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Indelicate, yes be thankful for that Tough guys: Germany's 1994 white wines have more than enough taste to stand up to any feast.


Over the decades, much has been written about fine German wines by some of the finest minds in the business.

It's too bad so much of it is nonsense.

Consider the words of Hugh Johnson, perhaps our finest living wine writer, on the subjects of German wine and food in the 1974 edition of his book "Wine."

"The immediate and most noticeable difference between German and French wines is that German wine tastes weaker. . . .

"Wine like this -- delicate in body, fresh and balanced and scented like a garden of flowers -- is a different matter from the savoury and appetizing white wine of, say, Burgundy, which goes so well with food. Good German wine is not really table wine in the French sense at all. It is not so good with a meal as on its own."

Mr. Johnson ought to set aside a couple of days sometime and taste through about 135 German wines from the 1994 vintage with Washington importer Terry Theise, as I and several colleagues did a few weeks ago. I sincerely doubt he would emerge talking about weak, delicate wines that won't stand up to food.

My intent here is not to single out Mr. Johnson, a famously enthusiastic admirer of German wines whose words were, no doubt, based on the evidence at hand in England at the time he wrote them. The point is that there is a lot written about German wine that does not reflect today's reality in the United States, where Mr. Theise supplies a healthy portion of the finer German wine on the market.

Mr. Theise's 1994 selections are about as delicate as a sock in the jaw. They get in your face and let you know who's boss. It's as if the Blue Nun burned her habit, started lifting weights, bought a Harley and a leather jacket and went looking for some butt to kick.

Make no mistake, this is a very fine vintage, certainly the best since 1990. But generally they are not cuddly wines for drinking today. As much as any vintage in recent memory, they require some patience and thought.

And these wines are hungry. They virtually order you to serve a meal with them. You will want to obey.

That's because 1994 in Germany produced some of the driest sweet wines in recent memory. Because of the blazing acidity of the vintage, even wines with generous residual sugar taste dry. Virtually all of the wines at the spatlese level of ripeness -- as well as some at the auslese level -- are brilliantly suited for serving with such feasts as the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner.

While 1994 was successful in all of the major German regions, overall it seemed to be strongest along the Rhine, especially in the Rheinhessen and the Pfalz, rather than on the Mosel.

Prices have increased in many cases because of the weakness of the dollar against the mark, but fine German wines still represent a value compared with other white wines of the world.

As in all good vintages, a few winemakers turned in performances that go above and beyond the call of duty.

In the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Joh. Jos. Christoffel was the standout performer, along with Merkelbach, Willi Haag, Selbach-Oster and Heribert Kerpen. No surprises here.

In the Nahe, Hermann Donn- hoff produced wines of awesome greatness, and Oskar Mathern and Kruger-Rumpf weren't far behind. In the Rheingau, Gebruder Grimm did its best to revive the flagging reputation of this famous district. Adolf Weingart's Mittelrhein wines once again demonstrated the potential of this oft-forgotten region.

In the Pfalz, Muller-Catoir continued to demonstrate why it is considered one of the five greatest white wine producers in the world. But Kurt Darting and H.& R. Lingenfelder continued to close what is becoming a minuscule gap. Herbert Messmer's wines were, excuse me, mesmerizing, while Theo Minges turned in yet another excellent vintage.

Special recognition must be given to Walter Strub of J. u. H.A. Strub in the Rheinhessen. In 1993, this reliable winery reached heights it had never achieved before with some of the most riveting kabinett and spatlese wines I have ever tasted. In 1994, Strub not only repeated but exceeded its superlative performance.

Strub's brilliance is especially apparent in its gripping 1994 Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Spatlese ($14) and explosive 1994 Niersteiner Bruckchen Riesling Kabinett ($12).

There were far too many excellent wines to list them all, but dessert wine collectors should keep an eye out for half-bottles of three wines I awarded perfect scores: the 1994 Muller-Catoir Mussbacher Eselshaur Rieslaner Auslese ($30), the 1994 Kurt Darting Durk- heimer Hochbenn Muskateller Trockenbeerenauslese ($47) and the 1994 Lingenfelder Freinsheimer Musikantenbuckel Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese ($70).

As you can see, none of these highest-rated wines were made from riesling. It illustrates that while riesling is indisputably Germany's greatest grape, others deserve respect.

In particular, savvy wine enthusiasts should keep an eye out for scheurebes from the Rheinpfalz. The scheurebe is a widely overlooked or underestimated grape, but the wines it produces are some of the world's most dramatic. In the hands of top producers, such as Muller-Catoir, Messmer, Lingenfelder, Minges and Darting, it can be riveting in both its sweet and dry forms.

But don't expect delicate.

Mr. Theise also gave us a "little" warm-up by serving 45 wines he has imported from Austria.

Without getting into details, let it be proclaimed that Austrian wines can indeed be excellent and 1994 has all the markings of a glorious vintage.

Top producers include Familie Nigl, Willi Brundlmayer, Framz Hirtzberger, F. X. Pichler and Erich & Walter Polz.

The wines are generally expensive but comparable to what you would pay for similar quality from Alsace. For adventurous consumers, it's a country whose wines are well-worth exploring.

If I had to pick one it would be the 1994 Familie Nigl Riesling Hochacker, a $35 dry wine of incredible power, length and complexity. The melange of mineral, honey, spice and fruit flavors has to be tasted to be believed. It is truly one of the world's great whites.

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