Württemberg is not one of the wine regions the average wine drinker will know much about; most likely they will not even have heard about it. Now, I could tell you a that it is a rather interesting area - a red wine making region dominated by a plethora of growers associations and rivers - but the main reason I like to drink wines made by the local tribe of the Swabians is that I was born there. In fact, as a child I played not far from Rainer Schnaitmann's Lämmler vineyard.
So every now and then I need to go back, to check what my homies are up to.
As this week will have a French wine theme - Wednesday I am invited to a French rosé and food event - I figured I should kick it off with a wine from one of my favourite French regions: the Loire. Admittedly, its more famous cousins Burgundy, Champagne or Bordeaux would usually be mentioned first, but I love both the freshness and the quirkiness of the Loire wine. In many ways it is the French region that suits my style most.
It is also the French wine region that got me hooked on Chenin Blanc, partly due to the exciting wines coming from Domaine Huet.
What you are looking at is nothing less than the best Chardonnay ever made in Germany. Well, sort of. First of all the photo below only shows Chardonnay grapes and not the bottled "R" as, despite following best practice in digital preservation, our shots of the "R" had an unfortunate encounter with oblivion. Secondly, I have no idea whether Bernhard Huber's 2009 Chardonnay really is the best German Chardonnay ever bottled - but when we heard that the respectable wine guide Wein Plus had made that claim it was time to investigate.
So, ladies and gentlemen, come join us for another mission in our never-ending quest to do our journalistic duty.
A while ago a friend introduced the Wine Rambler by saying that "Torsten and Julian write about German wines, mostly sweet ones". Looking back over the last month, last few years in fact, it is easy to see that that's not true - this year we haven't featured a single sweet wine and only a couple off-dry ones. As much as that reflects the German trend towards "trocken" (dry) it is also a serious oversight on our parts. So, to make up for it we, er, give you another dry Riesling - because the first half of 2013 has been a really "dry" year for us. Well, unless you think of the weather of course.
There will of course be sweeter times again, but for today let's turn to a German wine region that is not as visible internationally as it deserves, Rheinhessen, and an old vines ("Alte Reben") wine made by a young winemaker from grapes grown in a famous vineyard.
It's well known that for the first few years after planting, vines yield bumper harvests, but cannot quite produce the concentrated, characterful flavour in their grapes that old vines are renowned for. So it struck me as somewhat self-defeating when I saw "from young vines" clearly spelled out on this Swabian Cabernet Franc (yes, that's right: Swabian Cabernet Franc) - as far as I'm aware, there is no obligation for a wine grower to inform customers of this on their label. It's either unusually decent and straightforward of Hans Hengerer, who is still a fairly young vine himself, to put it on there.
Or, and this became more plausible for me with every sip of this wine - it is actually a teaser: "It's that good now. Just wait till you taste it when they're fully grown...". Because it actually is that good now:
Seven years is not a biblical age for a bottle serious red wine, but the Austrian wine scene being obsessed with youth and each new vintage, it is not quite so easy to find older bottles of interesting Austrian reds. Except if you manage to navigate this Wine Rambler's tiny cramped cellar. Recently, I got lucky down there, and found this. Upon seeing the label and suddenly remembering having bought it all those years ago, I made the executive decision that its time had come. It had that in common with the goose who had lost her life for Martinmas and was about to be cooked with some apples and red cabbage.
The Leithaberg is a range of low hills northwest of Lake Neusiedl that a few winemakers from Austria's Burgenland region discovered for its cooler, steeper vineyards after they had become bored by the powerfully fruity, but somewhat complacent wines to be made from their lakeside plots.
You've had to wait unusually long since the last review, so we owe you something nice. How does a bottle of Germany's most underestimated grape variety sound? Silvaner, and our more regular readers are rolling their eyes heavenward at this point, is Germany's second great signature grape and it deserves to be more widely known as King Riesling's earthier, less capricious brother. Needless to say, we love it. As opposed to Riesling, Silvaner is almost always dry, and it comes in two broad stylistic types: Lighter, crisper, Kabinett-style bottlings, tasting of fresh green apples and summer lawns, and then the richer, creamier, earthier style from riper grapes that give you yellow apples, deep minerality and plush weight such as dry Riesling seldom has.
This offering by the Störrlein winery, consistently good among Franken's producers, falls into the second type:
While German wineries, even quite good ones, can seem unduly modest about their own accomplishments and shy about marketing to new groups of consumers, no such light treading for our southern neighbour, Austria. Austria's wine reputation was all but shattered by the dramatic adulterated wine scandal of 1985. From this low point, Austrian wine has - and here, the tired metaphor makes sense for once - pullet itself up by its own bootstraps, and wineries are rightly and vocally proud of their successes. Austrians themselves have fuelled the growth of a new wine scene with all but insatiable home demand. That, too, makes a great difference from Germany, where wine patriotism was lukewarm for the longest time and has only really taken off in the wake of the Große Gewächse (great growth/grand cru) campaign.
The Thermenregion south of Vienna is one of those success stories, as it supplies the ever-thirsty throats of Vienna with original whites from indigenous grapes such as Zierfandler and Rotgipfler. The Schellmann winery, run as a side project by the Kamptal winemaker Fred Loimer and some partners, is one of those confident establishments, as you can tell by the label: Love me or leave me, it seems to say, and I don't think you're going to leave me, are you now?
This is a story of failure and sloppiness. My failure and sloppiness, I hasten to add - no such crime was committed by the Salweys. In fact the Baden winemaking family have done everything right. Not only did they make a substantial, interesting Grauburgunder (internationally better known as Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio), they also shipped a bottle of it in the most timely manner when a few years ago I put an order in with them. Since then it waited for a special occasion.
And when the occasion came I failed it - by accidentally deleting the photo I had taken before I did my backup, and then only realising this when the bottle was on the way to the recycling plant. So blame me, but please do read on.
Philipp Kuhn, so his website proudly proclaims, is not only a 50%/50% but also a 100% man. Mathematically that may be sound, in a confusing way, but how does it relate to German wine? In a confusing but sound way, I would say. With his percentage rule the Pfalz winemaker stands for an internationally still overlooked, but nationally even more important trend: while half of Philipp's wines are white, the other 50% are red. And all 100% are dry. Well, every other year there may be a few bottles of sweeter stuff, but if we generously round up the 100% is probably still true.
Anyway, this Riesling is dry. A top Riesling from a grand cru vineyard. Is it more a 50/50 affair or a 100% win?
Dear readers, you know what we're about here. You know how much we try to promote a sense of place and provenance as the basis of wine culture. And we always will. But when it comes to the traditional German way of naming a wine not by what might catch on with people, but by a hermetic kind of descriptive prose that tells you about the exact vineyard that produced the grapes, how ripe they were when harvested, how dry or otherwise the finished wine will taste and so on, we're torn. It can be great for wine nerds like us, but, language problems aside, it's fair to accept that many people don't care about it: Just tell me what wines are good to buy, ok? Fair enough, and up to a point, I even agree. Branded wines are a great thing, if and in so far as they do what, in a perfect world, brands should do for consumers: Find something they can like and depend on without reading up on what Germans call Warenkunde - specialist knowledge to decipher and recognize product quality and decipher the codes that products are packaged with and sold by.
And by introducing the PinoTimes project created by two young winemakers from the Pfalz, I think I can give you an example of what I mean:
When last encountered on this blog, the plucky little Württemberg winery of Georg and Anja Merkle was in the immediate aftermath of a damaging freak frost. I reported on the brave face that Georg and Anja Merkle put on what was a serious (and completely undeserved) setback, as well as on their philosophy of quality winemaking (you'll find the full story here). It seemed to me then, as I tasted my way through their portfolio, and I tried to put this very politely in the article, that their red wines especially might be pushing too hard. Too hard for power, too hard for concentration, that, impressive as they are, they may sometimes have left lightness and charm behind in order to run with the big boys.
As it so happens, I found the biggest boy of those I took home with me last year still sitting in my cellar, silently flexing his muscles. So is it time for another look, and maybe a reassessment?
Sometimes Burgundy is not in France. Well, technically it might still be in France, for all I know, but metaphysically speaking I believe Burgundy is also a state of wine that can travel - and like the holy spirit of wine it can come down elsewhere and turn red wine into true Pinot Noir. Some of you heathens will now think of Oregon, New Zealand or California, but I have seen it happen in one of the more unlikely places on earth: the cool climate Mosel.
Yes, the Mosel makes Pinot Noir that can rival Burgundy. There may not be much of it, but I think of one man in particular, driven by faith in his vines: Markus Molitor.
We have all been there. You meet someone. At a wine bar, a pub, a club. They look nice, approachable. You talk a little and it goes easy, very easy. Almost too easy - you realise: a smooth operator. Now you should be careful, but somehow it feels good. Until disappointment finds you at last. However, as you get older, more experienced, you learn to spot them before it is too late: pleasant surface, charming, very smooth - but shallow and hollow, a disappointment. You are now a grown-up, and you won't fall for that trick.
I am a grown-up, and I won't fall for that trick. Or will I?
FX - for most people these letters stands for excitement, explosions and all sorts of sparkles. The same is true for fans of Austrian wine, just that they don't think of digital visual or sound effects, they think of Franz Xaver (Pichler)'s Wachau wines. On 16ha of vineyard land in what to me is one of the underrated wine regions in Europe, the Pichlers grow Grüner Veltliner and Riesling (plus a little Sauvignon Blanc), and over the years have managed to build up an excellent reputation.
Because of all the praise for the Pichler wines, I was confident I would not just get fancy special effects from their 2003 Smaragd Riesling - or would I?
Other than many of my British acquaintances, I don't often complain about the weather in London as I usually like it. Today though it has thrown a spanner in the works of the carefully planned Wine Rambler schedule. Expecting autumn to make its appearance, I had opened a Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) the other day but now England is hotter and sunnier than it has been all summer - and here I am reviewing a wine that most people would rather associate with autumn. Having said that, a good Pinot should always be a great companion, so I hope you can forgive me for appearing unseasonal.
The Pinot in question comes from a highly respected producer in the Pfalz. On about 20ha, Steffen Christmann grows Riesling, Pinot Noir and a range of other grapes including Pinot Blanc/Gris and Gewürztraminer. Christmann is not only lucky to own parts of several very well known vineyards (such as the Ölberg), he also happens to be head of VDP, the leading German association of premier estates.
Here's a story of youthful adventure: In my last year of school, I went for a week of hiking in the Scottish Highlands with three friends. Among many glorious things and brave deeds, it was also a time of spectacularly soggy hiking boots and mad scrambling for overbooked accommodation, us German school boys never having heard of such a thing as a bank holiday. One late afternoon we stumbled into the village of Crianlarich after a day's quasi-amphibious hike and made for the hostel where we had secured beds for the night, when the menu of the local takeaway caught our eye: Fish and Chips up there, of course, and a good variety of other deep-fried fare. But did it really say "fried black pudding and chips"? Dessert was provided for by fried chocolate bars.
This culinary cornucopia seemed outlandish, if strangely appealing, to us, and we mentioned this to our landlord when we checked into our bothy bedrooms. "Och ay", he said, "they fry ****ing everything". All right, I made the och ay-part up, but he did have the Scots accent that gave us such trouble, and I also seem to remember a distinctly north-of-the-border expletive in there. He also said this with a look that seemed to say "You boys think you can handle it?" It was a dare.
You may not have heard about the Ahr. It is a small tributary of the Rhine; it is also a valley; and it is also a wine growing region. And a very unusual one too. Despite being located far north between 50th and 51st parallel, the Ahr is red wine country - way over 80% of all grapes grown here are red because of a favourable micro-climate. And one of the producers best know for Ahr red wine is Jean Stodden, "das Rotweingut" (the red wine winery).
It is almost shocking that in over two years of wine rambling we don't seem to have featured a single Ahr wine, and to change that Stodden seemed the obvious choice.
It is one man in particular that every so often makes me crave American wine: Jim Clendenen, the Californian winemaker behind Au Bon Climat. The ABC Pinot Noir and Chardonnay I have tried so far were delicious and, if you consider how insanely expensive Californian wine can be, reasonably priced. As it has been a while since I had the pleasure and as I love all Pinot varieties I could not resist getting a bottle of ABC's Pinot Gris and Blanc blend.
With a label like this, impossible to imagine in France and probably even in Germany, I don't have to tell you what went into the wine, but for you lovers of more "natural" winemaking I can add that this ABC is an unfiltered organic product of spontaneous fermentation.