Gewürztraminer

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 Unusual Whites Of Uruguay

20 July 2013

Don Pascual ViognierOne could be forgiven for imagining that all South American wine comes from Chile and Argentina, so successful have their export campaigns been. But Uruguay, that diminutive country northeast of Buenos Aires and south of Brazil, has also started to make its mark, producing whites and reds of real quality. Though it’s easier now than ever to find Uruguayan wines, “easier” is a relative term — few American wine shops carry more than one or two examples, if even that. And that’s not the fault of the shops.

The problem is the Uruguayans. They simply love wine, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to believed. “Domestic wine consumption is high,” according to the Companion, “and rising, currently standing at 32 l/8.45 gal per person per year.” For comparison, in France, domestic wine consumption stands at about 56 liters per person per year, and in the U.S. it’s about 10.5 liters per person per year. Uruguayans may not be total winos like the French, but their consumption is formidable nevertheless, sucking up about 95% of Uruguay’s wine output.

That leaves a scant 5% for export, and 60% of that heads across the border to Brazil (Source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). That doesn’t leave very much for the rest of us. And yet another problem, according to The World Atlas of Wine, is that most of Uruguay’s wineries are small, family-owned ventures, only 10% of which export any wine at all. The rest of Uruguay’s producers simply don’t have either the ability or the need to sell their wines outside of Uruguay.

All of which means that when you do see a wine from Uruguay on the shelf, you’ve discovered something rare, and it’s worth inquiring about. As the Atlas notes, Uruguayan vineyards benefit from cool Antarctic ocean currents, which usually fosters an ideal gradual ripening of the grapes. “The conditions and the will to produce both elegant and characterful wines are evident,” the Atlas goes on to say.

Alas, the Atlas also notes that the humid climate makes organic viticulture “virtually impossible.” Only a handful of winemakers make the effort to do without herbicides and fungicides, which are “generally very widely needed and used to counteract rot and mildew.” This assertion seems to be in direct conflict with a presentation about Uruguayan wines I attended during this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. There, the presenter cheerfully claimed that “Uruguay has the third purest environment in the world, after Finland and Norway, except [Uruguay has] grapes!” My suspicion is that the environment of Uruguay as a whole may be unsullied, but that the vineyards, most of which are clustered around the capital, are less than chemical-free. (Update: See winemaker Daniel Pisano’s comment about this issue following this post.)

I prefer viticulture to be as organic as possible, but that’s not make-or-break for me when I select a wine. If I had to choose between an organic wine and a higher-quality non-organic wine, all else being equal, I’d buy the better non-organic wine. For those also willing to overlook the organic issue, here are four tasty Uruguayan whites I had the chance to sample during the conference. In the unlikely event you see one of these specific wines, that’s great, but since all of them were enjoyable, I recommend keeping your eye out for any whites from Uruguay.

2011 Don Pascual Viognier Reserve: The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This Viognier had a rather rubbery aroma, a lush texture, tart acids and notes of wood and green herbs. It’s not what I would expect from a Viognier, but then again, Uruguay isn’t the Rhône Valley!

2012 Bouza Albariño: The family-owned Bodega Bouza 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. No one could accuse this wine of being wimpy!

2012 Dante Irurtia Km. 0 “Rio de la Plata” Gewürztraminer Reserva: The Irurtia Family winery is one of Uruguay’s oldest; it harvested its first grapes a century ago in 1913. The Km. 0 brand indicates that the grapes were grown near the wide Rio de la Plata estuary, which creates a “unique microclimate,” notes the winery’s website. This wine had exactly the sort of aroma I like from my Gewürztraminers: perfumed, floral and minerally. Fruity and aromatic at the start, this wine desiccated into bone-dry minerals on the finish. Quite an enjoyable expression of the variety.

2013 Castillo Viejo Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc: Founded in 1927, this winery started the “fine wine” Catamayor label only in 1993, hoping to create world-class wines which would break into international markets. Certainly the Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc satisfied this international consumer. It reminded me of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a grassy-green aroma, juicy fruit and bright, citrusy acids. This wine was fun, and perfect for a hot summer day. Which rather makes me want to crack open a bottle right now…

Up next: To Tannat? Or not to Tannat?

The Memorable Whites Of Viña Chocalán

2 May 2013

Vina ChocolanOne of the eco-lodges where I stayed in Costa Rica veered much more towards “resort” than “lodge,” with a swim-up bar, wine bar and even a small sushi restaurant. I felt, I must admit, a little silly supping on sushi in the middle of Central America, but then I suppose it’s no more ridiculous in Costa Rica than it is in Chicago.

In any event, this sushi restaurant had two cases dispensing some surprisingly unusual wines by the glass, and I sampled several small pours along with my fish. The wines of Viña Chocalán turned out to be something of a revelation.

This winery dedicated to “sustainable and socially responsible” production methods is located in Chile’s famous Maipo Valley, near the town of Melipilla just south of the capital, Santiago. Phylloxera-free Maipo is well-known for its Cabernet, Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, its Carménère. But the sushi restaurant’s wine case boasted some true Maipo oddballs: Viña Chocalán Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Riesling in the sushi restaurant’s wine case.

I was initially confused to see these three varieties coming from one winery — Viognier traditionally thrives in France’s warm Rhône Valley, far from much chillier Alsace and Germany, where Gewürztraminer and Riesling are happiest. But a closer inspection of the labels revealed that Viña Chocalán’s Riesling and Gewürztraminer come from San Antonio, not Maipo. San Antonio, which Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “the fastest-rising new wine district in [the coastal viticultural] region,” is closer to the Pacific Ocean than Maipo, making it more susceptible to the cooling influence of the Humboldt Current.

None of these grape varieties is grown in any significant amount in Maipo or San Antonio. None of my reference books mentions any of them, and even the Viña Chocalán website omits Riesling and Gewürztraminer from its roster of wines. These are pioneer varietals, and if these examples are any indication, I’d say they have a serious future:

Viña Chocalán Gewürztraminer (San Antonio): I loved the sweet, floral aroma, which reminded me of jasmine and honey. On the palate, this wine started with some slightly watery fruit, but it tightened up into some white pepper spice and a finish of tart acids.

Viña Chocalán Viognier Reserve (Maipo): A fine example of Viognier — dry, tight, focused, minerally and floral at the end.

Viña Chocalán Riesling (San Antonio): This was the one that really blew me away. Its dry, tart and woodsy flavors totally took me by surprise. This isn’t a Riesling that will please everyone, but I found it racy, exciting and wonderfully unusual.

You may not see any of these specific wines in your local shop, but keep your eye out for Chilean varietals besides the usual Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Carménère. Winemakers are engaging in some fascinating experiments down there, and you might just stumble across a real gem.

Flabby Apples

6 April 2013

Machmer GewurztraminerSometimes it pays to drink odd, and sometimes it doesn’t. Every now and then, despite my best efforts, I buy something that is simply not to my taste. In some cases, there’s no way I could have predicted that the wine wouldn’t be to my liking, but often, as in this instance, I probably could have figured it out before I plunked down $14. As I looked more closely at the label of the wine in question, I discovered a major red flag, a red flag I ignored at my peril. If you prefer your wine on the dry side, or at least balanced, you’ll want to read on.

Germany produces great seas of white wine, but the rosy-skinned, highly perfumed Gewürztraminer variety accounts for a relative drop in that Riesling-dominated ocean. According to my 2006 edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Gewürztraminer vines occupy only about 2,000 acres of German vineyards, as compared to over 51,000 acres devoted to Riesling. Because of its relative rarity, and because I recently had a magnificent German Gewürztraminer by Wasenweiler, I felt a thrill of excitement when I discovered a bottle of affordable German Gewürztraminer at Binny’s.

I snapped up the $14 bottle of 2010 G & M Machmer Bechtheimer Gewürztraminer Spätlese from the Rheinhessen region. It noted a town on its label (Bechtheim) and indicated that it was estate bottled, which gave me confidence in its quality (never mind that I had no idea where the town was).

Had I paid the slightest attention to the back label, I might have noticed a warning sign. Only 10.5% of the wine was alcohol. That relatively low percentage indicates that less of the grapes’ sugars were converted into alcohol, resulting in a sweeter wine. I don’t mind sweet wines necessarily, but I do want them to be balanced. Balance, unfortunately, was not one of the Machmer Bechtheimer Gewürztraminer Spätlese’s strong points.

Pork roastThe wine had the pleasant tropical fruit aroma I expect from a Gewürztraminer, along with something intriguingly green. Its syrupy texture was leavened with a bit of pétillance, but its sweet, almost flabby apple flavor managed to sharpen up only at the very end, when it tightened into some tartness on the finish. The acids made more of an effort to appear when I paired the wine with some roast pork and homemade spätzle, but this wine lacked the spicy raciness I’ve come to love in well-made Gewürztraminers.

Lesson learned. A village name on a German wine label might be seductive, but from now on, I’m always going to check that alcohol content. The higher it is, the drier the wine is likelier to be. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but if you find a Gewürztraminer or Riesling that is less than 11% alcohol, I’d suggest putting it back on the rack and trying something else.

SUMMARY

2010 G & M Machmer Bechtheimer Gewürztraminer Spätlese: Appealing aromas, but overly sweet and a bit flabby, tightening up only at the very end.

Grade: C

Find It: I purchased this wine for $14 at Binny’s.

Worth Traveling For

15 December 2012

Ihringen

Baden will always have a special place in my heart. This extravagantly beautiful ex-duchy in Germany’s far southwest was the first (and only) wine region where I’ve actually lived. From my base in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, the beguiling capital of the Black Forest, I remember striking out on my bicycle along unpaved paths to villages like Staufen, nestled at the foot of hillside vineyards leading up to a ruined castle. Some friends and I even biked across the Rhein River to Colmar in the Alsace region; I love that my first entry into France was by bicycle rather than airplane.

Some of my Mitstudenten gathered for a 10-year reunion in Freiburg back in 2009, and in between visits to our dorms and a favorite Biergarten or two, we took a train to Ihringen, an important wine village in the Vulkanfelsen (“volcanic cliffs”) section of the Kaiserstuhl, just across the river from the Alsace. This is a “first-class wine district,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and indeed, we tasted some lovely things at Wasenweiler, a cooperative winery we toured.

Despite Baden’s many fine wines, there’s a very good chance you’ve never actually tasted anything from this region. Even Binny’s, one of the largest wine stores in the country, carries precisely zero wines from Baden. Because of the marketing success of the massive Zentralkellerei Badischer Winzergenossenschaften (ZBW), almost all exports out of Baden are “well-made, but rather basic, characterless wine,” as the Encyclopedia notes. But an array of smaller producers makes very high-quality wines, as the Encyclopedia and I agree, and it’s a shame we can’t find them outside of Germany (or even outside Baden, for that matter).

I brought back one bottle from Wasenweiler, a 2007 “Kreuzhalde” Gewürztraminer Spätlese. It’s quite a mouthful, both in terms of pronunciation and flavor. “Kreuzhalde” is the name of the specific vineyard, a hilly, sunny site that requires harvesting by hand (you can see a photo here). “Spätlese” refers to the level of the fruit’s ripeness at the time it was picked, as measured by the amount of sugar in the grapes. It translates basically as “late harvest,” but it falls in the rough middle of the scale, between Kabinett and Auslese. And Gewürztraminer is the wonderful grape variety, which The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “Deeply colored, opulently aromatic and fuller bodied than almost any other white wine.”

And so it was. The Wasenweiler looked honey-gold in the glass, and the aroma! A heady honeysuckle perfume. But my worries that this wine had aged too long were only finally dispelled when I gave it a try. The acids remained mostly intact, ensuring balance and liveliness. It tasted exotic and spicy, with flavors of ripe pear, cinnamon, ginger, jasmine and incense, yet it was surprisingly dry. It stood up quite well to a dinner of vegetarian choucroute (sauerkraut cooked with veggies, spices and wine) and Käsespätzle (noodle-like dumplings with caramelized leeks, butter and Emmentaler cheese).

What a wonderful reminder of that sunny day in Ihringen, when we got semi-lost on the way to the winery and wandered for a while along vineyards and well-tended gardens. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that wines from Baden are so hard to find. Now, whenever I have the chance to drink one, it’s a truly special experience, bringing me right back to that glorious piece of German countryside. It makes me hunger for a return trip, and it reminds me how lucky I am to have lived there for a time.

And somehow, it’s reassuring to know that there are still some things you can get only by traveling to the source.

The Island Vineyards of Firelands

18 April 2012

Last June, I wrote about Ohio’s Lake Erie Islands, which wine critic Frank Schoonmaker highlighted as an important viticultural region in a 1941 issue of Gourmet. But even then, Schoonmaker lamented the lost potential of these islands, which feature unusually favorable terroir for certain grape varieties. Prohibition killed off a number of wineries, and most of those that remained in the mid-20th century were apparently lazy or incompetent. According to Schoonmaker, “Too many – far too many – wines are falsified, are heavily dosed with sugar, or are blended with cheap California wines.”

With significantly declining acreage devoted to vineyards, I had basically written off these romantic-sounding islands. What a pleasant surprise then, to come across a bottle of 2010 Firelands Gewürztraminer from Isle St. George. Also known more prosaically as North Bass Island, Isle St. George achieved AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 1982, and vineyards currently cover more than half the island.

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Honeysuckle and Tobacco

23 June 2011

Before some friends came over to dinner the other night, they thoughtfully called to offer to bring a bottle of wine. I planned on making some Southeast Asian-inspired dishes, which always seem to cry out for Gewürztraminer. I have a soft spot for floral, aromatic whites, and a good Gewürztraminer can work wonders with fresh herb-heavy Lao, Cambodian and Thai recipes.

My friends obliged with a 2009 Robertson Winery “Special Late Harvest” Gewurztraminer (they spell it without the umlaut) from South Africa, far from the varietal’s most well-known home of the Alsace. I’d sampled German, Australian, French, American and even Spanish Gewürztraminers, but never one from South Africa. I was intrigued, but concerned that “Special Late Harvest” might just be a fancy way of saying “cloyingly sweet.”

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