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THE MAESTRO OF GRAACH: 2021s From Willi Schaefer

When I went around Germany in May 2022, people asked me how I liked the baby ‘21s and I was happy to say “I like them!” As indeed I did. Carrying all their dimpled baby-fruit, they were full of ice-energy and tingle and vim – and at that moment, enormous tastiness. A year later, with much of the baby-fruit faded, the vintage is an admixture of virtues and challenges, and chief among those challenges is, what’s holding the wines together without their primary fruit?

Many wines answer that question thus: With brilliance, articulation, freshness and clarity. But some wines do not answer so persuasively. At this stage, they are dominated by acidity.

The usual caveats apply; I am tasting a small but reliable cross-section, but it is only reliable if I hedge my bets and avoid categorical judgments. So please understand that I report on tendencies that can appear to coalesce into supportable generalities, but new evidence creates new generalities and judgment is always a moving target.

The wines of Christoph and Andrea Schaefer express both the genius and the challenge of the vintage. Reviewers who tasted them early were properly blown away by the almost psychedelic expressiveness of fruit that seemed to be screwed in to the terroir, and even tasters like myself with decades of experience with this domain were left scratching our heads thinking “Who could have fathomed that Domprobst was capable of this??”

It comes with a cost, and the degree to which a drinker is willing to pay it depends on that drinker’s tolerance for a level of acidity I personally find caustic. For this estate, ’21 is a great and difficult crop. It is both things at once. So these are the cards I place upon the table.

I tasted these sitting in the garden with the family in May 2022, not long after the vintage was bottled. I didn’t mention them in the vintage sketches I produced when I got back, because it was clear these wines were bottle-sick. About four weeks in, they were at their most troubled, fruit-starved, “small,” and with spiky acidities; not the Willi Schaefer I knew.

The samples reached me with the huge wave of wine I received in early November, and I’m just getting to them now. I sensed they’d need time, both to re-locate their basic fruit, and to come to an “arrangement” with their acids. The wines are savagely beautiful, and it was smart to have waited. Yet it is not an untroubled beauty.

There’s a trope about the ’21 German Rieslings, to the effect they harken back to “an earlier time,” when a Kabinett was truly a light wine and when a grower was pleased to get 80º Oechsle for such a wine. That is true in some cases, untrue in others, and a roughly misleading trope. One can dive deep into geek-dom to sort through the details, but rather than risk too much inside-baseball, I submit a generalization of my own.

It’s this: there is a sense in which the 80º Oechsle of vintages in the 70s until the late 80s was often accompanied by a reasonable degree of physiological ripeness – accent on “often,” because this is, as I’ve said, a generality. In 2021 there is a corresponding sense that the current 80º Oechsle comes from grapes that failed to culminate, such that acids are quite high and phenolic ripeness sometimes far away. Don’t misconstrue me; I love light wines, and there are plenty of beauties among the ’21 German Rieslings, but we should also be wary of using “lightness” as a justification for “incomplete.” Maybe it’s like this; if seven 2021 wines are gossamer melodies of bouyancy, the eighth one is simply scrawny and over-tart. None of Schaefer’s wines is “scrawny,” but most of them ask us to contend with a lot of asperity. Let’s dive in.

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Before starting in on the samples, I had a quick look at a few 2023’s last week, not enough to offer a judgment but enough to offer a speculation. In Germany, based on samples from Dönnhoff and Selbac


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