Howard Ripley’s tastings are always a contrast to many of the other Autumn events on the calendar. First of all, you can guarantee sedate surroundings, this time in the Pensions Room at Gray’s Inn, tucked behind High Holborn and the most northerly situated of Legal London’s Inns of Court. When you arrive early, as I did, you will also find all the wines laid out in neat rows, plenty of spittoons, wafers and water, and seemingly just the right amount of light. What you can’t control is the weather and Wednesday must have been one of the most glorious days of our strange English summer. The ice was melting in the ice buckets. But the early bird tastes well cooled wines in peace and quiet.
This tasting was my first opportunity to sample the dry wines from 2015, along with the 2014 reds. It is also customary to show the pradikats from JJ Prüm here as they are not bottled, I think, when the other pradikats are shown.
What was my overall impression of 2015? There’s no doubt that there have been some very positive comments and something of a buzz around the dry Rieslings from last year’s harvest. Martin Zwick (of the Berlin Riesling Cup etc) tasted the wines in Berlin and was very positive – “Bottom line, simply mind-blowing vintage and some of the best ever produced at the estates”. Mosel Fine Wines’ review of the April VDP tasting was similarly positive but with reservations – “Vintage 2015, Great Yes…But”. It’s a small vintage and the wines have immediate appeal, but acidities and sugar levels are both high.
Claude Kolm tasted the wines in Wiesbaden for his Fine Wine Review and he notes the high acidity, also commenting on high alcohol, especially the further south you go. He draws a comparison with 1990 but notes that Helmut Dönhoff, whose memory goes back further, drew comparisons with 1975 and 1971. Claude made another point, worth bearing in mind. It was very hot in Wiesbaden and with the high alcohol levels, it made tasting them in too high temperatures problematic. Thankfully, with the white wines almost untouched and sitting in ice, that did not pose a problem for me, despite the unusually hot September weather in London.
I’m not going to run through all the wines, and those I do mention I don’t intend to go into detail. You don’t need a string of tasting notes which attempt to say something different about each wine just for the sake of it, looking for nuance where it may exist, but not in a way that will stop you falling asleep by the end. What I think you want to know is what I think of the wines, and which ones I liked most. I am happy to let on, even though we are not looking at wines produced in prodigious quantities, especially in 2015. But be aware that I have my prejudices and passions.
Although I tasted the Grosse Gewächse whites first, I’ll start off here with the JJ Prüms. There’s not an awful lot to say, you know they will be good…but maybe there is. First of all, the wines were pretty stunning, but almost unbelievably, you’d have no problem drinking the Kab (Wehlen) and Spätlesen (Graach and Wehlen) now. People talk endlessly about so-called sulphur levels (w-rong) and reduction in these wines. I’ve always had little problem drinking the Kabinett and at least the Graacher Spätlese young, though I do try to age them, honest. But I genuinely think these are very approachable, with the Kabinett and the Graacher Spätlese showing (to me, at least) no obvious reductive qualities. Obviously Wehlen’s Auslese is not remotely ready to drink, but the others, yes, definitely if you feel the urge. They are really good as well.
The dry whites were not only tasted cool, but I didn’t spot any above 13% alcohol, with a fair number at 12.5% (I didn’t scrutinise every bottle). There is no doubt that quality is high, almost uniformly high from Howard Ripley’s stable, which goes to show the expertise they have in selecting their German estates. (Prices in brackets are for six bottles, in bond).
Peter Lauer, from the Saar, is fast becoming a favourite of mine and they showed his Kupp Fass 18 GG, (Ayler) Schonfels Fass 11 GG and Saarfeilser Fass 13 GG (all £117). My own favourite wine was the Schonfels. Interesting, then, that the 2014 version of this wine was described by the Mosel Fine Wines site (Jean Fisch and David Rayer) as “a strong candidate for dry wine of the vintage” (1 November 2015). On balance, Peter Lauer might get my vote for producer of the day, and not bad when you consider giving the wine of the day accolade to the third wine tasted. In my joy I didn’t even photograph it!
On the Fass numbers for Lauer’s wines, he is not alone in producing different bottlings from very small parts of each site, aiming to show changes in either the colour and composition of the slate soils, or microclimatic nuance. It might mean that each bottling is small, and it can make it complicated for the consumer over concerned about which wine he or she is getting. But from my limited experience, I think it’s both justified and worthwhile.
The Grünhaus showed two dry wines, with the Abtsberg a notch up from the Herren, justifying its very small price difference (£96 to £108). My deep affection for von Schubert’s wines goes back a long way, certainly into the early 1990s or longer, and this is not the last you’ll read of this Ruwer estate today.
Another very firm favourite, since both of the Ripley tastings last year and my own visit to the Mosel last summer, is Julian Haart. Julian only set up his winery in 2010, with no vines to his name (at least he now owns a hectare or two). This was too early for him to appear in Stephan Reinhardt’s 2012 book on German wines, probably the current bible on the top producers. But he does have a close family connection to the Reinhold Haart estate in Piesport (Ripley showed two of these wines as well).
Julian Haart’s only wine today was the (Piesporter) Goldtröpfchen (why the brackets…must get the nomenclature of just the vineyard name right for GGs), but what a fabulous wine. Probably “rounder” than the precise wines of Peter Lauer, but certainly showing restraint and class (£126).
Thomas Haag must be one of the best producers on the Mosel at the moment, working from the imposing pile that is Schloss Lieser, just upriver from Bernkastel. We had the Juffer GG (£111), and the Niederberg Helden (same price). I always like the Helden. It’s a large vineyard on a very steep slope on blue slate just outside the village of Lieser. It tends to produce wines of restraint. The 2015 is no exception. It reminds me of lime and something saline right now. Imagine a toned down version of the flavours on the rim of a glass of margarita – well, not quite, perhaps my imagination is running wild, but you might get what I mean.
Schäfer-Frölich showed well. In fact Sebastian Thomas, Ripley’s German expert, seems to have a strong liking for these wines, which the astute purchaser will take note of. Tim Frölich is another of Germany’s young superstars, this time from the Nahe. Of the three wines shown, the Felseneck stood out (naturally, at £192 it was his most expensive on show), but I also liked the Dellchen a lot (£165). A lovely nose, I think I found ginger along with the citrus.
We were now firmly in the territory of superlatives. Dönnhoff‘s Hermanshöle showed its usual class (for me) (£186), Robert Weil‘s Gräfenberg (£165) was pure, mineral, citrus and grapefruit, and Klaus Peter Keller‘s Hubacker was spicy and powerful (interesting that Reinhardt claims this wine was bigger in the past than the more delicate versions in the vintages before his book was published. I found this bigger and broader than what I have tasted before)(£180).
As for the (mainly) 2014 reds, my reaction was interesting. Those of you who know me will be aware that I do like German reds, especially those who are less keen on Spätburgunder and pull my leg about it. Suffice to say that I consider such people philistines! That said, I was not quite as impressed with the wines overall considering my expectations of the vintage. I don’t mind if the wines are generally pale, but one or two were very pale indeed. I found some lack of fruit in some wines too. But then we are trying to judge 2014s at less than two years old for a vintage which I’m told saw the highest median temperatures, on average, in a hundred years. There were no big heat spikes and the wines should taste ripe. Not all of them did, but it could be down to extraction, or more likely mere youthful tannins?
Ziereisen are right down in the southern part of Baden, at Efringen-Kirchen. Much further south and they’d be in the suburbs of Basel, well, almost. Hanspieter Ziereisen is definitely one of the region’s top producers of red wines, eschewing chaptalisation despite the cooler climate here, as the winds whip in, up the Belfort Gap. Four wines were shown. I’m quite a fan of the inexpensive (£60) Tschuppen. I’m sure I’d buy this, but I don’t think the ’14 was showing as well as some previous vintages. A 2011 drunk in April this year was like a nice fruity Cote de Beaune village wine, which is praise from me. The 2013 Rhini (£132) was a big step up, showing presence and the stuffing for ageing, whilst not losing the fragrance of this sheltered limestone site.
Top wine here, the Jaspis Pinot Noir (£168), was from the 2013 vintage as well. The Jaspis wines are usually barrel selections, the top wines of the estate. This was showing very brightly and with a promising softness. I think the reason they label some wines as Spätburgunder and others as Pinot is, as with several German red wine producers, an attempt to distinguish the wines stylistically. The ones labelled Pinot are meant to be more Burgundian. Often I’m sceptical that German Pinot, or any other Pinot for that matter, tastes quite like Burgundy. But there can be a certain affinity between the two at Ziereisen, and that’s probably due to the location, soils and climate in this southerly outpost of Baden. I’ve also come across a Jaspis Pinot labelled Alte Reben, an impressive wine with good concentration, but I didn’t see it on Wednesday.
At the end of the line of reds were the two Kellers, the Dalsheim Bürgel and the Flörsheim Frauenberg. Keller’s wines are impressive but, expensive (£186 and £264 respectively). They are very highly regarded in Germany, and open minded consumers should age them and try them. But with prices as high as this, the Frauenberg being well over £50/bottle with duty and VAT, you are asking a lot of commited Burgundy drinkers. That’s why, for me, Ziereisen offers a nice half way option.
I said we’d be talking about von Schubert again before we part. I remember tasting Dr Carl’s red last year and being impressed. The 2014 is, for me, the best Spätburgunder yet from this address. It’s fruity but has bite, and it just seems in perfect balance. At £114/6 IB this is comparable in price to a good Bourgogne Rouge, although I’m not making a direct stylistic comparison. I’m not yet ready to put the Maximin Grünhaus Sekt up on a pedestal, but I find the red here surprisingly impressive for what it is, and very much to my taste. This was my very personal red of the day. Could the 2015 be even better when bottled?
There we have it. Another excellent Howard Ripley event, professionally executed. Nice to see several acquaintances, and to try some fantastic wines. 2015 for the dry whites, and indeed at JJ Prüm, gets my endorsement, although with the wine pros queuing up to echo my sentiments, you don’t really need me to tell you that. Vintage of the decade…we shall have to see, but whether to buy is not an issue. It’s when to drink them? They will be hard to resist.