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  April 2004  

I have a friend I'll call Gary, though his real name is Fred. Gary loves German riesling possibly more than any other wine, and at least as much as I do. He loves it with a kind of mystic fervor, and he most appreciates its ability to be subtle and searching, to pull him in with a whispery seductiveness he experiences as exquisite. Dönnhoff is his man; he likes Leitz too. He's a very slow, deliberate taster; he becomes entirely absorbed in the wine, and he craves wines which can absorb him, understanding correctly that blatant or obvious wine is often tedious wine.

Gary's heard all the advance hoo-ha about 2003, and he imagines he won't like it. Too ripe, too full-bodied, too emphatic, too gaudy and vulgar.

He's wrong.

And he's far from alone. Most of us were wrong. We imagined if riesling ripened in crazy-ass heat it would lose precisely those things we most loved about it. I wondered too. Our doubts were, in fact, more plausible than the remarkable beauty of the wines. And so the first thing to say about 2003 is that it will surprise us.

And it will reassure us, there is a truth in wine irreducible to vagaries of climate. German rieslings in 2003 taste like German rieslings grown in a hot season. Land trumps weather, always, if the land is profound.

I remembered many of the old ripe years, and how well their best wines have aged, and how we have learned to see these vintages as classic, not because they are typical, but rather because they express something incipient in the typical, in extraordinary ways. They form a classic tradition of their own; everyone can name them: 76, 71, 59, 53, 49, 47, 45, 37, colossal vintages. 2003 belongs alongside such vintages. It does not often belong with the "fine" classics such as 2001, 90, 75, perhaps even 71, which remains supernal precisely because it straddles the line between classic and colossal so uniquely.

2003 also taught me more than any young German vintage I have tasted. And that is because it demolished so many things I took to be True. It has been disorienting and exciting to have my mind blown around so much, to have so many Truths reduced to truths, to be shown again and again that the difference between "true" and "The Truth" is not a wall but a membrane.

By now it's well known how bloody HOT it was in Europe in 2003. While I was in Germany last month an article appeared in Science News indicating 2003 was the warmest year since 1500, and all I can add is that any year which prompts the Europeans to seriously consider air-conditioning had to be a stinker. But even if it was the hottest year, there have been other hot years. 1959 is legendary. "Yes," said many growers, "but the difference is in `59 there was also rain, just a shower or so every two weeks, whereas in `03 we had heat and drought."

Indeed 2003 is the first vintage where irrigation was permitted. There is quite a range of opinion about this, from "We didn't do it and wouldn't do it, because it becomes a crutch to the vines that prevents them from sinking their roots far enough down into the subsoils" to "damn straight: we poured 500 gazillion liters of water into our vineyards and are glad we did." As is my wont, I register this dialectic with great interest, having neither any idea nor any need to determine who is "right".

2003 is also the first time acid could be added to the wines. (It has long been allowed to remove it.) The edict permitting acidification was issued after the harvest had already begun, which prevented some growers from acting - many preferred to acidify musts rather than wines. One producer told me, "Everyone acidified in 2003, but not everyone will admit it. Personally I'd be skeptical of any denial I heard." And so I phrased the question in a deliberately non-judgmental way, and received candid answers, or so I hope.

The issue wasn't so much acidity per se. Most who acidified added tartaric to the musts, which later fell out as tartrates and did little to raise the eventual finished acidity. Many growers were concerned about bacteriological mishap, as their musts were high enough in pH to raise worries about stability. These growers acidified and were quite open about it.

Of course I had my own set of expectations. And in most instances I was completely (and delightedly) WRONG. I'll detail these for you.

I expected the wines would seem structureless. Acidity creates structure, and length, and if it wasn't there the wines would be short and formless.

Wrong. The wines are, as a group, the longest, or rather the l-o-n-g-e-s-t young German wines I've ever tasted. Indeed it became absurd to "time" the finish because it wouldn't fade until you got the next wine onto your palate. So, new truth #1: you can have length without high acidity. And the wines were organized and shapely also, in some instances because a phenolic solidity stood in for high acidity, and in other instances just because. So, new truth #2 is you can have solidly structured wines without high acidity.

Apropos acidity, at a couple stops we actually added acidity on the spot, just to see. This is nothing like organically occurring normal acidity, but it was interesting to observe it added no structure or lift or clarity - it only added sharpness.

I expected the wines would be one-dimensionally fruity, with low extract and little minerality. How could it be otherwise after such heat and drought?

Wrong. This is just about the saltiest and most emphatically mineral young vintage I've ever tasted. It is anything but a quiet minerality, and it's neither implicit nor subtle: this is M-I-N-E-R-A-L writ large, and so new truth #3 is you can have intensely mineral wines even with low extract.

An aside: 2003 is far more mineral and complex than, say, 1999.

I expected the fruit of 2003 Rieslings would be gaudy and possibly cloying; passion-fruit and peach and dried apricot and canned nectarines, and yet, I cannot fathom why or how, the fruit of 2003 is remarkably cool; it is all apples (Cox-orange, Fuji, Empire, strong-flavored critters), pears (comice and asian, the ones tilting almost toward melons) and the small yellow plums the French call Mirabelle and the English call Greengage. It is, to be sure, an amplitude of fruit in 2003, but nothing like the fruit I expected.

This seems to be due to the stringent yield reductions necessary for the vine to cope with the heat and drought. But whatever the cause, new truth #4 is that cool fruit is possible after a hot summer.

I expected 2003 would be quite rich in texture, a triple-cream kind of vintage. It isn't. It is generous but more granular than syrupy. Often it tastes as if grain - corn, barley, maize - had somehow caught a seam of sweetness and attained an apotheosis of expression. None of my old cause-effect assumptions can account for this. What might explain it are those phenolics. Riesling grapes in 2003 were on the small side and thick-skinned.

I expected the Trocken wines could well be unusually successful since they wouldn't have high acids with which to deal.

Wrong. In many cases the dry wines struggled against excessive alcohol, and in fact I'd say a higher proportion of dry wines showed the blurry coarse muscle-bound qualities we feared all the wines would show. There was no shortage of big dumb bruisers among the dry rieslings, yet there were several which worked beautifully.

In fact working with the `03s revealed an interesting facet of residual sugar; it slims and tones a wine's body, and adds its own fragrance. Often I noticed if a wine had, say, 35 g.l. of sweetness and the finish was a little clunky, adding 5-10 grams more removed the ill-grace without adding any perceptible sweetness. Such questions became typical. In certain wines the balance became three-sided: alcohol, acidity, sweetness, and sometimes we could only balance two of the three parameters.

I thought the 2003s would be ripe and ready, sprinters, full of torque and raring to go. In fact the vintage is less evolved then either 02 or 01 at the same stage. I suspect this is due to their great material density.

I also intuit that bottling will help many `03s, in contrast to `02, which suffered from bottling and is only just emerging. This is partly because of the many fine wines I saw post-bottling (and the few I saw both ways, sometimes side-by-side), and also because the `03s enjoy anything which cools them off - much as their makers did during the brutal summer.

What, then, is the headline for the vintage? I'd say 2003 is an astonishing vintage in which many fantastically great wines were produced. It's perhaps too soon to say whether it is a "great" vintage, though it might well be. I think we need five years or so under its belt to determine whether it is essentially great. But it is giving a community of ravishing and improbable wines the likes of which we have never seen from Germany, wines whose enormous generosity is allied with astounding purity, length and grandeur.

There's more. 2003 is also a vintage of the finest cleanest botrytis most growers have ever seen, and cellars are replete with gargantuan stickies. The old record must-weight (327 Oechsle in 1971, from a Siegerrebe grown by one Emil Bauer in Nußdorf in the Pfalz) has been beaten by no fewer than FOUR rieslings from 2003. Most of which will still be fermenting in 2023, no doubt.

The harvest began early, of course, often before October 1st, even for riesling. These pre-harvests often took the form of selecting the botrytis grapes (and making insane TBAs from them) while leaving the others to hang. Here a demarcation took place. Growers of unexceptional imagination measured their musts, saw they were high, saw acids perilously low, and picked. The results were often unpleasant wines, as the grapes were bitter and physiologically unripe. "We knew we needed to leave them hang especially over the cold nights, or we wouldn't have aromas or true ripeness," I was often told. And so it was. Sugar-ripeness was simply not the point in `03. You had to taste the grapes and you had to attend to their entire flavors.

The vintage breaks down on soil lines, but the usual wisdoms were often stood on their heads. Water-retaining soils gave exceptional results in 2003, and you will hear many growers and merchants say, "The best 2003s often came from the 2nd best sites" and this, while oversimplified, has a basis in truth.

At the end of the harvest another clump of mega-must rieslings was gathered, and the amount of TBA produced would, in the old days, have sufficed for twenty years. And not just TBA: hu-freaking-MONgous TBA, mostly over 240 Oechsle (TBA starts legally at 150) without a scintilla of dubious botrytis.

Almost every grower had them. Many were still fermenting. A couple had only just started fermenting. We'll be tasting these wines for years. And yet they presented me with rather a quandary. I wonder if I really like these huge sweet wines any more. Maybe it's a function of age. Maybe I've tasted so many of them I'm a little jaded. I hope not, but I've reached a point where massive sweetness and concentration doesn't entertain me, unless the wine is 50 years old and has started to show its soul. I felt guilty to not approach these wines with the gratitude I want to feel. Then I tasted at Meßmer and was laid bare. It isn't just me; few of these wines show any shape or tenderness; the omnipresent mass and sweetness and botrytis (even great botrytis) becomes much of a muchness, becomes a genre unto itself. Those Meßmers were everything I love about dessert-wines, a quintessence of the quality and clarity of the Auslese, retaining its form and angle. For me a great TBA is a glace de viande of Auslese, but many TBAs seem to me to be glace de viandes of glace de viandes, reductions of reductions, too far removed from that which is being reduced.

After all the BA and TBA the vintage gave it seems perverse for growers to wait for Eiswein, yet some did, sometimes with delightful results. Late October was cold enough in some regions, and a couple nights in December capped it off. One such wine was (quoting myself!) "The most beautiful flavor I have ever had in my mouth" (who else? Dönnhoff.) and there were others whose virginal purity was refreshing after the many TBAs.

A few people were stymied by the vintage, and one or two wineries offered really bland collections, less vulgar than vapid.

And I also noticed a schism between those who relaxed into the vintage and others who fundamentally resisted it. At times I felt "Wow, these taste nothing like `03s, they're so crisp, racy (etc.)" but then I felt a certain triste. Why should a vintage not taste like itself? But I also understand why a grower wants to steer toward his aesthetic preference regardless of vintage. It's just a wee metaphysical debate I conducted with myself, especially late at night if there weren't any porn movies on TV.

So what would I say to my friend "Gary", who is sure he won't like the 2003s? "Yo, Gar," I'd begin, "Whyn't you use your real name, huh??" But seriously, what can I tell him, or any of you who fear the 2003 German rieslings won't give you the exquisite pleasure you prize?

First, I prize it too, and if every vintage were like this one I'd mourn the loss of something precious from the world. But every vintage isn't. And these wines answer my need for purity, balance, structure, distinctiveness and beauty in a confident and extroverted form, less the eerie gorgeous singing of the nightingale than the lusty happy blast of the blackbird. And we are fools if we shut ourselves off from a variety of pleasures, and we are wasting a rare gift of the world if we condescend to despise these vivid splendid wines merely because they show their cards. "If I can't have mystical pleasure then I don't want any pleasure at all" does not seem like a recipe for joy in this life. Pleasure is not diminished by its explicitness; it is merely different, not less. The best 2003s, and there are many of them, are as great as German wine can be. Period.

I have one small caveat, not about the wines but about their development. Usually one makes an educated guess about the length and type of aging a young vintage might attain. One works from experience and precedent. But with 2003 there is no precedent. Peer into my brain. Insert another quarter if you want to see more. "Hmmm, well the wines really are "low" in acid yet they have so much density they should age normally, but what if they're just being propped up by their baby-fat but come on, other low-acid vintages have aged splendidly and it isn't just about acid it's also about concentration and symmetry and I sure hope I don't look like an idiot if I say they'll age great but why should I worry about that, the wines are incredible and classical and I'm tying myself in knots here . . ."

Thus: I see no reason the best 2003 Rieslings of unexceptional ripeness (Spät and Auslesen) won't age quite well, perhaps less deliberately or serenely than 2001, but still on the near edge of classical pattern.

The NAHE has it best in `03, every collection a winner, and as a group the highest sustained level as well as the loftiest peaks.

My two MITTELRHEIN guys did great, and I suspect their success is reflective of a good year for the region.

MOSEL wines varied from (often) gorgeous to (sometimes) just OK.

RHEINGAU is hard for me to extrapolate as I have just three producers, each of whom made excellent wine. Others will have done the same, or had the potential to.

RHEINHESSEN was v-e-r-y good. It bears mentioning that regional differences in quality were to some degree obliterated by the omnipresent heat-draught. Yet a couple folks (from northerly regions) warned me "We managed, but there's bound to be a lot of trouble in the . . .

PFALZ", and even in the Pfalz the ones in the northern Pfalz said they were OK but the southern guys got body-slammed by heat, and guess what? None of it is true. Other than the NAHE, whose success is striking, each region has peaks and valleys, and the Pfalz was home to some of the very best and very worst collections I saw.

Prices and Quality Levels
Prices will be higher, mostly because of the crap-weak Dollar and also because the crop was very short. The amount of canopy work and crop thinning (see Corrie Malas' piece) was daunting, and no one reported anything more than 50% of an average harvest. Taxes and costs are rising sharply also. It hurt me to talk about price concessions in this climate; the growers have a great, small vintage and deserve to make a little hay from it. But we're all pulling together and being creative and looking for ways to mitigate the Dollar's free fall. AT LEAST THE HIGHER PRICES ARE OFFSET BY SOME OF THE MOST CONCENTRATED WINES EVER MADE IN GERMANY.

Apropos of which, can we talk about "Kabinett"? Specifically can we talk about "Kabinett" at or near 100 degrees Oechsle (Smaragd in the Wachau, Vendage Tardive in Alsace), of which there are many from 2003, because you/we need to have something with "Kabinett" on the label? Can we talk about growers who virtually empty their pockets for us so we can have this "Kabinett" thing we require? There are NO Kabinetts from 2003. But there will be plenty of wines with the magic word on the label. Just know you're getting the smallest Spät or Auslese and if everybody's 6'10" then the guy who's 6'3" looks short.

Hors Classe among the growers include:

  • Top of The Top:
    • Dönnhoff
    • Müller-Catoir (reborn!)
  • Also Supernal:
    • Schlossgut Diel
    • Loewen
    • Willi Schaefer
    • J.J. Christoffel
    • Selbach-Oster (for sheer breadth)
    • Meßmer
  • Kick-ass Through and Through:
    • Strub
    • Wagner-Stempel
    • Lingenfelder
    • Weingart
    • Mathern
    • Hexamer
    • Jost
    • (Karlsmühle) (potentially)
    • Minges
    • Spreitzer
    • Leitz

Remember this is anything but an official classification, but rather my sense of the stature of various collections at the end of tasting them. There are great wines scattered throughout, even in estates not named above. Meulenhof, to name but one, had an admirably fine and intelligent group of wines; Leitz's best were as good as anything from anywhere. I responded to preponderance of excellence, and I ask you to watch the web site for updates. I can change my mind, and often have.

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