This year will certainly be the smallest crop in a generation, with the German Wine Institute estimating total harvest at only about seven million hectoliters, approximately 25% less than last year, which was already a deficit vintage. Given the shortage of stock in many cellars and the rising demand for Riesling, many observers thus expect a slight rise in prices. The quality, however, is considered to be good.
“The reason for the unusually small yield was principally due to the reduced fruit set caused by low temperatures at the time of the blossoming,“ explained Norbert Weber, president of the German Winegrowers’ Association. However, the rigorous selection during harvest after the cool and damp weather August, further shortened yields at the finest estates. Although many producers harvested too early, the patience of others was rewarded with a Golden October.
With 23,400 hectares, the Pfalz is Germany's second largest growing region. Although Pinot Noir from certain estates can be excellent, the centrally located Mittelhaardt is better known as a powerhouse for dry Rieslings.
After an atypically cold, dry winter, spring was slow to unfold and cool weather during flowering considerably diminished the potential volume. After a short, but hot summer, late August and early September were again cool and damp. Many feared a repeat of the devastating conditions in 2006, but a month of blue skies and sunshine from about the 15th of September to mid October allowed producers to harvest extremely ripe grapes under nearly ideal conditions - and the onset botrytis in October allowed certain estates to make noble late harvest wines.
Steffen Christmann, the president of the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) and estate owner in Gimmeldingen, spoke of the smallest vintage in decades. “The cool nights favoured excellent aromatic composition, with bright crisp acidities,” he noted. “At this stage, the wines remind me of those from 2008 or, looking further into the past, perhaps 1996 or even 1990.” These were monumental vintages in the Pfalz, which were difficult to appreciate in their youth, but have matured gracefully.
His colleague from the southern stretch of the Pfalz, Hansjörg Rebholz, speaks of acidities that he hasn’t seen since the 1980s. “It is important that they taste ripe,” he says, “which is why we harvested so late.”
With only half a normal crop for his Pinot Noir, Werner Knipser also paid a steep price to maintain quality. As his stocks, like those at all of the better estates, were already low, the short crop will put pressure on prices. The bracing flavours, though, will make it a vintage more for wine lovers than the general public.
With 26,300 hectares, Rheinhessen is Germany's largest wine growing region. Only slightly north of the Pfalz, the weather here was quite similar, with yields also down by as much as a third from 2009, which was already a quite small crop compared to 2008.
Klaus-Peter Keller, arguably the best producer in this region, compares 2010 to 1996 because of the “concentrated acidities.” His neighbour, Philipp Wittmann, the other star of the region, speaks of a vintage that played well only for late ripening grapes like Riesling in the finest sites. “The precocious varietals had to be harvest too early,” he observes, “because the warm, humid weather in late August and early September had already induced rot.”
Rheinhessen, indeed, has always been a region of light and shade. Many producers over-crop their vineyards in order to produce the volumes needed for fighting varietal price points. Those, who harvested early- and they were the large majority, produced shallow tart wines that will have to be de-acidified to make them drinkable at all for an undiscerning public.
As the top estates had a record year 2010 in sales, few have any 2009s left in stock. The small 2010 crop will thus probably be on allocation.
With only 3,000 hectares, the Rheingau may appear small, but it is one of Germany's most well-known regions. Just north of Rheinhessen, it overlooks a unique stretch of the Rhine where the river flows over a short distance from east to west. Thus, the finest vineyards all face south, with the sunlight reflecting off the water to provide extra warmth. This heat provided many vineyards an unusually rapid phase of ripening in late July and early August this year.
Otherwise, weather conditions here were similar to those in the Pfalz and Rheinhessen, but with slightly more rainfall in early September. This led to quite different results depending on the site. The steeper vineyards, especially those with schist soils, drained well and were hardly affected by the adverse conditions. The heavier, loamy soils that retain water were more exposed to rot and generally needed to be harvested earlier.
“The cool summer was probably due to the fine silica particles that were catapulted into the atmosphere by the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland this spring,” believes Gunter Künstler from Hochheim. “It reminds me a bit of the summer in1980 after the explosion of Mount St. Helens in Washington. That vintage was also a small harvest,” he adds; “but the quality in 2010 is closer to that of 1990.
That said, even in the well drained sites in Rüdesheim star producer Josi Leitz thought in late September that 2010 might be a total wash out. “The stunning weeks in October turned a disaster into a potentially excellent vintage,” he claims. “I have never tasted such intensive young wines.”
At the time of writing, some of the best producers were still harvesting. On the whole, quality should be, at least according to Wilhelm Weil from the Robert Weil estate in Kiedrich, similar to either 1996 or 1998, but with somewhat riper grapes and thus higher must weights. Again, the bitter medicine to swallow is that the better estates brought in at most two thirds of a normal harvest.
With 4,000 hectares, the Nahe is a contorted mirror of the Rheingau. A confluent of the Rhine flowing from west to east, it spills into the larger river near Bingen, where both then change course and flow together northwards. As the wines from the Nahe were sold as Rhine Rieslings until 1971, this region's name has yet to garner the same standing as that of the Rheingau. However, at their best, the wines can be equally good, sometimes even better.
Armin Diel in Burg Layen at the lower end of the valley describes 2010 as do many of his colleagues in the Rheingau. However, the Indian Summer here lasted only from the 2nd to the 14th of October. “On the same bunch, we had grapes that were unripe and others severely affected by botrytis,” he concedes. “Without a severe selection, it was impossible to may good wines.”
At the cooler, upper end of the valley, the conditions were similar, but that is not unusual here. Nonetheless, the better estates harvested 20 to 30% less that in a normal vintage. The must weights - and acidities - were high, reminding many producers of 1996 or even 1990. Werner Schönleber from Emrich-Schönleber in Monzingen even draws parallels to 1994. “In any case,” he adds, “it is unlike anything I have seen over the past decade. His colleague Tim Fröhlich from the Fröhlich-Schäfer estate in neighbouring Bockingen, however, likens the vintage to 2001, wines that I enjoy drinking today.
With 9,000 hectares at the northern reaches of Germany's vineyard area, the Mosel is the country's best known region. Given its position, the grapes here ripen later than even the Rheingau - and the harvest takes place over a longer period. For that reason, many producers had only just finished a first selection of their best vineyards last month, with the finest wines to be harvested only well into November.
Given the Mosel’s geographical complexity, with its confluents the Saar and Ruwer, it is difficult to provide a general picture of the overall quality, but the region basically faced the same vagaries over the summer as did the Rheingau. Given their more northerly latitude, however, the slower ripening grapes were less affected by the warm, humid weather in late August and early September.
“The splendid weather at harvest allowed us pick at leisure,” explained Johannes Selbach from Zeltingen, “but the extremes of the grape material we brought in will make for a most unusual vintage, with both must weights and acidities being extremely high.” Volume, though, is down by as much as 50%.
Like many of his colleagues, the quality of the vintage was, when he finished on the 3rd of November, better than anything he could ever have imagined a month early. Given the high acidities, though, “it will be a better year for off-dry and sweeter wines,” which are in any case what this region does best; “and there will be some magnificent noble late harvest Rieslings,” adds Egon Müller from Wiltingen, whose Scharzhofberg vineyard fared well in the unusual weather.
Although here again comparisons with 1996 or 1990 are common, in particular because of the brisk acidites, neither of those vintages has such a wealth of pure botrytis. “This vintage will be unique,” continued Dr. Manfred Prüm of Joh. Jos. Prüm in Wehlen, “we have the must weight and noble rot of a great vintage and the acidities of a poor one. I have never seen that before.”
The 2010 vintage wines will be less full-bodied than those of previous years, characterized by crisp fruit and vitalizing freshness. As this is a style generally appreciated more by wine lovers than the general public, consumers will have to choose carefully among the wines on offer and, given the short crop, be prepared to pay a bit more for the finer bottles.
Joel B. Payne, an American expat living in Europe since 1979 was thrice Germany's best sommelier. Beyond a long career as wine buyer, consultant and managing director of two large import companies, he has been active as a wine journalist for 25 years.. A regular contributor to several leading international and German wine magazines , he is best known for being the editor of the German Wine Guide, which has appeared annually for the past 17 years. A founding member of the Grand Jury Européen, he has also been the president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV.