Forget dusty old Port or ancient clarets from Bordeaux. The Methuselahs of the wine world are white wines from Germany. In the cellar of the town hall in Bremen, there are casks of wine from 1653 and 1727, from which visitors may sometimes taste.
Incredibly, these ancient nectars still have fleeting hints of flavor and substance. When the great British wine critic Hugh Johnson tasted the oldest bottle of still-drinkable wine, a Franconian vintage from the freakishly hot year 1540, he was sipping one of our planet’s oldest living things. “Nothing has ever demonstrated to me so clearly that wine is indeed a living organism,” Johnson wrote in his fabulous Vintage: The Story of Wine. “For perhaps two mouthfuls we sipped a substance that had lived for over four centuries.”
After that, as often happens with very old wines suddenly exposed to air, the fragile liquid turned into undrinkable vinegar. Johnson is vague about the actual taste during those first few sips. Perhaps we lack the vocabulary for this ineffable substance.
Each sip of this century-old liquid was a brief glimpse into a glorious summer at the close of Europe's golden age.
With the mystique of ancient wines firing up my imagination, I jumped at an invitation to join a group of wine professionals at one of Germany’s oldest wineries to taste Rieslings spanning an entire century. Though the lineup of wines went back “only” to 1911, that year alone is considered one of the greatest of the 20th century. This extraordinary opportunity to sample a century of wines is possible at just a tiny handful of the world’s best and oldest wineries. None of them has a more complete collection than our hosts, the Kloster Eberbach winery high above the banks of the Rhine about an hour west of Frankfurt.
An 11th-century former monastery founded by migrant monks from Burgundy, Eberbach’s vaults are stocked with wines going back to 1706. The collection has survived multiple wars and economic depressions and survives almost intact. Thanks to the negotiating skills and broken English of the then-winemaker’s wife, the cellars were only partially ransacked by the Third U.S. Army’s thirsty soldiers as they fought their way across Germany during World War II. Some of the cellars’ greatest treasures, 122 wines in all, would now be ours to taste in a carefully choreographed tasting stretching over two entire days, with a black-tie dinner in between.
Arriving at Eberbach for this once-in-a-lifetime event, this ordinary journalist felt like he’d snuck into a rarefied world of expert connoisseurs and plutocrat collectors. These kinds of multi-day mega-tastings of rare vintages were all the rage in the go-go 1990s, when nouveau-riche collectors outspent one another on the most extravagant wine bashes, competing over who could procure the oldest and hardest-to-find bottles. For a few years, this conspicuous fashion produced an entire industry that tracked down and sold implausibly superannuated wines. Naturally, demand vastly exceeded supply.
The most notorious of these specialist wine traders was Hardy Rodenstock, a German former pop composer, who not only organized some of the world’s most outrageous wine bashes, but also flooded the market with a seemingly endless store of ever-older bottles whose sources he never disclosed. His downfall was his claim to have secretly discovered a large cache of bottles in Paris allegedly owned by Thomas Jefferson when he was the United States’ first ambassadorvto France in the late 1700s – bottles Rodenstock then sold for hundreds of thousands of euros to gullible collectors. A German court has since declared Rodenstock (whose real name is Meinhard Görke) a fraud. His shady dealings have been immortalized in the bestselling book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar.
We were lucky that the wines weren’t red Bordeaux or California Chardonnays, or we’d have been a mess by the time the most prized vintages arrived.
Presiding over our event was Ralf Frenzel, publisher of the German wine magazine Fine and a one-time protégé of Rodenstock’s. All the wines were authentic, of course. Yet Frenzel not only seems to share his former mentor’s love for big-bash tastings, but also enforces Rodenstock’s strict rule against spitting out any wine. Normally, professional tasters facing more than 100 wines use a spittoon to keep their taste buds fresh and avoid getting sloshed (though it’s easy to see Frenzel’s point that these treasures deserve not to go to waste). We were lucky that the wines before us weren’t red Bordeaux or California Chardonnays, or we’d have been a mess by the time the oldest and most prized vintages arrived at the end of the second day. One of the lovely selling points of German Rieslings is that they generally have far less alcohol than the average French or American wine.
Our eclectic group of 15 tasters included a Chinese collector of 2,000-dollar bottles, the eccentrically plaid-suited British wine critic Stuart Pigott, several wine experts from different corners of Europe, plus Angelo Gaia, the legendary founder of Italy’s premier wine estate and a regular at Frenzel’s events.
What makes Riesling such a cult wine for wine greats like Mr. Gaia isn’t just its longevity, but its almost infinite changeability and variation. No wine made from another grape so clearly expresses the mystical notion of “terroir” – the combination of soil, climate, and winemaking skill that makes a wine taste unique, as coming from only one particular place in the world.
Riesling grown on slate, like on the steep riverbanks of the river Moselle, has a crystalline, ethereal freshness. Volcanic soil gives Riesling a creamy richness, as if the vine’s deep roots were extracting bits of flavor from the minerals. In Germany’s northern climate, where the grapes ripen only slowly and the last bunches aren’t picked until October and beyond, Riesling seems to find its most concentrated and sublime expression. The very best Rieslings, like the ones we were about to taste, develop additional layers of taste and complexity as they age. They can easily reach 30 years or more.
For all these reasons, German Rieslings used to be the world’s most sought-after wines: A wine list from the Savarin Café, one of New York’s swankiest restaurants around 1900, lists a bottle from Eberbach’s Steinberger vineyard for $12 (about $320 in today’s dollars), compared to $5 for a Romanée-Conti from Burgundy and $8 for a Chateau d’Yquem from Bordeaux. Today, the two French wines would set you back $9,000 and $800, respectively, while the Steinberger sells for a measly $60 a bottle – a legacy of shifting consumer tastes and a stretch of poor German winemaking in the 1970s and 80s. Now, buyers are returning to top-notch German wines, and prices are leaping upwards. It may be the only case of European asset inflation that hasn’t been blamed on the ECB.
Our tasting started with the youngest wines from the 2000s, before we slowly worked our way back across the years. They were served in flights of eight wines each, a few sips poured into each of the eight large tasting glasses in front of each taster. Working our way from wine to wine, we took notes on color, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and finish – those sensations that linger on the palate long after you’ve swallowed the wine.
As we made our way backwards in time, the fresh and fruity flavors reminiscent of apples, pears, peaches or grapefruit slowly gave way to riper, more complex sensations. There came whiffs of caramel and raisin bread, tastes of smoke and spice, and a hint of chocolate. The best of the older years, like 1920 and 1945, had a little kick of citrus-like acidity, which helps preserve the wine and retain some of its freshness.
By now, we were tasting our way through history: The 1945 was excellent, yet few grapes were picked as most workers lay dead across Europe or were interned as POWs. The 1933 vintage we tasted was the first under Nazi rule; soon Jewish wine traders would be forced out of business. Vintages from the post-World-War-I hunger years became prized assets, better than currency, when hyperinflation hit in 1923.
There was no guarantee that the oldest wine, a 1911 Steinberger, hadn’t yet turned into dead, undrinkable vinegar like almost every other wine that old. And yet – alive it was. Just out of its bottle, the dark amber liquid gave off a musty, mushroom-like whiff that quickly blew away. The taste on the tongue was nutty and spicy, not unlike a very dry sherry. Miraculously, there was still a fleeting hint of fruit, reminiscent of a desiccated raisin, that had somehow survived across the years. Each sip of this century-old liquid was a brief glimpse into a glorious summer at the close of Europe’s golden age. When workers picked those grapes whose taste we could faintly discern, Germany’s sovereign was Kaiser Wilhelm, the sun never set on the British Empire, and Roald Amundsen was about to discover the South Pole. Three summers later, the Continent descended into its 20th-century hell.
With our two-day tasting marathon completed after 122 wines, we blissfully emerged into an afternoon sun shining over the vineyards first planted by those 11th-century monks. Just as in the Kaiser’s day, the grapes were slowly ripening on the Steinberger vines that sloped down before us towards the Rhine. Over a snack of cold cuts and fresh-baked bread, set up on a long table under an old walnut tree, we still had a little while before returning our attention back to the present.
Until then, we could ponder what other ancient tales and treasures those vaults still held in store.
Stefan Theil is the managing editor of Handelsblatt Global Edition Magazine.