DREAM SWEETS: Part 2

Global warming has changed a lot of things about German wines. So have the changing tastes of some markets that have put an emphasis on dry/trocken versions of German wine (for better or worse), particularly from elite ‘grand cru’ sites from which the great dessert bottlings used to come. When we go to German tasting these days, we are typically forced to slog through 30% (or more) skeletal dry Rieslings among the offerings while there are only a handful of true Auslesen in the room.

Maybe tastes really have changed and the demand for the higher pradikat wines has waned in recent years. Our objection with Germany is that the traditional fruity style is what these vineyards do like nowhere else in the world, yet we are fighting Nature by superimposing a current winemaking ‘fad’ on vineyard sites who are best served doing what they have been doing for centuries. Those are fighting words to some of the ‘New Age’ wine types but, frankly, we don’t care. We love a great auslese and the Selbach-Oster Riesling Zeltinger Schlossberg ‘Schmitt’ 2016 is a fine example of why.

Selabch-Oster is a top flight producer that owns parcels in several of the best sites on the Mosel, and he makes a lot of different bottlings. His ‘benchmark’ wines are from three very old plots high on the slopes within specific, high profile vineyards. One of these is Schmitt from the Zeltiner Himmelreich. Schmitt has a perfect southern exposure, but a deeper subsoil of crumbly, broken slate mixed with organic matter and loam. Importer Terry Thiesse likens the vineyard’s orientation further from the river and above the town where the human element creates additional warmth to that of Bernkasteler Doktor.

It is also made in a singular style. Whereas most Auslese are the result of several passes through the vineyard, Selbach harvests the whole block at once, fermenting the grapes of varied degrees of ripeness together to reflect not only the terroir, but the ‘moment’. The grapes are fermented with only their natural yeasts and allowed to determine their own fate, be that trocken or a knockout auslese like we have here.

Stephan Reinhardt wrote a love poem that covers all the bases succinctly, “The 2016 Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Auslese “Schmitt” is a very clear, fresh and precise on the nose, with very fine mineral aromas of crunchy slate. This reminds me a bit of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr in its finesse, perfectly ripe fruit and the finest possible expression of minerals in wine. This is the finest Schmitt I have ever had and surely one of the greatest 2016s from the Mosel. Its finesse and elegance are mind-blowing…97 points

Great now and for a couple of decades hence.

THE FUTURE OF GERMAN RIESLING: FEINHERB

The direction of German Riesling has changed dramatically over the last decade.  There are lots of reasons.  Part of it is market perception.  In general, anything that is perceived to have any residual sugar is frowned upon by the new populace.  Spätlese is viewed as ‘sweet’, even though the elevated acidity strikes an amazing balance with the complex hillside fruit of traditional German estate Riesling.  Chardonnay is ‘dry’.  Never mind that many of the Chardonnays the populace drinks have substantial sugars woven into their makeup, and much lower acidity.

The sommelier set, particularly those in Germany that have the ears of the vintners, claim that traditionally styled Rieslings don’t go with food.  We’d love to debate that but the point is that they have been demanding searingly dry, skeletal trocken Riesling as the solution.  Do they go better with food?  Well some food, as long as you don’t care what the wine tastes like.  The best examples of the genre are generally the ‘Grand Cru’ Trockens, designated as GG (großes gewächs).  But while they have the peripheral fruit flesh that makes the style viable, they are erratic as a genre and typically cost $50 and up.

As we have stated many times, grapes should be made into the type of wine that best serves the varietal and the site.  In this part of the world where it is colder, leaner structures and some sweetness are magic together.  That may change with global warming, but it hasn’t yet.  In the meantime some very talented German estates have figured out what we think is a way to please everyone.  Over the years we have seen better and better examples of what are referred to as halbtrockens (literally ‘half dry’) a.k.a. feinherb, and this effort will be a game changer for a lot of folks.

The feinherbs have the firm backbone of great Riesling and, in concert with that acidity, have barely perceptible sweetness and finish dry.  Perhaps more important is that, with just a bit more ‘fat’ on the ‘bones’, the palate feel is much rounder and there is a place where the remarkable fruit and complexity of some of these historic vineyards have a platform to express those qualities.  To us, these are the answer to Riesling’s identity problem and a fantastic and versatile option for both food and non-food applications.  We wouldn’t think of making a pitch like this unless we had a  stellar example of the breed to make our case.  This A. J. Adam Feinherb is uncommonly good for the genre and pretty sensational juice by any standard.

While we have been big promoters of German wines since the 1980s, and have worked with some producers for that entire stretch, we only became acquainted with A.J. Adam with the 2010 vintage.  He has since become one of our favorite Häuser.  The A J Adam Riesling Mosel in der Sangerei Feinherb 2017 can be considered a ‘best of breed’.  Some folks might balk at a $40 fare for Riesling, but you can pay a lot more for wines that cannot touch this one.  To us, this should be the future of the trocken movement…back off the trocken a little and make something that’s both enjoyable and food friendly.

Importer Terry Theise’s comments on this one are, “A cadaster parcel within the Hofberg, this has often been a beloved wine for me. This ’17 is quite serious, in the vintage way, not as suave as usual but with a different kind of grip and length. Half was lost to frost, so there’s just one Fuder, of an earnest, dark-toned mineral wine, with a pointed acidity that sucks up every one of the 25g/l RS.”

While perhaps less cerebral, Stuart Piggott’s comments on James Suckling’s website are certainly more to the heart of the matter, “Super peachy with great brilliance and refinement. This is a great Spätlese that’s dry enough for the finest lobster dish, but it is also powerful enough to cope with the spiciest curry. The very long finish keeps pumping out fruit and minerals. Drink or hold…96 points.”

This is the type of effort that will please people on both sides of the Riesling debate.  By the way, if you are a fan of the more traditional Spätlese style, these guys make one of the best.

Bibliotheksfreigabe: Zilliken Riesling Spätlese #8 2003

You’ve got to love the German’s precision as they have managed to turn the phrase ‘library release’ into a single, if somewhat intimidating word.  Just for the record, this distinctive bottling came from Zilliken’s cold cellars and is in pristine condition.

We have had the occasion to present some stunning value examples of how German Rieslings age.  As we said repeatedly, such opportunities do not present themselves on a regular basis.  There are even fewer examples of top-tier bottlings like this one that make their way into the marketplace, usually being absorbed by the auction circuit in Deutschland.  Perhaps the last significant opportunity was several years ago was when we got a bunch of Bert Simon’s older Auslese. That was serious fun.

Herein we are talking about one of the stars of the Saar, Hanno Zilliken, arguably the producer that, over the years, has showed us some of the most exciting older examples of premium Riesling we have ever sold.   His 1983s and 1994s are legends for us, as well as things we had the opportunity to revisit on more than one occasion over the years.  They never failed to impress.

We feel the same about Zilliken’s Saarburger Rausch Riesling Spatlese #8 2003.  At age 15 it is still going strong and showing surprising freshness to the classic red current, apricot, quince and spice fruit, the slatey nature of the Saar is very subtly integrated into the mix.  While still proudly showing its auslese character, the bottle time has caused everything to settle into a nice groove where both the sweetness and the acidity are dialed back.  The wine shows plenty of complexity but also harmony with no aspect sticking out.

It has been a lot of fun showcasing aged Riesling over the last few years, but this one is on a whole different level from a top producer working a great vineyard in an outstanding vintage that, because of its unique weather profile, few thought would ‘go the distance’.  That certainly is not the case here.  Very few wines have this kind of purity and clarity of flavors at all, let alone at age fifteen.

JUFFER SONNENUHR TWO WAYS

There are lots of ways to present a wine and we thought that, over all the time we have been doing this, we had probably done all of the possible permutations at one point or another…until today.  But then offer like this have never came along before.  We had the opportunity to purchase two different Rieslings at great discounts, from one of the greatest vintages in Germany in this century and from one of the most storied vineyards in the Mosel.  Same price, same pradikat levels, both knockout deals, but the wines are from two different producers.  You talk about wine being made in the vineyard? You will never have a better chance to see that it action, and get some pretty wicked spatlese in the bargain.

We’ll start with the vintage.  As we have said on multiple occasions, the 2015 vintage in Germany (OK, a lot of places in Europe for that matter) was special.  It stands alongside the 2001 as the icon vintage of the 21st Century (thus far anyway).  The wines have unique power and cohesiveness to the fruit and surprising palate length.  Wine after wine has exhibited the same vintage personality as we have tasted through probably 200+ examples.

The vineyard?  Maybe Brauneberger Juffer isn’t quite as well known to the broad market as Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich, and Bernkasteler Doctor because producers like Prum and Thanisch have been here much longer promoting them.  But among those more tuned in to great Mosel vineyards, Brauneberger Juffer is one of the great ones.  We have come to appreciate the vineyard a lot over the last three decades as we have been presented several striking examples from the likes Fritz Haag and Schloss Lieser.  More specifically the Sonnenuhr part of the Brauneberger Juffer is the best part, the ‘sweet spot’ if you will.

Given those similarities, and the strong characteristics of both the site and the vintage, our ‘tale of two Juffers’ would seem to come down to the producers.  Or does it?  That is what makes this exercise so exciting.  Besides the fact that the producers are different, and presumably the grapes came from different plots in the vineyard, we don’t actually know the harvest must weights.  There is a range to qualify for spatlese designation, including declassified auslese.  The alcohols are .5% apart (8% vs 8.5%), but that is all we know.

Both the Karp Schreiber and St Nikolaus Hospital labels boast long histories, the Karp Schreiber tracing its roots back to 1664 and the St. Nikolaus Hospital winery having existed for more than 500 years as the money-raising arm of the  foundation that runs  the actual hospital in Bernkastel-Kues, the hospital itself founded in 1458.  As we opened these two side by side, they started in different places.  The Karp Schreiber Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 shows a more delicate, filigreed profile, with whiffs of slatey minerality to the peach and pear fruit, a livelier, more active mid-palate and an airier finish of spice and slate.  It is a bit higher pitched on the palate with a more evident mineral element.

By contrast, the  St Nikolaus Hospital Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 is a more centered wine that shows a more direct, pronounced element of peach and pear, with a little hint of apricot possibly as a result of a greater must-weight (this is the one that is the .5% higher in alcohol), but not necessarily.  The sweetness level seems slightly more overt out of the gate and the palate is more concise.

As we sat there going back and forth and between the two, it was fascinating to watch them change in the glass, and certainly even more intriguing to watch as they began to show a much more familial streak that we have to presume is the vineyard talking.  The Karp got more mid-palate-focused as time passed while the St. Nikolas more high-pitched minerality and lift than it had presented early on.  In short, as they developed they became much closer to each other as the elements of one of the middle Mosel’s best terroirs took hold of the proceedings.

While there were still slight differences in line with their original profiles, it was Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr that won the day with the strongest voice.  As to our preference, it was not unanimous and way too close to call.  We highly recommend taking the opportunity to experience this unique comparison yourself.  As to predicting a winner, the winners would be those that take advantage of these two exciting spatlesen from a great vineyard  in an epic vintage for a good 40% less that you would typically find anything from this esteemed dirt.  These are steals for under $20, the educational/geeky opportunity merely a special bonus here!