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.
With the festive season with all its celebrations and debauchery now upon us what could be better to review than a classy sparkling wine? Well, yes and no - I have never held much with going for wines that are in season. Sometimes I want a bold red in summer, sometimes a refined sparkler on a dull Tuesday evening with nothing to celebrate. When it comes to wine I tend to go with the advice the head of department in my first full time job gave me: "A good Riesling in itself is a reason to celebrate." A wise statement, although I think it can be expanded to cover all glorious grapes and wonderful wines of this world. So here is another reason to celebrate - and behold, it is an English sparkling wine.
A Nyetimber 2003, to be precise - a wine from the Nyetimer vintage that caused a little sensation when a few years ago its sibling, the Classic Cuvée, won a respectable international sparkling wine tasting, beating the likes of Bollinger, Pommery and Louis Roederer. How good is the Blanc de Blancs?
Rock star, film director or actor - you haven't really made it to the top unless you own a vineyard. If you want to be up there with Aykroyd, Banderas or Coppola making your own wine is now an even better status symbol than a private jet. In the case of Barbara Laithwaite I suspect the motivation was different. Like her husband Tony, the co-owner of the UK's biggest wine company has stayed away from the limelight, and I'd be surprised if she'd own a jet. She also resisted the urge to buy an existing winery in California or Provence and instead planted vines in the Chilterns to make sparkling wine.
Fast forward a few years to find the Wine Rambler sitting down with a glass of 2009 Wyfold Vineyard brut.
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.
It's so annoying not to be able to call it Champagne, when it is Champagne. This statement about English sparkling wine comes from the Crown's "resident wine expert", the Duchess of Cornwall. It highlights a sparkling rivalry between England and France where the Frenchmen have law and reputation on their side: no matter whether you make sparkling wine in the same way (Méthode Champenoise) and to the same quality only fizz from the Champagne region may bear that prestigious name. The plucky Brits have no chance winning this battle but they do at least have a battle cry: the Méthode Champenoise actually is an English method.
The banner under which this battle cry is made is that of the three geese of Gusbourne, and it came to me on a bottle of fantastic sparkling wine.
We all have our missions in life. Big missions, casual missions, impossible missions and the odd small mission. One of my small missions is to convince co-Rambler Julian of the qualities of Chardonnay. Not that he dislikes it, he just does not feel the right excitement. Thankfully, today this mission nicely blends (in a pure, single varietal way of course) with the Wine Rambler mission of convincing you, gentle reader, that German wine is well worth exploring - and that includes German Chardonnay.
Whether this is an impossible mission only you will know, but like Jim Phelps I am not one to turn down a mission when it comes to find me.
The German word "Handwerk" stands for the trades that build, that craft things with their hands. It can be translated as "craft", "handicraft" or "artisanry" and it has a very solid connotation. Solid work, handmade for the customer, set against industrial mass-production, this is the message that Sven Leiner's wine range "Handwerk" is meant to convey. Thankfully, Leiner's artisanry is not of the type that will put you out of pocket - priced below €9 these wines are perhaps not cheap enough for everyday drinking if you are on a budget, but also not expensive for a quality product that is also certified organic.
It all sounds rather nice and I would have reviewed a "Handwerk" much earlier, were it not for a not so pleasant encounter with a Leiner wine a few years ago from which I only remember an unbalanced acidity which had put me off. Can Sven win back my trust with his craftsmanship?
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?
There have always been two audiences for the Wine Rambler. One audience is, of course, you. A few thousand people come to visit our humble blog every month to follow our adventures in German wine (or laugh at us or disagree with us or end up here by mistake when googling for "Scottish nose", as happened yesterday) and we are very grateful for your interest and support; and laughter too. The other audience, in a somewhat autistic way, that's ourselves. The Wine Rambler was, after all, born when I moved to London and Julian and myself were looking for a way to share our wine adventures across the Channel. On many things we agree, but with the exception of sparkling wine I have always found Julian's enthusiasm for Chardonnay somewhat lacking.
So whenever I review a Chardonnay I mostly think of Julian standing in his Munich wine cellar full of Riesling and Pinot, hoping to give him a gentle encouragement to add some German Chardonnay to the next delivery. Maybe you should too?
It usually takes some convincing to get continental folk to accept that English sparkling wines are not only drinkable, but can be quite excellent. But since we already know that, we hold them to a higher standard than most other German wine drinkers probably would. It is from this fairly lofty perspective, and only from there, that this one disappointed us somewhat when it was soundly beaten by a French sparkler costing less than half in this mildly humiliating Wine Rambler blind tasting.
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?
Much as we here at the Wine Rambler make it our business to spread the word about the fine German, Austrian and English sparkling wines, it would be foolish not to recognize which region of the world sets the gold standard in this category. As a matter of fact, If I could give a few pieces of advice to humanity in general, one would be: Drink a bottle of decent champagne as often as finances allow. But then, that means "never" for such a large part of humanity (It means two or three times a year for me, if you must know) that after some thought I keep my advice to myself.
Speaking of gold standards, it was with a mind to stress-test my own personal one, Larmandier-Bernier's Tradition extra brut against a new candidate from what could be called received Indie Champagne: Jacquesson's "Cuvée 735". So, is there a new kid in town?
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.
Said Mr. Munich Wine Rambler to a bottle of Lake Constance Chardonnay: "There's nuthin' in this town 's been a surprise, 'cept for you". Oh no, wait, that wasn't me, that was Kevin Costner, the romantic free-grazing, sharp-shooting cowboy in "Open Range", to Annette Bening. But that was exactly my sentiment when I took the first sniff of this 08 offering, my last bottle (for the time being) from the Staatsweingut Meersburg.
After a long, joyless day, any glass of wine would have cheered me up, and I wasn't expecting anything special, really. A white that would work with the nice pumpkin soup set before me, not too acidic, not too thin, with some smooth buttery notes (yes, it had indeed been that kind of day). But as it happens, this eloquent, outstandingly matured Chardonnay surprised and charmed me far beyond my modest designs:
Sometimes a wine can save your life. I would assume that at least some of you will have had such an experience, but I would also assume that the number of you who had this type of encounter with an English wine may be fairly small. Since recently, I am one of them, and I would like to thank the folks from the Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall. Yes, you have read correctly. Cornwall.
How did Cornwall fizz save my life? The story actually begins with me saving something - the European Union.
After taking a look at Pfalz wines in the last three reviews, time to bring you up to date on Germany's other bread-and-butter region, Rheinhessen. Many german wine drinkers turn there for lower-priced, everyday wines that they order in larger quantity, but don't necessarily talk about the way they would about last weekend's Großes Gewächs or the Mosel Auslese they serve at their own posh dinner party. Everybody has their place of choice - at the moment, mine is Dr. Heyden, whose workhorse wines are carefully made and very dependable, but who also overachieve significantly with their stylish and concentrated old vines-Silvaner and their truly excellent Frühburgunder. In what has become a little tradition, I have been going to see Frank Heyden behind his table at a twice-yearly wine fair in Munich for two years now, both to have a chat and to slip him a follow-up order.
Another wine that he served me there is his Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc cuvée. I liked it there and then. But how will it fare under the cruel light shone on the Wine Rambler's tasting table, where neither friendship nor enmity can hope to sway the incorruptible critic?
By covering a selection of sparkling wines from Germany and England during the last year or so, we have learned much and have opened up a whole new category of wine for ourselves, but in a way, we also got ahead of ourselves. We could look at sparklers with a fresh and innocent eye by simply ignoring the international benchmark for this whole type of wine, but it was at times also so much dancing around the elephant in the room, namely our utter ignorance of Champagne. On new year's eve of 2010, the Munich branch of the wine rambler manned (and ladied) up and confronted their insecurity. After all, let's face it, when expectation and curiosity are high, the potential for disappointment is also immense.
But sometimes, just sometimes, you hit if off immediately. That night, I fell for grower champagne hook, line and sinker, and it's all thanks to Pierre and Sophie Larmandier from Vertus, Champagne.
Knipser is the name of a wine making family from the Pfalz region of Germany who keep impressing us with their polished and tasty wines. They are widely known for their expertise in ageing wine in barrique barrels - red wine, of course, but also white. The other day when I was cooking tarragon cream chicken I felt the time had come to open their premier 2003 Chardonnay, a wine that was only released to market after several years of maturing in the Knipser cellars.
What I was expecting, of course, was a substantial (14% ABV and barrique), creamy wine with the first signs of age. What I was hoping for was that it also kept a hint of freshness to go along with the food.
Summer is over. So what's the point of reviewing wine sold in strange single-serve glasses suited for a picnic? For starters because they are not. The Le Froglet glasses are as misplaced at an August picnic as they would be near my November sofa. 'Obviously, the Wine Rambler will have to say so,' you might think, 'after all how could a wine snob like wine sold in plastic glasses?' Surprisingly, it is not the concept that puts me off. It is the execution.
Some time ago the entrepreneurs of the BBC's Dragons' Den dismissed the idea of investing money in wine sold in single-serve plastic glasses with tear-off lids. As it happened, I had actually watched the episode and found myself disagreeing with the dragons as I could imagine people wanting to use the glasses for outdoor events. Others apparently agreed and from what I hear the Le Froglet glasses do sell quite well now. So when I saw them at Marks & Spencer I had to buy the trio: white, red and rosé.