Earlier this month, Bernhard Huber died. As the last few weeks have been very busy with work I am only now catching up with news from the wine world - and with news like this I almost wish I hadn't. While I have never met him in person I have appreciated his outstanding wines on more than one occasion, and I am only too aware of what he has done for the reputation of German wine, Pinot Noir in particular.
Looking through my cellar, the only Huber wine left is a Müller-Thurgau, not quite the obvious choice, but it has to do for a toast to one of the greats of wine making.
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.
At times, I am quietly envious of my fellow Wine Rambler, who recently won British citizenship. I sometimes think I was born into the wrong country, as I rather fancy I would make a passable Brit myself. Case in point: I get acutely embarrassed in situations that nobody else would find even mildly troubling. When strolling through the heart of Munich recently, I stepped into the Dallmayr wine department on an impulse to see if any exclusive and glamorous new discoveries were on display. Having looked around and seen what I had come in to see, it suddenly occurred to me that I could not possibly leave without buying something (that would have been embarrassing, you see, because the shop assistants would form all kinds of disadvantageous opinions about me). Dallmayr, on account of their general adventurous pricing and the kind of impulse shopper they cater for, is not the best place to have a fit like this. At least I was sane enough to not want to leave a lot of money, so, fighting a rising sense of completely self-induced panic, I was relieved to find this bottle from my very favourite German winery lying invitingly beneath a fine cover of dust.
I already knew its story: 2006 had been so poor a vintage in Baden that Hans-Peter Ziereisen, quality-obsessed ruddy-cheeked devil that he is, did not want to bottle either his usual top-of-the-range Pinot Noir nor his varietal Syrah. His solution: Mix the Syrah with Pinot Noir to make a mid-range cuvée that would be interesting, but no more than it claimed to be. Hence the completely unusual grape mix, hence the name, Zunderobsi being a lovely dialect term for "topsy turvy". This is classic Wine Rambler territory.
Nowadays everyone seems to expect the Spanish Inquisition. Well, maybe not exactly Monty Python's torture team with the comfy chair, but with the internet full of surprising wine finds presenting something unusual has become harder. Even so I hope that writing about German Syrah will be unusual enough to attract some attention - at least enough to keep you stuck to your chairs, trembling with anticipation, until my co-Rambler returns from his holiday to give you part two of Speak, barrel sample.
So here it is, the 2008 Syrah from a Baden producer who is at least as unusual and charming as his wines.
I was in Freiburg recently for the wonderful occasion of the baptism of my niece. During the church service, the vicar who celebrated it at some point asked the congregation to join him in a prayer of interecession for the responsible production of healthy and sustainable food. Nothing wrong with that (I fervently joined in that prayer), but surely typical of that corner of the country, as it boasts the oldest organic food producers, highest density of organic anything stores and highest level of general relaxed left-liberal getting-it-right-iness in all of Germany. Small wonder that organic winemaking in the Kaiserstuhl sub-region of Baden, just an hour's bicycle ride away from Freiburg, also has deeper roots than elsewhere and is often into its second or even third generation.
Friedhelm Rinklin, a card-carrying founding member of the organic wine movement in Germany, also has basically done this forever. As early as 1955 already, his father had made the switch to biodynamic winemaking. I imagine that his son looks at those who discover organic wine growing just now with nothing but an ever so slightly raised eyebrow. Does his basic-range, very reasonably prices Pinot Gris exude the same wisdom and experience?
Christmas lies behind us, the new year hasn't quite started yet - it is the supposedly quiet time "zwischen den Jahren", or between the years as the Germans say. It is the time when memories and hangovers of heavy Christmas food and wine are still close enough to feel physical, and yet New Year's eve calls with classy Champagne and another set of booze-heavy parties.
In short, it is a good time to leave the heavy, deep, expensive, mindblowing wines behind and think about lighter alternatives that don't lack the enjoyment factor. Enter Hanspeter Ziereisen's Heugumber.
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.
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?
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:
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:
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.
Pinot Blanc. Currently 50th grape variety in the order of acreage planted worldwide. Often seen as Chardonnays less expressive brother. And one of Germany's most reliably satisfying grapes. Most British wine lovers, and indeed most of them around the world, primarily associate this grape with Alsace, a connection that won't be easily challenged (we have tried before). To prove that Germany can indeed do outstanding Pinot Blanc could seem an uphill battle, therefore, but in fact it's the easiest task in the world, as we can let wonderful German Pinot Blancs prove it for us (and get to drink them into the bargain).
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:
Growers' cooperatives, revisited. When we last mentioned them, we tried to be fair-minded and also point out their good and useful side, but ended up somewhat doubtful that particularly interesting wines could come out of them. Well, that only goes to show that the best of us sometimes have to eat our words, for the good wine growing people of Hagnau, a beautiful place on the Lake Constance shore, may have proved us wrong with a bottle of Pinot Blanc from their Burgstall vineyard.
Those of you who have ever followed up on our coverage under the no other place-tag know that we have a special thing for out-of-the-way wine growing regions. But that doesn't mean that we want people to judge these wines more benevolently because of the originality or their provenance, nor do we. What we want is emphatically both regionalism *and* quality in wine.
Staatsweingut Meersburg, owned by my beloved home state of Baden-Württemberg, has certainly delivered before on publicly guaranteed wine quality. And they also own Germany's highest elevated vineyard, the Hohentwiel Olgaberg. Named, improbably, in honour of Olga Nikolajewna Romanowa (1822-1892),a Russian princess and later queen of the kingdom of Württemberg , it covers the hillside of one of the cone-shaped former volcanoes of the Hegau - a landscape of great beauty and distinctiveness that slopes from the edge of the black forest down to the lake constance basin, but has not so far been able to boast of any wine growing credentials whatsoever.
Time for another drive-by-shooting of the Lake Constance vineyard that just happens to be the old stopping-place between home and the grandparents' place. So same place, same photographer. This time with a bit more of a wintry feeling, but also scattered signs of approaching spring.
Our regular readers know that we think highly of Baden's southernmost subregion, the Markgräflerland, have enjoyed its original Gutedels and serious Pinots, and count on it to make its name in the international wine world fairly soon. You also know that we have explored the world of German sparkling wines with growing enthusiasm.
If we put those two together, what do we get? We get this all-organic sparkler from the (as yet) little-known Harteneck winery of Schliengen, halfway between Freiburg and Basel.
As far as aged wines go, eight years may not seem seriously old, but Pinot Blanc, especially from Germany, tends to be drunk as a younger wine, light and fresh in style. Having said that, some German wineries also produce more substantial Weißburgunder (German for Pinot Blanc), matured in oak barrels, that can and should age a few years. Dr. Heger is one of those wineries, located in the Kaiserstuhl, the warmest wine growing area in Germany with fantastic volcanic soil.
The dry Auslese from the Winklerberg vineyard is one of those more substantial Pinot Blancs. The colour shows the wine's age, an intense honey coloured gold that promises substance and maturity.
Straw-coloured, with a nose of ripe pears, candied fruit and beeswax, this wine is dominated by the tension between the oak flavours on the one hand and the very robust acidity on the other.
The focus of the fruit seems to get lost a bit between the two, resulting in a somewhat muddied palate and a slightly awkward kind of complexity. Still, a very decent and somewhat original white.