Which is more natural, the English Bulldog of the 19th Century or our modern model? The Belgian Blue of yesteryear or today’s Super Cow? Selective breeding has produced both. So too has it given us all of the plant crops upon which the world’s peoples depend. From roses to wheat.
“Domestication of plants is an artificial selection process conducted by humans to produce plants that have more desirable traits than wild plants, and which renders them dependent on artificial (usually enhanced) environments for their continued existence. The practice is estimated to date back 9,000-11,000 years. Many crops in present day cultivation are the result of domestication in ancient times, about 5,000 years ago in the Old World and 3,000 years ago in the New World. In the Neolithic period, domestication took a minimum of 1,000 years and a maximum of 7,000 years. Today, all of our principal food crops come from domesticated varieties.”
This is emphatically not genetic engineering or recombination in the post-modern sense. The domestication of plants and animals is as old as the primal scene of the first hungry dog wandering into a circle of paleolithic Homo erectus huddling around a campfire. Today the very survival of domesticated plants and animals is entirely dependent upon our collective political and agricultural will, however abstract. So it is with Vitis vinifera.
Abandon any cropland and it will be overtaken by suppressed local vegetation in a matter of years, if not in a single season. Which is also to say that this local biodiversity (as we now call it), just as with the ancients, must be vigorously controlled for the sake of the crop itself; the invasive and opportunistic species excluded, whether weed, insect, deer, wild boar, or pathogen.
The natural world is conjugated and extrapolated by the development of the agricultural. Moreover, agriculture is the historical engine of humanity’s advancement. So we may insist that there is no nature without human cultures maintaining such a distinction; just as we know there can be no concept of the future without a concept of the past, or that, for example, a formerly nondescript region of the brain is suddenly revealed through scientific research to be the center of language acquisition. Nature is what resists and remains, what tests the practical and creative limits of any given people.
When we look at a modern domesticated crop in situ, we see neat rows, a marvel of geometric planning and practical efficiency. Far from its meaning being exhausted by the principles of industrial agriculture, an ancient Egyptian would surely recognize the logic of the appearance of a Montana wheat field; but not its scale, or its disease-free quality and robust yield. So it is with a vineyard.
Trial and error. Domestication. Techné. So it follows that Cabernet Sauvignon, especially its many subtle amphilogical variations, exists as an international variety only through a long process of equally subtle cultural choices and selections. Nature would not and does not do it alone. Nature does not plant a vineyard of Pinot Noir. People do. And people plant what they know, what is culturally relevant and of practical use to them.
Let’s look for a moment at what is involved in the planting of a vineyard. First comes site selection and its soil analysis, counting heat days, determining drainage patterns and orientation. Next the land is cleared of competitive, undesirable vegetation, excavated, planted with specific rootstock grafted to chosen varieties. The soil is supplemented with mineral nutrients and fertility enhancements. As the vines grow, vineyard hygiene must be observed, the vines pruned, disease and pest management exercised, and the ever-rebounding local biodiversity, controlled. There is still much, much more to be done in a vineyard, but this is enough to illustrate my point.
All vineyard activities listed above are learned and repeated cultural practices and techniques, some of which were great historical discoveries, many are immemorial. It is therefore not accurate to say, as some do, that in planting and managing a vineyard ‘we work with Nature’. No. We contest and forcefully redirect the processes of the natural world for our own purposes and ends. This we call viticulture. And I believe terroir is the word we use to describe a wine that in some small way defeats this contest and redirection. Put another way, a terroir wine exceeds the agricultural mastery of its originating vineyard. In short, terroir becomes possible when mastery fails. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
A winery may use amphorae, clay jars, oak, redwood, or chestnut barrels (there are other options), steel or concrete tanks, even t-bins, for fermentation. (We no longer use animal skins or tree hollows, but we could.) For the settling or aging of wines, a winery selects from among the same container technologies. Innovations are always welcomed. Further, we now better understand the chemistry of the resulting olfactory qualities each variety of container best promotes. But even a few generations ago this was not the case. Far from it. For millennia little attention was paid to anything other than the stability and preservation of the precious liquid within, how to prevent spoilage. A partial understanding of the agency of fermentation, yeast, would have to wait until Pasteur, for example.
There is much hand-wringing among the wine cognoscenti about yeast these days. Wild (read natural) or industrial (read artificial). Take your pick, for you see, there is no other choice. But all yeasts are both natural and artificial. As naturally artificial — to coin a phrase — as any Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir vine selected and propagated over time. For all yeasts (exclusive of ML01), whether used in the making of bread, beer, cheese, or wine, like rootstocks and grape varieties, Bulldogs and Belgian Blues, all are the products of oft times ancient events of domestication. Refinements to the consistent, practical isolation of yeast strains would come in the 19th Century.
From vol. 1 of Thomas Pinney’s magisterial A History of Wine In America.
Work on isolating and propagating “pure” strains of yeast was first successfully carried out by the Danish scientist E.C. Hansen in the 1880s, with results that allowed a higher degree of control over the process of fermentation never before possible. By 1891 the French researcher Georges Jacquemin had established a commercial source of pure wine yeasts, and within a few years their use had become a wide-spread commercial practice in Europe.
The first experiments with strains of pure yeast began in [UC] Berkeley in 1893, with striking results: “In every one of the experiments, ” Boletti wrote, “the wines fermented with the addition yeast were cleaner and fresher-tasting than those allowed to ferment with whatever yeasts happened to exist on the grapes.” Samples of pure yeast cultures were sent out to commercial producers in Napa, Sonoma, St. Helena, Asti, San Jose, and Santa Rosa, with equally positive results. [His reference is Boletti's summary in UC College of Agriculture, Report of the Viticultural Work during the Seasons 1887-93 published in 1896]
Mr. Pinney goes on to provide a perfect quote for our purposes.
As the distinguished enologist Maynard Amerine has written, the contributions of biochemistry to wine “have changed winemaking more in the last 100 years than in the previous 2,000,” delivering us from a state of things in which “white wines were usually oxidized in flavor and brown in color” and most wines were “high in volitile acidity and often low in alcohol. When some misguided people wish for the good old days of natural wines, this is what they are wishing for.” [Ohio Ag Research and Development Center, Proceedings, Ohio Grape-Wine Short Course, 1973]
Though the process of fermentation remained an unexplained mystery for the greater part of the history of our enchantment with alcoholic beverages, many cultures learned techniques to tilt its success in its favor, such as selecting for reuse only vessels that had successfully carried a fermentation to an acceptable result, or adding other fruits, figs and berries for example, known to promote the secret process. And with respect to the stabilization of a finished wine, Patrick McGovern writes in his Uncorking The Past,
Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Paleolithic times. [....] Early humans appear to have recognized that a tree helps to heal itself by oozing resin after its bark has been cut, thus preventing infection. They made the mental leap to apply resins to human wounds. By the same reasoning, drinking a wine laced with a tree resin should help to treat internal maladies. And the same healing properties might be applied to stave off the dreaded “wine disease” by adding tree resins to the wine.
Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the “queen of resins”), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.
After all the above we now might better understand why the ancients reused only selected vessels from season to season; why resinating wines was popular; why isolated yeast cultures were celebrated in 19th Century Europe and America; and why Mr. Amerine so harshly judged what he called ‘natural wines’. The answer is stabilization, including, but not limited to, bacterial sanitation and the prevention of runaway levels of volatile acidity. In short, spoilage, the winemaker’s ancient antagonist.
So why are we these days in the thrall of a return to ‘natural wines’, a return to the Jules Chauvet’s modest environmentalism, near universal among Western peoples the 1960s? For it is surely true that by dawning of the Age of Aquarius, pesticides, herbicides and a host of other industrial insults had made a fine mess of vast tracts of France’s wine growing regions. In a nation of chain-smoking vignerons, of an exalted nuclear power program, and struggling environmental movement, it is not difficult to understand Mr. Chauvet’s appearance in France. What is more difficult to understand is why he should make a difference to us now.
Nevertheless it is asked, “How can winemakers afford to take the risk?” The answer is very simple: Winemakers can take the risk because of the hard-won agricultural victories and associated technologies historically achieved, but which are now selfishly taken for granted. The natural winemakers of today benefit from the leaps and bounds in our modern understanding of biochemistry, viticulture, plant physiology and pathology, and winery sanitation. Never before have we known so much about the biological and physical processes involved. Yet often select terroirists refuse to admit it. For some there are only natural wines and industrial swill. This is a false, dishonest choice. Or perhaps, more charitably, we may say that rarely has an agricultural product been so poorly named. In either case, winemakers of today, but drinkers and connoisseurs as well, stand on the shoulders of generations of nameless farmers, experimenters, of researchers and their discoveries. Our extended family of the vine.
The concept of ‘natural’ wines, who might qualify as a producer of the same, has undergone what in realpolitik speak is called ‘mission creep’. In an effort to fire the imaginations of the greatest number of winegrowers, producers, influencers and consumers, the definition or parameters of what constitutes a ‘natural’ wine has in recent years been expanded to include the products of ‘organic’ and Biodynamic winegrowing, however negotiable those practices may be. Every movement — such as it is — needs all the friends it can get. (On a personal note, my work in Portugal has revealed numerous natural wines that have existed long before Jules Chauvet was a twinkle in his mother’s eye.)
But a parallel rhetoric has emerged that threatens to alienate the very wine producers that the natural wine movement needs most to win over: the conglomerates still heavily dependent on petrochemicals, pesticides and herbicides; excessive synthetic nitrogen applications, the subsequent pollution of streams and waterways, and the increasing use of GMOs in the wine industry. It is a rhetoric that can draw no qualitative distinction between pesticide use and tartaric acid additions (one shudders to think what some terroirists would have to say about ancient Roman myrrh or pine resin wine additives); it is a rhetoric that dithers over alcohol levels rather than a winery’s carbon footprint; a rhetoric that finds objectionable some quite arbitrary level of SO2 but whose program does not appear to reflect in any meaningful way on enhancing vineyard biodiversity.
Rather than debate the ludicrous notion that volatile acidity or brettanomyces are praiseworthy expressions of terroir, concerned wine writers of every shade of green ought to instead turn their collective attention to the big picture. The rest is medieval scholasticism.
For further reading see William Tish’s account of a recent natural wine event and the excellent compilation on the blog Saignée: 31 Days of Natural Wine
A True Taste of Germany
Over a year ago I put my name down to give one of the monthly tastings at the North East Wine Tasting Society (NEWTS) and chose Germany as my theme. If you mention German wine to a random group of people you’ll likely get one of the following negative responses;
—“Never touch the stuff, I remember the 80s; cheap and tacky!”
—“The most incomprehensible wine labels in the world; can’t read them, can’t pronounce them, don’t buy them!” or maybe
—“Eugh, Riesling! Smells and tastes like sweetened engine run-off!”
The stereotypically negative responses are all the more painful if you are aware of Germany’s rich wine history stretching back over a thousand years. During the 18th and 19th centuries the top German wines were more sought after (and more expensive) than those from Bordeaux, but vine disease, economic depression and war all took their toll so that by the 1980s the German fine wine industry had collapsed and been replaced by an expanse of low quality grapes producing cheap, sugary offerings such as Liebfraumilch, Piesporter Michelsberg and Blue Nun. Although these do not feature further in this piece I urge you to read TheWineRambler post from earlier this year where this infamous trio go head to head in a blind taste-off!
The good news is that most of the best vineyard sites are still there creating some of the world’s greatest white wines and, if you’re lucky, you will find a like-minded soul who has had their Riesling epiphany – but what about taking the question further and asking about that most mythical of beasts, German Red wine?
Give the most hardened naysayers a few minutes to recover from fits of laughter and then collect the answers;
—“Did you mean to say red?”
—“I prefer tannin to sugar you know!”
—“There’s only so much thin, acidic wine I can drink”
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get “I hear they make the odd decent bottle of Pinot”, which is something I’ve touched upon in my 2008 post Better Spät’ than never, but that response will be limited to the more informed wine enthusiast, even though planting in Germany increased in the 1990s and 2000s so that now about 35% of the country’s 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of vineyards are devoted to red grapes.
To make my first ever tasting even more difficult I’d vowed that it wouldn’t just be a night of Riesling but would be a representative range from the world’s 8th largest wine producing nation covering the key styles, regions and grapes yet keeping within the constraints of a limited budget and 10 bottle maximum. My challenge, therefore, was to find wines that could stand up to the critical palettes (and stereotypes) of the massed ranks of the NEWTS (famed for their suspicion of whites and thin reds).
In sourcing the wines I was lucky that business trips to Germany last year meant I quickly had the core of the tasting ready but, by the beginning of April, and with only a few weeks to go, I still needed four or five to make up the numbers and provide a backup in case of any faulty bottles. What surprised me was exactly how involved it was to source these final bottles, confirming just how difficult it is to buy interesting German wine in the UK – especially if it’s not Riesling from the Mosel.
I was especially disappointed by my local Majestic store when I walked up to the large “Germany” sign in the corner only to find 5 Rieslings and the rest of the space taken up by bottles from Alsace, Austria and Hungary (the only time those areas were grouped with Germany was during both World Wars, so let’s not analyse that any further!).
Oddbins was not much better, but it did have the excuse of limited shelf-stock due to being in the process of going out of business, and even then it had the Villa Wolf 2009 Pinot Noir which was my last ever purchase from the Newcastle store before it finally shut its doors.
Wine Dancer.com was required to add a bit of sparkle to the evening with the Michael Schäfer Sekt, although his Lieblich Dornfelder sweet red didn’t make it into the starting line-up. Finally a local retailer, Dennhöfer Wines (hidden away in the wilds of Northumberland) came to the rescue providing a quality Pinot Noir and a refreshing Rosé.
So to the evening itself, and we started with an aperitif in the form the Cabinet Gold Trocken Sekt from Weingut Michael Shäfer in the lower Nahe. This been a family business since 1732 and Alfred and Karl-Heinz Shäfer operate a modern winery outside Dorsheim, although the original cellars in Burg Layen are still used for tastings. Like nearly 95% of Sekt this was made by the Méthode Charmat, where the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in pressurised steel tanks (autoclaves) as opposed to bottles, creating a fruitier style than those made in the traditional-method. Frenchman Eugène Charmat championed this on a commercial scale in 1907 with a move away from earlier, wooden tank techniques and the process is also known as Martinotti-Charmat Method or the Metodo Italiano, as it is a common technique for Prosecco production.
The Cabinet Gold Trocken was an unidentified blend, probably of Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Weißburgunder and Scheurebe varieties which are grown on the 15ha Shäfer estate. At 11% abv we expected it to be simple and sweet, so were pleasantly surprised by a satisfying fruity wine with some depth and dryness, compared to a good Cava by some in the room. It was described as “not really Trocken” and some thought the bubbles disappeared quite quickly, but even then it was pleasant enough to drink and was generally liked by the group, especially at £8.96 (from Wine Dancer in the UK).
We then moved onto the 2004 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett from Weingut Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, an estate with a history spanning more than 650 years since the von Kesselstatt dynasty migrated to the electorate of Trier in the 14th century – the first documented vineyard purchase dates from 1349.
Although based in Morscheid in the Mosel the Weingut has 36ha of vineyards spread evenly over the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer river valleys, 98% which is Riesling –it doesn’t come any more traditional than this with their range embracing the Prädikat system and tending towards the off-dry styles.
The Ockfener Bockstein vineyard is one of the Saar’s steepest south facing slopes stretching upwards from a height of 180m (590ft) to 320m (1,050ft), its Devonian slate soils protected by a forest at the top of the valley which acts as a natural irrigation system to reduce vine stress in dry weather.
2004 has been described as benchmark for a normal, classic German vintage, with high ripeness levels and lively acidity, prime for ageing. At 8.5% abv the 100% Riesling Kabinett had a wonderful honeyed nose, slightly floral with typical petro-chemical aspects. There was a richly textured, oily mouthfeel, slightly sweet with some apple and maybe a hint of noble rot. Although it could have done with a touch more acidity it was well balanced and well liked by the group, “it reminds you of how good German wines can be”. What raised more comment was the price, only £7.49 from the local Co-operative supermarket (although that was reduced from £9.99, but even then a ridiculously low price for such a good wine).
We stayed in the Saar for the next wine, the 2006 Alte Reben (old vines) Riesling from Weingut Van Volxem in Wiltingen, just downstream from Ockfen.
The estate is located on the site of a Jesuit monastery and owned by Roman Niewodniscanski, the half-Polish heir to the Bitberger brewing dynasty who purchased it in 1999 after four generations of Van Volxem family management. His 42ha of organic vineyards are also some of the steepest in the Saar (as is the man himself, standing nearly 7 feet tall) growing Riesling and a small amount of Weißburgunder. Grapes for the Estate Riesling come from 30 year old vines, mere babes compared to the 50-100 year old vines used for the premium labels – there’s even a small amount of ungrafted, 120 year old, pre-Phylloxera Riesling.
The story goes that Niewodniscanski bought some of the best terroir in the area using 19th century tax maps which showed the top vineyards, many of which had been forgotten about, and he claims to be guided by such wines as Henri Jayer Burgundies and those “made in Germany a century ago when our wines were worth three times as much as top red Bordeaux”. Unlike von Kesselstatt he’s given up on the Prädikat system, instead making low-yield wines from late-harvested grapes using natural yeasts and spontaneous fermentation through to relative dryness. The results are “harmonic dry” wines – ripe and low in acidity, never over 12.5% abv and completely different to the classic Mosel style with extended lees contact and oak barrel maturation.
2006 is known as the year of botrytis in the Mosel with an early harvest and a small crop, with better acidity levels and higher sugar readings than previous comparable vintages.
At 12% abv the 2006 Alte Reben we had (simply labelled as Saarweine GrossLagen) and had a slightly closed nose of lychees and honeyed raisins, but in the mouth was wonderfully complex; clean, dry with creamy apricots and stone-fruit bitterness. A popular wine with the group this came from local retailer Richard Granger at just over £14 a bottle.
A change of region, grape and style next, with the 2007 Illusion Eins by Weingut Meyer-Näkel from Dernau in the Ahr, the smallest of Germany’s 13 wine regions (Anbaugebiete). The original Meyer estate was founded in 1870 but it wasn’t until 1950, when winemaker Willibald Näkel married Paula Meyer, that the Meyer-Näkel name was created, quickly becoming a pioneer for a new breed of German dry red wines. Although trained as a teacher Willibald’s son Werner took over winemaking in 1983 and has developed the 15ha estate so that it now is probably one of the most famous Ahr producers and has an international reputation for award winning Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir).
The wine we tried was a Spätburgunder, but not a red one – instead it was a Weißherbst (white autumn) where single variety, Prädikat quality red grapes are gently pressed and fermented without skin contact. This creates a light, delicately coloured wine often described as a type of Rosé and popular in Germany, although the Illusion Eins had barely a hint of colour.
Although 2007 has been described as a classic Ahr vintage producing elegant wines unfortunately the group were quick to pick up on hints of oxidation and an excess of sulphur reduction. I quite enjoyed its tart, lemon biscuit aspect, but comments of a hollow middle and a short, dry finish showed I was in a minority here.
This was the first of the wines I’d bought in Germany last year from Weinhaus Fehser in Heidelberg at €15 (£13).
We shifted regions again and moved onto a more traditional Rosé next with the Villa Wolf 2009 Pinot Noir Rosé by Weingut J.L. Wolf of Wachenheim, Pfalz.
Founded in 1756 by Johann Wolf, the estate flourished in the 19th Century but mirrored the fall of the German wine industry in the 20th until 1996, when renowned Mosel winemaker Dr. Ernst Loosen took over the winemaking and halted the rot. The 16ha vineyards are predominantly Riesling with 10% of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Silvaner.
2009 was a great German vintage in the Pfalz, Germany’s largest Anbaugebiete, producing ripe wines. This showed through in the Villa Wolf Rosé which had a sweet, red berry nose with a little toffee and spiced cinanamon, while the flavour had some forest fruits and a creamy mid-palate. The wine was purchased from Northumberland based Dennhöfer Wines at £7.82 a bottle and comments from the room were favourable, with comparisons to a Provençal rosé, although I found the fruit a little confected and there was a noticeable harshness on the finish which detracted.
Our first red was a Schwarzriesling Spätlese Trocken by Wein & Sektgut Bernd Hummel of Malsch in northern Baden, Germany’s warmest wine region. This is the only German Anbaugebiete situated in the warmer E.U. wine growing zone B and stretches 125 miles from just above Heidelberg in the north down to Basel on the Swiss border.
Economist Bernd Hummel took over his father’s estate in the Kraichgau, south of Heidelberg, in 1984 after travelling the world, focussing on reduced yields and organic viticulture. He has 9ha of vineyards with 50% Spätburgunder and a mélange of other grapes including Weißburgunder, Schwarzriesling, Lemberger, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Auxerrois, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Mitos, Dornfelder and Regent! 70% of his production is red, typically with oak cask fermentation and 2 year barrel ageing before release.
We tasted mixed vintages (2005 and 2006) of Schwarzriesling, which literally means black Riesling but is actually Pinot Meunier (aka Müllerrebe) — not typically seen as a single varietal red. This was an interesting and well received wine with a smoky, cherry nose and a light but elegant flavour including cherry, caramel and a little tar. There was not a great deal of difference between the 2 vintages apart from the alcohol; with the 2005 coming in at 13.5% and the 2006 at 12.5% reflecting that years comparatively shorter harvest due to autumn rains.
This was another of my Heidelberg purchases from Weinhaus Fehser, this time for €12.10 (£10.50).
We stayed in North Baden for the 2008 Heidelberger Herrenberg Spätburgunder S from Weingut Hans Winter in the suburb of Rohrbach, inside the old town of Heidelberg where the family has lived since the middle ages. Although vineyard documentation only dates back to 1749 the Winters consider themselves the oldest winery in Heidelberg with 15th and 16th Century cellars – the ancient Heidelberger Herrenberg vineyard itself is said to date back to the year 766! Although managing 14ha of vineyard only 4ha goes to produce their own label wines, primarily white varieties such as Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Weißburgunder and Grauburgunder. For their red grapes traditional winemaking methods are used with fermentation on the skins and ageing in old oak casks or barrels.
At 14% abv the dry Spätburgunder had a touch more body and depth to the previous wine, showing a lovely fruity nose with a hint of spice. It had a good mouthfeel with juicy fruit at the front, a mid-palate of bitter cherry and a tannic finish with claims of beetroot from some in the room – a popular wine and the last of my Winehaus Fehser selection at €12.50(£10.99).
Baden had one more red to offer the tasting, although this time we moved much further south to the town of Vogtsburg-Bischoffingen and Weingut Johner, with their 2007 Estate Pinot Noir.
Karl Heinz Johner studied Oenology and Viticulture at Geisenheim before becoming winemaker at Lamberhurst Vineyard in Kent, where he experimented with sparkling wine production. He returned to Germany in 1985 to set up his own winery and continued to experiment, making concentrated, barrique aged wines so different to the norm that the they could only be sold as table wine. Since then Johner has avoided the traditional Prädikat system with all wines bottled with a screw-cap closure and no references to vineyard site, although the reserve wines are identified with „SJ” (Selektion Johner). He then felt the need to challenge himself further and set up Johner Estate in New Zealand where he now spends most of his time, leaving the running of Weingut Johner to his English-born son Patrick.
The 16.5ha estate grows similar amounts of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc along with some Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc on the terraced vineyards on the edge of the Kaiserstuhl plateau on the opposite bank of the Rhine from Colmar in the Alsace.
2007 was a very good vintage for Baden and this showed in the complexity and balance of the wine. It had a savoury, mushroom nose and a creamy texture with some redcurrant fruit and a clear burst of acidity throughout. The quality of this wine stood out and comments included “a classic Pinot” and “a delight to taste” – many admitted that they would not have considered it from Germany if tasted blind. This wine sparked an interesting discussion in the room, however, the price tag of £19.54 from Dennhöfer Wines was still a surprise to some even though it was served at a recent Ambassador’s dinner In Newcastle.
The final red of the night was a first for everyone in the room, the Chapeau vom Dalberg No. 19 2008 Acolon by Weingut & Sektkellerei Dalbergerhof Strauch in the Rheinhessen, our 6th and final Anbaugebiete of the night.
The winery is based in Osthofen on the river Seebach, a very short river that flows for only 9 km before emptying into the Rhine just downstream of Worms. There is very little information available on the producer other than it owns several stores across Germany which sell only Dalbergerhof wines, this bottle I’d got from the Weinhaus am Grindl in Hamburg for €20 (£18).
In case you haven’t figured it out Acolon is the grape variety, an early ripening cross of Blauer Lemberger (aka Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos) and Dornfelder created in 1971 and officially recognised in 2002. Although initially limited to 79ha of experimental sites it is becoming established as an option both in and out of Germany, with the variety used in Belgium (Château Bon Baron) and also authorised in England (New Hall Vineyards in Essex has about 2.8ha).
2008 was not a good vintage in the Rheinhessen but this organic wine still managed a ripe 14.5% abv. On the nose there was some sweet fruit, plum (guava was shouted across the room) and raspberry but also a hint of acetate making it a little medicinal. It was easy drinking with fine yet persistent chocolate tannins and syrup of figs in the flavour. A scathing “international fruit driven wine” was heard, although many enjoyed its simple pleasures.
And so to the final wine of the night, again from Rheinhessen but this time another switch in style to the late harvested 1999 Huxelrebe Beerenauslese by Weingut Schales of Flörsheim-Dalsheim. This is another family business going back 8 generations to 1783 and something of a sweet wine specialist, having seen a record 56 Eiswein harvests in their 228 year history.
Their 60ha of vineyards include Riesling, Grauburgunder, Müller-Thurgau, Weißburgunder and a mix of other varieties including the Huxelrebe, which is another grape creation, this time by the famous Dr Georg Scheu who crossed Gutedel (Chasselas) and Courtiller Musqué (Muscat Précoce de Saumur) in 1927. It was named after viticulturalist Fritz Huxel who was the first to cultivate it extensively and received varietal protection in 1969, being grown primarily in the Rheinhessen and used for sweet white wines that typically reach Auslese standards in average vintages – 1999 was such a vintage with September rains diluting acidity and quality.
The Beerenauslese had a mango nose and I enjoyed its tart tatin acidity, although some questioned its freshness and said it was “a bit flabby”. Overall though it was a decent sweet wine to finish the night on, especially with a price tag of only £11.99 for the 500ml bottle from another local supermarket, Robbs of Hexham, back in early 2010.
So there we have it, a whistle-stop tour with 10 wines from 6 Anbaugebiete, 5 grape varieties and 7 styles covering much of what Germany has to offer. The most impressive wine of the night by far was the K.H. Johner 2007 Pinot Noir, but even the simpler wines had many in the room questioning why they don’t drink more German wines. I think some prejudices were broken, although the biggest hurdle remains the lack of availability of all but a handful of Rieslings in the UK, something that won’t change until the average consumer starts to see beyond the sweet sugar water wines from last century.
Tucked away down the narrow streets of the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon, on the corner of Rua de Santa Justa and Rua dos Douradores, Jaime Neves Vaz does the joyous work of cultural preservation. The Vaz family’s third generation proprietor/owner of the liquor store Garrafeira Nacional, Jaime offers more than the latest vintage. Though visitors will surely find the most recent popular, off-beat, and hard to find wines from throughout Portugal, including a large selection of ports — all the way back to 1720! — it is in the area of Portugal’s historical wines where the Jaime’s shop truly excels.
Somewhere in Portugal a house is being renovated, or is changing hands, perhaps inherited by the owner’s children. It too often happens that the entire contents of a wine cellar will be tossed out into the dumpster. Why? Because the bottles are old and dusty. And if it is a white wine, what are the chances a 60’s vintage is still any good? This is a serious problem in Portugal where popular wine knowledge develops very slowly. Of course, Portugal is not alone in this. Here in America, where wine cellars are uncommon (I do not know of a single individual with a proper cellar), we are thirsty drinkers but have an ambiguous relationship to historical wines. And by ‘historical’ I mean nothing more than wines with a minimum of 15 years of aging. But with respect to the holdings of Garrafeira Nacional, 15 years is only a blink of the eye.
Jaime Neves Vaz to the rescue. He keeps his ear to the ground for hints of such spectacular cultural tragedies in the offing, that of the dumpster, and he also regularly attends auctions and spot buys cellars before it is too late. And what is a marvel for the wine tourist is the reasonable prices Jaime then asks for these wines. We met in Garrafeira Nacional. I spoke to him recently when in Lisbon for the premier of my wine doc, Mother Vine.
Admin Where did all of these wines come from?
Jaime Neves Vaz Some of them were acquired from my father long ago. Others we bought in auctions and from private collections, private cellars. We are very careful when we buy. We will often open some wines to check their quality. Most of the time they are very good wines.
And were most kept in real cellars?
JNV I pay close attention to that. If it is a good cellar there is no problem. But even when from a bad cellar I will still give it a try, open a few bottles. You must pay attention to the level of the wine in the bottle, the temperature of the room; there are many factors to consider. I am very careful. It is then very important how we keep the wine here in the shop.
When the store began was it principally port that was offered?
JNV No. This shop began in my family in 1927. We sold wine but it wasn’t at that time a normal business here in Portugal. My grandfather bought the shop. Then my father. It was about thirty years ago that we began selling only wines. The new wines we then bought are now old!
How do you hear about the cellars that come up for sale?
JNV I’ve been in the business for quite a while. I have lots of friends in the business. People know me. They know I like to buy old wines. I love it!
While visiting Carcavelos, I heard a terrible story of old wines simply being thrown away. So what is it about Portuguese wine culture that would lead someone to throw bottles out, to toss them into a dumpster?
JNV This happens a lot. What can I say? [laughs] They just put them into the garbage! Four years ago I bought a little cellar, somewhere around 100 bottles. The owner said to me that all the other ones he put into the garbage! It was because they didn’t have a legible date or the bottles were a little bit dirty. I asked him how many he had thrown away. He told me it was 400 to 500 bottles!
[My gasp of horror is clearly audible on the recording. Admin]
JNV Ok? It’s what we sometimes do. It happens. And they were like these. [Jaime gestures to dusty bottles of old port, Madeira, and Muscatel de Setubal, among others, protected inside a glass case.] And this man had very, very good port and Madeira wines. Into the garbage! I’m sorry…. He said the bottles were dirty. It is a pity. Because it is wrong.
Another visitor nearby, Portuguese, added, “People will say, ‘let’s taste it to see if it’s good’. But they don’t know the wine, they don’t know the label. Some of the wineries no longer exist. But they taste it without paying much attention to the wine. They treat it as though it was new. They don’t know how to pour it, how to decant it. So they taste it roughly and say it is spoiled. They spoiled it! This reveals a clear lack of wine culture in evaluating the quality of the wines. People prefer young wines. But most of these were made in a time when wine was simply put into a bottle and left to age.”
JNV But people are starting to pay attention. They read more. They read wine magazines, newspapers, and the internet. They are starting to learn just how good an older bottle of wine can be. Before they would say of an old bottle that it had to be no good. They would not even open it. But I tell them to slow down. Open the bottle. It is very important to open the bottle! But as I said, this is starting to change. They are beginning to learn that wine is alive.
How have your customers changed over the years? Who now comes in your shop?
JNV There has been a very big change. It started in the 1990’s. The culture of wine here in Portugal began to improve. Customers began to be more careful, and they began to try a much wider variety of wines. There was a big evolution in favor of experimentation. But most people still prefer new wines. We have a ways to go!
Let’s say I select these bottles for them. [Jaime picks a series of bottles of white Colares from 1967. Note the splendid variation among the bottles.] They will say, “They are too yellow; they’re from 1967. The bottles even differ among themselves. Forget it. I don’t want to try it because it must be bad.” But it is not true, I tell them! That it’s yellow, ok: it has 40 years of age! But the wine is good! Old wines are amazing.
Could you tell me a little about your grandfather and father?
JNV About my grandfather I cannot speak much. I did not know him. He died 15 years before I was born. But of my father, he started with wines of Colares, Dão, Bairrada, and Douro. Wines back then were elitist, only for very rich people. But not today.
And do you host tastings here? Do winemakers and companies visit with wines for you to taste?
JNV Yes. In fact, tomorrow [Thursday, May 5th] we have a tasting with Kopke, wines of 10, 20, 30, and 40 years of age. All white ports. We will also taste a 1961, with 50 years. It is a new idea for the whites they earlier did not bottle, only blend. Today they are starting to sell whites. It is very, very interesting. White port is perfect, especially with the aging.
Thank you very much, Jaime. I will be back in a few weeks, about that you can be sure.
JNV Thank you. It was a pleasure. See you soon.
Out I went into the late afternoon light. The blue of the Tejo was glimpsed down the shadowy Rua Augusta in one direction, the pearly tiles of the city streets at my feet, rising to orange upon the walls of the Convento do Carmo, in the other. I walked refreshed, happy, knowing that this Noah’s Ark of wine, Garrafeira Nacional, floated safely upon the rough waters of Portugal’s wine history. Dear reader, so should you.
Spring takes hold in the wine world with the unsurprising news that Bordeaux is superb again, Oddbins goes through its final death throws and California sees the resurrection of an historic name.
The big news of last month was En Primeur in Bordeaux; the usual circus of scoring wine designed for years in the bottle based on a taste of some embryonic barrel sample barely finished fermentation. The general consensus seems to be that 2010 is an excellent year for White Bordeaux and the Cabernet grapes, Sauvignon and Franc, but merely very good for Merlot and the Sauternes (with Barsac outperforming its more famous neighbour). Alcohol levels are up and the 2010 reds will probably need more ageing compared to the ‘09s with high tannins but balancing acidity.
My pick of the reviews includes James Suckling’s succinct summary, Wine Enthusiast’s four part diary posting and Decanter’s on-line’s breakdown of the right-band and left-bank plus 5 year vintage comparison of the major Châteaux.
Over the English Channel and the demise of Oddbins was completed when Whittal’s, part of Raj Chatha’s European Food Brokers (EFB) group, bought 37 stores in Scotland, London and scattered middle & south England sites as April drew to a close – Jim Budd posted the “Welcome aboard” letter to the lucky survivors on his blog. At the same time the much reviled Simon Baile, Oddbins previous owner (and many would say instigator of its downfall) was looking to buy a small number of stores in the South of England from Administrators Deloitte. Unfortunately, for the remaining stores, the end had finally come and, over the long Royal Wedding weekend, they closed their doors for good with Twitter providing a range of images showing the emotions in play across the country, as shown by the montage image.
As I’ve managed to sneak in a reference to the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton then I can also link to Eric Asimov’s positive piece on English Sparkling wines in The Pour, although his prediction was off as it was Pol Roger NV Brut Réserve Champagne served at the wedding reception.
Over to the US and Inglenook is set for a comeback as the Coppola Estate announced the purchase of the name from Constellation Brands. Inglenook Vineyards was founded in 1879 by Finnish sea-captain Gustave Niebaum and acquired an international reputation winning medals at the turn of the (20th) Century. Although Coppola has been making his Rubicon wines at the Niebaum property since 1975 the reclaiming of the name finally reunites all the original parts and signals a shakeup of the brand as the announcement also confirmed Chateau Mârgaux’s Philippe Bascaules as Estate Manager and Winemaker, replacing Scott Macleod who retired last year.
Sadly April in California also saw Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson succumb to cancer at 81 – Tim Fish for The Wine Spectator posted a thorough euology on the man and his legacy.
There were two major wine competitions last month with the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) and the International Wine Challenge (IWC), both running at the same time and seeing 85 Masters of Wine (out of the 290 MWs worldwide) descend on London (with approximately a 2:1 ratio for DWWA). Both events were well represented with tweeters and internet wine pundits; the DWWA included Anthony Rose (@antrose33), Robert Giorgione (@robertgiorgione), Jim Budd (@jymbudd) and Jeannie Cho Lee (@JeannieChoLee); the IWC included Tim Atkin (@TimAtkin), Jamie Goode (@jamiegoode), Ollie Smith (@jollyolly), Neal Martin (@nealmartin) and Charles Metcalfe (@thewinesinger). The results of both competitions are to be announced at the London International Wine fair on 17th May.
Back to the UK and a new Budget saw alcohol duty rise 2% above inflation, adding at least another 15p per bottle and meaning that, over the last year, wine prices have increased by about 15% (including VAT increases) making the UK is the highest-taxed in Europe. To help keep track of how much goes on tax I found an interesting app for the iPhone called “UK Wine Tax Calculator” which shows how much of your purchase is left for the winemaking, marketing and distribution.
With wine prices rising the financial rewards of counterfeiting wine are becoming more lucrative, but it’s not just affecting French wine as Victoria Moore in the Telegraph recounts with the news of Jacob’s Creek being ripped off. Apart from discerning consumers noticing something not quite right with the taste, the fakers didn’t do themselves any favours with the back label declaring “Wine of Austrlia” (sic).
As usual I’ll move the focus up to the North East of England and my monthly wine dabbling. The Oddbins saga had local ramifications as the 2 remaining stores in Newcastle and Gosforth weren’t part of the last minute buy-outs and both closed. Window art this time turned into an advertisement, with Gosforth retailer Carruthers and Kent (run by an ex-Oddbins store manager) benefitting from now being “the only wine store in the village”!
Along with Carruthers and Kent, Newcastle and its environs still has a decent share of independent wine stores scattered around and one I’ve been meaning to visit for a while is “The Wine Chambers” based in North Shields. I’d first heard about young Ben Chambers at a North East Wine Tasting Society (NEWTS) meeting last year and am hoping he’ll do a presentation for us sometime soon, especially after belatedly reading an encouraging article by local wine journalist Helen Savage.
Personally April was also a busy month, including 3 family birthdays and my first ever tasting presentation to the NEWTS as I attempted to show the members that there’s more to Germany than Mosel Riesling. The tasting was well received and can be read about in more detail in my next Reign of Terroir piece, but by way of a teaser we tried 10 wines from 6 Anbaugebiete, 5 varieties and 6 styles covering most of what Germany has to offer, with the most impressive wine of the night a Pinot Noir by Baden producer Karl H. Johner.
As well as buying (and drinking) a fair amount of German wines for the presentation the month also saw a modest increase in both purchases and consumption at home as well, not hard after the very frugal start to the year.
Four reds provided enough interest to mention, starting with the Coppola Votre Sante 2009 Pinot Noir from California – an appropriate choice given the news about Inglenook (although this entry level Pinot will not be wearing that label!). This was a fruity, thirst quenching wine with a dry finish, but there was a confected aspect and a slightly green edge to the finish – enjoyable if a little simplistic.
Moving up in complexity was the Svir?e Winery 2007 Plavac Hvar from Croatia which showed a warm nose with some creamy oak. Smooth and balanced, this was a light-medium bodied wine whose fine, dry tannins had a touch of bitterness but was compensated by strong fruity flavours.
Italy next and another step up in flavour with Sainsbury’s own label “Taste the difference” 2006 Amarone della Valpolicella made by Cantina Valpantena, a Decanter Regional Trophy winner in 2009. This was thinner than some Amarone I’ve tried and a touch too bitter on the finish, but there was a pleasant hint of almonds, a good balance of acidity and plenty of sweet cherry and oak.
Finally another supermarket own label, with Tesco’s Finest Viña Mara 2000 Rioja Gran Reserva made by Baron de Ley. This was a classic Rioja; a nose of sweet fruit, vanilla oak and a little tobacco – a lot of complex flavours were bouncing around the glass all the way through the long finish. It was a little coarse on its own, but great with food with a taught balance of acidity, astringency and chocolaty tannins.
As for the bottles that made it into the cellar, a business trip back from China via Dubai airport started off the month’s purchases with the Château Musar 2001 white (a unique blend of Obaideh and Merwah grapes which was unlike any white I’ve ever tried when I first tasted it a couple of years ago) and the 2006 Rosé (a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan which I’ve never seen in the UK). These take my Musar collection to 19 bottles covering 7 vintages, nearly 15% of all the wine I have and a continuing reminder of my fondness for this country first started at the beginning of my wine journey nearly five years ago.
My birthday also generated a few bottles, with some promising early drinking from La Villasse Côtes du Rhône and Izadi Rioja (a bottle of red and white from each) plus an intriguing Bodegas Castaño 2008 Dulce Monastrell sweet red to ponder over. Finally the d’Arenberg d’Arry’s Original 2008 Shiraz Grenache should provide some drinking pleasure in the next 2 or 3 years (another useless stat is that my total number of bottles of Australian wine is only 18, one less than my Musar hoard!).
Looking forward into May and June and the 2011 London International Wine Fair runs from 17th-19th May with tastings, seminars, those awards I mentioned and over 20,000 wines on show – it’s just a shame I can’t make the relatively short journey on those dates.
A few days later and 20th-22nd sees the 29th annual Paso Robles Wine Festival in California featuring more than 140 area wineries.
May moves into June with English Wine Week, starting on the 28th to raise awareness of English Vineyards and wines, while in China the 6th Shanghai International Wine Trade Fair runs from 1st-3rd June.
Peering a little further into June and the 9th & 10th sees Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario host the 2011 Riesling Experience in Canada, bringing together producers, trade and media from around the world to showcase this sublime grape.
Until the next time, Slainte!
In a passage from one of my favorite books, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, the author writes of playing ‘prisoner’s base’ when he was young, what we might better know as the children’s game of ‘tag’. There are regional variations, but one general rule of the game is a constant. There are pursuers and those who flee. Armed with a miraculous power, when a pursuer tags you, you become frozen. You may only be freed, put back into circulation, if you are touched by a fellow team member. Roland Barthes, always one to choose freedom, relates this children’s game to larger questions of social subjection and domination. “No last word.” So it is with wine, its regional cultures and history.
In Wines of the World, the third printing, 1968, H. Warner Allen, a very good writer, has this to say in his chapter The Wines of Portugal.
“Portugal, allowance being made for its size, produces a greater variety of wines than any other country in the world and is unique among wine-growing lands in its self-sufficiency…. Throughout Portugal the supremacy of the sun wrestles with two opponents, the ozone of the Atlantic and the more rarefied atmosphere of high mountains. The country is tightly enclosed on the west by the barrier of the ocean and on the east by the wall of mountains of the Spanish frontier. Not one Portuguese vineyard is entirely out of reach of this double influence, and the vine is as susceptible to atmospheric conditions as to the imponderable stimuli of the constituents of the soil in which it grows. Obdurate granite predominates as the basis of Portuguese vineyard soil, giving its wines a kinship with those of the Rhône, and its unyielding firmness of character brings most Portuguese wines into Virgil’s category of firmissima vina, wines of thews and sinews, which can stand up against time and rough handling.”
Is that not a lovely summation, a marvel of narrative economy? I think so. And I repeat it here — I strongly recommend reading his entire 100 page chapter — in order play my own game of ‘prisoner’s base’; to put back into circulation a frozen though praiseworthy text. And so it is with my documentary, Mother Vine, which enjoyed its premier May 6th at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal; the aim of the film is to free the souls it has recorded from potential obscurity and oblivion. “No last word…”
I shall limit the balance of this post to a very slightly modified version of my introductory remarks given before the lights came down in the Auditório da Lagoa Branca.
Make no mistake, I am an American; what is worse, a Californian. I have asked to become an honorary citizen of Portugal but there is an awful lot of paperwork involved. So I made a film, Mother Vine, to speed up the process.
I originally came to Portugal, to Lisbon, for the European Wine Bloggers Conference back in 2009, with the generous assistance of ViniPortugal. But I don’t care for conferences, especially when they are hosted in countries I know very little about. And of Portugal I had no practical experience, no real knowledge. I am proud to announce that after much travel and filming in your beautiful country — with the help of Virgilio Loureiro — I can now confidently report that I now know something! Which is better than nothing.
So what is it I now know? What is it I am eager to tell my English-speaking friends? That Portugal offers the visitor the rare and the unique; intellectual adventure and startling insights into the life of deep wine culture. But everybody says that about a country, a culture, to which I say, “So what”. All that tells me is that there are multiple dimensions to our ignorance of the world.
But how can we be ignorant? After all, we have the internet! And as a Californian, surely we know everything worth knowing. But this is not true. Mother Vine is an effort to confront my ignorance, our ignorance, head on.
Let me tell you a story before the film begins. Exploring the Alentejo one brilliant September morning, we happened to see a man driving a tractor loaded with wine grapes. With an aggression characteristic of the Hollywood tribe, or a typical American impatience, I told Virgilio, “Stop! Go back! We’ve got to shoot that guy!” Virgilio put all of our lives at risk (quite thrilling, really) and executed a neat 180 degree turn in the middle of the narrow road. When we stopped alongside the road, I told my producer, Liliana Mascate, to stand in the tractor’s way, flag him down, while my cameraman, Nuno Sequeira, quickly set up the camera. The driver probably thought we were highway robbers, but he worked with us and we got the shot.
Later in the day, in a Vila Alva cafe/bar, a man approached me and said in perfectly accented English, “Remember me?” It was the tractor driver. Now, hearing only Portuguese in that bar, in a hundred bars, I racked my brain for the Portuguese phrase ‘remember me’. Then it dawned on me that he was speaking English!
But he needn’t have wondered. I remembered him. For without him and 100s of others we met and filmed, we would have no documentary to show this evening. So I ask all of you here tonight, remember these people you are about to meet; remember their words, the images of their dignified labors. And after the film you will have an opportunity to taste their wines. Rooted in difference and originality, their wines will tell you, forcefully, with clarity, just why we made Mother Vine. Thank you.