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German Riesling 2003 vs 1990s

by Tom Cannavan, 05/05

This was a tasting organised by Wines of Germany in London, in which Master of Wine Jasper Morris presented five top German wines of the controversial 2003 vintage, and compared them with the same wine with at least 10 years of bottle age.

Morris thinks 2003 is a great year - though he joked that all the producers agreed with this until recently, when they had the excellent 2004 vintage to sell, and suddenly it was pronounced as a "mixed" vintage. Certainly it is an atypical vintage, in common with much of Europe, with excessive heat and drought conditions. Whilst a stream of extraordinary wines, like 16% alcohol Beaujolais, have emerged from the vintage, and whilst this is clearly a very ripe year, Morris described a "heat spike" in late August, with a week of temperatures exceeding 40C that really concentrated the sugars in the grapes. But because most producers did not pick correspondingly early, but picked at their normal time, that heat spike effect had time to subside, and the grapes were balanced and healthy at harvest.

Morris also spoke about German Rieslings in general, as being very different wines from those of 30 years ago. Then, young Rieslings was invariable described as smelling and tasting like green apples, whilst old Riesling was almost always petrolly. Morris explained that in both cases those dominant characters were actually underripe grapes, which came to be understood as the "character" of Riesling. Now, with improved viticulture and the effects of Global warming leading to generally hotter vintages since the mid 90s, we are getting much more complex and ripe aromatics in German Riesling wines.

Referring to trocken (dry) styles of German wine that are increasingly common, Morris also expressed a belief that there is a huge difference between people who set out at the start of the vintage intending to make a dry wine, and those who start with the intention of making a sweeter style, but then the wine vinifies quite dry, so they release a trocken: the former manages the vineyard through the season, and then the winemaking, with skin and lees contact, to produce wines with extra richness and depth that really suit the trocken style, and are generally much the more successful.

The wines in the tasting were presented in pairs, the 2003 followed by the same wine from the early 1990s. In several cases the winemakers were present to talk about their wines. Prices quoted are approximate retail prices in pounds sterling, and the main UK Agent for the wines is given.

flight one

Horst Sauer (Germany) Escherndorfer Lump Riesling Spätlese Trocken 2003
From the inland area of Francortia, this is Sauer's best vineyard, composed of clay/limestone soils. Hauer was the IWC International White Winemaker of the Year in 2004. This is a wonderfully aromatic wine, with real lychee, rose petal and fragrant, exotic aromatics. There is an immediate sense of "weight" and plumpness, and a delightful palate that is extremely rich and unguent, with exotic papaya and mango flavours, and delicious nectarine fruit sweetness. A very racy mineral acidity and crisp citrus finish balances this sensational 14.5% alcohol wine. For current stockists: see wine-searcher

Horst Sauer (Germany) Escherndorfer Lump Riesling Kabinett Trocken 1993
A much more intense, petrolly, mineral character on the nose. Some wax and skinny, intense fruit quality shows through. The mouthfeel is not so opulent, but a sense of richness persists. The fruit just dies a little through the mid-palate, suggesting this wine has pealed, with a green apple quality that is quite lean and savoury dominating. Not nearly so dynamic or luscious as the 2003 example. No stockists currently listed.

flight two

Okonomierat Rebholz (Germany) Kastanienbusch Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2003
Kastanienbusch is one of the highest vineyards in Pfalz, with red clay soils and a very late picking date - one of the latest in the region around 10th November - on its steep, south facing site. This wine saw skin contact for one night, and long yeast contact. It has a much tighter, mineral but still quite floral nose, but still with a tiny touch of nectarine skin or waxy lime skin. This has a lovely quality on the palate, with a much more focused minerality persisting, and a very concentrated, dry and savoury citrus fruit and acidity. 13%. Lugenstein wines

Okonomierat Rebholz (Germany) Kastanienbusch Riesling Grosses Gewächs 1990
This has a blast of mineral, wax and very smoky character in the nose, with notes of bacon fat and fruit skins. On the palate it is quite decisive, with a massive grape skin and nectarine skin quality, with a flood of lime acidity and a lovely mineral, tangy green apple finish. There is plenty of life in this, and still good focus.

flight three

Dr Loosen (Germany) Urziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2003
Ernie Loosen said 2003 was not so atypical or "overripe" in the Mosel as in Pfalz and further south. This wine fell within pretty normal parameters for a good, ripe vintage in terms of its chemical analysis. Some yeasty, reductive aromas blow of to reveal a beautifully cool, delicate yellow plum fruit and mineral nose. Marvellously sweet, there is delicate, sweet-edged fruit on the palate, with an elegant, light- to medium-body, and a fine pear-like flavours. Beautifully composed and long, this has a shimmering acidity, length, and knife-edge balance. 8% Alc. For current stockists: see wine-searcher

Dr Loosen (Germany) Urziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese 1990
This great vintage produced nothing less than Auslese, so that is what was shown here, though Ernie Loosen said the two wines were analytically much the same. This has a much more schisty, mineral, smoky nose with a touch of spice, and a red apple fruitiness. Wonderful verve and life about this, with a brilliant palate that has all sorts of peachy, sweet, tangerine and bursting nectarine fruit, and a beautiful acidity that is delicate yet precise and authoritative. Superb. No stockists currently listed.

flight four

Fritz Haag (Germany) Braueneberger Juffer Sonnenhur Riesling Auslese 2003
7% Alc. Made in Foudre. Very delicate, sherbet and shimmering mineral nose, with a touch of musky, lychee perfume and a delicate peach blossom exotic notes. Superb ripeness and creaminess of texture, but it is pin-sharp, with a wonderful sweetness that washes over the tongue, and develops luscious, nectarine and luscious apricot before that shimmering lime and mineral finish. For current stockists: see wine-searcher

Fritz Haag (Germany) Braueneberger Juffer Sonnenhur Riesling Auslese 1993
A very similar, but more muted version of the 2003 in the nose, with volume turned down and a waxiness and slightly smoky quality. There's a real richness on the palate, with a luscious texture and plenty of that juicy, bursting peach and nectarine. The acidity is much less decisive, but it is present, and checks the sweetness beautifully, with a little orangy bite in the finish. Very fine.

flight five

Donhoff (Germany) Oberhäuser Brücke Reisling Auslese 2003
Monopole vineyard, the "Oberhaus bridge", it is cited next to cellars. Temperature of 42% for one full week, but still managed normal acidity - because vineyard low down by the river, and he did a lot of work In the vineyard picking early October (5 weeks earlier than 1991) with a very quick press and straight to cellars for a very cool fermentation. Possibly a little icewine in this Quite a muted nose, with reduction, showing just a little yellow plum and a faint floral character. Bursts into life on the palate, with a massive, unctuous sweetness, and a palate-coating, smooth texture. There is a mass of peach and nectarine, and hints of guava and pineapple. Lovely acid balance, which is subsumed by the opulent sweetness and texture, but just supports beautifully into a long finish. For current stockists: see wine-searcher

Donhoff (Germany) Oberhäuser Brücke Reisling Auslese 1991
Lovely toasty notes on the nose here, a nice mineral and smoky maturity, and still very good, pure fruit. The palate has a full, lush, very rich palate that is thick and unctuous, with fabulous nectarine juice fruit and a grapey sweetness. Terrific balance here, with a lovely pear acidity and a deal of juicy, thick fruit. Fine acid balance, and really no sign of decay or tiredness despite not being form a top vintage. 8%