How do you get a semi-retired wine blogger to grab his tasting glass and head out into the fray again? Make him an offer he can't resist. Include in it: World class red wines, back vintages no longer available anywhere else, an Italian region that he loves, but still knows too little about. To clinch the deal, promise him that he will get to meet a real live Italian nobleman.
Marchese Lamberto de' Frescobaldi is just that, and he is also the director of his family's vast agricultural and wine growing operation. To promote his high-end Tuscan sangiovese, Frescobaldi and their German importer had set up a spectacular vertical tasting in Munich. Read on for my impressions of 30 years of Sangiovese, and a bit with a wild boar.
We had heard a shy young Franconian winemaker talking about finding his own way, a sage dispensing Riesling wisdom, and the hulking star of the river Saar warn us of his own wines. But in spite of our heads beginning to spin, our palates starting to give out, and the lure of Dallmayr's fine sausages, cheeses and chocolates pulling us away, we had not yet heard enough...
In case you missed the first part of this report about Winzerelite ("wine growing elite"), the annual spring tasting hosted by posh Munich wine and fine food store Dallmayr, in which we were talking.... No we weren't, really. We resolved to, this once, fulfil our journalistic calling and let winegrowers do the talking. One wine each, and whatever they wanted to tell us about it and what choices they made in making it - those were the rules.
Two years ago, I reminisced about student days and staircases. Last year, I got all corduroy trousers and turtleneck sweater about the term "elite". Somewhat disappointingly, this has not stopped Dallmayr, the renowned Munich delicatessen store, from again using the name Winzerelite (wine making elite) for their annual spring tasting of German and Austrian estates. Clearly, we needed to try another tack with Dallmayr, who this year actually invited us to attend as - imaging our proudly beaming faces - press. From a friendly chat with Dallmayr's public relations guy, we gathered that they were happy to have bloggers spread the word, but not yet sure how to understand their reach compared to print journalism. Not a scepticism that you often hear in the English-speaking wine world these days, but we were happy to rise to the occasion: a new journalistic approach was clearly called for here.
We decided not to come along with a preconceived set of questions but to actually let the winemakers steer the conversation. We asked the men and women manning the stalls to pour us just one wine, their most important one. That should not have to be the most expensive one, nor necessarily the best, we insisted, but simply the one most worth talking about. And then we tasted, and we listened.
We could not leave the waning year behind without giving you the official shortlist you've all been nervously waiting for. Just to make sure you don't get the wrong impression: This is a highly subjective parade. It's ours alone, and it's in no way a comprehensive ranking. The following are simply those that impressed and delighted us most out of the minuscule drop of German Wine ocean that we happen to have sampled over the past year. It so happens that all of them were from past vintages, rather than fresh out of the 2011 barrels, but again, that is in no way a judgement on the qualities (or lack thereof) of the current vintage.
When we first launched the Wine Rambler, we anticipated, rather optimistically, that wineries might at some point in the future might send us samples to review. But we also always insisted, a touch self-defeatingly perhaps, that we would be very strict about ethics and transparency in doing this. And we are. But the good people of the Terras Gauda winery of Spain, which makes and markets a range of wines from different regions of northwestern Spain did not let themselves be deterred by this, much to their credit, and were kind enough to send us a six bottle sample to review. And it fell to the Munich branch of the blog to do it.
How to go about such a task? I decided on the following course of action: I would not research anyone else's reviews, ratings or scores beforehand. I would not research prices either, which means I could not comment on value, but I wouldn't be influenced by it either. I would also not set up a single tasting where I would compare them in a professional setting. Instead, we would drink the wines at Munich HQ, one at the time, over a couple of weeks, like almost anyone who buys them would: On the kitchen table, after a day's work, with food.
When, every spring, Munich's premier delicatessen store announces an evening of elite wines (and snacks), who am I not to get in line, this time very pleased to be accompanied by Wine Rambler tasting associates Benita and Conny (the latter also photographer for this piece). In last year's report, we walked you through the different wineries' collections in some detail, but I also threatened that I would have a few more general thoughts on the concept of Winzerelite (elite of the winemakers) that Dallmayr has adopted. Why does this make me so deeply uneasy, when it seems so straightforward: The elite is formed by the very best, and who the best are can be established in regular tastings, by journalists, fine wine merchants, and wine guides. Together, they form an elite of sorts, as would athletes, or writers, or scientist or musicians.
The great German social theorist Niklas Luhmann famously proposed that we organize our world in systems, such as love, business, political power and jurisdiction. When they get mixed up, when we try to buy love, or put pressure on a judge, or bribe a politician, our social world is bent out of shape and balance. And here's the problem: Invariably, they get mixed up. So it goes with the idea of an elite.
Tasting wines blind can be cruel. I wonder if Rober Parker Jr. or Jancis Robinson have been there before - that red-faced moment when you realise that what you thought was, say, the 1990 Médoc was in fact the 2001 Lemberger from Württemberg, that where you thought you were on the safe side, you've been as wrong about the identity of two wines as you can possibly be. That sinking feeling. That barely disguised glee in the eyes of the other participants, who knew all along. If so, cheer up, Robert and Jancis, we've been there as well. If you have followed our blind tasting adventures so far, you may get the impression that we have an uncanny tendency to end up there as soon as the paper bags come off, but if so, we do all this in the spirit of selfless sacrifice and journalistic objectivity.
But let's take a step back from the brink of embarassment, and meet the two colour-coded contestants henceforth to be known as Green and Blue. Here is what we knew: One was a classic, somewhat pricey bottle of the very finest English sparkling, provided by London Wine Rambler Torsten, who may be the German-speaking world's most tireless advocate for English Sparklers. The other was a bottle of Vouvray Brut for a mere third of that price, and with absolutely nothing to lose. Not much hope for the underdog, was there?
This new year, as every January, a good many people decided to lay of alcohol for a few weeks and cleanse their bodies of its joyful, but unhealthy effects. But this time, the numerous "detox"-tweets were countered by, a spirited innovation, those advocating a rigorous programme of "retox". As it happens, the authors of this blog are also divided on this topic: One Wine Rambler will have nothing of it, while the second is writing these very words with a cup of peppermint tea before him.
That alone is nothing to write home about, after all, we differ on all kinds of things, wine or non-wine. But it did give me the idea for what follows, namely the attempt to probe the subject a little more deeply than the tweet and counter-tweet format allows for. Read on for some thoughts on lent, puritanism and the boredom of plenty.
While sifting through the candidates for this year's Wine Rambler shortlist, we noticed hat we were less generous with top ratings in 2011 than previously, withholding our highest praise, "monumental", completely. Whether that means we are becoming more exacting in our critical standards or whether the truly stellar wines somehow passed us by and we had to make do with the enormously good we can't quite say. A bit of both, most probably.
As you may not want to take our word for it in every case (and indeed you shouldn't!), we have provided direct links to the wineries' websites for the adventurous among you to follow up, get into contact and inquire about distribution and availability. Almost all German wineries do their own shipping and are quite good at it. In case of deliveries to the UK, however, newly estranged from the European mainland, this will probably have to be arranged via the United Nations. Just joking. Needless to say, The Wine Rambler is entirely his own man, as it were, and not commercially associated with any wineries or merchants, although wines like the following sometimes can make us wish we were.
If you follow this blog regularly (and if not: why not?), you will know that the VDP, Germany's trade association of elite wine estates, hosts an annual tasting in Munich every November that has special significance for the Wine Rambler. We have reported on it last year and the year before that. And we will do so again in a minute. Just a few words to introduce the photographic theme of this posting: Since that chandeliered, psychedelically carpeted lounge has become an extension of our living rooms, as it were, we also take a keen interest in the other tasters gathered there. There are always some sociological observations to make, of course, and to discuss afterwards, about age structure and gender of the sample group, and in fact I think we can report some tentative progress in those two categories, wink wink. But this time, it was something rather different that caught our attention: Shoes.
Hip shoes, boring shoes, sexy shoes, sensible shoes. Endless variety with a few common themes, which makes shoes a bit like wine. That's the kind of thought that looking at mind-altering carpeting in state of growing tipsiness will bring up in the course of an afternoon. In pursuing it, however, we could profit from Wine Rambler Torsten's keen photographic eye, as well as some underhanded camera moves he learned by prowling London as a street photographer.
After Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June of this year, he was remembered with gratitude for something he did when he was 18 years old: In December of 1933, he set off from London to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to what he - a british schoolboy fond of ancient literature - called Constantinople. When Leigh Fermor organised his youthful notebooks into a more coherent narrative many years later, he decided to call it "A Time of Gifts" because of the generosity with which he was received as a traveller along the way: By bargemen on the Rhine, by Austrian noblemen in wayside castles or by monasteries all over these lands.
His departure on the wintry Thames as the sole passenger of a Dutch channel boat, the enchanted hike across the frozen canals of the wintry Netherlands, or even an evening in a notorious Munich beer hall are marvels of evocative travel writing: He turns the memory of youthful adventure into geographically and historically enriched, yet curiously dreamlike and daring prose.
Yes, it's true, I should be working on my foolhardy Burgundy project instead of letting myself get sidetracked by stuff that isn't even wine. And I wasn't going to. But I do like Cider. Germany doesn't have a proper Cider tradition like France, northern Spain or Britain. There is a great love for Apfelwein, the fairly sour regional variant, in parts of Hesse, but that has never gained much commercial traction anywhere further than 100 miles from Frankfurt.
So when I found out that Ziereisen, one of my very favourite wineries, had come out with their own cider, and some time after, that a well-known internet wine merchant had begun sourcing a different one from another reputable producer, who was I not to get in line?
This rather pointless little posting is for fans of aged wines. I don't mean wines cellar-matured to an ideal drinking point, but those left to grow old beyond any responsible borderline moment. It is for those of you who might hunt for old wines on eBay or via specialised merchants, but would never stoop so low as to actually drink what other people throw out in disgust. You don't have to, because this is where your self-sacrificing correspondent comes in. Let me stress, though, that I was not, I was emphatically not rummaging through my next door neighbours' garbage in the hope of finding discarded, but still filled wine bottles. It was rather that someone had left the four of them standing outside of the bin, maybe having been tipped off that there is a pervert living nearby who might have a use for that kind of stuff. He could indeed.
Here, then, is a little report about four random wines whose history is open to anyone's imagination and who have absolutely nothing to lose in terms of taste.
If Swabia were a nation, it would as of now be the world's only nation ruled by an environmentalist green prime minister. And it would have a national grape. And that grape's name would be Trollinger. Trollinger, known also as Vernatsch in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy, a grape that Jancis Robinson's authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine classifies as "distinctly ordinary". Not many outside of Württemberg deny that this is so. What it makes for, so received wisdom has it, are pale reds with harmless light strawberry aromatics and hints of almonds at best, and a thin, metallic, boiled mash of berries if you're not so lucky.
The Swabians, however, will have none of it, and stubbornly and inexplicably stand by their grape, downing Trollinger as if it had the proverbial cure inside. It weren't so bad if this was a bread-and-butter grape like Müller-Thurgau, unexciting, but at least easy to grow and reliable even on vineyards with less than ideal soil, climate and slope. But it is very much a diva among varieties and needs ideal conditions to fully ripen, effectively making every acre of it an acre lost for Riesling or Pinot Noir. So to see for myself if this is just a lesson in sociology or collective psychology (for which read provincialism, parochialism and auto-suggestion), I decided to taste three Trollingers that had received good press.
When we first got into wine blogging - and you can add a "...son" to that and imagine us silver-haired connoisseurs absent-mindedly swirling a '78 Bordeaux above our huge mahagoni table to set the scene -, when we first got into wine blogging, we quickly learned there is one bow in the blogger's quiver that seldom misses: hyperbole. We learned that a nice bottle of wine is a revelation, an ordinary bottle of wine is boring you to tears, a good winemaker is a winemaking genius, and so on.
The lesson we have learned very well is that there doesn't have to be a whole lot behind a story to make it a good story. In that spirit, we offer you the great Wine Rambler vertical of Lukas Krauß Silvaner.
One Saturday in early may, the regular 08.50 to Ochsenbach left Sachsenheim Station after having waited for the regional train from Stuttgart. The contents of that bus as it wound its way through what in a larger town one would call the outskirts, on to Hohenhaslach, past Spielberg and through increasingly picturesque beech forests, half-timbered villages and sun-streaked fields of flowers: 17 chatty, hiking-gear-attired senior citizens off to a walking tour, one insufferably precocious 13 year old boy giving a lecture on the importance of sunscreen to nobody in particular, and one Wine Rambler from Munich.
I had begun the ride somewhat under the weather due to an impossibly early start, but as we got under way, a feeling of deep provincial calm was beginning to settle over me. I was going for a strolling visit of a recultivated historical vineyard all by myself, and then the tasting room of the winery that made this happen. Shuffling into a more comfortable position in my Swabian-made bus seat, I was loving this already. Little did I expect to also learn the lesson that not all in wine making is sunlight and prosperity.
Oh the songs
Pour down like silver
They can only
Only break my heart
Drink the wine
The wine of lovers
Lovers tired of being apart [read the full post...]
Dallmayr, Munich's traditional upscale delicatessen store, traditionally advertises the glories of its fine wine department by hosting a springtime tasting where a few select german and austrian wine growers and makers present the upcoming vintage in person. For some years now, they have given this event the ringingly neo-liberal and upper-middle classy title Winzerelite (elite of the wine growers). I'm itching to, and maybe some day will, write a whole separate posting on the sociology of what is right and what is deeply wrong with this name. But leaving that aside for the moment, I can't deny they always choose characterful venues to hold it in.
Before reviewing what the elite had brought to Munich, the few of them that we focussed on, I cannot spare you a few extra words on this year's location, the Bavarian State Library, as it is very special indeed, not least to myself.
Admirers of the New York-based writer Jonathan Safran Foer, and their number is large, know what to expect from the author of the acclaimed novels "Everything is illuminated" and "Extremely loud & Incredibly close": Foer-fiction. Tales of human suffering and grief told in a manner that is feathery light, endlessly inventive, hilarious and poignant at the same time. Now consider these sentences from his latest book:
After the bird's heads are pulled off and their feet removed, machines open them with a vertical incision and remove their guts. Contamination often occurs here, as the high-speed machines commonly rip off intestines, releasing feces into the birds' body cavities.
Safran Foer's readers have always been willing to be surprised, but few will have been ready for an all-out manifesto about the systematic cruelty of industrial meat production and the moral quality of vegetarianism. But he has written one.
The book is neither brand new (published 2009) nor about wine, so this is not a straightforward Wine Rambler book review. But if, after all the fun and games of writing guilelessly about wine and food, there is also a place for more serious reflection in wine blogging, this, I think, is a good place to start.
In what has become a Wine Rambler tradition, whenever we get a full committee meeting (Wine Ramblers proper and significant others) together, we do a little blind tasting comparing two wines that ought in theory be very similar on the basis of grape variety, style or pricing. This time, two aged Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends, one an actual mid-range Bordeaux, Chateau Poujeaux 1994, the other a Napa Valley classic, Mayacamas 1992. Braised vension, red cabbage, Spätzle and chestnuts were on hand to keep the contestants company.
We had been wrong before - and so uncorked bottle No. 1 with due concentration and a sense of humility.