No one in the UK has a range of German Wines that outstrips that of Howard Ripley Wines. Although they could not supply all my German requirements, if I had to I could live off Ripley Riesling (and Spätburgunder). They import and sell some of my absolute favourite producers. I’ve always had a passion for the purity of the Kabinett wines, and sometimes for the concentration of the sweeter Prädikatswein, yet every time I attend this particular tasting I’m more and more impressed with the dry whites and reds.
I was not slow in coming to appreciate and enjoy the Grosse Gewächse wines, unlike some of my friends, who remain passionate for the Prädikats. These are wines of stature and structure, at least at their best. But many will know by now that I have also not been slow to trumpet the Pinots, or Spätburgunders, if that is what you prefer to call them (there’s a logic as to which name to use, if only the producers would follow it). The best thing about the tasting in London last Thursday was that a number of producers had made a genuine step up, in fact in one case I’d suggest a leap, in quality. So we start on a big positive.
Don’t come looking for “Burgundy”. There is no single iteration of German Pinot Noir, and you can find light and shade, or perhaps perfume, fruit and structure, if not always in the same wine. But don’t be taken in by the myth that Spätburgunder is expensive. Some are, reassuringly so one might add, but the cheapest here can be had for £54/6 bottles in bond. I’d be happy drinking that, though the cheapest Howard Ripleys sell is £45. I would be more than happy to buy the Schloss Lieser for just £75/6, although my favourite wines in the whole tasting were a little more expensive.
A note on what I didn’t taste. I’ve had a very busy few days and this event, at The Army & Navy Club on Pall Mall, was the most relaxing afternoon I’ve spent for days. I decided not to taste the wines of JJ Prum. From Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett up to the Auktion wines, these are for me amongst the finest wines of Germany (and trust me, I do adore the more fashionable producers as much as the next man). I have more JJ Prüm in my cellar than any other producer. If you love German Prädikat wines, you don’t need me to tell you to buy them.
Well, I lied a little. Before I left I did persuade my palate to take a couple of sips of the JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese LGK Auktion wine, close to the pinnacle of sweet, glorious, concentrated grape juice. I can never buy this so I count it a privilege to taste. I did not spit. It would have been both rude and disrespectful.
Equally, I didn’t taste the selection of VDP Auktion Wines on show (Trier 2018). Only the finest and rarest wines are sold at the VDP Auctions. These barrels are something different. There are people I know, surprisingly a fair few, who buy these and know them as I know perhaps Jura Wine or Burgenland. I frankly don’t have the experience to assess them in any way useful to my readers, and I suspect there are not many of you who would be able to buy them.
2018 – is the vintage of almost all the Grosse Gewächse white wines shown. It has been categorised as a warm year, one “where the sun shone from April to October”, but as always, one should not believe any generalisations. As with Burgundy, German Riesling is always about the producer. There were wines here with the zip you’d expect from a cooler year. There were equally some big, savoury, Rieslings, and indeed one or two that were quite plump and less “dry” (I mean “tasted less dry”) than one might have expected. I personally found some glorious wines, approachable but ageable. Acidities varied a lot, and one would need to match the wines with one’s own tastes. Personally, I like the acids.
2017 – The majority of the reds were from 2017 (with a smattering of 2016s). 2017 appears to be shaping up as one of those years where all sorts of producers excelled. I have long seen a positive trajectory in the quality of German red wines, as exemplified by the tasting of only the red wines Howard Ripley put on in London a couple of years ago. But I would argue, on the basis of the red wines tasted here, that 2017 has provided an opportunity for some to make something more than merely an incremental advance, and a few have taken that chance.
THE WHITES – Grosse Gewächse 2018
The wines here are mostly Riesling, with a few exceptions at the beginning and the end. Prices are per case of six bottles in bond. Take it as read that the wines I review are the wines I liked most, although sometimes I will show a preference within those of a particular producer.
Himmelspfad Silvaner GG, Rudolf May (Franken) – May now has 14 hectares at Retzstadt, north of Würzburg. He’s included here because Rudolf undoubtedly makes some of Germany’s finest Silvaner off very poor soils, rich in fossils. Winemaking here is organic, and with minimal interventions at every level. This wine has real depth with tamed acids. It’s even a little biscuity, stony, bitter on the finish, but there’s a good helping of yellow fruit to balance. £150
Rothlauf Silvaner GG, Rudolf May (Franken) – This is a cooler site with sandstone mixed in with the fossil-rich limestone of the previous wine’s terroir. It’s a bit more racy, very much to my taste. The mineral element comes through as a nicely defined spine to the fruit which hangs off it. It is aged in a mix of stainless steel, concrete, wood and egg, but it seems to me to be nothing if not a wine of the specific place where its grapes were grown. My favourite of the two, and impressive. £150
Saarfeilser Fass 13 GG, Peter Lauer (Saar) – Florian Lauer is one of my favourite three producers in the wider Mosel Region. He farms 9 ha at Ayl, on that big bend in the Saar, where it turns sharply southwest, and then north, towards Trier. If I say this is Florian’s warmest vineyard, you are going to expect ripeness. That would be true – to anyone who knows these wines it’s perhaps not as racy as usual. But there is minerality with the fruit. This seemed dangerously popular, as all of the Lauer wines seem to have become, for which in part I must blame myself. £132
Schönfels Fass 11 GG, Peter Lauer (Saar) – For me, this sits stylistically between the wine which precedes it and that which follows. It has a lemon freshness and a whiff of classic gunflint slatiness, and a bit of salinity as with the Fass 18 below. This might be the most elegant wine of the three here, and possibly, as a result, in some ways the one with the most restraint (well, to me it was perhaps less fruity?). £132
Kupp Fass 18 GG, Peter Lauer (Saar) – This wine seems fresher. The citrus acidity is evident, but it does also have weight and texture. This comes through as a hint of crisp apple underneath the characteristic yellow plum. What you also get, which I think you don’t in the Fass 13, is some saltiness, not a lot but it’s there. Very nice balance, for my palate. £132
Herrenberg GG, Maximin Grünhaus (Ruwer) – As I never stop mentioning, the lovely man that is Carl von Schubert was instrumental in getting me back into German wines a long time ago, since when I’ve tried to hide my secret passion from all my hip amigos. The estate at Mertesdorf is quite large (34 ha), divided into its famous parcels, with the old monastic manor sitting below the duvet of vines like a sleeping head on a pillow. But I digress, wistfully…the Herrenberg is a dry, textured wine of only 12.5% abv. It is mineral, salty and dry, with less fruit than most of the Mosel wines. But that does bode well for the table. £138
Abtsberg GG, Maximin Grünhaus (Ruwer) – The Abbot’s parcel has older vines. The acidity is a little more defined and its salinity just outweighs the fruit. For me it is also more savoury, and I preferred it a little. I’m not sure why both parcels are the same price? £138
Juffer Sonnenuhr GG, Schloss Lieser (Mosel) – Thomas Haag is another of my favourite German producers, and his wines are in no way reminiscent of the dark and brooding Schloss on the banks of the Mosel a little upstream from Bernkastel. Thankfully Thomas lives in something less oppressive and grand. The wines have become stars since he purchased the estate in 1997, and it’s a miracle how such quality is achieved, considering his now 24 ha of vines are spread around 180 diffefent parcels. This example is pale and expressive with a floral nose, elegant but restrained citrus acidity, and a fine mineral finish. £144
Wehlener Sonnenuhr GG, Schloss Lieser (Mosel) – This site rarely fails to get my pulse racing, whether drinking it or merely gazing wistfully at the sun dial down the river from Bernkastel. This is another wine brimming with elegance in a warm vintage. For me, the main added extra here is its saltiness, adding to the intense minerality. Perhaps there’s also a little more gras. £144
Niederberg Helden GG, Schloss Lieser (Mosel) – Undoubtedly less famous than the Sonnenuhr, this is Thomas Haag’s biggest vineyard. It sits as a slope above the river just to the east of the village of Lieser and at a guess rises to about 250 metres. I’ve stayed in Andel, across the river, so I remember it well. It’s the source of some of my favourite Lieser wines. Sybille Kuntz also has vines here. Somehow this wine combines lightness and intense concentrated stony power at the same time, hinting at real complexity to come. I love it. £144
Himmelreich GG, Willi Schaefer (Mosel) – Christoph and Andrea Schaefer may farm a mere four hectares at Graach, but they have a fanatical following. Rightly so, because especially in recent vintages, the wines from this estate have been pretty universally praised as stunning. The labels may look old fashioned but the wines are not. All musts receive the gentlest of handling here, and the aim is to make wines of pristine clarity. This is Christoph’s first dry GG since 2012, but in this warm year he felt the acidites were not too high. Auslese’s loss is Grosse Gewächse’s gain. Creamy and juicy yet salty and mineral. So tempting. £132
Ellergrub “Grosse Eule”, Weiser Künstler (Mosel) – Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler set up their estate in 2006, having purchased an Ellergrub parcel whilst working at Immich-Batterieberg. They still farm fewer than five hectares of vines, yet their Mediterranean-blue label is gaining quite a reputation. This is quite a structured wine with slate, salt and citrus. It’s really vibrant, and the acidity is at the higher end. However, these are wines built for ageing, though if you do love the freshness you could just throw it into a carafe or decanter for earlier drinking, giving it time to breath. £135
Uhlen-Laubach GG, Heymann-Löwenstein (Mosel) – I’ve not drunk a wine from H-L for a very long time. I used to pick them up at the Berry Bros Factory outlet (as we used to call it) outside Basingstoke, mainly wines like the Von Blauem Schiefer. Uhlen, right up near where the Mosel joins the Rhine at Koblenz, has some of the steepest vineyards on the whole river, yielding wines of smoky minerality from its fossil-rich slate. The small slices of terracing look frankly frightening, but the wines are worth it. This is superbly balanced and I reckon the quality here has risen even more in recent years, on the basis of this wine (a step up from the slightly less expensive Uhlen-Blaufüsser Lay). £180
Felsenberg GG, Schäfer-Fröhlich (Nahe) – Tim Fröhlich has farmed these 24 ha for around 36 years. He still looks impossibly young, though he was only nineteen back then. His Rieslings, from the Upper Nahe at Bockenau, are among Germany’s most graceful. This style is evident in the wine here, less powerful than some 2018s. It’s vibrant, lighter, quite zippy even, with a spine of lime and grapefruit. A star, for me. £210
Stromberg GG, Schäfer-Fröhlich (Nahe) – The vines here, on volcanic soils, are Tim’s oldest, many over 85-years-old. The wine seems drier, with a grapefruit zip to it, but also a smoky intensity. You get a long mineral finish here. £228
Felseneck GG, Schäfer-Fröhlich (Nahe) – This is probably the pinnacle of the Schäfer-Fröhlich holding, a source not only of fine Grosse Gewächse wines, but also Trockenbeerenauslese when nature provides. The GG is both floral and herbal. Right now you could say it’s tightly wound, but it is mineral, saline, ripe and the epitome of elegance. What length! £246
Dellchen GG, Hermann Dönnhoff (Nahe) – There may be geographical distance between the Dönnhoff estate and Tim Fröhlich, but sometimes it’s hard to judge any quality difference these days, although the Dönnhoffs certainly possess the fame among most Riesling lovers I meet. I think that fame has led me to buy fewer wines than I should. The holding here is 25 ha, and spread widely as the vineyards are, I believe Helmut and his son Cornelius have eight sites able to produce Grosse Gewächse. Dellchen is generally a lighter wine and this has nicely weighted yellow fruit, but it does finish with an almost crunchy mineral bite with a sprinkling of sea salt.
Hermannshölle GG, Hermann Dönnhoff (Nahe) – I’m getting peach fruit here. There’s more weight and a mineral texture. It’s often one of my favourite Dönnhoff dry Rieslings. Despite the weight it also has a liveliness that lifts it and it’s the tension between those two traits which makes it quite thrilling for me.
Ölberg GG, Kühling-Gillot (Rheinhessen) – Carolin Spanier-Grillot is in charge here. “Here” is Bodenheim, in that part of the Rheinhessen closer to the river, southeast of Mainz, and neighbour to Nackenheim, as opposed to the more southerly part of the region, closer to Worms, home to Keller, Wittmann et al. She controls 12 ha (only 60% of which is Riesling). On the famous Roter Hang limestone, between Nackenheim and Nierstein, Carolin has some of the finest Riesling sites in the Rheinhessen (including this Nierstein vineyard). This is a very steep, almost south facing, slope which generally gives dry wines of some body. Yet this wine has a lightness of touch and is both fruity and refreshing. Very appealing. £180
Hipping GG, Kühling-Gillot (Rheinhessen) – I can never fail to picture Hugh Johnson when I taste this vineyard (I bet a few of you know why). It is above all a lovely terroir wine, more floral on the nose, but on the palate it is saline and citrussy. It’s hard to explain how very expressive this wine is. £216.
Aulerde GG, Weingut Wittmann (Rheinhessen) – Philipp Wittmann converted this estate to biodynamics from 2004 (Demeter Certified), and has never looked back. There are 25 ha, with two-thirds planted with Riesling. I adore this producer, but I only currently own some Weisser Burgunder (which is superb). The village is Westhofen, with the famous Kirchspiel to the north and Morstein to the northwest. Aulerde is Kirchspiel’s eastern neighbour. This Riesling is nice and dry with mineral texture from what is an early ripening site on deep clay, and a good price for very old vine fruit. £162
Kirchspiel GG, Weingut Wittmann (Rheinhessen) – Unfortunately, for those after a bargain, which Aulerde may be, this is a definite step up in structure and everything. There is limestone in this vineyard and the wines tend to be more defined, and perhaps spicy. A wine of true stature. £204
Morstein GG, Weingut Wittmann (Rheinhessen) – And so to Morstein, a south facing site rising to just under 300 metres on limestone with overlying clay, but rocky in parts. It’s hard to describe a wine like this but it kind of has everything you dream of from dry Riesling, even in a warm vintage (remember, producer means everything). The price jump to £258 is justified, though the site’s fame plays a part. If you can afford it then buy and age. If not, the other two will not disappoint, unless you are already very familiar with the Morstein, of course.
Jaspis Gutedel 10 hoch 4 Alte Reben 2016, Ziereisen (Baden) – Something different to finish the whites on, and a 2016. This cuvée is called “ten to the power of four”, referring to the dense planting achieved by interplanting between the original rows in this part of the Steingrüble vineyard. So don’t fear, the wonderful “Gutedel” (aka Chasselas) you know and love hasn’t suddenly taken off in price, although I think Hanspeter once told me that in the early 20th Century the Gutedel here achieved a higher price than Mouton-Rothschild. Ziereisen is in the far south of the Baden wine region, in the hills around Efringen-Kirchen, just a few kilometres from Basel.
All the vines are at least 40-years-old and the wine is a gorgeous savoury surprise, all umami, juniper and bitters, but there’s apple-fresh fruit too. The texture is likely from lees ageing (the normal Gutedel usually has eleven or so months on lees) and also a little skin contact pre-fermentation. It’s quite extraordinary, and I think only Dominique Lucas (south of Lake Geneva) makes comparably fine Chasselas.
THE REDS – PINOT NOIR/SPÄTBURGUNDER 2017 AND 2016
Pinot Noir Niederberg Helden 2017, Schloss Lieser (Mosel) – So this site has some red grapes! I don’t know how this wine is made but I do know that Thomas Haag usually likes to use stainless steel. This is a pale, light, wine with strawberry and raspberry scents. It has a lightness and freshness, and after the plush gentle fruit you do get a little bite. I always love this cuvée, when available. It’s a fun wine, just 12.5% abv, and only £75 per 6 IB.
Spätburgunder 2017, Jülg (Pfalz) – Jülg is at Schweigen, right on the border with Northern Alsace, opposite Wissembourg, and like Fritz Becker, they have vineyards in both Germany and France. In the past I’d have put Becker a clear head above Jülg, but I am reassessing my views. This entry level wine is relatively simple, with a bit of bramble and more colour (and a degree more alcohol) than the Lieser, and whilst nice it is well worth going up the range here. But the price…just £54
Pinot Noir Herrenstück 2017, Holger Koch (Baden) – Koch’s 8.5 ha of vines sit on the Kaiserstuhl, the famous volcanic lump to the east of the Rhine, near Freiburg-im-Breisgau, and in fact pretty much over the border from Colmar, in France. Holger’s great task has been to replant the family vineyards with better clones, and this he has achieved. This wine shows quite pale fruit but with concentrated sour cherry as well as strawberry purity. Very interesting, quite spicy as my wife might say. There is some tannin, but it feels much more velvety, with a lovely mouthfeel. £72
Talrain Spätburgunder 2016, Ziereisen (Baden) – Ziereisen is my favourite red wine producer in Germany. You should know that in case my objectivity is called into question. But I’m pretty confident in recommending this wine on the basis of both quality and price. This vineyard is quite high (up to 500-metres), surrounded by forest, but it gets the prevailing wind up through the Mulhouse Gap, which helps negate disease. It sees 24 months in 225-litre oak, but it comes out with just 12% alcohol. It may be quite concentrated (almost plump) and dark on the fruit side (even a touch of unusual blackcurrant), but it is also racy and refreshing, the limestone element giving great freshness. It should be noted that Hanspeter is actually a big fan of Swiss clones for Pinot, and has replaced many of his French clones with Swiss. £75
Spätburgunder Sonnenberg 2017, Jülg (Pfalz) – Johannes Jülg has had an interesting education, working at Clos des Lambrays in Burgundy, and with Fritz Keller. His time in Burgundy, and probably his experience at home, made him determined to replant with French clones, and with denser vine spacing. It’s interesting because neighbour Fritz Becker has a more nuanced view on clones, French and German, but at Jülg there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that as newer vineyards have matured then quality has really taken a leap forward. There’s finer to come, but this wine from the German side, off loam and limestone, is very tasty with deeper fruit and a step up from wine number two, above. £93 *Note to readers…if you visit Schweigen, then the Jülg Weinstub is the place for lunch.
Spätburgunder Sonnenberg “WB” 2017, Jülg (Pfalz) – This is actually made from one of the French vineyards. The German producers here are not allowed to use the French vineyard names, so “WB” is used to denote Wormberg. There’s an ongoing battle between local producers and the authorities over this, which periodically flares up with some muscle flexing and producer bashing. This wine is more red-fruited, strawberry dominating, but with a little spice, minerality and tannin. Keep a while. £114
Spätburgunder Sonnenberg “KB” 2017, Jülg (Pfalz) – The “Kammerberg” is one of the most famous sites in the area, a steep slope above the (French) Abbey of Wissembourg. I think the French clones here have improved since replanting and they produce a wine which has even more potential than in the past. The best thing about this wine is its savoury spice on the bouquet. The fruit almost appears sweet and it is approachable, but it’s a classy wine that will gain in complexity with time, if you let it (please). £174
Rhini Spätburgunder 2016, Ziereisen (Baden) – This is an even more protected parcel than Talrain, in a limestone dell in the forest which has some influential ferrous deposits in its soils. It is made via whole bunch fermentation and then goes into oak (Hanspeter is continually reining back the percentage of new oak). The result is a wine which needs ageing. The fruit is beautifully smooth and rich, and the tannins seem perfectly judged. There’s both freshness and depth, a wine which truly does have iron in the soul. £144
Pinot Noir 2017, Shelter Winery (Baden) – Relatively new to me, I’ve only been aware of Shelter Winery for a couple of years. Hans-Bert Espe and Silke Wolf bought what is now 5 ha on the Kaiserstuhl in 2005. As well as Pinot Noir, they also have Chardonnay, possibly because Hans-Bert did a stint in Oregon. They have crept under the radar until recently, but Howard Ripley has picked up and run with them. This wine is pale but has a standout smokiness, coupled with a silky mouthfeel and a slightly bitter and grippy edge to the finish. Although the winery is only fourteen years old, they are playing with 40-y-o vines, a big advantage. £156
Pinot Noir *** 2017, Holger Koch (Baden) – The three stars show this is the finest Pinot Noir here, off volcanic soils on the terraced Halbuck, where the fruit ripens later than most other local sites.. This is quite pale, with hi-toned cherry fruit. The finish is, once more, very savoury. Right now, the new oak (50%?) is prominent, but this really is a wine to keep for at least a decade, I think. It is impressive. £174
Jaspis Pinot Noir 2016, Ziereisen (Baden) – This cuvée is possibly the one that made me take notice of German Pinot Noir. It is made from old vines which, if my memory serves me right, were planted in the 1950s and 1960s. It is fairly restrained on the nose, because we are dealing with a fine wine made to age. The fruit is quite chewy but class shines through. It’s a mix of mainly raspberry with a little cherry, dense and heading towards complexity, but it will be a long road. If you can’t wait, buy the Talrain. If you are young and rich, then buy the usually astonishing Alte Reben Jaspis cuvée (the best barrels). But otherwise, this should satisfy most fanatics of this glorious red grape variety. £180, a price I double checked. It’s pretty good value if you compare it to the price of good Premier Cru Burgundy.
Spätburgunder “Opus Oskar” 2017, Jülg, Pfalz) – I’d kind of thought nothing would challenge the last wine, but here we have the evidence for how far Jülg has come, especially over the past couple of vintages. This is admittedly a “selection”, coming from the best parcels on the Kammerberg. It has more smoky depth, silky sensuous fruit and breadth of bouquet and flavour…from Pinot Noir’s raspberry spectrum to almost Syrah-like violets. If you are able to go with £450 for a six-pack, in bond, then Ripleys say “will reward cellaring”. It would be pretty silly not to cellar a wine like this. I’d truly love to be able to try a bottle in fifteen-to-twenty years.
Another great tasting finished. I used to feel ever so slightly smug that I appreciated both of the styles on show here, dry whites of “Premier and Grand Cru quality”, and the once dismissed Spätburgunders. But every year this tasting seems to gain more support, and more minds have become open to these wines. I suppose one could say that this is the future of German wine (well, to be frank, it sort of has been for a fair while), but it just proves that the country really just has something for everyone. How things have changed…for the better.