The Dry Wave (die Trockenwelle) was the stylistic sea change that transformed German Riesling from sweet in some degree to mostly dry. When it began at the end of the 1970s, it was loudly controversial. Some proponents of the dry style vilified traditionalists as “confectioners of lemonade;” some traditionalist winemakers countered that early editions of dry Riesling were “devastatingly unbalanced,” “undrinkably acidic,” and sometimes “bitter.” Today, the facts behind these characterizations are no longer of much concern to consumers, producers or critics, since the wines are now essentially unavailable, but they are of historical interest, and history is (sometimes!) interesting. Were the early editions of dry Riesling made in Germany during the 1980s as bad as their critics asserted and if so, why? (Conversely, were the 1970s editions of Kabinett and Spätlese wildly over-sweet, but that is a question for another day.) Were yields (driven by clonal selections, agricultural restructuring and a free hand with chemical fertilizers) so high that the grapes were hard to ripen in all but the warmest years, resulting in wines made in whole or part from underripe fruit? Had winemakers been away from dry traditions in winemaking for so long that they had forgotten how to make dry wine well? Or, were the most extravagant and colorful criticisms of the “early” dry wines hyperbolic, reflecting the unfamiliarity of dryness in German white wines at the time, and the potentially shocking contrast such wines could have presented to makers, consumers and connoisseurs of the time.
Charta, an organization of Rheingau vintners created in 1983, was probably the best organized, most deliberate, and most visible force in the early years of the Dry Wave. (A proper history of Charta does not exist, as far as I know, but deserves making, because there is more still to know that we have learned thus far. See Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 52-29 for a summary of Charta involvement in the Dry Wave.) Though visible, Charta was never large, never involving many more than 30 vintners and 140,000 bottles of wine per annum, which was a tiny fraction of total Rheingau production. Sixteen years after its founding, Charta was absorbed into the Rheingau chapter of the Verband Deutscher Präedikatsweingüter (VDP.) Happily for historians, however, a library of wines created under the Charta insignia still exists, and new Charta wines are still made.
Charta is an interesting lens through which to review early editions of dry Riesling, at least in the Rheingau. The organization was unarguably serious. Its founders included many self-avowed proponents of the Dry Wave. Its wines were offered widely for professional and trade tasting, not only in Germany but also in key export markets. Since Charta is reported to have its members to higher standards that the basic German wine law required, it is even possible that its wines may have been atypically good, see below.
To have an unmediated look into Charta Rieslings from the 1980s, I appealed this past spring to Wilhelm Weil, director of Weingut Robert Weil and regional president of VDP Rheingau, and to Mathias Ganswohl, the chief administrator of VDP Rheingau. Weil and Ganswohl generously agreed to organize a tasting of 42 Charta Rieslings covering vintages between 1983 and 2015, with ten of these from the critical “early” period from 1983 to 1989, and another nine from between 1990 and 1999. On 30 May 2017, in one of the comfortable tasting salons at Weingut Robert Weil in Kiedrich, Weil and I were joined by two winemakers still actively making wines that carry the Charta name and logo, Max Schönleber of Weingut Allendorf and Mark Barth of Wein- und Sektgut Barth, for three hours of tasting and discussion. After the tasting, Mathias Ganswohl gathered analysis data for 33 of the 41 wines; no data was available for the other eight.
The entire tasting was utterly fascinating. Overall the wines tasted were sound and attractive. One corked bottle survived rigorous screening before the tasting began, and one other, the 1984 Erbacher Marcobrunn from Baron zu Knyphausen, was in decline and effectively died in the glass, viable for only a few seconds after it was poured. But most of the older and oldest wines were in perfect condition, and very good. The 1983 Rauenthaler Baiken from the Hessische Staatsweingüter was round and complex, very deeply flavored, tinged with beeswax and menthol. Weil’s 1983 Kiedricher Gräfenberg was also impressive: slightly honeyed but still very clean, bright and floral, with a noticeably herbal edge, notes of lemon curd and a long soft finish. Johannishof’s 1996 Goldatzel Kabinett was flavorful, fruity, bright and rewarding. Two Hochheimer wines from Weingut Künstler, the 1988 Reichesthal Kabinett and the 1990 Hochheimer Hölle Spätlese ranked among my personal favorites. The Reichesthal displayed an impressive marriage of ripeness with brightness of flavor, especially herbal fruitness, in a delicious, low alcohol package. And the Hölle Spätlese was genuinely beautiful: savory, almost saline, very intense, with a long, dry finish. Truly impressive for a 29 year-old wine.
None of the wines from the 80s or 90s tasted excessively acidic, or unbalanced, to any of us, though some of them did seem to have passed their natural peaks. (Nor, I hasten to add, did any seem overtly sweet.) Is it possible that some had been tart or edgy in their youth? Of course. Sensory research has repeatedly shown that time can mellow the perception of acidity. Is it possible that these Charta wines tasted less acidic than other dry wines of their day because of “the Charta exception?” (Wines containing up to 13 g/L of residual sugar were accepted as Charta bottlings even though the European Community ceiling for officially dry wines was and is 9 grams.) This is theoretically possible but seems unlikely, see below. What about the question raised supra, that the Charta wines may simply have been better wines than non-Charta wines from the same period and region? To test this hypothesis one would need a control group of non-Charta Rieslings that were officially dry, and imagination sufficient to conjure what those wines tasted like when they were young. A nice idea, but for another day.
Can we learn anything further from the analytic data available for 33 of the 42 wines tasted on 30 May? (The spreadsheet is attached here: probe.charta.0517.list.analysis. In sum: for the 80s vintages the average alcoholic strength was 10.7°, total acid 8.4 g, and residual sugar 10.5 g. For the 90s, alcohol increased to 11.4° while acid remained largely unchanged, and sugar dropped to 9.3. For the wines made since 2000, the average alcohol rose again, this time to 12.0°, while total acid fell to 7.5, and residual sugar crept up slightly to 9.7. (Note that the most impressive delta here, higher alcohol and lower acid, are explained as a consequence of climate change.) Concentrating first on the oldest wines, is it likely that wines averaging 10.7 with 8.4 g of acid and 10.5 g of sugar tasted sour a year after bottling? I doubt it. Especially when the numbers are compared with those for young Charta wines made since 2000. True that the low alcohol in the 80s wines may have sharpened very slightly the perception of their acidity, especially when they were first released, but the acid to sugar ratio for the 80s is almost identical to the ratio for 2000-2015 (1:1.25 vs. 1:1.30) and identical to the maximum ratio permissible under EU regulations for dry wines (9 g of sugar but not more than acid plus two, or 1:1.28); in other words, far from being unpleasantly acidic, the early Charta wines were probably hovering near the ceiling for sugar in a dry wine and close to the threshold where such sugar could be perceived as sweetness. To believe otherwise requires that one hypothesize fruit that had been picked significantly under-ripe, and containing a high percentage of malic acid, all of which seems highly unlikely in vintages like 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989, all of which were average or better in the Rheingau, with harvest start dates before 15 October. Much more plausible, I would argue, is that the sensory and analytic data from this tasting is consistent with well-made wines from ripe fruit that hovered close to the inflection point between dry and half-dry, which would have seemed unpleasantly acidic only to palates accustomed to the much lower ratio of acid to sugar that had come to characterize almost all German Riesling from the end of World War II to the end of the 1970s.
A further reflection. My notes for this tastings make no reference to wine texture before 2000. No notes about minerality, grip or knit, and only occasional mentions of edge. In the tasting the older and oldest vintages showed primarily as expressions of fruit, flowers and occasional spice, rather than as wines of shape and structure. True that most of the wines in this tasting came from sites east of Rüdesheim, where soils are typically loamier and less rocky than they are on the Rüdesheimer Berg. But could it also be that, as others have noted, winemakers grew only slowly to appreciate the contribution that skin contact pre-fermentation and lees contact post-fermentation could make to the excellence and appeal of dry wines? Were the 1980s and sometimes also 1990s vintages typically made without benefit of either, at least in the Rheingau? Has this matter of texture become a crucial parameter of quality in modern dry Riesling? In this context it is helpful to remember than traditionally dry or dry-ish wines made during the 19th Century and into the early part of the 20th were also made traditionally. Grapes were pressed slowly in basket-type presses wherein extended skin contact was normal, and with very long contact with gradually decreasing quantities of lees. When the dry idiom returned at the end of the 1970s and 1980s, these traditional parameters had been largely abandoned in favor of bladder pressing and short élevage in reductive environments. Was it therefore wine structure that had to be relearned, and this perhaps more importantly than the matter of a new “balance” between acid and residual sugar?
Of course, no single tasting can answer all the questions that remain, more than forty years later, about the early years of the Dry Wave. This tasting was, however, very illuminating. Huge thanks to Wilhelm Weil and Mathias Ganswohl for organizing it, and also to Mark Barth and Max Schönleber for hard work and valuable insights. Barth observed after the tasting that Charta remains for him “a living tradition,” having “opened the door” to both Erstes Gewächs in the Rheingau and the VDP’s Grosses Gewächs program everywhere.