by Al Drinkle
The interweb is already cluttered with the relevant meteorological data and qualitative assessments of seasoned experts regarding Germany’s 2018 vintage. But as I’m humbly commissioned with the noble task of purchasing Metrovino’s German wine (which some years I responsibly keep under 50 selections), and having just spent two intensive weeks tasting with some of the country’s top producers, my opinion as to what you can look forward to might be relevant. You already know my directive - as a human Riesling solera, I order the wines that I personally want to drink... it’s just a bonus when our palates overlap and you buy a few bottles too!
The big headline in 2018, not unique to Germany, is that the growing season was exceptionally hot. Some sources state that it was superlatively warm, while others merely place it amongst the hottest vintages that Germany has seen in recorded history. Either way, this is significant. There is some evidence for the heat in some of the wines (particularly fruity prädikatsweine and embryonic reds), yet during my visits, grower after grower expended a considerable amount of time theorizing as to why a season with such climatic inordinance mostly engendered wines of regional typicity. On paper, the wines should in part resemble their corpulent 2003 counterparts, yet the vast majority of them do not. Speculation as to why includes references to such climatic phenomena as the nature of the preceding winter, when the heat began, a homogenously warm growing season as opposed to one wrought with heat spikes, and other more obscure points. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, growers discussed farming and winemaking strategies (all in all comprised of a multiplicity of techniques) that helped to mitigate the effects of the heat.
These details aren't as interesting as the fact that most of the 2018 German wines that I tasted belie the growing season in which they were born - or perhaps more accurately, exhibit the evidence of a warm season in welcome and delicious ways. Acids are certainly lower than in the past several vintages, and alcohol levels are often a touch higher. But these points must be considered in the context of German wine, and particularly in the context of German Riesling. As much as I value the intrinsic benefits of low alcohol, we're talking about a vintage in which feinherb Riesling might harbour 10.5% alcohol instead of 10%, with muscular dry counterparts landing between 12 and 13% - not exactly a corruption of this virtue. (Undoubtedly there are growers who are either less talented than those we buy from, or who simply direct their talents towards monolithic styles of Riesling, whose wines will exceed these modest levels of alcohol). And since 2011, we've seen a string of vintages with prominent, occasionally obstreperous, levels of acidity - whether in gnarly bottlings as 2013 engendered, with an anaemic screech like too many 2014s, or allied with corpulence and power like in 2015 or 2017. I think that it's perfect timing for a vintage that's fresh and exhilarating wherein acidity is an harmonious component of the wines, but not the headline.
Here are the most salient points about German wine in 2018 (and keep in mind that this mostly pertains to Riesling):
The aromas and flavours are primarily of intoxicating, ripe yellow fruits in their sun-blessed and salivating glory. Blossom and orchard aromas abound too, as do the juicy and wild notes of forest raspberries and strawberries, the whole mélange only occasionally teetering into the classier side of tropicality. What there is less of, though by no means a paucity, is the prevailing dominance of “minerality” and its brethren. The stony, the saline, the arctic and the austere appear as shading but not often eclipsing the orgy of Gravenstein apples, Babcock peaches and Bosc pears. The wines are seldom featherweight, but they have levity and caressing textures without density. While rarely electric, they are sufficiently kinetic.
The average quality of the vintage is high, and perhaps even inordinately so. But this requires clarification - most 2018s are resplendently delicious, eminently compelling wines that are a delight to drink. Most importantly, the introductory wines from good producers are enormously appealing. This is great for all of us, but sommeliers should be particularly excited as their glass-pour options will be stellar.
Despite the incredible qualitative entry point for the 2018s, the ceiling is perhaps a bit lower too. Many of the wines at the top of the pyramid lack their usual depths of complexity and mystery, but the exceptions to this observation are almost unprecedentedly profound.
Some of you find dry German Riesling challenging, even the ones that I consider to be beautifully balanced. But the dry wines of 2018 have less "torque” than usual and will likely win over a few more palates to the style.
With only a few exceptions, 2018 was not a vintage that provided much "real” kabinett, so most of the bottles labelled as such will be declassified spätlese (or in the most irresponsible cases, auslese) which perhaps makes for good value, but partly deprives us of one of the world's inimitable wine styles. Additionally, I found a few of the fruity wines to be a bit soft and squishy for my liking, due either to elevated ripeness, insufficient acidity, or both. I didn't buy those wines.
I don't think that a slight modicum of acidity or an abundance of youthful charm in Riesling necessarily precludes its capacity to age benignly, but in general 2018 doesn't strike me as a vintage that offers a plethora of long-term cellar candidates. I could be wrong, but even if I'm not, I must ask you to consider this statement in context… we're talking about some of the world's most ageworthy table wines wherein even modest bottles of quality can undergo fascinating metamorphoses over many years (take, for example, the incredible bottle of 2003 Dragonstone that Johannes Leitz shared with me during my visit - we sell the current vintage for $23). How many of you are actually concerned that, to commit to an obscene generalization, a 2018 German Riesling may only improve for 20 years instead of 30?
I visited 22 German estates last month which as always included stops in the Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Nahe, Pfalz, Mosel and Saar, but this year extended into Baden and Württemberg too. We'll be incorporating new producers into the fold and I'm excited to share some of these discoveries with you. A couple of them are red wine specialists from Baden for whom the 2018 story is premature. Others are prospects whose wines might be tactfully integrated into our offerings in the future, but below you'll only find brief synopses on the growers whose wines you'll have access to before the year is out.
Eva Fricke, Eltville
I billed 2017 as "The Vintage that Eva Fricke was Born to Make", and though I don't think that 2018 necessarily exceeds it, all of the wines in her collection are incontestably, jubilantly delicious, and some of them are more exciting than their 2017 predecessors. While the 2017 entry wines were commendable for possessing the pyrotechnical complexities of other estate's GGs (even funnier since Eva doesn't make GGs), the 2018 Rheingau Trocken and Mellifluous are so satisfying that I couldn't help giggling as I tasted them. The '17s are for the brain (via the mouth), the '18s for the heart (via the mouth).
The Kiedrich Riesling (magnums only, motherfuckers!) is outrageous and quintessential Fricke while Seligmacher and Krone are lovely though less high-def than her wines tend to be. In a very good way, they reminded me of top-flight Savennièrres through a Riesling lense.
It’s rare that we can encourage you to take Eva’s single-site wines home and enjoy them immediately, and again, I can’t stress enough how tasty the everyday wines are. Sommeliers, make room on your lists...
Since 2011, we’ve been shouting a secret that’s only a secret in Canada, and to our delight, more of you are showing signs of catching on… the "secret” is that Weingut Spreitzer is one of the greatest Riesling estates in Germany, and one that excels over a vast stylistic spectrum. Their 2018s are marvellous and provide fervent, uninhibited joy to the drinker in a sufficiently ripe and fleshy sort of way, altruistically obliging for Rheingau wine, but in a way that's entirely appropriate given the historic noble splendour of the wines of Oestrich and the surrounding villages.
The highly-affordable Spreitzer Trocken and Riesling 101 are lavishly, persistently delightful, and this tendency perpetuates all the way up to a stunning Lenchen Trockenbeerenauslese. The GGs from Rosengarten and Wisselbrunnen are respectively sumptuous and commanding (though we'll have to wait for them), and although Riesling lovers in our province still seem to be trying to figure out what to do with good Spätlese (tip: you're supposed to drink it… or cellar it and then drink it… either way works), I couldn't resist ordering the earth-shattering, aloe-vera and avocado-cream drenched Jesuitengarten Spätlese - simply one of the greatest triumphs of 2018.
This is a bit of a tricky one to discuss. The quantitatively important 2018s, namely Eins-Zwei-Dry and Dragonstone, are great and will serve their noble purposes admirably (my tasting note for Draggie is only two words, the first being an expletive and the second being "yah!”). There's a Kaisersteinfels Kabinett whose 2016 predecessor was Leitz’ best wine in that vintage, and the '18 is an excellent ambassador of that privileged site despite travelling with a bit of excess baggage for the category (but not excess sweetness!). And we'll be able to offer an incredible Roseneck Spätlese, loaded with raspberry and kiwi, that reminds me of the blindingly amazing and still very youthful 2011.
Where it gets tough is regarding the GGs, not because they were difficult to read or weren't good, but because the 2017s are still in cask(!!!!) at the time of writing, and therefore the '18s are a long way off. But they include an exotic, swaggering Roseneck, a pensive, almost brutally stoney Rottland (ummm, this is 2018?!?) and a completely dazzling Schlossberg which exceeds my very high standards for this wine by a million times. The Kaisersteinfels was still fermenting.
It's a tremendous vintage here, and one where the heat only speaks in whispers.
These heroes of Siefersheim lost half of their crop to frost in 2017, and what did they do with the plentitude of clean, ripe fruit that Mutter Natur bestowed upon them in 2018? Well, they dropped a significant portion of it to the ground by way of green harvest in order to pursue their elegant, filigree style, and the grapes that eventually did make it to the winery were only pressed to one bar of pressure to ensure purity, the rest of the juice being sold off in bulk to some lucky bottler.
From the arrestingly detailed and chuggable Liter bottling (made entirely from estate-grown, organically-farmed, hand-harvested fruit), all the way to the kaleidoscopically complex Heerkretz, the result is a range of gossamer, yellow-fruit-packed Riesling. And how the Heerkretz GG in particular came from a heatwave vintage, I'm sure I don’t know, but perhaps until further notice we should just take it as a given that it’s amongst the top three German Rieslings of the vintage because I'm getting tired of stating it year after year. And for those of you who haven't yet caught on to the life-improving and financially realistic act of buying a 6-pack of Porphyr every year to enjoy over the next decade, you could do worse than by starting with the lusty, spicy and crystalline 2018.
Von Winning, Deidesheim
The Mittelhaardt handles heat well, and despite the hallmark practice of some unorthodox techniques in the cellar, the team at Von Winning is comprised of some of the most skillful farmers that we work with anywhere. I visited four estates in the Pfalz and the almost svelte Rieslings that I tasted here are not emblematic 2018s for the region in general. But what is often a terse but appealing barrage of citrus flavours in youth (especially from the Deidesheim sites) give way to lush pomegranate, mango and other exotic notes this year. So the warmth makes itself known via slightly more extroverted aromas and flavours and plush textures, but not through corpulence, excess alcohol or phantom sweetness. This is really quite impressive.
Now that they’re holding the Erste Lage Rieslings in barrel for a year and the GGs for close to two, we’ve got a long wait for the top 2018s. But keep in mind that even though Von Winning is responsible for a showstopping $125 Kirchenstück GG, their integrity is such that they also provide us with the most delectable Liter Riesling that we know of under the Dr. Deinhard label and the 2018 is going to be your liquid summer soundtrack. Following this, the rest of the sun-kissed range will trickle in bit by bit over the next year and you can look forward to their exuberant caresses.
Darting, Bad Dürkheim
We’ve always populated the German section with wines that we love to drink. Though the word “best” can get one into semantic trouble, with little concern for pricing, I’ve always been able to select what I’ve felt to be amongst the very best of what Germany has to offer. Although the upshot has been an offering of wines that range from affordable to only modestly expensive, as the years go by, it’s left us with very little to offer to the truly thrifty consumer.
I’ve enjoyed wines from this 25-hectare family estate in other markets and have always been amazed by the articulation of flavours that they achieve for incredible prices... we’re going to have a really fun time drinking and selling these wines in Alberta. We’ll be keeping it simple with a dry Weissburgunder and a feinherb Liter Riesling, both laughably chuggable.
I made my first venture to this enigmatic region, battled the traffic around Stuttgart, visited four incredible growers, and tasted a huge range of really great wine. At times it reminded me of being in the Okanagan in that a producer who farms less than 10 hectares might have 12 different grapes in the ground. The most planted of these is Trollinger (Schiava / Vernatsch in Italy) and though it’s been derided in the past, some of today’s top growers are rendering playful and crushable wine from it. We’ve got one on the way. If that’s just too much fun for you, Lemberger (Blaufränkisch / Kékfrankos) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) are more important qualitatively, and I didn’t meet anybody who doesn’t consider Riesling to be at the top of the hierarchy amongst the whites.
I’m not providing vintage profiles for our new Württembergers because the current release is the only lens that I’ve seen them through, but get ready to go deep with us as the wines arrive.
Hofgut Falkenstein, Niedermennig
As I get to know the Webers and Lars Carlberg better and better, tasting here is no longer just a soul-stirring and academically enhancing experience; it's also fucking hilarious. These are seriously dedicated and seriously funny guys whose encyclopedic knowledge of Saar history and vineyards and candid opinions on the state of German wine make for a visit that's borderline system overload. And even if we proceeded silently, tasting these wines fuder by fuder would make for one of the most unique and exciting experiences in the wine world.
But Falkenstein is arguably the most classical producer in Germany's coolest Riesling-centric region… how did this decidedly idiosyncratic estate handle the heat? Well, Johannes Weber is upset that some of the dry wines are approaching 11% alcohol, which of course is only high by internal, not international, standards. The wines are still liquid razorblades and my beloved Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett Trocken (AP1 - Mutter Anna) is an excruciatingly flavourful arctic rapier, but with a lusty twist of mojito and I’m worried that I might have to fight harder than usual for my personal allocation. The fruity wines are buzzing, kinetic choruses of slate with a touch more juiciness than prior vintages, but again, that's relative and these are still the sleekest wines that I tasted at 22 addresses.
You will continue to love these singular Rieslings.
AJ Adam, Dhron
After slowly tasting 18 wines, I caught my breath, remembered where I was and looked up at Andreas to categorically state, "this is the best collection of wines that you've ever made.” He broke into laughter and replied, "that's what you said last year!".
But it was true last year, and it's true again this year. Through painstakingly meticulous steep-slope farming, a strategic harvesting schedule that actively engendered almost every great style of Mosel Riesling and perfectionist dedication in the vineyards and the cellar, Weingut AJ Adam brought to fruition an intimidating range of incredible Riesling. It makes no sense to touch on points like acidity (which you might assume to be low), or residual sugar and alcohol (either of which you might assume to be high), because the degree of balance achieved across the collection is simply stupefying. But isn't balance an absolute quality, wherein a wine is either harmonious or it's not? I would argue that in this case, the wines have such an ethereal, effortless sense of grace that they seem ontologically pre-ordained; they are more religious than scientific.
Qualitatively, it would have been completely reasonable to select our imports at random, or to have selected everything; needless to say, the wines that I left behind were omitted reluctantly. As is the case elsewhere, the two introductory wines are so good that at some estates they would threaten the viability of their more expensive counterparts, yet here the hierarchy is crystal-clear as you continue upwards in price. We'll have a Goldtröpfchen Kabinett in Canada for the first time (though the Hofberg Kabi is better! Both are from highly successful early passes), the trio of single-site dry wines is extraordinary, the Spätlesen and Auslesen bottlings miraculously wed levity and concentration and there's a Hofberg Beerenauslese that's so cerebrally fascinating, libidinously delicious and mysteriously propelled by dialectic intrigue, I'm not even positive that it's real.
For the rest of your life, a bottle that says “AJ Adam” and “2018” on the same label will reliably provide you with a rewarding experience, whether it's casual or supernal.
Driving to Traben early on a brisk Friday morning, I couldn't wait to find out how Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler, whose flavourful Rieslings are usually the very picture of delicacy, had interpreted such an inordinate vintage as 2018. First of all, the wines smell absolutely beautiful, enticing, tranquil and serene in a way that is less "mineral” than might be the norm here, but also too numinous to be relegated as "fruity” in a perfunctory sense. Second, it probably goes without saying at this point, but the estate Riesling is fantastically appealing. It’s perhaps the greatest glass-pour white ever rendered and everything that's beautiful and distinct about the Mosel is in this wine.
We'll have a dry wine from Enkircher Steffensberg for the first time and I can't wait to share its stoic, glacial charms with you. A few of the fruity wines were a touch softer than usual, but one major point became more obvious than ever to me: Enkircher Ellergrub has to be one of the greatest Riesling vineyards on the planet. Working along the Burgundian definition of Grand Cru, wherein year after year, endowed vineyards seem to be able to integrate the most flattering influences of a growing season while maintaining highly original characteristics of their own, coordinating disparate and unexpected qualities in a singularly excellent and ageworthy wine - this is Ellergrub and its wines will leave you moonstruck. The Kabinett and Spätlese from this site integrate scintillating acidity and an infinite range of fantasy fruit flavours into a slate-based mosaic of intrigue that's so complex that they pixelate on the palate. I quite literally could not believe what I was tasting.
In summary, it's a slightly atypical vintage here (excepting the wines from Ellergrub which can only be their beautiful selves!), but a highly enjoyable one.