnunuhr was my pick of the Middle Mosel GGs.  Fritz Haag’s Juffer and Juffer Sonnenuhr bottlings were both very successful; the Juffer the more fragrant and elegant at this early juncture, the Sonnenuhr offering a more profound sense of inner energy. In the Ruwer, Von Schubert’s Abtsberg is the standout wine, with a flinty, limey and chiselled profile, while in the Saar both Van Volxem and Peter Lauer have turned out some memorable wines. In the Lower Mosel Heymann-Lowenstein appear to have undergone sweeping changes over the past few years to tighten up the wines, avoiding botrytis in the dry wines, and the ‘18s are accomplished, even though 2018 was clearly challenging in this part of the Mosel.

Nahe –

Quality is always overall fairly high and consistent in the Nahe, a combination of there being fewer VDP producers, and its situation between the warmer Rheinhessen and Rheingau and the cooler Mosel valley, which provides a complex array of influences and soil types, and great opportunity for stylistic diversity in its wines. Donnhoff are back on form in 2018 with their two top GG Rieslings Hermannshohle and Dellchen, not to mention a good, but more substantial Brucke which is destined for the auction. Overall the Donnhoff range was probably a nose ahead of the rest this year, followed by Emrich Schonleber and Schaefer Frohlich, then Kruger Rumpf and Schlossgut Diel, both of whom produced some very good, enjoyable and not overly extreme Rieslings.

Rheinhessen –

The Rheinhessen in terms of dry wines is without doubt one of the top regions in Germany for dry Rieslings. The iconic vineyards along the Roter Hang (Red Slope) in Nierstein and Nackenheim are famously well exposed and warm, with poor rocky mineral red slate soils (Rotliegenden), producing very distinctive, immensely complex dry Rieslings. Sites such as Hipping, Pettenthal, Rothenberg and Olberg have near legendary status amongst German lovers. Of those I found Kuhling Gillot and Schatzel to be the most successful. Moving further south the soils become more limestone, clay and chalk rich. Famous vineyards include Aulerde, Kirchspiel, Kirchenstuck, Brunnenhauschen and Morstein. Contrary to the last two vintages 2018 appears to be a year that favours the fuller, more limestone and water-retaining soils; the warmth of vintage more clearly in tune with the natural strength of those sites, whereas those on slate felt occasionally stressed and overly structured. Selectiveness required. Despite a bit of hail around Westhofen, overall highlights from the Rheinhessen include Battenfeld Spanier Kirchenstuck, Keller Abtserde and Wittmann Morstein.

Rheingau –

The reputation of the Rheingau has suffered versus its illustrious neighbours the Rheinhessen and Nahe, both of whom have far fewer VDP members despite a significant area under vine. Again though, although a difficult vintage for dry wines, the Rheingau appears overall to have made a huge effort to improve quality, and here where the soils are again deeper and more water-retaining, some beautiful wines been produced. Weingut Spreitzer’s Wisselbrunnen was my top pick of the GG Rieslings, a wine of power but also balance and nuance. Too many wines in the Rheingau have big swings in residual sugar and, at least in my opinion, there are also a number of GGs that I would not be comfortable cellaring for long. Anecdotally, in the Rheingau, just as in other regions in 2018, acidification was required in many cases, and there are a few wines where an oiliness of fruit meets disjointed acidity. However, after Spreitzer, top of the pack, some very good wines have been produced by Weingut Kunstler and Jakob Jung. In the red wines, Kunstler and Krone Hollenberg were both very good.

Pfalz -

The Pfalz has produced some of the smartest dry white wines of the lot in 2018 - a revelation I was not expecting. The headlines will all be about Riesling, particularly a truly stunning Kastanienbusch from Rebholz, comfortably one of the top GGs of the vintage. But don’t overlook Wiesserburgunder. Across Riesling, Wiesserburgunder and Grauerburgunder, Rebholz have cemented their position as the finest producer in the Pfalz at present. They deserve to be more famous in the UK. Their complex, lifted and detailed Im Sonnenschein Weisserburgunder for example will make old bones and deliver real drinking pleasure throughout its life.

Baden –

The warmest region in Germany, most famous for red wines, the Baden flights indicate that the small number of VDP producers is probably not a real reflection of overall quality in the region. Perhaps slightly worrying as there were few genuinely good red wines apart from Huber, whose reds (and Chardonnay) wines were head and shoulders above the others. Sommerhalde the most vivid and tense, more open than the more brooding and serious Malterdingen wines. As a group, lots of overworking in terms of oak and whole bunch / stemminess in the wines is hampering the genuine Spatburgunder purity, as evinced in the Huber stable.

Franken & Ahr Valley -

Rudolf Furst was the top red producer in Franken, unsurprisingly perhaps, with good showings from Benedikt Baltes too. Silvaner remains the flagship white grape of Franken, with varying degrees of success, the best of which is probably Rudolf May this year. Poor examples carry high alcohols and a slightly dusty quality to the fruit. The Ahr meanwhile, of a small sample of wines tasted, is quite inconsistent and the 2017 reds are overall hearty and dark with a little too much extraction for my palate. Caution advised.

Conclusions Whites – An overall inconsistent vintage for the dry white wines, best probably in the lower reaches of the Rheinhessen on the limestone, chalk and clay soils. Ditto in Rheingau where accomplished wines from the vineyards with pockets of loess and limestone have been produced, such as Wissselbrunnen and Holle, rather than the traditional full-south slate dominated vineyards around Rudesheim, for example.  As ever though, producer is key in the Rheingau. The Pfalz and in particular Rebholz, produced some fabulous wines in 2018 and are well worth seeking out, not just Riesling but Weisserburgunder too. Overall quality remains high in the Nahe, arguably the most consistent of the dry wine regions, while the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in 2018 was probably the most inconsistent on this showing, exceptions include Schloss Lieser and Grunhaus. The Baden Chardonnays are genuinely very good and appear to be improving rapidly every year, while Grauerburgunder is still too often over-oaked and overly ripe, caution required. The best Riesling producers overall in 2018 are those that retained a sense of the Grand Cru terroir. A big middle tier sees wines marked by the ripeness and structure of the vintage first, and site second. The lowest tier produced dry whites with blurry fruit, high alcohols, and limited aging potential.  My top producers: Schloss Lieser, Maximin Grunhaus, Lauer, Van Volxem, Donnhoff, Schonleber, Shaefer Frohlich, Battenfeld Spanier, Schatzel, Keller, Wittmann, Rebholz and Spreitzer.

Conclusions Reds – It’s hard to make generalisations for the GG reds, however, although quality in overall terms is improving with the years, I have the impression that there is still a tendency to overwork and over-experiment with ripeness, extraction, oak maturation and whole bunch fermentations, leaving a lot of Spatburgunders lacking in vibrancy or purity versus their French counterparts. I have no doubt that with time these wines will find a natural balance and producers will more sensitively adapt their processes but, in the meantime, the two top red wine producers in the VDP association are still Weinguts Bernhard Huber and Rudolf Furst, with a handful of good reds produced elsewhere, notably Assmannshausen in the Rheingau.


Photo credit: VDP Association.