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!

The Message Is: Drink Blends

4 September 2013

Art+Farm's Messenger winesI’ve written about California wines a number of times on this blog, but the wines I’ve written about tend to come from unusual nooks and crannies such as Temecula and Amador County. But even in famous Napa Valley, it’s possible to find unusual wines. Three came my way recently from Art+Farm Wine, a partnership of two families founded in 2005.

This winery makes a number of varietal wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon which are surely very tasty, but they don’t have a place on this blog. I was more interested in Art+Farm’s blends, which fall under its “Messenger” label. In her letter to me, Art+Farm’s vintner, Kat McDonald, described why she finds these blends so exciting:

When the wine industry is all about single vineyard, estate grown — blah, blah, blah. We looked at each other and said, “What if we made killer wines and that be our only goal. We are not going to limit ourselves in any way.”

McDonald has a point. Just because a wine comes from a single vineyard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superior. The greatest wines of Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are blends, for example. A fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape might contain eight or nine different varieties of grapes from just as many different vineyards. If you have some very soft, supple wine and you have some tightly structured but rather tough and tannic wine, it only makes sense to combine them. The resulting blend will be better than either of its constituent parts alone.

We Americans love our varietal wines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we turn our nose up at blends, we deny ourselves a huge range of wine expressions. If choosing among blends seems daunting, I recommend starting with a Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”), a domestic Bordeaux-style blend based on Cabernet and/or Merlot. Or if you’re like me, go for a combination you’ve never seen and see what happens. There’s always an element of safety to a blend, because you know the flavor in that bottle is intentional.

Here are my thoughts on Art+Farm’s three Messenger blends, which I received as complimentary samples and tasted with a group of oenophile friends:

Art+Farm “The Messenger” White Wine Number One (Lot #412): I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

Art+Farm “The Messenger” Red Wine Number One (Lot #612): This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different wines made their way into the mix, which is composed of 31% 2009 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% 2006 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% 2008 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% 2010 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% 2008 Napa Merlot, 9% 2008 Sonoma Merlot, 1% 2008 Dry Creek Merlot, 4% 2006 Napa Malbec, 4% 2008 Dry Creek Malbec, 3% 2008 Napa Cabernet Franc, and 12% 2009 Shenandoah Valley Montepulciano.

Whew! In the unlikely event you actually read the list above, you might be thinking, “What the heck is Montepulciano doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties?” According to McDonald, just 12% of Montepulciano “completely changes the texture and color of this wine. As one of my fellow tasters astutely noted, “It’s dark, but not heavy.” I loved the aromas of mocha and dark fruit, and indeed, it tasted dark and dusky but lively as well, with well-balanced black-pepper spice. Paired with some dried blueberries, additional floral notes came to the fore, and the tannins became even more pronounced. This is one sexy blend, and another fantastic value at $18.

Art+Farm “The Messenger” Red Wine Number Two: Bottled in a Rhone-style bottle (as opposed to the Bordeaux-style bottle of Red Wine Number One), this blend contains, as you might expect, a mix of traditional Rhone varieties: 57% Grenache, 38% Syrah, 4% Mourvedre and 1% Viognier. Again, the constituent wines come from an array of vineyards and vintages ranging from 2008 to 2011. It may seem unusual to blend a white wine (Viognier) with reds, but this combination is more traditional than you might think — none other than Côte Rotie blends Syrah and Viognier together.

This blend also had a dusky, dark-fruit aroma, but there was an intriguing note of caramel underneath as well. It proved to be a rustic, forceful wine, with meaty fruit, black-pepper spice, an undertone of iron and an aromatic note of violets. Tasted with some dried cranberries, the wine brightened and “the spices headed to the heavens,” or so my notes say in their typically over-dramatic fashion. This was a popular wine with my group. As one taster remarked, “I would like to enjoy this all by myself.” Again, a startling value for $18.

The French, it seems, aren’t the only ones adept at blending wine. If you see these wines in your local shop, snap them up for date night, or purchase them on the winery’s website.

Note: These wines were provided as complimentary samples by the winery.

A New Home For Cabernet Franc?

31 August 2013
Casa Rondeña

Casa Rondeña

The Bordeaux variety of Cabernet Franc, like Malbec, has long played second fiddle to its more glamorous blending partners of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec, of course, emerged from Bordeaux obscurity and came into its own in Argentina, where it produces ripe, powerful wines. Cabernet Franc is perhaps best-known as the major ingredient in the Loire Valley’s Chinon wines, but I think it may have found a very comfortable new home in the New World: New Mexico.

I only tasted a handful of New Mexican Cabernet Francs, but not for lack of trying. In one tasting room, when I asked about a Cabernet Franc, the winery representative replied, “Yes, we used to make one, and it was great, but you try to sell a Cab Franc in New Mexico.” I’m sure the marketing isn’t easy, but keep at it! The New Mexican Cabernet Francs I did manage to find were thoroughly delicious. The state needs a signature grape, and this could be it.

The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “Cabernet Franc is particularly well-suited to cool, inland climates,” and though New Mexico is inland, I never regarded it as a particularly cool place. It’s right next to Arizona, Texas and Mexico, after all. But New Mexico has a startling array of microclimates, ranging from scrubby deserts to cool Alpine-like forests, often within just a few miles of each other. In much of the state, the elevation ensures that temperatures remain moderate and that there is wide diurnal variation. Cool nights mitigate the effects of warm, sunny days, and they ensure that the grapes ripen slowly and evenly. New Mexico has plenty of poor soil, plenty of hills, plenty of sun, and in many places, an ideal temperature range. Add a little irrigation, and you have some serious potential terroir.

Hardy Cabernet Franc can survive the sometimes harsh New Mexico winters, and with the long, sunny and warm growing season, the variety can routinely achieve a ripeness it sometimes lacks elsewhere. That was what really struck me about the Cabernet Francs of New Mexico — their luscious ripeness and general lack of vegetal qualities often associated with Cabernet Franc. These were wines I’d be proud to serve at any dinner party.

New Mexican Cabernet Francs aren’t available at every corner wine shop. But should you find yourself in New Mexico, or should you happen to find one elsewhere, don’t miss the opportunity to try it. Who knows? Maybe someday New Mexican Cabernet Franc will be as ubiquitous as Argentinean Malbec. Twenty years ago, that wine sounded perfectly ridiculous as well, don’t forget.

Here are three examples of New Mexican Cabernet Francs that I particularly enjoyed:

2008 D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc: This wine was crafted by viticulturalist Emmanuel Lescombes and winemakers Florent and Herve Lescombes under the umbrella of St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. The French Lescombes family has winemakers going back six generations. I sampled their Cabernet Franc in St. Clair’s Albuquerque tasting room and bistro, but the grapes were grown near Deming along the border with Mexico, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. What a delight — it had an aroma of rich raspberry jam, and dark fruit balanced by bright, broad acids. The wine resolved into some tannins and focused spice on the finish, without a hint of anything vegetal. This wine has the richness and power to justify its rather steep $36 price tag.

2009 Casa Rondeña Cabernet Franc: Located about 15 minutes up the road from the St. Clair tasting room, this Albuquerque winery stands like an Andalusian pleasure palace amid an acre or so of vines. I tasted a number of well-crafted wines here, including this very elegant Cabernet Franc. I knew immediately from the aroma of creamy, drank fruit that I was going to really like this wine. It was dry, with restrained, almost tight fruit. Then a lift of spice, a note of violets and a tannic finish. Again, there was nary a hint of green pepper; the flavors of dark fruit, earth and flowers dominated.

2011 Estrella del Norte Cabernet Franc: This attractive winery and tasting room nestles near the southern end of the High Road to Taos. The vineyards on the property date back 18 to 20 years, and lay abandoned until the current owners of Estrella del Norte bought the land in 2007. I saw some photos of what the winery looked like when Estrella del Norte purchased it, and the vineyards were an overgrown mess. What a contrast to today’s tidy rows of grapes. This Cabernet Franc, a more recent vintage than the ones above, had a lovely jammy nose and a more fruit-forward flavor. A pop of black pepper took over after the initial hit of dark fruit, followed by a softly tannic finish. I detected an intriguing savory note underneath as well, which might become more pronounced as the wine ages. At this point though, it’s zippy and fun, and once again, not at all vegetal. For this quality, the price of $29 seems about right.

This is not just plonk for tourists — these ripe and well-balanced wines could compete favorably with any comparably priced Cabernet Franc on the market. It may be a few years yet, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last you’ll hear of New Mexican Cabernet Franc.

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