"Torsten and Julian have this wine blog, and they mostly review sweet wines." This is how a friend introduced the Wine Rambler at a dinner party - much to my surprise as sweet wines make up only a relatively small amount of our wine reviews: not even 1/6 and even with the off-dry ones added we don't quite come to 2/7. Perhaps my outspoken love for Mosel Riesling (which tends to be off-dry or sweet) contributed to this image, or it is just the general perception that German wine is sweet. Instead of fighting this cliché today I shall give in to it. Let's not just drink sweet, let's indulge in sweet.
Ladies and Gentlemen, friends of sweetness and sugar hounds, I give you an ice wine from the Pfalz.
Germany, for those of you who did not know it, produces some excellent sparkling wine in a style similar to Champagne. It also produces a unique fizze ("Sekt") from Riesling, called "Rieslingsekt". This is style of sparkling wine that tends to be crisper and fresher than Champagne. Some of the more exciting specimens of this type blend French complexity with vibrant German Riesling freshness and mineral.
I was lucky in that the most recent bottle of German fizz I opened was one of this type.
When I woke up this morning to the news of Barack Obama being re-elected I immediately realised how I had to write tonight's Riesling review. It would have to be about expectation management. This is something the 44th President of the United States would have a lot to say about as the disappointment some Democrats seem to feel towards him originated from perhaps unrealistically high expectations in his first presidency. Expectation management goes beyond politics of course and I suspect all of us will have been disappointed in something or someone when actually their only "failure" was not to have fulfilled our expectations.
Film is an area where I suffer from this effect occasionally, despite struggling not to be infected by the most recent hype. It also happens with regards to wine, but to me as a Wine Rambler it poses a more serious issue. How can we ensure not to be negatively influenced by our expectations? And this is how the poor, innocent Rheingau Riesling gets dragged into this malarkey.
It could have been the cheap Pinot Grigio. It could have been all the talk about boring Super Tuscans. Or maybe it was growing up in Munich where everyone who wanted to be trendy drank Italian wine and annoyed the heck out of me with their cheap Prosecco talk. Whatever the reason, I don't tend to look to Italy when it comes to buying wine. Now, it has been established that I am a cool climate sucker and a certified acid hound, but a country with such a great wine tradition and amazing range of grape varieties and regions should have something to offer that I like.
Well, it does - and even more shockingly I found it in a supermarket.
One of the glories of being a wine amateur without an ounce of professionalism is the childish pleasure you can take in things that more knowledgeable folk take for granted. Recently for instance, I rediscovered decanting. Now, of course I do know what pouring a wine into a larger carafe for greater air exposure does in theory, but somehow, I had let the habit slip. After all, there isn't always time for these kitchen rituals. But the exceptionally rewarding Grüner Veltliner on review today showed me what I may have been missing, as decanting did it a world of good.
The first swigs of this very young wine straight out of the bottle were not promising: A heavy, awkward and withdrawn wine. After two hours in the wide-bottom decanter, out on the cool balcony, we found something very different indeed:
Marxists and luxurious sparkling wine surely don't mix well? Well, they do. As Champagne consumers the leaders of Eastern block and other communists states did and do quite well, thank you, although one could question whether they are true Marxists. Marxists winemakers are a rarer breed, but I can think of at least one who not only makes stunning still wines but also very charming sparklers. His name is Reinhard Löwenstein and amongst other things he is famous for his Riesling from terraced Mosel vineyards.
Riesling can also be used to make sparkling wine, of course, and today we take a look at Löwenstein's non-vintage "Fantasie der Schieferterrassen" - Fantasy of Slate Terraces.
I like Pinot Blanc. It's is that simple. As our regular readers know I am always in danger of rambling on for too long, so I will keep this short. I really like Pinot Blanc. In Germany it is called Weißer Burgunder or Weißburgunder ("white Burgundy") and one of the more popular white grape variety (although nowhere as common as Riesling or Müller-Thurgau). What I find particularly attractive about Weißburgunder is how it manages to be a very enjoyable drink but also has a more serious side, either in a leaner, smoky and edgy style or, especially when aged in oak barrels, a more complex and substantial one.
Julian has recently been somewhat unhappy with a Pinot Blanc from one of the top producers in Baden, so I wonder how this more inexpensive specimen from less prestigious Rheinhessen will do.
Remember that one perfect meal? That special memory that has been with you for years? A taste or texture you can still recall? Some treasure these memories so much that they do not want to go back to the restaurant in question as they fear it might not live up to the memory and spoil it. Now, I think it is worth taking that risk, but in the few cases when you are let down I do wonder whether the disappointment might come from expectations that are just too high for anyone to meet.
Today's wine is such a case, but luckily I had help judging it.
Supermarkets are fascinating. They are evil, they are convenient, they are uniform, they are where we shop. Not all of us, not all of the time, but still often enough that the big chains have a turnover that dwarfs the GDP of many a country. And, despite what wine critics with their writings about hand-crafted wines from family-run vineyards sold by independent shops will make you believe, supermarkets are also where most people get their wine from - about 80% of the UK retail market. This means that if you want to reach the average wine consumer or if you want to understand what or how they buy, supermarkets are the place to go.
So every once in a while I venture into a supermarket and buy whatever German wine I find. If you have followed my supermarket wine exploits you will know that at times this has led to dangerous self-experimentation, and often to disappointment. Is today's wine any different?
I always love it when a review is a first: To be able to report on a winery, or better still, a whole region of the wine world, that we have not yet touched upon. A mere check-up review, so to speak, on a well-represented winery and a vintage a few years past, seems much less exciting. But these, too, are very important. When wine guides, such as the very serious German online publication "Wein-Plus" regularly hold samples back for re-tasting and re-evaluation a few years after the first tasting, the results are often surprising, and always instructive. More wine guides and publications should do it, rather than to just keep celebrating each new vintage's potential.
I remember exactly the moment I first tasted this particular Pinot Blanc. It was at the annual autumn tasting extravaganza at Munich's Bayerischer Hof. I loved it right away for its streak of vibrant freshness that distinguished it among some of the blander white Pinots also on offer. My Co-Rambler Torsten, I also recall, was a bit more reserved. His may have been the better judgement.
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:
Another wine from the Gutedel (=Chasselas) grape? Indeed. The more serious and objective international wine critics may point out that two wines from this rather pedestrian grape are already too much, when there is so much Riesling to talk about. But we talk about whatever we like here on the Wine Rambler, and I happen to have a soft spot for wines from the Markgräflerland, that pleasant stretch of wine country near Germany's southwestern border with Switzerland. I have another soft spot, incidentally, for the Ziereisen winery, that elite/anti-elite rogue/boutique family outfit that arguably makes Baden's most stylish wines, but that's another story.
And I've come to enjoy Gutedel quite a bit, why the hell not. So what are we looking at here?
Cheap Pinot Grigio, oaked Chardonnay and fruitbomb Sauvignon Blanc are the three banes of the popular white wine world. For my day job I regularly attend functions organised by public sector bodies who have next to no money for entertainment and, perhaps worse, no one who really cares about finding value, so I have had many an encounter with this unholy trinity. Luckily I know that all these grape varieties are capable of producing fantastic wines, although I have to admit that my relationship with Sauvignon Blanc never has been an easy one. Too often even the better wines have me on my knees begging for mercy after a broadside of pungent grassy aromas, gooseberry, intense vegetal flavours and intense blackcurrant.
On the other hand there are very nicely balanced examples too, and sometimes I just crave crisp, fruity intensity. The other day it was one of those moments and I turned to the German wine region of Franken (Franconia) to satisfy my urge.
When we last heard of Martin Tesch, the brain behind the Tesch vinery of Germany's Nahe region, my fellow Wine Rambler Torsten reported on the young winemaker's gift for marketing and label design and, not least, his manic laugh. The bottle of 2010 dry Riesling from his St. Remigiusberg vineyard recently on this Rambler's kitchen table emitted no sound whatsoever, but the other qualities of its creator were very much in evidence:
With its mixture of the historical seriousness and visual overload associated with old-style German Riesling, the hint at family traditions in the stern look and the the sideburns of the Tesch ancestor who presides over it, and finally the memorable colouring of the screw cap, this is no doubt a very well-designed bottle of wine. Is it any good?
My love of German Riesling clearly has crossed the fine line that separates "famous" from "infamous": earlier this week a wine acquaintance on Twitter apologised to me for looking forward to having an Australian Riesling! To improve my image I decided there had to be a token non-German Riesling review on the Wine Rambler asap to hide that fact the deep down we do of course believe that the only good Riesling is a German Riesling.
So what better country to turn to than Austria, a country that like Germany has a range of confusing quality levels for wine, that features labels of a similar style and that, if it was not for the Austrian colours on the cap of every bottle, would on account of the language probably be mistaken for German by most international customers anyway. Selecting an Austrian Riesling will surely boost our post-nationalist credentials!
"The law made me do it!" is probably one of the excuses judges don't hear very often. If it comes to German wine, however, it may be more common than you think. The infamous German Wine Law, in combination with the regional wine establishment, is a very odd beast, so much so that you will find top producers who deliberately rate some of their top wines in a fairly low category as they don't quite meet inspectors' expectations. There are all sorts of complaints about the wine law of 1971, but it is still enforced with German precision. So much so that when winemakers wanted to print a new word on labels, "feinherb", they had to go to court as you cannot possibly print something on a label that has not been regulated beforehand.
Well, they succeeded and now we have a new, completely unregulated term in the precisely structured German wine classification: feinherb.
Frickenhausen-Linsenhofen - say that five times real fast? I would particularly encourage you to try this after you have had a few glasses of wine, for instance the old vines Silvaner pictured below. While you might have to disentangle your tongue afterwards I can at least assure you that it is otherwise perfectly save to say even in polite German company - unless perhaps the Germans are from a neighbouring village that has a long-standing feud with the Frickenhausen-Linsenhofeners.
Now, despite being born in the area my knowledge of local feuds and other details is scant, but I do know that Frickenhausen-Linsenhofen is home to one of Germany's highest vineyards. And it is here where Helmut Dolde makes a Silvaner from 50 year old vines ("Alte Reben").
After the epic ramble on which Torsten took you last time, along the sheer slopes of the Mosel valley and the bold challenges they afford the winemaker, it seems an uphill trek for me to interest you in a less dramatic setting for German Riesling. But I think I may have the region to do it, and the winemaker as well. The Place is the Ortenau, the Baden subregion made up by the last few hills of the Black Forest as it rolls gently down to the Rhine valley between Freiburg and Baden-Baden. A place of homely beauty, renowned for the richness of its cuisine and the temperateness of its climate, which is almost as sunny as Baden's Kaiserstuhl, but not quite as warm, with the cooler, pine-shaded Black Forest at its back. Riesling country.
The Winemaker: Alexander Laible, son of Andreas Laible, who has been for years, if not decades the uncontested number one among the winemakers of the Ortenau. Due to the enthusiastic press Alexander is getting, I have wanted to try one of his wines for some time, so I'll try not to lose too many introductory words now that the moment has arrived:
Every hype brings with it the danger of disappointment. I mostly suffer from this with regards to movies (which is why I am staying away from reviews of "The Dark Knight Rises" until I have had a chance to see it), but the same can happen with wine. When it comes to the Saar Riesling from the Van Volxem estate hype was never needed to convince me to buy a few bottles every year as it has been consistently good, and also good value.
Even so I could not help notice the bold headlines that my wine merchant threw at me with this wine - headlines of high praise from respected wine critics for a Riesling that does not even follow the "single vineyard" paradigm. Because of the quality of the previous vintages I was confident it would be good, but would the hype spoil my enjoyment when I would not be quite blown away?
I sometimes think that I could, at some time in the distant future, grow conservative. I would remove myself to the country, improve my tax evasion skills and shake my head at the foolishness of do-gooders, environmentalists and labour unions. "They grow good people in our small towns", I would drawl, in the manner of an American republican. But since, for the time being, I'm a European left-leaning, city-dwelling, wine-sipping intellectual (of sorts), I'll have to amend this to the factually indisputable "they grow good wines in our small towns". Baden's out-of-the-way Markgräflerland region, covered for the Wine Rambler by Simon Jones, is the place to go if you want to celebrate small town life. But, far from conservative, it's actually frightfully progressive and reforming when it comes to tackling wine quality. And they grow not only good winemakers, but a speciality: The Gutedel grape, known as Chasselas in Switzerland.
These fresh, light, softly fruited whites can come over a touch boring, but then, they come so invitingly priced that you can afford to taste yourself through a couple before you find one that tickles your palate. I got lucky at the small winery run by the Brenneisen family: