Commercially the vintage is a bloody mess: it gave far too little goddamn wine and most of what it did give was hugely ripe. Aesthetically it is so schizy the only valid headline should read 2006 Offers Masterpieces, Stinkers.
Very hot July (but with more rain than in 2003) and very cold August, such that most growers were predicting a “normal” vintage in size and ripeness by early September. Then came October 3rd, and all hell broke loose. A vicious storm broke over southern Germany, dropping insane amounts of rain. As was the case in 2003 and again (weird coincidence or basic shift?) in ‘05, the weather was best the further north you went. “We on the Mosel received much less rain than they got in the Pfalz, and north of us, the Ahr, got none at all,” one grower told me. In fact 2006 was a candor-crucible for many growers. How much truth could they tell? One guy said “We [growers] always tell you the truth about a vintage—one year later!”
So, lots of rain just before harvest. When it fell on already-ripe grapes with soft skins, rot ensued. When it fell on less ripe grapes with firmer skins, the growers had another week to gear up, but when botrytis came it came overwhelmingly, and everyone said it was the fastest harvest they’d ever done.
Darting sent teams out to select during the day, cutting all the dubious grapes to the ground and leaving the healthy ones on the vine to be machine-harvested overnight. Growers who picked before the rain had “small” wines but clean wines and acted like they’d dodged a bullet. Joel Payne, who lives near Neustadt in the Pfalz and who likes to jog through the vineyards each morning told me: “It was distressing; you could smell the vinegar,” something repeated by many others. But paradoxically, it contained a hopeful silver lining.
It recalls 2000, doesn’t it? And as it turns out, the experience of that dreadful harvest was extremely useful to growers in 2006, as it compelled them to pick fast and alter their methods. “You had to bring in each bucket of grapes, almost,” one guy said. “You couldn’t leave them in the tractor to warm up; we were driving back and forth five or six times a day.” Others told of the salespeople who swarmed over them offering carbon for must-fining, and saying there would be disastrous shortages, but many growers said they used little or none of it because of how and how quickly they picked. Others were humbled by nature’s caprices. “It didn’t matter what you did, when or where you sprayed; you had one vineyard with vinegar and the neighbor had none, and you don’t know why.” One resolute non-interventionist showed me two wines and asked which I preferred. I liked the first of them by a long shot. “These are two adjacent parcels,” he explained. “One was sprayed with fungicides and the other wasn’t.” The sprayed vineyard gave by far the more palatable wine.
In the south (Pfalz and most of Rheinhessen) the best you could expect was clean wine of moderate ripeness, but often the wines exceeded your expectations. Darting’s wines have far more extract and grip than usual, and they’re actually less botrytis-influenced than their 2005s. Minges had a collection of utterly lovely Riesling, thanks in part to the sagacity of his friend Hans-Günter Schwarz, who helped him in the vineyard. In fact in the more challenged regions the victory belonged not to the hotshot cellar-wizard, but to the sensitive and attentive grape grower, and Minges and Schwarz had many telling observations to share about how to read a vine’s state of health and contentment, and how to hear what it asks for.
As you went north the tenor of the stories changed. There it wasn’t uncleanliness which had to be battled, but instead the rampant and sudden invasion of noble rot. I remember getting bulletins from Johannes Selbach every few days. At first he lamented the lack of everyday wine coming from the vineyards. “Looking for lots to declassify has been a pain in the neck,” he said. Then a few days later he crossed a conceptual line. “At some point we decided 2006 was showing us what type of vintage it would be, and why should we struggle against it?”
All over the Mosel growers told the same tale: each day they had another 5-to-10 degrees Oechsle, and each day they had another crop reduction because of it. Low yields are universal. In the south it was an issue of selecting the small amount of clean fruit available; in the north it was noble-rot and its shriveling. The phrase “embarrassment of riches” is apropos.
At first I thought O.K., bear down, swallow hard and get through it. We’ve had awkward vintages before and survived them. Then I went to Wagner-Stempel. And then I saw there would be instances where 2006 was—take a deep breath—even better than 2005. How in the world would this story be told?
In general terms, where 2005 was a panna-cotta, ‘06 is meatier. It has higher acidity and much higher extract across the board. Many growers have never seen such extract readings, and the wines have marked mid-palate substance, which gives them unusual grip. If ‘05s are stately as elms are stately, than 2006 is grand as oaks are grand. At its best—and its best isn’t hard to find—2006 has amazing size and focus. “Grandiose” is a word we’ll often hear. The best wines are regal and commanding, sometimes absurdly focused and defined given their sheer magnitude. And yet other times they seem almost delicate. One facet of this quixotic vintage (which is either annoying or entertaining depending on your temperament) is you never knew what you’d find at any given address. For each grower who made the wines you expected (like Justen) another was uncannily apart from the vintage norm (like Kerpen).
Cards on the table. I sent a letter to growers the tail end of 2006 saying I expected the ‘06 vintage might have rough sailing in our markets. Higher prices (thanks to exchange rates and dangerously small yields) and a vintage laden with Auslese might make for a hard sell when everyone’s cellars were crammed with 2005s. For me personally, and subjectively, it would have been best to ride it out and wait for the next cuddly useful vintage. The problem was, the sheer staggering greatness of many 2006s kept interfering with my plans! Oh shit, what do I do now; the wines are stunning. . . .
And it isn’t just ripeness, or even ripeness-plus-definition. Many of the ‘06s have a smoldering magma-minerality that made me think of the ore note in top Wachau wines. You get the sense of huge armies of hirsute muscular giants hammering iron in a boiling factory way below the ground. Dainty, the wines are not. Yet each time I was inclined to find them perhaps on the muscular side they’d impress me with their juiciness. And I promise you; “juicy” is the textural adjective that’ll dominate your tasting notes.
And in fairness to the whole truth, the wines aren’t always clean. Naturally I left anything dubious behind, but when you taste a vintage many of whose wines show various botrytis flavors you’re in danger of ceasing to notice them. I had to be vigilant, and so will you.
But what are we to drink? There wasn’t a single “true” Kabinett among any I tasted. There wasn’t even a declassed Spätlese you could plausibly offer as a wine that should be a Kabinett. Yes, some wines attained an incomprehensible delicacy—Karlsmühle leaps to mind—where you thought “O.K., this tastes like Kabinett should,” until you learned the wine was over 100º Oechsle and you were left shaking your fool head, wondering how it was done.
The fact that we demand a commodity called “Kabinett” led, inexorably, to the creation of lots of “Auslese-feinherb” when growers took the least-ripe fruit they had and gave it “typical” Kabinett sweetness. Most of these wines are misjudged, but it’s more our fault than the growers’. We want what we want. Johannes Selbach had it right—as he has most things—when he chose to yield to the vintage and let it be itself instead of twisting it into an unnatural form to fit inside a concept. I think I’ll do the same.
I do not retreat an iota from my statement that 2005 at its best is the greatest German vintage of modern times, better than which (in Schildknecht’s classic phrase) cannot be imagined. But! That doesn’t mean each and every grower’s wine embodied the best the ‘05 vintage could give. So when I tell you there are quite a number of growers who made EVEN BETTER wine in 2006, one statement is easily reconciled with the other.
Here’s a list of GROWERS WHO MADE EVEN BETTER WINE IN 2006 THAN IN 2005:
- Willi Schaefer
Here’s a list of growers whose wines were ABOUT AS GOOD IN ‘06 AS IN ‘05:
- A.J. Adam
2006 is at its best, yet again—pity the poor Pfälzers, who are perhaps being cosmically punished for the whole Trocken misery—in the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer; and in the Mittelrhein, the Rheingau, the Nahe; and in central and western parts of Rheinhessen near the Nahe.
To the extent ‘06 was difficult for grapes like Scheurebe and Muscat this had less to do with any inherent challenges they faced and more to do with growers’ wishes to protect Rieslings at all cost and leave other varieties to fate. Müller-Catoir made no Scheurebe, because “By the time we got to it, it was useless. But we had to protect the Riesling.” Catoir was on the receiving end of almost absurd nemesis in 2006 thanks to not one but two hailstorms—and then with the difficult harvest. What Scheu I did see was its usual writhing slutty self. Scheu likes higher acid years. Lots of the 2006s are good `n horny.
So to sum up, 2006 is an all-over-the-place vintage whose best wines are as good as German wine gets, and there are plenty of them. It’s a better year than its nearest cognate 2000: riper, cleaner and with greater stature. When it fails it really fails, and it’s not made to give us the light everyday wines we need. Yet if you cherish German Riesling’s scintillating clarity and brilliance you will get it from many 2006s—just at 25º Oechsle higher than you’d expect!
Again, I eliminate Dönnhoff from the running, as this grower is in his own class and would dominate any list of superlatives. (Indeed his 2006s are existentially different from the rest of the vintage and thus perhaps even more astonishing than his gorgeous ‘05s.)
The Winery Of The Vintage is . . . oh hell, I don’t know. Does it have to be just one? The candidates are Schlossgut Diel for simply ravishing across-the-board brilliance, Kerpen for making an entirely different vintage from any I could have expected, and Karlsmühle for similar reasons. (skritch-skritch-skritch-scratching-head . . . ) O.K., here goes. One day we went to Justen, Christoffel and Merkelbach, and it was a day’s work tasting those superripe wines from the due-south slopes of Uerzig-Erden. Imagine going to a smorgasbord but all the preps are foie gras. “Um, is there anything that isn’t foie gras?” you ask. Nope, just foie! Bon appetit! So I approached the next day with, let’s say, some apprehension. And then Martin Kerpen showed me something the likes of which I’ve never seen from him. His entire vintage was almost demure, certainly delicate, and wonderfully charming, quiet and discreet. Wine after wine after wine excelled with virtues almost unique among 2006s, remarkably limpid and sappy. I still don’t know how he did it and I’m not sure he does either. But with all respects paid to the many (did I mention Wagner-Stempel?) who made incomprehensibly deft and brilliant 2006s, for me the winery of the vintage in this portfolio is: KERPEN. For wine after wine of heart-rending quiet beauty. And for restoring my thirst, and my hope.
THE WINE OF THE VINTAGE IN THIS COLLECTION IS:
- Schlossgut Diel Dorsheimer Goldloch Riesling Spätlese
THE RUNNER-UP IS:
- Carl Loewen Thörnicher Ritsch Riesling Beerenauslese (which only missed being #1 because I didn’t want it to be a BA)
THE AUSLESE OF THE VINTAGE IN THIS COLLECTION IS:
- Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling Auslese #10 (It sucks nominating a wine there’s so little of, but Schaefer’s Domprobst Auslese #14 is just as good, showing even more fruit and class though with less explicit mineral intricacy) (The two Auslesen of the vintage are….!)
THE SCHEUREBE OF THE VINTAGE IN THIS COLLECTION IS:
- Kruger-Rumpf Scheurebe Spätlese (with more-than-honorable mention to Gysler for his astonishing Scheu in LITERS.)
THE KABINETT—OR “KABINETT”—OF THE VINTAGE IN THIS COLLECTION IS:
- Adam Hofberg Riesling Kabinett (very likely the most amazing Mosel Kabinett I’ve ever tasted).
THE BIGGEST SURPRISES OF THE VINTAGE ARE:
- Gysler Weinheimer Riseling Halbtrocken (because the wine embodies a pure happiness that makes you laugh out loud as if you were being tickled.)
- Mathern Niederhäuser Rosenberg Riesling Spätlese (because it establishes an entirely new and unexpected level of quality for Sabine and Gloria).
- Weingart Bopparder Hamm Feuerlay Riesling Spätlese Trocken (see that word Trocken? ‘Nuff said).
- Karlsmühle Kaseler Nieschen Riesling Kabinett (a wine I’d never have imagined possible from 2006—so delicate and searching and mystic).
- Minges “Buntsandstein” Riesling Spätlese Trocken (another wine named after its soil, and an astonishingly improbable achievement in any vintage, let alone 2006; there’s nothing here but pristine balance and cleanliness and complexity).
THE GREATEST CORE-LIST WINES IN THIS COLLECTION ARE:
- Weingart Schloss Fürstenberg Riesling Kabinett
- Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Dautenpflänzer Riesling Spätlese (second year in a row for this beauty!)
THE SINGLE GREATEST VALUE IN THIS OFFERING IS:
- Minges Riesling Halbtrocken LITERS
THE ESTATES SHOWING THE STEADIEST HAND ACROSS THE BOARD ARE:
- Schlossgut Diel
SHORT-LIST FOR ROCKHEADS:
- Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Auslese “Schmitt”
- Wagner-Stempel Höllberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs
- Hexamer Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg Riesling Kabinett
SHORT-LIST FOR FRUIT-HOUNDS:
- Darting Dürkheimer Michelsberg Riesling Kabinett
- Hexamer Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg Riesling Spätlese**
- Hoffman-Simon Köwericher Laurentiuslay Riesling Spätlese
SHORT-LIST FOR CHARM-PUPPIES:
- Spreitzer Oestricher Doosberg Riesling Kabinett
- Jakoby-Mathy Kinheimer Rosenberg Riesling Spätlese
- Merkelbach Kinheimer Rosenberg Riesling Auslese #5
THE TROCKEN WINE OF THE VINTAGE IN THIS COLLECTION IS:
- Schlossgut Diel Goldloch Grosses Gewächs
So to try and put the whole mess into perspective . . . the heights of 2006 are every bit as high as 2005, though fewer wines attained them. But, some wines exceeded them. The lows of 2006 are considerably lower than 2005’s, the worst of which were merely mediocre whereas 2006’s worst wines are undrinkable. I arrived assuming your cellars were as crammed-full as mine is with ‘05s, and the best I hoped for from ‘06 was a small community of usable wines with which to ride out the next 12 months. Alas, happily, amazingly, it isn’t quite so. Drink up sybarites, because you’ll need to make room for the best of 2006—they are that good and more.
That said, and said with conviction, 2006 isn’t as easily or obviously great as 2005. Those were irresistible, they literally overcame you with their depth of fruit and length of structure. The new vintage—usually but not inevitably—body-slams you with its implacable strength and dynamism. It is, however, reasonable to observe the very best among the 2006s are the atypical ones, the Dönnhoffs and Karlsmühles and Diels and Wagner-Stempels and Hexamers . . . wait; there are so many of these perhaps they aren’t atypical after all. They might simply represent another possible profile of this bizarrely remarkable crop, which I was personally ready to ignore until the wines got the best of me and my conscience rebelled. When I counted through my “plusses” I had as many as I had for the 2005s, though I have fewer total selections.
There are a lot of people saying we’d better figure out a way to drink all these outsized Auslesen. Hey, Comte and Beaufort are my favorite cheeses.