Earlier this year I traveled to the Rheingau region of Germany for a major tasting of Riesling from every decade of the 20th century. 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 Rieslings, from the cellars of the estates, were in impeccable condition. Only a few showed signs of oxidation. The tasting was a testament to the quality and sheer beauty of Riesling and the pedigree of Germany's best vineyards.
The bottles were served in flights by sweetness levels. Though German Rieslings are low in alcohol, their residual sugar and acidity allow finer versions to develop and change over decades. As they age, they become drier and softer as the acidity and sugar bind together, creating a harmonious flavor and texture profile. Yet even the dry wines, including some from 1900, 1937 and a 1938 had aged gracefully, showing vivacity and complexity.
The idea for the tasting came from Italian journalist Gian Luca Mazzella. Working with the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsund Qualitätsweingüter (VDP), the estate directors and individual growers developed a list of 22 Rieslings to showcase several of Germany's top vineyard sites.
Besides a range of delicious flavors and maturity levels, the wines also offered a fascinating survey of the complicated domain of German wine laws.
Half of the 22 wines selected were made before the 1971 German Wine Law reduced the number of individually named vineyards. Many more vineyard names existed before 1971, 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 revisions, defining wine that was not chaptalized. Many of the older bottles from my tasting were labeled Naturrein.
Cabinet is another term found on labels printed before the 1971 Wine Law, particularly those 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). It was used for all styles of wine, from dry to TBA. Two other terms that disappeared from German wine labels are feinste and hoch feine. Now, differences within a Prädikat category are indicated by Gold Cap, Long Gold Cap, one to three stars, and, sometimes, cask numbers.
My favorites from the tasting are discussed below. For free access to my complete tasting notes for all the wines, visit www.winespectator.com/101508.
The top wine was the sublime Staatsweinguter Kloster Eberbach Riesling Trockenbeer-enauslese Rheingau Steinberger Cabinet Naturrein 1921 (100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale). Then came the youthful Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Wehlener Sonnenuhr 1959 (99). Egon Müller, a Saar estate known for its exquisite dessert Rieslings, was represented by a magnificent Auslese Gold Cap Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Scharz-hofberger 1971 (97). And a deep amber color gave way to a caramel, chocolate and coffee bouquet in the Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Beerenauslese Rhiengau Goldlack Fass 163 1947 (96).
A pair from the middle Mosel demonstrated why this region is renowned for great Riesling. The Fritz Haag Auslese Long Gold Cap Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr 1994 displayed racy acidity (95). The Dr. H Thanisch (VDP) Riesling Beerenauslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Bernkasteler Doctor 1976 was distinctive for its breed and finesse (95).
From the 1960s came Karthäuserhof's Riesling Feinste Auslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Fuder No. 123 1964 (94). Dr. Loosen's Riesling Auslese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Erdener Prälat 1989 was rich and exotic (94), while the Schloss Schönborn Riesling Feinste Trockenbeerenauslese Rheingau Erbacher Marco-brunn 1937 (94) fell just short of the breed and length of the Schloss Johannisberg '47. C. von Schubert's Riesling Eiswein Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg 1983 featured a fine sweet-tart character and racy acidity (94).
To taste these wines as a group was a treat. Shaped by time and defined by vintages, German Riesling has an ageless beauty.
Senior editor Bruce Sanderson has been with Wine Spectator since 1993.