Monthly Archives: May 2015

Sachsen: East Germany’s Great Wine Secret

26 May 2015
Along the Saxon Wine Road

Along the Saxon Wine Road

I made a terrible mistake on my recent visit to Dresden. I allowed only one day to explore Germany’s smallest and easternmost wine region, Sachsen (Saxony). Even in Germany, this landscape of charming little towns and vineyards terraced into bluffs above the Elbe River is little known, and prejudices about “East German wine” have not entirely disappeared. And who can blame anyone for not rushing out to tour the vineyards of former East Germany?



As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia ruefully notes, “Wines have been produced in this area for nearly 1,000 years, but it took [East Germany] less than 50 years to erase… once-well-known names from the memory of wine drinkers.” The region was important enough to house Germany’s first viticultural training institute, which, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, was established in Meissen in 1811-12.

Then phylloxera hit, followed closely by World War I. The region started to bounce back a bit just in time for World War II to start. The communist regime which took over after the war had little interest in quality wine, nor in the terraces where the vineyards once grew — growing grapes on the slopes was labor-intensive and expensive. Few vineyards were replanted, and many terraces fell into disrepair. The Elbe Valley has yet to fully recover from this time of neglect, though vineyard plantings increased dramatically after Germany reunification to about 1,100 acres.

Looking at a map, it seems insane to try to grow fine-wine grapes here, at a latitude about even with London. But as The World Atlas of Wine explains, Sachsen’s “much more continental climate frequently blesses [it] with magnificent summers, even if the risk of serious spring frosts is high.” The Elbe River helps moderate the cold, and the relatively steep south-facing slopes provide an ideal microclimate in which to ripen grapes. In fact, as the Atlas goes on to say, the best wineries “manage to produce dry wines of remarkable substance and character for their northerly location.”

Frédéric Fourré's 2013 Kerner & Gutedel

Frédéric Fourré’s 2013 Kerner & Gutedel

And what a location! I drove out of Dresden following the south bank of the Elbe, and it didn’t take long for vineyards to appear, tumbling down to the occasional 18th- or 19th-century villa. The road took me through a number of well-preserved towns, each of which had its share of inviting wine taverns.

By this point in my trip, I had already tried a number of local wines in Dresden restaurants, most of which have at least two or three Sachsen bottlings on their menus. At Caroussel, one of Dresden’s Michelin-starred restaurants, I sampled a Frédéric Fourré blend of Kerner and Gutedel (Chasselas) with aromas of honeysuckle and spice and a green-apple tartness that worked wonderfully with food. Sitting outside at Pulverturm an der Frauenkirche, I sipped a peachy and floral Schloss Wackerbarth Bacchus, a crossing of Silvaner and Riesling with Müller Thurgau, which had enough juicy, lemony oomph to more than match my dish of char with creamed leeks. And a Schloss Proschwitz rosé of Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder, with a heady strawberry aroma and a rich powdered-candy quality, proved to be the high point of my meal at the riverside Canaletto restaurant.

Schloss Proschwitz appeared time and time again on the wine lists of high-end restaurants in Dresden, and each of the reference books cited above notes Schloss Proschwitz as one of the top wineries in the area.

It was with some excitement, then, that I passed the spiky Gothic skyline of Meissen and neared Schloss Proschwitz itself, where I had an appointment with owner Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe.

Up Next: Wine tasting with the Princess.

My Buttons Get Pushed

21 May 2015

Wine All-in-One For DummiesIt will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I have a soft spot for an underdog. That’s one of the reasons I love to highlight unusual and obscure wines and spirits. It gives me great joy to write about wonderful bottles that far too few people know about, and wine regions that don’t get nearly the attention they should.

It was with some irritation, then, that I listened to a woman at a recent lunch held to promote Chablis complain about the state of Chicago wine lists. “Nowadays, sommeliers here seem to think the weirder, the better,” she opined, “and I think they’re not doing their job of educating the consumer about wines they really should know about.”

I thought about it, and I realized that this judgmental comment most likely results from her feeling threatened: If someone considers themselves to be something of an expert in wine, and a wine list confronts them with all sorts of unfamiliar options, it potentially calls their expertise into question. I wish instead that she would look at such moments as opportunities to learn and grow as a wine consumer. But I know that’s difficult — for some of us, myself included, it takes some effort to keep our wine knowledge and our self-esteem untied.

Later at lunch we discussed the price of Chablis, which tends to be much lower than other white Burgundies. “The Chicago wine consumer just isn’t as sophisticated,” she suggested, irritating me yet further. “So you can’t charge as much as you might in, say, San Francisco or New York.”

I protested, but her neighbor at the table agreed. “No no, the wine scene is definitely more sophisticated in New York and San Fran. You could charge a lot more for a bottle like this,” he said, gesturing to a Premier Cru, “in Manhattan than you could in Chicago. The consumers there know that it’s worth the money.”

I felt defensive of Chicago and our wine scene. I’ve always taken pride in Chicago wine shops and wine lists, which tend to offer a surprising breadth of wines from around the world. Lacking a wine region of our own, we serve wines from everywhere. And we have demanding palates as well, as evidenced by our weird (some might say adventurous) wine lists.

But you’ve no need to take my word for it. Lettie Teague, the New York-based wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal wrote a fascinating article in 2011 comparing the wine scenes in Manhattan and Chicago. She gives the edge to her home town, but if you look at the evidence she presents, Chicago appears at the very least to tie the Big Apple in terms of wine sophistication.

I still wondered, though, if the Chicago disparagers across the dining table from me could be right. Were New Yorkers more willing to pay for quality than Chicagoans? Does the wine market there bear higher prices?

With so many Chablis producers each producing a variety of wines, it can be difficult to compare apples to apples. After some hunting, I finally found a store in Chicago and a store in New York each selling exactly the same wine: the 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Les Clos, a Grand Cru Chablis. Binny’s, which ranks among Chicago’s best-priced wine shops because of its immense size, sells the wine for $89.99 a bottle. Flatiron Wines & Spirits in Manhattan, however, sells the wine for $84.99.

While not thrilled that Chicago has a higher price for this Chablis than New York, I can’t deny feeling vindicated.

Chicago may be the Second City — pancake-flat and in the middle of the Midwest — but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing. You don’t have to go to New York or San Francisco to get great wine anymore. That duopoly ended years ago, and it isn’t just Chicago that ended it. You can find compelling wine lists and wine shops in all manner of cities around the country these days.

New York, San Francisco, you’re fantastic. I love you. But the rest of the country is doing just fine.

Postcard From Sachsen

10 May 2015
Saxony's Schloss Wackerbarth

On the grounds of Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

If you haven’t heard about wine from Sachsen (Saxony), Germany’s smallest wine region, you’re not alone. Even many Germans are unaware that Sachsen produces wine, let alone wine of real character.

Vineyards along the Elbe

Vineyards along the Elbe

Because I’ve visited Dresden twice before, I knew that the area — the most northeasterly wine region in Germany — had vineyards. But because I’d always stayed in the city, I had no idea how beautiful the vineyards were. The Sächsische Weinstrasse (Saxon Wine Road) follows the Elbe River outside Dresden in the former East, passing by terraced vineyards, wine taverns and elaborate villas. I found it startlingly beautiful.

Even more startling was the quality of some of the wine I tasted, ranging from elegant Méthode Champenoise Sekt to barrique-aged Weissburgunder of true Burgundian richness, balance and depth.

Rapeseed field near Meissen

Rapeseed field near Meissen

How has this surpassingly beautiful region escaped notice, even in its home country? Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the idea of “wine from former East Germany” doesn’t sound especially promising. Also problematic is that almost none of the wine is exported.

I foolishly allowed only one day to explore the wineries of Saxony on this trip, but what a day! It involved not only wine, but a castle and a princess as well. A post devoted to it will be coming shortly.