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A Century of Riesling

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 2, 2008 2:53pm ET

The main event of my trip to Germany was Saturday, April 26th: A tasting of Riesling from every decade of the 20th century, including 1900 and 1999.

Many of the classic German vintages from the century were represented: 1900, 1911, 1921, 1937, 1959, 1964 (Saar & Ruwer), 1971, 1975, 1976 and 1990.

The idea for the tasting came from Italian journalist Gian Luca Mazzella. Working with the Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter (VDP), estate directors and individual growers, a list of 22 Rieslings was developed to showcase several of Germany’s top vineyards sites.

The bottles were served in flights according to sweetness levels. Flight one consisted of dry wines, flight two auslesen and flight three higher selections of aulese through beerenauslese and eiswein. The final flight of 5 TBAs concluded the tasting.

Half of the 22 wines selected were made prior to the 1971 Wine Law. Many more vineyard names existed then, such as The Ruppertsberger Stückelpfad, which is part of the Höheberg vineyard today. The consolidation of the vineyards reduced more than 30,000 sites to 2,600, according to Stephen Brook’s The Wines of Germany (Mitchell Beazley).

In fact, there were several laws pertaining to wine production in Germany. In 1892, the first Wine Law was passed, with revisions in 1909 and 1930. The term naturrein arose from the last regulations, defining wine that was not chaptalized. Many of the older bottles were labeled as Naturrein.

Cabinet is another term found on labels prior to the 1971 Wine Law, particularly from the important aristocratic and monastic estates in the Rheingau. This term was reserved for the best wines and bears no relationship to Kabinett, the lowest level of today’s Qualitätswein mit Prädikat designation. You will see it used for all styles of wine, from dry to TBA.

Two other terms that disappeared from German wine labels with the 1971 Wine Law are feinste and hoch feine. Today, differences within a prädikat category are indicated by Gold Cap, Long Gold Cap, one, two or three stars and sometimes, individual cask numbers.

The Rieslings, having come from the cellars of the estates, were in impeccable condition. Only a few showed signs of oxidation and most would be enjoyable to drink today. It’s a testament to the quality and sheer beauty of Riesling and the pedigree of Germany’s best vineyards.

What follows is a short list of my favorite wines in the tasting. All were tasted non-blind.

Staatsweinguter Kloster Eberbach Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese Rheingau Steinberger Cabinet Naturrein 1921 was dark amber in color, with an incredible bouquet of butterscotch, coffee and orange marmalade. Still very concentrated and sweet, yet translucent, it was refined and complete from start to finish. A seamless wine that caressed the palate (100 points, non-blind).

In the same flight came the much more youthful Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Wehlener Sonnenuhr 1959. This racy TBA had a fragrant bouquet of mint and caramel. Very complex and harmonious, exhibiting great delineation and detail, followed by a long, smoky finish (99 points, non-blind).

Egon Müller, an estate from the Saar known for its exquisite dessert Rieslings, was represented by a magnificent Auslese Gold Cap Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Scharzhofberger 1971. The pure smoke and slate bouquet added a minty element after about 10 minutes in the glass. Elegant and fleeting, it featured honey, marmalade and slate notes. Rich, intense, yet ethereal, with racy acidity and tremendous length (97 points, non-blind).

A deep amber color gave way to a caramel, chocolate and coffee bouquet in the Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Beerenauslese Rhiengau Goldlack Fass 163 1947. Incredibly elegant, with fine notes of caramel with hints of orange peel, it was much fresher on the palate, with great breed and length (96 points, non-blind).

A pair from the middle Mosel demonstrated why this region is the source of great Riesling. The Fritz Haag Auslese Long Gold Cap Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr 1994 started off with a subtle nose, then gathered speed on the palate, displaying candied berry and citrus flavors sharpened by the racy acidity (95 points, non-blind). A distinctive bouquet of herbs and mint marked the Dr. H Thanisch (VDP) Riesling Beerenauslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Bernkasteler Doctor 1976. It was distinctive for its breed and finesse, all the while full of intensity and persistence, leading up to a great finish (95 points, non-blind).

From the decade of the ’60s came Karthäuserhof’s Riesling Feinste Auslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Fuder No. 123 1964, with its piercing, focused bouquet of smoke, vanilla cream and mineral notes. Delicate and refined, thanks to the racy structure, it lingered beautifully on the finish, ending with a fresh, mouthwatering impression (94 points, non-blind).

Dr. Loosen’s Riesling Auslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Erdener Prälat 1989 initially had whiff of petrol. It blew off, revealing complex apricot, honey, and mineral notes. Very rich and exotic, yet with clean lines, lovely harmony and balance. Just off dry now, with bright acidity, it was charming, very classy and long on the finish (94 points, non-blind).

The Schloss Schönborn Riesling Feinste Trockenbeerenauslese Rheingau Erbacher Marcobrunn 1937 showed a deep, penetrating bouquet of pine forest floor, leather, musk and spice. Concentrated and medium-sweet, it proffered bright acidity, making it elegant, but it didn’t quite reach the breed and length of the Schloss Johannisberg ’47 (94 points, non-blind).

C. von Schubert’s Riesling Eiswein Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg 1983 featured an orange marmalade bouquet and flavors. There was a fine sweet/tart character and it was very intense, concentrated and mouthfilling, yet with racy acidity and a lingering smoky finish (94 points, non-blind).

I have tasted one or two of these wines over the years, but to have them together in one sitting, spanning 100 years, was a tremendous treat. Though shaped by time and defined by vintages, more than anything, the tasting illustrated to me the timeless nature of German Riesling.

For more on Rheingau Rieslings, see my latest set of tasting highlights from the region.

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