Terry Theise, America's finest importer of German wines, is not known for hyping vintages.
When the 1988 vintage came along many devotees of German wine hailed it as a classic. No, said Mr. Theise, too many of the wines are coarse and unstructured.
Then 1989 too was ballyhooed as an extraordinary year. And when I tasted Mr. Theise's wines of that vintage, I certainly thought it was. No, he said, it's a good year, but too spotty to be considered truly superb.
Now the 1990s are coming into the market, and this time Mr. Theise says yes. The year, he says, is "unparalleled in the story of German wine," producing the greatest vintage since 1953, or maybe even 1949.
One day early this month he proved it. He invited in a half-dozen veteran wine writers and retailers, sat us down, and in a most dignified and professional manner proceeded to blow our minds.
Anybody who knows Mr. Theise expects the wines he imports to be excellent. The Washington-based importer has built his reputation by traveling the back roads of the German wine country, ferreting out the finest small producers and then choosing only their best wines to import under the "Terry Theise Selections" label. His track record, as noted here numerous times, is excellent, even in vintages he maligns.
But these 1990s go beyond anything Mr. Theise has ever imported before. Wine after wine showed an almost electric intensity. They grab you by the palate, swing you around, give you a bone-cracking massage and leave you limp, with a silly, contented grin on your face. Rating them numerically was nearly impossible. I kept running out of numbers at the top of the scale.
The key to these high-voltage 1990s -- especially the noble rieslings but also other German varieties -- is their almost contradictory combination of high acidity, great ripeness and generous levels of extract.
High acidity gives the wines structure, excitement and raciness. Ripeness provides the fullness and sweetness needed to balance the acid. And extract -- the complex substances left over when you account for the water, acid, sugar and alcohol -- gives the flavors nuance and hammers them home to the palate.
In most vintages, high levels of one mean indicate a deficiency in one of the others, but the 1990s have it all. They are the vinous equivalent of having full employment, low inflation and world peace at the same time. Based on the 50 or so 1990s Mr. Theise presented, this vintage has a very good chance of being the German equivalent of 1961 Bordeaux -- that is, a legend. And unlike 1988 or 1989, when there was a lot of quality variation from region to region, 1990 seems to be strong in all of the major wine districts along the Rhine, Mosel and Nahe rivers.
Like 1961 in Bordeaux, 1990 in Germany produced a small crop. That bodes well for the consistency of the vintage, because nature has imposed discipline on those growers who cannot discipline themselves. For those who normally control their yields to enhance quality, it will mean an even greater level of concentration.
Unfortunately a small crop also means higher prices. Unlike past years, you are unlikely to find many $6 to $7 bargains in riesling kabinett (see box) wines. Still, when compared with what you get for the same prices from Burgundy or California, fine German wine remains a bargain.
If there is one quibble you could make about 1990 in Germany, it's that ripeness levels were so high that there were relatively few wines made in the traditional, off-dry kabinett style that matches so well with food.
Like most of the greatest German vintages, 1990 reaches its highest points in the sweeter wines labeled spatlese and auslese. Those who prefer drier wines should look for excellent wines labeled trocken (very dry) and halbtrocken (dry, but with a little sugar to round it off). There are some especially attractive wines in the "spatlese trocken" and "spatlese halbtrocken" categories.
(If a little sweetness in a dinner wine doesn't bother you, you might find some of the regular spatleses to be excellent companions to spicy dishes, rich fish dishes or even game.)
Among the producers represented in our tastings of 1990s, one stood out above all the others -- Karlsmuhle. This little-known house along the Ruwer River has followed an exceptional performance in 1989 with a mind-boggling lineup of rieslings in 1990. With this vintage Karlsmuhle has emerged as a virtual equal to its neighbor Maximin Grunhaus, widely regarded as the greatest wine estate of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.
There were many great wines in the tasting, but each time we came to a Karlsmuhle wine we found an extra measure of sheer impact. One of them, the 1990 Lorenzhofer Felslay Riesling Auslese Long Gold Cap ($30/500 ml), was sheer perfection. I cannot imagine a better auslese. (We also tasted the 1989 Karlsmuhle Lorenzhofer Riesling Eiswein, which was just as electrifying, but at $88 per half-bottle.)