It took me almost two decades to appreciate gin. In my early drinking years, it was one of two spirits that I would always decline, as more than a glass made me sick (the other being ouzo). And let's face it, what else would you do with spirits in your late teenage years than have more than a glass? In the following, vaguely wiser years I enjoyed wine and stayed away from spirits - until I moved to gin central: London. Not only did I learn to appreciate a good gin and tonic, in those dire pubs where you are stuck between the Scylla of tart Sauvignon Blanc and the Charybdis of offensively dull lager even a mediocre G&T is a life (although perhaps not liver) saver. Today's gin is of a different calibre though, and an unusual beast too: a dry gin made in Germany, and intriguingly it is infused with late harvest Riesling grapes from a first class vineyard!
So when I was offered a tasting sample of "Ferdinand's Saar Dry Gin" I had to say yes, and I brought along a gin expert to help me taste it.
Drinking wine is expectation management. It is many other things too, and I would hope on most occasions the expectation management is invisible, but sometimes it can become centre stage when writing a wine review. If your expectations are low but the wine delivers, is there a risk you praise it too much? And if your expectations are very high, will you be led to write a review that compares the wine with your expectations instead of looking at it on its own merit?
The above-pictured late harvest from the Mosel tributary Ruwer falls into one of these two categories for me, so approach with care.
When the topic of really expensive wine comes up, my dad has a story to tell. Years ago, when he was working in a Michelin-decorated restaurant, one of the guests told him that he had made a good deal that day and now wanted to find out. To find out whether the most expensive wine on the menu was really worth it. So he asked my dad to bring that bottle and get his colleagues too so they all could taste the wine. A few minutes later a group of highly trained sommeliers and waiters clustered around the guest and sampled the wine - I think it was a Bordeaux - to conclude: nice, very nice in fact; but not nice enough that any of them would spend even remotely as much money on a bottle. Even so they were all happy, especially the guest as he now had found out what he always had wondered about.
Today I am embarking on a, somewhat, similar mission. Behold, and you will see the most expensive wine I have ever bought, a Riesling older than yours truly. And the question is: was it worth it?
People, it is said, become more interesting with age. In the same way as our faces start telling a little about the lives we have lived we too have more stories to tell, gain some wisdom - at least that's the theory - and become more distinct characters. The same is true for ageworthy wine, but with a pleasant difference: while people can become a little difficult over time, stuck in their ways and perhaps too edgy, a good wine becomes more harmonious and balanced. At some point the wine will decline rapidly and become an old grump, but that is a question of timing and also not what today's wine story is about.
Today I am revisiting Martin Müllen's exciting Mosel wines and in particular an aged specimen I recently got my hands on.
As some of you may be aware, there has recently been a bit of noise about dry German Riesling. A well respected importer and Riesling fan referred to the dry German wines as "a highly invasive species", much to the dislike of some. I am not planning to enter that debate directly, at least not right now. However, I had a little craving for an invasive species the other night...
...so here it is, a short review of a dry German Riesling, and from the region that wine lovers across the world associate most with sweet: the Mosel.
Earlier this year I published an open letter to Waitrose that within hours became our most widely read, tweeted about and "liked" article of the year. I had criticised Waitrose for stocking a wine that pretends to be "one of the most renowned wines of Germany" and yet is only a generic blend that may not even be from the Mosel village whose name it displays on the label. I had always seen Waitrose as a retailer that champions German wine and so I was disappointed when I discovered the so called "Legends of Germany".
Since the publication of the article Waitrose have gotten back to me with a response.
Following last week's review of a kick-ass aged Mosel Riesling it seems only fair to follow up with an exploration of a much younger Mosel wine's ass-kicking abilities. Today's hero may just be a baby in comparison but it comes with a good family history and a coup de grâce delivered by one of the grand masters of ass-kicking, Dr Indiana Jones.
Most importantly it comes with an airship (not included in the price sadly): "the wine most often drunk during the flights of the 'Graf Zeppelin' (airship)", as the label proudly claims in German.
Old wines are desirable, sophisticated and expensive - that at least is the general perception. Sadly this is usually not true as most wines don't age very well at all - just try the supermarket Chardonnay forgotten for five years in your cupboard to see why. However, and even more sadly perhaps, it tends to be true that desirable and sophisticated aged wines are expensive. Or are they?
How about I tell you that just a few weeks ago I bought the bottle belonging to the cork above for less than ten Euros - about half a Euro per year of age.
You are not like every other supermarket. You were the first to sell organic food in the UK. You have a royal warrant to supply the Queen. You are owned by your employees. And through your wine business you have won much respect, including mine.
That is until you sold me a bottle of "Piesporter Michelsberg" under the label of "Legends of Germany" as "one of the most renowned wines of Germany". Admittedly, this has not the same shocking ring to it as labelling horsemeat as beef, nor is it a health risk or illegal. And yet you are misleading your customers, thereby damaging the image of a product you and others have worked hard to restore to former glory: German wine.
There is nothing unusual with me drinking Mosel Riesling from the village of Piesport. Quite the opposite in fact - it would not be far off to call this my favourite tipple. This time it was unusual though as I tasted the Kabinett from the Goldtröpfchen vineyard blind, against a much cheaper Mosel wine produced for the export market.
Why would I do that? It is a long-ish story, but if you care you can read it in my open letter to Waitrose. For the moment let's just say I needed to demonstrate what a good wine from the Mosel village of Piesport tastes like.
You may have heard of Sisyphus. He is the bloke doomed to roll a giant bolder up a hill, only to watch it roll down and having to do it all over again. Forever. I am not there yet, but my quest to find good, affordable German wine in a British supermarket feels a little similar. Here is the next instalment from the series, and it takes us to upmarket supermarket chain Waitrose.
It also takes us to the Mosel region - Piesporter Michelsberg is the name for a fairly large sub-region of the Mosel. Theoretically it is named after the village of Piesport, where they have been making outstanding wine since the time of the Romans. In reality though "Michelsberg" on the label pretty much guarantees that the wine in your bottle has never seen Piesport and is in fact a cheap blend, mostly from Müller-Thurgau grapes. That Waitrose sell such a wine as "Legends of Germany" made me almost angry, so much so that I wrote them an open letter.
Can a glass of wine stop the work in its tracks? Okay, the millennium bug did non destroy the world in intercontinentally ballistic style in 2000, the great cosmic whatever that the Mayan calender predicted for 2012 appears to be off-schedule so far. The world's foundations had just started to look a lot less shakeable. But now this: A sparkler? From Haart? I should explain, maybe, that the very fine Haart family winery is my Co-Rambler Torsten's favourite Mosel winery, and has been featured here more times than any other. With their vibrant Kabinetts. With their supremely balanced Spätlesen. With their lip-smacking Auslesen. But never with a sparkler. Because there hasn't been one in our living memory.
But there it was, not to be denied or explained away. There it stood, a classy bottle, and a bit too heavy to be just a figment of some Rambler's unhinged imagination (but then, who would imagine such a thing, a Haart sparkler?).
There is no German wine that pairs with chocolate - this is what I have been told at a recent event on matching German wine with food. Whether you agree with this statement depends on what type of wine you would pair with chocolate of course. If you are amongst those who believe that sweeter red wines might work, well, then that statement is wrong. After all not only is about 40% of all wine made in Germany red, some of these do come in sweeter style too.
"Avantgarde", a semi-sweet Mosel red wine in an, er, avantgardistically shaped bottle is one of them. It is also a wine I have been scared of for a long time.
If you have a look around on the Heymann-Löwenstein website you will eventually stumble upon a message from a Belgian wine merchant. He reports from a blind tasting of Champagnes into which he smuggled a bottle of Löwenstein's non vintage sparkler - and despite being the cheapest wine it got by far the highest score, beating the likes of Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse and Ruinart. This is the type of underdog story that would usually be told about English fizz, but it doesn't hurt to remember that other countries also produce great wines made according to the classic Champagne method.
That Germany is one of them should not be a surprise, after all it consumes around a quarter of the world's sparkling wine and produces close to 400 million bottles a year.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
Wine is nothing without people. It is people who make wine. It is the company of the right people that makes for a great evening with wine. And it is people's stories that make for engaging wine writing. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a man who not only makes excellent wine but who also talks about it in such an engaging way that there is only my writing to blame if you don't walk away from this article at least a little inspired.
I certainly left inspired after my encounter with Nik Weiss, the owner of the St. Urbans-Hof estate in the Mosel wine region of Germany. It made me think about the magic that happens when you fall in love with a piece of land and the produce you bring forth from it. It is a magic that over thousands of years has transformed the land but it also transforms the people who work it. This is a story about how the Mosel transformed a man and how he in turn set out to transform his part of the Mosel - and about a little magic that happened when I spent an evening with him and his Riesling.
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?