Revisiting Older Rieslings: Tasting Through Some 1997 German Wines

Posted by | Posted in Out of the Glass | Posted on 08-20-2012

The 1997 Schaefer Kabinett

Young German Riesling can be absolutely thrilling. At their best, the wines have a remarkable vibrancy and energy with the fruit tasting incredibly fresh and nervy acidity beneath adding a sense of precision, freshness, and clarity to the flavours. In many of the off-dry examples, the youthful sweetness often makes the wines very appealing to drink early and it can be a challenge exercising patience with wines that are as enjoyable in their youth as a Kabinett or Spätlese from a fine producer.

Yet patience can yield amazing rewards, as I recently experienced at a dinner featuring several German Rieslings from the 1997 vintage. I don’t own or open as much older Riesling as I’d like to, and it was a pleasure sitting down with several maturing wines over a few hours. None of these were close to mature. German Riesling can age effortlessly over decades, and the 1997s we opened had years ahead of them. Yet they had shed some of their youthful brightness; the fruit flavours remained incredibly pure and fresh, but for the most part were augmented by the start of developing smoky, creamy and other savoury elements.

One of the most striking differences between German Riesling on release and several years later is the sense of harmony that seems to develop. The floral or mineral expressions that they show on release aren’t as vivid several years later, but rather they converge with the fruit and the nuances of development into a seamless whole that’s greater than the sum of all parts in the best examples. While most of the top young examples from 2011 and 2010 I’d tasted recently were wines that dazzled with their youthful exuberance and the interplay between sweetness and acidity, and fruit and mineral flavours, the 1997s at this lineup were thrilling for very different reasons – they were calmer, more understated and delicate, and showing a remarkable range of flavours that kept unravelling with time and air.

It was a reminder of what great Riesling can offer at different stages of maturity. I haven’t come across other styles of wine that offer the same range of pleasures that Riesling does at almost any age, whether right on release, several years after when the wines are beginning to slim down and lose some of the exuberance of youth while still retaining much of their primary character, or when more mature and entering more savoury phases. And it remains a relief and wonder that many of the top examples are still remarkably inexpensive (the most recent vintage of Willi Schaefer’s Graacher Domprobst Riesling Kabinett still retails for under $25!).

Tasting notes follow below the fold.

1997 Franz Künstler Hochheimer Stielweg Riesling Spätlese trocken
Wonderful aromatics; smoky, petrol and earthy scents framing fresh ripe citrus and stone fruit flavours with a vivid stoniness beneath. There’s wonderful balance here; it’s dry without ever feeling austere with a nice richness and textural polish, and drinking superbly right now.

1997 Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling Kabinett
1997 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett
Poured together in one of the most thrilling flights of wine I’ve had in some time. Both wines are absolutely seamless, polished, delicate and fragrant; in an amazing place now with the fruit still fresh and youthful but augmented by developing smoky, creamy and savoury flavours. The Muller’s slightly more herbal and citric in its flavour profile with a gentle stony/saline mineral undercurrent beneath the fruit; the Schaefer leans more towards the classic apple and citrus of the middle Mosel and both wines are impeccably balanced. They’re wines whose textures are as compelling as their flavours with each Kabinett conveying an ethereal palate presence, a remarkable sense of lightness and yet tremendous depth and complexity to the flavours.

1997 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett
A challenge to follow the Muller and Schaefer, but still very fun to drink with ripe white cherry and pear fruit and some savoury developing notes. That said it comes across a little soft without the sheer elegance, focus and weightlessness of the prior Kabinetts (admittedly a hard comparison, but it was hard to not keep moving back to the Schaefer or Muller.)

1997 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese
Incredibly fragrant, layered and complex with layers of fresh Mosel fruit, florality, lemon cream and developing smokiness combining flawlessly. There’s certainly plenty of richness and sweetness here, yet it conveys flavour with the same ethereal lightness the Kabinett showed. A stunning wine to sit down with and follow, as it captivates from the first sip and then keeps unveiling layer after layer with time.

1997 Von Schubert Maximin Grünhauser Herrenberg Riesling Auslese
Remarkably youthful and fresh, the least developed of the three Auslesen with a spectrum of fruit ranging from tarter citrus and pear flavours to riper peachy and melony notes, accented by fresh herbal, floral and forestal/pine notes. There’s a wonderful purity and clarity to the flavours, bright acidity balancing the sweetness perfectly and a long, resonant finish.

1997 Egon Müller/Le Gallais Wiltinger Braune Kupp Riesling Auslese Auction
A bigger, richer Auslese here; more dessert wine-like with prominent sweetness and some botrytis showing. There’s tremendous richness here; a core of ripe tangerine, apricot and peachy fruit surrounded by developing creamy and smoky elements, and sweeter honeyed and marshmallow-like elements. Even though it’s noticeably sweeter than the other two wines, there’s still a wonderful lightness and purity to the wine with superb balance.

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