Although 2003's heat wave created winemaking challenges, producers in Germany are thrilled about the potential quality of the vintage, which though unusual, has the makings of an outstanding year.
Three main factors, all a result of the hot weather, make this vintage atypical for Germany: lower yields, lower acidity levels and extremely high natural sugar levels.
Yields were certainly less than in the bountiful 2002 vintage, but for most producers, they were lower than in an average year as well. Annegret Reh-Gartner, manager at Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt in the Mosel, commented on the winery's "very small harvest -- in some sites 30 to 40 percent lower, due to pruning and sunburn [on the grapes]."
The racy acidity that is a hallmark of German Rieslings was suppressed in grapes by the summer heat and a warm September. The German government made a controversial announcement in late September that, for the first time ever, producers would be allowed to add tartaric acid to the juice, prior to fermentation. Many, such as Nik Weis, winemaker at St.-Urbans Hof in the Mosel, chose not to acidify. He said, "The analytical levels of acidity [may be] low, but the wines taste as though they have enough acidity to balance them."
Cooler days and nights in October helped keep acidity levels from dropping further and may have helped many winemakers avoid acidification. However, the lower natural acidity could have an effect on the potential longevity of the wines, for which Germany's top vintages are known. "One question can only be answered in a few years, the question of ageability," Weis said.
One of the most extraordinary factors in Germany's 2003 vintage is the extremely high must weights (a measure of grapes' ripeness at harvest), which resulted from the longer-than-normal growing season made possible by an early flowering in the spring. As a result, consumers should look for more of Germany's full-bodied wine styles, particularly auslese, and less of their light and easy-drinking whites, such as kabinett.
Germany is renowned for its dessert wines, including beerenauslese (BA) and trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). However, the dry weather made it difficult for botrytis, the fungus that concentrates grape flavors and sugars, to develop.
Producers who waited patiently and carefully selected only botrytized grapes were able to harvest at record high Oechsle levels (the German measure of grape ripeness at harvest). Schloss Schönborn in Rheingau brought in grapes for a TBA at levels ranging from 200 degrees to 290 degrees Oechsle, well over the legal minimum of 150 degrees for a TBA. And at press time, many producers still had grapes on the vine, waiting for the first frost to make eiswein.
Producers are making comparisons with some of last century's other great vintages, 1976, '71 and '59, to name a few. But the unusual circumstances in 2003 make the vintage unique with uncharacteristically opulent wines. Johannes Eser, who runs his family's Weingut Johannishof in the Rheingau, said, "We have an outstanding vintage to show next year, especially with very unique BAs and TBAs, [but with wines] that I haven't seen the like of in my years as winemaker."