While “vintage of the century” is a ridiculous phrase, a year occasionally comes along when fortune truly smiles on winegrowers. So let's talk about 2005.
You might think I was ready to talk Bordeaux, and though that's a good guess, I’ve got Germany on my mind.
The German rieslings of 2005 are a wonder. Not every last one, of course, but the consistency and vibrancy of the wines — especially those from the Mosel region — makes it easy enough to say: Go. Go buy some. Now.
Still standing there, huh?
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It’s no surprise that riesling remains a hard sell for many wine lovers, and German rieslings especially so . If you’ve tailored your palate to sinuous, dry red wines, it’s a leap of faith to suddenly uncork something lacy, white and often sweet, a bit of silk lingerie in a world of boxer briefs. Sommeliers especially seem to have taken on the challenge; their advocacy for riesling has reached a fever pitch, and blessedly so.
The 2005s are wines built for aging — potentially for decades — unmistakable products of their origins, masterfully made with balance and care. German rieslings are some of the finest wines in the world, and in a market where it’s a case of Bordeaux now costs about the same as a used Honda Civic, there is virtue to collectible wines that remain, even in a banner year, astoundingly affordable.
Great vintages are marked by nearly perfect sequences of weather, and while not every German growing region could claim that in 2005, most enjoyed a quiet, dry summer, with grapes starting to quicken their ripening pace in August. Harvests began early and finished quickly, with an Indian summer extending well into October and, for the most part, a minimum of rain in the final few weeks beforehand.
Sugar levels in the grapes (which govern the wines' quality labels) ended up so high that winemakers frequently either had to either forego making some of their everyday wines or opted to “declassify” their wines to a lower level. Your bottle of kabinett may end up being a spätlese in disguise. (Translated: More luscious wine at a lower price.) Yes, that ripeness is a reminder global warming is no laughing matter for wine lovers; but in a year like this, the ripe fruit grew slowly enough for the wines to shine with freshness and acidity. Each region showed off its best traits — transparent terroir and sharp fruit in the Mosel, refined balance in the Rheingau, heady tropical aromas from the Pfalz — but highlights can be found everywhere.
Looking to the past
Great vintages can’t escape comparisons with the past, and Germans winemakers have been struggling to find the right ones. A common description of 2005 — one I heard from Katharina Prüm of J.J. Prüm, perhaps the country's most renowned winery — is that it combines the best aspects of two recent vintages: 2004 (stunning acidity, clear lines) and 2003 (lush, dense fruit). The cellarmaster at Egon Müller reached somewhat farther, comparing it to the benchmark vintage of 1976. Others gazed even further back, maybe 40 years or more.
Are they on target? Only time will tell; the wines are all still babies, needing time to settle down and develop in the bottle. But as importers Rudi and Brent Wiest wrote in their vintage report: “These ’05s will take your breath away.”
The only big concern is that there isn’t enough wine to go around — the grapes were gorgeous, but yields were low. Yet you can sample the vintage’s potential in $10 basic bottles. And it’s possible to buy collectibles without spending more than $30, something you’d be hard-pressed to say about Bordeaux. You can buy nearly any bottle from nearly any respected producer and feel comfortable that you’ve found a very good wine.
For those who fret about riesling’s sweetness, fear not. German winemakers are increasingly trying to convince Americans of the virtues of dry riesling, which has all the aromas but almost none of the sugar. It remains a hard sell — we seem to prefer our wines conceptually, if not literally, dry — and as Christoph Tyrell of the Karthauserhof winery put it, “I think it's sad not to see this very important face of this wonderful grape.”
Though dry rieslings serve a different purpose from their off-dry counterparts, they are no less enjoyable, and have even more versatility for food. Included in our picks are several dry rieslings.
No matter which style you prefer, the best German rieslings are all about tension — tension between fruit, mineral character, a refined texture and snapping acidity (German rieslings have about one-third more measurable acid than California chardonnay). All of it should be held in balance, but never should be smooth and easy.
They should be vibrant and alive, and that’s exactly what the ‘05s offer. So enjoy some now and tuck some away for a rainy day. With a vintage like this, it's hard to go wrong.
One final note: I've written this column since June 2004, and after tasting thousands of wines here, I'm leaving MSNBC.com to write about wine for the San Francisco Chronicle. It has been an amazing time. To those of you who have been reading along, my deepest thanks. You've taught me a ton about how people think about wine. I hope I've steered you to a few good bottles along the way.
The 2005 vintage is just now appearing in the U.S. market, so many wines may not yet be in stores. (All the better to start tracking them down now.)
Our recommendations were capped at the spätlese (late-harvested) quality level, but fans of auslese-quality and higher wines will find excellent examples from many of the same producers.
And nearly any quality producer offered up great wine in 2005; if you have a favorite winery not listed, you shouldn't be disappointed.
Just one small note of caution: These are young wines, some of them still muted by the sulfur used to stabilize riesling. We hit several heavily sulfured bottles. Many will benefit from a bit of time before opening; almost all will improve with age.
Karl Erbes Urziger Wurzgarten Spätlese ($19, Chapin Cellars): Honeyed and tart, with hay scents, apricot-pear overtones and a mineral firmness hidden behind. Somewhat sulfury.
Kurt Hain Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinett ($28, Chapin Cellars): Mineral-honey nose, with talc, grapefruit and warm pear. Juicy and mouthwatering on the palate, somewhat thick upfront and fine on the end.
Johann Haart Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Spätlese ($22, Chapin Cellars): The Haardt family has been established in Piesport since the 1300s, and the blue-slate Goldtröpfchen often provides slightly more tropical notes than many Mosel vineyards. Waves of citrus and nectar intersect, with a luscious finish.
Künstler Kabinett Hochheimer Reichsestal Rheingau ($22, Rudi Wiest): A stunner from the Rheingau. Still muted, but with promising mineral and diesel scents. Tastes thick enough to be a declassified spatlese, with notable sugar and a cracking whip of acidity. Heady, dense, built for years to come — an example of 2005 in its prime.
Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Kabinett ($22, Rudi Wiest): The winery's standardbearer, and it's in fine form, though still needs a bit of time in bottle. Effusive fruit flavors. Engaging and in perfect balance.
Kruger-Rumpf Spätlese Binger Scharlachberg Nahe ($19, Michael Skurnik Wines): Bit sulfury, but with firm petrol hints and tropical aromas, punched up by citrus zest notes. A juicy, happy, engaging approach, masterful and balanced, with a bit of spritz.
Mönchhof Spätlese “Mosel Slate” ($19, Rudi Wiest): Mönchhof’s classic bottling is meant to show off Mosel minerality. And that it does — firm and dieselly, with sweet apple and white peach. It’s got a nearly searing acidity, yet the weight of the fruit makes it balanced and gratifying.
Egon Müller Kabinett Scharzhofberger Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($40, Frederick Wildman & Sons.): From this famed estate in the Saar, 2005 brought another stunning set of wines. Forceful, with gray mineral, lime and then tangerine flavors. Lingers on your tongue in a gorgeous way.
J.J. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese ($30, Rudi Wiest): Wines from this estate in Wehlen are always scarce, but its 2005s are simply stellar across the board. Scent is nougat on cool stones, with lime and warm guava. Hammering acidity in its core defines what is a profound wine with enormous long-term potential.
Schloss Lieser Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($14, Rudi Wiest): A great value, essentially a spätlese-quality wine labeled as a basic estate bottle. Clean slate and talc, with rich melon, yellow plum, baking apple and fig. End is a bit abrupt, but it's vibrant and refreshing, with a lot going on.
Schmitges Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($16, V.O.S. Selections/Kerlin Wines): Another great basic bottling. Dense peach, orange, sharp lemon and stoic mineral. Hints of tropical fruit, too. The end is good and punchy, with just a hint of sweet grapefruit peel.
J & H.A. Strub Kabinett Niersteiner Brückchen Rheinhessen ($17, Michael Skurnik Wines): A slightly warmer, sweeter style full of mango, lime and coconut, but kept in check with a sharp edge. Tense, with a resilient ending and integrated petrol notes.
Dr. H. Thanisch (Müller-Burggraef) Kabinett Bernkasteler Badstube ($19, Winesellers, Ltd.): A prime example of a Bernkastel wine. Faint diesel scents, mineral firmness, ripe orange and citrus peel. Bright, steely, rich and enduring.
Dr. H. Thanisch (Müller-Burggraef) Spätlese Bernkasteler Graben ($26, Winesellers, Ltd.): Fresh and grapey, with rich peach, lime zest, clover honey and a sharp mineral edge. Still young, but with huge potential. Unctuous and satisfying, with a long, soft finish.
Wegeler Spätlese Wehlener Sonnenuhr ($32, Rudi Wiest): The diesel scents are just emerging. It’s focused on the minerality, with lime, pear and apple backing up in supporting roles. Starts sweet, then the acid comes in and it ends tangy and dense. Still needs time, but worth buying for the long haul.
Dry (trocken) and nearly dry rieslings
Robert Weil Dry Rheingau ($24, Rudi Wiest): From one of the Rheingau's defining estates. Crisp, with hard-edged minerality and a forward tang. Eye-opening.
Jakoby-Mathy “Balance” Kinheimer ($15, Michael Skurnik Wines): A curious beast — with a lot of sugar in the wine but a mostly dry profile, hence the name. A spicy, fresh approach, with tangerine and pepper cookies. A firecracker of flavors at the start, with a somewhat softer ending. Great summer wine.
Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Spätlese Trocken ($27, Rudi Wiest): Tyrell's wines are never in great supply — even less so his dry wines, though he is masterful with them. Dominant lime and white mineral. A bit peppery, with food-friendly weight in the middle and a delicate finish.
Schmitges Erdener Treppchen Spätlese Dry ($23, V.O.S. Selections/Kerlin Wines): Warm tree fruit, with a hint of papaya. Sweet overtones on the nose, but it's firm and dry, with a precise, talc-inflected ending. A bit halting around the edges, but it makes for a terrific food wine.
Zilliken “Butterfly” Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($18, Rudi Wiest): A brand-name effort from one of the Saar's most reliable producers. It's medium-dry and rather subtle, with a muted nose but strong mineral tones upfront. Tart apricot and lemon curd.
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