Blaufrankisch

The German Side Of Lodi

14 September 2016
Dornfelder growing in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Dornfelder growing in Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

After visiting Lodi, California, about a month ago, I can confirm that it’s hot. Hot, sunny, dry and flat. The soils range from sandy loam to loamy sand, and both types feel, more or less, like glorified dust. Zinfandel, famous (infamous?) for producing jammy fruit bombs, is the signature grape.

I’ve also had the fortune to visit German wine regions such as the Rhein and Mosel valleys, and I can confirm that they are cool, wet and frequently quite steep. Slate permeates the Mosel’s soil and some of the Rheingau’s vineyards, with loess and marl also appearing in the latter. Riesling, the best examples of which display steely nerve and focused acids, is the signature grape.

In short, the terroirs of Lodi and Germany have about as much in common as avocados and schnitzel. Lodi is one of the last wine regions on Earth I would expect to find German grapes.

And yet, there they were in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, growing in tidy, defiant rows. The appeared to be flourishing, in fact, like German tourists on a permanent holiday in Mallorca. Even I, someone who regularly seeks out the unusual wines, felt flabbergasted at the sight of Dornfelder grapes ripening happily in Lodi’s semi-desert.

Vineyard co-owner Bob Koth, a former winemaker and paratrooper, explained how he grew to love German wines while visiting his daughter, who lived there for a time as a Fulbright Scholar. He came back wanting to grow German grapes, and that’s exactly what he did, sun and loamy sand be damned. He and vineyard co-owner May Lou Koth eventually converted a pear orchard into Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, where they now grow some 48 different German and Austrian grapes.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Most of the varieties, including true oddities such as Oraniensteiner and Affenthaler, are grown on an experimental basis. So far, nine grapes — Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslaner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — have done well enough to justify larger plantings.

Unlike in Germany, ripening the grapes is never a concern. The trick is to pick them after they fully ripen but before the juice turns flabby.

Still, the whole idea struck me as frankly insane. Could wines from these grapes possibly be any good? I sat down in a shady glen near the vineyards with a dozen fellow wine bloggers for a tasting. Winemakers from four different wineries poured (Mokelumne doesn’t produce its own wine).

German varietal wines of Lodi2015 Sidebar Cellers Kerner Mokelumne River: As we tasted this wine, Bob exclaimed, “This is the only place west of Michigan that grows Kerner!” I believe it. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions plantings outside of Germany in England, Japan and South Africa, but says nothing about Kerner in the U.S. (you can read more about Kerner in this post). This example had a green, spicy aroma. There was a sense of richness, with its ripe fruit balanced by grapefruity acids and plenty of spice. Delightful, and priced well at $25.

2015 Holman Cellars “Uncharted” Bacchus:  I started this blog in 2011, and yet this was my first time tasting its namesake grape, Bacchus! This cross of Müller-Thurgau with a cross of Silvaner and Riesling doesn’t often appear as a varietal. According to The Oxford Companion, “Unlike the more aristocratic and more popular crossing Kerner, however, the wine produced lacks acidity and is not even useful for blending…in poor years since it needs to be fully ripe before it can express its own exuberant flavors.” The Companion also notes that warm-climate examples can be “flabby.”

Lodi Bacchus should by all rights be a real Jabba the Hutt of a wine, but this example had ample lemon/orange acids to balance the rich fruit. I got notes of fresh herbs, like bay and sage, and even some minerality on the finish, both of which also contributed to the balance. Against all odds, I really liked this wine. It offers a lot of flavor for its $25 price tag.

Winemaker Markus Riggli

Winemaker Markus Riggli

2013 Borra Winery Markus “Nuvola” Gewürztraminer: The name of this wine comes from its winemaker, Swiss expat Markus Niggli, and the Italian word for “cloud.” A warm-climate Gewürz sounds like a terrible idea. As The Oxford Companion notes, “Many wine regions are simply too warm to produce wine with sufficient acidity, unless the grapes are picked so early… that they have developed little Gewürztraminer character.” That character is unmistakable — perfumed and spicy, commonly with a strong note of lychee.

Some Gewürztraminers are too perfumed for my taste, in fact, and if you agree, this is the Gewürz for you. The aroma had more of an undertone of flowers — lily of the valley, to my nose — along with notes of dried herbs. The fruit tasted quite peachy, and it even veered into caramel territory, but balance was restored by a shaft of ginger/white pepper spice. The finish felt sweetly chalky. I’m not sure this qualifies as a classic Gewürztraminer, but I liked that the perfume didn’t slap me in the face. A good value for $19.

We also tasted two blends of Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling and Gewürztraminer by Borra Winery, the 2015 Markus Nativo, which tasted delightfully cool and clean, and the 2014 Markus Nimmo, which included a higher proportion of Gewürztraminer. It tasted creamier — almost buttery — but refined spice and a long mineral finish kept it balanced. $19 and $22, respectively.

Hatton Daniels Zweigelt2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt: You may not have heard of this dark-skinned grape, but as The Oxford Companion explains, “It is widely grown throughout all Austrian wine regions and can increasingly make a serious, age-worthy wine, even though most examples are best drunk young.” This Lodi example had a classic Zweigelt aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. I wouldn’t call this light-bodied wine “age-worthy,” necessarily, but I liked its cherry fruit, notes of leather and meat, and the quick burst of acids. Some tannins on the finish kept things grounded. $25

I suppose that 50 years ago, it would have seemed crazy to the people of Cahors, France, that their Malbec would grow exceedingly well — dare I say even better — in Mendoza. Now Argentine Malbec is in every corner liquor store. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked to discover perfectly lovely examples of Kerner and Gewürztraminer in the wilds of central California. The grapes behave differently there, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make tasty wine.

I’m sure people thought Bob Koth was crazy when he said he wanted to grow German grape varieties in Lodi. Some people probably still do. But the proof is in the pudding.

These tastes were provided free of charge as part of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.

The Summery Reds Of Austria

26 May 2012

When you hear the words “Austrian wine,” your first connotations are unlikely to be either “summery” or “red.” Although Austrian wines appear with increasing frequency on wine lists and in wine shops, almost all of it will be Grüner Veltliner (along with an occasional Riesling). I love a good Grüner Veltliner — it can pair particularly well with spring vegetables such as asparagus — but this oddly named variety can only barely be considered odd at this point. Instead, let’s talk Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt.

As I noted in this post about Austrian St. Laurent, it can be difficult to find red Austrian wines, so I was particularly excited to be able to try several in succession at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting. I already knew I liked St. Laurent going into the tasting, but I felt skeptical about Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt wines. I visited Vienna in my early and mid-20s, and I remembered these wines as a little boring and bland.

As I tasted wine after tasty wine at “Austria Uncorked,” it became increasingly clear I had been drinking at the wrong bars! These wines had excellent fruit, some balancing earth and even a touch of spice. They were great fun, and with a slight chill, they would complement any picnic or barbeque.

Blaufränkisch has been a popular variety for quite some time; it dates back at least 1000 years to pre-medieval times, when “it was common to divide grape varieties into the (superior) ‘fränkisch’, whose origins lay with the Franks, and the rest,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The Companion as well as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia note that it grows in abundance near the warm, shallow Neusiedlersee (Neusiedler Lake) in Austria’s Burgenland region.

Zweigelt, on the other hand, is a much newer variety. Also known as “Blauer Zweigelt,” this grape dates back only to 1922, when Dr. Zweigelt crossed Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. According to the Companion, Zweigelt “at its best combines some of the bite of the first with the elegance of the second,” although sometimes it produces “too much dilute wine.” Sotheby’s agrees, praising the best examples but cautioning that “the norm is rather light and lackluster.”

Fortunately, that certainly wasn’t the norm at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting. Here’s a roundup of some of the Austrian reds I particularly enjoyed, most of which are (or will be) available in the United States:

2010 Claus Preisinger Zweigelt: This winery sandwiched between the Neusiedlersee and the Hungarian border grows its grapes biodynamically, following the principles of Rudolf Steiner. It seems to be working — I certainly enjoyed this Zweigelt. The wine had an aroma dominated by iron, and lots of red fruit on the palate. The finish was surprisingly dry and tannic.

2009 Claus Preisinger “Pannobile”: This garnet-colored blend of 60% Zweigelt and 40% Blaufränkisch smelled of dark fruit and iron. The flavors took me on a memorable journey, moving from rich fruit to metal to earth to spice. Delicious.

2010 Lenz Moser Zweigelt: Since Burgenland-based Lenz Moser is one of Austria’s largest wine exporters, you might be able to find this brand at your local wine shop. This brick-red Zweigelt had the telltale aromas of fruit and iron and a rather simple, fruity flavor profile, finishing with a bit of spice. Easy to drink, and probably best with a touch of chill.

2011 Pfaffl Austrian Rosé: Pfaffl’s vineyards grow in the aptly named (and very large) Weinviertel region north of Vienna, and Sotheby’s cites this winery as one of the few in the area worth knowing about. This charming Zweigelt rosé had the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher, ample fruit and a pleasantly chalky finish. An ideal picnic choice.

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A New Frontier – Part 3

14 June 2011

In addition to the wines from Ivanović and Botunjac, which come from the Zapadna Morava region of Serbia, we tried two wines from the town of Vršac in Banat. This northeastern wine region (once the largest in Europe) has produced wine since at least the 15th Century, and likely much longer. Vineyards decorate the town’s 1804 coat of arms, as does a sword flinging a bleeding, severed head. Clearly this is a wine region to be reckoned with.

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