There’s a certain sedate quality to your average Howard Ripley Tasting. You turn up early to the grand venue, the Pension’s Room in Gray’s Inn, and for a few moments you can sip amid a sea of calm. Even when people begin to turn up the atmosphere is very civilised, no nudging, nor table hogging. No drunkenness either, or at least by the time I’m through, after a few good chats with acquaintances who I otherwise rarely bump into these days.
I also look forward with relish to the Grosses Gewächs and Reds tasting, because for me, this is where some of the most interesting advances are being made in German wine, and have been for some years. Traditionally, the British have shown a marked preference for the Prädikat wines, with residual sugar taming, especially in everyone’s favourite region, the Mosel, that acidity for which our beloved slate-grown Riesling is famous.
I’m getting an idea now that more people are coming round to what the Germans already acknowledge…that in its dry form the Riesling grape can make fine wines of genuine Grand Cru quality in Germany, and that these wines have the versatility to accompany food as well as any dry white wines in the world.
As for the reds, if you read this blog with any regularity you’ll know what I think. The trajectory of quality in German red wine is pretty much the inverse of what may happen to the pound in a no deal brexit scenario – it rises inexorably as vineyards mature and producers understand the nuances of their Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder, if they prefer) fruit.
THE 2017 VINTAGE
There are three things you need to know about the 2017 vintage, which pretty much apply across all of the country’s major wine producing regions. First of all, yields were pretty much lower than hoped, and in some cases very low indeed. The culprit, frosts, mainly late April frosts over the whole country. Some regions (the Nahe, for one) experienced significant hail, but frost was by far the biggest problem, compounded by a warm early spring, so that the vines were well advanced when the frosts struck.
The severity of the frosts can be illustrated by their effect on even some of the steepest vineyards on the Mosel. It is generally thought that these sites avoid the effects of frost because the cold air flows down the slopes, or stays close to the river. Nope, in 2017 even the hillsides copped it. But there were exceptions. I read that Franken’s harvest was a little up on 2016.
There is sometimes an upside to low yields, fine quality. It is the sunshine in the weeks around harvest that can really make a vintage, and many regions experienced a dry summer, despite isolated hail in places, and particularly warm September weather. Harvest was generally early, the earliest ever in some places, so sugar levels were pretty decent for many, as also acidity with good diurnal temperature variation.
It is always difficult to characterise a vintage. Regions differ, as do producers (in style and in the effort they make to excel). But you want to know if I like 2017, and whether I liked the wines. The answer for me is a definite “yes indeed”. Any generalisation would have to say that the wines are very different to the majority of non-classic 2015s, and they are generally a little less light and expressive as many 2016s were at this stage.
Perhaps the wines might turn out to be a little more serious, and possibly even profound. It is here where I must stress that when it comes to judging these wines, I’m no expert, although I know what I like. I tasted all of the wines on offer (fifty in total) and I can’t help wondering why I’m generally attracted to the same producers vintage after vintage. When people tell me they buy the same estates every year, I have occasionally wondered why they are not more adventurous. But I can see why with every year I taste. As with Burgundy, you get to appreciate what an individual is doing, and you also get to appreciate vintage variation.
I don’t want the reds to be a mere afterthought, and of course we are not in 2017 here, so vintage generalisations are not valid. Most of the reds were from 2016 and 2015, with one 2013 on show. If you read my notes, my stylistic preferences will become obvious.
As always, it is not really helping the reader to write something about every wine, although I know I’ve done this in the past. It does mean that some worthy wines get no mention, so remember that this is my personal selection. I already know of people who have ordered (or plan to order) wines not featured here. There are producers I didn’t mention this time from whom I have wines in my cellar, so I’m trying not to be too expansive.
Any serious purchasing will always involve reading around, and, of course, trying to taste for yourself if you can. I love the way that after a Ripley tasting there is always animated conversation about what we all liked, and that’s part of the fun. NB: Prices indicate a case of SIX bottles in bond unless otherwise stated.
Rudolf May, Franken
I want to comment on the two Silvaner wines first, from Rudolf May. This is now a 14 ha estate with prime vineyards on mainly fossil-rich limestone. Both wines show good distinctive qualities. Himmelspfad comes from the warmest part of the Langenberg vineyard (Retzstadt) and is quite rich, with grapefruit citrus notes and a mineral, almost peppery, finish.
Rotlauf is from a cool part of the Johannisberg site where sandstone is mixed with the limestone. This is made in a mix of stainless steel, concrete egg and wood. The fruit is more exotic (lychee) and there’s even more mineral texture, more zip and bags of freshness.
As one sommelier acquaintance remarked to me, how nice it is to see two very fine Silvaners in the lineup. I agree. Don’t pass them over. I know not everyone is up to speed with the top Franken producers, because I’d not tasted Rudolf May’s wines before, or at least I don’t recall doing so. I won’t forget them easily now.
This is especially true because by coincidence I had met the Sales Rep for their Eastern US importer, T Edward Wines’ David Hautzig only the day before at the Red Squirrel Tasting. Small world.
Peter Lauer, Saar
Florian Lauer has become one of my favourite three of four German producers in a relatively short period of time. Last time I looked, he farmed just 8ha, based in Ayl on the Saar. He bottles his wines with “Fass” numbers, which can get confusing, but as with the best of the Saar, these are very precise wines (writers habitually use “chiselled” to describe them), but the fruit is always perfectly judged and they are always elegant. My style in a nutshell.
Three wines, all at £126 in bond, were carefully differentiated. Saarfeilser Fass 13 seemed to me a great combination of fruit and minerality; Schönfels Fass 11 shows a touch less zip and a tad more weight to me; whilst Kupp Fass 18 has a beautiful dry minerality and bright fruit to balance. Too hard to choose, perhaps I’d single out the Kupp. I’d be happy with any.
Von Schubert, Maximin Grünhaus, Ruwer
I can’t help listing this as Ruwer, not Mosel, whatever the German Wine Authorities would prefer these days. The wines have always been distinctive, and Dr Karl’s family are part of German wine history. This is also one of the first estates I bought regularly, in the 1990s when Adnams sold their Prädikat wines.
Abtsberg GG (£126 IB) is fresh with genuine depth in 2017, but I was really taken with the Herrenberg. There’s something akin to greengage on the nose. It has a bright attack and then you discover it’s bright all over. Lime, grapefruit, and eventually a hint of stony texture come through on the palate. There’s plenty of acid there right now, don’t get me wrong, but beneath lies a certain elegance. Delicious, and £114 IB.
Fritz Haag, Mosel
Oliver Haag looks too young to be making wines with this degree of confidence, especially when he has had to follow in the footsteps of his father, Wilhelm, one of the true greats of German wine.
Juffer GG is a good (and inexpensive at £90 IB) introduction to the estate’s dry wines. On the nose it was slightly muted (this bottle?) but it earns its place here because it genuinely explodes with flavour on the palate.
Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr is, of course, one of the Mosel’s iconic sites. The GG from this site is usually quite dense and can require a good number of years to open. In 2017, tasting the two wines side by side, you see how they have similarities, but the Juffer-Sonnenuhr is just “more” and better. Oliver farms 3ha of this site, vines located in the rocky central portion of the vineyard. They yield wines of true intensity. If you buy this, do age it, despite its ridiculous price (£120 IB).
Schloss Lieser, Mosel
Oliver Haag’s elder brother, Thomas, runs Lieser, the imposing château on the river, just past Bernkastel, which at first I found slightly depressing, but it has grown on me. The wines have always been among my absolute favourites. These are yet more clean and precise wines. Some might say lean, I say strikingly elegant, sometimes like lace.
Niederberg Helden is a wine I am always drawn to. The site, right next to the village, has an 80% slope of weathered blue slate. At 12.5% abv, this is balanced and has an almost savoury quality beside the fruit. Another wine to keep, I think. I would like this in 2017, for sure.
Goldtröpfchen is a big name and yet I personally warmed to it less. But note, this is relative. Remember that this is still a favourite estate making wines I love, and the dry wines here seem to get better every vintage. This has a slightly exotic note on the nose and a slightly sour note on the finish, and seems slightly less light on its feet. But I suspect I was having difficulty reading it.
Weingut Vollenweider, Mosel
We travel down to Traben-Trarbach for this estate. Daniel Vollenweider is originally from Switzerland, but now farms around 5ha of…and this may be the key to his success…old vines which are ungrafted to American rootstock. He’s another relatively new (five or six years) producer in my lexicon, who was recommended to me originally by a Danish friend. The wines can tend to a leaner style, for sure, but they are usually highly aromatic too.
Goldgrube usually gives Daniel very dry wines with quite high acidities, but the acidity doesn’t dominate. The dryness, tasted through a slatey texture, is quite apparent though, as is a nice saline finish. Only £105 IB.
Goldgrube “Aurum” is really stony, very concentrated and the palate shows immense potential to age. It should, as you’ll be paying £138 for just three bottles, in bond. The cuvée is a selection, from vines over 100 years old.
Not that long ago Vollenweider was certainly not considered one of the stars of the Mosel. I think he is now. Ripley were very astute in snapping him up. All his wines, including the prädikaten, are impressive.
Tim Fröhlich is another star, and in this case I think he needs no introduction. He’s now in his mid-forties, though I reckon he looks at least a decade younger. If this estate is aiming for anything, other than expressing the terroir of their 20 hectares, I’d guess it is mineral purity. This is another address to which I perennially head for wines of true character.
Three wines were on show. Felsenberg (£201 IB) is a lovely wine in 2017. Plenty of fresh acidity, and the texture of extended lees ageing, but you can see that there’s a step up over many of the cheaper wines tasted, as seen through the palate. Unusually herby and salty as well as fruity, this is very good.
Stromberg is, if I’m correct, a newer site for this estate. It has one of the best bouquets of any wine at the tasting so far. Very fresh and, in my opinion, no less good than the Felsenberg. £213 IB
Felseneck is, if anything, even more impressive, and worth paying extra (£228 IB). There’s a bit more weight and stature. As I was chatting to a friend it warmed in the glass and its latent complexity began to emerge, or at least a hint of it. So again, this will age. But to be really honest, Schäfer-Fröhlich is an estate where I’d be content with any of these three wines.
Weingut Wittmann, Rheinhessen
Philipp Wittmann is the man here at Westhofen. He converted the estate to biodynamics, turning it into one of the finest in not just the region, but in Germany. Blessed with some fine, indeed some of the finest, sites in Rheinhessen, all he really had to do was focus on going beyond just good quality, and Philipp has certainly achieved that.
We got to taste three wines, the first of which underwhelmed me a little, down to a very dumb nose on a newly opened bottle of Aulerde 2017. To be honest I kicked myself for forgetting to go back to it before the reds. It’s an old vine cuvée that is often quite rich and tropical. However, Kirchspiel was on great form. Lots of freshness, a little spice, with the mainly limestone terroir giving all these qualities plus a certain elegance which some have also called “racy”. At £198 IB this is a great buy, when you consider the cost of the next wine.
Morstein GG – I have been remarkably lucky to have drunk a small number of bottles of this wine without ever buying any. Is it sometimes overshadowed by Keller’s version? If it is, I’d argue that it is no less good. For £258 in bond it should be amazing, but why is it indeed so relatively cheap in the grand scheme of the world’s great white wines?
It has, as Ian Gillan once asked for on Made in Japan, more of everything, or “everything louder than everything else”. Morstein rises to just under 1,000 feet (sounds more impressive than 300 metres), limestone overlain with clay. Whatever it is that makes the site produce such complex wines should be bottled and spread around. The wine really announces itself and has genuine presence of an order not seen in any other wine at the tasting. If you can afford it, and can afford to wait for maturity (although as is often the case with wines like this, it would be amazing on its fruit), then buy a case.
If you can’t, then Kirchspiel ought not to disappoint. And they say Aulerde is a warmer site that drinks sooner. Star wines.
Georg Mosbacher, Pfalz
I thought that the Mosbacher wines would suffer in being placed after Wittmann, but strangely, they didn’t. If I say “strangely”, that is obviously a symptom of my lack of experience. Ungeheuer and Jesuitengarten cost just £135 and £138, respectively, in bond. The former is characterful, with citrus and a little spice, and the latter wine has a touch extra lively freshness, rounder fruit and a nice bitterness, only just noticeable, which adds an extra dimension. In fact I suspect that away from the tasting bench anyone would exclaim over this silky wine, which I’m sure is another which will age magnificently. Amazing value.
For the red wines, which Ripley list as “Pinots” here, rather than Spätburgunder, I’m only going to select a few. I made more suggestions at Howard Ripley’s German Reds Tasting (March 2018, here). What I will say is that Britain has long seemed behind the curve on German red wine. Why, I’m not sure? Prejudice, perhaps, tasting (or rather, drinking) wines too young, maybe. There’s no doubt that when the vintage is good these wines can be world class.
Clones play a part, but they don’t provide the answer to quality, only style. Some producers prefer French, Dijon, clones and other prominent producers (Ziereisen, for one) now prefer German (and in Hanspeter’s case Swiss too) clones. The list of those making truly wonderful red wine is now a long one, and even though prices have risen steeply, there is still real value to be had.
The first and third suggestions are both lighter in style, and surprisingly from possibly the least fashionable region for German red wine, the wider Mosel. They are not in the above category of “world class red wines”, but why oh why do we always look for greatness, when a really tasty, juicy, red Pinot is often what we would really prefer on a Tuesday evening?
Pinot Noir Niederberg Helden 2016, Schloss Lieser, Mosel – This is quite pale and light. It has lifted red fruit, a sappy smoothness and is a nicely inexpensive Pinot which I hesitate to call a “glugger”, but so tasty it is. Excellent value at £75, and not a source (estate nor site) where you might expect to see such a wine. Unless you know Thomas Haag.
Spätburgunder “R” 2016, Jülg, Pfalz – This wine makes the selection here because it’s an impressive effort. It’s possibly not a wine you’d expect me to like, and right now I’d suggest “respect” is more apt a description than “like”. It is harvested from the Wormberg vineyard in France. The village of Schweigen sits on the border, just north of the great abbey town of Wissembourg (Northern Alsace). It is common for producers to own vineyards on both sides of the border, as does both Jülg and Fritz Becker (a producer of world class Pinots and Spätburgunders, who I visited last year (see here)), who I would suggest are the best in the village (though I need to taste more of the wines of Weingut Bernhart, also in Schweigen, whose Sonnenberg “RG” was impressive, if possibly a bit too impressive (vintage?) for my taste).
The former monastic vineyards here are very attractive, as is the former Benedictine abbey itself. The grapes harvested in France are governed by German wine law when made into wine in Germany, but those regulations somewhat unfortunately don’t allow the traditional vineyard names to be used. The wines made by top producers, like Jülg and Becker, are unarguably of Grand Cru quality.
“R” is quite tannic and concentrated, altogether the opposite of the Lieser above. It has dark fruits and I suspect is made to age. I personally prefer the style at Becker, but Jülg makes very good wines. If you find yourself in Schweigen, this is also the place to eat lunch. Warm conviviality and warming traditional food in a series of cosy rooms.
Okay, there’s always one wine that doesn’t get photographed, so instead you get Jülg’s straight Spätburgunder and Bernhart’s Sonnenberg RG
Pinot Noir 2016, von Schubert, Mosel (Ruwer) – I wonder whether some think me perverse, but I always go for the Grünhaus Pinot. What you get here is fairly simple, though in saying that, there’s no doubt that complexity is creeping in year on year. In contrast to the above wine, we are back in the spectrum of red fruits. Accompanying the fruit is a whiff of smoke, doubtless a terroir note from the Abtsberg’s pure slate soils. We are also back to a wine of pure drinkability, though I think it has a little more weight than the Lieser.
Ripley showed five wines from Ziereisen, the magical estate just north of Basel, whose vineyards are nestled among the woods at Efringen-Kirchen. I’ll own up and say this is very subjectively (and it’s a close call, another day it could be Fritz Becker) my favourite red wine producer in Germany. In part it is because, on meeting Hanspeter and his wife, Edel, I will say that I believe completely in what they are doing, at every level and with every grape variety.
We begin with Tschuppen 2015. This is a juicy entry level wine, off clay soils, where the juice (full of chewy cherry) of the vintage makes this bottling even more attractive. Next is Talrain 2015. This is from one of Hanspeter’s higher sites which sits in the lee of the Black Forest. The soil is iron-rich limestone. The fruits are black and intense, with a nice red meatiness creeping in. Mineral but also juicy. These are £51 and £75 per case in bond, respectively.
We then make a qualitative leap to Rhini 2015. This cuvée is from limestone in a protected enclave where iron combines with silt and sand mixed in with the limestone to produce wines of significantly greater complexity. The fruit is plump but the finish is savoury, almost salty. £135 IB seems reasonable to me.
Ziereisen makes a range of wines labelled as “Jaspis”. These are the top wines, but are a strict selection, as opposed to single vineyard wines per se.
Jaspis Pinot Noir 2015 is a wine for ageing, but has the freshness you get off the limestone terroir here. The fruit is ripe, in part because the forest protects the vines from cooling winds, but also because of the hands on care that the fruit gets shown. The vines tend to be fairly old and the wine is fine, potentially very complex and long, made to age. Ripley describes the wine on their web site as seductive, which is a pretty fair assessment. The fruit is certainly smooth, but it shows just 12.5% alcohol, which adds incredible freshness. £180 in bond.
Jaspis Spätburgunder Alte Reben 2013 – both of the Jaspis “Pinot” wines have an old vines/Alte Reben version, from vines of at least fifty or sixty years of age, or older. This is the pinnacle of Ziereisen red wine making. Here, 20% whole bunches add lift and freshness to concentrated and spicy fruit. There’s more structure, even though this 2013 has had bottle age. A wine for keeping, a wine of world class when it’s on song, as it usually is. £276/case in bond.
I’m not sure that it is strictly relevant to this tasting, but Hanspeter Ziereisen makes wonderful wine from two varieties you might not expect. Gutedel (Chasselas in France and French speaking Switzerland) is historically the local grape here, but Ziereisen’s version is way more profound than it has any right to be. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a Syrah under the Jaspis label. It comes from a very steep, well protected, slope. It is probably the best Syrah in Germany, and that is not faint praise. Expect to see wines designated as “Landwein”. As with the exciting Austrians I’ve been covering recently, Hanspeter has no time for regulatory bodies. His wines speak for themselves.
Edel and Hanspeter at the Howard Ripley German Reds Tasting in March 2018