A short time ago I held a tasting themed “Riesling GG & co 2005″ in our wine tasting club AuZone. This was a horizontal tasting of high-end dry German Riesling. The designation Grosses Gewächs, often abbreviated as GG on labels and bottles, is only used by members of Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, VDP, which is an organisation for top-class German wine producers. I added “& co” since there are also wines in the same style that don’t use the GG designation.
The confusing array of designations for German dry wines and some background
The official classification of German wines includes quite a number of levels and designations. For those who don’t understand German, it can be a bit of challenge to spell or pronounce their way through words like Trockenbeerenauslese, but if you learn the terms you get quite good clues from the label about the quality and style of the wine in the bottle. The problem with the present official classification, that was given most of its present form in 1971 (although some of the terms has a much older history), is that it is adapted mainly to the off-dry and sweet wines. These were the dominant German wine types in 1971. What (almost) doesn’t exist at all is an official vineyard classification. There are rules for vineyard names and the use of them, and these names are official, but all German vineyards – of higher or lower quality – has a name that can be indicated on the bottle.
If a producer wants to tell that the wine is dry, this can be indicated by adding the term trocken (maximum 9 grams per liter of residual sugar for wines with a sufficiently high acidity), or almost dry/only somewhat off-dry by adding halbtrocken (maximum 18 grams per liter). Examples are wines classified Kabinett trocken or Spätlese trocken.
Dry German wines became more common in the 1980s, at least among a number of pioneers. In the 1990s, these were followed by more producers, and the style of the top dry wines tended to become considerably more powerful. This led to some new designations being used, in addition to the already existing official designations, and several regional initiatives were started in order to classify vineyards.
The high-end German producers glanced at France during this process, both Bordeaux with its classification at producer/château level, and Burgundy with its vineyard classification using the levels grand cru/premier cru/village level/regional level.
They didn’t quite succeed to coordinate all initiatives, when it comes to designations for top dry wines from selected vineyards. In 1999, Rheingau introduced the designation Erstes Gewächs (a direct translation of “premier cru”) as a regional official designation, and it was based on a vineyard classification. VDP, the organisation for top producers, was then unable to use the same term when they introduced their own “private” designation for use by their members, which they did in 2001 (decision in principle) and 2002 (more details). Instead, they used the term Grosses Gewächs (a direct translation of “grand cru”) in other regions than Rheingau. This designation can only be used by VDP members. On a national level, the official designation Selection has also been introduced, but seems to have become a sidetrack, since it doesn’t seem to be used by any of the high-end producers.
So Grosses Gewächs was a rather new phenomenon in the 2005 vintage.
Throughout the period 2002-2011 there was some confusion, because the Grosses Gewächs logotype consist of the number one and a stylised grape cluster. This is a symbol that would lead you to think about “Erstes” (first) rather than “Grosses” (great). The vineyards that are used both for Erstes Gewächs wines in Rheingau and Grosses Gewächs wines in other places, were also called Erste Lage, explaining the logotype.
In 2012, VDP introduced a modified classification, with both a highest level and a second highest level, more directly similar to the classification in Burgundy.
The present VDP classification from 2012
The best vineyards are now called Grosse Lage, and the top dry wines from these are still called Grosses Gewächs, or with their own way of writing VDP.GROSSES GEWÄCHS. The logotype now contains the letters “GG” rather than the number one. In the last vintages some VDP members in Rheingau have also started to call their wines Grosses Gewächs, in similarity to other regions.
The vineyards at the recently introduced second highest level is now called Erste Lage, or with their own way of writing VDP.ERSTE LAGE. The dry wines from these vineyards are called VDP.ERSTE LAGE + use the Qualitätswein trocken designation. The can’t be called Erstes Gewächs since that term is still taken by the official designation in Rheingau, that is still in use by rather many non-VDP members. We’ll se how common these new Erste Lage wines will become. In Burgundy there’s a lot more premier cru than grand cru, but I somewhat doubt that a vineyard that so far has been considered good enough for Grosses Gewächs will be demoted to the second highest level to become an Erste Lage.
Confusing? Then remember that I omitted some sidetracks in describing the development, designations for dry wines other than the top wines, designations for off-dry and sweet wines, and the non-official designations used by some individual producers. The basic problems in all countries seems to be that new designations for wine are added now and then, while old designations are almost never abolished.
Grosses Gewächs and cellaring
At what age should a Grosses Gewächs be popped and drunk? It is of course much a matter of taste, and is affected by the vintage character and the producer-specific wine style. However, a common view is that these wines should be cellared less long than the off-dry or sweet Rieslings. On the other hands, Rieslings with residual sugar can age for quite long. A typical off-dry Spätlese would each its “second life” with more or less fully developed petroleum notes at 10-15 years of age, and if cellared properly, 20-30 years can be a good age for sweet wines. Going back to the dry wines of GG-class, I know there are German producers of age-worthy wines who themselves think that these wines typically peak at about 8-10 years of age. That’s why I thought it might be a good time to taste a number of 2005s now, at nine years of age. I might mention that my impression is that many who like these wines drink them already at 2-4 years of age – most of the wines are sold already one year after harvest, from September the following year – and would rarely cellar them to even 5-6 years of age. This is not how I like to drink these wines. Also, most Germans (nowadays) also drink their own wines (way too) young, even at this level, but that’s not an example I to follow.
By the way, 2005 was a very good vintage that generally produced concentrated wines and high ripeness.
My overall impression of the wines and the vintage
I must say that I was quite satisfied with how the wines showed. None of them showed any signs of faulty storage (some of the bottles had been bought at auctions) or other defects, despite one dried-out cork that was a bit difficult to extract. Although there were differences in quality and level of development, I found them homogenous enough to score them in the narrow band 91 – 93 points. There were definitely differences in style, where for example the Künstler wine showed the most weight, but they were surprisingly similar, in particular in the nose. Citrus aromas were quite common, to the extent that it might feel a bit repetitious to read “citrus” and “zest” again and again, but citrus and mineral really do give these wines wonderful freshness. On the palate they differed a bit more. Stylistic differences can be noted in the amount of mineral and spice notes, and the presence of any alcoholic feeling.
Since 2005 was a ripe vintage I had expected the aromas to go more in the direction of peach and tropical fruits than they actually did. All wines showed some developed notes, and there were definitely some petroleum in most of them, but less than expected. The acidity – important both for the freshness and the ageability – was quite good in at least six of the eight wines.
So in conclusion, I must say that I found the wines to be more youthful and more vigorous than I had expected, and 2005 again proves to be a very good vintage. Of the eight I found two of them (Künstler and Bürklin-Wolf) so developed that I’d expect them to lose from a couple of more years in the cellar, while two (Breuer och Wittmann) actually would gain from more time. Then there were four somewhere in-between: more or less fully developed, but unlikely to take any harm from a couple of more years in the cellar.
I believe most participants shared my impressions, but there were a few who weren’t fully convinced that nine years is a suitable age, and would have preferred them a little younger. It is still allowed to be wrong. :-)
Since I decided the order of the wines I tasted non-blind. We started with a “non-flight” wine tasted on its own during my introductory remarks:
Nose with citrus, zest, spice, development with petroleum and some rubber hose. Palate with citrus and zest, rather good concentration, rather good acidity (but not very high for a Riesling), spice, not a very long aftertaste. Good wine, still sticks together, 86 p.
This is the simplest wine in Christmann’s range, so it was better than expected. But those times I’ve put away basic level Riesling from better producers, they have almost always kept well. One of the largest differences from the better wines below is actually that those had more acidity and more freshness, despite being more concentrated.
The main flight:
2005 Robert Weil Kiedrich Gräfenberg Riesling Erstes Gewächs
Nose with citrus, zest, some tropical fruit including pineapple, spice, and some development with petroleum. Rather dry palate with citrus, zest, spice, mineral, high acidity, freshness, and a long aftertaste with fresh citrus notes, mineral, and grapefruit bitterness. Rather fully developed but not tired. 92 p
0 best and 4 worst votes, and therefore voted the worst (least good) wine. So obviously there were those who enjoyed this less than I did.
2005 Georg Breuer Rauenthal Nonnenberg Riesling
Rheingau, classified QbA (Qualitätswein).
Nose with citrus, zest, mineral, flowers, some green and herbaceous notes, and some development. Rather dry palate (but not bone dry), powerful concentration of fruit with loads of citrus, definitely a high acidity, mineral, and a long wonderful aftertaste with citrus, mineral and mint. Incredibly fresh, developed but can take more cellaring. 93 p
3 best and 1 worst vote, including my best vote, so voted the second best wine.
The 2005 Nonnenberg had the youngest nose of the wines in the flight, and was the wine most dominated by citrus. Together with the 2005 Morstein I believe this to be the wine with the longest life ahead of it. Fortunately, this wasn’t the last bottle in my cellar. :-) Just as the other vineyard-designated wines in the Breuer rage this wine is classified as a simple Qualitätswein without even calling it “trocken”. It has happened that some Breuer wines in some vintages weigh it at just over the maximum residual sugar limit of 9 g/l, so they use a designation that will work for them in all vintages.
2005 Künstler Hochheim Hölle Riesling QbA trocken Goldkapsel
Nose with zest, tropical fruit, noticeable smoke notes, powerful concentration of aromas with some fruit bonbon or lemon candy, spice, and petroleum. Rather dry palate (but not bone dry) with powerful concentration, some alcoholic feeling, yellow apple, citrus, tropical fruit, spice, a hint of bitterness, and a fruity aftertaste with spice notes. Quite impressive with its weight and concentration, fully developed, but not quite as balanced as the rest. 91 p
1 best and 1 worst vote, including my worst votes, which should be read as “least good”.
This wine had the heaviest nose of them all, and was a “different beast”. This type of “maximum overdrive” wines can be quite impressive when young, if they avoid too much alcohol and bitterness, but should probably be drunk younger than other Riesling GG-styled wines.
This wine might need a bit of an explanation. For quite some time, Künstler has produced two dry top-level wines from the Hölle vineyard, where this is the slightly more expensive and more powerful version. For a number of years, it has been denoted by a Goldkapsel, i.e., a gold capsule. In the early 2000s, both wines were classified Auslese trocken, and this wine was the Auslese trocken Goldkapsel. Then Künstler started to use the Erstes Gewächs designation, and then it was the “regular” Hölle Auslese trocken that became Hölle Erstes Gewächs. Since Künstler also adapted to the VDP view that dry Auslese-classified wines should be avoided to avoid confusion with the (semi)sweet Auslese style, this wine was reclassified to a Qualitätswein (QbA) trocken, but still with a Goldkapsel. This designation does perhaps not make it obvious that it is a slightly more expensive wine than the regular Hölle Erstes Gewächs.
By the way, the vineyard name Hölle does not refer to hell (which is the translation you will find in a dictionary), but is derived from the older German term Halde, meaning steep slope. The Hölle name is still a bit fun, since the neighboring vineyard is called Kirchenstück (“Church piece”) and the one beyond that has the likewise church-related name Domdechaney (derived from the nearby residence of a cathedral dean).
2005 Wittmann Westhofen Morstein Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Nose with citrus, zest, tropical fruit, some petroleum, spice and development – gives a “generally fruity” impression. Dry palate, very mineral-dominated attack, massive amounts of citrus, definitely a high acidity, almost a little “fizzy” impression, some alcoholic feeling, mineral, and a long and fresh aftertaste with mineral. Youthful palate with a great freshness and elegance, could be cellared more. 92 p
0 best and 1 worst vote.
2005 Emrich-Schönleber Monzingen Halenberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Nose with citrus, pronounced zest notes, some vanilla, citrus bonbon, somewhat developed notes with some petroleum. After some time in the glass the vanilla notes faded and more petroleum emerged. Dry palate with citrus and mineral, high acidity, a light grapefruit bitterness, spice, a hint of alcoholic feeling and a long, fruity aftertaste. Fine balance, fully developed. 92 p
4 best votes, no worst votes, and voted the best wine of the flight.
2005 Dönnhoff Niederhausen Hermannshöhle Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Nose with citrus, zest, some vanilla, and developed notes with some petroleum. Dry palate with citrus, quite a lot of mineral with a stony impression, slightly viscous mouthfeel, high acidity, and a long aftertaste with citrus and light grapefruit bitterness. Fine balance, good development. 93 p
3 best and 2 worst votes. To me, this was the second-best wine.
The nose was rather similar to that of the previous Nahe wine, the Halenberg, but is more fruity.
2005 Bürklin-Wolf Forst Ungeheuer Riesling G.C.
Nose with citrus, zest, developed notes with some petroleum, spice, and some smoke. Rather dry palate with a lot of fruit and concentration, light grapefruit bitterness, spice, OK acidity, just a tiny bit of alcoholic feeling, and a fruity and spicy aftertaste. Fully developed and good, but not a perfect balance. 91 p
1 best and 2 worst votes.
In the nose, this came across as more developed than the wines around it, and the acidity wasn’t as high as in most other.
G.C. is Bürklin-Wolf’s own designation for the dry top wines, with P.C. used for the second-best. The initials makes us think about grand cru and premier cru, but officially mean “Guradze Christian” and “Peter Christian”, names that can be found in the family.
2005 Bassermann-Jordan Forst Kirchenstück Riesling Grosses Gewächs
Nose with citrus, zest, some tropical fruit, spice, somewhat developed notes with petroleum – but dominated by citrus. Dry palate with a lot of mineral, some grapefruit bitterness, good acidity, viscous, just a tiny bit of alcoholic feeling, a minerally aftertaste with some mint and some alcohol. Powerful, developed, good. 92 p
0 best and 1 worst vote.
Compared to the Palatinate neighbour from Ungeheuer, this wine has more citrus in the nose, and a bit more mineral and better acidity on the palate.