Joel Payne on Germany 2007

After two short crops that were quite different in character, 2007 brought producers in Germany both quality and volume. With an early bud break, near-faultless flowering, relatively ideal conditions through August and an Indian summer, it should have been an outstanding vintage. In fact it was, but only for those estates that showed patience.

In 2006 and 2005, quality was uneven from region to region and estate to estate due to the vagaries of nature. In 2007, the patchiness was generally the fault of the producer. After suffering hail, rains during harvest and rot, most estates were primarily interested in cellaring a large and healthy crop, and many harvested far too early out of undue fear. As the grapes already had sufficient sugars in early September, but not the phenolic ripeness necessary to make fine wine, the crush began too hastily. The result in most of the “September wines,” as Hansjörg Rebholz calls them, was a thread of slightly bitter acidity that ran through so many of my tastings.

Further, even among the wines harvested in October and November, it was not truly a year for botrytized rieslings. As most Germans drink primarily dry wines today anyway, this was not a problem for the domestic market. Quite the contrary, the dry rieslings from the Pfalz were among the highlights of the vintage. On the other hand, those readers looking for Germany’s inimitable ausleses, beerenausleses or even richer wines will find limited choice in these categories—not in quality but in volume. While 2006 will be remembered for its wealth of noble late-harvest rieslings but not much else, such wines were even then only a fraction of the total production. In 2007 there were even fewer of them.

Dr. Manfred Prüm of Joh. Jos. Prüm in Wehlen describes 2007 as a cross between 2005 and 2004. “The wines have the flesh of the 2005s and the bracing acidity of the 2004s,” he explained. I still prefer the best 2004s for their purity, but 2007 certainly marks a progression in German viticulture. While the finest 2004s may be marginally superior to the 2007s, I have seldom tasted such a wide range of excellent wines as in 2007. It is true that many of them are dry, especially in Rheinhessen and the Pfalz, but in general that is where the market is moving. Sure, dry German riesling is not yet what Americans are drinking, but demand is beginning to grow in that direction in the U.S. as well.

In a nutshell, 2007 was a spätlese vintage. The ausleses were often hardly better, if at all, than the spätleses from the same vineyard. Moreover, those producers trying to shoot beyond the mark often ended up falling short. While the Saar and Ruwer were only marginally convincing, the middle stretches of the Mosel fared much better, with Fritz Haag and Joh. Jos. Prüm having the best overall collections, followed closely by Heymann-Löwenstein (in his own personal style), Schloss Lieser and Willi Schaefer.

However, it was again the Nahe that probably had some of the finest overall results. That is certainly the case for the top five estates, among which I now include Dr. Crusius. All five had an excellent vintage, but it is true that the region does not have much depth beyond that. The Rheingau, on the other hand, has a far larger number of good, if not always stunning, producers, many of which did quite well this year. But there was a slight lack of purity in many of the ostensibly great rieslings, probably due to problems with rot. Interestingly, the most compelling wines came not from Leitz, Spreitzer or Weil this year, but from Schloss Johannisberg and Schloss Schönborn. The other big surprises were Matthias Müller on the Mittelrhein and Wagner-Stempel in Rheinhessen, both of which made excellent wines in ’07 and must now be viewed as first-string estates.

There are also a number of other German winegrowing regions that I do not cover here—either for lack of space or due to the fact that the wines are little seen in America—that nonetheless deserve brief mention, especially as distribution is beginning to change and we may see more of them in the future. Baden, the region on the eastern banks of the Rhine across from Alsace, is a good example. With 40,000 acres of vineyards, making it Germany’s third-largest growing region, Baden is at the forefront of domestic demand, for more popular than the Mosel. Here, estates like Huber (Valckenberg) and Salwey (Rudi Wiest) both make exceptional dry wines. Bernhard Huber made two of Germany’s best pinot noirs this year, with the 2006 Wildenstein (rating 94 points) and Schlossberg (94) being my favorites. Salwey also makes excellent pinot noirs, but it was his 2006 Oberrotweiler Henkenberg Grauer Burgunder Grosses Gewächs (93) that stole the show. This was Germany’s best pinot gris. The pinot blanc from the same site was almost as good.

In neighboring Württemberg, with nearly 30,000 acres Germany’s fourth-largest growing area, the red wines merit more serious attention. Gert Aldinger made the region’s best Lemberger with his 2006 Fellbacher Lämmler iii (92), and Rainer Schnaittmann (Rudi Wiest) took that honor for pinot noir with his Simonroth “R” (91).

Although in foreign markets the large wineries in Würzburg are the best-known estates from Franken, the leading producer there today is Paul Furst (Rudi Wiest) in Burgstadt, who earned kudos this year for both his 2007 Pinot Blanc “R” (92) from the Centgrafenberg vineyard and his 2006 Pinot Noir “R” (92) from the same site. With only 15,000 acres of vineyard, this region is small, but still larger than the Nahe, Rheingau or Mittelrhein.

Lastly, at least in size, there is the Ahr. With only slightly more than 1,000 acres of vineyard area it is not only tiny but also one of Germany’s most northerly regions. Global warming has made it easier to produce pinot noir on the steep, south-facing schist slopes and there are now four producers of note there, the most famous of whom is certainly Werner Näkel from Meyer-Näkel (Rudi Wiest) in Dernau, who recently won the international red wine prize in the Decanter wine challenge, besting efforts not only from Burgundy but from the rest of the world as well. My favorite wine of his this year was the 2006 Walporzheimer Kräuterberg Grosses Gewächs (93), one of my top ten German reds.

In fact, 36% of Germany’s over 250,000 acres of vineyards are now planted with red varieties. When I moved to Germany 25 years ago, that number was more like 10%, with most of the crop used to make rosés. Today almost all of the harvest is fermented to red wine. With 30,000 acres of pinot noir, Germany cultivates one of the largest areas of this grape outside Burgundy and some of it can be extremely good, as I have highlighted where appropriate.

German grand cru. At the cutting edge of dry riesling, with less than nine grams per liter of residual sugar, stand the German grand crus: variously labeled as Erstes Gewächs in the Rheingau (but with a maximum of 13 g/l r.s.), Erste Lage in the Mosel (Erste Lage on the Mosel means only “great site”; these wines can carry no Prädikat and are to be dryish in style, with a maximum of about 25 g/l r.s., or must be labeled kabinett, spätlese and the like if they are sweeter), and Grosses Gewächs for most of the rest of the country. Moreover, the same system applies not only for riesling, but, where permitted, for pinot gris, pinot blanc, silvaner and pinot noir as well. As these are certainly Germany’s best dry wines—and dry or off-dry styles now account for about three-quarters of domestic consumption—I have highlighted them where appropriate in the sections below.

It is true that most of the Grosses Gewächs are still made in only limited quantities, but their number is growing. Last year over a million bottles of some 400 different wines were given a seal of approval. Still, 50 cases of a given item for the American market is often a tall order, and 100 an exception. In that light, these wines are like the finest crus from Burgundy, which are generally rare and spread thinly around the world. As I have often written, I think that for at least the whites these are some of Europe’s most underrated wines.

While German exports to America have risen dramatically over the past seven years, the weak dollar over much of this period has put a cap on growth. Although the American currency has strengthened dramatically in relation to the Euro over the past several months, it is too early to say what effect this will have on sales. It will certainly be positive, but may not be sufficient to stimulate demand in a sluggish economy.

When to drink the 2007s. As the 2007 vintage resembles 2004 or 2001 in structure, I would expect the wines to evolve in a similar fashion. Because these wines are so crisp and fresh, the dry examples are pleasing to drink now, but should mature beautifully over the next three to five years. With only a few exceptions, though, I would generally advise drinking them before their seventh or eighth birthdays. The 2004s are lovely today and the 2001s at their peak.

The off-dry rieslings of 2007, as well as many of the kabinetts, will have a similar development, but should still be drinking nicely on their tenth birthdays. As I prefer to drink these wines while they retain freshness, I don't generally lay them down any longer than that. The spätleses, on the other hand, should mature at a slower pace: some of the young ’07s remind me of 1975s, which are often still stunning. You don't need to cellar the 2007s that long, but note that there is typically a phase between the third and seventh year when they will have lost their luscious, youthful fruit but not yet shed their obvious sweetness or developed the complexity that makes them unique as they mature.

Although many of the ausleses were hardly better than the spätleses from the same site, they may gain with age, especially if their density and weight slowly become more ethereal. However, as these wines are quite sweet, they will need literally 20 years or more before they can be served other than on their own or with dessert.

(Editor’s note: Ascertaining which German wines will be available in the U.S. retail market before deciding which tasting notes to publish is a nearly impossible task. Many U.S. importers select different bottlings from their long-time client estates each year, and some have delayed purchases of 2007s due to slowing sales of wine in general. Moreover, many estates in Germany work with local brokers and thus have only a vague idea of where their wines will eventually end up in the U.S. market. Thus Joel Payne has limited his tasting notes to wines that are, or are likely to be, available in the U.S. market, as well as to a selection of other very good, representative wines from the estates he has profiled in detail. Since Payne samples a huge number of German wines each year—many of them two or three times—in the course of writing his annual buyer’s guide, I have also asked him to list other wines he tasted from each producer, in order to give readers the benefit of his quality assessments. Thus under the rubric of “also recommended,” you will find ratings on many additional wines, most of them unavailable in the U.S. but some of them numbering among the producer’s best.—ST)

Joel B. Payne, an expatriate American who has lived in Germany since 1983, is a regular contributor to Germany's leading wine magazine, Vinum; he is also the German member of the Grand Jury Européen. His German Wine Guide, co-authored with Armin Diel, has appeared annually for the past 16 years. Payne, who covered Germany's 2006, 2005 and 2004 vintages in the IWC, was elected president last year of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV.