Wojciech Bońkowski
Wine & tea writing

Happy 2013

Happy New Year! Thank you for your readership. Summary of some good wines, and resolutions for 2013.

The wines of Andrzej Greszta

The wines of Andrzej Greszta, Polish vintner on the Mosel and his incredible story.

Selbach-Oster Domprobst Auslese 1995

A 16-year-old sweet Riesling Auslese that tastes like a 4-year-old dry.

Schubert Herrenberg Spätlese feinherb 2006

Spätlese feinherb: not something you’d remotely look forward to, yet this 2006 from Schubert is just a stunning Riesling.

Germany’s roll of honour

2009 was a vintage of high expectations in Germany. The favourable weather, naturally low yield and excellent harvest conditions combined to generate another excellent year in our stellar decade, after 2007, 2005, 2002 and 2001. My repeated tastings earlier this spring were ones of excitement and consistently high quality. So the stakes were really high when I embarked on the Erste Lage Sneak Preview tasting organised in Wiesbaden by the VDP association of wine estates. From the nearly 400 wines on offer I tasted 170 Rieslings over two days. These wines are the equivalent of grand cru bottlings and are essentially the very best of German dry white wine.
In brief, I was not disappointed. The overall level is very high. What’s really interesting about 2009 is that it’s a ripe year with abundant and expressive fruit (that’s the difference to 2008, which I criticised last year – perhaps slightly too harshly – for being green and mean) but it also pretty high acidity, which gives the wines brilliance and tension and will help them age longer than the 2007s and 2005s. It’s a rare combination to have so much vibrancy with so much ripe fruit, and it’s the real excitement of 2009.
I have liked many of the Rieslings I’ve tried but one region that has really shone is the tiny Nahe. Always high on any connoisseur’s list, it has surpassed itself this year with a long list of outstanding wines from such estates as Kruger-Rumpf (a superb Kapellenberg), Dönnhoff (I’ve not always been thrilled by the dry wines of this sweet wine master but the Hermannshöhle as well as the cheaper Dellchen left nothing to be desired), Emrich-Schönleber and Schäfer-Fröhlich.
The Rheingau has been a bit mixed with definite highs such a Johannishof’s Berg Rottland, Robert Weil, Jakob Jung and Josef Spreitzer, but also some relative disappointments, and I’ve been generally underwhelmed by the Palatinate where many wines were atypically green and fruitless. These two regions failing to take full advantage of the vintage, it’s the Rheinhessen, often an underdog, who I think takes second place. Among the many good wines were the young Wagner-Stempel (especially the Heerkretz) and a tremendous performance from well-established (and fully organic) Wittmann that could well be the best collection of the vintage.
Wine of the vintage?

There are least three dozen wines I would like to own and drink both in the short and long term. It’s all good news provided your banker likes Riesling too; at between 16 and 40€ per bottle these are wines are hardly for everyday enjoyment.

Immortality

An incredible tasting of old Rieslings – we went back to 1909! Most were still very much alive. And even more surprisingly – bone-dry, even though you’d expect a Riesling to have residual sugar to age for so long. Not here!

Van Volxem Riesling Rotschiefer 2004

Weingut Van Volxem is already one of the leading estates in Germany, but it seems to be making progress with every vintage. Here I look back at a 6-year-old Riesling and comment on how the winery’s style has subtly changed.

The good, the bad and the sulphury

I have been drinking through a series of ambitious Rieslings recently, and it’s interesting what a mixed bunch they’ve been. Riesling is the wine lover’s puppy, having a unique ability to convey a sense of place and a natural tension between fruit, minerality, acidity and sugar. But it’s also a fairly demanding and capricious grape: the margin of error is smaller than when making Chardonnay or Syrah. Leave a bit too much sugar and your acidity will not balance the whole; pick the grapes a bit late for dry wine and alcohol will soar: while 13.5% in a Sauvignon Blanc is no big deal, it often spoils a good Riesling. Riesling is also one of the grapes, in my experience, with the highest incidence of corked bottles (the proportion of TCA taint is the same with other wines but it’s a lot easier to perceive in a filigree Riesling). And it’s extremely sensitive to tasting conditions.
I was reminded of this adage when I opened two bottles of Heymann-Löwenstein’s within a few days. The Schieferterrassen Riesling 2004 is Löwenstein’s entry-level bottling but proved extremely satisfying, with wonderful minerality, crystalline fruit and a great sense of balance. The Röttgen Erste Lage Riesling 2005 is a prestigious grand cru bottling that should show superior to the Schieferterrassen but didn’t. Sure, there was the same mineral signature of Löwenstein’s (ripe minerality reminiscent of warm sea: imagine a juxtaposition of Chablis and Santorini) but the wine seemed flat and overly sugary, with little fruit expression. It was purely a matter of momentary perception: on a cloudy, rainy day that was a ‘root day’ in the biodynamic calendar (the worst type of day to taste wines; look for flower days and fruit days for the best results) the wine just tasted opaque and fruitless.
The Egon Müller / Le Gallais Wiltinger Braune Kupp Riesling Spätlese 2002 and Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese 1996 tasted alongside shared the same fate. They’ve now eaten their sulphur (of which the Prüm surely contained heroic amounts) and are showing some nice minerality but were neither very rich or expressive and for such prestigious bottlings, simple and underwhelming.
A few days later on a ‘flower day’, a bottle with far more modest pedigree just shone. The Winninger Uhlen Riesling Spätlese trocken 2006 from Reinhard & Beate Knebel in the lower Moselle was all a dry slate-grown Riesling should be: powerfully expressive, substantial, mineral and tense. It’s a fairly boisterous style with some botrytis grapes used for this wine, a deep orange colour, plenty of spice on nose and a broad, rich palate. Much an Auslese trocken in style, it’s a little unbalanced and perhaps controversial on less luckily bio-influenced day, but today it just tasted right.
Deep-coloured Riesling.

Georg Breuer’s 2008s

It is a tradition of my Erste Lage Sneak Preview visits to finish the second day of the tasting with a visit to the Georg Breuer estate in Rüdesheim. Breuer is not a member of the VDP association and so cannot participate in the Erste Lage tasting, but quality-wise he belongs to the very top flight of German wineries, so it is de rigueur to come here and have a look at the latest vintages. From Wiesbaden it’s only a 30-minute hop by train (with all the classified vineyards to be admired from the train’s window on the way).
Sunrise over Rüdesheim (photo quality courtesy of Sony Ericsson).
I’ve recently sung the praise of Breuer’s 2007s (see here and here), and it was obvious that this new vintage (see here for a full overview) would have a hard time living up to that level. But the 2008s here turned out very enjoyable. In fact, they were stunningly good if you consider the average level of the vintage in the Rheingau. There was none of the green unripe acidity, and even the simplest dry Riesling here – the 9€ 2008 Sauvage – was not far away qualitatively from the Grosse Gewächse we tried a couple of hours earlier in Wiesbaden.

Mind you, these Rieslings are acidic. The 2008 Rüdesheim Estate (a village-level wine from various crus) has no less than 9.6g of acidity (and 6.9g of residual sugar) and yet it’s a wine of ripe mineral aromas and of engaging purity on the palate. Theresa Breuer says they were concerned by the very high analytical figures and even tried some deacidification but the damage to the wine’s balance was huge. This bottling, like its slightly more powerful sibling of the 2008 Terra Montosa (made from declassified lots of Breuer’s grands crus) shows a warm sea salinity that reminded me of Chablis.

Berg Rottland and Berg Schlossberg are to your left.
Looking at the top bottlings here, the 2008 Berg Rottland Riesling was, as usually, the most open and approachable with lovely balance, bone dry, finely crafted, precise, mineral and really impressive for the vintage; a wine I find quite enjoyable today, with no challenging acidity. The 2008 Berg Schlossberg Riesling comes from a more exposed, more consistently dark-slatey vineyard and is, as usually, a very backward wine, with a bit more power and punch than the Rottland; in some vintages it can lack the acidic vivacity of the latter but in 2008, that extra ripeness from the sun-absorbing dark slate soil was definitely an advantage. Develops really well in the glass (becoming almost flowery); this will be drinkable sooner than Schlossberg usually is. The 2008 Nonnenberg Riesling is a cru I drink more rarely than the two above; from the village of Rauenthal farther east, the soil here is less slatey, more loamy. This is also a rather shy wine but less tight texturally than the Schlossberg, leaner, though not less mineral. All three are very pure wines with impressively ripe acidity; they really seem to come from a different vintage than the very lemony Rieslings from the Rheingau tasted at the Erste Lage Preview. Of course, tasting at a producer’s cellar with more time to dedicate to each wine does change your perception by a margin. But not such a wide margin. So why this difference? Theresa Breuer indicates record-low yields (going down to 25 hl/ha in the Schlossberg, and that’s at a density of 8000 vines/ha…) as responsible for the riper acidity.

We finished the evening at Breuer’s crowded Schloss Rüdesheim Weinstube, starting with a wine taster’s best friend – cold beer, and rounding off the session with a bottle of Breuer’s enjoyable Riesling Brut. Come here really hungry as the portions are huge, and be prepared for Japanese parties and a lot of singing…

Erste Lage Sneak Preview 2009 (full report)

My extensive report from the largest tasting of top German Rieslings. All regions comprehensively reviewed.