In my capacity as Guy With World’s Best Job, I spent much of last week in Germany, tasting extraordinary renditions of Riesling from around the world. The occasion was an International Riesling Symposium, hosted by Wilhelm Weil at Schloss Rheinhartshausen in the Rheingau region. Several of the addresses and technical presentations were interesting and informative, but the event’s highlights were all provided by the wines. To be clear, it wasn’t just that delicious wines were shown. Rather, the event included wines offering object lessons in Riesling’s amazing versatility in different styles and growing sites, as well as its peerless power to show multiple facets of beauty over vast spans of developmental time.
This column is about those wines and the lessons they teach. They appear below in largely random order, and I don’t intend to derive any particular Grand Lesson from the more particular observations. I happen to believe that Riesling is the world’s greatest white variety, but I’ve made that case before, so I won’t repeat myself here. Besides, the only irksome aspect of the entire symposium was a certain writer’s insistence on building up Riesling by sniping at Cabernet and Chardonnay. This is not only silly, but also pointless or even counter-productive, as it comes off as fallacious special pleading for Riesling--the greatness of which can be established without questioning the excellence of other top varieties.
Indeed, the most compelling case that can be advanced for Riesling is made by Riesling itself, though you’ll need to know which ones to try to appreciate it fully. As you’ll see, some of the wines below (such as the 1953 from Kloster Eberbach) will prove very difficult to taste for yourself, but I’ve deliberately included some that are widely available. I’ll review additional wines from the IRS event over the month ahead, but those appearing below will give you a good initial idea of the sheer scope of excellence that was on display in the Rheingau last week.
To make the wine designations easier to decipher, you’ll find growing site indicators within parentheses, with any vineyard name appearing first, followed by region and country of origin:
Weingut Dr. Loosen (Ürziger Würzgarten, Mosel, Germany) Alte Reben Reserve VDP Grosses Gewächs 2011: Yes, that’s a lot of verbiage to deal with, but every word in the designation for this wine is worth knowing. For starters, The Dr. Loosen winery, headed by the dynamic, innovative and influential Ernst Loosen, is among the world’s elite producers of wine per se, not just Riesling. The estate’s excellence is set on a foundation of grand cru vineyard sites (“VDP Grosses Gewächs”) in the middle section of the Mosel Valley, including Ürziger Würzgarten as in this case, plus Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Erdener Treppchen, Bernkasteller Lay, and Erdener Prälat. This amazing dry wine was sourced from old vines (“Alte Reben,” and 100 year-old ones, to be precise) planted on their own roots (rather than grafted to American rootstock) in red slate soil on a very steep slope. Those are some wicked raw materials for winemaking, but a contribution to the wine’s fabulous intricacy was also made in the cellar. It was aged for fully two years on its yeast lees after fermentation, a traditional practice from decades past that Ernie Loosen is experimenting with as a technique for securing greater complexity and age-worthiness. The wine’s outstanding attribute is an uncanny combination of detailed nuances with seamless integration. When I say “uncanny,” I mean that a wine may show lots of noteworthy sensory signals, but is then much less likely to seem like a “whole” than a combination of “parts.” Or, it may seem like an integrated “whole,” but not one with a lot of delineated “parts.” This wine truly shows both facets of excellence, and that is especially striking in a young, dry wine. The herbal, mineral and spice accents work beautifully with a core of ripe but fresh tropical fruit, but again, the balance and integration of this wine is so strong that it is rather arbitrary to designate some elements as the “core” and others as “accents.” My score may be too conservative at: 96
Weingut Loimer (Langenlois Seeberg, Kamptal, Austria) Erste Lage DAC Reserve 2010: This gorgeous wine from Austria was that country’s single most impressive wine at the symposium, in my view. It shows wonderful richness and density, as is often the case due to Austria’s somewhat warmer growing conditions by comparison to Germany’s, but it also exhibits impeccable balance and exciting freshness and energy thanks to almost electric-seeming acidity. The richness gives the wine a “creamy” textural character, but it also shows very sharp definition from citrus-like acidity, and somehow manages to seem very well integrated despite these countervailing characteristics. Absolutely compelling wine. 95
Château Belá (Danube Valley, Slovakia) 2012: Slovakia? Slovakia! I started tasting Rieslings form this country more than a decade ago at tastings in Austria, and have tasted this particular wine (made in cooperation with Germany’s Egon Müller) previously--but I have never tasted one that shines as brightly as this 2012. It displays notable palate weight, but doesn’t seem any less nimble because of its generosity. Moreover, it shows an intriguingly earthy character, yet seems pure at the same time. Very expressive in terms of both aromas and flavors, it also shows engaging interplay between fruit and acidity, and though it is essentially a dry wine, it isn’t remotely austere despite its youth. A complete wine, and a damned impressive one, too. 94
Kloster Eberbach (Steinberg, Rheingau, Germany) Kabinett 1953: That’s right, 1953, and the wine isn’t just a curiosity that remains “alive” at 60 years of age, but actually singing. It still shows pure fruit with lovely, fresh notes recalling dried apricots but also a more mature, baked apple character, along with still-crisp acidity and strong underlying minerality. Its performance on the palate seems natural and effortless, with the barest hint of oxidation that actually enhances the wine’s overall complexity, as in fine Champagne. Anybody who believes that Riesling is just a fluffy little wine rather than something noble and powerful and impressive needs to be slapped with a bottle of this--but only after I’ve emptied it, thank you. I grant that it seems a bit crass to score a wine like this, but the fact that it can still merit a high score at this age is the more compelling consideration. 93
Weingut Robert Weil (Kiedrich Gräfenberg, Rheingau, Germany) Erstes Gewächs 2011: Wilhelm Weil is a consummate master of Riesling and, at least arguably, its single greatest craftsman in the world, considering this winery’s consistent excellence with noble sweet wines, medium-sweet renditions, and dry wines that are complete and compelling--like this one. When I started writing about wine in the early 1990s, this was the most famous estate in Germany for dry Riesling, which was controversial even in conceptual terms at that point. Yet Weil’s dry wines are so convincing in their ability to seem generous and flavorful in a restrained and subtle style that they make the controversy dissolve into nothingness (aside from a few extremist ideologues). This wine is wonderfully open and expressive in aromatic terms, and the palate follows suit with lovely fruit recalling candied lemon peel followed by layers of minerality in the very persistent finish. In overall profile, it is fresh and flashy, yet its density leaves one with an impression of seriousness. My raw note from the tasting in which I encountered this includes the line, “Breezy, but no mere passing breeze,” and that still seems right to me. 94
Tantalus Vineyards (Okanagan Valley British Columbia, Canada) 2012: Oh, Canada! (Sorry, that was irresistible, especially with the Stanley Cup Finals about to start.) This was an absolute standout in a tasting of New World Rieslings, showing a bit of juicy sweetness but also very energetic acidity that enabled the wine to achieve virtually perfect balance. Juicy and sexy but still taut and refreshing, with a very long, symmetrical finish, this was a model of purity and poise. 93
Weingut G. H. Mumm (Johannisberg Schwarzenstein, Rheingau, Germany) Beerenauslese 1971: Very sweet wines tend to stand out in tastings, and are certainly over-awarded by fatigued judges at wine competitions and probably scored too high by many reviewers. With that said by way of context, however, there’s simply no denying the supremely impressive performance that this wine turned in at the event, showing phenomenal complexity: A vaguely roasted character, a clear caramel note, a hint of beef broth (!), and a strikingly spicy finish. Sweetness and acidity run neck-and-neck in the wine’s amazing finish, which lasts for at least two mouth-watering minutes. There’s something other-worldly about this, and it seems impossible that such a thing could be made from grapes. 95
Framingham (Marlborough, New Zealand) Dry 2004: It isn’t easy for me to decide which wine from Framingham to feature here, as the 2013 Auslese “F-Series” was manifestly one of the finest sweet Rieslings shown at the IRS event, with an essentially perfect interplay of fruit, botrytis, sweetness and acidity. But despite that wine’s marvelous opulence and stately balance, this wine is even more impressive despite the fact that it speaks much more softly. At 10 years of age, it still shows very intense linear drive, with exceedingly fresh acidity, absolute dryness, and fruit that is very taut without seeming austere or pinched. There’s virtually no “petrol” character showing at this point, and bottled under a screw cap, the wine will not only last for another decade, but actually improve over that span. Whereas Australia’s Rieslings are overwhelmingly dry in style, many of New Zealand’s are significantly sweeter, so seeing an indisputably superb dry wine like this from Marlborough is as instructive as it is impressive. 93