Searching for the Soul of Riesling. Reflections on Mosel magic and the wines of St. Urbans-Hof

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.

Weingut Zimmerle, Cuvée Trio 'Astrum', 2010

If you're a regular follower of this blog (and you better had be) you know that there are several threads or agendas woven into it without much subtlety. One, doomed to failure, is the notion that we could get to understand Burgundy. Another, with better progress, is to bring the use of cheap puns in wine reviews to new lows. A third is that, both of us with roots in the German southwest, we are tirelessly working to see Swabia rise. Not so much rise to world dominance through thrift, Kehrwoche and the manufacture of car parts. That will happen inevitably, without our doing. No, we would see her rise in the world of wine also. And rise she will, as Germany's up-and-coming red wine region.

Quietly pruning their vines to this goal, plotting away, are people like those from the Zimmerle family winery of Württemberg's Remstal subregion, northeast of Stuttgart. Could their three-varietal red wine cuvée be another step forward in the quest?

Van Volxem, Saar Riesling, 2011

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?

Weingut Brenneisen, Gutedel, 2011

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.

Blurry bottle, sharp winemaking

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:

Jürgen Leiner, Chardonnay "Handwerk", 2011

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?

A. Christmann, Riesling Pfalz, 2010

This is the season to write about summer wines. You have to dig up something fresh and light and go on about how well it would go with a garden party or that fresh, light food we all enjoy under the blazing heat. It will either be a light white wine or a rosé that even those who dislike rosé will enjoy as it goes so well with summer. I am having none of that, and for two reasons. First of all there is no summer in London - as I am writing this post the wettest June in history is behind us and water is pouring down outside Wine Rambler London HQ into a wet and cold July.

More importantly perhaps the category "summer wine" would be unfair to a wine that is much more than just an accessory to the hot season. IF there was such a thing as a hot season in London of course.

torsten Sunday, 08/07/2012
Schellmann, In Gumpoldskirchen, 2009

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?

Julian Thursday, 05/07/2012

Weingut Salwey, Oberrotweiler Eichberg, Grauburgunder GG, 2008

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.

the colour of failure (mine, not Salwey's)

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.

Bodegas Terras Gauda, or: So this is what Wine Journalism feels like? A Wine Rambler review

When we first launched the Wine Rambler, we anticipated, rather optimistically, that wineries might at some point in the future might send us samples to review. But we also always insisted, a touch self-defeatingly perhaps, that we would be very strict about ethics and transparency in doing this. And we are. But the good people of the Terras Gauda winery of Spain, which makes and markets a range of wines from different regions of northwestern Spain did not let themselves be deterred by this, much to their credit, and were kind enough to send us a six bottle sample to review. And it fell to the Munich branch of the blog to do it.

How to go about such a task? I decided on the following course of action: I would not research anyone else's reviews, ratings or scores beforehand. I would not research prices either, which means I could not comment on value, but I wouldn't be influenced by it either. I would also not set up a single tasting where I would compare them in a professional setting. Instead, we would drink the wines at Munich HQ, one at the time, over a couple of weeks, like almost anyone who buys them would: On the kitchen table, after a day's work, with food.

Philipp Kuhn, Chardonnay trocken, 2009

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?