Wine: Bragging Rights

Most winemakers dislike proclamations such as “vintage of the century,” especially when the vintage is harvested at the beginning of a century. But the winemakers of Germany’s Mosel valley, normally a conservative lot, are breaking with tradition, touting their 2001 Rieslings as the best in 30 years. Producers are raving about the fabulous intensity of the fruit, from the driest to the sweetest.

At the heart of the excitement is the Riesling grape, considered by most wine authorities to be the world’s finest white wine grape, and the one exceptional wine cultivar that thrives in the sparse, slate-topped soils on the steeply canted hillsides above the winding Mosel River and its tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer.

The river valley, situated in the southwestern part of Germany, is a dicey wine-growing region. Few classic grapes can survive its cold winters and sun-starved landscapes. In a normal season, even the Rieslings struggle, but usually enough sun hits the vines before the rain arrives, allowing for light, elegant white wines with lower alcohol levels than any of the world’s other fine wines.

In 2001, however, the rain never came, and the sun had a chance to do its magic, producing ripe, exotic flavors in each of the three regions: the Mosel, the Saar, and the Ruwer.

Longtime winemakers such as Willi Haag, Egon Müller, and Hanno Zilliken—all tight-lipped men not prone to effusive comments—and dozens of their compatriots have been describing the wines with accolades that they haven’t used since the famed 1971 vintage: “classic aromas” and “perfect balance.”

According to Carl von Schubert, owner of the Maximin Grünhaüser vineyard in Mertesdorf, the wines are as good as they are because of the amazing sugars Mother Nature developed, combined with excellent natural acid-ity to eliminate any cloying taste. “We had perfect weather so the sugars developed evenly, but it is the acidity that makes the wine,” he says.

Indeed, these wines are easy to like. Their flavor offers a smooth combination of flowers, apples, and minerals, with a taste that is both succulent and crisp, so they pair well with a wide array of seafood dishes.

German wines are classified by their richness, usually with the driest being the least expensive and the sweetest being the most expensive. The simpler Kabinett-level wines are soft and laden with bright fruits, while at the next level, the Spätlese wines are richer, even though the alcohol levels are lower. Some of the most sublime wines of the vintage, however, are those desig-nated Auslese. At this level, extra-special wines in some vintages are offered with star ratings. A four-star designation elevates a wine only one tiny step behind the fabulous Beerenauslese level.

Some of the rarer wines, such as a number of four-star Auslesen, will be available only at two summer wine auctions, held this year on September 17 and 18. The first day the wines of the Bernkasteler Ring—an association of estates that is also called the Kleiner Ring—will be auctioned at Bernkastel-Kues on the Mosel. The following day, wines of the Grosser Ring Mosel-Saar-Ruwer VDP estates will be auctioned in the historic city of Trier. Considering the phenomenal nature of the vintage, the best wines should sell for $100 to $200 per bottle, with some going for much higher.

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