Crystal dynamo – Riesling 2018
“German wines have never been better-made, nor better value relative to most other wines. Germany, along with England and Canada, has been a major beneficiary of climate change. Vines that used to struggle to ripen and whose wines used to need added sweetness to compensate for searing acidity now produce fully ripe grapes capable of producing thrilling dry wines of all three colours.”
Jancis Robinson, June 29, 2019.
Out of all the varieties, Riesling can claim the biggest right to be called delicious. Its exotic nose is a real fruit cocktail, while there are fireworks on the palate. It’s a scintillating, rhapsodic, flamboyant wine. The range goes from citrus fruit, via touching upon pineapple and peach, to as far as mango and melon. In the background, there’s often a particular mineral note hiding away that resembles granite or diesel oil. Riesling has electricity that galvanises and exhibits fluorescence in the dark. Riesling is feather light and immaculately pure. And these two qualities are rare treasures in today’s wine world. German Riesling is practically an oak-free zone – whoever is fed up with whites covered in an oaky, vanilla coating, can find refuge in them. On top of that, the pure fruit flavours are paired with minimal alcohol (in the case of the off-dry ‘Feinherbs’ at generally under 10%). Riesling is the single variety in which the acid emerging from the rhythm section can step out as a solo instrument. With other varieties, the acidity is the frame, the supporting element, the counterbalance, while in Riesling it has its own aesthetic value, and it’s sufficiently complex to tell its own story.
Hardly a year passes without someone predicting Riesling’s breakthrough. However, if you look deep enough, the argument doesn’t go further than saying that it’s impossible that such a great variety shouldn’t be loved by more people. Even though such things exist, there are such sub-styles, ignored geniuses that are ahead of their time, cult stars that never catch on with the general public. The beauty and the value of Riesling depends on the play between two components, and there are no other things that are more divisive among wine consumers than these: the acidity and the sugar. There are people who think that every white wine is too sour, for others, even a touch of sweetness is an immediate reason to reject it. And Riesling plays its full spectrum: it can be painfully sour and syrupy sweet. And those who are not familiar with German wine language can easily make the wrong pick.
Rhine versus Danube Riesling
Not long ago, the borderlines were cleanly tangible. In the case of German Riesling, the grapes usually balanced at the lower end of sweetness, the chance of complete ripeness was only possible in the hottest years and in the best locations. The wines rarely fermented completely, which was a good thing as the residual sugar mellowed the sharp edge of the acids. German wine culture was divided along the degree of sweetness: a typical German Riesling is an off-dry, light, fruity, vivacious wine.
In the lot warmer Austrian climate, in the Danube Valley, underripeness was the exception. There, fermenting to dry didn’t mean a problem, the acids gave no reason for residual sugar and winemakers consciously avoided this style as well. Owing to the new viticultural attitude that evolved from the 90s, the high-degree of ripeness, coupled with the fermentation to completely dry, brought along the age of power wines in Wachau. For more than a decade, the 14% alcohol, botrytis notes ornamented Riesling top predators triumphed at wine competitions and in guidebooks.
2018 in Germany
Following the 2018 harvest, German winemakers were on cloud nine. All their prayers were answered: abundant crops, evenly ripe and healthy bunches, plus a rain-free harvest. The quantity was almost one and a half times that of previous years, and it exceeded the average of the past 20 years by 20%. The growing season consisted of one long, dry and warm summer that exceptionally wasn’t even burdened by the heat. The winemakers unanimously claim that they’ve never encountered such perfect grapes. The first paradox of the vintage, even though the drought would justify towards the contrary, was that the crop was plentiful. The most likely possible explanation for this is that with the roots going deep down, they could reach the groundwater supply that was filled by the abundant winter wetness. The second paradox is although the acidity is not high, the pH-values are surprisingly low. It’s highly unlikely that 2018 is going to be the favourite vintage for high-voltage acidity, but judging by the pH values, the ageing potential of the wines is indeed very promising. Anyone who’s ever talked to any winemaker about the given vintage knows that seeing it through the producers’ eyes, the weather is always poor. However, in 2018 there was nothing to complain about in Germany.
None of the seven biblical calamities occurred: there was no frost, no hail, no rain, no downy mildew, nor heat stress or lack of water, not even rot. Even the spotted wing drosophila, which embittered the previous years, evaded the vineyards. Only the youngest plantations were affected by the long summer with the drought conditions. Thanks to the dry weather, the grapes arrived at the cellars in such healthy shape that the selection at the sorting tables, which is crucial at other times, could be spared. As for the wines, 2018 brought along a consistent, very high-level vintage that rarely disappoints and seldom conquers new peaks. A floral, lyrical vintage, not a power-demonstrating or breath-taking one. The wines are delicious in the most classical meaning of the word. One doesn’t need to struggle trying to understand them. They are not inscrutable, rather charming, attractive, fresh and young. There is no cloud in sight that would disturb the idyll.
Where are we now? The sharpness of the competition has decreased. German Rieslings have ‘dried out’, categories with residual sugar were pushed to the side-lines. The Trockenwelle started in 2002, when the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), comprising the leading German wineries, decided that they had to change to a more place-of-growth-centred attitude, moving away from the degrees of sweetness – they regarded it as the sole possibility for re-establishing the embattled honour of German wine. The Grosses Gewächs wines that were put on the top of the pyramid can only be dry. Drying out also brought along wizening: after the frivolous charm, lightness and seductive fruitiness of the off-dry wines, the pumped-up, extracted, high alcohol, mineral, gothic wine cathedrals appeared strange. It took a decade and a half until the GG Rieslings’ charmless strictness softened and the German estate wines found the modern version of the golden middle way to: the residual sugar that is close to the upper limit of dry wines is accompanied by an identically high acid content, thus, the colour, the dynamics and the structure is in balance.
In the last decade, Austrian Riesling has become more aerodynamic, and they’ve finished with the baroque-like exaggerations. They are harvesting earlier, have eased up on the radical yield control and the value of higher and cooler locations has also increased. They don’t want to impress the drinker, with the emphasis now on elegance and good drinkability.
The Pannonian Basin doesn’t show the slightest similarity to the Mosel ‘homeland’ of Riesling. In Hungary, summers are even hotter than in Austria, on top of that there’s no abundance of steep, slate hillsides. The swift ripening and loss of acidity that is the result of hot summers are already a handicap, and still Hungarian winemakers are prone to put their Rieslings into barrels. In the last few years, a kind of Hungarian Riesling style is shaping up that is more convenient, smoother, blunter in its aromas and dynamics than the German or the Austrian, although it’s easy to love and it fits into the international standards of the variety more and more.
2018 In Austria
Owing to the steady summer heat that started early and was interlaced only with sparse rain, the harvest had never started this early in Austria in living memory. The first wine sample for quality inspection was handed to the Austrian Wine Institute on August 2. Bernhard Ott harvested during the last week of August and on the 11th of September, the Spiegel – one of Ott’s top wines was already in a palatable state, as after the barrel fermentation, it was poured into steel tanks. Compared to the hot summer that characterised the larger part of Europe, in Austria the twist came in the shape of the rain at the beginning of September. The flood-like rain overthrew the harvest plans at several wineries. Those who waited also had to fight botrytis. Contrary to Germany, here they couldn’t spare the use of the sorting table. Altogether, the quantity is above the several-year average, the acidity is slightly behind that of the previous year.
2018 in Hungary
In Hungary, this vintage brought radically diverse conditions in the different wine regions, which makes it impossible to generalise. Since 1901, ever since meteorology data has been available, this was the hottest year in Hungary. Although the rain proved to be average, it fell in a very capricious distribution according to time and location: in February and March it twice exceeded the average and during the course of the summer, in the wettest parts of the country (around Bakony) five times as much rain fell than in the driest Trans-Tisza region. As for Hungarian Riesling, the flood-like rains caused serious damage in the Transdanubia region. At the Pannonhalma Arch Abbey, for example, out of the 10 hectares of Riesling, they could harvest grapes that came up to expectations only from two hectares.