Sometimes it is about the simple pleasures. When I first got really excited about wine I was drawn to the more expensive, prestigious wines. The average price I paid per bottle started creeping up. Looking for something "unusual" for the Wine Rambler contributed to this trend. Over time though I got a little frustrated with this approach. After all, all these "special" bottles need "special" attention. They want to be carefully selected, properly photographed, precisely analysed and interestingly described. What happened to just enjoying a nice looking bottle with dinner without feeling the need to pay too much attention? This feeling led me to order more "drinking" and less "reviewing" wines, and recently I even managed to put an order in where the average price per bottle was below seven quid.
The wine you see above is one of these wines, although I put a little more effort into selecting it. After all tradition dictates that the first wine to be reviewed on the Wine Rambler each year does not come from Germany.
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.
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.
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.
Dear readers, you know what we're about here. You know how much we try to promote a sense of place and provenance as the basis of wine culture. And we always will. But when it comes to the traditional German way of naming a wine not by what might catch on with people, but by a hermetic kind of descriptive prose that tells you about the exact vineyard that produced the grapes, how ripe they were when harvested, how dry or otherwise the finished wine will taste and so on, we're torn. It can be great for wine nerds like us, but, language problems aside, it's fair to accept that many people don't care about it: Just tell me what wines are good to buy, ok? Fair enough, and up to a point, I even agree. Branded wines are a great thing, if and in so far as they do what, in a perfect world, brands should do for consumers: Find something they can like and depend on without reading up on what Germans call Warenkunde - specialist knowledge to decipher and recognize product quality and decipher the codes that products are packaged with and sold by.
And by introducing the PinoTimes project created by two young winemakers from the Pfalz, I think I can give you an example of what I mean:
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.
There are not many things I like more than a bad pun. Good wine is among them, of course. During rare moments of hilarity, good wines and bad puns come together. This can be in an intentional way, for instance when Mosel winemakers Haart name a Riesling "Haart to Heart". Other brands are unintentionally funny. And then there are good wines with bad puns that really only exist in my mind: when I moved to England I learned that the polite word for "ass" is "bottom" - and now whenever I hear the East Sussex winery "Breaky Bottom" mentioned I cannot help but giggle.
What a "breaky bottom" looks like I'd rather not imagine, but whatever vision I may now have planted in your brain just forget it. Your are looking at a serious sparkling wine that is neither bottom nor breaky.
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?
Here's a story of youthful adventure: In my last year of school, I went for a week of hiking in the Scottish Highlands with three friends. Among many glorious things and brave deeds, it was also a time of spectacularly soggy hiking boots and mad scrambling for overbooked accommodation, us German school boys never having heard of such a thing as a bank holiday. One late afternoon we stumbled into the village of Crianlarich after a day's quasi-amphibious hike and made for the hostel where we had secured beds for the night, when the menu of the local takeaway caught our eye: Fish and Chips up there, of course, and a good variety of other deep-fried fare. But did it really say "fried black pudding and chips"? Dessert was provided for by fried chocolate bars.
This culinary cornucopia seemed outlandish, if strangely appealing, to us, and we mentioned this to our landlord when we checked into our bothy bedrooms. "Och ay", he said, "they fry ****ing everything". All right, I made the och ay-part up, but he did have the Scots accent that gave us such trouble, and I also seem to remember a distinctly north-of-the-border expletive in there. He also said this with a look that seemed to say "You boys think you can handle it?" It was a dare.
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.
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.
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.
Things have changed since we last reported on this old and well-respected Saar winery. Having run into some dire straits commercially - though not quality-wise, it needs to be pointed out - the estate was hurriedly taken over by one Günther Jauch, who was already in line for the eventual succession in ownership. This was a big piece of news far beyond the wine community in Germany, because Günther Jauch just happens to be a celebrity television host. A corporate makeover duly followed, streamlining label design and setting up what is probably the slickest website in the german wine business.
For two weeks I have been agonising about whether to write this wine review or not. I knew that there was no way I could do this wine justice, but I also felt I had something that needed to be said. What makes for a very pompous start does actually come down to a simple lesson: if you are exhausted and have a cold, don't open a wine you want to write about. So, kind reader, take this review with an even bigger pinch of salt than you should take any tasting notes.
Maybe I can make up for the lack of being precise or fair in my description of the wine by giving it a little context. Regular readers of the Wine Rambler will know that we are on a mission to explore English wine. Some of our past exploits have been failures, some boring, some great successes. All were fun. So when I headed out to the Sussex coast earlier this year to visit Hastings with friends, we made a detour to the Carr Taylor winery. Back at home I found that mysteriously a bottle of an award winning sparkling wine had found its way into my rucksack.
East Sussex may not be the first place on earth coming to mind when thinking of sparkling wine. And yet winemaker Will Davenport has had a lot of success with sparkling wines made in the classic champagne style since he started out with 5 acres of vineyards in Kent in 1991. I bought this wine from a wine bar/shop in South London that specialises in English and natural/organic wines - the Davenport sparkler happens to be both. The Limney Estate wine is made from 49% Pinot Noir and 51% Auxerrois and has been aged on lees for over 2 years, which seemed to make it an ideal candidate for a blind tasting against a German sparkler.