Monthly Archives: September 2013

Wine Drinking At Schloss Johannisberg

28 September 2013

Schloss JohannisbergWith elegant classical symmetry, the grand Schloss Johannisberg stands over vineyards sweeping down to the storied Rhein River. Some of Germany’s most famous wines come from these slopes in the heart of the Rheingau.

I’d had such fun tasting wines in the friendly Pfalz region, I couldn’t wait to try some Rheingau vintages. They’re hardly unusual or obscure, but heck, even I dip into the well-known stuff from time to time.

And therein lies the problem. The Pfalz, for example, doesn’t see all that many visitors compared to the Rheingau, where once-charming towns such as Rüdesheim teem with tourists seeking to experience some of the Rhein’s legendary glory.

In the Pfalz, we simply walked into delightful wineries such as A. Christmann and Bassermann-Jordan and asked for a tasting. The staff seemed more or less happy to oblige even before they knew I was a wine blogger.

Here, that wasn’t the case. You’ll note that I didn’t title this post “Wine Tasting at Schloss Johannisberg.” No wine tasting happens here. When we entered what appeared to be the tasting room — it was really the shop — and requested a tasting, the fellow behind the counter looked at me like I had just asked for a free case of wine. “Yes, you can have a taste before buying, if you like,” he replied with a raised eyebrow.

I had no intention of buying anything, what with the current histrionic rules regarding liquids in carry-on bags. “I would like to taste a number of wines,” I replied, “and I would be happy to pay for a tasting.”

“We don’t do that sort of thing here,” was the brusque response. With hauteur worthy of the archetypal Parisian sommelier, he continued, “You won’t be able to taste wine that way in Germany.”

Worn out glasses at Schloss Johannisberg

Worn out glasses at Schloss Johannisberg

First of all, that’s not true, and second, is that something to be proud of? I could have pulled the blogger card at this point and perhaps he would have softened, but I had no intention of tasting anything with this irritating shop clerk. We walked instead to the restaurant, with admittedly lovely panoramic views down to the Rhein, and ordered two half-glasses of wine.

I enjoyed both the fresh and spicy 2011 Rotlack Riesling Kabinett Trocken and the lush and gingery 2007 Grünlack Riesling Spätlese, but I can tell you I won’t be purchasing either of these wines any time soon. There are too many wonderful Rieslings in Germany to bother with wines from this snobby Schloss. Instead, consider a single-vineyard Riesling from the friendly Pfalz, or perhaps a finely crafted wine from the ever-reliable and equally friendly Dr. Loosen in the Mosel Valley.

Leave Schloss Johannisberg to the tourists.

A Dark Sparkler For Fall

25 September 2013

Villa di Corlo LambruscoIf the word “Lambrusco” means anything to you, it likely connotes the sweet, one-dimensional sparkling wines epitomized by Riunite. Now, I can enjoy Riunite as much as the next guy (it’s great paired with beef jerky), but most of the time I’m looking for something with more balance and more depth of flavor. And oddly enough, there are Lambruscos out there that offer just such a thing.

In fact, I found one just the other day at my favorite neighborhood wine shop in Chicago, In Fine Spirits, and it proved to be just the thing for a cool autumn evening. Right away, I had a feeling it would be a better-than-average Lambrusco. First, there was the not insubstantial price tag of $18.50. In Fine Spirits wouldn’t sell a sugar-bomb Lambrusco for that price.

And then there was the label. Many people half-joke that they buy wine because they like the label, but there are far worse ways to select wine than that. I liked this label’s elegant simplicity, and I also liked that it had a lot of words. This wasn’t just a Lambrusco — it was a Villa di Corlo Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro. Those last three words added specificity, which led me to believe this would be better than basic Lambrusco. And below that I found “Denominazione di Origine Controllata,” which theoretically guarantees at least some sort of acceptable level of quality.

What I didn’t see on the label was “Metodo Classico,” which would have indicated that the second fermentation took place in the bottle, in the manner of Champagne. Steel-tank fermentation used to be a deal breaker for me, but I’ve mellowed in my dotage. More important, I trust the taste of In Fine Spirits. Knowing that the store’s taste tends to align with mine means that I can be fearless about venturing outside my comfort zone. I bought the Lambrusco.

It turns out that there are at least 60 known subvarieties of the Lambrusco grape, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, including Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Salamino… Look for Lambrusco followed by names like these, rather than just “Lambrusco.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia flatly states that “non-DOC Lambrusco is not interesting,” and I would have to agree.

The Grasparossa di Castelvetro comes from Emilia-Romagna in central Italy (near Modena and Bologna), and it draws somewhat mixed reviews from the publications noted above. Although large cooperative producers blur the distinctions nowadays, “In theory, Lambrusco Grasparossa is the fullest and most alcoholic” of the various subvarieties, according to the Oxford Companion. A more tepid Sotheby’s allows that DOC Grasparossas are “usually better than non-DOC versions,” but argues that they don’t quite match the quality of Lambrusco di Sorbara.

But really, this is splitting Lambrusco hairs. Get a DOC Lambrusco and have some fun. The Villa di Corlo had an appealingly dark purple color, which makes a nice change from the pale sparklers we usually drink. It had an invitingly grapey aroma, and small, sharp bubbles which felt more like a mass of foam than a group of individuals. Lemony acids balanced out the dark fruit and smokey notes quite well. But what I remember most about this wine was its almost rasping dryness — a sharp contrast to the stereotypically sweet Lambrusco.

For the fall, a dark but lively sparkling wine like this is ideal — it pairs wonderfully with all sorts of hearty foods. And at $18.50 a bottle, you’re not paying much more than you would for a decent bottle of Prosecco. Serve this wine well chilled, and have fun surprising your guests with a deep-purple bubbly.

SUMMARY

Villa di Corlo Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro: Deep, deep purple in color, with a grapey aroma, dark fruit, bright acids and a rasping dryness. Serve well chilled, and pair it with just about any hearty autumnal meal.

Grade: B+

Find It: I bought this wine at In Fine Spirits for $18.50.

Bonus: Check out this melodramatic 1977 Riunite commercial starring none other than Susan Lucci.

Single-Vineyard Rieslings Of The Pfalz

21 September 2013

Weingut ChristmannGerman Riesling isn’t anything all that obscure or unusual, but it is all too rare that we buy the really exciting stuff. Frequently, stores are larded with candy wines like Schwarze Katz and Blue Nun. Many people therefore dismiss German wines the way Putin dismisses Obama — as sweet and simple.

This misconception is easily dispelled, at least in the first case, by trying one or two high-quality German Rieslings. At their best, German Rieslings display lush fruit, zesty acids, laser focus and perhaps a dry breath of minerality. They come in quite a range of styles as well, ranging from voluptuous to positively austere, meaning that there’s a German Riesling for every white-wine drinker.

It would take decades to learn the nuances of German vineyards, even in a single region like the Pfalz, even if the vineyards didn’t have intimidating names like Königsbacher Ölberg. But do remember the name “Pfalz” (pronounced “pfahlts”). This mild wine region east of the Rhein is, political boundaries aside, really a northerly extension of the Alsace. The Pfalz is Germany’s “most exciting wine region,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and its single-vineyard wines are worth seeking out.

A single-vineyard wine will usually be indicated by an semi-unpronounceable word ending in -er, followed by another semi-unpronounceable word. Seeing a word ending in “-garten” or “-berg” can be another telltale sign of a single-vineyard wine.

The different vineyards of the Pfalz produce a range of different wines, but on a recent visit to the region, I found every one I tried to be delightful. Here are some examples of what you can expect.

Rieslings from WEINGUT A. CHRISTMANN, tasted at its winery in Gimmeldingen:

  • Tasting at Weingut Christmann2012 Deidesheimer Paradisgarten — Garden of paradise indeed. This wine smelled of candy, citrus and flowers. Despite its lush texture, this wine kept itself tightly wound, finishing with firmly controlled spice.
  • 2012 Gimmeldinger Biengarten — This vineyard’s name translates as “Garden of Bees,” and its wine knocked me flat. The aroma was surprisingly dark, with a note of wood in it. The extravagantly rich texture of the wine was leavened by stone, lime peel and white pepper spice, and the finish went on for ages. Absolutely delicious.
  • 2012 Gimmeldinger Kapellenberg — I couldn’t find this vineyard on the winery’s website, but it must have a privileged location. The wine had a more honeyed quality, but long-lasting gingery acids kept it admirably balanced, as did a floral lift on the finish.
  • 2012 Königsbacher Ölberg — This focused wine tasted more austere than those above, with appealing notes of white flowers and lime. Tightly controlled acids kept it carefully balanced.

Rieslings from WEINGUT DR. VON BASSERMAN-JORDAN, tasted at its winery in Deidesheim:

  • Sebastian Wandt at Basserman-Jordan2012 Kieselberg — The full name of the vineyard is “Deidesheimer Kieselberg,” but the label omits the “Deidesheimer,” making it a bit harder to quickly identify it as a single vineyard wine. It had a clean, crisp aroma and lively, almost prickly acids keeping the floral fruit in balance. Some focused spice on the finish.
  • 2012 Ungeheuer — Again, it would be easier to identify this wine as a single-vineyard Riesling if the label used the full vineyard name, “Forster Ungeheuer.”  This Riesling is smashingly good. The aromas of melon and citrus sucked me right in, and the wine delivered complex, lively flavors. Sprightly, limey acids balanced the rich fruit, followed by green peppercorn spice and an aromatic finish. A dewy spring morning in a bottle.
  • 2012 Ölberg — This wine is a Grosses Gewächs, a “Great Growth,” indicated by the “GG” on the label. Find those GGs if you can — they designate a vineyard of top quality, and grapes of at least Spätlese ripeness. “Spätlese” often connotes a sweet wine, but GG wines are classified as “trocken” (dry). This remarkable wine had a green, honeyed aroma, rather like a light Sauternes. I loved the rich, peachy fruit; the dry, white-peppercorn spice; and the forcefully driving acids keeping everything in taught balance. (Note that GGs appear only on labels of recent vintages.)
  • 2011 Jesuitengarten — This Grosses Gewächs had another richly green, enticing aroma. A laser focus cut right through the fruit, leading to a finish that seemed almost endless. Sebastian Wandt (pictured above), who conducted this tasting, told me to seek out wines from vineyards with religious names (Jesuitengarten translates as “Garden of the Jesuits”). The church, he alerted me, used to own all the best vineyards.

Skimming over the tasting notes, you’ll see a pattern — rich fruit balanced by lively acids and focused spice. These single-vineyard Rieslings from the Pfalz are beautiful on their own, and even better paired with autumnal dishes like roast pork and roast chicken, or pasta with cream sauce. Pfalz’s single-vineyard Rieslings cost a little more, but those willing to spend a few extra dollars will be amply rewarded.

Favorite New Mexican Wines: Sparkling, White & Rosé

18 September 2013
Casa Rondeña

Casa Rondeña

Since I suspect some have yet to be convinced of the potential of New Mexican wines, I wanted to highlight some of my favorites from my recent trip. Every wine I sampled was at least drinkable, and most were quite tasty (I tended to avoid the off-dry and sweeter styles, ports excepted). In fact, the one truly unpleasant wine of the journey was an almost unbearably tart 2012 Domaine du Salvard “Cheverny” from the Loire Valley.

Here are some of the best sparklers, whites and rosés that I tasted while in New Mexico. Reds and fortified wines will be in a subsequent post.

CASA RONDEÑA

This winery on the outskirts of Albuquerque wouldn’t look out of place in Andalusia (the owner/vintner studied flamenco in southern Spain). The tasting room also serves as a bar, where guests can purchase full glasses of favorite wines to enjoy in the grand lounges or fountained gardens.

2012 Casa Rondeña Viognier: It was no surprise to see guest after guest of the winery request glasses of this to drink in the garden. I loved the perfumed floral aroma laced with green peppercorn spice. Though this Viognier has no residual sugar, it felt lush and supple, with ripe appley fruit and a dry finish. A very fun wine, ideal for sipping by the pool.

2011 Casa Rondeña Rosé: Made from 100% Cabernet Franc (one of New Mexico’s best varieties), this rosé had a green, herbaceous aroma, characteristics I often associate with the variety. It started sweet, with strawberry fruit, orangey acids and some warm spice.

ST. CLAIR

About 10 minutes south from Casa Rondeña, on the edge of Old Town, the Albuquerque branch of this winery is more of a wine bar and bistro. The patio looked like a wonderfully relaxing place for lunch. I stuck to drinking, however, and discovered all sorts of delights. But I only sampled one white:

2010 DH Lescombes Chardonnay: The viticulturalist and vintner both come from the French Lescombes family, which has a winemaking history going back generations. It shows in this Chardonnay, which had a rich aroma which veered almost into peanut butter territory. The wine tasted nutty and buttery as well, but it admirably managed to maintain balance with a zing of lemony acids and a hint of spice.

BLACK MESA

Black Mesa Chardonnay at the Hacienda del Cerezo

Black Mesa Chardonnay at the Hacienda del Cerezo

This winery is located in Velarde, about 30 miles southwest of Taos (Taos itself is too cold to grow grapes). Its tasting room in Taos is right between the Harwood Museum and the Blumenschein House, making it an ideal place for refreshment in the middle of an art-focused afternoon. The Hacienda del Cerezo recommended that I try the Black Mesa Chardonnay with dinner one night, and I was not disappointed.

2010 Black Mesa Chardonnay: With a green, sweet aroma, this wine had a lush texture, some zesty spice and well-balanced acids. It didn’t taste at all oaky or buttery, flavors which some people abhor in Chardonnay. Paired with a salad of baby arugula in a parmesan shell, the wine became especially spicy and lively.

2012 Black Mesa Vermentino: A limited-release wine, the Vermentino didn’t even make it onto Black Mesa’s website. Nevertheless, if you can get your hands on a bottle, by all means do so. It had a very fragrant nose of apples and white flowers, and a delightfully bright flavor profile. It started sweet, became very spicy and ended with some minerals. Delicious.

VIVÁC

Jana at Vivác

Jana at Vivác

Another fine winery located southwest of Taos, Vivác also has a cheerful tasting room in Santa Fe at the Railroad District’s twice-weekly farmers market , held Tuesdays and Saturdays. Although Vivác is better-known for its red wines, the white and rosé I tasted were no slouches either. It didn’t hurt that the tasting room served them in Riedel crystal stemware.

2011 Vivác Sauvignon Blanc: An excellent example of the variety. The aroma was properly fresh, fruity and green, and the wine proved very lively on the palate, with bright fruit, pointy acids and an underlying savory note. On this pleasantly warm autumn afternoon, a glass of this would be just the thing.

2010 Vivác Rosé: Although I must say a glass of this bracing rosé made from Dolcetto wouldn’t hurt either. A salmon-orange color, it had a spicy, minerally aroma and a very dry flavor profile. No sickly-sweet White Zinfandel, this. Strawberry fruit, a pop of white-pepper spice and then a dry, dry finish.

GRUET

Gruet Blanc de Noirs

Gruet Blanc de Noirs

Of all the wineries in New Mexico, Gruet is the most famous, especially for its well-crafted sparkling wines. You have a sporting chance of finding Gruet bubbly in your local wine shop, and I regularly see it on Chicago shelves. You’re much less likely to see examples of Gruet’s still wines, however, which is a shame, because they’re also quite tasty.

NV Gruet Blanc de Noirs: This elegant sparkler made from Pinot Noir had a pleasantly yeasty aroma, orangey acids and a dry finish, all complemented by small, sharp bubbles.

2009 Gruet Chardonnay: I had a glass of this most pleasant Chardonnay at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, and I would recommend seeking it out, but alas, Gruet no longer makes it. A winery representative told me that all of Gruet’s Chardonnay is now being diverted into sparkling wines. For posterity: The Gruet Chardonnay had an unexpected aroma of ripe, fresh pears. The appley fruit flavors were just balanced by some gingery spice, and paired with a watercress-based salad, it became memorably big and zesty. After tasting this unusual Chardonnay, I’ll be on the lookout for Gruet’s Chenin Blanc.

ESTRELLA DEL NORTE

Estrella del Norte

Estrella del Norte

This winery lay derelict at the base of the High Road to Taos for years, its vineyards neglected and overgrown. The present owners did a magnificent job restoring the property, which now has a tasting room and a romantic outdoor event venue. The wines lived up to the idyllic setting.

2011 Estrella del Norte Chenin Blanc: Speaking of Chenin Blanc, a grape which has an unjustly low reputation, Estrella del Norte’s expression was fascinating. It had a dusky green aroma with a bit of rather exciting funk to it. Voluptuous on the tongue, the wine had an almost caramel quality to its fruit, with lemony acids giving it a lift on the finish.

NV Estrella del Norte Rio Nambe: A blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, this wine smelled of tart, white fruit and proved to be very well-balanced. The rich texture was again leavened by a boost of spice on the finish, and the savory note underneath was most intriguing.

2011 Estrella del Norte Symphony: This grape variety, a crossing of Grenache Gris and Muscat of Alexandria, originated at the U.C. Davis quite recently — it was introduced commercially in 1981. Despite this perhaps dubious pedigree, Symphony can make perfectly lovely wines, as this example illustrates. This version had a perfumed, floral aroma and a very dry character despite its floral flavors. Gingery spice and a finish of chalk kept this austere wine interesting and balanced.

Up Next: The reds.

Drinking Wine Because It’s Fun?

7 September 2013
Sometimes drinking the unusual and the obscure gets a little scary.

Sometimes drinking the unusual and the obscure gets a little scary.

Writing a blog about unusual wines, spirits and cocktails is great fun. I have a venue in which to share my opinions, I attend delightful events like the Wine Bloggers Conference, I get free samples from time to time, and every great once in a while, I’ll receive an invitation to visit some romantic place to learn about the wines or spirits produced there. I take great joy in these experiences, and I’m not planning on giving them up any time soon.

Writing a blog about unusual wines, spirits and cocktails has had a number of unintended consequences, however. The focus on the unusual eliminates all sorts of delicious things. Much to my bewilderment and consternation, I found myself turning down free samples of wine from a top Burgundy producer, because Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays don’t exactly count as obscure. The resourceful marketing representative understood the situation, and offered to send me free samples of some Indian wine instead. I have nothing against wine from India, but let’s be honest here — something unfortunate has happened to a person who turns down free samples of fine Burgundy in exchange for bottles from subcontinental parts unknown.

My wine rack has also become problematic. It used to represent a sort of buffet from which I could pick and choose any bottle at any time. Now there are strict divisions. On three of the shelves are bottles I want to eventually write blog posts about, and on one of the shelves (actually, only half a shelf at this point) are bottles I can open at leisure. Basically, if I want to open a bottle from my collection, I better be prepared to also open my notebook.

And this is the unexpected thing that happens when you turn a vice into a job. That vice slowly and surely starts to feel a lot less like a fun indulgence and a lot more like work. I did it with my 9 to 5 job as well. I used to take great pleasure in exploring as many different places as possible on my vacations, visiting perhaps five different cities on a 12-day trip. It boggles my mind how much like work that now seems. Instead, I look forward to staying in a cottage for a week, avoiding fancy restaurants and concierges and valets. Just reading my book and hiking and cooking and cuddling.

I realize that this is not the sort of situation that engenders a flood of sympathy. These “problems” are not problems. Coptic Christians have problems. Gay Russians have problems. Syrians have problems. What I have is an extremely fortunate and extremely unusual situation. I did what you’re supposed to do — work at what you love. But what people tend to leave out of that story is that what you love then becomes work.

I still haven’t quite figured out how to reconcile that issue, but this week, I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to a cottage in Wisconsin, I’m going to leave my internet connection behind, and I’m going to leave any thoughts of a planned itinerary behind as well. What I am bringing with me is a Central Coast Pinot Noir, a California Cabernet, a Washington State Merlot and a number of wines already discussed on this blog. Drinking wine and not taking notes? Now that’s starting to sound like a vacation!

See you in a week. Cheers!

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