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VDP Wine Fair – 2008: a different kind of vintage

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As every year many of Germany’s top winemakers were presenting their newest vintage at the VDP Weinbörse in Mainz. I was again lucky to attend and get a personal first look on what is a particular vintage compared to the last years.

In fact, although no one really felt we had a real summer, 2008 was among the 10 warmest years since records started. It wasn’t really hot -to say the least- but statistically expressed temperatures were steadily above average. In theory those are perfect conditions for the vines: continuous mild temperatures permit a long and slow ripening and thus better physiological ripeness with well balanced sugar levels, acidity levels and intense flavor. In practice though, the threat of rain during harvesting season put many winemakers under pressure. The actual decision on how early or late grapes have to be picked will have a much bigger influence on the quality of the wines than last year. With such circumstances it is clear that some disparities will be seen within the vintage and therefore no uniform judgment about the German harvest as a whole can be made as it was the case in 2007. Even on a smaller scale for single regions or estates, judgments aren’t easily phrased – more than ever each single bottle requires a judgment.

Several things made it – especially for an amateur like me- difficult to get an opinion on the vintage. First of all, the main possible flaw this year according to augurs would be a higher acidity level in the wines due to early harvesting. This doesn’t sound like it will make assessing complicated. But once I tried a few wines at the fair I realized that much has to be taken into account. The samples presented by the estates are of course very young wines, and many at that stage tend to be much closed on the fruit which could result in emphasizing acidity although the wine could probably turn out to be more balanced in some months when the wine opens up and acidity mellows. Secondly some estates only presented a few entry level wines, their higher qualities still being in casks. Of course it would be negligent to judge their entire collection based on those early harvested wines since they’re probably more exposed to “acidity risk” than the later harvested. Thus a thorough and realistic opinion on the vintage can only be gained in some months. Trying the wines at the estates at a much later moment would be the right thing to do.

Nevertheless I decided to share some of my impressions. Of course they’re not really representative and also don’t give a thorough overview since I skipped out on many big regions and estates for time reasons.

I first tried some of the Rheingau Rieslings. The region shows some rather clear disparities of styles. Many wines are very slim and slender, emphasizing minerality and also acidity (although often analytical results are the same than last year). Maybe it is just a matter of lack of fruit flavors giving this impression. Anyhow, concerning the acidity, the crucial question is of course how well it is integrated in the wines.

Starting with Robert Weil: his portfolio seems much more on the slim and mineral side this year, but with a quite well integrated acidity, more reminding the cool and slim Rheingau style rather than the slightly “peachy” style it mostly stood for those last years. The sweet wines of course are still showing as much peach as ever and are wonderful, the TBA being a bit less impressive than last year’s though (which I felt was phenomenal). But this might also take more time to open. One thing is sure though: acidity isn’t a flaw here since it will guarantee longevity.

Opposed to this TBA, Peter Jakob Kühn, the very individualistc winemaker from Oestrich presented a BA which is simply astonishing from the start. The Oestricher Lenchen BA showed such clear fruit with apple quince and peach, and a perfect acidity accounted for freshness and vivacity. No baroque and no kitsch at all! This is probably the best sweet wine I tasted that day. But the rest of his collection impressed me as well. Whereas his bone dry minerality focusing entry level Rieslings are not totally my cup of tea (they define bone dry), his 2 premium dry Rieslings Mittelheim St. Nikolaus and Oestrich Doosberg are impressive wines, also bone-dry, but with great charismatic personality expressed in multiple layers of aroma. Again, maybe my favorite dry Rieslings for that day. (11.05.09: Oops, I just realized those 2 last wines actually were from 2007… sorry for that!)

I was very surprised with Leitz’ portfolio which shows a completely different style this year. The whole collection appears rather slim with high minerality focus. The luscious fruit one usually gets from Schlossberg and Rottland is considerably reduced. And even the famous powerhouse Rottland GK seems to have lost some energy. But again, a little more time to judge those bottles would be more than appropriate, as some of the samples are drawn straight out of the barrel.

Beautifully balanced with a tad more fruit were the wines of Schloss Johannisberg. Nevertheless the style is still typical of the estate with a certain cool minerak elegance. But the equilibrium just seems right and all wines are full of finesse and minerality. I’m very curious about professional reviews on those wines.

The Nahe and Rheinhessen show much less disparities and as a whole acidity didn’t seem to be as big of an issue there. In the Nahe, Schlossgut Diel presented as part of a convincing collection a superb entry level Riesling “Nahestein” with interesting grapefruit fruit and nice balance. Emrich Schönleber and Schäfer Fröhlich both presented rather slim Rieslings with loads of minerality and raciness

In Rheinhessen Kühling Gillot, Battenfeld Spanier, St. Anthony and Heyl Zu Herrnsheim all presented appealing Rieslings with nice balance, all a little more dense and powerful than Rheingau and Nahe wines and also with more fruit.

Then I tried some Pfalz wines. There the particularities of the climate obviously left an impact. Not only did hail destroy part of the harvest in June and July, but the threat of rain around harvest time put many winemakers under pressure. Thus, depending on sites and harvesting decisions, acidity or lack of fruit were designated as possible issues in this area.

Dr. Bürklin Wolf from Wachenheim only presented 3 new wines on the fair, but those felt unusually shy for the estate. Are those examples of too early harvested entry level wines? Later tasting and the presentation of higher qualities should give a better view on the estates 2008 collection.

Christmann estate, which last year showed broad and luscious fruit has undergone a complete flip of identity I would say. The wines are now immensely mineral and rather slim and cool without broad fruit. The Königsbach SC, which could also be called an indicator for the famous Idig GG, is nevertheless impressive with incredible mineral creaminess: one could even call it mineral opulence.

Rieslings by Knipser and Kuhn are a little more suave with a little more fruit than the previous mentioned wines. Also Mosbacher shows 2 nice trockene Spätlese from Herrgottsacker and Leinhöhle with fruit and minerality. I’d like to mention also Acham Magin‘s cuvee Eruption which appeared dense and vibrant. It contains 15% of Ungeheuer and 85% Pechstein: 2 non-neglaectable sites to say the least.

So that was already it again. As last year time went by much too quickly and I had to miss out on many regions like Mosel, Franken, Baden or Saar. To roughly sum this experience up, I would say that this vintage really shows many disparities and thus is predestinated for genuine cherry pickers (as opposed to the last vintage which was uniformly great). One has to taste many bottles in order to find his favorite. But it is at the same time also a vintage with a refreshing change of style after some years with very powerful whites- more finesse is probably the one single word I would use to positively describe the top wines of the vintage.

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