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Tasting Year


Gunter Künstler possesses an affect best described as “sober.” It is deceptive.

He is in fact one of the more interior men I know. Below the unruffled surface is a deeply rich intelligence, and perhaps more telling, a quietly passionate emotionality. I’ve been tasting his wines in depth for about seven years now, and what I usually felt was a warm admiration, punctuated now and again by individual wines with which I was frankly infatuated. The words appearing most often in my notes were class, grace, integtrity; when the wines were beautiful they were calmly so, embodying the Rheingau virtues of posture, firmness (that isn’t haughty, somehow), and “smarts.”  I’d rarely think of them as “magnificent” or “bewitching” but I often thought of them as superb and impeccable.

That is, until tasting these 2020s.

But first, some news. Earlier this year Gunter was able to lease some prime sites from a large Rheingau “name” who had fallen on hard times – as so many have done. These include enlargements in his Hochheim GGs (Kirchenstück and Domdechaney) and two truly great riverfront sites the (Erbacher) Marcobrunn and the (Hattenheimer) Pfaffenberg. It’s always outstanding when great land ends up in the best possible hands, but I am most pleased for Gunter himself. It is in effect a reward for a distinguished body of work, and when the first wines are made available, it will be our reward as well.

The ’20 Rieslings fall into two groups, each of them unusual in the Künstler context. Up to the GGs, the wines have more thrust and torque than usual, and correspondingly less poise and purr. Often Gunter’s wines feel urbane, but these ‘20s felt almost scrappy. I ascribed it to the vintage, and feared the GGs might amplify that assertiveness in an off-putting way. Some of Künstler’s earlier GGs could be rather earnest. 

I was, delightedly, completely wrong. The GGs seemed to have hailed from different blood, different DNA. They were mystic and yielding and melting, as though they had accessed some well of calm and affirmation. In my exposure to Gunter’s wines, these ‘20s have no precedent.

They are wines by which to be absorbed, and also they themselves seem laden with absorption. They collect every dapple and breeze and moonrise. You walk with them quietly, holding hands. If this heralds a new era at Künstler, I will be thrilled and moved. 

Finally, if all of this is too abstract, I’ll put it this way: If your favorite Wachau grower is Prager then your favorite Rheingau grower should be Künstler.

Last, and much to my amazement, Gunter’s Sauvignon Blanc actually shows the same dreamy yet articulate suppleness we see in the GGs. It’s always been a smart wine, but it has never been beautiful – until now.

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2018 Hochheimer Stein Spätburgunder Trocken

(screwcap, alc 13.5%, from chalky marl and sand along the Main river)

Pleasant PN aromas, deep-voiced and plummy, like a forthright Côte Chalonnais. Palate is sweet-fruited, a little heady, not especially woody. I’m inferring from the closure that it’s closer to the low-end than to the high, and if I’m correct it may well be a very good value. And as the color is just beginning to brown at the rim, I see no reason to wait to drink it.

From the Jancis glass it smells prettier and is also less coherent structurally. The palate is more hale from the regular ol’ Spiegelau red-wine stem.

I like the wine. I admire its honesty and candor; it’s both polite and countrified. It’s like a rare duck breast in liquid form, with a little florality from Tasmanian peppers (which no pantry should be without), and with a few porcini sautéeing in the duck fat while the meat reposes.

Künstler has two distinct families of Pinots; the ones from Assmannshausen are more deliberately refined and perfumey while the Hochheimers walk with a heavier tread and are more full bodied. Any given vintage seems to favor one or the other, but I have only been tasting systematically here since 2014. Gunter was early on the scene in the serious Pinot Noir idiom.


2019 Hochheim Reichestal GG                                                     +

This is the only Pinot Noir GG he provided. “Sandy loess-loam above a clay marl substrate,” is how Gunter depicts the soil.

There’s a lot of richness here, along with an interior fragrance that invites you to dive in. Even lovelier, wood is under excellent control. Since we (or at least I) can’t help adducing Burgundy cognates, this is like Gevrey at its airiest; it shows a thickly juicy body and a surprisingly ethereal florality, and such little oak as can be discerned presents as a fine and delicate sweetness.

No wonder he sent it! The wine is simply outstanding, delicious and sophisticated, both generous and subtle and genially serious. It’s neither showy, earnest nor ponderous; it’s just a delicious being with nothing to prove. With air it takes on an herbal edge, summer savory and tomato leaf, and an echo of Keemun tea smokiness.

It’s a wine of fine “voice;” you’d want it to read your audiobook. Here’s how much I like it; I wish someone was here to taste it with me (I’m alone at home this week), and I’m finding it involves an effort of will to spit. It’s also doing its PN-thing and firming up (and darkening) in the glass – and in this instance both glasses work well.

It strikes me, I haven’t opted to “specialize” in Spätburgunder in any deliberate way. Except for Ziereisen, I’ve encountered them while searching for something else (usually Riesling), and yet look what I’ve tasted over the last few months: these, the resplendent reserve from Bründlmayer, the smart and graceful Dautels, those cunningly crazy Ziereisens….

Nothing takes the place of Burgundy, obviously. But just as obviously, the compensations from umlaut-bearing lands are growing richer and richer. Meanwhile I watch this courteous soul grow spicier and wilder and firmer and more mineral as it breathes, and I can’t imagine how else to be, except grateful.


2020 Chardonnay Kalkstein Trocken

So, limestone. A “specialty” of the house, along with Albariño (under its original Portugese name) and Grüner Veltliner.

So, Chardonnay. In my merchant days, if the wine was on the table of course I tasted it. If I liked it I thought about it; was it merely a “good Chardonnay,” or did it have some singular thing to say? If it did, then I’d think for five seconds about whether it would sell. It wouldn’t. But Chardonnays with singular things to say aren’t exactly thick on the street (beyond the usual origins), and the choice was clear.

Essentially this is a scrupulously articulate dry white wine that happens to be made from a grape about which one feels a certain ennui. All the more impressive, then, how good this is. Less “mineral” than rock-dust, it’s a quarry of stoniness by which you could demonstrate the flavor of limestone to a group of wine students – because of its varietal neutrality.

And like all of Gunter’s wines, you feel the almost tactile presence of a deep and studious thought, and a sense of refinement that guides them toward a kind of classicism that is beautifully proper without being airlessly correct.


2020 Chardonnay Barrique Trocken

I approach this assuming it was some mischief on his part to have sent it. He knows it’s the genre of wine I most despise.

I’m not sure how he vinified it, but on first pass it’s not as vulgar as I feared. Indeed the reek-of-barrique is actually quite restrained and moderate. I do understand that saying “It’s not as hateful as I thought it would be” is not a very nice thing to say, yet for me it is enormous praise. I am pleasantly surprised.

I’m still not persuaded that it’s a wine I need to drink. It’s an oaky white that isn’t blatant. I sense it wants to lead with mineral and have the oak in a supporting role, yet it isn’t quite there.

I wrote in my Dautel report that a woody Chardonnay needed fruit, lees and creamto create a picture seamless enough to invite oak, not merely to tolerate it. (Minerality helps also, though it’s usually too much to ask that it be present.) I wish there were a way to say “nice try” without it sounding snarky, because this is a nice try, and if it fails, it fails honorably.

I drank it at cellar temp last night with dinner, and again appreciated its subtlety. It got an uncommon degree of respect for a wine of its genre.


2020 Sauvignon Blanc Kalkstein Trocken                                +

Here’s a beautiful bit of text from Künstler’s (laudable) estate brochure, that reads as though a person wrote it, for once. The soil of the Herrenberg, from which this wine hails, “almost looks as if a giant suddenly decided to empty a backpack filled with chunks of yellow limestone by scattering them evenly about the land.” He adds that the vineyard has the most carbonate rich soil in the entire Rheingau. 

Okay, you know me and SB. In principle I think the Germans shouldn’t grow it. The problem is the ever-larger number of wines that crash into my principles and demolish them. I never wanted to offer this wine as a merchant and I never could resist doing so because it was just that good. Might a Scheurebe have been even better? We’ll never know. Back when these vines were planted Scheu was infra dig and SB was trendy.

Yet a wine like this can make a reluctant imbiber into a convert for this too-often crude variety. It reminds me of the (superb) Hexamer, with a little more of the Rheingau warmth. It’s subtler than the “II” from Von Winning. Put it this way: Take every single fine and subtle facet of SB and refine them to a point of purity and precision, and at the same time take every gaudy and cheap-ass perfume and feral herbaciousness and basically everything we hate about the variety and do away with them – and this is what you get.

So yeah, I love it. If you know the Styrians, this one falls higher than the “Klassik” echelon but not as high – thankfully in most cases – as the Grand Crus, which can often be over-alcoholic and over-oaked. The ones in the middle, in other words. I would say, the perfect ones.

Many profound Rieslings are coming up, but none are any greater an achievement than to have somehow found the very exaltation of this awkward variety. It turns out he didn’t want to scream. He only waited for us to hear him, simply, speak.



2020 (estate) Riesling Trocken

The ’20 takes what is usually a mellow and savory sort of wine and sprinkles it with some sort of iridescent salt. I do like this vintage.

This “mere” estate wine has an arrestingly intricate fragrance. Something “pleasant” would have sufficed, but this asks to be thought about, studied. It follows, let’s say, the melody of earlier vintages, but plays it an octave higher. It also introduces a host of overtones, like the chime of a little bell.

There’s a high-toned chalkiness atop the usual orange bell-pepper savor; it’s a racy, jumpy kind of creature with such an herbal mid-palate you feel it feinting toward Sauvignon Blanc. Again, as a rule this has been a genial sort of wine elevated by splashes of freshness, but this time it’s leading with a glowing green snow.

As a merchant I used to find this wine worrisome, because it so over-delivered it actually suppressed peoples’ wishes to trade up. In this vintage the wine is less come-hither, less purely sensual. Me, I really like it, but I like cerebral wines, as long as they’re not bloodless. And like many cold-driven wines this finishes with a splash of vigorous juiciness leading down into sandalwood in the tertiary farewell.

Day-3 (I skipped a day) the aroma can be smelled two feet from the glass. It’s still not the most fetching vintage for the wine. It plays on a remote sort of frequency that may be too snappy for some drinkers of this “everyday” wine, and yet there are other drinkers who’ll prefer it.


2020 Hochheimer Hölle Im Neuenberg Riesling

“Trocken” on the back-label, “VDP Erste Lage” on the front.

I like cadaster names, always have, because I crave the maximum detail about the origins of any wine. That said, there’s a foundational statement in the new German wine law that is simply ridiculous. The more precise the origin, the higher the quality is not a fact, it’s an aspiration. It is only true if distinctiveness is the crux of your judgments – there are worse criteria, but these strokes are too broad and “romantic” – and/or in the hands of a careful grower who can taste when a micro-parcel wine can really stand alone.

Künstler is such a grower, that is clear. And this is a wonderful wine, though not a charming one. Hölle is a riverfront site on heavy clay over “Cyrenian marl,” (from his text) and can, in hot years, be almost overwhelmingly broad. Cooler years give wines like the astonishing 2016 Hölle GG. The balance-point is narrow, the rope is unsteady, but when these wines work they are improbable miracles of yin/yang and thrilling contrasts.

At present this wine is balanced on the tart side. Not unbalanced, mind you, but leaning toward the ultra-violet. The aromas have a jiggling energy yet they perch atop a sedateness common to Rheingau Rieslings. I wrote “burned mineral,” which obviously makes no sense, except it does; the wine is both rampantly mineral and also a little scorched, not with alcohol but with something singed at its edges. This is marked from the Jancis glass. A smaller glass alters the mouthfeel in a useful way.

This is a reasonable impression from a frozen-in-time moment in early October 2021, but if the finish is the herald of future development I believe it is, the wine will “thaw,” though I suspect it will remain less the protein you cooked than the salt and pepper you top-applied.

On day-3 I registered its sophisticated fragrance, and appreciated its deliberate length. The first finish is one of carrots and harissa, then chervil and burdock. I also added the MacNeil Crisp & Fresh stem to the mix, and it revealed a charming saltiness while buffing the wine’s rough edges. That glass is made for this wine.



2020 Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg Riesling Trocken                     +

VDP Erste Lage

The most curious vineyard in Rüdesheim, a kind of rogue-variable that seems to have snuck in from another country. It’s said to be “slate and quartzite” though my reference writes of limestone-bearing loess-loam also. It’s the upstream approach to the mountainside of the Berg sites, not steep but a good stiff hillside, and the wines smell for all the world like charcuterie. Especially in warm years, and/or in warm-feeling wines.

But then we have ’20 to consider.

It has delivered its silvery tingle to the broad mellowness of the vineyard, and created a truly beguiling wine. It’s yielding for a ’20, smoky as always, with an exotic touch that casts my mind over the Rhine to the Crus of Münster-Sarmsheim on the Nahe side. 

It’s extroverted, even chummy, and while it’s “easier” than the preceding wines, I enjoyed the respite. And there is finesse here, as one sees on the deliberate and complex finish.

Day-3 brought forth a subtle yellow-rose note typical for quartzite-grown Rieslings, but I’m still standing in a salumeria with sweet fresh smoky smells thinking “I bet this guy’s stuff is good….” And I’m still loving the finishing salty shimmer that brings a whole second dimension to this yielding wine.

I must insist, though, that it’s not a question of acidity. Most of the dry wines are rather near one another in acidity, and none are especially high. The sweatpants-feel of this wine is an imponderable element of terroir having perhaps to do with pH, but in any case I am glad to be met half way with loveliness.


2020 Hochheimer Stielweg Riesling Alte Reben                      +

2019 Hochheimer Stielweg Riesling Alte Reben

"Trocken” on the back labels, “VDP Erste Lage” on the front; vineyard planted in 1964

The site sits below the (great) Domdechaney, and this wine has a stunning aroma. It leads to a palate where words like “shattering” might apply. It recalled great vintages of Martin Nigl’s Pellingen Rieslings, and that is a lofty outer orbit of expressiveness and smoky complexity. But this beauty is more than just smoke.

That said, I often find Künstler’s Rieslings have a sort of dual-citizenship with certain Austrians. Here we see the high tones we’d also see in (the Wachau’s) Zwerithaler or Liebenberg, both the whippy herbal mints and the hot magma underflavors. There’s also a clinging old-vines length that starts out just on the threshold of sourness and resolves into a galangal and espelette warmth. (That sourness isn’t present from the MacNeil.)

The ’19 is far more yellow in color, and shows a turpene aroma I don’t mind, but which has arrived…quite promptly, let’s say. The palate is forceful, even adamant, like a guitar solo that went four measures too long. But the celebrated ‘19s have evidently rushed into their toddler-tantrum stage, and this wine “reads” kind of heat-heavy today. Or maybe the Stielwegs are just less disciplined in their assertiveness.

The wine is good! It’s all too easy to damn some poor wine into oblivion because we’re examining it under our palate-microscopes. Yet I am operating under a standard Künstler himself has set, and which asks that the wines be examined diligently. And in that spirit, which I hope is reasonable and humane, this ’19 strikes me as blatant.

As always, many more tastings over many more days, and all opinions subject to revision when warranted!

So on to day-3. There’s a masa harina sort of taco-shell thing, and I’m still sensing the betwixt-and-between-ness that makes the wine feel ungainly. This time the MacNeil reveals a little jalapeño on the finish. After the moony grace of the ’20, this feels kinda grouchy.


2020 Kostheim Weiss Erd GG                                                         ++


Gunter is a deep believer in this site. And if there is such a thing as a “GG-aroma,” this wine surely has it.


I’ve been agnostic. Not convinced, but willing to be. And I must say I’ve never had a wine with such authority and complexity from this vineyard as the ’20 in my glass right now.


It’s complexity in a specific key signature, and it isn’t sentimental, but it has overwhelmingly persuasive intensity and precision. Think chalk and lemon, and think lemon powder and lemon blossom and lemon skin and then imagine a dissolve of chalk dust so fine the lemon juice is actually limpid, and then imagine the entire thing growing and swelling until it’s somehow bready, even hyssop-y, and if these images remind you of Champagne – “Weiss Erd” means white earth.

It’s the best vintage I’ve tasted of this wine, and it is also singular; there are no cognates and no context except for this wine itself.

By now it should be clear that I hold Gunter Künstler in very high esteem, and no small amount of affection. Remember that when I say this: I don’t understand how an estate belonging to the fairandgreen organization – the most holistic and sensible among the “green” certifiers – can possibly justify continuing to use the STUPID HEAVY BOTTLES  not just for the GGs, but for any of the wines. I’ve been saying this for fifteen years and others are saying it now, at last, but really IT NEEDS TO CEASE. 

And we can play a part in making it cease, if we too are serious about the environment. We need to BOYCOTT any wine bottled this way, no matter how much we want it, because it’s the best way to stop this madness.

Peroration concluded. It does, though, make me sad to not be able to obtain a wine as breathtaking as this one – and man, it is – because I am going to avoid wines with stupid-heavy-bottles, if I can possibly do so.

Meanwhile, we have here a swaggering vamping sort of Riesling, yet with the rectitude typical of the Rheingau. Day-3 brought a certain contained spirit-of-play to this energetic and complex wine.


2020 Hochheimer Domdechaney Riesling Trocken                  +

This is one of the greatest sites in all the Rheingau, so I’m taken aback to see “VDP Erste Lage” on the label – the next-to-the-best classification. I get that wines have to meet certain criteria to qualify for “GG,” but surely that shouldn’t entail demoting the site – or am I crazy?

Nor is the wine a shrinking violet in terms of ripeness, with 13% alc. I’m sure there’s some Hegelian logic in here somewhere, but damn if I can find it.

Why, you ask, isn’t there also a GG? Until this year Gunter’s holding was too small to divide the production, but that, thankfully, will change.

The wine itself is a play in three acts. It has the “erogenous” Grand Cru aroma, right away; highly expressive and also highly allusive, powerful yet interior. Domdechaney sometimes makes me think of the great Riquewihr GC Schoenenbourg, because both are complex and mineral but neither is merely mineral. Both are earthy and not especially hedonic.  This ’20 is balanced on the austere side; perhaps the site shows best in more “golden” vintages, but the wines are also and famously tardy, and the searching finish suggests this wine simply needs time.

So, the three acts: at first we have a compelling fragrance that is actively complex and suggestive but not at all blatant. It leads into a palate I’d describe as a cold smolder, with a cool jagged sort of turbulence. The initial finish is also jittery, almost peppery, but it yields to a warm spiciness and a salty crustiness like the parts of the roast the cook gets to eat. There’s also cool top notes of basmati and peony and litchi.  And I’m sure the wine will blossom over the 4-5 days I plan to watch it.

On day-2 I contrasted it with its neighbor Stielweg, and this is a far more complicated wine, with a stormier temperament, less “well-adjusted.” The finish is beautifully complex from the Jancis. Yet the wine is in no way clement or kindly. From the MacNeil it’s like a casserole of salsify and Pecorino cheese with a whole lot of pepper cracked through it.


2020 Hochheimer Kirchenstück Im Stein                                  ++

Riesling only appears on the back label, and we’re in the “VDP Erste Lage” thing again. There’s a Kirchenstück GG coming up that’s “VDP Grosse Lage,” and it’s amazing and wonderful how things like yields and ripeness can determine whether a site is “First” or “Great.” <sigh>

In olden days Gunter sold this wine as “Kabinett Trocken,” which was a real heresy which he’s eliminated by using a cadaster name. It was always my favorite wine of his, and the instant I sniffed this beauty I remembered why. If an essentially firm and dry Riesling can display a fragrance for which the only proper word is euphoric, this is that wine. It is fervently spicy – it almost calls the Pfalz to mind (perhaps even another site named Kirchenstück?) – but with an embedded floral note and a sweetness of fruit that encases the rugged minerality like a corona.

It does the peacock’s-tail thing and then reverses it, spreading out to visit nuance to every cell on the palate but then firming back up into a pointedly citric and peppery finish. Yet it’s also juicier and less pedagogical than the Domdechaney, and the tertiary finish can even be said to be charming.

You know, it’s hard to be adamant but not overbearing – in wine as in people – and while we expect a Rheingau classic to show a kind of lofty indifference to how much fun you may be having, it also shows us another entire way to be pleased. People who love Riesling will love this wine, but it won’t seduce the skeptic. And while it is tremendously, shimmeringly generous, it also wants a certain quiet around it. I’m sitting in my silent kitchen, with the windows open to catch a fresh east wind, and that feels correct.

No great change on day-2, except to establish the primacy of the Jancis for this wine. You can almost feel it pull the wine higher.


2020 Hochheim Kirchenstück GG                                               +++


It is assumed we will infer “Riesling.”

Aromas are mightier now. The wine is stronger too. It isn’t obviously “better” than its ostensibly lesser twin, but I’m struck, happily, by its finesse and by a certain tenderness I confess I didn’t expect.


If you know me, this won’t surprise you: I am bored by the Affect-Of-Great-And-Solemn-Purpose some GGs can show. Often I find their “second” wines show more fruit and are more hale and companionable and pleasant to drink. I also freely admit that plenty of GGs overcome my wariness, and all in all this is becoming a fine and useful category, both for German Riesling and for wine in general.

But I am wary. And thus I am really roused and moved when a wine melts my wariness away – as this one does. It is actually tenderer than the preceding wine, with an elegant and accommodating gesture of mineral complexity that washes across the palate in a way that’s anything but forceful. It’s a wine of magnificent refinement, not merely “good-looking” but beautiful.

And it’s an impossible paradox. There’s a kind of compassionate warmth of straw and hay that sends an echo of Chablis, and there’s also a supple limpidity that’s poised against a firmness of structure in ways you’d never suppose.

I won’t even go into the dozens of associative flavors. Suffice to say your tasting group will run short of paper when taking notes on this guy. Good grief, there’s a good ten minutes of lingering interior perfume (jasmine!) on the finish, and it is more complex than a hundred other wines.

I yield to the Stuart Pigotts and the Stephan Reinhardts and the David Schildknechs, all of whom have tasted these wines more comprehensively over a longer period of years than I have. What I can say is, in the 7-8 years I’ve known the wines, this is the best I have tasted. It’s the water of the lamas and savants and shamans, the loving kindness only a very few wines ever show.

And apropos loving kindness, it can’t be a coincidence that this GG is less terribly dry than its colleagues. No sane person would find it “not dry enough,” but every drinker will benefit from the invisible sutra of fruit even this piddling RS delivers. Some of the GGs seem designed to show you your mind. This one shows you your heart.


2020 Hochheim Hölle GG                                                                +

Another sort of structure, more spherical, which obscures for a second just how complex this wine is. Less like a ball than like a pinwheel, it keeps whipping minerals and salts at you while sleight-of-handing you into thinking it’s a “simple” wine. It is not a simple wine.

It’s not quite as resplendent as the Kirchenstück – few wines are, and I may have tasted them out of sequence – but it has its virtues! Among them, it is ostensibly “easier” to apprehend, in Hölle’s forthright style. There’s a Champagne-like fragrance, rather like Chardonnay from the Sezannais, and there’s a green jade-and-balsam thing also (that carried me to Selbach’s Zeltinger Schlossbergs), and there’s a whip of gingery spiciness that carried whiffs of the Pfalz. This polyglot wine has much to say.

While it is perhaps more delicious than the Kirchenstück it is also more terse. Not (what wine tasters call) “short,” but without the sense of endlessness that gives certain wines the breath of eternity. This is a wine of intelligent pleasure. Kirchenstück is a wine of pure wonder.


2020 Rüdesheim Berg Schlossberg GG                                      ++

The slatey downstream finale of the Rüdesheim mountain could seem to be the dialectical antonym of the Hochheim sites. And the new vineyards in Hattenheim and Ebach are more in the “family” of riverfront Rheingau than the lofty beasts of Rüdesheim.

I find this wine to be beautifully subdued, which is to say that it tricks you. You think “yes, nice, maybe even too polite,” but then it pours the most articulate and tasty minerality over your palate in a high-tide wave of  vinosity that’s both entirely definite and entirely ethereal at once. How can something so apparently quiet be so overwhelmingly expressive? It’s Rilke in the form of slate, or slate in the form of Rilke; I can confuse these things.

Schlossberg in the form of a lucid dream. You open your eyes and are surprised there’s no slate in your bed. The apples, nuts and leaves perfume your morning; you are somewhat altered. You’ve become a sky-being, much as the wine itself is, seeming to alight ever so briefly upon the ground but long enough to carry a luminous geology back to the mother ship.

It skims over the palate, but you can’t fathom the complexity and beauty of what it leaves. It arrives as a ghost, or so it seems, but the longer you observe it the more solid it becomes. I’ve never has a Künstler wine that behaves quite this way, so evanescent and yet so material, and with a texture so deliberate yet also so serpentine. It’s as though you solved the problem yet it remains mysterious.



2016 Hochheimer Stein Riesling Extra Brut

No disgorgement date though the cork suggests it is recent. He makes it himself. The bead is excellent, refined and teensy. The site is one of alluvial river sand, for the most part.

The aroma is really fine, interesting; limes, mirabelles, tirage – and the palate follows, not at all “like” Champagne but entirely as gracious complex and silky as Champagne. I’m thinking about the Gobelsburg sparklers, in fact, and that is high praise.

It stands to reason that Künstler would bring all of his gifts to bear, and his Sekt wouldn’t be a (mere) brand-extender but would aspire to the best of its idiom. I’m finding it sinewy, with flavors that flow in many narrow rivulets. There is – and I mean this as a compliment – a chevre sort of tang, a cressy snap, and all in a mouthfeel that’s polished and caressing.


2018 Assmannshäuser Rosé Brut Nature

I’m sure there was a moment tasting the wine to determine dosage where someone said (and others agreed) “This has so much fruit it doesn’t need any dosage.”

But I have to kvetch. What I am tasting is a missed opportunity. There is indeed a lot of fruit, and an appealing aroma, and then the wine approaches your palate ands gives it a wedgie. I’m sure they didn’t set about to bludgeon this fruit-forward rosé with severe and punishing austerity, but what’s done is done.

In my opinion a careful blender would have looked at the low end of “Extra Brut” and considered something between 2.5 and 3.5 g/l, and when somebody objected “That will be too sweet,” the only possible answer is “No it won’t.” It would have respected the base material, and even if the blend was an error, it errs on the side of deliciousness.

My wife and I both cook. She’s a much better cook than I am; she’s a professional after all. But we disagree about salting. She says I under-salt. I say that can be corrected at the table, whereas oversalting is ineradicable. She says that top-applied salt isn’t the same, (it doesn’t “build” the flavors) and I’m sure she’s right, and the reason I tell you our little kitchen dramas is, a deficiency of dosage cannot be corrected. It starts unbalanced and will always be unbalanced. An “excess” of dosage – as long as it isn’t grotesque – will polymerize in time, and three years after disgorgement you’ll be grateful for it.

Meanwhile, the wine smells really good. What-if, what-if, what-if……



2020 Spätburgunder Tradition Trocken

A cuvée from Hochheim sites, it’s basically the “estate” PN, and it has a lovely, polished sweet aroma from glass #1 (the larger of two Spiegelau white-wine glasses, “white wine” ostensibly, I should add) and a far more intricate and interesting aroma from the Jancis. Even on the palate they are radically different wines.

The Spiegelau presents a buff, somewhat plausible wine, with gleaming “modern” fruit, not-quite seamless knitting, and plenty of tastiness. The Jancis offers a markedly more mineral creature, with wonderfully structure, mature feeling tannin and a landslide of scree in the mid-palate.

These are not nice distinctions. One wine is a little too emphatic with the leather and sandalwood business, while the other is a blatant overachiever with every facet in crisp focus (including cask), and if I were the kind of commentator who gave “points” they would be five figures apart.

I’ll repeat this exercise soon, because I think there’s also a temperature variation here; the Spiegelau was from the top of the bottle and the Jancis from lower down, with perhaps a 3-4-degree difference in temperature. But I’d describe both wines as smart, which I wouldn’t say about (for example) Dautel’s PNs, which feel more elementally rural.

Very impressive!

Second time through I tasted it warmer and only from the Spiegelau, and the wine is just excellent and a lot better than it has any business being. It’s spiffier and less atavistic than someone like Ziereisen, and the purist palate may “notice” the oak, but I think it’s an achievement almost on par with the estate dry Riesling, which has always been at or near best-in-class status.


2019 Hochheimer Stein Spätburgunder Trocken

Erste Lage, a riverfront site on limestony marl with sand.

Generous and enveloping fragrances, full of beaming brightness and charm, underpinned with an earthy depth. Here it’s the Jancis glass that works against the wine, obtruding on its seamlessness with an over-articulation of its components. At least at first; this changes as we get deeper into the bottle.

It’s a beefy kind of PN yet also well turned out, as if it’s wearing an ascot but hasn’t changed out of its vineyard boots. There’s more to it than the estate wine – as there should be – but I’m not sure I find it “better.” I like the plump juiciness, and the friendliness of the ’19 vintage, and I like the cremini umami and I wouldn’t mind a bit less cask, but it’s a pleasing PN overall, a little too eager to explain itself but that’s okay.

Two days later it has….not exactly blossomed but grown even meatier and more charred, as if you can taste the grill marks. Materially this is the better wine, but I can’t say it gives me any more pleasure than the above.


2019 Assmannshäuser Höllenberg GG                                              +

“Spätburgunder Trocken” on the back label.

The first thing I have to do is to compliment Gunter Künstler for avoiding the pretentious heavy bottle for this GG. Observe him, everybody; it isn’t so hard to connect the dots. NO ONE likes these bottles and they aren’t good for the environment, so wise the fuck up and stop using them.

This is the other end of the Rheingau, and here the land is steep. It shows in the wine, which is delicate and ravishing and demure and rapturous. It has a childlike innocence next to the Hochheimers. It also has such a careful, specific cherry flavor I wonder about the clone – the “Mariafelder” Swiss clone gives those characteristics. But for sheer ethereal finesse and silken texture, this beauty is hard to resist.

Can a wine have a weightless depth? This wine seems to indicate such a paradox. If you require a kind of length and intensity as a marker of Significance, you may be bemused by this wine, which seems to shimmer and hover a few feet off the ground. The Jancis glass highlights its careful diction and also the riot of lilac in both fragrance and flavor. There’s more than meets the eye in this sprightly imp.

The Hochheimers seemed determined to make a Statement about PN, but this pixie buzzes around like a dragonfly and has no need for statements. Trilling and melodic, it is a vaporous beauty that tastes as if it spiraled off the fingertips of a conjurer, who isn’t himself quite sure how it happened.


2021 Alvarinho Trocken                                             glug-glug-glug!

As far as I know, the only Albariño planted in Germany.

The wine is very good and tastes like a Grüner Veltliner from the Weinviertel, if you’re looking for a cognate. It does not resemble any Iberian Albariño that I know of. I liked it when I saw it last May at the estate, and I like it again here.

It also seems to show every appealing facet of the ‘21s, the sapid green flow of the best wines, the spring-water purity and the fine cool energy. Nor do these virtues require high acidity, though that’s becoming an identifier for the vintage – not always accurately.

It’s as open-fields and fresh-air as the best Gemischte Satz you ever drank, and it shows, yet again, how simple pleasures mustn’t be simplistic. I’m lucky, I get to drink a few great wines now and again, but believe me that it is every bit as much a privilege to spend time with this utterly delicious and endlessly friendly guy.

Two days later an interesting thing happens; my cellar is about four degrees colder (as it’s chilled by an open window in Winter, and we’re in a cold snap right now) and the wine is different at 50º than it was at 54º. Firmer, more peppery, more mineral even. Certainly more of the cucumber and woodruff thing of many Albariños. 

If ours was the kind of household that had a “house-white,” this would be on the short list of candidates.


2021 Inspiration Pinot Noir Rosé

From vineyards in Assmannshausen.

As you read this, they’re probably getting ready to bottle the 2022 vintage, but the wines crept to me through the sclerotic supply chain in 2022, and well, here it is.

It’s quite good, as one would expect. What do I mean by that? I mean, it has the attractive qualities of ’21 and the excellent fruit of the land and the perfect combining of freshness and charm without pandering with specious come-hither sentimentality. In short, it is the wine of a calmly intelligent vintner who consistently walks a deft line among extremes he manages to avoid. (He can’t be blamed for the rogue Sauvignon!)

If we must have swollen oceans of Rosé in the world, this is one of the nice ones. Two days later it was pithier and more interesting, with honest fruit and no need to exert itself to win you over.


2021 Hochheimer Kirchenstück Im Stein                                         +

Erste Lage; back label indicates Riesling Trocken.

Of the two great Hochheim sites, this one and Domdechaney – both of which Gunter was able to enlarge with the leases from Schloss Schönborn (for which we should be enormously grateful) – while I admire Domdechaney the best, I love Kirchenstück the most. A single sniff of this would tell you why.

There’s the yuzu note of ’21 and the angular minerality of Kirchenstück, along with a precise articulation that stands in for the muscular force of the 2020. This one’s equally and differently adamant; it’s almost eerie, wagging a neon tail of mintiness, the way some mints don’t fully express until you’ve swallowed them.

You wouldn’t call this elegant. Considering how trilling and cirrus-y the flavors are, the length is striking and the tertiary finish is deep and clinging. It seems to relish the juiciness given by the basic Spiegelau, but we’ll see over the days. There’s no discernible “fruit” to speak of, but instead a panoply of every hyssopy thing you can conjure; chervil, fennel frond, anise seed, even garden thyme (when it’s sweetest and least resinous), true vetiver-root, those things. On second look the “root” thing is more pronounced, in the form of parsley root or celeriac or burdock.

It’s fervently expressive but not hedonic, the kind of Riesling you might call cerebral. You might be tempted to find it rather admonishing, until the earth-heavy finish that’s like plunging your face into the terroir. I wonder if the wine I tasted last May was a cask-sample – it would make sense, and time could restore some of the yang that was clipped away by bottling.

Tasting a day later from a colder sample reveals a phenolic jab on the finish, but also shows the fruit I recall from May but missed here in January. For Gunter, this wine has quite a kick.


2021 Hochheimer Domdechaney Riesling Trocken                          +

Erste Lage.

At the moment this is the more pleasing wine; juicier, less strict, equally dry and precise but less ascetic. It’s also the smallest bit lighter, but what it yields in profundity it restores in fun

The forward notes are the part-apple part-peach thing of the Cox’s Orange Pippin, but this is deeply embedded in a linear minerality that makes me think of (Deidesheimer) Langenmorgen, the most “intellectual” among that family of GGs. This is similarly chiseled, sinewy and tensile, making the juiciness irresistible.

These sites are neighbors yet this wine, this year, is temperamentally different. This isn’t always the case; in fact it’s usually the other way around. My guess is we have perhaps a bit less acidity and/or a bit more RS, but whatever we have, this is beautiful Rheingau Riesling. Given their ecclesiastical names, it’s not surprising to find both wines displaying a certain rectitude, but that’s sometimes true of Rheingau in general and certainly true of ’21 in particular.

A day later the fragrance jumps out of the glass, crazily. The palate is a bit less eager but not by a lot. This underrated vineyard offers a generous, almost lusty expression of the side of Riesling that isn’t lusty, that seems to embody half the geology of the world along with the nerdy herbs like tansy and savory. I mean, bloody hell – Riesling! Notwithstanding the monumental Marcobrunn Auslese you’ll read about in a moment, for me it is precisely this kind of wine that’s the true Riesling monument.


Gunter sent me these, probably assuming I hadn’t tasted them back last May, and would want to. I am sometimes wary of the sporadic sweet wines produced by essentially dry-wine domains. So, let us see.

I think it also has to do with their abrupt shift of type, after tasting only very dry wines to precede them. If you’re at Selbach or Dönnhoff, you’re led deliberately to the sweet wines through a range of Feinherbs, Kabinetts and Spätlese, and when you reach the sweetest wines they feel like the logical consequence of everything that led to them. 

I also confess to a certain unease with young, very sweet and intensely concentrated wines. (Many years ago, Pierre Rovani said the same thing to me, when confronting young dessert wines at one of the tastings we did together.) I can judge for gestalt, clarity and contour, and I can notice freedom from VA or excessive botrytis, but there was one wine that just demolished me (and which received “100 points” from a taster more intrepid than I), so I’m going to pull that punch because I’m not sure my opinion’s is worth all that much for that wine.

Otherwise, into the breach….


2021 Hattenheim Pfaffenberg Spätlese

Grosse Lage. Only the back label says Riesling.

Curiously, the typeface on this is entirely different from the more “noble” dry wines. Maybe it’s a prototype label, and not the actual one? Sorry to go all meta on you. Gunter tells me there’s a new label design in the works.

Then there’s the site. It’s a small riverfront site sitting alongside the Schloss Schönborn, for whom it was a monopoly holding, and for whom it often provided their best wine, but whether that was because of some inherent property of the vineyard or because they babied their monopoly, time will tell. Gunter says it’s deep loess with limestone, and for those of us ancient enough to remember Schönborn’s glory days in the 60s and 70s Pfaffenberg was a name to conjure with. I imagine Gunter will make a GG from it also; I hope so.

I must admit it smells astonishing. It also tastes rapturous. My question, my eternal question with such wines: Is it too sweet? And in this case my answer is, yes and no.

The botrytis is clean and tasty. The acidity is “present” but not spiky. At first the balance is thrilling, but it takes just a second or two to feel the sweetness like a sauce poured excessively over the wine. In that case you’d wait for the finish, hoping it would be fresh and drier. In this case it isn’t. But for all that I question the wine’s basic balance, I can’t assume a better balanced wine with less sweetness. It would lose its peachiness and be too green.

The classic reaction to a challenge like mine is, give it time. That would probably work. But, I’m tasting this at fridge temp (about 40º) to suppress the RS, and maybe this is just my perverse taste and y’all will groove on the peach and passion fruit mambo and appreciate that brisk acid snap and think I’m crazy. A case can be made that it harkens back to a “classic” style of sweet Riesling such as we recall from the big years of the 70s – 71, 75, 76 – but as best I recall, those wines were less sweet than these. (They were also less ripe, in fairness.)

I happily accept the magnificence of a wine like this. You really can’t imagine how gorgeous it smells. But I get antsy when I feel too close to the mentality that says If sweet, then really sweet (and if dry, then really dry). My own belief is Perfectly balanced wherever it happens to land. But that’s just crazy ass me.


2021 Rüdesheim Berg Rottland Auslese                                           +

Grosse Lage, with “Riesling” appearing on the back label.

It has a transparent fragrance of Rottland-plus-botrytis. Rottland is a bit like the Wachau’s Achleiten in its reference to bread and grains, especially unusually grans like teff or spelt or einkorn, and to baking spices like cardamom and allspice and coriander. 

This wine is very rich, more a BA than an Auslese, with a fine botrytis and the clump of honeyed sweetness to go with it. Yet it isn’t ponderous; there’s a breeze blowing through it, and curiously (at least for me) I find it makes more “sense” than the Spätlese, as long as you’re prepared for quite a mass of richness. But what’s wholly admirable here is, it expresses Rottland, and that isn’t easy to do with god-knows what Oechsle and easily 150g/l of RS.

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