Can Spätlese Be Saved?

top view of 5 green wine bottles and their shadows on a white table

Not long ago, in my merchant days, I scored a few cases of mature Mosel wines from a grower I didn’t know. It wasn’t much wine, the prices were attractive, and I was able to eke out a few bottles for my cellar, which can never have too many ready-to-drink Rieslings. They were 1982s and 1985s.

I had a wine friend over and opened one of the bottles to begin the evening’s festivities.

“Oh I do like old Riesling,” my friend said, “And isn’t it amazing how well even a Kabinett can age?”

“It is indeed,” I said. “But this isn’t a Kabinett.”

“Well, a Spätlese, then, right?”

“Actually it’s an Auslesea rarity from a vintage that didn’t produce many. I agree, it tastes like a Kabinett, or what we’ve come to think a Kabinett will taste like.”

It was an ’85, the tiny, frost-bitten vintage that was saved by a late-season warm spell, allowing a small quantity of Auslesen to be made. High in acid, as autumn-ripened vintages are, and not what we’d call physiologically ripe, the wine was lovely in its decidedly green style: racy, herbal, vigorous, and probably not much over 93-94º Oechsle, which the grower was thrilled to get.

I’ll pass quickly through the retrospectives. Yes, when I was a feckless youth in the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s, Spätlesen were rarer. They were also less ripe and therefore usually less sweet than today’s examples. Most lived in a conceptually (and gustatorily) perfect zone between the crispness of Kabinetts and the (moderate) concentration of Auslesen. 

Basically, you could drink them.
Easily. With a meal.

Back in September, I was tasting the wines of Mittelrhein vintner (and philosopher, and loquacious conversation partner) Florian Weingart. There was a Spätlese I thought was too sweet, and I said so. Weingart took issue. This prompted me to consider what we might make of this category of wines in our new climate era. So I also reached out to celebrated Mosel vintner (and old friend) Johannes Selbach, who goes to heroic lengths to deliver Spätlesen of moderate sweetness that actually can be enfolded into our regular lives – as opposed to being sacred chalices of the Tasting Chamber.

But a little history is needed.

There are two pivot points in the intersection of climate and vintage for German Riesling. The first was 1988. This was a ripe vintage no one could have known would be the first in a daisy chain of ripe vintages in which Spätlesen (and Auslesen) could be made every year. But these were Spätlesen as they were then conceived: fully but not massively ripe, and not very sweet. The second pivot point was 2003, the hottest summer in Germany in 500 years (it was said) and an outsized vintage in every sense. Importantly, this established a precedent for outsized German wines, which reached its bizarre apogee in 2006, in which the entire thing went cuckoo.

Think I exaggerate? I didn’t offer a single wine labeled “Kabinett” from that vintage that wouldn’t have qualified as Auslese in the ‘70s and ‘80s. One estate presented me with a Kabinett picked at 112º Oechsle, which had 69 grams per liter of residual sugar. In effect, this made it a long-gold-capsule Auslese Feinherb! Why on earth? Because the market was presumed to demand a product called “Kabinett” regardless of whether the wine tasted remotely like one.  

Prior to 1988, a vintage giving mostly Spätlesen and Auslesen would have been cause for rejoicing. Few growers would have thought they “needed” to have Kabinett, because they could produce them nearly every year. Indeed, they were glad to be able to stockpile the riper wines, for who knew when they might be made again? Even when I started tasting seriously in 1978, plenty of top ‘71s still could be found on growers’ lists. 

The effect of climate change on grape ripeness is hardly news. Temperatures are warmer, grapes are riper, styles of wines change accordingly. I’m not here to grouse with other geezers about how ripe all these darned wines are, but to ask instead about the fate of the ripeness category Spätleseand whether this category, in these times, is offering wines that people can actually use.

When I first rang the bell at Willi Schaefer in Graach, he offered nothing but Auslesen and Beerenauslesen. Today, we delight in a year like 2020, where the Rieslings are fresh again. 

My questions are these: One, how does this ramify for us as drinkers, and two, what are humans doing to exacerbate the problem? That second is the easier one, so I’ll tackle it first.

Wine magazines and guidebooks are making the situation worse. Everyone is busy ranking everyone. That in turn means everyone wants to be (highly) ranked. And that, I argue, distorts the wines.

“You have nowhere to go but down,” I once told Wachau vintner F.X. Pichler, as he complained about being ranked the top grower in some guide or other (or in those days, all of them). “It’s even worse than that,” he replied. “When someone buys a guidebook they look for changes in the rankings. If the same people achieve the same status every year, how can they continue to sell guides? There’s a strong motive to change things around just to keep up sales. For me, change would mean a demotion.” 

Germany has at least four fat annual guides, not to mention various magazines. These publications rank the growers and their wines in various categories. One of those is “Top Spätlese.” If your wine’s on that list, you’ve made It. You know where I’m going with this: big, comparative tastings favor the gaudiest wines and penalize the subtlest ones. 

So the growers pick riper. They leave more sweetness in the wines. They may blend some mega-must Auslese (or higher; it’s hardly unheard-of to blend a few liters of BA into one’s Spätlese to “enhance” the almighty score.) The effect is insidious. If the popular-kid Spätlese is thus “enhanced,” those wines become the template for the category, they become the new GPS to success. Whatever these fetish-objects of wine may be, and allowing that some have legitimate aesthetic value, how is anyone supposed to use them?

The ideal, for me, is a wine you can take to the table without having to alter your food to “manage” the combination. An old-style Spätlese had an embedded sweetness that found the sweetness already in your food (as many savory dishes entail sugar in some form) and made for a delightful shock of compatibility. Today’s sugar bombs require the cook to add incremental sweetness to the food to prevent a grotesque dysphasia in the combo.

One might protest, what’s the alternative? If you try to pick earlier, you get unripe flavors. Weingart argues that, given the choice, he “would always pick aromatically ripe fruit with slightly excessive alcohol instead of premature, green fruit with moderate alcohol.” Quite right, of course. Yet as Spätlese becomes harder to distinguish from Auslese, it occupies a rarefied zone in which it may be studied, but not drunk. Or? 

“For a Spätlese, there is nothing like a cool climate ripening season,” says Weingart. “Picking grapes by the end of October with acidity levels above 9 or 10 grams and golden berries or where even the greener berries are of a physiological ripeness is far from what we see nowadays in September at similar must weights.”

What defines a good Riesling Spätlese, I asked. Not what’s possible, but as a paradigm? “Filigree, subtlety, clarity, ripe fruit (let us still presume there is no overripe fruit in healthy Riesling), no botrytis that interferes with the above, which means there can be botrytis but only of the healthiest, cleanest type and/or only a small percentage of the crop,” Weingart replied.

That about sums it up. My own definition is along similar lines of an aspiration, leavened with no small amount of nostalgia. The paradigm of Spätlese to which I cling is scarcely possible in the current climate. But here it is: I want Spätlese to be richer in density than Kabinett, clearly fuller in the mid-palate, with greater length, and a new set of nuances built upon the higher ripeness. And all these things are possible without a higher sense of sweetness than the Kabinett showed. I want my Spätlesen to be table wines, without obtrusive sugar, and I don’t want to “adjust” my food to account for the wine’s sweetness. 

I once remonstrated with a grower that his Spätlese didn’t need its 80-plus grams per liter of residual sugar. His reply was along the lines of: “The wine had X-Oechsle and X-grams of acidity and so it needs that sweetness.” But I find this a distortion of mentality and of concept. In fact, it would have tasted better and been more useful with 15 fewer grams of sweetness. But two objections would be made: One, a “sweet” wine should taste sweet, and two, those less show-offy wines have zero chance of making anyone’s top 10 list. So, you know…sigh.

I’ll give the last words on this topic to Johannes Selbach, with whom I am simpatico but with whom I have areas of nuanced disagreement. We discussed two questions: What distinguishes Spätlese from Auslese now, when everything’s awash in ripeness? And what needs to be done to make Spätlese with a distinct style that can also be used as table wine?

“As best you can remember, how do you think we used to conceive of Spätlese and Auslese in the past?” I asked. 

“Beautiful, elegant, ‘long’ wines with layers of flavor, ample fruit, and well-balanced acidity that brought joy to the table and the palate,” Selbach replied. “They were by no means considered ‘sweet’ but rather seductively fruity and they brought joyous anticipation and then delivered immense drinking pleasure. Sweetness served the wines, it never dominated them. They were a world apart from what we then knew as ‘sweet’ wines, where the sugar stuck out like a sore thumb! Even then, without chauvinism, it was the Spätlesen and Auslesen from the northern Riesling regions — the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the Nahe, parts of the Rheingau and the Mittelrhein —that were considered high class and ‘true to type’ and they were much sought after.”

I then asked what Spätlese must demonstrate to distinguish itself from Auslese.

“A bit more elegance and filigree, more moderate sweetness, and more lightness, creating a suction reflex in the mouth,” Selbach responded. “The fruit should be ripe and juicy, and while the wine should have noticeable, delicate, juicy sweetness, like biting into a ripe peach with flesh that is still firm. As far as the fruit goes, I look for stone fruit (peach, apricot, mirabelle, and maybe super ripe, very aromatic apples) in Spätlese, whereas Auslese should be more luscious and can go into tropical fruit on top of the apricots and peaches. In Auslese, the impression of the fruit as well as the whole wine should be more succulent and, to a degree, luxurious compared to Spätlese.”

He went on to describe the style of Spätlese he and his family like to drink. “This happens to be what [Papa] Hans used to call the typical Mosel style: cool, crisp, balancing fruit and minerality with sugar and acidity, presenting the same impact as that of biting into perfectly ripe, juicy but firm fruit plucked from a tree or a bush or a vine. Never fat, cloying, or over the top with sweetness. Delicately perfumed, never loud and in your face.

Thank you, Johannes, for that perfect summary. My own opinion is that for Spätlese to survive as a wine of ordinary use by ordinary people, Johannes is helping to show the way to bring that about. He brings this about by steering towards a vision. After all, before there is a wine there is an idea of a wine. Johannes does it by not picking excessively ripe fruit and by imbuing his wines with mid-palate generosity (either leesiness, dry extract, or both) and with the tertiary elements arising from Fuder vinifications.

His is just one way; there are others. But first we have to smash the mentality that Spätlesen are made to be prize-winning glamor-puss wines instead of ordinary table wines for ordinary people eating ordinary meals. 

Otherwise, what becomes of Spätlese? What function does it fulfill? And what does it say that it is noteworthy to find a grower like Selbach whose interpretation of the category is so unusual? (Among other things, it says he likes to drink wine…)

My stock in trade, as merchant and now as writer, is to examine wines independent of their utilitarian context. Wine qua wine. I revere those wines that pull you into a world of beauty and meaning. They’re high on my own list of reasons life’s worth living. Yet I understand that these are not everyday moments, and I want those ordinary moments to have wines suited to them.  Most modern German Riesling Spätlese has gotten too rich, too sweet, and too affected. I miss my old friends, and the irreplaceable function they filled.

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