The recent MS symposium at the Four Seasons Las Colinas in Dallas was a fantastic experience with over 75 American and Canadian Masters attending. One of the highlights of the weekend for me was getting to moderate a panel tasting of Erste Lage wines from Germany. Fellow Master and good friend Laura Williamson joined me on stage along with winemakers Anagret Reh Gartner of Reichsgraf von Kesselstadt in the Mosel and Johannes Eser from Weingut Johannisof in the Rheingau. Our task was to lead the group through some 15 Erstes Gewächs and Grosses Gewächs Rieslings as well as three outstanding Spätburgunder.
For many this was a wonderful and rare opportunity to taste through a range of top flight dry Rieslings from Germany’s best producers. It also offered a much-needed forum to discuss Erste Lage as a category and what it means not only to the MS community but to the students and consumers as well. It’s safe to say that the Erste Lage system is arguably one of the more challenging concepts in wine curriculum. A little background, needless to say, is probably a good thing.
In 2002 a group of 17 Masters from the U.S., U.K, and Europe traveled to Germany for an international convention. One of the events scheduled during the week was a one hour meeting with Michael Prinz zu Salm Salm, then head of the VDP. At that time the Erste Lage system had just been proposed to the VDP membership and approved. Prinz Salm went into great detail about the genesis of the Erste Lage concept, saying that the VDP had pressed the German courts to amend the 1971 laws that dictated must weight at harvest as the sole arbiter of quality. The VDP, he went on to say, wanted to return Germany’s best vineyards to prominence one the world wine stage. In the decades that followed the VDP attempts at legal change in the German courts at astronomical expense proved to no avail. By the end of the 1990’s Prince Salm said the organizations only realistic solution was to create their own classification.
The Erste Lage Classification: 2006 – 2012
Fast forward to 2006: the VDP approves the use of“Erste Lage“ (top site) as the umbrella term for all VDP wines of the highest quality made from the country’s top vineyard sites. Dry wines from the Rheingau would be designated as Erstes Gewächs (trademarked under Hessian law) while the other 12 regions would use Grosses Gewächs to designate their top dry wines. The Erste Lage classification would also include the top fruity styled wines from Spätlese to TBA from the same top vineyard sites. The specific sites would be determined by each regional VDP association. The second tier was designated as Klassifizierte Lage, or classified sites, and the final tier of quality pyramid was called Gutsweine or Ortsweine, which consisted of estate wines.
The classification was as follows:
I. Erste Lage
a. Dry wines designated ERSTES or GROSSES GEWÄCHS
b. Fruity wines with natural sweetness denoted by the traditional prädikats
II. Klassifizierte Lage/Ortswein/Terroirwein
III. Gutsweine & Ortsweine
Erste Lage Criteria
Each regional VDP was allowed to select and publish the specific list of vineyards and approved grape varieties. Further, a maximum yield of 50 hl/ha was set for Erste Lage wines along with mandatory hand-harvesting and a minimum must weight of Spätlese level. For dry wines a maximum residual sugar level of nine grams per liter was also set. Every Erste Lage wine was to be tasted by a VDP panel before sale and packaged with the Erste Lage logo. White wines could be released for commercial sale on September 1st the year after the harvest and red wines September 1st two years after the harvest. Fruity-styled Spätlese wines could be released on March 1st the year after the harvest.
Klassifizierte Lage/Ortswein/Terroirwein Criteria
Klassifizierte Lage wines are also sourced from classified sites from superior vineyard sites. The vineyard source can be listed on the bottle with the maximum yield set at 65 hl/ha. No restrictions are placed on the wines in terms of the taste profile; the wines caneither be dry or fruity in style. As with the Erste Lage wines, the approved grape varieties and minimum must weights would be determined by regional VDP associations.
The Gutsweine category is primarily comprised of an estate’s “house“ wines. However, at least 80% of an estate’s holdings must be planted with traditional grape varieties typical of their region. The maximum yield was set at 75hl/ha. As with the other two levels, the minimum must weight would be determined by regional VDP associations.
***2012: VDP Classification Update
After the symposium I received a letter from Anagret Reh Gartner outlining changes inthe VDP classification. Just before the Dallas event the entire organization voted on and approved the following changes which would expand the classification to four designations for VDP appellations of origin. In differentiating Grosse Lage and Erste Lage, The VDP model is meant to emulate the system of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in Burgundy.
I. VDP Grosse Lage
II. VDP Erste Lage
III. VDP Ortswein
IV. VDP Gutswein
The changes included the following:
· VDP Grosse Lage replaces Erste Lage as the top designation. The terminology has been shifted to reconcile the differences between the use of the Erste Lage and Grosses Gewächs designations as well as to emphasize the status of traditional prädikat wines from the top vineyard sites.
· From the 2012 vintage on the designation VDP Grosse Lage will be used to denote the finest vineyards of a region for all VDP member estates. Members unanimously approved ongoing use of the designation Grosses Gewächs to denote the finest dry wines from Germany’s finest vineyards.
· The use of the designation VDP Erste Lage to denote very good sites, is optional and to be determined region by region. The regions can also determine when, if ever, to introduce the use of VDP Erste Lage.
· The Prädikats are to be used exclusively for wines with natural, ripe sweetness. The Prädikats can be used for wines in all categories except VDP Gutswein.
· Specific taste profiles for the Prädikats are to be determined region by region. Members are to refrain from using Prädikats for dry and off-dry wines, thereby enabling the Prädikats to resume their traditional meaning.
Finally, here is the list of outstanding wines tasted.
1. 2005 Johannes Eser Rüdesheim Berg Rottland Riesling Erstes Gewächs, Rheingau
Notes of ripe orchard and tropical fruits with white flower, honey, chamomile and stony earth. Very rich, complex and long.
2. 2008 Johannes Eser Rüdesheim Berg Rottland Riesling Erstes Gewächs, Rheingau
More floral than 2005 with hints of passionfruit and hyacinth and more pronounced earth. Very intense mineral/acid finish.
3. 2010 Johannes Eser Rüdesheim Berg Rottland Riesling Erstes Gewächs, Rheingau
Honey, flowers, peach and Meyer lemon. Young and almost tannic finish in terms of acidity and dry extract.
4. 2008 Franz Künstler Hochheim Kirchenstück Riesling Erstes Gewächs, Rheingau
Pear marmalade, apricot and a wide range of tropical fruits; white flowers, apricot, honey; long, filigree finish. Delicious.
5. 2009 Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg Riesling Erstes Gewächs, Rheingau
Tropical and sweet citrus notes with white flowers, spice and very intense minerality.
6. 2009 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Scharzhofberger Riesling Grosses Gewächs, Mosel
Citrus blossom, lime, kiwi, and brown spice. Amazing minerality and length.
7. 2009 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Josephshöfer Riesling Grosses Gewächs, , Mosel
Green apple, white peach, under ripe pineapple, white flowers, and pronounced slatey minerality.
8. 2010 PrinzSalm Felseneck Riesling Grosses Gewächs, Nahe
Bright citrus and orchard fruits with floral, saline and intensely salty mineral notes. Long and persistent finish.
9. 2007 Schäfer-Fröhlich Felseneck Riesling Grosses Gewächs, Nahe
Richer, weightier and rounder than PrinzSalm with Burgundian notes and a long earthy finish.
10. 2010 Gunderloch Nackenheim Rothenberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs, Rheinhessen
Screams apricots and spice with bright floral, peach, kiwi and lime notes.
11. 2010 Wagner Stempel Siefersheimer Heerkretz Riesling Grosses Gewächs, Rheinhessen
Peach, passionfriut, and tart citrus notes. Amazing intensity and length.
12. 2007 Pfeffingen Herrenberg “Mardelskopf” Riesling Grosses Gewächs, Pfalz
Ripe tropical and stone fruits with sweet citrus and stone/mineral. Elegant restrained with wonderful balance.
13. 2010 Ökonomierat Rebholz Kastanienbusch Riesling Grosses Gewächs, Pfalz
Lifted floral and honey notes with stone and tropical fruits.
14. 2009 Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat Riesling Spätlese – Erste Lage, Mosel
Very rich and opulent with tropical, kiwi and lime notes and slate on the finish.
15. 2009 Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Josephshöfer Riesling Spätlese, Mosel
Notes of honey, floral, Pippin, lime and slate; unctuous and long.
16. 2008 Meyer-Näkel Dernau Pfarrwingert Pinot Noir Grosses Gewächs, Ahr
Tart red fruits with notes of beet, tea, orange spice, and forest floor.
17. 2007 Rudolf Fürst Bürgstadt Centgrafenberg Pinot Noir “R” Grosses Gewächs, Franken
Vinous, tart, and herbal with soil and spice notes on the finish.
18. 2007 Friedrich Becker Kammerberg Pinot Noir Grosses Gewächs, Pfalz
Very pure red berry fruit w spice, tea/herb and mineral notes.