1992 rieslings from Germany: average but fun

VINTAGE POINT

April 10, 1994|By Michael Dresser

The 1992 vintage of German riesling is the moral equivalent of the film "Pretty Woman."

It's fluff. Fun fluff to be sure, but fluff nevertheless. Overall, Germany's 1992 crop resembles a great vintage the way Julia Roberts resembles the typical hooker. This is not necessarily bad. Serious German wine enthusiasts have had their way consistently in recent years. We enjoyed an excellent year in 1989, followed by a bona fide classic in 1990. We found plenty to like about 1988 and the underrated 1991s. Even the underripe 1987 vintage produced some wines of crystalline beauty.

Not since 1986 has there been a vintage we could really complain about.

But Germany's 1992 rieslings are destined to appeal to average wine drinkers -- not purists, classicists or lovers of Ingmar Bergman films. They won't age particularly well, but they should delight consumers who prefer a white wine with a little sweetness and no rough edges.

Terry Theise, the premier American importer of German and Austrian wines, produces each year a catalog that includes an exceptionally frank assessment of recent vintages.

Despite the fact he had a ton of 1992s to sell when he wrote it, his summary of the 1992 vintage was his most critical in several years. While Mr. Theise predicted the wines would be a hit with the public, he flatly stated that it was not a classic vintage. The 1992s, he wrote, were "big, friendly fruit-bombs [that] did not impress by the gothic intricacies of their structures."

He got that one right. If one were to sum up the 1992 crop of German rieslings in one word, it would be "soft." Even Mosel River vineyards, usually producers of wines of steely grandeur and rugged backbone, yielded rieslings that resembled the creamy-smooth but far less complex wines of Nierstein.

Today that comes from me as a mild put-down, but a search of The Sun's clip files from 12 years ago would yield a clip from a novice wine writer praising Nierstein as the pinnacle of German viticulture. We all start somewhere.

Admittedly this assessment of Germany's 1992 rieslings is a sweeping generalization about a country where generalizations about wines are hazardous. For instance, the vintage appears to be much more successful along the Rhine than along the Mosel. And the kabinett-level rieslings appear more successful than many spatlese and auslese wines.

(Germany produces many wines that aren't riesling, but that noble white wine grape dominates the category of vineyard-designated exports. Inevitably, a German vintage's quality is judged by the quality of its riesling.)

If you judge by ripeness alone, 1992 looks like a fine vintage. A lot of wines reached the ripeness classifications of spatlese and auslese -- usually a sign of a very good year.

But the wines in my tasting weren't anything like the spatleses and ausleses of 1991 or 1990. These 1992s are fiendishly sweet, often just short of cloying, and the acidity is clearly deficient.

Even exceptional producers such as von Schleinitz and Willi Schaefer produced rieslings that lacked their usual verve and raciness.

The most disturbing sign was that most of the wines in the tasting were imported by Mr. Theise, whose passion for acidity borders on fanatical. One shudders to imagine some of the syrup that will be sold as spatlese and auslese by lesser importers. If you're not a sugar fiend, you might want to stick to the kabinett level of ripeness, one step down from spatlese. These are the quibbles of someone whose German wine preferences are perilously close to the line separating mainstream from pretentious. Most consumers aren't fanatics about structure, and few look to German wines for aging potential.

What is likely is that consumers will turn out in droves to enjoy the easy charm of these wines. Through them, they might learn to love German wine and begin to explore its complexities. If that should happen, 1992 will be a very successful vintage indeed.

itic's choice

1992 Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Furmint ($7). The fascinating and exotic mineral and spice flavors of this dry Hungarian white wine would be perfect with paprika-scented Hungarian cuisine. It might not be for everyone, but it has style and individuality, as well as a very attractive price. If this is an indication of Hungary's post-Communist potential, keep watching this space for more Hungarian wines.

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