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 though 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 meant a pleasant June and hot early July, followed by generally irregular, turbulent late-July and Augusts that brought humidity with them.

Less 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.

As always, it was a huge privilege to be back in Wiesbaden to see how 2018’s steadily dry, warm temperatures had played out amongst Germany’s top VDP dry wines (Grosses Gewachs), over the course of four days’ intensive tasting at likely the best wine event in the world. GGs are always the focus; incidentally it’s also the category most regularly cited as a beneficiary of climate change. In the case of Riesling, higher overall must weights and earlier, drier harvests, have permitted better selections of clean, non-Botrytised grapes (often) from the warmest and oldest parts of the vineyard. These beautiful sun-kissed dry wines now sit happily alongside the traditional “fruity” styles of Riesling and appeal a whole new cohort of wine drinkers who prefer clearer, less dauntingly austere Rieslings that faithfully transmit Germany’s finest terroirs. 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 reds, particularly Spatburgunder, increasingly sunny, warm years are helping producer reach 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 Grosses Gewachs are produced from other varieties too.

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer –

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 Schloss Lieser’s GGs, the auction Doctor notwithstanding.  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 appears to have made sweeping changes over the past few years to tighten up the wines and the ‘18s are accomplished, even though 2018 was clearly difficult in this part of the valley. Overall quality is not homogenous this year in the Mosel with some soft acidities in parts and big variances in style and sugar level depending on producer and location.

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. This means a complex array of influences and soil types, and welcome diversity in its wines. Donnhoff are back on form in 2018 with their two top GG Rieslings Hermannshohle and Dellchen, not to mention an excellent 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 measured dry Rieslings.

Rheinhessen –

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 thought Kuhling Gillot and Schatzel were the most successful. Owing to a smaller crop Keller did not submit their full range of GGs this year. 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. Those on slate at times felt a little stressed and muscular. 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. Again though, although it was a challenge in many ways, the Rheingau appears overall to have made a huge effort to improve quality, and again 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 I encountered a number of GGs that would be best drunk young. Anecdotally, in the Rheingau, just as in other regions in 2018, acidification was fairly commonplace, and a handful had a slightly disjointed feel. Spreitzer, top of the pack, and some very good wines from Weingut Kunstler and Jakob Jung

Pfalz -

Surprisingly perhaps, the Pfalz in my mind yielded some of the smartest whites 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. Rebholz’s complex, lifted and detailed Im Sonnenschein GG for example will make old bones and deliver a huge amount of drinking pleasure throughout its life.

Baden –

The warmest region in Germany, and most famous for red wines, the Baden flights in Wiesbaden were probably not a fair reflection of overall quality in the region. Truthfully, amongst the few Baden VDP member estates, there were few genuinely good red wines apart from Huber, whose reds (and Chardonnay) wines were head and shoulders above the others.

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. Rudolf May the pick of the Silvaners. Some of ‘18s had high alcohols and a slightly dusty quality to the fruit. The Ahr meanwhile, of a small sample of wines tasted, was quite inconsistent and the 2017 reds are overall hearty and dark with a little too much extraction for my palate.

Conclusions –

The best Riesling GGs of the vintage in my mind hailed from the lower reaches of the Rheinhessen on limestone, chalk and clay soils, rather than slate. Ditto the Rheingau where there are some fabulous wines from loess and limestone vineyards such as Wissselbrunnen and Holle, rather than the steep, south facing 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. The best Riesling producers overall in 2018 are those that retained a sense of the Grand Cru terroir. My top producers: Schloss Lieser, Maximin Grunhaus, Lauer, Van Volxem, Donnhoff, Schonleber, Shaefer Frohlich, Battenfeld Spanier, Schatzel, Keller, Wittmann, Rebholz and Spreitzer.


Photo credit: VDP Association.