How do you get a semi-retired wine blogger to grab his tasting glass and head out into the fray again? Make him an offer he can't resist. Include in it: World class red wines, back vintages no longer available anywhere else, an Italian region that he loves, but still knows too little about. To clinch the deal, promise him that he will get to meet a real live Italian nobleman.
Marchese Lamberto de' Frescobaldi is just that, and he is also the director of his family's vast agricultural and wine growing operation. To promote his high-end Tuscan sangiovese, Frescobaldi and their German importer had set up a spectacular vertical tasting in Munich. Read on for my impressions of 30 years of Sangiovese, and a bit with a wild boar.
Autumn is upon us. Had I missed this fact before, cycling through cold, autumnal rain and over streets covered in brown leaves tonight would have driven home that message clearly. For some this is a sign to bring out the heavy red wines, but to me right now this is a reminder that summer is over and I still haven't written about my visit to RAW 2013. It has been a very busy summer during which I was abroad a lot, and all sorts of other circumstances conspired against me finding the time to do much wine writing.
Now my visit to RAW in May feels too far removed to make a detailed report seem useful or appropriate, but I still wanted to share impressions from a few hours of tasting through "natural" wines.
It was always about food. I am not saying you cannot, should not have wine without food (quite the opposite), but without my love for food there would be no Wine Rambler. The crucial moment was a Friday afternoon, years ago, when I decided to open a random bottle of Mosel Riesling with some mildly spicy Asian food because I had heard the two go together - resulting in my first moment of true wine excitement and the decision to track down the wine and learn more about it. Wine and food have been with me since and put me on the slippery slope to wine blogging. Considering that it is surprising that it has taken me so long to organise the first Wine Rambler dinner...
...but when it finally happened I made up for the delay by organising it in style, with the help of the fabulous team of Trinity Restaurant in Clapham - and five German wines.
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.
Two years ago, I reminisced about student days and staircases. Last year, I got all corduroy trousers and turtleneck sweater about the term "elite". Somewhat disappointingly, this has not stopped Dallmayr, the renowned Munich delicatessen store, from again using the name Winzerelite (wine making elite) for their annual spring tasting of German and Austrian estates. Clearly, we needed to try another tack with Dallmayr, who this year actually invited us to attend as - imaging our proudly beaming faces - press. From a friendly chat with Dallmayr's public relations guy, we gathered that they were happy to have bloggers spread the word, but not yet sure how to understand their reach compared to print journalism. Not a scepticism that you often hear in the English-speaking wine world these days, but we were happy to rise to the occasion: a new journalistic approach was clearly called for here.
We decided not to come along with a preconceived set of questions but to actually let the winemakers steer the conversation. We asked the men and women manning the stalls to pour us just one wine, their most important one. That should not have to be the most expensive one, nor necessarily the best, we insisted, but simply the one most worth talking about. And then we tasted, and we listened.
Natural wine is "in", no doubt. It fits the Zeitgeist of minimal intervention, non-industrial, organic, "honest" produce that is increasingly sought after by consumers. And yet there is also confusion. When I announced I was going to a natural wine fair I received lots of blank stares and the odd question of "you mean organic and stuff?" or "as opposed to unnatural wine?". That confusion partly comes from the fact that there is no generally accepted, legally binding definition so any wine can be marketed as "natural"; personally I also find some proponents of the movement a little overzealous. On the other hand I value sustainable winemaking and seek out artisan wines for individuality and character.
In short, I am both tempted and confused by natural wine, so last month's Real Wine Fair was a timely chance to explore the field and question my attitude. Or, to get into the musical theme of this post, "It's only natural / That I should want to / Be there with you."
There are several philosophies about kids growing up to into mature adults, but the successful ones tend to include the Muppet Show. And as our readers naturally are mature adults I can take it for granted that you will know the Swedish Chef. As do I, of course. Apart from where I don't: in the dubbed German Muppets version I grew up with he is actually Danish. Confused as we may be in that regard, us Germans have loved Scandinavian food way before the success of Noma. And Scandinavians, it turns out, love to pair their food with German wine.
Scandinavia is a very important export market for German wine and earlier this month I received a tasty demonstration of how well our friend Riesling in particular pairs with northern cuisine.
Music does not taste. Wine does. Rather obvious, but not nearly as simple as you may think. What we perceive as the taste of wine is actually our brain combining all sorts of information and the tongue only plays a relatively small part in this. What we see, know or hear, everything has an influence on how we taste. And as music and wine are often enjoyed together Classic FM and Laithwaites Wine argue it may be worth thinking about how to match them.
To make this point they hosted a wine and music tasting in London last week and the Wine Rambler went to investigate.
2012 is the year of Britishness. We had the long weekend of celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. We have the success of the London 2012 Olympics. And a public sphere proclaiming a rebirth of Britishness. British wine drinkers apparently felt the same: the Jubilee weekend meant record sales for British wine. All is good then, expect for the fact that I will now face a very stern talking to from about every representative of the wine industry in this country for calling their product British. It may be English, it may be Welsh, in the future it even may be Scottish - but don't you dare call it British.
This distinction is so important to the industry - and for good reason, as we will discover later - that the first ever English wine consumer class held at the WSET started with explaining it. More importantly perhaps it was a great introduction to English wine, and a necessary one as the quality of English wine will still come as a surprise to many a seasoned wine drinker, foreign or British.
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.
When, every spring, Munich's premier delicatessen store announces an evening of elite wines (and snacks), who am I not to get in line, this time very pleased to be accompanied by Wine Rambler tasting associates Benita and Conny (the latter also photographer for this piece). In last year's report, we walked you through the different wineries' collections in some detail, but I also threatened that I would have a few more general thoughts on the concept of Winzerelite (elite of the winemakers) that Dallmayr has adopted. Why does this make me so deeply uneasy, when it seems so straightforward: The elite is formed by the very best, and who the best are can be established in regular tastings, by journalists, fine wine merchants, and wine guides. Together, they form an elite of sorts, as would athletes, or writers, or scientist or musicians.
The great German social theorist Niklas Luhmann famously proposed that we organize our world in systems, such as love, business, political power and jurisdiction. When they get mixed up, when we try to buy love, or put pressure on a judge, or bribe a politician, our social world is bent out of shape and balance. And here's the problem: Invariably, they get mixed up. So it goes with the idea of an elite.
We got drunk on that stuff as students because we didn't know any better and had no money. That is not what I would say, at least not in public, but it summarises how many British acquaintances refer to German wine - in particular the dreaded Liebfraumilch. German wine is associated with sweet, and sweet with bad. The British wine trade tend to love Riesling, dry or sweet, and some also appreciate German Pinot Noir. This is usually where the knowledge ends though. There are even "wine experts" who say Germany should not move away from the sweeter style of Riesling - whereas the reality is that the German wine industry has become so diverse it has long gone beyond that. German dry wines are now so varied as would confuse even the most sober foreign beholder.
Last week the German Wine Agencies, a new distributor of German wines in the British market, invited members of the trade to be confused (and to leave everything else but sober, one would hope) by German wines.
If you follow this blog regularly (and if not: why not?), you will know that the VDP, Germany's trade association of elite wine estates, hosts an annual tasting in Munich every November that has special significance for the Wine Rambler. We have reported on it last year and the year before that. And we will do so again in a minute. Just a few words to introduce the photographic theme of this posting: Since that chandeliered, psychedelically carpeted lounge has become an extension of our living rooms, as it were, we also take a keen interest in the other tasters gathered there. There are always some sociological observations to make, of course, and to discuss afterwards, about age structure and gender of the sample group, and in fact I think we can report some tentative progress in those two categories, wink wink. But this time, it was something rather different that caught our attention: Shoes.
Hip shoes, boring shoes, sexy shoes, sensible shoes. Endless variety with a few common themes, which makes shoes a bit like wine. That's the kind of thought that looking at mind-altering carpeting in state of growing tipsiness will bring up in the course of an afternoon. In pursuing it, however, we could profit from Wine Rambler Torsten's keen photographic eye, as well as some underhanded camera moves he learned by prowling London as a street photographer.
London, wine metropolis. You may not think of it in those terms, but I have learned to appreciate the dynamic wine scene and the exciting range of wine events and venues here. You can explore wine in cellars built into Thames or railway bridges, at fantastic food markets, in world class restaurants, you can drink it on bridges spanning the river, at the Tower of London, in post-modern temples of glass, and you can engage with wine merchants with centuries of history, with entrepreneurs with new approaches or with a vibrant scene of wine writers and communicators. It is an exciting place and I love every minute of being here - especially when a unique place and wine meet.
I would like to invite you to share one of those moments with me.
Wine is just too complicated. People want an enjoyable experience, a wine to complement a nice evening, perhaps a story to tell friends. Instead they are confused by a confusing selection of wine in supermarkets and find not much help from the wine press and wine trade either. On top of that the language of wine is pretentious and mostly meaningless. So I hear it said very often, and while it is perhaps an overly gloomy picture there is some truth in it.
Instead of adding another piece of snobbish wine rambling, today's report from the latest Wine Rambler tasting is a little different. Instead of ourselves it will be the people who speak and tell you what they made of a range of wines selected by yours truly.
One of the pleasures of living in London is the vibrant wine trade and more wine-related activities going on than a Wine Rambler can participate in. I try to cover what happens in German wine though, and so earlier this month I set out to a Mosel-Saar-Ruwer tasting in the Great Hall at One Great George Street in Westminster. I had visited this fantastic location previously, for instance for the recent English Wine Producers tasting.
On 4th July it was not English but German wine in my glass, and from Germany's most famous wine region - a chance to try some of the off-dry and sweet Riesling from the 2010 vintage. And to be presented with an apple, the most unusual tasting gift so far.
The future of German wine in the UK market. You will not be surprised that this is a topic the Wine Rambler is very interested in. Earlier in May I went to the Delfina Gallery, near London Bridge, to attend the Riesling & Co tasting and the German Wine Question Time panel discussion that aimed to address the topic of how to improve Germany's place in the UK market.
The Riesling & Co agenda is closely linked to this, driven by "a group of dynamic German winemakers who collectively have set themselves the task of reviving the German wine industry across the world." An ambitious mission, and one that also influenced the brief for the panel discussion:
The UK trade has been talking of a Riesling renaissance for the last 10 years, but despite the hype, Germany - arguably the home of the greatest Rieslings worldwide - still hasn’t cracked it. What can the UK trade do to make sure that UK consumers don’t miss out on what Germany has to offer?
A few years ago I came across an international wine guidebook that had a, tiny, section on England. I don't remember the exact wording of the first sentence, but it basically said that English winemaking was no longer exclusively dominated by rather mediocre efforts of retired army and navy officers. Not the most flattering of compliments perhaps, but still a sign of the wine world starting to notice that something is happening in England. To learn more about what exactly is going on in the green and pleasant land, I attended the English Wine Producers press tasting.
Held in early May in a very traditional venue - One Great George Street, right next to the Houses of Parliament in London - the EWP tasting was a chance to try over a hundred English wines, not only dozens of sparklers, but also rosés, whites (from dry to aromatic, oaked and sweet) and reds. Yes, English reds.
Dallmayr, Munich's traditional upscale delicatessen store, traditionally advertises the glories of its fine wine department by hosting a springtime tasting where a few select german and austrian wine growers and makers present the upcoming vintage in person. For some years now, they have given this event the ringingly neo-liberal and upper-middle classy title Winzerelite (elite of the wine growers). I'm itching to, and maybe some day will, write a whole separate posting on the sociology of what is right and what is deeply wrong with this name. But leaving that aside for the moment, I can't deny they always choose characterful venues to hold it in.
Before reviewing what the elite had brought to Munich, the few of them that we focussed on, I cannot spare you a few extra words on this year's location, the Bavarian State Library, as it is very special indeed, not least to myself.
During the busy January wine trade tasting season there was one event of special importance for the Wine Rambler, the annual tasting of The WineBarn. The WineBarn is a UK distributor dedicated to German wine with a great portfolio including some of Germany's best wineries and some our the long-standing favourites. So one January afternoon I trekked over to the posh Mayfair neighbourhood of St James's Hotel and Club to enjoy some German wine and German wine conversation.
I found myself in a somewhat labyrinthine room with very low ceilings and an interesting combination of natural and artificial light coming from the roof.