Riesling

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.

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.

Germany’s Comprehensible Sekt

5 September 2012

Try as I might, I’ve never been a fan of Sekt, Germany’s sparkling wine. Almost ever time I’ve tried it, Sekt has lacked any grace whatsoever, with huge, clumsy bubbles and one-note, unexciting flavors. My German heritage has not been able to overcome my natural, human distaste for the stuff. In researching this post, I felt vindicated by most sources I checked.

Germany produces just under half a billion bottles of Sekt each year, compared with about 250 million bottles coming out of Champagne. With that production level, it’s impossible to maintain a high level of quality. But then, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to be believed, “The average Sekt consumer buys a branded wine, and is interested neither in its method of production…nor in the origin of the base wine.” In fact, some 85-90% of Sekt is produced with fruit grown outside Germany, coming from Italy or goodness knows where in the E.U.

For some reason, Sekt has a “peculiarly domestic appeal,” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia dryly notes, “that sparkling wine drinkers in most international markets cannot comprehend, whether they are used to Champagne or New World bubbly.” Perhaps that’s why “foreign markets represent barely 8 percent of sales.”

Despite my dislike of Sekt, I decided to give it one more try. I was browsing the sparkling wine aisle at Binny’s when I noticed a bottle of Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling. One of the finest Rieslings I’ve tasted was a Dr. Loosen, so I decided what the heck, I’ll take a risk. If nothing else, I’ll save it for the end of a party and foist it on some half-drunk guests.

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Austria’s Little Green Lizard

11 January 2012

Riesling remains relatively unpopular in this country, and I must admit even I can sometimes be peremptorily dismissive of a glass of this variety myself. A lot of us associate the grape with cheap, sweet, insipid wines like Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch, and so when we drink a Riesling, even a very good one, it can be easy to just quaff it without paying attention.

It took me a while to learn this lesson: Pay Attention. There is a reason The Oxford Companion to Wine calls Riesling “arguably the world’s most undervalued…grape.”

Riesling is almost synonymous with German wine, but these days Austria produces some delightful expressions of this variety. In fact, Austrian wine has some of the strictest controls and regulations anywhere in the world, ensuring that when you get a Qualitätswein, Kabinett, Spätlese or Auslese, you are getting exactly the ripeness you expect and nothing less. (Listed in ascending order, these categories indicate the level of ripeness of the grapes at the time they are harvested.)

Just to keep things interesting, the Wachau Valley, Austria’s most famous wine region – and one of its very smallest, with only 3% of the country’s vineyards — eschews this system in favor of homegrown categories based on a wine’s alcohol content. The World Atlas of Wine explains this rather quirky (but thankfully simple) system:

Steinfelder is a light wine up to 11% alcohol for easy drinking. Federspiel is made from slightly riper grapes, 11.5-12.5% (stronger than it used to be), good in its first five years. Wines labelled Smaragd (after a local green lizard), can be seriously full-bodied, with alcohol levels above — often far above — 12.5%; they repay six or more years’ ageing.

We recently partook of the little green lizard, a 2007 Johann Donabaum Offenberg Riesling Smaragd. Johann Donabaum calls Offenberg its “most extreme [vineyard] location,” and goes on to explain how wines from this site, set a bit inland from the Danube, have a strong sense of terroir, particularly because of the soil’s slate content.

We opened the Riesling with a meal of cassoulet, a wonderful French stew of white beans and meat topped with a crunchy crust of butter-infused breadcrumbs. I love cassoulet with lardon, garlic sausage, rabbit and duck confit, but I made a simpler version substituting bacon, kielbasa, ground pork and braised chicken thighs. Still delicious, and ever so much easier. I hoped the Riesling could stand up to this rather robust stew.

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A New Frontier – Part 2

11 June 2011

After tasting two unique and delicious Serbian varieties, I was excited to see what some of this country’s most thoughtful winemakers could do with more well-known grapes. Could they hold their own on the international market?

The 2009 Botunjac ”Rasplet” Reserve Riesling certainly could. It seemed hardly believable that this dry, character-rich wine came from the same variety that ends up in Schmitt Söhne. A very pale gold, this Riesling had a rather alcoholic nose of apples, and rich, musky-dusky flavors of pear with a touch of resin and a whisper of yeast. I have never visited Serbia, but I have to imagine the rich, dry and stylistically unusual Rasplet to be very expressive of its terroir. It worked wonderfully with smoky, slightly spicy Serbian sremska sausage.

The vintner, Kosta Botunjac, certainly takes great care making his wines. He comes from a family of dedicated winemakers; while in a German POW camp in 1942, his grandfather Dragomir managed to send a postcard home with instructions for making the Pinot Noir. (more…)