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Top Red Wines Of 2013

30 December 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

You’ll note that nary a wine from France made the list below, for example. Everyone knows top Bordeaux and Burgundy taste great, and the prices reflect that fame. Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better, whether we’re in California, Italy, Uruguay or British Columbia.  Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2013, in alphabetical order:

 

ART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” RED WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #612):

This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different Californian wines made their way into the mix, including Cabernets from Lake County and Napa, Merlots from Napa and Sonoma, Malbecs from Napa and Dry Creek, Cabernet Franc from Napa and Montepulciano from the Shenandoah Valley.

After reading the list above, you might be wondering what a Montepulciano is doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties. According to winemaker Kat 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 a fantastic value at $18.

 

Cantele2009 CANTELE SALICE SALENTINO RISERVA:

According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in Italy’s Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the Cantele certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

 

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. 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.

 

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

2007 D’ANGELO SETTE COPPA:

This British Columbian blend contains all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties, grown on just eight acres of vineyards. It smells red and surprisingly minerally, and wow, that flavor. It has bright red fruit, focused acids, well-finessed tannins and some metallic earth on the finish. It’s a delight to drink, and a very fine value for $25.

 

2012 DOMAINE TERLATO & CHAPOUTIER SHIRAZ-VIOGNIER:

An appellation of the northern Rhône which never fails to quicken my heart is Côte Rôtie, which produces some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish.

This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.

 

2007 GEISEL WEINBAU BRENTANO “R” MARKELSHEIMER PROBSTBERG MERLOT TROCKEN:

I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard Merlot (Markelsheimer Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier, Stephane Thuriot, selected this wine from northern Württemberg in Germany to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.

 

2009 PALUMBO FAMILY VINEYARDS SANGIOVESE “DUE FIGLI” VINEYARD:

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

On a quiet side road away from the big wineries in Temecula, this winery was recommended by almost every local I spoke with. All the fruit for its wines comes from Palumbo’s 13 acres of vineyards, because owner Nicholas Palumbo “believes in producing only what he grows himself,” according to the winery website.

This single-vineyard Sangiovese was brick-red, with an earthy, jammy nose that had me itching to give this wine a taste. I was not disappointed. It was wonderfully lush, with jammy fruit, a luxurious mouthfeel and a tannic finish. Temecula is on few people’s fine-wine radar, but if it can produce wines like this Sangiovese, it’s a region worth keeping an eye on.

 

2005 PISANO “ETXE ONEKO” LICOR DE TANNAT:

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia speaks very highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” I also discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed, as you might expect, by a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.

 

2010 RUST EN VREDE ESTATE:

Three South African Bordeaux BlendsThis Stellenbosch estate in the shadow of the Helderberg has produced wine off and on for three centuries, though it took its present form only after 1977, when the Engelbrecht family purchased and restored it. The Rust en Vrede Estate wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in a “hermitaged” style of wine popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century, when producers would sometimes beef up their blends with Syrah from the Rhône’s Hermitage region.

The deep red-fruit aroma was very enticing, marked by additional meaty and floral notes (a fellow taster at the table also detected “man musk,” which led Jean Engelbrecht to half-joke that she was forbidden from sampling any more of his wines). I loved the wine’s silky texture, rich red fruit, firmly controlled white-pepper spice and raisiny finish. The Estate felt very supple, yet it still cut right through the richness of my beef filet. I lamented that I hadn’t tried it with my appetizer of mussels, but Engelbrecht assured me I hadn’t missed anything: “I’m more of a main course kind of wine,” he quipped. But I was rather startled to discover that the Estate also paired well with a side of roasted asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to match.

 

2007 SKOURAS GRAND CUVÉE NEMEA:

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Greece’s Nemea appellation “relatively reliable,” and the Skouros Agiorgitiko I tasted at the Wine Bloggers Conference more than supports that rather tepid assertion. It was memorably delicious, with a beautiful aroma of tobacco and cherries, plenty of bright acids, ample fruit and luscious notes of mocha. Anyone who still thinks Greece is nothing but a sea of Retsina should taste this.

 

And this concludes my awards for 2013! You can read about my picks for top white wines here, and my favorite spirits and cocktails here. Happy New Year, everyone!

Top White Wines Of 2013

27 December 2013

White WineLast year, I assembled all my favorites into one list, but because 2013 brought so many memorable wines I wanted to highlight, I had to separate them into top whites and top reds. Many of my favorite white wines of 2013 cost less than $20, and one can be had for less than $10 — yet more evidence that taking a risk on an unusual bottle can really pay off.

The 10 wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets. 

I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in balance, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply sweet and innocuous. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

You may not find all the wines below with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine shop will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2013:

 

Art+Farm's Messenger winesART+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.

 

2012 BOUZA ALBARINO:

The family-owned Bodega Bouza in Uruguay focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. Powerful and exciting.

 

2012 LAPOSTOLLE “CASA GRAND SELECTION” SAUVIGNON BLANC:

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Andrea León Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night, to help preserve freshness in the fruit.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded. This Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

 

2008 CHIMNEY ROCK “ELEVAGE BLANC”:

I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.

 

Hainle Gewurztraminer Ice Wine2010 HAINLE VINEYARDS ESTATE WINERY GEWÜRZTRAMINER ICE WINE

It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this British Columbian ice wine, Hainle hit a smashing home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get your hands on a bottle of this wine, for God’s sake, do it.

 

2011 MAZZONI PINOT GRIGIO:

Mazzoni Pinot GrigioI had never sampled, to my knowledge, a Tuscan Pinot Grigio. All the quality Italian Pinot Grigios I knew of came from the mountainous north, from Alto Adige or Friuli. A Tuscan Pinot Grigio varietal — a white Super Tuscan — is extremely unusual.

Many of us associate Pinot Grigio with light, inoffensive and bland flavors; it’s a wine for a hot summer pool party or a beach picnic. But this golden-hued beauty had some oomph. After pressing, the juice sits for 24 hours on the skins, giving the wine additional body, followed by 25 days of cold fermentation, increasing the wine’s acidity. The craftsmanship is readily apparent in both the aroma and flavor.

The wine smelled fresh and lively, like a green whiff of spring. On the palate, it exhibited focused and controlled fruit, prickly acids, some aromatic qualities, and a surprisingly lush finish. It was light but complex, and a fine value for the price. Sampled with a white pizza topped with arugula and parmesan, the food-friendly acids kicked into high gear, and the wine became juicier and rounder. A delight.

 

2010 PLANETA CARRICANTE:

Planeta CarricanteThe Carricante variety is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” according to the Wine Searcher website. The Planeta expression of this ancient variety has a wonderfully seductive aroma with notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and racier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.

 

2011 SCHNAITMANN “GRAU WEISS”:

A surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay, the Grau Weiss sounds a little crazy to me, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

 

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris2012 SIMONNET-FEBVRE SAINT-BRIS SAUVIGNON BLANC:

On its label, this Sauvignon Blanc declares itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I turned to my trusty reference library for some answers as to what a Sauvignon Blanc was doing in Burgundy. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. The AOC has only about 250 acres of vineyards located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis.

The Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What an incredible value for $12!

 

2012 WEINGUT DR. VON BASSERMAN-JORDAN ÖLBERG

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-JordanThis single-vineyard Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region 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.

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.

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.

Three Unusual German Reds

17 July 2013
Lemberger

Lemberger

In addition to Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Germany grows a number of other red grape varieties quite successfully, as I rediscovered on a recent visit. An unusual but traditional varietal such as Lemberger was fun to drink, but what really made me want to stand up and yodel was the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend I tried. Wow. Who would have thought that these varieties, which reach their apex in warm, maritime Bordeaux, could do so well in cool, continental Germany?

Apparently, some smart German winemakers thought so. The World Atlas of Wine notes that there have been some “convincing experiments” with red Bordeaux varieties in Württemberg, and you can consider me convinced. Not all German reds are worth trying — many are still thin and sweet — but after tasting the Spätburgunders described in this post and the wines detailed below, I am certain that there is a German red for everyone.

2010 Staatsweingut Weinsberg Lemberger Trocken:  This wine comes from Württemberg, an area just north of Stuttgart which the Atlas says is “really red wine country.” It started fruity and sweet, and I feared it would be a simple snoozer, but then a blast of black-pepper spice kicked in, ensuring that there was no way I would sleep through this glass of wine. You might have tried a Lemberger and not known it — the variety is especially popular in Austria, where it’s known as Blaufränkisch.

2007 Geisel Weinbau Brentano “R” Markelsheimer Probstberg Merlot Trocken: I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard wine (Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier selected this wine from northern Württemberg to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.

2010 Weingut Fritz Wassmer “Cuvée Félix” Cabernet & Merlot: This Bordeaux-style blend comes from the far southwestern corner of Baden, the southwesternmost state of Germany. I felt especially excited to try it because it comes from a town called Bad Krozingen, just a few miles from where I studied abroad in Freiburg. Again there was that velvety red fruit that I love, followed by some soft spice and a smokey finish of tobacco. It paired perfectly with an insanely large portion of Zwiebelrostbraten (roast beef with caramelized onions), and, oddly enough, it worked with the asparagus as well.

Late Burgundian

13 July 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderIt probably won’t come as a great shock that Germany produces some red wines, but as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Even members of the wine trade find it surprising that almost 37% of German vineyards are planted with black grape varieties.” That figure certainly came as a surprise to me. Where is this apparent sea of German red wine? Certainly not on the shelves of American wine shops — Even the largest stores typically carry just one or two.

The most widely planted (and some would argue most successful) red grape variety in Germany is Spätburgunder, which we know as Pinot Noir. But according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Few of these wines are exported since demand so much exceeds supply within Germany, and prices are high.” And surely foreign markets would be difficult for these wines to crack. I suspect if the average American wine consumer saw a high-priced Spätburgunder on the shelf, they would be loath to take a risk on it, even on the off-chance they knew it was a Pinot Noir.

But should you encounter a Spätburgunder at a reasonable price, and should you be a fan of Pinot Noir, I recommend snapping it up. It’s true that not too long ago, the “typical Spätburgunder was pale, sweetish and all too often tinged with rot-related odours,” according to the pull-no-punches Oxford Companion. I had a number of these when I studied abroad in Germany, and I must admit they put me off Teutonic reds for years.

How times have changed! Lower yields and longer maceration periods (the time the juice has in contact with the grape skins and seeds) over the last two decades have markedly increased quality, and I have to agree with Sotheby’s when it argues that nowadays, “talented winemakers have produced truly beautiful, silky-smooth, well-colored red wines from [Spätburgunder].”

I tasted a number of fine Spätburgunders on my last trip to Germany, and they ranged from fruity and pleasing to absolutely lovely:

2008 Weingut August Kesseler Spätburgunder Trocken: This wine from Assmannshausen in the Rheingau had the classic cherries and earth aroma I associate with Pinot Noir. It tasted light, fruity, spicy and earthy, again in classic Pinot fashion. The almost tart acids really perked up when paired with some saddle of venison.

2008 Weingut Schloss Eberstein Spätburgunder Trocken: No one can accuse this winery east of Baden-Baden of overpricing its Spätburgunders — I found a German shop selling bottles of this for just €9 (about $12). A clear brick-red color, it smelled of red fruit and iron. It moved from ripe up-front fruit to a velvety midsection to some rather rustic white-pepper spice. Oddly, I also drank this wine with venison, which it matched perfectly.

2009 Weingut Seeger Heidelberger Herrenberg Spätburgunder “S” Trocken: This winery based in northern Baden takes its highest quality Blauer Spätburgunder (another German synonym for Pinot Noir), designates it as “S”, “R” or “RR”, and ages it in small French-oak barriques for 18 to 20 months. The Sotheby’s Encyclopedia actually cites wines from the Herrenberg, a steep vineyard just outside Heidelberg, as particularly worthy of note, and highlights Seeger as a top producer. I certainly enjoyed this wine — it had aromas of cherries, tobaccos and earth, and open red-fruit flavors which tightened up and crescendoed into some black-pepper spice.

Tasting with Sebastian at Basserman-Jordan2011 Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Spätburgunder Trocken: This Pinot Noir from Pfalz-based Basserman-Jordan had a particularly earthy aroma, with notes of iron and cherries. It tasted brick-red, with powerful black-pepper spice and a touch of something herbaceous. I wouldn’t call this one “refined;” it was more rowdy and rustic, which is not at all a bad thing.

2010 Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Ölberg Grosses Gewächs Spätburgunder Trocken: There are a lot of rules governing what qualifies a wine classified as “Grosses Gewächs,” a very recently developed designation which translates as “Great Growth.” Most important is that these wines come from vineyard sites which have shown themselves over the years to be truly superior. There are also rules about residual sugar and so forth (as there always are in Germany) which I just can’t bring myself to write about. You can often tell a wine is a Grosses Gewächs by the “GG” on the label, but prior to 2006 or so, you just have to know your vineyards.  In any case, this Spätburgunder comes from the Ölberg, a vineyard which produces some of the Pfalz’s very top red wines. It had a more herbaceous aroma, and it felt more under control, its red fruit flavors complemented by vanilla notes and white-pepper spice. It seemed elegant, this Pinot Noir, with a silky, creamy texture. Superb.

None of my resources, incidentally, indicated why the Germans call Pinot Noir “Spätburgunder,” which translates as “Late Burgundian.” It seems an odd name for a grape which traditionally ripens early. My theory is that Germans simply called it “Burgunder” until an even earlier-ripening Pinot Noir mutation evolved in Franken about 150 years ago. To distinguish between the two, it only made sense to call one Late Burgundian and the other Early Burgundian, or Frühburgunder.

White And Gray Burgundian

10 July 2013

Tasting at A. ChristmannGerman wine and Riesling are practically synonymous, and considering the quality of fine German Rieslings, it’s no wonder. But Germany grows other varieties as well, of course, and quite successfully at that. Some tend to be duds (like Müller-Thurgau), but some are quite delicious, such as Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder. These varieties, which translate as “White Burgundian” and “Gray Burgundian,” respectively, are in fact nothing more (and nothing less) than German Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Wines made from Weissburgunder or Grauburgunder tend to be richly flavorful, and yet, it’s rare to find them here in the United States. Perhaps these semi-pronounceable varieties are overshadowed by Riesling, or perhaps the Germans prefer to keep these wines all to themselves!

Whatever the case, they are worth seeking out. As you might have guessed from the names, both varieties are direct descendants of the highly regarded Pinot Noir variety (Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc is a mutation of Pinot Gris). This noble pedigree shows in the wines these varieties produce.

I tasted a number of delicious examples of Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder during my recent German sojourn, and there wasn’t a single disappointment:

2011 Weingut Max Ferd Richter Weissburgunder: This wine from the spectacularly scenic Mosel Valley — my favorite German wine region — had a fresh and spicy aroma, floral fruit, limey acids and a tight finish. Cheerful and refreshing.

2012 Weingut Wolf Weissburgunder Trocken: I sampled this wine from the Pfalz region, which is really a northern extension of the famed Alsace, in a thoroughly delightful Munich restaurant called Halali. The Pfalz produces some of Germany’s best wines, though this is quite an inexpensive Weissburgunder, offered for just €5.50 per bottle on the winery’s website. I would have guessed it cost at least triple that. Almost clear in color, it had a bright and spicy aroma in keeping with the variety. Its ripe fruit tightened quickly into tart, focused acids. Not bad for a $7.00 bottle of wine!

2012 Weingut Christmann Gimmeldingen Weissburgunder: Now we’re really getting somewhere — the “climatically pampered” vineyard of Gimmeldingen produces some of the Pfalz’s best wines, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. I had a feeling this Weissburgunder would hit a home run when I smelled its bouquet of rich white fruit. It tasted very fruity, and its lush texture was well-balanced by tightly wound acids, some distinct minerality and a hint of earth. Excellent.

2011 Schnaitmann Grau Weiss: I’m cheating a little bit here, but bear with me — I loved this one. The Grau Weiss is actually a surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay. It sounds crazy to me, but I suppose if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan2012 Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Grauburgunder Trocken: Another Pfalz wine, this Grauburgunder smelled bright and fresh, reminding me a bit of a swimming pool. On the palate, it was sprightly, sweet and green, resolving into some limey acids on the finish. Unusual and fun.

2008 Winzergenossenschaft Kallstadt Erpolzheimer Kieselberg Grauburgunder Auslese: I hereby award the prize for the longest wine name to ever appear on this blog. Only a German could come up with an overblown jumble of syllables like this. The first two words are the name of the cooperative which produced the wine, and the second two words are the name of the vineyard. This vineyard has the misfortune to be located in the Rosenbühl Grosslage, which Sotheby’s claims has “no outstanding villages, vineyards, or growers,” but I beg to differ. This Auslese was sheer delight, with aromas of green apple and spicy pineapple and marvelously rich fruit. The decadent texture didn’t become at all cloying, however, because of some incredibly lively acids and gingery spice. It had me yearning for some choucroute, and a second glass.

Keep your eyes peeled for these wines. You won’t see them everywhere, but a large wine shop may very well carry one or two, and a more ambitious restaurant wine list might also contain an example. Your hunt will be well rewarded.

A Single Malt From The Schliersee

22 May 2013

Slyrs WhiskeyWhile perusing the surprisingly extensive cocktail list of a hotel bar in southern Bavaria, an unusual Rusty Nail caught my eye. This classic cocktail traditionally combines Scotch whisky and Drambuie, but for this “Bavarian Rusty Nail,” the bartender utilized locally distilled single-malt whiskey and whiskey liqueur. (I use “whisky” to refer to the Scottish beverage, and “whiskey” if it’s distilled elsewhere.)

Now, I have encountered all manner of unusual German spirits, ranging from pleasant fruit brandies to noxious herbal concoctions originally intended to be medicinal. But a Bavarian single malt? I asked the bartender about it, and he had actually visited the Slyrs distillery, set in a small town on the Schliersee (Schlier Lake). This venture, conceived by Florian Stetter after a visit to Scotland’s Speyside region, began producing whiskey in earnest only recently, in 2007. But the spirit, aged in new American oak barrels, left the bartender impressed.

Intrigued, I ordered a glass of the Slyrs whiskey neat — I wanted to see what this spirit could do on its own. Because the distillery is so new, you won’t see any Slyrs whiskey older than three years, and indeed, the whiskey tasted young and brash. A light bronze color, it had a fresh, herbaceous nose with notes of vanilla. On the palate, herbs and racy spice quickly supplanted the initial caramel richness, leading into a surprisingly long finish of new wood.

Unfortunately, this fun, zesty whiskey has yet to cross the Atlantic — I couldn’t find anyone selling it in the United States. But should you happen to find yourself in Bavaria, don’t hesitate to slap on some Lederhosen and ask for a glass of Slyrs.

Postcards From Germany #3

19 May 2013
Wine tasting in the Pfalz

Wine tasting in the Pfalz

 

 

Wine tasting in the Rheingau

Wine tasting in the Rheingau

 

 

Wine tasting in the Mosel Valley

Wine tasting in the Mosel Valley

Postcard From Germany #2

15 May 2013

Sauvignon Blanc from Freiburg

One of the best times of my life was the year I spent studying in Freiburg, Germany’s “sunniest” city, according to the slogan. I drank a lot of wine there, and I must say little of it was any good. But then what can you expect for $4 a bottle?

It was thus with intrigue and delight that I received the news from the sommelier at Residenz Heinz Winkler that they had a 2011 Weingut Landmann Sauvignon Blanc from Freiburg by the glass. A German Sauvignon Blanc? From my own little Freiburg?

I’ve been seeing a surprising number of Sauvignon Blanc-based wines here in Germany on this trip. They’re becoming quite the fashion, according to one winemaker I spoke with, especially after the hot vintage of 2003. It also helps that German wine law now allows Sauvignon Blanc to receive a Qualitätswein classification.

Sunny Freiburg certainly came through with this Sauvignon Blanc. It had a soft, green aroma with some stone, soft fruit, and subtle but pointy acids. It wasn’t especially big, but it was focused and it held my interest from start to finish.

So many interesting things I’ve tasted so far, and I haven’t even made it to a wine region yet!

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