Mainzer Weinbörse 2012: Notes on the Vintage and Clarification on the VDP

The 2012 Vintage (and Style) in Germany: The View from Mainzer Weinbörse

As a German, you taste the wines of the world in March during the Düsseldorf trade fair “ProWine," but you have the opportunity to taste the new domestic vintage at the end of April in Mainz, when the VDP presents their wines during the “Mainzer Weinbörse.” It makes sense, because the wines need time to develop anyway, and every added day after bottling makes them more pleasant to taste and easier to judge.

My first impression of the 2012 vintage was that it is one for my taste. 2012 is not one of these blockbuster vintages like 2005 or 2009, with ripe fruit and broad texture. This vintage brought lighter and slimmer wines, even lighter than 2011. The alcohol for the base wines is around 1% less than the year before, and in general the wines show a more vibrant, pronounced but well-integrated acidity. Furthermore, they show a fair intensity of aromatics; while not as focused and complex as in 2011, the wines were already quite open, and they will develop faster than the wines from the year before. It is an overall good but not exceptional vintage. 

2012 in Germany started with a wet and relatively mild winter, but with strong frost during February. Spring was dry, with warmth and sunshine, but cool and rainy conditions during flowering in many regions resulted in diminished yield due to coulure and millerandage. It was an overall cooler and dry ripening period, which led to a harvest of healthy grapes, albeit it two to three weeks later than normal.

For Riesling, there was almost no development of botrytis in all regions, and most of the producers skipped the production of very late harvest wines like Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. “It was the total opposite of 2011, when we had so much noble sweet wines that we could ferment the Beerenauslese in a “Stückfass” (old oak barrel with 1,200-liter content) and a Trockenbeerenauslese in an old 330-liter barrel,” says Gerd Ritter, cellar master of the famous Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau area.

Max von Kunow from the winery von Hövel in the Saar region proudly presents his fabulous ice wine from the vineyard “Wiltinger Scharzhofberg.” Agnes Hasselbach from the winery Gunderloch in Rheinhessen explains that they could harvest great ice wine in November from higher altitude vineyards. 

Early frost in some areas (the villages Oberemmel and Wiltingen in the Saar region, or high altitude vineyard sites in Rheinhessen) made it possible to harvest unbelievably clear ice wines as early as October or November. Max von Kunow of the von Hövel proudly presented his ice wine: “It is one of the real ice wines. When the frost came at the end of October the grapes were absolutely healthy. So there is this concentration of fruit expression which makes a true ice wine so special.” And he is right. The botrytis fungus destroys all the aromatics coming from the grape variety itself (e.g. terpenes in the case of Riesling, responsible for the stone-fruit character). The unique character of ice wine is the concentration of those primary fruit aromatics in contrast to the noble rot characteristics the botrytis fungus develops (more honeyed tones). It is also the reason that you should drink ice wine relatively young. Of course it can age, but after 6 to 8 years the delicious primary fruit is gone and the characteristics become more reminiscent of a noble rot wine.

For ice wine, it was definitely an advantage this year to have vineyards in the slightly cooler villages like Oberemmel and Wiltingen, because they were surprised by the frost. In the other villages of the Mosel valley a second wave of frost came only in November, which made the harvest of ice wine possible in theory (it has to be -7°C). However, because of the reduced yields due to the bad weather conditions during flowering, many growers didn’t want to take the risk to produce ice wine, and instead harvested the grapes beforehand.

Happy with the vintage 2012 – Dr. Uwe Mattheus from Wirsching in Franken. He is proud of the Silvaner from the top vineyard sites in the village Iphofen like “Julius-Echter-Berg” and “Kronsberg.”

Franken had more luck than the other regions concerning flowering conditions. This was more than fair, because the region suffered from hail and spring frost during the last two years, which resulted in very low yields. In Franken, 2012 was finally a normal year in terms of yield. Here you see medium-bodied wines, with vibrant acidity and pure fruit expression, and without any botrytis influence. It is a great year for the most underrated grape variety in the world: Silvaner. Dr. Uwe Mattheus of Wirsching in Iphofen is very happy with the pristine character his wines show.

For Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), it is almost the same story. The Ahr valley suffered from spring frost and lost 50% yield in some cases, as Alexander Stodden from the winery Jean Stodden told me. However, the rest of the vegetation period was very good which resulted in healthy, ripe grapes and medium-bodied wines with a balanced fresh acidity. “Less but sexy” are the words by which Alexander Stodden defines the vintage 2012.

In Baden, hail storms diminished yield levels, and rain in the second phase of the harvest increased pressure on growers to pick the grapes. Good selection was necessary to ensure good quality. The wines are medium-bodied, with solid fruit expression. It is a good vintage but not exceptional like 2011.

More important than the vintage character is the development of different styles and ideas about quality and terroir. You can see that within the organization of VDP vintners, throughout Germany, and most probably in other countries too. Not only in my opinion are we standing at a crossroads. The cause: with modern cellar techniques it is possible to “make” the perfect wine almost every year. You can overcome any challenge in the cellar with additives and physical treatments; even mediocre wineries with inferior vineyard sites can produce convincing wines. The high overall standard in cellar techniques has lead to an increase in quality but also to a uniformity of wine styles. It is strange that many growers do everything in the vineyard organically, yet they - for example - add some synthetic yeast nutrient (di-ammonium phosphate) during fermentation, to avoid the development of volatile sulfur compounds, and end up with too-fruity and boring wines. As Martin Kössler, a highly respected retailer, claims: “The VDP group can be split into the group of 'safety' vintners, who produce solid but quite unexciting wines, and the 'rebels,' who are brave to allow the wines to develop some edges.”

However, we have to admit: as a highly-rated VDP wine grower you have something to lose if you try new ways. I was at a tasting organized by a non-VDP winery, which is highly respected within the circle of sommeliers and high-end retailers. The winery produces biodynamic wines and follows therefore a strict cellar regime, allowing the wines to develop their own character while retaining a sense of the vintage. We did a vertical tasting of the last eight vintages together with critics from the most important German wine guide. They had downgraded the wines in their guide, arguing a “lack of age-worthiness,” but this tasting taught them that these wines can age gracefully, even when they are difficult to taste in their youth. There has to be an evolution in the idea about what quality and terroir actually mean. We will definitely see more discussion about this in the future.

It is impossible to try every wine at such a huge wine fair. However, here are some wines that I judged very positively.

  • 2012 Westhofen / Riesling trocken / Weingut K. F. Groebe / Rheinhessen (VDP. Ortswein): Fritz Groebe is known for perfectly balanced and more restrained fruity wines, with a lot of structure and long finish. His wines always need a bit more time to develop. This “VDP. Ortswein” shows vibrant acidity wrapped in extract and chalky mineral impression. A pleasant dry wine, with lighter body and alcohol than 2011 but with a medium long finish and a textbook sample for the vintage. Also a highlight from his assortment was the 2012 Kirchspiel / Riesling Spätlese (VDP. Grosse Lage), which wasn’t as complex as the vintage 2011 but shows hedonistic juiciness and well-defined aromatic focus.  

  • 2012 Dorsheim Riesling trocken (barrel sample) / Schlossgut Diel / Nahe (VDP. Ortswein): Very elegant, medium-bodied Riesling with vibrant and pronounced acidity. Looking forward to trying the “Grosse Gewächs” from the winery in September.

  • 2012 Weißburgunder “S” trocken / Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich / Nahe (VDP. Ortswein): One of the non-boring Pinot Blancs, which are in my opinion hard to find. Complex with balanced creaminess, combined with fresh acidity and high mineralic impression with almost salty finish. Aromas of peach, pear, pepper and nutmeg. 

  • 2012 Iphöfer Kronsberg / Silvaner trocken / Weingut Hans Wirsching / Franken (VDP. Erste Lage): Very pure aromatics of quince, hay, nutmeg, grass and hints of earthiness – really a textbook example of Silvaner flavors. A lot of pressure on the palate, slightly creamy texture, very balanced fresh acidity and spicy finish. One of the best Silvaners I have tasted.

  • 2012 Apotheke / Riesling Auslese / Weingut Grans-Fassian / Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (VDP. Grosse Lage): Auslese with almost no influence of Botrytis; therefore, pure primary fruit character and medium body. Sweetness is balanced by the high and vibrant acidity. Good concentration, solid complexity and already quite open to taste. Again, lighter body and not as concentrated as the wines from the vintage 2011.

  • 2012 Scharzhofberg / Riesling Eiswein / Weingut von Hövel / Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (VDP. Grosse Lage): Absolutely pristine with concentrated primary fruit expression (stone fruits, ginger, flowers). The searing acidity balances perfectly the sweetness. Long finish. Great, clean und pure ice wine. Congratulations to Max von Kunow.

VDP: Further Updates on the new Classification

There were many rumors about the new VDP classification system, and as a Dutch friend of mine claims: “Always when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, the Germans build a few more kilometers.”

To understand why there is so much confusion, we have to look at history. The mess started with the wine law in 1971, when thousands of single sites, developed over centuries, where lumped together. Without any regards concerning differences in site quality, around 30,000 different vineyards where melted together into only 3,000 different sites with individual names. Furthermore, the historical denominations “Spätlese”, “Auslese” and so on were simplified into a simple “sugar-level” system. The traditional high-quality nominations had therefore lost their quality message. From then onwards you could make a Spätlese from every site and from every grape variety. And this was not a problem: due to new viticultural techniques and the spread of new grape variety breeds (e.g. Bacchus, Ortega,…) it was easy to reach the obligatory sugar levels. This resulted in a mass production of sweet “Spätlese” wines with no link to terroir, available for a minimum price in the supermarket. High-class dry wines became almost extinct and the image of the traditional sweet wines with Prädikat (“Kabinett”, “Spätlese”, “Auslese”,…) and with a defined taste profile was destroyed.

Since 1984, the VDP growers formed a classification movement as a reaction against this minus development. The target of the classification was to nail down the priority of the best vineyard sites in Germany. In other words, to change the Germanic system into a Romanic classification. Furthermore, to bring back the significance of high-class dry wines and to enforce the importance of traditional sweet wines with Prädikat was another goal.

Since 2001, the VDP is step-by-step developing a classification model under private law, which is not an easy task due to the official wine law, regional differences and - last but not least - the unique character of Riesling. The latter is per se a difficult story, as you can produce wine from dry to every imaginable sweetness level, with our without botrytis, full- or light-bodied etc. The Mosel has its own climate and therefore a completely different definition of style than the Pfalz, for example. Life in Germany would be much easier if we were only talking about Chardonnay, where style differences are simply narrower. This helps to explain why there have been so many changes and even more discussions.

The newest changes move the most highly regarded vineyards, formerly called “Erste Lage,” into the new category of “VDP. Grosse Lage," which can be translated as "Grand Cru." The argument is that there was always confusion about the great dry wines “Grosses Gewächs” coming from an “Erste Lage," which can be translated as "Premier Cru." 

As a second tier, the level “VDP. Erste Lage” (Premier Cru) will be included into the quality pyramid. The second tier will be only used by the regions Baden, Franken, Pfalz, Rheingau, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen and Württemberg. Those regions will take the chance to review the size of the former “Erste Lage”-vineyards as well as their quality potential. All of the other regions claim that they have no need to review the quality of their best vineyards. We will see if they will change their minds in the future. 

This is actually a very good thing, because there were many discussions as to whether all of the “Grosses Gewächs” were really coming from Grand Cru vineyards. We will see some of the vineyards from the highest quality level sorted into the second tier “VDP.Erste Lage.” Furthermore, some of those vineyards are huge. For example, the vineyard Ihringer Winklerberg in Baden is around 117 hectares, and Würzburger Stein in Franken measures around 71 hectares. Here the VDP growers will define the best parcels, which are then regarded as “VDP. Grosse Lage” with an extra name, while the rest will be downgraded into the second tier. Joachim Heger from Baden, for example, now has the “VDP. Grosse Lage” “Häusleboden,” which is located within the larger “VDP. Erste Lage” “Ihringer Winklerberg.” His great dry wine “Grosses Gewächs" will come from the “VDP. Grosse Lage”-parcel “Häusleboden.” 

The final list is not yet published and there are still negotiations going on. There will be the first draft published this year in August at the latest, but VDP president Steffen Christmann expects that many negotiations and changes will occur over the next five years, when the final classification of vineyards will be established. I will provide an update when it is finalized.

  • Dear Kevin, the "Hessische Bergstraße" is using those system in theory too. However, there is only one VDP member over there (Hessische Staatsweingüter) and they haven't classified a VDP. ERSTE LAGE. If there will be more VDP members in the future, we could see VDP. ERSTE LAGE from the very small region "Hessische Bergstraße". Hope this helps. Kind regards. Romana

  • Romana,

    Thanks for this update... I just got back from Germany and was told that Hessische Bergstrasse will also use the 4 tiers. Just want to confirm


    Kevin Reilly