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You know the blues classic “Rolling And Tumbling?” The sub-headline for the 2020 vintage could very

well read, Soaring And Plummeting. First, though, let me establish a couple disclaimers.

DISCLAIMER ONE: I haven’t tasted everything, and can only form hypotheses based on what I have actually tasted.

DISCLAIMER TO THE DISCLAIMER: I’ve tasted from outstanding growers, from whom a representative sampling can reasonably be inferred.

DISCLAIMER THREE: 70% of the German Riesling I drink at home is Trocken. Another 20% is feinherb, and this would be higher if there were only more such wines. That leaves 10% of Prädikatswein. A number made smaller by the lack of properly balanced (i.e., not excessive) sweetness among those wines, and by my preference to drink them mature, which leads me to my cellar’s limitations. Whatever “sweet tooth” I may once have had is long-g-g gone.

After two “golden” vintages that gave Rieslings marked by their generosity and ripeness – ’18 and ’19 – 2020 was presented by growers and writers alike as a return to a more classic profile, marked by freshness and light-footedness. This is largely accurate, and the best face of 2020 seems to occur in physiologically ripe wines that show transparency, structural delicacy and a lime-laden angularity that is always captivating, and sometimes ethereal. You will notice I am not distinguishing between dry and sweet wine, and that is because the ’20 vintage works across those ranges, when it is ripe enough.

I’ve liked many of the 2019s I’ve tasted, but when ’20 is good, I like it more. It’s more “northern,” more aerial, lacier; it offers the articulation and pixilated detail that draws us particularly to German Riesling. In so saying, I fall in line with the consensus. The big dry wines – which can sometimes be obtuse and solemn – are frisky buoyant beauties this year. And the sweet wines – which can sometimes be too sugary – are mitigated by all that citric scintillation.

And what of these “problems” I mentioned? First, ’20 seems to have few wines in the ordinary middle, not good and not bad, just mundane and common. What it doeshave are wines that soar and wines that plummet, and those that fall to earth land with an ominous thud.

Most of today’s serious German Riesling growers offer an “estate-dry-Riesling” as a kind of calling-card, the everyday fridge-white or wine-by-the-glass, and all of them profess the importance of that wine, that it needs to be excellent, and that you can judge a domain by whether the “estate-level” wine is indeed tasty and interesting and not merely a useful product. In recent times these growers have almost always succeeded in this segment. Indeed at times the wines were too good (see Künstler, Gunter…) which could actually dissuade the buyer from trading up to the next tier of quality.

This comes to a screeching halt with a great many ‘20s. At least, there’s a community of wines mostly in the Mosel, Saar, and Nahe (but not unheard-of elsewhere) that are marked by a shrill bitterness one thought was a thing of the past for German dry Riesling.

To summarize, from the 1980s until some time in the early to mid aughts, many (or most) dry German Rieslings were lean and mean. Yet the prevailing taste-trend seemed to relish them, and their ostensible virtues were extolled to a degree both fatuous and comical. But eventually, more and more of the wines caught up to the hype, and while you’d certainly continue to find nasty sour dry Rieslings, these started to seem exceptional. The producing culture appeared to have figured it out.

Climate change was a huge help. It turned out that properly ripe grapes with normal pH and acids were indeed suited to dry wines – or could be. It also entailed a degree of know-how among the growers (which seemed to be increasing) and also the establishment of an updated paradigm, or to put it another way, a new lodestar toward which the entire Riesling culture would steer. Whether that was a good thing…is a debate for another time. It happened. Few if any millennial growers saw sweet Riesling as anything but a historical artifact. They weren’t attuned to such wines, and never developed the instinctual touch whereby wines like those would express their particular beauty. (Obviously – exceptions!)

I have a friend who says he is bored with any and all discussions of sweet versus dry or whether a given wine is too dry or too sweet. I’d like to agree with him; one less thing to fuss over. But I can’t, because if residual sugar is in play (as it is in German Riesling and in Champagne) then we must attend to its behavior as part of a wine’s symmetry and balance. I don’t see how this can be helped, any more than any other flavor component. Would you agree with a statement “I’m bored with talking about tannin, or whether there’s too much tannin or not enough…”

The 2020 vintage often makes my point for me, because almost invariably when a dry Riesling is too shrill, its feinherb sibling is much, much better. I’d nearly been willing to abandon the whole syllogism about the acid-sweetness balance, because it struck me as too simplistic. But dear oh dear, has it ever become relevant again with these ‘20s!

To say it baldly (if you saw my head you’d understand there’s no other way I can say it, or actually, anything) – too many dry estate Rieslings in the ’20 vintage are objectionably bitter. They usually smell attractive, and you take an expectant sip with every hope of pleasure. But on the palate they are acutely sour. I recognize the difference between “sour” and “bitter,” but way too many of these ‘20s are both, and even just one of the two is off-putting enough. And this is the case at a great many outstanding domains; in fact it would be quicker to note those who avoided the problem (Selbach, Loewen, Schneider) than those who suffered from it. At some domains the problem persisted throughout the dry Rieslings up to the GG-level, where it disappeared – by which I infer you needed a certain degree (and type) of ripeness to remove bitterness.

This compels the question: How might it have happened, that so many fine growers’ basic dry Rieslings were so snarly? The answers to such a question are liable to be provisional, speculative, complicated and many-faceted. But I can make a modest run at it.

One element of the modern German wine production structure is consistency of assortment. “Consistency” is deliberately non-judgmental, because what I’d prefer to write is “uniformity,” and there’s some snark in that word. I know of very few growers who really let their wines lead the way (take a bow, Mr. Weingart, and wave to us from Burgenland, Ms. Schröck). Most of them have come to make the same wines every year, regardless of growing conditions. They don’t pivot stylistically if a given vintage’s structure calls for it. If wine –x- is “A-dry-wine” then a dry wine it shall remain. Nor are the vintners entirely to blame; their customers don’t like surprises. (Fools….but again, a debate for another day.)

If I’m correct then I have to imagine a grower tasting his juice and wondering whether a feinherb wine would do it the highest justice – and being unable to entertain the thought because the “product” must be what the product must be. (Even several among the celebrated GG-class would have been improved by wriggling free of the Procrustean bed of dryness insisted upon by the powers-that-be.)

I also wonder how the growers feel when they taste the wines now. There’s a great saying (I first heard from Johannes Geil of Bechtheim), “A grower will always tell the truth about a vintage – a year later.” Are there growers who realize how bitter their basic dry Rieslings taste from 2020? I don’t know. There’s an excellent word Betriebsblind (i.e., blind to ones own work) that can sometimes occlude a growers palate for his own wines. There are also honest disagreements about any given wine. I might recoil from a wine’s bitterness while the grower (or any other taster) doesn’t perceive it, or perceives it and likes it.

But we’re not discussing “any given wine;” we’re talking about a substantial family of wines, and I don’t suppose I’m wrong about all of them.

And so my advice, based on an empirical hypothesis drawn from what I’ve tasted is to tread carefully among the basic dry Rieslings in 2020, especially in the Mosel, Nahe and Saar, and while you can relax your guard elsewhere, I wouldn’t let it down entirely. Staying in the dry wine segment, you are safer as you climb the quality ladder – and you can be much more confident among the GGs, many of which are fabulous in 2020.

But if you really want to glean this vintage’s genius, or simply prefer a sure thing, the feinherb wines are wonderful, and as a general rule the Prädikat wines are less prone to excessive sweetness than is often the case. I rather think that ’20 is truly their vintage, if you have yearned for the “old” styles of brilliant Rieslings with residual sugar, and were distressed at how exaggeratedly sweet so many had become.

Finally, watch out for acidity as a major player in ’20 Rieslings. If you relish it, this is your year. If (like me) you’ve come to have questions about it, you’ll want to be more selective. Even low-on-paper acids are conspicuous in ’20 (and they’re saying even more so in ’21…), and I will close by wishing that growers could switch off the autopilot function and adapt their wines to conditions. Otherwise, why have vintages at all, if the wines have to fit in the same boxes year after year?

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