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Wine Legend: Bernkasteler Doctor Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese 1921

Why it makes the Decanter hall of fame...

Wine Legend: Bernkasteler Doctor Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese 1921

Bottles produced 200 to 300

Composition 100% Riesling

Yield N/A

Alcohol level not recorded; probably about 6%

Price on release N/A

Price today One bottle was sold at auction in 1986 for what was then the astronomical sum of 11,100 Deutschmarks (€5,675 at today’s prices)

A legend because…

This was the first Trockenbeerenauslesen to be produced in Germany’€s Mosel Valley (together with a less prestigious example from the Bischöflichen Weingüter). This super-concentrated style had been made in the Rheingau during the 19th century, but was harder to achieve in the cooler Mosel. However, conditions in 1921 made it possible for the Thanisch family to attempt a TBA from its top vineyard -€“ and succeed triumphantly.

At the time

The celebrated 3.25-hectare Doctor vineyard was owned by two families. Dr Hugo Thanisch had bought a large parcel here in 1882, but died 10 years later at the age of 42. His descendants continue to own that parcel. Shortly before his death in 1890, the Wegeler family had also bought a sizeable parcel. Since neither family has sold any vines since that time, the ownership of the Doctor has remained unchanged for over 120 years.

The vintage

1921 was a great year in all the main Riesling regions, allowing a number of Mosel estates to produce TBA wines for the first time. The summer was exceedingly hot, and the small crop brought bunches to very high ripeness levels. The grapes benefited further from botrytis later in the season.

The terroir

The exceptional south-facing vineyard is located high above the town of Bernkastel. It is hard to demonstrate that its black slate soils and microclimate are significantly superior to those of its immediate neighbours such as Graben and Alte Badtube, and the site and its reputation have certainly benefited from having a legend attached: that of the 14th-century Archbishop Boemund II, who was miraculously cured of illness not by his physicians but by a good dose of wine from this site. The grateful prelate then conferred the name Doctor on the vineyard. The vines are ungrafted and some were planted more than a century ago.

The people

The 1921 TBA was made by the Thanisch family, probably overseen by Hugo Thanisch’s widow Katharine, who ran the estate after his death -€“ this is why the property is still known today as that of Witwe (often abbreviated Wwe) Dr Thanisch. In 1986, the Thanisch estate was divided in two, expanding the ownership of the Doctor from two to three estates.

The wine

Since only fully botrytised grapes could be used to make TBA, it is probable that the fruit was picked berry by berry, except when entire bunches were totally affected by noble rot. Fermentation would have been extremely slow, but extremes of residual sugar and acidity have ensured the wine would enjoy a very long life. That life would have been considerably shorter for most bottles had not they (and other ancient vintages) been sealed up in the Thanisch cellar during World War II. Current co-owner Barbara Rundquist-Müller recalls how, in 1959, the Thanisch cellarmaster, Herr Bauer, met by chance a retired estate employee, who asked him what had happened to the wines hidden during the war. This was news to Bauer, but he followed up this lead, tapping on the various walls within the Thanisch cellars. When he detected a hollow sound behind one wall, he realised the wall must be false. He tore it down and found the treasured bottles.

The reaction

Stephen Brook tasted one of the remaining bottles from the Thanisch cellar in 2010, and recorded: ‘Fairly deep copper-gold with amber-olive tints. Powerful nose of figs, dates and toffee. Intensely sweet on the palate, balanced by very high acidity, tight; there are caramel tones but no oxidation. Highly concentrated, with a strong mocha tone, but it’s still amazingly racy and fresh and has incredible length.’

After the same tasting, German wine specialist Michael Schmidt detected darker flavours: ‘Cocoa, bitter chocolate, burnt caramel, roasted hazelnuts. Caramelised Seville oranges and graphite.’

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