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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A wine vintage takes a break from climate change

Wine bottles 2021 riesling kabinett from Germany, in Newburg, N.Y., on March 7, 2023. After years of higher temperatures, kabinett riesling producers have a vintage that seems like a throwback to the time when growers battled to ripen grapes; Kabinett lovers rejoice.

By Eric Asimov

Discussions of recent vintages often center on the challenges posed by the climate crisis. Wine has been a leading indicator of how the world is changing, whether you measure by intense heat, drought or once-rare disasters that now seem to occur regularly, like spring frosts, summer hail and forest fires.

This plunge into a new climate reality is part of what makes the 2021 vintage in parts of northern Europe so fascinating, particularly in France and Germany.

After three straight hot years from 2018 to 2020, the ’21 vintage was like a great leap backward into the years before climate change, a time that shaped 20th-century perceptions of the wines from these regions. It was cool and wet, and growers battled mildew and other maladies that were rare in the recent hot, dry years.

As a result, regions in France and Germany made wines in 2021 that producers like to call “classic,” which is an accurate description even though it’s a term often used as a euphemism for “bad vintage.” I’ve been thinking of them as “pre-climate change wines.”

From a grower’s perspective, 2021 might be considered a bad vintage because the farming was so difficult. Yields were significantly lower, which means producers have less wine to sell. From my viewpoint, the best ’21s recall a delicacy and grace that has been rare in an era when growers around the world must often battle to keep their grapes from overripening.

I’m particularly interested in the ’21 German vintage because it allowed growers to make some beautiful, lightly sweet kabinett rieslings, a lacy style that has been difficult to achieve for most of the 21st century because of climate change.

To understand kabinett, let’s review German wine nomenclature, which can differ depending on whether a wine is intended to be dry or sweet.

Nowadays, dry German rieslings are assessed like most other dry wines around the world, by how they taste and where the vineyards are situated. Those with the most potential might have a designation like Grosses Gewächs.

Sweet wines, on the other hand, are measured not by taste or site but by the level of ripeness in the grapes when they are harvested. This Prädikat scale designates minimum ripeness levels for wines to be called, in ascending order of ripeness: kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese.

When I began learning about wine in the 1980s, good kabinett rieslings were barely sweet and wonderfully refreshing. They were delicate wines that made me think of that moment in early spring when buds were just beginning to open. Many were low in alcohol, maybe 7.5% or so, the sort of bottles you’d consider having with lunch.

Climate change has not been friendly to kabinett. They are still made every year, but now, because the Prädikat scale indicates only ripeness minimums, not maximums, kabinett wines tend to be sweeter and richer, more like spätleses than the kabinetts that I remember so fondly.

Many producers take this as a point of pride, as if the Prädikat scale is a quality hierarchy rather than a stylistic differentiation. They think they are doing consumers a favor by offering riper versions of kabinett. But for kabinett lovers like me, opening a richer, sweeter kabinett is no gift. That’s why I have looked forward to the ’21 kabinetts so eagerly.

I found these 12 bottles in New York retail markets, but it wasn’t easy. Other German wine lovers, intrigued by the vintage, have snapped them up, including some of the best small-production bottles. Still, they are available here and there, and you may certainly run into them on restaurant wine lists.

Not all German rieslings made in ’21 are going to be wonderful. Growers had to be skilled in knowing when to pick. Some may not have waited until the grapes were sufficiently ripe. Those wines may seem overly acidic.

Consumers who’ve grown up on spätlese-level kabinetts may also find the vintage challenging. But for those of us who love the high-wire act of kabinett, in which gentle sweetness and refreshing acidity achieve a nervy balance, these wines are a great opportunity to relive some beautiful memories.

I should say, comparing current wines to recollections now shrouded in a rosy glow can be tricky. Regardless, these wines are really good.

Here are the 12 bottles of 2021 kabinett riesling, in order of price.

Meulenhof Mosel Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2021, 10%, $24

The classic kabinett rieslings of the Mosel region were lacy and delicate. Even in 2021, this bottle, at 10% alcohol, stands out a bit from the classic style. The grapes come from a warm site in the Treppchen vineyard near the town of Erden, and the result is not quite so fragile as a classic kabinett might be. No matter, this fruity, lightly sweet wine is a delicious nod in the direction of kabinett riesling. (Skurnik Wines, New York)

A.J. Adam Mosel Dhroner Hofberg Riesling Kabinett 2021, 8.5%, $27

The Dhron Valley is one of numerous small tributaries flowing into the Mosel. Andreas Adam is maybe the only producer I’m familiar with working in that area, and he’s better known for his dry rieslings. Nonetheless, this is a lovely, subtle kabinett, softly sweet and gently acidic for a well-balanced wine. No fireworks, just quiet satisfaction. (Skurnik Wines)

Kruger-Rumpf Nahe Münsterer im Pitterberg Riesling Kabinett 2021, 8.5%, $28

The Kruger-Rumpf estate traces its origin back over centuries, but it only began to bottle its own wines in 1984. The Münsterer im Pitterberg, from a slate-and-schist vineyard on a convex slope, is an ideal kabinett, fresh, gorgeously mineral and full of apricot flavors. The sweetness is subtle, almost unnoticeable. Altogether, this is a lively, energetic kabinett, not as delicate as a Mosel can be, but balanced, refreshing and intense. (Skurnik Wines)

Dönnhoff Nahe Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2021, 8.5%, $30

When Helmut Dönnhoff took over his family estate in 1971, it was a time when others in the Nahe were leaving their steep hillside vineyards for easier-to-farm sites on flatlands. Dönnhoff took the other tack, buying sites on the slopes where he could. The results over the years include wines that serve as Nahe benchmarks. He is still involved in the estate today, though it is now run largely by his children, Cornelius and Christina. This kabinett is lovely — precise and lightly sweet, but also a touch saline, with gentle fruit and fine minerality. (Skurnik Wines)

Alfred Merkelbach Mosel Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2021, 8%, $32

Two bachelor brothers, Alfred and Rolf Merkelbach, who joke that they wed their tiny vineyard instead, making old-school wines, impervious to fashion. It sounds almost too romantic to be true. Well, call me a sucker, but I’ve enjoyed these wines for years because, in addition to the wonderful story, the wines are terrific. The brothers keep alcohol levels and sugar levels low, and the result is a classic kabinett, delicate, lightly sweet and as inviting as a bright spring morning. (Skurnik Wines)

Hermann Ludes Mosel Thörnicher Ritsch Riesling Kabinett “Gackes Oben” 2021, 7.5%, $34

This is the first wine I’ve had from the Ludes estate, but it won’t be the last. This gorgeous kabinett is from a cool site in the steep, slate Ritsch vineyard. It is taut and nervous, full of energy like a peripatetic teenager, with a thrilling balance between light sweetness and electric acidity. I love it now, but if I had another bottle I would put it aside for at least five years, as I imagine it will become more complex and expressive with age. (Vom Boden, Brooklyn, New York)

Clemens Busch Mosel Marienburg Riesling Kabinett 2021, 7.5%, $34

Clemens and Rita Busch were among the earliest German growers to adopt organic viticulture in the 1980s. They now farm biodynamically on steep terraced vineyards in the Middle Mosel. This wonderful kabinett is textured and refreshing, walking a knife’s edge between sweet and saline. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)

Emrich-Schönleber Nahe Monziger Riesling Kabinett 2021, 9%, $38

I know Emrich-Schönleber better for its excellent dry wines, especially those from three vineyards: Halenberg, Auf der Lay and Frühlingsplätzchen. Nonetheless, this is a superb kabinett, juicy yet fine with peachy-apricot aromas and a wet-stone minerality. It manages to be simultaneously delicate and substantial, gently sweet and thoroughly refreshing. (Vom Boden)

Maximin Grünhaus Mosel Abtsberg Riesling Kabinett 2021, 7.5%, $45

This ancient estate on the Ruwer, a tributary of the Mosel, dates back almost 1,400 years. It was originally part of a Benedictine abbey and has been in the hands of the von Schubert family since 1882. I love these wines — they age beautifully and, even when young, they are emblematic of the delicacy and intensity of the Mosel at its best. This bottle, from the steep, blue slate Abtsberg vineyard, is a bit sweeter than other ’21 kabinetts, but well balanced with lively acidity. It’s already complex. (Loosen Bros. USA, Salem, Oregon)

Schäfer-Fröhlich Nahe Bockenauer Felseneck Riesling Kabinett 2021, 8.5%, $45

Schäfer-Fröhlich’s dry rieslings are terrific, but you really can’t go wrong with any wine it makes. They are meticulously farmed and carefully produced, and the wines are almost always precise and energetic. This is a powerful Nahe rather than a delicate Mosel, but it’s nonetheless a lovely kabinett, focused and barely sweet, with flavors of peach and citrus. (The German Wine Collection, Carlsbad, California)

Joh. Jos. Prüm Mosel Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 2021, 8%, $55

Many people, including me, think of Joh. Jos. Prüm as the archetypal producer of sweet Mosel rieslings — as far as I know, Prüm doesn’t even make dry wines. The Prüm family established the estate in the early 19th century, and it’s run today by Katharina Prüm and her father, Manfred Prüm. The ’21 Graacher Himmelreich epitomizes the classic fragile kabinett, poised and precise, barely sweet and beautifully balanced. Don’t drink it yet, however: The old-school Prüm wines require aging. It’s not that they are unpleasant as babies, they are just nowhere near what they will become in five to 25 years. (The German Wine Collection)

Peter Lauer Saar Schonfels 111 Riesling Kabinett 2021, 7.5%, $59

This bottle comes from the coolest part of the region known until 2007 as the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Now, it is simply called the Mosel. Nonetheless, Florian Lauer, the current proprietor of Peter Lauer, labels this bottle as “Saar.” He only makes sweet wines when he thinks the vintage conditions permit, as they did in 2021. This is a thrilling wine, gently sweet and with searing acidity. It vibrates with energy yet is true to its kabinett identity, gentle rather than extravagant. Give this one some age. (Vom Boden)

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