Grape Varieties

Bobbing On The Surface Of The Finger Lakes

26 August 2015
The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

As I departed this year’s Finger Lakes-focused Wine Bloggers Conference, I felt something strange. A lack. This subtle absence might have even gone unnoticed, had I not participated in previous conferences in Virginia and British Columbia. After those two conferences, I felt a strong connection to the wine regions. I can still viscerally feel the rolling vineyards of Virginia, planted along roads where Thomas Jefferson rode in his carriage, and the sweeping vistas of British Columbia, where the vineyards melted into a vast landscape of rugged mountains and lakes. This time, as my plane departed the minuscule Elmira airport in rural New York, my viscera barely twitched. Something was wrong.

Glynis of Vino-Noire.com and Reggie of WineCasual.com with the author

Glynis of Vino-Noire.com and Reggie of WineCasual.com with the author (center)

I went over the events of the conference in my mind — the tastings, the dinners, the receptions, the after-parties — all of which had been delightful. Nor could it have been the people. I deepened several friendships made at the British Columbia conference, and forged new ones as well. I left feeling more strongly connected to the wine blogger community than ever. And the winery representatives I’d met couldn’t have been more personable. One winemaker even invited me to stay at his house, should I return to the area! Then the problem became clear.

Somehow, over the course of my three nights at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, I had managed to avoid visiting a single winery or vineyard. How was this possible?

I am as much to blame as anyone, since I didn’t make time for either the pre- or post-conference excursion to the Finger Lakes, both of which included multiple winery visits. The town of Corning itself, charming though it may be, with its quaint downtown and impressive museums of glass and American art, is bereft of vineyards. I knew this, and just assumed that an excursion to a winery or two would take place during the conference as had happened in the past.

We did hop on buses at one point to get into the countryside, but we didn’t know where a bus was going until we were already en route. My bus made a perfectly pleasant trip to the Manor House on Keuka Lake, where we tasted an array of delicious Rieslings. The word “exotic” keeps appearing in my notes about these Rieslings, which exhibited aromas like jasmine and incense and flavors of roses, ginger and fleshy peach. These were well-balanced and rather sexy wines, made by the likes of Ravines, Vineyard View, Barrington and McGregor.

The Manor House on Keuka Lake

The Manor House near Keuka Lake

I loved this flavor journey along the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, but it was unfortunately unaccompanied by a physical journey to any wineries or vineyards. The Manor House made for a pretty event venue, with food stations set up inside the house stocked with fluffy gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream sauce and sweet-and-sour glazed pork meatballs which we nibbled on the lake-view terrace. But it could not substitute for a winery.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit an array of wine regions over the years, and when I drink something from a place I know, the wine transports me there in the manner of Proust’s madeleine. When I drink Tokaji, I find myself back in that 500-year-old cellar caked with mold or on the vine-clad hillside near my hotel, staring aghast at the gash where the communist regime mined a Grand Cru vineyard for clay. When I drink a well-crafted wine from Mendoza, my skin remembers how the breeze felt as it swept down from the distant Andes and across the vineyards surrounding me. I can still physically feel these places in a way that I simply can’t the Finger Lakes.

This lack made something clear to me which, in retrospect, should probably have been obvious. I don’t feel like I know a wine until I’ve actually visited where it’s made. When you stand quietly for a little while in a vineyard, the terroir seeps into you, just a bit, just like it does the wine. Touching and smelling the casks in a cellar — it connects you to the wine, deepening your experience when you taste it. Tasting alone is not enough.

I’m still bobbing on the surface of the Finger Lakes. One day soon I’ll have to fix that.

Finger Lakes Speed Blogging: The Whites

17 August 2015
Peter Weis pouring Dr. Konstantin Frank

Peter Weis pouring Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Grüner Veltliner

Speed blogging at the Wine Bloggers Conference never fails to be wild and woolly, and this year was woollier than most. The WiFi during the first session proved woefully inadequate for a giant conference room full of wine bloggers, which made writing my post as I tasted — my preferred method of speed blogging — impossible. So, alas, this post did not come straight from the glass to my blog, it passed through a paper notebook first.

Hopefully this detour did little to dull or dilute my descriptions. Certainly, none of the white Finger Lakes wines we tasted were dull:

2014 Three Brothers Wineries and Estates Grüner Veltliner: “So Grüner — it’s gonna take over,” presenter Jon Mansfield, one of the three brothers of this winery declared. “It has the best parts of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer smashed together.” I’m not entirely convinced that’s true, but I certainly liked this Grüner. It had a humid green aroma, Jolly Rancher apple fruit, tart and zesty acids and an almost bitter finish. Surely food-friendly, and unquestionably refreshing.

2014 Americana Vineyards “Apparition”: I’m a little confused by this wine; the fact sheet notes that it’s 100% Vidal Blanc, but the winery’s website describes it as “a blend of Cayuga grapes.” The presenter described it as Vidal Blanc, however, so I’m going with that. In any case, this semi-dry wine had a round aroma marked by some orange and peach, and peachy fruit flavors balanced by very tart acids and a texture verging on petillance. Fun and well-crafted. Not too shabby for a hybrid varietal!

2014 Dr. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner: Peter Weis, pictured above, cleverly flattered his audience, explaining to us that he chose the Grüner because he wanted to pour something “unusual and sophisticated.” He chose wisely. It had a fresh, rather herbaceous aroma, and it tasted wonderfully crisp and bright, with notes of fresh hay, ripe fruit, limey acids and a dry-pasta finish. Delightful. And my word, what a steal at $15 a bottle. Maybe Grüner will be taking over after all?

2014 Atwater Estate Vineyards Chardonnay: This wine was, in a word, bonkers. Harvested from 40-year-old vines, the Chardonnay grapes are fermented with skins, seeds and even some stems, and the juice then sits unfiltered for six months in neutral oak barrels. Nor does Atwater filter the wine when it comes time for bottling. It ends up looking quite turbid and bright orange, like a slightly more subdued Tang. “This is a style of wine made since the beginning of time,” the presenter explained, “fermented in open-top wood bins.” It smelled almost perfumed, and it had quite a texture. Citrus, ripe stone fruit, and a tart, dry finish. Fascinating!

2012 Wagner Vineyards Caywood East Vineyard Dry Riesling: Presenter Katie Roller poured Wagner’s first single-vineyard Riesling, which proved to be quite tasty. Aromas of orange and shower curtain, and appley fruit, tart acids and a dry finish. Well-balanced and a good value at $18 a bottle. Another fine effort from Wagner.

2014 Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard Riesling: This wine was named by someone important, I didn’t write who, as one of “The World’s Top 20 Single-Vineyard Rieslings.” That’s a lot to live up to — the world has no shortage of superb single-vineyard Rieslings. But I must admit I really liked this wine. It felt classy and refined, and it took me on a nice flavor journey. Ripe fruit, some exotic spice, a pleasantly dry finish… Really lovely, and at $20 a bottle, it’s a deal.

2010 Casa Larga Fiori Delle Stelle Vidal Blanc Ice Wine: “Ice wine — it’s not just for breakfast anymore,” according to Leslie, the vivacious presenter. Made from vines grown on the extreme northwest edge of the Finger Lakes AVA, this Vidal Blanc ice wine takes no shortcuts. The winery lets the grapes hang on the vine until they freeze naturally, rather than harvesting them and freezing them by artificial means. The effort pays off; the wine has a gorgeous rich gold color, a fresh honeyed aroma, and a lush texture balanced by orangey acids. It’s pricey at $40, but making ice wine is risky business.

Whoops! No one presented a wine to us during this five-minute block, despite my increasingly loud pleas for someone to pour us some wine, for heaven’s sake. Our glasses, sadly, remained empty for all five minutes. It doesn’t sound like much, but five minutes without wine at a Wine Bloggers Conference is an eternity.

2014 Boundary Breaks Dry Riesling  #239: “I bet everything on Riesling,” Boundary Breaks owner Bruce Murray confided. “I took my life savings and I put it in the ground.” I’m not one to support gambling, but I can’t deny I’m glad Murray went all-in: #239 tastes fantastic. The number refers to the Riesling clone from which this wine is made, Geisenheim #239, named after the German wine research institute which popularized it (see page 29). It has a really ripe and fruity nose, and plenty of rich tropical fruit on the palate. That moves to some focused spice and some tart acids, keeping everything wonderfully balanced. Well worth the $20 asking price.

2013 Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc: Winemaker Michael Reidy presented this delicious Sauvignon Blanc, of which only 600 cases were produced. “I use as many yeasts as I can to get complexity,” he explained. “because we machine-pick [the grapes].” I rather loved this wine, with its dewy grass/green hay aroma, creamy fruit, supple white-pepper spice and surprising light-caramel finish. A great value for $19, and a thoroughly delightful finish to Speed Blogging, Finger Lakes Whites Edition!

For more speed blogging action, check out this post about Finger Lakes reds.

Finger Lakes Speed Blogging: The Reds

15 August 2015
Speed Blogging - The Reds

Fred Merwath presenting Hermann J. Wiemer’s Cabernet Franc

I currently write from New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes region, where this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference has taken over the town of Corning. We recently finished one of my favorite of the conference’s annual activities: Speed Blogging.

Here’s how it works: Winery representatives move from table to table around the room, spending five minutes at each pouring and describing their wines.

We did the whites first, but because of an internet connection snafu, I had to do my “blogging” in a paper notebook. So we’ll start with rosés and reds:

2011 Ventosa Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Winemaker Jenna LaVita poured our first of 10 tastes. “It’s a trustworthy wine,” she explained, “and it’s the first grape I really worked on. It showed me the ropes. I feel like I have a personal connection to it.” It shows. The wine has big, fruity aroma and it tastes rich and round and full. It has a heft that some of the other Finger Lakes Cabernet Francs have been missing. It’s beautifully balanced, and I would happily pay the the $27 price tag, and then some.

2012 Damiani Wine Cellars Barrel Select Cabernet Franc: Our second Cab Franc had a fruity and spicy aroma, verging on herbaceousness. Owner Lou Damiani explained that this wine is unfined and unfiltered, and it’s his favorite wine. Again, it has some heft to it. It’s a big wine, with serious dark fruit, big but supple tannins, a little underlying funk and plenty of acids for balance, not to mention a significant 14% alcohol. It has a serious price tag, too, costing a cool $43, but I suspect that only seems expensive because I’m sitting here in the Finger Lakes.

2013 Lamoreaux Landing T23 Unoaked Cabernet Franc: Presenter Mario Del Rosso brought over an entirely different but still lovely Cabernet Franc. “Now we’re thinking about Loire Valley style,” he began, “and this [unoaked] style is one that really showcases the grape. It’s a nice choice for white wine drinkers who want to go to red.” After those two hefty Cab Francs in a row, I can’t deny I felt suspicious of this stainless-steel fermented version, but I really enjoyed its ample cherry fruit, focused white pepper spice, hint of violets and generally cheerful character.

NV Hazlitt Vineyards Schooner Red Blend:  Director of Winemaker Tim Benedict “We call this an ‘international blend’ because it includes 64% Malbec from Argentina.” He wanted to see what would happen when they blended the Malbec with local grapes, in this case 28% Cabernet Franc and 8% Merlot. That’s a gutsy move considering the current fashion for wines representative of their terroir. It has a meaty red fruit aroma, plenty of fruit, a big violet note and some white pepper spice. Not a bad deal for $14, though I would probably cough up $10 more and go for the Ventosa…

NV Idol Ridge Winery “Sparkle” Rosé: Made by a family winery (presenter Michaela Martin is third-generation), this unusual pink bubbly made from Noiret has a very herbaceous aroma, and flavors of strawberry cotton candy, as Glynis of Vino Noire beside me astutely noted. Small bubbles and plenty of lemony acids. Is it worth the $19 price tag? I liked it, but I don’t know if I $19 liked it.

2012 Swedish Hill Cabernet Franc Lemberger: According to winemaker Derek Wilbur, the 2012 season allowed the grapes to ripen very well, which is important for both varieties in this blend. This 60% Cab Franc and 40% Lemberger has an enticing aroma of cherry fruit and mocha, a light body, a touch of spice and some tannins on the finish. It feels a little watery in the middle, but by the third taste, it was opening — I wish I had a little more time with this one! Ah, the perils of speed blogging. $16 or $17, and a good value at that.

Americana Vineyards Baco Noire: This pretty magenta French hybrid is “wonderfully hearty and disease-resistant,” according to the presenter, but that’s not going to sell me on a hybrid. I am intrigued by its spicy and herbaceous aroma, but it has a fairly simple light and fruity flavor, and a dry finish marked by soft tannins. It’s fun and fruity, but I can think of a better way to spend $16.

2012 Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Presenter Fred Merwath knew how to impress this table of wine bloggers, pouring his wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It’s less weighty and more cheerful than the first two Cab Francs above, and I loved it. A fine value at $25 (for the regular bottle, not the magnum, alas).

2011 Wagner Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve: This reserve Pinot is made only in certain years, according to presenter and PR Director Katie Roller, when the vintage proves to be especially high-quality. The aroma of dried herbs, cherries and earth certainly smells encouraging, and yes, it has a delightful quality of restrained power. Bright cherry fruit leads slowly to earth and building white-pepper spice. As is so often the case in the Finger Lakes, it’s a fine value, costing $30 a bottle.

2010 Lucas Vineyards Cabernet Franc Limited Reserve: Winemaker Jeff Houck told us that what makes this wine “Limited Reserve” is the vintage. Like Wagner, he chooses only certain years in which to release these wines. It has a surprisingly bright aroma unlike any other Cab Franc I’ve smelled here in the Finger Lakes: red fruit overlayed with eucalyptus. I immensely enjoyed its big red fruit, sparkly white-pepper spice and underlying freshness, followed by supple tannins. Delightful! And again, it’s a great deal at $20.

Next up: The whites!

Sweet Fear And Tasmanian Riesling

20 July 2015

Pressing Matters R69 RieslinsWhen I conferred last night with the sommelier of Jonah’s, a fancy restaurant just north of Sydney, Australia, something all-too-familiar occurred. I read over the list of wines by the glass and decided that the 2014 Pressing Matters “R69” Riesling from cool-climate Tasmania sounded like a good pairing for my first course of tagliatelle with spanner crab, lemon and chilies. The sommelier agreed, and as custom dictates, he poured a small sample for me to try before filling my glass.

Now, sommeliers often respond with concern when I test a wine. Perhaps it’s because I take too long to taste it before speaking, or perhaps my face goes all scrunchy when I concentrate on a wine’s progression of flavor. Usually a concerned sommelier just says something like, “What do you think?” But this time, the sommelier went further, asking, “How is it? Is it too much? Is it too much?” It’s like he had “kick me” sign on his chest, and he expected my foot to hit his stomach at any second. Why? Sugar.

The R69 was a rather sweet wine, the name referring to the number of grams of residual sugar, and sugar in wine is not currently fashionable. People who like sweet wines are often apologetic about the fact, believing their palates to be too unsophisticated for dry wines. Insecure wine snobs agree, their refusal to touch sweet wines ostensibly proving the superiority of their taste. Fiddlesticks. If you like sweet wines, good for you! They’re delicious. And if you don’t like sweet wines, that’s a valid preference, but nothing more. It’s not evidence of sophistication.

But sugar was not really what the sommelier at Jonah’s feared, of course. He feared I would say something like, “Ugh, oh no, that’s far too sweet for me,” with one eyebrow raised in condemnation of his decision to put the wine on the list. I’ve seen restaurant patrons do it more than once. That kind of response pains me, because the R69, like any high-quality wine that dares to include some sugar, was an absolute delight.

The wine smelled of sweet white flower and white peach, leavened with a bit of (varietally correct) plastic shower curtain. It had lush fruit, zesty orangey acids and some vanilla on the finish. I loved the exciting interplay of the acids and sweet fruit — this wine demanded attention, and it worked beautifully with the tagliatelle. The acids absolutely blossomed with its sweet and savory flavors.

There surely are those who can’t abide any wine containing sugar, whatever its quality. But the rest of us have no reason to deny ourselves the pleasures of wines with a touch of sweetness. When acids and spice balance out the sugar, the results can be nothing short of electrifying (consider Sauternes and Tokaj).

If some wine connoisseur judges you for ordering a sweet wine, they’re no connoisseur. They’re just a snob.

Franciacorta: Prosecco’s Upscale Neighbor

10 July 2015

Cavalleri Franciacorta

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, but it tastes especially good in summer. It’s refreshing, it’s light and it works well with everything from potato salad to ribs. Champagne continues to set the standard for sparkling wine, but because of its price, I more often reach for a nice Prosecco or Cava which can be had for as little as $12 a bottle (I tend to avoid those costing less). When I’m feeling a little fancier — but not quite ready to drop $35 on Champagne — I opt instead for a Franciacorta.

Few people outside Italy had heard of this region bordering Lake Iseo in north-central Italy until the 1970s. That’s when, as The World Atlas of Wine explains, the Berlucchi family started to directly imitate the methods of Champagne, methods “subsequently taken up by farm after farm” in the area. The Berlucchis sparked a sparkling wine revolution, bottle fermentation became the norm, and now, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia asserts, “Franciacorta is currently the only Italian dry sparkling-wine appellation that can demand respect from the rest of the world.”

What about Prosecco, you may reasonably wonder. Never one to mince words, Sotheby’s complains that most Prosecco is “boring.” The Oxford Companion to Wine goes even further, arguing that “The finished wines are light and frothing, their neutrality and defects too often masked by over-generous additions of sugar.” Ouch.

Contemplating the CavalleriWell, I have no problem with Prosecco. Its price doesn’t lead me to expect too much of it, and despite its lack of bottle fermentation, it usually has small bubbles and enough flavor to be fun, if not truly interesting. And if you just need something for mimosas, Prosecco won’t let you down.

Franciacorta, on the other hand, aspires to some elegance, as indicated by price tags ranging from about $20 to $40, and occasionally more. Not inexpensive, but certainly not reaching into the lofty heights of Champagne prices, either. That makes it a perfect wine to open over a casual weekend dinner with your loved one. It’s exactly the sort of thing I might bring to my parents’ house to drink at a family barbecue before the rest of the family arrives.

I recently received three free sample bottles of Franciacorta to try, and I managed to twist a few friends’ arms into trying them with me:

La Montina BrutCavalleri Blanc de Blancs: This 100% Chardonnay tasted fine, with notes of wood, round fruit and lemony acids. Unfortunately, the aroma smelled distinctly of varnish (one friend described it as “rancid plastic”). I suspect something happened to this bottle. A notable varnish odor indicates an overabundance of ethyl acetate, which, as Wikipedia describes, can smell sweet in small quantities but like nail polish remover in larger amounts. Average Retail: $20

Ronco Calino Brut: A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, the Ronco Calino smelled ever so much better than the Cavalleri: like green apples with a touch of minerality. The bubbles felt small, fizzy and very prickly, ensuring that this wine would pair with all sorts of foods. I liked its rather heady flavors of fermented apples and honeysuckle. It would surely be a hit at a party. Average Retail: $27

La Montina Brut: This Franciacorta exuded elegance. It smelled very enticing with notes of red apple and dusky orange, and even a touch of caramel. The tiny bubbles were very classy. It felt fruity, zesty and rich all at once, making for quite a bright and beautiful bubbly, and my favorite Franciacorta of the evening. Average Retail: $25

What’s Wrong With Wine Labels

20 June 2015

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I made a point of returning to my favorite winery in the state, Casa Rondeña. I ordered a glass of Meritage in the tasting room, and a gentleman next to me asked how I liked it. “Very much,” I replied. “It’s well-balanced, and a fine example of what New Mexico is capable of in terms of wine.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he responded, “Since I made it!” I went on to say how pleasantly surprised I was by New Mexico wines, the Cabernet Francs in particular, but I didn’t disclose that I was a wine blogger who had written about Casa Rondeña previously. I was off the clock. “Have you visited any other wineries?” he asked. “Which ones do you like?”

I listed off a few, including St. Clair, where I remembered liking the D.H. Lescombes line of wines. He didn’t agree with that selection. St. Clair, he noted, adds corn syrup or other sugars to many of its wines. I can see why — in New Mexico, the local palate skews heavily towards sweeter wines, so much so that most wineries will taste reds before whites, de-emphasizing the reds’ dryness.

While certainly not illegal, that practice of adding sugars isn’t necessarily the hallmark of great wines. “They really should have to disclose that on their label,” I protested. But they don’t. In fact, beyond noting that they contain sulfites, a completely unnecessary declaration, wines need not list any of their ingredients. Nor, for that matter, do spirits. Just what is in Blue Curaçao, anyway?

How is it that in 2015, in an era of ever-greater concern about the quality of the things we’re putting into our bodies, that wines and spirits can still get away without listing anything other than their alcohol content? Some studies promote a glass or two of red wine a day as a healthy  addition to one’s diet, but surely some red wines are more beneficial than others.

Red wines with added sugar, for example, don’t strike me as the healthiest choice. At the St. Clair Bistro, our waitress offered us free samples of Chenin Blanc. And indeed, it tasted rather flabby and too sweet. I ordered a $13 glass of D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc instead, thinking that this more expensive line of wines would surely adhere to higher standards of winemaking.

It tasted quite ripe and free from any vegetal, green-pepper notes which can sometimes plague Cabernet Franc. But vanilla notes overwhelmed the palate, and indeed, it tasted jammier than I expected. Was I imagining that it was overly sweet because of what the owner of Casa Rondeña told me? I took another sip. No — the too-strong vanilla notes were quite clear. I won’t presume to say whether the wine had added sugar or not, however, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

Of course I wouldn’t have to guess, if wines and spirits actually declared their ingredients! All non-alcoholic beverages in the supermarket have lists of ingredients. Even unflavored water lists “Water” as the sole substance in the bottle.

It’s time spirits and wines followed suit. As a consumer, I want to know if my wine contains “Grape juice” or “Grape juice, high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #32.” Price, as indicated by my rather expensive glass of Cabernet Franc, is not necessarily a guide.

Time to write my Congressman!

Regal Wines: Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

9 June 2015
The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

Schloss Proschwitz ranks among the unlikeliest — and therefore most delightful — wineries I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. First, consider its location in Sachsen in former East Germany, at about the same latitude as London. The fact that the Elbe River and its south-facing bluffs create a microclimate well-suited to grape growing is a bit of a miracle. (You can read more about Sachsen in general here.)

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz's custom-designed fermentation tanks

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz’s custom-designed fermentation tanks

Then there is the winery’s tumultuous history, which I learned about when I met Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe for a tour and tasting. A former television news reporter, the unfailingly gracious Prinzessin (that’s what everyone called her at the winery) ordered flutes of sparkling rosé for us as we sat on patio. As we sipped this unusual fruity and rather smoky sparkler made from Frühburgunder (Pinot Madeleine), she began relating the winery’s dramatic post-war story.

The parents of the current owner, the Prinz zur Lippe, did not fare well when the Soviet Red Army invaded eastern Germany. Communists did not look kindly on royalty. They imprisoned his parents and expropriated all their property. Fortunately they were not murdered — instead, after several months spent apart in prison, the Soviets “chucked them into West Germany” with only the clothes on their backs, the Prinzessin exclaimed, her understandable indignation not quite concealed.

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace),  ancestral home of the zur Lippe family

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace), ancestral home of the zur Lippe family, now used for weddings and other events

In need of housing and income, Christian Prinz zur Lippe took a job as a gardener, working for his mother-in-law. His son, Georg Prinz zur Lippe was not, as you might expect of someone with that title, raised in unabashed luxury. He built a successful career for himself as an agricultural engineer, and then the Berlin Wall fell.

His father, still alive at this time, suggested that Georg attempt to recover the family’s property in East Germany. But because the property had been expropriated by the Soviets, not East Germany, the government refused to give anything back. So Georg did things the hard way, negotiating with landowners and convincing banks to loan him money. Eventually, he managed to buy back a large portion of the family’s original vineyards.

The story did not end there, however. The Prinz zur Lippe was not welcomed with open arms back to his ancestral home. In the minds of the East Germans, “My husband was the incarnation of evil,” the Prinzessin explained. “From the West. A prince. He had property that had been expropriated. And he was an entrepreneur!” Like today’s Progressives in the United States, the East Germans had been brainwashed into thinking of capitalists as evil, and that mindset didn’t immediately change with the fall of the Wall. Georg lived for a year in a house on a hill overlooking his new vineyards, during which time all of his neighbors refused to speak with him. It isn’t always easy being the prince.

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

He also didn’t win any friends when he replanted his vineyards with historically correct but lower-yielding grape varieties, nor when he started employing the latest viticultural methods. Many thought he was insane to drastically reduce pesticide application and restrict yields by cutting off half the grapes and using them to make balsamic vinegar.

But finally Georg and Alexandra started to win the local people over. The sympathetic mayor of the bluff-top town of Zadel offered to sell them a courtyard of historic but dilapidated buildings for their winery. After extensive renovations, Schloss Proschwitz opened a winery, shop and restaurant on the property. It became the first in Sachsen to be admitted to the prestigious VDP, Germany’s top winery association.

In the tasting room, the Prinzessin poured several delightful wines, leaving no doubt as to the potential of Sachsen terroir. A rare Goldriesling (a seldom-cultivated Muscat crossing) had an enticingly floral and spicy aroma, food-friendly green-apple tartness and a mineral finish. The Proschwitz Elbing, an ancient and now-unpopular variety cultivated since Roman times, had a surprisingly colorless hue, a powdered candy aroma and fun, juicy acids. Either would be perfect for a pool party.

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

We also tried some more serious wines, such as the 2014 Weissburgunder Kabinett from the Schloss Proschwitz Vineyard. This Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder translates literally as “White Burgundy”) smelled fresh and spicy. It tasted fruity and cheerful but very focused, with clear minerality. The 2012 Weissburgunder from the Heiligenkreuz Vineyard, in contrast, had more white fruit and cream in the aroma. It tasted very ripe, even with a note of caramel, and it finished on quite a spicy note. I never thought to age Pinot Blanc, but the 2012 clearly illustrated the benefits of a couple of years in the bottle.

But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned.  When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

Terrace of the winery's restaurant

Terrace of the winery’s restaurant

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk. But I had spit everything I’d tasted up to that point. It smelled so good, this wine, that I couldn’t help but laugh and shout. “Grosses Gewächs” translates as “Great Growth,” a designation something like Grand Cru in Burgundy. And this wine was great.

I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, but not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. It was a gorgeous, elegant wine.

I had to have it. Terrified of what I might have to spend for a wine of this quality, I looked at the price list on the bar. It cost 25€, or about $28 a bottle. I must admit I’m not used to spending $28 on a bottle of wine, but it seemed like a crazy bargain in this case. Who knew Pinot Blanc could reach such heights?

We had yet more delicious wines over lunch, notably a surprisingly ripe 2011 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) redolent of red currants and earth. And I thought, my God! How wonderful how completely the communists had failed. They took everything from the zur Lippe family except one set of clothes per person. And yet here they were, once again making truly world-class wines from their ancestral vineyards, providing jobs to about 100 people. The power of history — and the power of the entrepreneur — couldn’t have been clearer.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

Vernaccia Di San Gimignano Reassessed

25 March 2015

Tuscan Wine TastingWhat I read about Vernaccia di San Gimignano was not especially encouraging. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia says, in its usual pull-no-punches style, that “most are bland.” A more diplomatic Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “the wine has attained only modest quality and price levels.”

Both sources agree that the best versions of Vernaccia di San Gimignano are “crisp,” with Sotheby’s praising its “vibrant fruit” and the Oxford Companion extolling its “refreshing quality,” “attractively bitter finish” and “unquestioned superiority over the standard bland Tuscan white blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia.” That’s better, but even these positive comments seem to be a case of damning with faint praise.

Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San GimignanoNevertheless, because Vernaccia di San Gimignano ranked as one of the most unusual options at a recent tasting of Tuscan wines, I dutifully gave a few a try. Each producer I visited offered at least two versions, an unoaked wine and a wine that had spent some time in barriques (oak barrels). The Oxford Companion takes a vaguely dismissive attitude towards “attempts to give it additional complexity with small barrel maturation,” but the technique worked for me. Each of the barrel-aged versions I tried, as indicated by the word “Riserva” on the label, was delicious.

The unoaked Vernaccias di San Gimignano I sampled tended to have cheerful fruit, limey acids, some white-pepper spiciness and often a hint of salinity. They tasted refreshing, and with their tartly bright acids, I suspect they’re at their best with food.

The barrel-aged wines achieved another level entirely, mellowing the texture and adding additional layers of flavor. The 2012 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Le Mandorle”, aged in new French oak, was more brooding than the unoaked Vernaccias, with notes of dark orange and cream and broader, rounder acids. I also enjoyed the 2012 Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Aurea”, with its aroma of creamy white fruit and roasted grapes. It tasted rich, but it had a delightful green freshness and distinct focus, with a zap of spice.

Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San GimignanoAs tasty as these wines were, my personal favorite was the 2013 Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “La Luna e Le Torri”, which translates to “The Moon and the Towers,” referencing the amount of time the wine ferments — one lunar month — and the famous medieval towers of the city of San Gimignano. A blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, this wine spends a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to the complexity of the wine. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

Unfortunately, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines can be difficult to find. But keep that name in the back of your mind, because at some point, you’ll likely encounter a shop or a wine list that has one. I highly recommend trying it. A scan of Wine Searcher revealed that most Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines retail between $15 and $30, and that’s a steal, even towards the higher end of that scale.

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