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German Spatlese Rieslings: Splendid Wines from the 1996 Harvest

by Steve Pitcher

German winegrape growers are beginning to take good harvests for granted. In the years prior to 1988, vintners in this northernmost grape-growing country, which is parallel in latitude with Labrador, considered themselves fortunate if they had two fine harvests out of five. But, beginning in 1988, each and every harvest can be described as at least very good. The back-to-back vintages of 1988 and 1989 were outstanding, and 1990 was truly spectacular. This incredible string of success continued unbroken through 1996, which is certainly a very good, if not outstanding, vintage. As these wines evolve with time, their quality level relative to preceding eight years will become clearer. At this point, the vintage most resembles that of 1993, although the acid levels of the 1996 wines are higher.

"The 1996 vintage is destined to follow in the footsteps of other great German vintages of the nineties and late eighties," said Dr. Franz Werner Michel, co-director of the German Wine Institute in Mainz. "It's a vintage that will offer some truly exceptional cellar items as well as reasonably priced wines for everyday consumption." According to importer Rudi Wiest, whose Cellars International brings in many of the greatest names in German estate wines, "acid and extract levels were high and there was little or no botrytis, all factors which indicate 1996 is a vintage with tremendous ageing potential."

Success didn't come easy in 1996, considered by most German winemakers as the most difficult of their last nine harvests. January, February, March, May and September all had below normal temperatures. Budding occurred quite early because of a very mild April, which had 46% more sunshine than the long-term average for the month. Flowering occurred a week later than normal and was prolonged for an unusually long period of up to four weeks due to cool, damp weather during an unseasonably chilly summer. This, combined with sparce rainfall and extreme temperature fluctuations, led to coulure or poor and uneven fruit set, which dashed hopes for a plentiful harvest. Final figures show the yield was approximately 15 percent lower than the 10-year average, and only slightly higher than the below-average yield from the 1995 harvest.

"In the Mosel Valley," according to Wiest, "most growers did not begin their harvest until late October, and they finished in late November. Riesling fruit was very healthy and fleshy. Acid, extract and pH levels were higher than in 1995, and there was little or no botrytis. 'Noble' sweet wines were difficult to achieve, and very few estates succeeded in making BA and TBA. Surprisingly, 1996 did provide a significant Eiswein harvest, especially outside the Mosel."

My experience with vintage 1996 German Rieslings has been extensive, beginning with trade tastings as early as September 1997 and culminating with extensive visits to German estates in November 1997. Scanning my tasting notes on more than 200 wines, it's apparent that 1996 will be one of the very best harvests of the 1990s, especially for wines in the higher quality categories of spatlese and above. German vintners are quite pleased with the results from 1996, and as the harvest of 1997 was coming to an end during my November visit, most were of the opinion that 1997 will be even better. According to Ernst Loosen of the Dr. Loosen estate in the Mosel, "1997 resembles 1992, and is better than 1989 by looking at the analysis of the numbers from the vineyard -- yield, must weight and ripeness levels."

The best advice I can offer is that the consumer can't go wrong buying any 1996 German Riesling from kabinett level on up which displays the logo of the VDP (an eagle with a grape cluster on its chest and the initials VDP above its head), indicating the producer is a member of the "Verband Deutscher Pradikats und Qualitatsweing¸ter," the quality-control association of German vineyards producing award-winning, high-quality wines under strict production standards.

Late last year, the Vintners Club brought together twelve spatlese Rieslings from the German harvest of 1996 for a blind tasting. Several regions were represented, including the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the Rheingau, Rheinhessen and the Pfalz. "Spatlese" (pronounced "SCHPAYT-laysa") literally means late harvest and applies to wines of superior quality made from grapes harvested at least seven days after the normal harvest. Because the grapes have extra days of sun, they make a wine that is more intense in flavor and concentration than kabinett-style Riesling.

As the 1996 German wines are just now beginning to appear in quantity on the West Coast, you might have to do a bit of looking around to find what you want. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Bill Mayer Fine Wines (510-549-2444) specializes in German estate Rieslings, and the Wine House (415-495-8486) carries an impressive selection. Two Southern California merchants currently offer the largest selection in the state and will ship wines. They are the Wine Exchange (800-76-WINEX) and Hi-Time Wine Cellars (800-331-3005), and both provide informative, free newsletters.

Also, the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society offers events and wine-tasting dinners throughout the year, and membership is inexpensive and open to all. A limited number of advance reservations are available for the public. Telephone (415) 695-9463; e-mail wine2words@aol.com.

The first element in the wine descriptions below, after the vintage date, is the name of the specific vineyard that supplied the grapes. For example, in the expression "Nackenheimer Rothenberg," Rothenberg is the name of the vineyard, and Nackenheimer means that the Rothenberg is near the town of Nackenheim. The next element consists of the varietal (always Riesling in this case) and the quality level (always spatlese). Next comes the name of the producer, such as Gunderloch, or Dr. Loosen, which on the label will normally be preceded by the word "Weingut," which means winery.

Next, in parenthesis, will be noted the region, such as the Mosel, followed by an indication whether the vineyard is a first-class vineyard or a great first-class vineyard. These designations were developed by British wine writer Hugh Johnson in conjunction with German wine expert Stuart Pigott and other authorities, and equate in quality with a Burgundian premier cru and grand cru, respectively. The designations first appeared in the fourth edition of Johnson's World Atlas of Wine (1994). When there is no quality designation, it means that either the vineyard hasn't yet been classified or is simply considered to be a good vineyard.

Tasting Notes


1996 Nackenheimer Rothenberg Riesling Spatlese, Gunderloch (Rheinhessen; 1st class vineyard) ($24)
This is a beautifully balanced wine and is, as was its 1995 predecessor, among the very best spatleses of the vintage. Fragrant, appealing nose of ripe apricot and pineapple fruit enhanced by burnished honeycomb and a shy note of minerals. Generous and enormously impressive on the palate, with deep, concentrated flavors that replicate the nose. Complex with excellent acidity, this Riesling impresses with that singular quality referred to as "filigree," meaning a finely wrought frame that is neither heavy nor ponderous, but rather delicate and intricate. The intensity of the wine suggests that the winemaker, Fritz Hasselbach, could have declared it to be an auslese, but decided to create an enormously impressive spatlese instead. When I tasted the wine with Fritz later in November in Nackenheim, the flavors had become even brighter and more vibrant.


1996 Forster Kirchenst¸ck Riesling Spatlese, Reichsrat von Buhl (Pfalz; 1st class vineyard) ($20.25)
Forward, fragrant, distinctive nose of ripe apples and peaches and slate-like minerals. Mouthfilling with lots of ripe peach-apricot-nectarine fruit and good acidity.


1996 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese, Dr. F. Weins-Pr¸m (Mosel; great 1st class vineyard) ($21)
Attractive nose of freshly squeezed limes and minerals, accented by notes of rose petals and shy honeysuckle. Luscious and smooth in the mouth with generous flavors focusing on lime citrus, pears and peaches, buoyed by lively acidity. Another example of filigree. Delicious and elegant.


1996 Niederberg Helden Riesling Spatlese, Schloss Lieser (Mosel; 1st class vineyard) ($18)
Interesting scents of loamy earth, lanolin, apricot and tangerine, more reminiscent of the Rheingau. Juicy with deep flavors of ripe peaches, guava and citrus; complex, harmonious and delicious, with good acidity. Retasting this wine with winemaker Thomas Haag in the quaint town of Lieser the following November, it had taken on a more typical Mosel floral quality of lemon blossoms or apple blossoms. The complexity of the wines from the Niederberg Helden vineyard is due to its gray slate soils, according to Haag.


1996 R¸desheimer Berg Rottland Riesling Spatlese, Johannishoff (J.J. Esser) (Rheingau; 1st class vineyard) ($21)
Ripe, fruity nose of apple-pear, apricots and peaches plus a floral, jasmine-like note. Generous, fruity flavors replicate the nose; adequate acidity.


1996 Ğrziger W¸rzgarten Riesling Spatlese, Dr. Loosen (Mosel; 1st class vineyard) ($27)
Attractive, slightly honied nose showing apricot, pear and green apple scents. Smooth, silky and nicely concentrated on the palate with delicious flavors of lime citrus, apricot and ripe, spicy pear accented by a honied richness. Thoroughly delicious with crisp acidity. When I subsequently tasted this wine with Ernie Loosen in Bernkastel, it had developed more perfume in the nose and was more spicy on the palate. A very impressive effort.


1996 Niersteiner Rehbach Riesling Spatlese, Balbach-Fritz Hasselbach (Rheinhessen) ($21)
Fragrant, fruity scents of lime and tangerine. Juicy and fruity on the palate with nicely concentrated, persistent flavors of tropical fruit, apricot and citrus. A delicious wine from one of Germany's finest winemakers. Tasting this wine subsequently with Fritz Hasselbach in Nackenheim, I noticed more tropical notes and even greater concentration. The vineyard is on the slopes near Nierstein on the Rhein.


1996 Maximin Gr¸nhauser Abtsberg Riesling Spatlese, von Schubert (Ruwer; great 1st class vineyard) ($23.50)
Intense nose of minerals and slate, mingled with peachy citrus and pear fruit. There's a slight note of SO2 still present, which is something to be expected from this producer; it dissipates after 3 or 4 years in the cellar, the minimum time required to taste the real potential of the Abtsberg, one of Germany's greatest vineyards, which is owned entirely by the von Schubert estate. On the palate the generous flavors focus on ripe apricot, peach and tropical fruit.


1996 Ungsteiner Herrenberg Riesling Spatlese, Pfeffingen (Pfalz; 1st class vineyard) ($19.50)
Slightly toasty nose with a hint of burnished honey and lemon-lime citrus, pear and beeswax. The "toast" comes not from any new oak, but from the soils of the vineyard. Smooth and moderately rich in the mouth with crisp, lively acidity, the wine offers well-defined flavors of citrus and peach, slate, and mild honey.


1996 Ğrziger W¸rzgarten Riesling Spatlese, Robert Eymael-M–nchhoff (Mosel; 1st class vineyard) ($18)
Hints of slate plus apple-pear fruit, gooseberries and creamy coconut define the nose, which also displays a bit of straw or hay. Fruity and juicy in the mouth offering lots of ripe white melon and tropical fruit. Smooth, rich and tasty with good acidity. A completely different Ğrziger W¸rzgarten from that of sixth-place Dr. Loosen.


1996 Kiedricher Sandgrub Riesling Spatlese, Baron zu Knyphausen (Rheingau) ($19.50)
Shy, fruity nose of peaches and citrus. Delicate and not too complex, with pleasant peach-apricot flavors; adequate acidity. This wine lacks the vibrancy of others in the flight and has a touch of bitterness.


1996 Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg Riesling Spatlese, Karthauserhof (Ruwer; great 1st class vineyard) ($23.25)
The panel and I parted company on this wine, which finished in second place in my notes. On this occasion, the SO2 (sulfur dioxide) which was added during fermentation to retard oxidation, was too prominent for most tasters, but was something I am used to in many German Rieslings at this stage in their development. The odor generally disappears after a few years of bottle age. Beyond the SO2, one could detect citrus, white melon and a hint of wildflowers. On the palate, the wine is complex and mouthfilling, with bright, lively flavors of citrus and mild herbs. I found the wine to be noble even now, but with excellent potential for development.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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