A Sigh of Relief — The “Picture Book” 2011 Harvest in Germany

Hello my friends. Ernie Loosen here, with notes from our 2011 harvest.

After the small, somewhat difficult vintage in 2009, followed immediately by the extremely low-yielding, labor-intensive 2010 harvest, we were blessed with a much welcome respite in 2011.

Ripening Riesling fruit hanging in the sunny September air above the village of Ürzig. The botrytis-affected grapes in the cluster on the left were selected out for Auslese and TBA.
But that’s not to say things are back to normal. As in the past several years, the weather was quite erratic, and the seasons far from “normal.” Happily, however, the end result was a relaxed and very fine harvest during ideal conditions, giving us a plentiful crop of delightful, charming wines.

An Early Start and Extended Hang Time for Aromatic Ripeness

Once again, unseasonably warm weather in early spring got the growing season off to a very early start. It was as if someone had simply flipped a switch from winter to summer, skipping spring altogether. Bud break and flowering were nearly four weeks ahead of the average, but then cold weather returned in May, with some areas getting damaged by night frost. Our actual summer was cooler and wetter than normal, bringing on the usual fears of under-ripeness and disease issues. But warm, sunny weather returned in September, and the fruit ripened beautifully.

Our main harvest in the Mosel began on Sept. 22. This is about three weeks earlier than the historical average (my mother looked out the window, saw us picking and said, “That’s just crazy. In my day we never started picking before the first of November!”), but because of the very early flowering, we had the typical amount of hang time — about 120 days.

With a late-ripening grape like Riesling, this extended hang time is essential for the flavors and aromas to develop fully. It’s what I call “aromatic ripeness.” Without it, the wines will be simple and uninteresting. Fully developed aromatic ripeness, coupled with a normal level of sugar ripeness (that is, not over-ripe), gives you wines that are intensely expressive of fruit and site, but retain an elegant structural balance. This is what we’re looking for at Dr. Loosen.

Time for Careful Selections for Various Prädikat Levels

At first, we jumped into the harvest with the frantic pace of the past few years. But then we saw that the ripeness was rising — and the acidity was dropping — at a much more relaxed rate. That allowed us to slow down and really take our time with the careful selections we do for the various Prädikat levels. We ended up with wines in all Prädikats, except for Beerenauslese. There wasn’t an inordinate amount of botrytis, so it mostly went into the Auslese selection (clusters with about 50% botrytis-affected grapes), with only the totally shrivelled, individually selected berries going into the selection bucket for Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).

Kabinetts With Brilliant, Beautiful Fruit and a Charming Delicacy

The hallmark of the vintage will be the Kabinetts. They are classically balanced, delicate wines with more elegance and finesse than the supercharged 2010 vintage. They have brilliant, beautiful fruit and a charming delicacy that is immediately appealing. Acidity levels are slightly below average (hovering around 8 grams/liter in most of the wines) — another welcome relief after the über-acidic 2010 harvest — but the wines are finely balanced, with poise and grace.

Balanced, Harmonious Dry Wines

The more moderate acidity also makes it an excellent year for well-balanced, harmonious dry wines, such as the Grosses Gewächs (“GG”) bottlings we do from several of our classified vineyard sites: Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Ürziger Würzgarten, Erdener Treppchen and Erdener Prälat. These are small-production bottlings, made from healthy (non-botrytis) grapes that have achieved Auslese ripeness (minimum 85° Oechsle; about 21 Brix), but are fermented dry, with indigenous yeasts, and matured in traditional wooden casks to help round out the acidity.

The Crazy Eiswein Harvest of 2011 (It Came in 2012!)

Picking Eiswein in the steep Erdener Treppchen vineyard. The breathable plastic sheeting protects the grapes from rain and birds.
As always, we left out several parcels of fruit in the hope that a hard enough freeze (minimum –8° C) would come to give us Eiswein. Usually it happens by Christmas, but in 2011 Santa Claus had come and gone, and there was still no sign of Jack Frost. The grapes continued to hang through January, but still nothing. Then, in early February, the severely cold weather from Eastern Europe made its way to the Mosel and we had temperatures down to –14° C. I happened to be in Australia at the time, helping d’Arry and Chester Osborn celebrate the 100th anniversary of their d’Arenberg winery. On the same day that we finally finished our 2011 Riesling harvest with the Eiswein (February 2nd), Chester started his 2012 Riesling harvest in the McLaren Vale!

And what about that wild hail storm back in September?

As you may recall, we suffered a severe hail storm here in the Middle Mosel in September 2011. A lot of damage was done to buildings, cars and vines, but we were fortunate in that the damage to our vineyards was quite localized. Our worst-hit vineyards were in Wehlener Sonnenuhr, where we lost about 30 percent of the crop that was hanging in those parcels. It was quite a large crop, however, so what the hail really gave us was a sort of natural green harvest. A heavy rain followed the hail, which washed away the broken grapes and cleaned the remaining fruit clusters. Then the weather turned sunny, the grapes dried, and the risk of rot was avoided. There was no negative effect on the quality of the fruit — only the reduced yield to give us better ripeness.

2011: A Peaceful, Self-Assured Vintage

All in all, this harvest reminds me of the lovely 1983 vintage: normal must weights, acidity that is firm but not strident, and fruit flavors that are purely delicious. It was such a pleasure to once again have a harvest that wasn’t so completely nerve-wracking and exhausting. The tension and stress that marked the 2010 harvest did make the wines rather energetic, but I think the more peaceful, self-assured nature of the 2011 vintage will make it extremely approachable, especially for those who are new to Riesling.