Riesling does age very well and for a long time, that we all know and understand. But what exactly does very well mean? If you like your Riesling full of petrol aromas with a lean, focused feel and salty minerality, then you might just love your Riesling good and old. But for many people, the appeal of Riesling in particular, and wine in general, is the rich fruit that a wine exhibits in its youth.
There are very few grapes that can challenge Riesling’s versatility. From dry to sweet and all of the stops in between, Riesling produces wines that are generally delicious on release and yet in many cases, if not most, improve in the bottle for a little while at least. I recently took a look at some of the wines from one of my favorite German Riesling producers, Weingut Hermann Donnhoff, to see how his wines are aging.
I’ve had plenty of old Rieslings, mostly from the late 1970s through early 1980s, and I certainly have enjoyed many of them for their complexity and delicate textures. I can’t say that I had enough perspective on where the wines came from to decide whether time in the cellar had allowed them to reach some mythical apogee or simply allowed them to change and evolve, but not necessarily improve.
Even while enjoying many aged Rieslings, I’ve had my doubts about the whole “Riesling is super age-worthy” premise. There is something to be said for the explosive fruit of a young wine. While I prefer my Rieslings on the drier side, finding the balance that age lends to a wine as the sugar disappears while preserving that explosiveness can prove to be quite the challenge.
Donnhoff produces a particularly zesty, fruity wine from vineyards in the Nahe region of Germany, known for this fruity, round style. There have been many grumblings of late in the wine geek community that Donnhoff’s 2001 wines were falling apart, serving as the poster child for a burgeoning “Riesling can’t age” movement. When I heard this my first thought was, “Shit, I better start drinking my Donnhoffs!”
Once reason got a hold of me, I thought more along the lines of how nice it would be to drink my Donnhoff wines. Then, it sort of hit me. Many of the members of this Riesling can’t age crowd never actually watched a vintage age. German Rieslings experienced a renaissance of sorts beginning with the 2001 vintage, a spectacular vintage of perfectly ripe wines. Could it be that people were just experiencing what actually happened with aging Rieslings for the first time and were unhappy with the results?
I put a lot of stock in this theory. I’ve seen it over and over again, people declaring a wine to be on its down-slope because of a lack of a familiarity with what the end of the up-slope actually looks like. All wines go through changes as they age, just like we do. Who among us can honestly say that there wasn’t a period during adolescence when we might have scared our own parents just a little bit? So that’s where I was, needing to check out some Donnhoff wines, duly cellared since or near release, to judge for myself whether or not the wines are going to crap or are just in an awkward phase.
My tasting notes can be found below, but my brief impressions can help answer this question. I’ve listed the wines I tried with just enough detail to draw some conclusions, which will follow.
Photo courtesy of Ela2007 via Flickr/cc
Light, airy and elegant, giving all its got today even if this is somewhat small-scaled. Peak drinking window: 2008-2014.
1999 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese
A bit indistinct though very well balanced, it’s fun to drink but slightly underwhelming and fading. Peak drinking window: 2008-2013.
2000 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese
Fully mature with plenty of petrol notes but plenty of fruit still hanging on. Peak drinking window: 2008-2013.
2001 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese
This is maturing nicely though there doesn’t seem to be much complexity in the making, it is clear and fine with great mineral length. Peak drinking window: 2007-2016.
2001 Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannsholle Riesling Spatlese
This is the cream of the crop with plenty of rich fruit left and deep mineral notes that offer contrast. At peak and still exceptional. Peak drinking window: 2010-2017
2003 Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannsholle Riesling Spatlese
Thick and rich and still quite sweet, this is a hedonist’s dream still, but I don’t see it evolving very much. Peak drinking window: 2011- 2017.
2003 Donnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Auslese
Still a bit on the young, sweet and fruity side, this shows a touch of evolution at this early edge of what will probably be a compressed drinking time frame. Peak drinking window: 2010-2016.
2003 Donnhoff Riesling
Still quite fresh with lots of sweet fruit flavors characteristic of the vintage, but this is pretty simple. Peak drinking window: 2005-2013.
Of the wines that were mature, or passing peak, only the 2000 Oberhauser Brucke showed real aromatic development. The other wines seemed to be simply fading away. That pretty much goes for the wines on their up-slopes as well. It will be easy to argue that these wines are simply in their in between periods and that the real fireworks are yet to come, but not for me.
As these wines age, some of what makes them incredibly beautiful to me seems to slip away. The fireworks are spent and now we just get to stare up at the clear night sky. An equally beautiful sight, and no doubt more profound, but less exciting.
In its simplest form, I can say that Riesling can be a hedonist’s wine when young and a cerebral wine when aged. My palate prefers something of a blend of the two, a wine with enough fruit to excite the palate and enough detail to intrigue the mind. With Donnhoff, it looks like that happens right around age 10 with the best vintages. So does that mean Riesling doesn’t age as well as some might have you believe? Well, yes I think it does, but it’s just a matter of opinion. For better or worse, that is what all wine writing is about: opinion.
You can’t look for definitive answers in such a subjective field, so there will remain divergent opinions on how long to cellar all Donnhoff, German Riesling and wine in general. Ultimately, you have to do what’s best for your own palate. I’m going to start taking a closer look at the Riesling in my cellar. Donnhoff might just not make the best Rieslings for aging, or I might simply prefer my Rieslings younger than I had thought.
Finding out is going to be fun!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you have a favorite producer or prefer your Rieslings younger or older? Leave a comment and let me know!
1999 Donnhoff Schlossbockelheimer Kupfergrube Riesling Spatlese 9%
Tight and very floral on the nose with a hint of petrol, some talcum powder top notes and low dried orchard fruit tones. With air, this becomes intensely floral with notes of violet and iris. A touch soft in the mouth, this seems a bit sweeter and plumper than it may actually be. On the palate there’s a sweet, almost berry fruit quality along with sweet peach fruit on the palate. Blueberry and strawberry tones pop on the modestly sweet finish that ends with a hint of quartz on the finale. 88pts
1999 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese 9%
Petrol and mineral on the nose with top notes of flint and dried strawberry. This is still quite tense with plenty of acidity balancing the modest sweetness. There’s a lightness here and a transparency to the fresh peach and white fruit-leaning mid-palate that finishes with lovely minerality and length. This is small-scaled but it is in perfect balance, with mineral and acid parrying the thrusts of sweet fruit. The sugar does linger a bit on the white peach finish. 87pts
2000 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese 8%
Quite evolved with a full-on petrol nose, some hints of dried flower petals and a bit of chamomile tea. A touch thick on entry, this delivers pretty intense flavors of dried fruit, treacle and lime preserves, all wrapped up in fairly well integrated but noticeable acidity. The finish is a bit short though it does show off the lime and dried fruit character fairly well. A touch boring if balanced. The acidity here really stays with you. This is not great wine but it is giving its all today, drink these up sooner rather than later. 89pts
2001 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese 9%
Tight on the nose and not revealing much, though with air some slate and lime pith appear. Still showing a hint of CO2, this tingles the tongue a bit while revealing only some slate notes that are smeared with lime preserves. Very tight and underwhelming, though this does exhibit excellent texture and balance. Quite light on the palate with fine balance of sugar and acid. A little bright lime fruit pops on the finish along with zesty acidity. This needs a couple of hours of air to really open. When it does, it reveals a clear, vibrant core of lemony citrus fruit dusted with mineral tones. The mineral really drives the long, finely focused finish. An elegant wine that wins you over with its lovely texture and balance. 91pts
2001 Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannsholle Riesling Spatlese 9%
This smells fantastic. All crushed rock, spiced, with floral and tobacco top notes and a core of smoky grilled pineapple and apricot. Reminds me of North African cuisine. On the palate this is big and rich, still with plenty of sugar that is well balanced by the acidity. At first, there is far less interesting stuff going on in the mouth than on the nose and this feels a bit syrupy. There’s a lot of fruit still here, some pink grapefruit, apricot and more grilled pineapple notes, but they lack a little brightness until the acidity returns on the moderately long finish. With air, the mineral notes start to add detail in the mouth. If there is a gripe here, it’s that the intensity of the palate makes the finish seem feeble, but this still has all its pieces in place. 93pts
2003 Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannsholle Riesling Spatlese 8.5%
This is still notably mineral on the nose, dust and quartz with a low note of lightly dried fruit. Thick and rich in the mouth but at the same time bright with decisive acidity and a deep mid-palate vein of minerality. This tastes of steel and quartz and somehow makes my teeth ache. The fruit shows a light drying edge to it with some bitter orange marmalade accented by dried pear and light cherry notes. Big, rich and intense, this may never be elegant but it does offer intense, piercing fruit, mineral flavors and a very long finish. 89pts
2003 Donnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Auslese 8.5%
Lightly evolved on the nose yet retaining fine minerality and nice apple blossom top notes over heirloom apple fruit. This is a bit thick but actually turns out to be quite agile in the mouth, with sufficient acidity to balance the sweetness and fine mineral cut. The flavors are both mineral and pollen in the mouth with a faint honeyed note appearing on the back end. There’s a nice clementine, orange peel element here as well, which turns pithier on the finish. Finish shows modest length with a sneaky return of apricot, lime, red fruit and quartz. A sneaky wine that very likely will improve. 88pts
2003 Donnhoff Riesling 10.5%
Very light and slightly alcoholic nose with a nice powdered gravel top note and some earthy apple and apple blossom notes accenting a core of light apricot fruit. This smells surprisingly tight and nervous. Lightly if obviously sweet in the mouth, this has plenty of acidity keeping things juicy and a nice light accent note of green apple with a flicker of minerality. A bit plump, but this is drinking very well today for a simple quaffer. 85pts