In the olden days they used to give little mottos to each vintage. A hot one like '76 might be "Bringer Of Sun" or a messy rotten year might be "Hedgehog Snot Everywhere," but all of them had a semi-official motto (this being Germany).
I don't even know if they still do it. But if so, I have no earthly idea what they'd come up with for 2010. My vote would go to "WTF?!?!"
Though every grower said basically the same things to me, the vintage was best summed up by Carl Loewen: "I never experienced a year like this one. Must-weights like the best years, and acidity like the worst years."
Nothing anyone had ever experienced prepared them for 2010. No precedents exist. "A lot of what we're doing, we're doing for the first time," said Walter Strub, as he showed me a filter pad caked with calcium. This is a vintner with some thirty years under his belt, mind you. But 2010 stands alone.
The headline is, what's good is absurdly good, and there are enough of them. What's not good is a mess. The crop was decimated by a sequence of events beginning with cold weather during flowering, and by the time these few bunches were harvested in late, late Autumn they had still-thick skins and very little juice – but what juice it was!
2010 is a freak. At times a happy freak and at other times a stunningly compelling freak. Don't look for anything to compare it to, and abandon all attempts to place it in context. It constitutes a context of its own. And because of that, I'm going to be a wee bit careful how I parse my language, because I suspect that any of us who issues categorical pronouncements on this vintage will have too many words he'd rather not eat later.
So, to start with, I tasted a larger proportion of cask-samples than usual, because the wines were picked so late and developed so slowly. You learn after a while to see a cask sample as a thing of its own, a progenitor of the eventual wine but not identical to that wine. Bottling improves some wines (e.g., most 2003s) and can clip others (e.g., 2004), so I am seeing this vintage mostly through a periscope.
But with that caveat, I'm willing to state that 2010 is the most concentrated vintage I've ever tasted in Germany. Forget "vinosity;" these babies are as dense as paperweights. Extracts are through the roof (Kabinetts with mid-30s readings not uncommon) and tasting them compared to other "normal" vintages was like doing your usual exercises, only under water. You had to almost force your palate through these wines, pushing aside massive thickets of sheer material, pure substance.
Yet this is substance only obliquely related to what we'd call "fruit." Especially compared to the yellow-fruit basket that was 2009. These '10s are much more malic (apples, pears and especially quince) and herbal in a shady green way (balsam, verbena, wintergreen, aloe vera, sorrel). There's also a note of raw brassica like broccoli, not cooked so it stinks up your house, but just the florets eaten raw or with a little greeny dip – think avocado with threads of tarragon.
Nor are the wines at all heavy, or more correctly, they aren't big and heavy. They're a little 2-pound bag with 10 pounds of flavor in it.
I will hedge here, just a tiny bit, because I remember feeling similarly when tasting the young '98s and '95s, both high-acid years and one of them a high botrytis year too. Each of the earlier vintages lost body (or gained sleekness, if you liked it) after they were bottled. But neither of them was nearly as packed as 2010. It's like sitting on your bursting suitcase just to get the bastard closed; the '10s feel as if they're about to erupt.
After about a week of tasting, I reframed the question I'd been asking. It was no longer about whether a grower deacidified, but rather when and by what method. I would guess that at least 90% of German Rieslings were deacidified – closer to 100% for the dry ones.
The practice used to be anathema, the one thing a conscientious grower said he'd never do. Until he had to. And then he did, if he knew (or remembered) how. I won't bore you with the geeky details and parameters of this question, except to say that the choices were to remove acid from the must or from the wine – or both – and by which among several methods. It was a classic example of growers defending mutually exclusive practices with great conviction, such that each person convinced you he'd done it the best possible way – until you talked to the next guy.
Even after deacidification (which someone's bound to shorten to "D-ass," so I guess I may as well) the wines are packing some steel. A typical example might be a burly Spätlese of over 100º Oechsle, with a natural acidity of 15g.l. at picking, which would have had around 12g.l. in bottle if acids had been left alone. Now it has something just below or above 10g. The goal was to remove the late-palate sting. Some of you like the sting! I wonder if any of you self-described acid-heads will accept the sizzling taser-current of (some of) these '10s. I suppose we shall see.
The vintage didn't favor whole-cluster pressing, and many growers abandoned the technique, if they were nimble enough and had the flex. They also needed skin contact to mitigate those acids, and candidly to extract as much liquid as possible from the tiny berries. But in some cases the wines showed a certain clumsiness and even bitterness. Acidity is a literal felt sense in your mouth and on your tongue. It stings. Bitterness is something you taste. It doesn't hurt but it isn't pleasant. In 2010 it arose in various ways. At times it came from botrytis. Sometimes it was a residue of a type of D-ass that removes mostly tartaric acid and leaves almost 100% malic. Sometimes it was skin phenols. Whatever it was, I didn't like it, and rejected any wine that showed it.
A few growers had enough perspective to understand their low yields were a blessing in disguise. "Thank God for them," one man said, "Because without them the acids would have been unmanageable."
I find I'm less fascinated by minutiae of weather to explain a vintage than I used to be. In broad strokes 2010 was all over the place. Salient perhaps was the cold September, which retarded the falling of acid levels (and made for some stroppy Sauvignon Blancs, none of which I liked or selected), so that when three weeks of nice Fall weather occurred in October, sugars soared but acids didn't fall. Botrytis accelerated this process in many locations, and in any case the last stage or ripening was by dehydration (further diminishing the crop) because leaves were dropping and assimilation ceased. I got a lot of emails those last couple weeks, from growers excited by the improbable quality of those final days' pickings.
But what's perhaps missing from 2010 is a class of decent ordinary wines. 2010s are either sensational or repellent, with little in between. There's a lot of gnarly botrytis, when it wasn't managed in vineyards or cellars. One producer even performed a carbon fining to remove it, a practice I'd have supposed to be too intrusive, yet the results are convincing. 2010 is cruel to the dogmatist and kind to the pragmatist. Even so, I have a small still voice that issues forth a delicate rebuke; principles aren't principles if they are abandoned as soon as they grow inconvenient. And yet; what's the value in maintaining your principles if no one can drink your wine?
Once more there is no Kabinett that is remotely plausible. But if you're thinking this sounds like 2006, it isn't. In '06 we dealt with all kinds of rots, so that many wines were dubiously pure or clean. Nor did they have the amazing body-density of 2010s. '06 was marked by its basket-of-plums fruitiness (when it was healthy) and by a smoky botrytis. '10s are as solid as ancient trees.
Because this is all so unprecedented, I have no earthly idea how the wines will age. Maybe I'll know in a year. I'm suspending the little aging window I include with the tasting note because I fear it could mislead. Sensually the wines appear as though they'd be immortal, but I wonder if this is deceptive. We have no history of an almost entirely D-assed Riesling vintage. I feel it both prudent and professional to demur.
The question of malo – this came up with some regularity, as growers were curious whether it might be preferable to chemical D-assing. Back in the pre-war days it was not uncommon for Rieslings to undergo it, because the technology to block it was either unknown or unaffordable by a small grower. These days the catechism says it's anathema to Riesling, which is believed to depend on a taut zippy acid structure to reveal its innate self. But there are two currents pulling the other way, one short-term and the other long-term. 2010 had unacceptable acids, which had to be adjusted somehow, so that even heresies like malo should be considered. The long-term is more pernicious. It has to do with making the Trocken wines – on which the German vintner makes his living in the home market – palatable while young. Sometimes it's the only way to make them tolerable at all.
Yet this strikes me as a serious can of worms. There's a well-known estate on the Mosel, recently imported into the U.S., many of whose wines undergo malo. Even the sweet ones. Yes, Mosel with malo! Wonderful. The very essence of Riesling is corrupted, by the same people who'd recoil in outrage from a few drops of dosage. I truly do not understand.
Though I'd been told the vintage improved as one went north, I didn't agree. They may have had more problems in the Pfalz, but I liked most of what I tasted. Rheinhessen was spared the ladybuggy pyrenes of many '09s. In fact it was a superb year for several estates. The Nahe was best in the best hands; it called for persnickety attention and intelligence. The Mosel was most variable, ranging from almost sublime to almost execrable. It's hard to infer the quality of a Rheingau vintage from my two growers, who so consistently outperform the vintage mean. But one of them (keep reading) showed the best vintage he's ever made – potentially.
HIGHLIGHTS AND SUPERLATIVES
THE WINERY OF THE VINTAGE IS:
(bearing in mind that a certain Mr. Dönnhoff is ineligible for this or any awards, his number having been retired, as it were)
Oops, there are really TWO wineries of the vintage, and I find it seriously impossible to choose between them.
So: in one case there was a discernibly powerful intelligence in play, such that every one of the vintage's problems was avoided, and each of its virtues shone among an amazing range of masterpieces. For this estate it was their best vintage since 2005, which was supernal. This estate is Selbach-Oster.
For the other estate there weren't as many great wines, but there was a wider range of styles, all of them magnificently successful. In fact this grower showed the surest and deftest hand he's ever displayed, and though I hardly "need" to draw attention to such an already-successful producer, truth is truth. And so, hats off to Leitz.
OTHER MARKED SUCCESSES:
Eugen Müller brought his A-game for the third straight year. Von Winning / Dr. Deinhard continues to intrigue and impress. Diel was incandescent with craftsmanship in a series of gobsmackingly lovely wines. Wagner-Stempel kept on being the greatest German estate that's still flying below the radar. Merkelbach made the most singular and atypical vintage they have ever made. Schaefer and Adam will hardly surprise you any more. Christoffel shone again in his pixilated idiom, just as Meulenhof shone in his warmer more analog way.
THE WINE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
Leitz Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Spätlese
Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese
Loewen Leiwener Laurentiuslay Riesling Spätlese
Von Othegraven Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett
Eugen Müller Forster Kirchenstück Riesling Auslese
THE AUSLESE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
A close call, with Selbach-Oster's Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling 2-star and Diel's Dorsheimer Burgberg in a steel-cage match (with X-treme rules). See if you can choose, tough guy.
THE SCHEUREBE OF THE VINTAGE IS:
(in a vintage not markedly kind to Scheu) …<yawn> yes again, Diel's Spätlese, with a rebel yell toward Müller-Catoir's amazing Tocken version. I'm retiring this prize until someone else wins it.
THE KABINETTS OF THE VINTAGE ARE:
Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling
Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling
Von Othegraven Ockfener Bockstein Riesling
Diel Dorsheimer Pittermännchen Riesling
THE BIGGEST SURPRISES OF THE VINTAGE ARE:
SILVANERS from many growers, prominently including Geil and Wagner-Stempel.
Gysler Weinheimer Riesling Kabinett (simply another league for this wine.)
Merkelbach Uerziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese (the summit among a high range of almost bizarrely dignified and profound wines.)
Reuscher-Haart Riesling in Liters! (Shows just how good '10 really is, when even this "modest" wine has such stuffing.)
THE GREATEST DRY WINES ARE:
Diel Burgberg Grosses Gewächs
Von Winning Kirchenstück Grosses Gewächs
THE ABSOLUTE TOP VALUES:
Geil Gelber Muskateller Trocken
Meulenhof Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese Alte Reben
THE BEST IMAGINEABLE FOOD-WINES:
Von Othegraven 2009 Bockstein Grosses Gewächs
Dr. Deinhard Ruppertsberger Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken (Liter!)
Eugen Müller Forster Pechstein Riesling Spätlese Feinherb
THE BEST BATSHIT-CRAZY FUN WINES:
Meßmer Gelber Muskateller Feinherb
Spreitzer Oestricher Lenchen Riesling Kabinett
Finally, the stories you heard are true; the crop is small. Most growers reported yields from 30% to as much as 50% below average. I think our Spring 2012 DI will be pretty thready unless the 2011s are early and copious. So please understand this isn't a vintage you can afford to "buy later." The smart money says to grab now and don't look back.