2016: back to cool climate

Given the amount of rainfall, 2016 was an extreme year. We have become so used to rather warm and dry years that our fear is no longer excessive rainfalls but droughts. But vintage 2016 reminds us that we still live in the climate that’s long been the standard for wine regions on our parallels. In fact, 2016 is a kind of flashback to the 1980s and 1990s.
So let’s have a closer look at 2016. It was a vintage that often seemed on the verge of catastrophe. A vintage that made our vineyard team work lots of extra hours – and which was, thankfully, saved by the sunniest and driest late summer of the past ten years. But 2016 was a vintage for those who strictly controlled yield in order to have a healthy balance on the vines. Those who got greedy and were hoping to get both high yields and perfect physiological ripeness with great flavor now have comparatively “empty” wines in the cellar, wines without structure and density. While 2015 was a rather generous vintage, 2016 has turned out to be a classic vintage where the decision to limit the crop was essential.
The winter of 2015 to 2016 was a rather average winter, with few days below freezing. It was followed by a rather chilly and very rainy spring. A late cold front hit the majority of Western and Central European wine regions between April 26 and 30, during which period we had bud break in Pfalz, a moment when the vines are especially sensitive. On the night of April 28th temperatures dropped here in Deidesheim to -2.9 degrees Celsius. It was only for a couple of hours, but long enough to do some damage in the vineyards. We got spared for the most part, but there was some damage in our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards in Friedelshem and Niederkirchen. After the frost, temperatures quickly climbed up to 25 degrees on Ascension weekend. So we were able to do our annual wine presentation that weekend outside in the garden with perfectly sunny and warm weather.
But the frost saints brought another cold front and temperatures dropped to near freezing, which delayed development in the vineyards. Excessive rainfalls in May and June created perfect conditions for peronospora right at the time when flowering started, which made this period both labour intense and stressful. As a certified organic producer, we had to be twice as cautious and monitor the vines on a daily base. We cannot thank our vineyard manager Werner Sebastian enough for bringing the vines through that difficult period without real damage. Nothing beats experience in those kinds of years. In August, temperatures dropped to as low as 4 degrees one night, and on the third weekend in August rain hit the region on Saturday and Sunday. Our nerves were on edge as the continuous rainfalls, the lack of sun and the cold temperatures gave little hope for a good vintage.
But after a barely noticeable summer came a beautiful, warm, sunny and dry late summer beginning at the end of August. We had perfect weather conditions until the third week of October and used this dry period to manually defoliate the grape zone in all our vineyards. At first we only did the side away from the sun, and when the late heat wave had passed, we did the side facing the sun. In our grand cru vineyards we did an extra green harvest to make sure the remaining grapes had a better chance to reach perfect ripeness.
Harvest started on September 8 with the Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay we use as the base wines for our sparkling. Pinot Noir, which in 2015 was the first grape to be picked, came in next. By this time we had already realized that 2016 was going to be very good for Sekt production, as the grapes were showing the perfect parameters for the production of base wines. This early assumption has now been confirmed by the first tastings of the fermented base wines.
The main harvest was tough on everybody’s nerves again, as we witnessed a never-seen-before phenomenon in our vineyards: total halt in the vineyards for nearly three weeks. The vines stopped producing sugar despite perfect weather conditions. In some of the vineyards, we gained a total of three oechsle within a three week period. But we did not give up and went through all the vineyards with the team doing manual selection, and brought home bunch after bunch. In some of our vineyards we had to do four passages within six weeks to get the ripe grapes and allow the vine to concentrate on the remaining crop. This extremely labour intensive strategy helped us to harvest the grapes for our VDP Grosses Gewächs right before the heavy rainfalls on October 20 and 24. At the beginning of November, the team went out again to bring botrytised grapes for our Auslese wines home and we still have a couple of rows reserved for Eiswein. At the moment it looks like we might get lucky for the first time since the 2007 vintage to produce a Riesling Eiswein at von Buhl. So keep your fingers crossed!  
Vintage 2016 has been the longest and most labour intense vintage of the past few decades. We had our entire team running seven days a week, for nearly two months. When we taste the wines in the cellar, we can tell that this intense focus was the right decision. Without the extra effort of more hours, the green harvest, the defoliation and the repeated picking, 2016 would have been a poor vintage. But all the work has paid off and 2016 is a very elegant, subtle vintage with nothing muscular or loud mouthed about it. The differences from one vineyard to another are clearly discernable. The wines from 2016 will be kept, as always, on lees at least until March. It will need this time to fully develop. Much more so than 2015, 2016 needs patience. And we will be patient and hope for your understanding.

Comments by vineyard manager and winemaker:
Werner Sebastian, vineyard manager: My quote from last year, that I have never had a vintage like that can be repeated. But it was totally different in 2016. Late frost, unparalleled rainfalls in May and June, with so much to worry about and so much fear. I never thought we would get the grapes to ripeness in 2016 – and then this incredible late summer kicked in and saved us. You can’t have more ups and downs in one year. A vintage that has been so intense and a vintage for every extra hour has paid off.

Mathieu Kauffmann, winemaker: A crazy vintage. But let’s be thankful: compared to so many other parts of Germany and wine regions in Europe we got off with a slap on the wrist. None of us would have thought in June that we harvest healthy and ripe grapes. But then everything did turn out fine. OK, it was all last minute, and so intense in every respect, but it is beautiful to see how the must has turned into beautiful wines. An elegant year, modest in alcohol, and subtle, with the vineyards showing their individual character beautifully.