Johannes Schmitz isn’t your typical Moselian, his Rebenhof winery on the southern edge of Ürzig is testimony to that. In contrast to an otherwise traditional Mosel village his glass, steel and concrete monument to the 21st Century proudly pronounces the establishment as a “Riesling Manufaktur”.
As a self-confessed Riesling lover I’ve known about Ürzig and its Würzgarten (Spice Garden) vineyard for many years, so I was thrilled when I saw the name appear on the Sat-Nav screen as I drove up the Mosel, heading for the town of Bernkastel-Keus. The scenery matches much of the region – slopes with impossible angles rising from the riverside, carpeted with vines – but stands out more than most with gashes of red on the cliff-face as the river loops past the village of Erden, on the opposite bank (famous for its Prälat and Treppchen vineyards).
It’s the rock colour that helps make Ürzig wines distinctive from the neighbours; the Würzgarten grows on Permian (299 to 251Mya) sandstone, volcanic rhyolite and red Slate, contrasting the primarily Devonian (416 to 359Mya) blue-grey slate that much of the Mosel (-Saar-Ruwer) sits atop. The dark, iron-rich soil retains heat well and affects Riesling’s flavour profile, giving an earthy spiciness that explains the vineyard name.
A short walk around the village initially didn’t throw any surprises;
— Steep Riesling vineyards … check
— Quaint, old-style houses, narrow streets and alleyways … check
— Traditional, Gothic script “Weingut” frontage signs … check
— Everything looking shut even though it’s Saturday afternoon … check!
After a good hour wandering we ended up on Hüwel street, on the southern edge of the village, and the last building suddenly came into view with banner-flags flying, a patio-style seating area out front and framed by vines on the slopes behind. Intrigued by this sharp contrast of modernity plus the fact that it was clearly open for business (people visible at the tasting bar confirmed this, a bonus of glass fronted buildings!) I walked in and let the tasting begin.
A charming woman obligingly poured a first glass and we exchanged pleasantries in her broken English and my broken German, but when I started asking some more involved questions she hesitated, clearly not completely comfortable with the language, and called over a man to take her place at the bar. This turned out to be Johannes Schmitz, the owner and winemaker of Rebenhof (the woman was Doris Schmitz, his wife) who was more confident with English and we quickly got talking about each of the wines he poured, as well as the winery and winemaking.
Rebenhof (literal translation, Vineyard) was founded in 1875 or 1884 (depending where you read) but it wasn’t until 1990 that its current incarnation began when Johannes took over from his father, Paul. There are 4.4 hectares producing 35-40,000 bottles of Riesling with an average vine age of 60 years, although some are over a century old. 80% of the plantings are on original, ungrafted rootstock with average yields of 65hl/ha – the Kabinett often comes in at 80hl/ha while the Alte Reben (Old Vine, from 80+ y.o. plants) is less than 40hl/ha.
Normal harvest time is late October, however, in line with other European wine regions, the 2011 harvest is likely to be early with the Riesling grapes already 4-5 weeks ahead of normal development, as discussed in my last Greybeard’s Corner post.
I asked about the new building we were standing in, only opened last year, and the obvious difference to the rest of the village. Johannes is happy to admit he is not enough of a romantic to blindly follow tradition and practicality won out when expanding from the old building just down the street (which now doubles as a guesthouse). This modern business attitude is carried through into the winemaking and general running of the winery as well with the use of Stelvin closures and a high export rate of wines outside Germany. Unfortunately things like this haven’t made him too popular amongst his Ürzig peers – one can almost imagine the older generation gathering behind closed curtains complaining of this “upstart” and his new fangled ideas!
Unsurprisingly Johannes doesn’t shirk away from media attention either. Along with the likes of Ernst Loosen, Markus Molitor and others he is an outspoken critic of the controversial Hochmoselübergang bridge which will be painfully visible as it crosses the river just upstream from Ürzig. German speakers can read more of Schmitz in this anti-bridge article from the Stuttgarter Zeitung and see him talking about Rebenhof on a YouTube clip from earlier this year.
As for the wines, we tasted our way through a dozen different styles and vintages of Riesling starting with a dry Kabinett, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Von wurzelechten Reben (from ungrafted vines, 12% abv). This was the only reference in print to the 80% of all the Rebenhof vines being on original rootstock, a key marketing point for some other wineries but not for Schmitz who lets the wine quality speak for itself.
This had a creamy nose with a little perfume, a rich texture, a dry mid-palate with a little spice and a strong honey finish – a solid 3 star wine.
The 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken (12.5%) had a similar nose to the Kabinett with more concentration and a richer texture, a spritz at the front, more minerality and a long finish with a touch of honey at the end.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken Alte Reben (13.5%) had a deep, dark nose with dense flavours and an earthy rawness to it – a truly delicious 4 star wine. At 13.5%, it was a full percentage point higher partly due to the old vine grapes but also the 2010 vintage itself, something of an aberration in the region producing ultra low-yield wines compared to previous vintages. This was recently highlighted by Jon Bonné in his SFGate post “Germany’s Bizarro 2010 vintage” (memorable for the line “a vintage that wants to Taser me into appreciation”).
Next we moved up in residual sugar to the 2009 Vom Roten Schiefer Riesling Kabinett Feinherb (11%). Without the Würzgarten provenance Schmitz identifies the soil type as the wine’s selling point, Roten Schiefer being the famous red slate of the area. The wine had a clean yet creamy nose with good acidity to balance the increased sugar and a marked minerality.
Feinherb is simply a term used to denote wines of approximately 9 to 18g/l of residual sugar, replacing the less fashionable Halbtrocken (half-dry) in today’s marketing conscious world.
We stayed with that style with the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (11.5%) which had a warm, buttery nose with a sweet lemon & lime spritz at the front. This was a well balanced 3+ star wine with restrained sugar, a dry mid-palate, classic minerality and a grapefruit finish.
The vintage contrast became apparent with its younger sibling, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (13%). This was golden in the glass with a honey and candied tropical fruit nose, a big wine with more noticeable sugar to go along with the hike in alcohol. Unfortunately it didn’t have the elegance of the ’09 with the fuller flavours not marrying together, give it a few more years though and this could be superb.
We moved away from Ürzig as Johannes poured a taste of 2010 Grauer Schiefer Riesling, grown on the grey slate of the Lösnicher Försterlay vineyard further downstream. This was intended to contrast the Würzgarten and indeed showed a different fruit profile, sweeter and in a more easy drinking style, almost a palate cleanser for the high sugar wines about to follow, starting with
the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (9%).
This was much richer with a smoky nose and a pleasant fresh apple aspect along with its delicate sweetness.
Delicate was not an apt descriptor for the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (8%) which continued the theme of this vintage having extra depth. It was beautifully complex with a perfumed nose and a honeyed richness – another 4 star wine.
Then came the 2008 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese (9%), although, as the grapes were picked at -10ºC on 30th December, it met all the criteria for an Eiswein (but Schmitz didn’t want to label it as such, only putting “Kleine Eiswein” on the back label). This was a very dense wine with a sweet baked honey nose and a very long finish, another 4 stars.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese, Fass Nr. 12 (7.5%) was a more traditional Auselese with a tropical fruit nose. It was good, but I felt it suffered in comparison to the little Eiswein as it had a simpler sweetness.
Following the principle of saving the best until the end the final wine poured was simply superb, as long as you don’t mind a bit of sugar! The 4 star 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Beerenauslese showed candied fruit on the nose, deeply sweet but beautifully balanced with gentle elegance and preserved fruit flavours on a long finish. The wine had a long life ahead of it where it would develop greater complexity, but for now it coated the mouth with rich, sweet fruit.
Unfortunately for €45 a half-bottle this was too rich for my budget, almost twice the price of the ’08 Auslese (€24.50) and over three times as much as the various Alte Reben bottles (€13.50). Still, I happily put together a mixed 6 bottle case from these as I finished off interrogating Herr Schmitz for a few last facts.
I mentioned earlier that Rebenhof is unusual for many Mosel wineries as it exports the majority of its wines, 65% to be precise as far afield as Beijing and Shanghai. Schmitz shows common sense here as well as he keeps each individual allocation small and spread over many countries to shield against the normal market fluctuations. It’s a principle that has saved him a lot of pain as, in 2002 & ’03, his US importer (based in Chicago) offered to take the entire production but Schmitz declined, which was just as well as the same importer hardly ordered a case in ’07 and ’08.
I finally closed my notebook, paid for my wine and left Johannes and Doris preparing for the arrival 100 guests that evening for a wine & dine party, another good use of that polished new building on the edge of Ürzig.
Gly(cine) phos(phon)ate (glyphosate), more commonly known as Roundup, has been the herbicide of first resort for farmers, horticulturist, conventional home gardeners, golf course greens managers, even the US government’s coca eradication efforts in South America (op cit.). And vineyards. According to the most recent figures I’ve been able to find, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage Report 2006-2007, Glyphosate is the most popular broad spectrum herbicide used in the agricultural sector of the United States. From 2001, when an estimated 85-90 million pounds of the active ingredient were applied, to 180-185 million pounds used in 2007, Glyphosate has dominated the broad spectrum market, with Atrazine a distant second.
And there is a reason for Atrazine’s second place showing.
“Atrazine, 2-chloro-4-(ethylamino)-6-(isopropylamino)-s-triazine, an organic compound consisting of an s-triazine-ring is a widely used herbicide. Its use is controversial due to widespread contamination in drinking water and its associations with birth defects and menstrual problems when consumed by humans at concentrations below government standards. Although it has been banned in the European Union, it is still one of the most widely used herbicides in the world.”
Monsanto, Glyphosate’s company of origin (their exclusive patent expired in 2000), has long maintained the safety to both the environment and human health of the product they’ve marketed as Roundup since the 1970s. Indeed, so successful has been the multinational’s public relations campaign that even the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), reliant upon the much vaunted University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program accepts its use in vineyards. From CSWA’s Grower’s Guide.
“‘Integrated pest management (IPM) is an integral part of any sustainable farming program,’ as explained in the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices (SWP Workbook, page 6-1.) IPM is an approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks (National Coalition on Integrated Pest Management, 1994). IPM is relevant for all farming systems, including organic and biodynamic systems.”
The Grower’s Guide goes on to insist that,
“IPM does not provide standardized prescriptions. In fact, the application of IPM changes in time and space, as pest managers adjust to circumstances. Nevertheless, IPM always is a knowledge-based, multi-faceted approach that safely maintains pests at sub-economic levels. IPM programs emphasize preventive, ecologically-based methods first. Good IPM practitioner improve over time, as their knowledge increases (SWP Workbook, page 6-1).”
Please note the comment above that IPM is knowledge-based; that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases. So what does the IPM recommend concerning the use of Glyphosate in vineyards? It appears to be their herbicide of choice for vineyard site preparation and established weeds. The IPM shares a grim rhetorical flourish also found in industrial or conventional agriculture: that the use of Glyphosate is a kind of “chemical mowing”.
With Monsanto’s history of reassurance as to the safety of Glyphosate, why cite as ‘grim’ IPM’s reference to its use as chemical mowing? Well, because IPM’s continued recommendation of Glyphosate’s is not sustainable. And here are the reasons why.
As has been widely reported, at least since 2005, that Glyphosate is responsible for what are now popularly known as superweeds. From The New York Times to a June, 2011 report written by Greenpeace, a scientific consensus is emerging as to the reality of superweeds. Perhaps listening to farmers might also be of assistance, as this short documentary, Farmer To Farmer does.
No doubt, the evolution of superweeds has been greatly accelerated by Monsanto’s creation of so-called Roundup Ready crops.
“Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near ubiquitous use of Roundup has led to rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds. Farmers throughout the East, Midwest, and South have been forced to spray their fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand, and return to more labor intensive methods like regular plowing as a result of the RR superweeds. ‘We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,’ said Eddie Anderson, a farmer from Tennessee, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years.” (op. cit. New York Times, May 3, 2010)
But the development of superweeds vis à vis Roundup Ready corps aside, it remains a basic principle of evolutionary science that the overuse of any given pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide will eventually result in an acquired resistance among targeted life forms.
Although still far from settled, the science is becoming clearer that Glyphosate is somehow associated with birth defects, according to an excellent comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature conducted by the organization, Earth Open Source (website forthcoming).
POLITICAL EROSION OF SOUND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE
In a recent WIRED article, Genetically Modified Grass Could Make Superweed Problem Worse, Brandon Keim writes
“On July 1 — a Friday afternoon, a time usually reserved for potentially controversial news — the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Scotts Miracle-Gro’s herbicide-resistant Kentucky bluegrass would be exempt from tests typically required of transgenic crops.”
Based on a New York Times article, the article makes clear that a very specific regulatory failure has allowed to the USDA to approve a Roundup Ready, genetically modified species of Kentucky Blue grass with no environmental regulation. The reason for this rests upon a history of political expedience and a failure of the imagination. Specific statutory protections are simply absent. In Tom Philpott’s excellent, must read, Wait, Did the USDA Just Deregulate All New Genetically Modified Crops?, he writes,
“Long story short, it means that the USDA theoretically regulates new GMO crops the same way it would regulate, say, a backyard gardener’s new crossbred squash variety. Which is to say, it really doesn’t.”
Without new legislation, we as citizens, will very quickly losing the few legal remedies that allow us resist the further contamination of the natural world by genetically modified crops. Of course, Roundup Ready plants and Glyphosate are just part of a larger story, but it is certainly true that science cannot properly be done absent the political will to implement the findings.
And this brings me to my final point. Inasmuch as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance insists, seemingly in keeping with IPM’s a guiding principles, that its approach is indeed knowledge-based, that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases, then, in light of the material linked above, what is to become of Glyphosate’s listing as a viable tool for sustainable winegrowers? The time has come, this writer believes, to remove this chemical from consideration. It cannot be part of any sustainable practice. The science does not support it. Very simple.
The 2011 harvest in both hemispheres dominates the recent wine news while Germany fills up a large part of my own wine experiences in this month’s Corner post.
Wine News: Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. When I first heard of the shocking vandalism at the Terroir Al Limit winery in Priorat it was hard to believe, with tanks opened to let wine drain away and bleach added to others. CataVino were one of the first to publicize the news from the Blogoshpere on the 19th June (the deed was carried out on the 13th) but other than the expected round of condemnation from the wine world (and speculation on the wine forums) it looks as though there is no idea who did this or why. For me and many wine lovers this is akin to book burning and I hope that justice will eventually catch up with the perpetrators.
New Zealand released figures showing the 2011 harvest was 23% up on 2010 coupled with a healthy increase in global sales over the last year. The potential quality of 2011 is high, adding to the positive spin given by the New Zealand media with South Island and Sauvignon Blanc contributing most to the growth – Marlborough itself saw a 34% rise in the harvest.
Harpers also reported on Australia’s bumper (sic) harvest – a rise of 1% on 2010. While not as dramatic as New Zealand’s figures it is accepted that Australia has an oversupply problem which won’t be helped by the news.
While the 2 New World neighbours share harvest increases the two original old world neighbours, France & Italy, traded places in 2010 with the Italians now the world’s largest wine producer.
Though French production may be falling the 2011 grapes are doing their best to get here faster than normal with Decanter reporting on Bordeaux and Burgundy producers preparing for harvesting to begin at the end of August, while in Champagne there is even talk of mid-August if the clement weather continues.
The same seems to be true of England and Germany as well, the latter I can personally testify after my mid-month visit to the Mosel where one Ürzig winemaker confirmed the grapes were 4-5 weeks ahead of their normal development and an August harvest is on the cards.
The Mosel also got a mention in the media with Wine Spectator running a piece on the controversial Hochmoselübergang. The Spectator has joined the debate late in the day and as the dust is starting to settle – Decanter have been running the story since January 2010 and, sadly, the green light for construction has been given – but at least that means they can cover all the pertinent facts of the story.
Finally in France the Saint Emilion debacle looks to have been resolved with the French government finally approving the revised classification system 6 months after the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) initially announced the new regulations and a full 5 years after the disastrous 2006 classification which saw bitter infighting between Saint Emilion producers and compromised the whole system.
The new classification will be managed by an independent panel (i.e. not from Bordeaux) and includes evaluation of Chateaux reputation, terroir and production methods but will be heavily based on blind tasting of recent vintages. Nick Stephens review on his Bordeaux Undiscovered blog provides plenty of additional information.
June for me meant Germany…. to be precise the small town of Wetzlar, near Giessen. I was encamped there for 2 weeks on business and managed to expand on my German wine education in the process. Central to this was a weekend in the Mosel, driving from Koblenz on the Rhine along the river road stopping at Cochem, Ürzig and Bernkastel-Keus.
This is an intensely beautiful part of the world with ancient riverside towns watched over by Medieval castles, insanely steep vineyards and a relatively relaxed take on life. Riesling was at the heart of the wine experience, the region favours this noble variety with 50% of total Mosel production, but far higher for the Quality wines and almost 100% for many producers with prime vineyards. The Spring frosts that decimated many German wine regions didn’t affect the steep vineyards, so quantity is good along with the early growth already mentioned – by late June some of the Riesling bunches were beginning to hang, the weight of the grapes too much to resist the pull of gravity.
The short visit was crowned with a superb tasting at Ürzig producer Rebenhof, where winemaker Johannes Schmitz poured and talked through a dozen of his different offerings from the Ürziger Würzgarten vineyard, including a sublime 4-star 2009 Beerenauslese. I’m preparing a separate post on that tasting.
Back in Wetzlar and local restaurant Malcomess provided a broad range of German wines to accompany a delicious tasting menu (especially the trio of Kid). The restaurant is run by husband and wife team Kai & Manuela Malcomess and it was Kai who gave a brief description of each wine served, including a creamy 2009 Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) by Weinhaus Jochim and a young but structured 2008 Spätburgunder by Markus Schneider. What was also intriguing was that all the wines were served in The Gabriel Glas, the first time I’ve seen this “one for all” wine glass (made by the Austrian glass manufacturer Quatron) which is meant to enhance the aromas and flavours regardless of wine style or colour. Kai brought out one of the previous glasses they used to use in the restaurant (a Schott Zweisel) for a quick comparison test and I have to admit the Gabriel Glas(s) did give a fuller nose, bringing out the fruit more.
An enjoyable bookend to the trip were the lounge wines on offer at Amsterdam Schiphol airport during my transfers between Newcastle and Frankfurt. ?On the way out the Villa Maria 2009 Pinot Noir was light and fruity with just a touch of smoky vegetation, a more autumnal colour than I’d have expected for an ’09 with light forest fruit flavours, but true to the variety.?Coming back and it was across the Tasman sea to Australia with Ben Glaetzer’s 2008 Heartland Cabernet Sauvignon; a dense, syrupy wine with immense fruit (predominantly cassis) and a touch of mint. This was almost too much for me, a big wine with a slightly confected feel to all that dark fruit, only a basic tannin structure and a 14.5% abv which gave a warm finish – pleasant enough, but only for a small glass or two and it would struggle with food.
North East Wine: Unfortunately while I was away I missed the monthly NEWTS meeting – a Spanish tasting given by venerable member Harry Rose, whose previous tasting on the red wines of the Western Languedoc was my first ever meeting. Luckily local retailer PortoVino had their summer tasting at the end of the month where I could catch up with fellow North East oenophiles over a glass or three of Portuguese vinho – the 2006 Falcoaria by Quinta do Casal Branco was my favourite red of the evening.
A weekend in the Mosel meant that my purchases were always going to be dominated by Riesling and I returned home with 5 bottles in my luggage; a selection of Ürziger Würzgarten all from Rebenhof, including their 2008 Auslese which was harvested to Eiswein standards.
There were only 4 other incoming wines bought in the UK over June; Dow’s 1999 Quinta do Bomfim Port, California’s Seghesio 2009 Arneis & Bogle Vineyards 2008 Petite Sirah, and yet another Riesling with the Cono Sur 2008 Riesling Reserva from Chile.
Drinking at home was also reduced, the most notable being a La Motte 2005 Shiraz from the Franschhoek Valley in South Africa, a wine which blossomed after being opened for 24 hours with spicy tar, fine tannins and juicy acidity. Also worth mentioning was the Cave de Turckheim 2008 Pinot Gris Reserve from Alsace, with classically rich, not-quite-sweet grapefruit aspects and a great waxy texture.
Cellar Trivia: The arrival of the batch of Riesling got me looking at the breakdown of my home collection (currently standing at just over 150 bottles) compared to a couple of years ago. White is now up from 21% to 26%, while reds are down from 63% to 53%, confirming my thoughts that I’m not buying as much red as I used to. Biggest change is the doubling of fortified and sweet wines from just under 7% 2 years ago to just over 13% now, with a similar increase in Sparkling and Rosé (but they only make up 3% of my current stash). I don’t know if it’s a typical phase, but I’m definitely enjoying more non-red wines than ever before.
I’ll bring this month’s post to a close with the usual look forward to key wine events coming up, which are pretty much U.S. dominated;
—July 14-16 sees the California Wine Festival hit Santa Barbera showing a range of wines from all over the state.
—July 15-17 jumps over to the East Coast for the Finger Lakes Wine Festival in Watkins Glen, New York, showcasing 600 wines from 80 wineries.
—July 22nd-24th it’s the 4th North American Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia. Safe journey and well wishes to all those attending.
—July 29-31st is the 2011 International Pinot Noir Celebration from McMinnville, Oregon, with over 70 international Pinot noir producers at this 25th anniversary festival.
—August 13th and for anyone in Northern California you could do worse than head to the 19th Annual Winemakers’ Celebration in the picturesque town of Carmel for a taste of Monterey Wine with 40 local wineries on show.
Otherwise August looks remarkably quiet (well, maybe not for the European grape growers!) although there are a couple of wine competitions which have entry closing dates;
—5th August is the closing date for the 2011 New Zealand International Wine Show, with the judging on 15th- 17th August.
—The 2011 International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) still has its Southern Hemisphere section to do, with August closing dates for the South American, Australian and New Zealand section (entries for the South African judging are now closed).
We’re well and truly into summer now and, for the Northern Hemisphere, the 2011 harvest is fast approaching (faster than usual in many places). For everyone getting ready for the start of the “mad period” in the vineyards and wineries I wish you a few more weeks of relative calm.