Review: The Gault Millau WeinGuide Deutschland 2001
It contains excerpts from top-scoring wines in various categories: dry, sweet, and everyday wines. The authors effectively use these tables to bring attention to certain producers and products.
There is help here offered for the reader who must be increasingly confused by the fragmented response of the German wine industry to its marketing problems. There are sections on interpreting the German wine label (ingenuously one of Schlossgut Diehl's), a list of assessment criteria for both wine and estates (the five Grape Bunch system continues here.) The usual modern 100-point scale is in use here. There is a vintage table covering the last 10 harvests, giving details as to the quality found in various regions. It's a feature of limited usefulness, but still of help to most readers. Information about cellaring German wine, and the appreciation of classic cellared examples, is lacking, however, except for a 'target date' for consumption. There is a brief discussion of the most common grape varieties.
The German wine industry continues to struggle through a period of turmoil that seems to go back almost endlessly. One is reminded of a wounded animal, which in its struggles is as likely to make the situation worse as better. Every pundit and critic, every lover of German wine has their own idea about what should be done. The classic reaction of the agricultural establishment has been to change what's on the label, and to ignore what's in the bottle. More of this is going on right now as we speak. Vineyard classification, Burgundian-style labeling, new efforts to hint at the sugar level in the wine, all are this type of reform. The fragmentation of bottlings seems to continue if not to increase. Sadly, this all makes the necessary effort of the consumer, to find a good glass of German, all the more complex, and a good handbook or guide would be an immense help in this unsettled market.
For instance, you will note here the first introduction of the new legally-introduced wine labeling categories, the 'Selection' and the 'Classic', with perhaps a quiet groan at even more descriptive terms.
For many years, German wine was ignored by the wine press, or, worse, misunderstood and misrepresented. Therefore, this writer personally greeted the earlier editions of this book with a great deal of joy, since there was such a vacuum of information. How has the Gault Millau team lived up to the continuing responsibility of being alone in its field?
The December release of the Gault Millau WeinGuide Deutschland has come to be a big annual event in the circles of German wine. The publisher, Heyne Verlag and its editor/authors Armin Diehl and Joel Payne, do a superb job of unveiling it. It's being specially featured in German and European bookstores and with big ad dollars. The book itself has as much advertisement as many magazines and sports considerably more pages than past editions. (The ads don't seem to have reduced its price, however.)
The past results of publication in the English-speaking world have obviously been disappointing to the publisher, and the decision of 2000 not to put out an English/American edition has been repeated. This is strange, given the orientation of the wines selected toward the distinctly sweet [despite the author's demurral], and editions in English and Japanese might seem to be much more greatly justified than that in German. The orientation of German wines toward the sweet export market is an ongoing historical and technical phenomenon, and no observer I know is sanguine about its changing any time soon. The Trocken wines are not ignored, but sweet wines receive considerably more attention here than they would in any other region of the world. Fully half the wines here are sweeter than the dry or semi-dry categories. So the lack of a foreign-language edition or two is doubly puzzling.
In this modern celebrity-driven world, the Guide gives no quarter. It has continued the practice of pages of studio-shot color photographs of wine personalities and gives great prominence to 'so and so of the year' awards. The entire galaxy of awardees appears in the front of the book before we get to read about a single wine. Since this publisher is an outgrowth of the hospitality/travel industry, the impact of wines in that area gets plenty of attention. Restaurant wine lists, and sommelier awards, information on food and food specialties and German wine, and a section on choosing the right wine glass, all appear most prominently.
There are some serious and widely discussed problems with the WeinGuide operation, and there seems to be very little move here toward abating criticism, except perhaps a few words in the introductory material, cited below. Because the Guide is (unfortunately for the wine business, which would benefit from competition) the sole publication of its kind, it enjoys the ability to set its own standards. Feelings had recently come to a head in the filing of a lawsuit in 2000 by producers, some of whom claimed that their wines have garnered awards in refereed competitions, but that have been allegedly ignored or scored poorly in previous editions of the Guide. In such situations, the editorial independence and objectivity of the authors would be a welcome legal refuge, one that the authors have found difficulty enjoying.
For those who don't know them, they have the privilege of many years' high-volume attachment to the German wine industry. Diehl is the owner of the prized estate 'Schlossgut Diehl' in the Nahe, and Payne is an important distributor of German wine in the English market. The influence this publication has, outside a purely journalistic one, on the authors' business, and that of others, has been a point of major contention. We will note it here and pass on, except to say that they have yet made no effort to buttress their judgement with more objective observers, such as an independent review panel. As a matter of fact, German wine journalism looks lately to becoming even more ingrown.
Other wine writers than these suffer from the 'Lone Ranger Syndrome' as well. It's an obvious impossibility for two reviewers to visit about 600 estates considered for inclusion and pay adequate attention to the nearly 4000 wines. One would think that an independent panel, working to set standards prospectively and act as a court of appeal, would ease the load these authors bear yearly, and they still have their day jobs.
Because of the ongoing discussion of these problems, I'm going to cite from the introduction starting at 'Wie der WeinGuide entsteht' ("How the WeinGuide came into Being.") This gives valuable insight into the consideration given to some of these problems as well as a fascinating look at practical detail:
"...How the WineGuide came to be
"...You will ask yourself the nontrivial question, why two persons within a few months would buy so many wines to bring about a Gault Millau WeinGuide like this.
De facto, the yearly appearance of the Guide shows up the substantial scope of this work. In the WeinGuide 2001 fully the most interesting 3,791 wines from the 423 best producers are individually identified and evaluated in detail.
Likewise, complete collections were purchased and evaluated from the 139 'Other Recommended Producers', as were those of approximately 250 operations that in the long run could not find consideration in the WeinGuide. Because of the average ten wines per operation, the 'bottom line' results were that a total number of at least 9,000 wines [from 812 vintners] were purchased. Hundreds of cases had to be unpacked and the contents of the cases compared with the invoices. The wines were sorted by region and entered into a databank.
How is the selection of winegrowers and wines made?
In the WeinGuide practically all of the top estates of Germany are assembled to develop a single standard work. The estates and cooperatives are each spring invited to submit a list of single-vintage wines assorted across all cost levels. Here we also (quite directly) request the low end of the business, too - liter bottles included - because these are an index to the producer's style usually found in their costlier efforts. The authors require information about the number of bottles filled for each product to prevent the general impression from being influenced by the entry of many special small bottlings. Usually twelve different wines are accepted per estate, but large operations every now and then send twice this much and more. The record so far is 36 wines from only one property! Barrel samples are accepted only with the reservation that a further sample is tasted after bottling.
Blind or nonblinded tastings?
Per tasting day six to eight estates are attempted. First, a maximum of four samples are done by estate and unblinded. This first step serves to record the style of the property compared with the previous years to discern strengths and weaknesses in the respective samples. A blind tasting does not make any sense here. The wines of the different operations in the same price range are then compared blind at the conclusion of the day. In order to make the label invisible, the bottles are covered with a seal. [reviewer's note: this design for the tasting, that is, first tasting unblinded, and later in the day blinded, using many of the same wines, certainly would compromises the design of any study, as recognition of wines tasted earlier in the day could not help but occur! This procedure weakens the claim to objectivity that the Guide makes. ]
After the tasting of all estates in a given cultivation area the so-called regional final sample is taken, with which the highest-scored wines of that region in different price ranges are again blindly examined. High point of the annual tasting marathon is then the countrywide final sample, for which those approximately 250 highest-quality wines in each category of the regional eliminations qualify.
This unusual competition takes place double blind: one cannot for instance tell a Franken Bocksbeutel from a Rheingau flute, because all wines are refilled into uniform bottles with a meaningless competition number. [Reviewer's comment: This retasting of the highest scoring wines gives me somewhat more confidence in them, but at this point more than 95 percent of the wines have been eliminated]
How do we discover new talents?
The authors travel the whole year through on a journey of discovery to fairs and presentations. The sifting of directories of official high-level tastings on the state and Federal level proved as just as helpful as the recommendations of winegrowers and sommeliers. Winegrowers who are on the rise and who are so far undiscovered not infrequently apply by themselves and submit samples we have not solicited.
(Translation copyright (c) 2001, John H. Trombley, Jr., by permission, Heyne Verlag)
One can see from this excerpt that the selection of wines and estates are perhaps unnecessarily subjective, and that the claim to really blinded evaluation debatable.
The second and perhaps even more serious flaw, discussed repeatedly by many with the production team, is their straight-faced contention that they don't 'have room' for their tasting notes, even brief ones. With little apology they substitute the commercially all-important hundred-point score for even a few words as to the style and other qualities displayed by the wines they present, except for sketchy descriptions of a handful of high scorers. I'll not add my voice again to argue this deficiency. If there's room for dozens of pages of advertising, and dozens of pages of wine personalities, where is the focus on the ne plus ultra of a wine critic, may I say it, the wine?
Purchasers may receive our sympathy, therefore, if they feel that in purchasing this Guide they are in a way being induced to buy advertising, and not just on the glossy full pages. The DM 54 ($25) price for this guide may seem reasonable enough but for that impression.
A third demurral might be leveled, that the Guide gives us little chance to understand the soils and situations on the historic hillsides that produce these unique wines. It claims to be a 'Guide to the German wine regions', and, given the extensive estate information, one would think that other needs of visitors would not be treated lightly. The maps included are nearly useless for the wine traveler, even just for driving in the producing regions. The crucial information, perhaps even more important here than in France, of the topograpy and geology that allows the winemaker to distil these potentially superb agricultural products, is given very short and often casual and inaccurate shrift. Does almost every producer in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer have patches of 'blue Devon slate and weathered red slate', 'weathered slate soil' or the like, for example? But there are a few other publications to which one can turn for that.
This certainly can be said. There's no better address and telephone book available for the authors' favorite estates, but this might be made available in a somewhat slimmer volume. A note about whether English-speaking help is available at each estate would go far to help the international traveler. And don't look to this book for much help with places to stay. There's another Gault Millau guide available for that purpose, at extra charge, but I don't believe that has any specific focus on the wine regions or for the wine traveler.
A new feature this year is welcome. There is a thorough list of the 'Weinbergslagen' ("Vineyard Sites") in an index, together with indexes of producers and persons. Why the publisher has never seen fit to produce a general index I don't know. These handy smaller indices are in support of a general index first of all, and publishers who omit that cause enormous annoyance for the user and reduce the overall usefulness of the text.
One problem becomes more obvious yearly with the 'handbook' format. It's the inability to accommodate any sort of dialogue between the reader and the authors. They must be commended for publishing a Web version of the 2000 Guide, that is still valuable for the older wines it reviews. However, the authors, for their own sake, must help their readers have more of a sense of participation, and even ownership, in this endeavor. Much isolation and hard feeling could be spared thereby. In this manner, the authors have yet fully to come into the Internet age.
I should here really list those 'Stars of the Wine World' that received especial recognition from their fellow laborers Diehl and Payne, since they give it such prominence.
The Winemaker of the Year has been awarded to Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen, Bernkastel, a recognition perhaps overdue by several years. Ernie and his wines, together with his brother Thomas and his hardworking staff, richly deserve this award.
The 'Most Improved Winemaker of the Year' again calls attention, as last year, to that once 'Land of Liebfraumilch', the Rheinhessen, and of course the wine world can not help but rejoice at this news. New winemakers, working without classically recognized sites and nearly anonymously, have been so elevated. Günter Wittman, of Weingut Wittman, Westhofen, is 'Most Improved', and the Winemaker of the Year for the last edition, Klaus Peter Keller of Weingut Keller, in Dalsheim in the Wonnegau, has been awarded his fifth 'Grape Bunch', a continuation of his meteoric rise. Our sympathies must go out to him, as this must be no consolation for the loss by death of his beloved wife and partner Hedwig. But practically every wine he's produced has turned to gold.
The 'Discovery of the Year' award belongs to Weingut Josef Spreitzer, of Oestrich in the Rheingau, and owners Bernd and Andreas Spreitzer, as they celebrate the 360th anniversary of their estate, and who have apparently not disdained the screw cap, either.
The 'Estate Administrator of the Year' is Dr. Rowald Hepp, of Weingut Schoss Vollrads. The wine world must surely rejoice to hear that this native Franconian bravely took over the huge challenge of the renewal of this estate, which we can hope is on its way back to its historic position in the Rheingau.
Christina Fischer has been named the 'Sommelier of the Year'. She labors at 'Fischer's Weingenuß und Tafelfreuden', the 'Pleasures of Wine and the Joys of the Table'. The illustration alone makes me want to fly next trip into Cologne rather than my customary Luxembourg or Frankfurt to meet the 'naturally charming' owner and experience these promised sensations.
In summary, agree or disagree, one certainly must look very hard at the German wine scene these days to find persons with the influence of Armin Diehl and Joel Payne. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether they have used such influence wisely, and whether that power need be as centered as it is now in its own industry.
This book, as flawed as it is, remains the only effort of its type available in any language. Despite its arguable defects in objectivity and content, it remains a necessity for anyone seriously interested in German wine, either professional or amateur. Recommended with reservations. With the difficulties in obtaining it because of trade barriers, and the lack of an English edition, unfortunately it'll probably only be the intrepid reader who will purchase it.
Feb. 7, 2001