The 1980s were a decade of decadennce. Greed was good -- and the wines were even better.
Region after region enjoyed delightful streaks of good luck. Bordeaux bloomed and Burgundy blossomed. California coasted through four consecutive vintages of exceptional cabernet, 1984 to 1987. The Rhone and Alsace emerged from obscurity. And all the while, the thirsty throng grew -- flush with profits of honest entrepreneurship (in some cases, at least).
Still, with all its riches, there was one vinous experience the 1980s lacked -- a truly decadent vintage of German wines.
Oh, the 1980s brought some mighty fine German wines to market. Both 1983 and 1988 were very good years, and 1985 wasn't far behind, but not since 1976 had there been a vintage that produced more than a scattering of Germany's famous, luxuriant dessert wines. And the 1976s, while they offered gobs of sweetness, lacked the classic elegance and zing that make Germany's dessert wines among the most electrifying things one can experience through the senses of taste and smell.
By the mid-1980s, even the 1976s were running out, and sweet-toothed connoisseurs began to seek their thrills in some of the excellent -- but not quite Germanic -- imitations made in California and Australia.
By 1987, Germany was the wine country the world forgot.
Ironically, now that the indulgent '80s have been succeeded by the nickel-pinching '90s, there comes a new German vintage that offers all of the decadent and wildly expensive pleasures an S&L plunderer could desire. The 1989s, the best of which may rival the legendary 1971s and 1959s, may be -- like Miniver Cheevy -- born too late.
Still, 1989 is the kind of vintage that should both bring old-time German wine drinkers back into the fold and attract a new generation of tasters who are ready to move beyond the predictable cabernet-chardonnay rut.
In 1989, unlike 1976, German wines succeeded at all levels of the sweetness scale -- from tight, steely Qualitatsweins and kabinetts up to the dentally deadly desserts produced with the aid of the "noble rot" -- botrytis.
In fact, at least one of Germany's greatest producers, Heribert Kerpen, accomplished an incredible feat: making successful wines from a single vineyard at all levels from Qualitatswein up through kabinett, spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese and finally the trockenbeerenauslese. Since the single vineyard in this case is the acclaimed Wehlener Sonnenuhr, it is indeed cause for excitement among the "Deutschesweinfreunden."
The best 1989s are marked by exceptional structure and acidity that will let them develop beautifully over the next decade or two (in a few cases, century or two). Unlike the soft, almost syrupy 1976s, they are wines with spine. The greatest of all, two trockenbeerenausleses from Lingenfelder (listed below), could very well last into the 22nd century.
Still, 1989 was not an across-the-board success, according to Terry Thiese, an accomplished German-wine importer who works out of the Kronheim Co. in Washington. While "the tip of the iceberg is really exceptional," he said, there are many wines that are "common, graceless and crude." In many, he said, too much alcohol shows through, yielding wines that are "all knees and elbows."
At the lower levels of the ripeness scale -- kabinett, spatlese and auslese -- there are many fine wines but few that will repay long aging, he said. For the record, I agree with him on kabinett and spatlese but think he's being a mite too conservative about the ausleses -- the best of which were magnificent in 1989.
My perspective on the vintage may be warped, however, because most of the wines I have tasted were selected by Mr. Thiese, the Man with the Golden Palate. It's a little like judging the overall quality of American literature by reading Twain and Faulkner.
For the past several years, Mr. Thiese has supplied by far the largest number of great German wines to the Maryland market. However, some of the greatest German estates of all remains outside his orbit, and several of them have excelled in 1989 -- notably von Schubert and Langwerth von Simmern.
The most successful of German wine regions in 1989 seems to be the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, closely followed by the Rheinpfalz and the little-known Mittelrhein. Based on my tastings, the Nahe was more good than great, and the Rheinhessen and Rheingau were somewhat erratic.
The following wines represent the best of more than 100 German wines tasted within the last six weeks. They are listed by type and general sweetness level, which does not strictly conform to the German wine gradations. The best of all are listed first, but the lowest under each heading is still an exceptional wine. A "TT" after the estimated price indicates a Terry Thiese selection.