German wines rise above the rot Vintage: The 1995 product, made from grapes that survived adversity, is surprisingly good, with just enough acid to provide some structure.

March 16, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

When you're trying to grow a warmth-loving crop such as grapes in a location on the same parallel as Winnipeg, Manitoba, you learn to roll with the punches.

And there were plenty of punches for wine growers to roll with during Germany's 1995 vintage. After a warm summer, things were looking mighty good at the end of August. Then, pfffft! On came five weeks of what wine importer Terry Theise calls "utterly oogy weather."

Rot ran rampant, and we're not talking about the noble kind. Bunches of healthy, ripening grapes all of a sudden looked like something found in the back of a college fraternity's refrigerator.

But out of this adversity has sprung a surprisingly fine vintage. October brought a benevolent turn in the weather, and the grapes that survived September thrived.

Overall, the 1995 vintage is one that casual sippers can appreciate just as much as the hard-core acid fiends. Acidity levels are not screamingly high, as they were in 1994, but there's enough to lend a degree of structure that was missing in the 1992s.

My conclusions are based on a recent sampling of Germany's 1995 vintage. They aren't as firm as in past vintages because I was unable to participate in Theise's annual masochistic marathon of dawn-to-dusk wine-tasting, as I had in previous years. But I found my limited selection enlightening -- and a lot easier on the gums.

This year, my tastings included several wines that were not imported by Theise, the nation's leading importer of fine German wines at reasonable prices. None could be recommended, though some were priced far higher than Theise's wines.

In general, 1995 appears to have been a much finer year on the Mosel than along the Rhine. According to Theise, the strength of the vintage lies in its fine kabinett (off-dry) and spatlese (semi-sweet) wines rather than the drier trocken style or the sweet ausleses.

Of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wines I tasted, the one that stood out as a spectacular value was the 1995 Selbach-Oster Riesling Kabinett ($11), a Theise-imported regional blend without a vineyard designation. The wine seemed to bring together all the distinctive flavors of Mosel riesling -- apple, spice, honey, pear and slate -- in a sleek, structured package.

The regional riesling even outclassed Selbach-Oster's fine 1995 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, a $13 wine from one of Germany's most famous vineyards.

Selbach-Oster's 1995 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spatlese ($16), a gripping wine with nuances of strawberry and mulled-wine spices, could do no more than tie the regional wine on my score card. And that's no slam on this brilliant spatlese.

Even more gripping was the 1995 Karp-Schreiber Brauenberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett ($13). This Theise import showed a blazing mineral flavor and extraordinary persistence and penetration. For now, the apple and slate flavors dominate, but age should bring out more spice and peach flavors.

Two other Theise estates, Joh. Jos. Christoffel and Alfred Merkelbach, weighed in with textbook kabinett wines. If you prefer a broader, softer wine full of apple and spice flavors, Christoffel's 1995 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett ($13) will likely appeal to you. If you enjoy a steely, crisp, crystalline Mosel with mineral flavors and a white-pepper fieriness, try the 1995 Merkelbach Kinheimer Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett ($11).

A promising newcomer in the portfolio is Partheiger, whose 1995 Kaseler Kehrnagel Riesling Spatlese Halbtrocken ($18) shows a finely etched crispness and apple-mineral flavors in a very dry style.

It was a much more difficult vintage for producers along the Rhine, but Rheinhessen winemaker Walter Strub was up to the challenge. The 1995 J.u.H.A. Strub Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Spatlese ($13), imported by Theise, is a phenomenal wine with extraordinary concentration, length, refreshing acidity and a marvelous combination of fire and spice.

How good is this wine? Let's just say there are Montrachets selling for 10 times its price that aren't fit to sit on the table with it. Since 1993, Strub has been on an incredible roll, with one classic Niersteiner after another. Yet his prices remain reasonable.

The 1995 Kurt Darting Durk-heimer Fronhof Riesling Spatlese ($13) from the Pfalz region shows more signs of the difficult vintage conditions. The deep golden color is unusual in such a young wine, and the finish isn't up to Darting's usual standards, but the blend of apricot, herb and spice flavors make this a fascinating wine. I suspect it was a struggle to rescue this wine from the pervasive rot, but Darting has succeeded. Still, don't count on this Terry Theise selection aging very well.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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