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A Great Year for German Wines

August 22, 1991|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

German wines are easy to like. But in spite of this, they've always had a problem selling in the United States. I was reminded of this the other day when I tasted a wonderful German wine and found a wine whose name requires a whole new paragraph:

The 1990 Weingut Karthauserhof Riesling from the Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberger vineyard.

Not only is the wine a mouthful, so is the name.

German wine producers don't make it easy on us, either. Many of them choose for their labels a script type so Gothic you can't read it, even if you know what it is.

On the East Coast, where German wines sell well, excitement is building for the 1990 German vintage, considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Here on the West Coast, Rudi Wiest of Cellars International of Carlsbad, is also excited about the vintage, and this 1990 harvest comes after 1988 and 1989, themselves both rated excellent and better than most vintages of the last few decades.

"Many of the growers compare 1990 with the great '71 vintage," says Wiest, "but in the Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese wines the 1990s are more concentrated. With this concentration you also get amazingly high acid levels that simply confound the palate. Even Kabinett wines from '90 will age beautifully."

Wiest points out that 1971 was a great vintage because of the sensational dessert wines it produced. The vines were attacked by the Botrytis mold, the "noble rot" that concentrates the grape juice into a near-syrup. The result was wines of nectar quality.

There was little Botrytis in 1990, so fewer dessert wines were made. Instead, many producers made wines not sweeter but richer and more flavorful than I have ever seen, especially at the quality levels.

Kabinett wines are supposed to be simple, soft, easy to quaff; Spaetleses are supposed to be slightly sweet and rich; Ausleses are sweeter and richer with more depth, good with fruit-based desserts. Yet in general, the 1990 Kabinetts taste like Spaetleses, the Spaetleses have the richness of Ausleses and the Ausleses--well, they are very difficult to describe.

This general level of quality accounts for the slightly elevated prices you may see on these wines. Moreover, Wiest said some of these wines are limited in supply and demand has been great.

I ran through more than 50 of the 1990s with Wiest last week. I felt all the wines were at the top of the quality scale, justifying once more the feeling some people have that Riesling is the greatest wine grape of all.

Among the dry wines, I enjoyed the Crusius Estate Riesling ($11), a delicate, lean, tart wine, and Pfeffigen Riesling Kabinett Halb-Trocken Ungsteiner Honigsackel (there's that language again!), which has fresh, earthy elements, a spice component and a very dry finish.

Though the dry (Trocken) and "half dry" (Halb-Trocken) wines are excellent, Wiest likes those he calls lieblich. This word doesn't translate very well into English; it means pleasing or soft.

I have also heard the term klassisch harmonisch used for these wines. It translates as mild or gentle, and refers to the fact that they have high sugar levels balanced by superb acidity.

Wiest displayed so many great wines it's difficult to pick a few that stood out. But the wine mentioned in the second paragraph with the sneeze-resembling name is a gem--a mere QbA wine (Qualitatswein bestimmten Anbaugebietes . . . ach!), not even a Spaetlese, but one with a wonderful cherry aroma, a faint hint of pepper and a rich, mouth-filling taste.

A wine of this QbA rank in past years might have sold for $7 or $8. This wine has a price of $13. It's worth it.

At the same price is a Kabinett from August Eser, designated Oestricher Lenchen, that has a steely aroma, soft entry and crisp finish. It's a perfect wine for lighter seafood dishes.

More amazing was Schloss Saarstein Spatlese Serriger Schloss Saarsteiner ($14.25), with mineral, fruit rind and honey notes. A wine that exemplifies the meaning of lieblich is the lovely Von Hovel Spatlese Oberemmeler Hutte, reminiscent of cherries and carnations and with a wonderful richness in the entry.

The best Spaetlese wines I tasted, however, were from Dr. F. Weins-Pruem, a Waldracher Sonnenberg (a bargain at $14), with fantastic spice and fruit; Dr. Thanisch Bernkasteler Lay ($21), with the aroma of white peaches and honey, and Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr ($22), an absolutely classic Mosel.

In the Auslese class, the wines were all so exciting it was hard to choose a "best wine," and using any sort of scoring system becomes absurd because almost all the wines had perfect balance; only style differentiated them. Some, however, had more acidity and would actually work with food (!), such as the Zilliken Saarburger Rausch ($30), with its lovely earthy, peach and pear aroma.

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