Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 2) – In memory of Philip Eyres

This is the second installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship evening in the Vintners Hall in London on January 29th. To fully grasp the context of the below it would help to scroll down and read my previous posting (Part 1) before this one. Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) was not only a great wine merchant, he was also a man with a strong sense of justice and great compassion. I spoke about these things on that evening, both because I had promised him that I wouldn’t let this subject drop and the Vintners Hall is the home of the Establishment of the British wine trade.

Then something Philip Eyres did 10 years ago changed everything. Harry Eyres describes this so well in his Slow Lane column in the (London) Financial Times of March 12th/13th 2005 (pictured above) that I will read the first half of his column (I pick up newspaper clipping and begin to read).

“HUMANITY’S VEIL OF DARKNESS

On the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden last month my father quietly brought out a black and white photograph. It showed a long street reduced to rubble, with no building standing higher than the first story, and most completely flattened. As he made no comment, my sister remarked that it looked like Hiroshima. No, it wasn’t Hiroshima, my father informed us, it was Hamburg in 1946. He had taken the photograph while serving in the Allied army of occupation. The RAF bombing raids on Hamburg in July 1943 practically demolished Germany’s second-largest city. More than 40,000 people died (probably more than were killed in Dresden) during the three nights in July 1943 when the firestorms reached 1,000 degrees centigrade. Three years later the city was still a wasteland.

Seeing the almost unimaginable destruction wrought on Hamburg as a young man of 20 had a profound effect upon my father. He is no supporter (unlike many British people of his generation I have spoken to) of Air Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. He does not agree with the sentiment expressed by the present British ambassador to Germany that in the context of the war the raids on German cities were justified. Nothing, for him and for Slaughterhouse Five author Kurt Vonnegut, can “justify” dropping incendiary bombs on people and turning them to sticks of carbon, a view I share.

One good thing that came out of my father’s posting in Germany at the end of the war was an enduring love of German wines. Later, as a wine merchant, my father made a specialty of the beautiful, delicate Riesling wines of the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, and Nahe rivers. For a number of years I used to go out with him, in the cool Rhineland-Palatinate spring, to taste the young wines at estates such as Maximin Grünhaus on the Ruwer, the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier (Karl Marx’s old school, which has a priceless dowry of vineyards) and the State Wine Domain at Niedershausen on the Nahe. I share his affection for these green-glinting wines, for the valleys with their gravity-defying vineyards and for the German wine growers and makes who approach their craft with the unselfish devotion of orchestral musicians. But I also realized that for my father were not simply about wine. They were a kind of reparation, a way of restoring Anglo-German amity through a cultural exchange based on the shared pleasure of wine. “ 

Suddenly, I realized that for 20 years I had unknowingly been involved in Philip Eyres personal campaign of reconciliation, and his work of reparation. I was immediately reminded of a conversation with a German wine journalist colleague, Pit Falkenstein, back in the summer of 1998. I had already known Pit for some years, but knew little about his life. On a walk through the vineyards of Assmannshausen in the Rheingau he told me his life story. (I put down newspaper clipping and pick up an email). Pit was born in Berlin in 1935. After the family home bas bombed out during the war they moved to a safe place, the Salzkammergut area of the Austrian Alps. Pit was sent to Stift Admont, a monastic boarding school. At Easter 1945 the food ran out and the monks sent the younger children home.

“There were many groups of four or five boys. A 13 year old lead our group…The trains were not running any more. I therefore marched the 60 kilometers to the Salzkammergut with my group in two and a half days. The two sandwiches each we were given at Admont were quickly eaten, because we were hungry. We slept in barns on hay and friendly farmers gave us plenty to eat. On the second day as we had almost made it to Tauplitz we were surprised in open fields by Spitfires. We were making our way up a hillside meadow between large rocks. We tried to reach the nearest piece of woodland, but didn’t make it. The British pilots shot mercilessly at us with their machineguns. We lay flat on the ground and were very lucky. Almost nothing happened to us. One friend of mine was grazed by a bullet on his right shoulder. The heel of my right shoe was blown off. Only some minutes later did I realize that my left hand was bleeding. A tiny piece of shrapnel from a bullet that had hit one of the rocks next to me and flown into my middle finger. To this day I carry this “trophy” around with me.

Stuart, why did those pilots do that?“

I was shocked by the story, but I also felt confused. What did it have to do with me? I was born in 1960 and my parents were children during the Second World War. Only much later did I realize that my maternal grandfather had been an electrician in the RAF and worked on fighter planes. Quite possibly he had serviced the planes that shot at Pit Falkenstein and his school chums.

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 0 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 1) – In memory of Philip Eyres

Here is the first installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship yesterday (Thursday, January 29th) evening at Vintners Hall in the City of London. Along with Hew Blair and Sebastian Thomas I was made a Riesling Fellow by Wines of Germany, which is kind of them, but not necessary as I don’t do this thing for prizes. More importantly, I was also invited to give a 15 minute talk while a wine I’d selected was served. I followed Jancis Robinson, David Motion and Hugh Johnson, and what I said caused quite a stink, but that didn’t surprise me. What I said was all true though, and I believe it’s far more important to speak an uncomfortable truth that has been swept under the carpet, than to be polite in return for polite applause. These are my opening remarks and they might seem uncontroversial, but were the foundation for all that followed. I think it’s worth noting that three symbols were to be seen all over Vintners Hall. The white swan, which an anthropologist would call the totem of the vintners tribe, was almost as ubiquitous as the lion and the unicorn. The latter are of course part of the coat of arms of the House of Windsor (the British royal family), and are vital symbols of the British Establishment. To this episode, like those that follow, I’ve added a few extra words to those I actually said, because I forgot one or two important details.

This evening each of us is telling reminiscences, but mine will be very different from the others. I have to show you my new book (I held up my book),  even though I’m not going to read anything from it, because in it the labels of the first wines – including Riesling – I ever drank with pleasure are reproduced.

Call from the audience: “is it in English?”

Yes, it is in English, and I think you should all be able to read the cover. The title, BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story, and it’s in English, in American English.

In the book I also tell how I came to drink those wines. (I put down my book). It was April 1975, I was 15 years old and on a language exchange to Germany. I didn’t get on with my exchange partner at all, but that didn’t matter because I got on so well with his family. They lived in a bungalow in a suburb of Ludwigshafen and when I arrived they showed me around. Last stop was the kitchen where the father of the family swung open the refrigerator revealing rows of beer and wine bottles. Then, he said a magical word, “Selbstbedienung”, or self-service. I did so frequently during my stay, enjoyed what I drank and was rarely more than slightly hung-over.

The wine that’s just being poured for you is the 2012 Kupfergrube dry Riesling GG from Gut Hermannsberg, to which I’ll come in a moment. It might seem a banal thing to say, but wine connects us. Most obviously, this wine now connects us all, because we are tasting and drinking it together. Of course, this is the same kind of connection as between a group of people at a dinner table or in a bar who share a bottle. However, beyond that banal level the wine in the glass connects us with the place where it grew and the people who made it.

In this case, it not also connects us with Dr. Christine Dinse and Jens Reidel who purchased the ex-Nahe State Domaine in 2009, and with Karsten Peter, the young winemaker from the Pfalz they hired. Of course, he has a team under him and it also links us to them, to the Nahe wine region and to Germany as a whole (both can be found on the label). Beyond that it connects us with the convict laborers who in 1902 started clearing the scrub  around a disused copper mine to build the terraces of this now famous vineyard site and plant it as part of the Prussian Wine Domaine of Niederhausen-Schlossböckelheim, and with those responsible for the first ever vintage of dry Kupfergrube Riesling in 1912. When we choose to drink a wine, then we choose to make those connections, although few people take the trouble to follow the connections in the kind of detail I just have. Of course, you can also choose not to drink and not to make that connection, for example, with Germany.

My direct personal connection with this wine goes back to a sunny day in May 1984 when I first visited the then Nahe State Domaine for the first time with British wine merchant Philip Eyres (pictured above, right). He had invited me to join him, his wife Jennifer and his son Harry (pictured above, left) for a week on one of his regular wine buying trips to the Mosel, Nahe and Pfalz. During that trip it was this tasting which made the greatest impression, and it was the drier and sweet Rieslings from the Kupfergrube vineyard site that etched themselves into my memory.

If there was a moment that I started on my present course, then that was it. Over the last days I was in the Mosel, Nahe and Rheinhessen visiting wine producers and tasting their wines, much as I did during that week. For more than 20 years I kept on that course in a thoughtless way. By this I certainly don’t mean that I didn’t think while I was tasting German wines and talking to the winemakers responsible for them, rather that I didn’t think about why I was doing it. During this time I think it’s fair to say that the success of my articles and books – I mean of each individual work – ranged from negligible to modest. However, there was a cumulative success of sorts, without which I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today…

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

 

 

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Mosel & Rhine Diary: Day 2 – Let #Riesling & Music do for You What They do for Me

New York somm Peter Weltman was still under age – shock, horror! – when he drank his first Riesling back in 2004. It was a Spätlese from J. J. Prüm in Wehlen/Mosel, probably from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr site that owes it’s global fame to the Prüm family. The photo above shows him in front of that site early this morning. Yesterday J. J. Prüm was our first appointment and we tasted the 2012s and 2013s with Dr. Manfred and Amei Prüm, which are exciting, but very contrasting wines (the 2012s are elegant and graceful, the 2013s much more racy and mineral with quite a challenging acidity). I first visited J.J. Prüm back in May 1984, so this was some kind of double anniversary, for Peter a 10 year one and for me a 30 year one. However, as I recently observed, sheer age doesn’t make wine or anything else more important.

From this and the photo you can tell that there’s a generational gap between us, but this is one of those friendships where I only really feel as a distance when we talk about something that was new for the young me and therefore before Peter’s time. For differing personal reasons, but in the same basic way, the Rieslings of J.J. Prüm and the jazz piano playing of Bill Evans are things which bridge this generational gap. Wine, like music, bridges distances between people both in space (for example Mosel wines being drunk in New York or Berlin) and in time (the age difference between Peter and I or any other two people). This is because wine and music are “abstract”, that is they don’t have an obvious content – song lyrics are content, but often not consumed as such, particularly by people with other mother tongues. They touch us emotionally, that is they connect directly with the traces intense experiences in the past left in us. This is something fundamental to being human that has nothing to do with the intellectual side of us, but of course connects with that too. I think that’s enough philosophy for one grey, winter morning!

If you look closely at the photo it shows something that a lot of wine books talk about, but you can seldom actually see. The snow melts first in the best vineyards, because they have the best exposure to the sun and are warmer for other reasons too (lower altitude, less exposed to cold wind, etc). You can clearly see that the lowest third of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr is the best part of the site, and that’s where most of the best Rieslings we tasted at J.J. Prüm came from. Some aspects of wine, like the way it connects with our memories and emotions are very difficult to analyze, while others such as this are rather easy to explain and grasp. This combination is what makes my job so endlessly fascinating. Every day that gives me a Riesling to live.

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Mosel & Rhine Riesling Diary: Day 0 – “Schaefer” is a Magical Word in the Riesling Vocabulary

NYC somm Peter Weltman (left) was lucky that Christoph Schaefer of the Willi Schaefer estate in Graach/Mosel (right) was the first winemaker he ever visited in Germany. What better place could there be to start deep immersion in the world of this nation’s Rieslings than here at Willi Schaefer with some of the most delicate and intense, archetypal and lovable (A&L) wines from my favorite grape. That last pair of descriptors says everything about what makes these wines so different from the great majority of the world’s best wines. How many of them are really A&L? Mostly they’re either A or L and don’t have much of the other to offer, at least no to the high degree that is possible with German Rieslings when they are of the calibre of the Willi Schaefer wines. Personally the wines I tend to enjoy least are those which are over-loaded with the archetypal thing to the point of being enormously self-important. The phrase “icon wines” describes this kind of untouchable vinous monuments to themselves perfectly. Icons are there to be venerated and are so holy you could never feel something as simple as love for them. There is none of this pomposity to the Schaefer Rieslings, rather they speak directly to you, welcome love and calmly accept statements like, “sorry, not my thing.”

I don’t think the fact that a wine has reached a great age is really a criterium for judging its quality, because I’ve had some really sensational tasting wines that were extremely young (for example the 2013 de Fleveaux Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa – and I promise you that normally I hate Sauvignon Blanc). However, when joyful and subtle young Rieslings of the kind the Schaefer’s have been making for generations get the opportunity to age for the equivalent of a generation, like the bottles in the Schaefers Schatzkammer pictured above, then they can taste simultaneously mysterious and sexy. That’s the way the 1976 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese was this evening, as well as tasting mellow and creamy, yet very alive and enticing. Tasting this wine persuaded me that I must work much harder to live a healthy life so that I will still be around to experience the literally brilliant 2013s from Willi Schaefer reach the same kind of age. Please don’t lead me astray from the true path of Riesling!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 9 – My Romantic / Obsessive-Compulsive Wine Cellar

I’m often asked about my wine cellar, and sometimes I can see from the way the eyes of my questioner glaze over that they’re expecting something which looks like the crypt of a cathedral or at the least the cellar of a Medieval castle in Scotland. They want cobwebs and the dust of centuries, also at least a few rare and exceptional bottles of the kind even serious wine collectors can only dream about. In short, it should be a dark and damp Wine Heaven on Earth illuminated only by a few flickering candles! The few people I actually took down there were therefore seriously disappointed when they found what you can see above: rows of plastic crates and cases between concrete walls with no hint of stone, wood, much less any serious cobwebs. The only dust is from the plaster on the walls and ceiling crumbling, the only light is from fluorescent tubes of the standard kind.

But for me it is still a romantic place, because of the wine in the bottles. In his poem ‘L’ame du vin’ Charles Baudelaire wrote about the soul of wine being imprisoned behind the glass of the bottle, waiting to be released by the drinker, and that’s exactly how I see it today. Of course, some of this is also in my mind in the form of memories of the people who made those wines, the places the grapes grew, and situations in which I previously experienced them. What you see is just packaging (at the front of the picture literally so, those being the labels of Keller in Flörsheim-Dalsheim/Rheinhessen and of Sinß in Windesheim/Nahe). Frankly, that is all ballast weighing the wines down. I dread to think what the carbon footprint of all the glass bottles in my cellar is (of course, I recycle), and hope one day a better technical solution will be found. Some are ridiculously and unnecessarily heavy, particularly those for the GGs (Großes Gewächs). VDP please take note and address this problem, because currently you’re in denial!

The other thing which immediately strikes me when I go into my cellar is that there is a ton of wine in there, maybe 2,000 bottles (my list isn’t complete so I can’t calculate exactly). Is this too much? The library function of my cellar is undeniable and it really does help me build up a picture of how the important wines of earlier vintages taste now, which also tells me something useful about the producers responsible for them. Of course, that’s all good for my work as a wine journalist. However, in retrospect, there was a time when I took it all too far. By that I mean there was an obsessive-compulsive aspect to my wine purchases. If you suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD is the correct name not the widely-used OCD), or have a close friend/relative who suffers, then you know what I’m talking about. If not I promise you that suffering impacts many parts of your life. I’m trying to overcome, or at least, to seriously dampen down this side of my personality, so I’ve put much less wine in the cellar the last couple of years.

And, yes, I did buy almost all the wine that went into this cellar. Winegrowers who sent wine presents that went beyond one bottle at Christmas received bottles from me in return and/or dinner invitations which included wine from my cellar. A couple of wine merchants sent me single expensive bottles, generally of French wine. These were always put to good use in blind tastings. The only wines I ever asked producers for were samples for specific tastings, and that is a strict policy. A lot of wine from this cellar was poured without charge at charity events in Germany and New York. I am not perfect, nor can I be, but I try to be straight, fair and, most importantly, to share.

 

 

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London Riesling Diary: Day 2 – England’s Violent Dreaming

I would be hard to find a more boring scene to present to you than the above corner of Bromley, the London suburb where I – also David Bowie – come from. The point is that I could have used another photo taken in another part of the Great London Area that would have been virtually indistinguishable from this one. It was a bland place when I grew up there, but it has become much more bland since then. Every time I come here to visit my mother this simple fact shocks me again. However, that’s not all I experience when I’m suddenly immersed in the world I turned my back on a quarter of a century ago. There’s a very different, parallel shock I experience through the British media and on the streets. This results from the fact of, acceptance and glorification of violence. The only place I was ever violently attacked was on a street corner in London almost indistinguishable from the above. Thankfully a friend pulled my drunken attacker from me after he’d landed only one blow to my head and a young woman who saw what happened stopped her car and rescued us before the youth’s friends could join him.

Bad as this kind of violence is, the way, for example, the British media make bombing Iraq seem the most natural and moral thing to do is worse still. That British troops first entered the territory that is now Iraq (then a province of the Ottoman Empire) just over a century ago on November 6th, 1914 and was it occupied by the British again (although it was then a neutral country) during WWII is forgotten. The standard formula British politicians use for this kind of forgetting is, “it’s time to move on,” and their catch-all motto for our participation in military adventures far from these shores is that we must, “punch above our weight,” in world affairs. George Orwell had some pertinent words to describe this kind of talk: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

Of course, in the leafy suburbia where I grew up all was and is not evil. And it was here that I developed my own way of looking at the world. A good part of British creativity – also, for example, David Bowie’s music – grows out of this leafy suburbia, that is a reaction against it that would be impossible without it. If you doubt the relevance of my words to David Bowie’s music I suggest you listen to ‘Life from Mars’ on the ‘Hunky Dory’ album, which rather precisely describes the world he and I grew up in.

On rainy, grey winter days like today on which England looks all brown, grey and (absurdly for the season) very green I wish myself back to Berlin or New York where I feel free from the weight of British history’s ballast of violence. Of course, the histories of both Germany and America are also laden with ballast of the same kind, but there I feel a sense of detachment from it when I think about it, because those are not my national identities. Oddly, both those cities were also important for David Bowie. His album ‘Heroes’ was the soundtrack for my first immersion in Germany that same year, 1976. When ‘The Next Day’ suddenly came out in 2013 I immediately recognized the New York I was then exploring. Listening to it now it sounds doubly appealing due to the distance.

I will have more to say about England and Germany on January 29th. So watch this space on that day!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 36 – Arizona Dreaming – “There are no Facts, only interpretations”

A brief philosophical intro: There’s no way around the fact that the context (the natural and human aspects are so interwoven it’s almost impossible to separate them) in which a wine is produced shape it. However, there’s also no way around the fact that the context in which a wine is experienced no less radically shapes the experience of its smell and taste. A wine tasting in one location with one group of tasters is NOT going to lead to the result as the “same” tasting in another place with another group of tasters, not least because they will taste the location and the contents of their heads every bit as much as the wine in their glass. These too are so interwoven that you can hardly separate them. I write this listening to ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ from Nirvana, and I promise you that colors these words too, and it would do so differently if I was hearing it for the first time, rather than for the (still electrifying) thousandth time.

But now, let’s get down to business: Sunday afternoon I forgot all the above for a long moment, because I was focusing on the brass tacks of staging a blind tasting of wines from Arizona plus a couple of pirates from California and France at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg/Brooklyn for a group of New York somms (thanks again Alex Allan for the great support, both moral and practical). And that’s how I blindly sailed straight into the dark heart of a storm.

I didn’t begin realize what was happening until one of the somms politely asked me if the winegrowers of Arizona focussed on terroir, French for the taste of the place and NYC-Sommspeak for a taste that is indefinable – je ne sais quoi - in a simultaneously sexy and holy way. I politely pointed out to him how young the contemporary AZ wine industry, but I don’t think he has any idea how hard it is establishing vineyards in locations where there’s no previous generation who’s experiences you can draw upon. Terroir is a luxury for established winegrowers, or, at least, for winegrowers in regions that are well established. It’s also a method for selling wines more expensively (see the example of  Burgundy where the T-word enables some mediocre wines to be sold for fancy prices).

Only after that exchange did I sense how behind that question lurked the expectation – of course! was anything else even conceivable? – that the winegrowers of AZ would be focusing on terroir. You see, in France terroir is holy  and from there this religion has been spread around the world by French winegrowers, their importers and SOPEXA. With it has travelled a mythical France that is a timeless land of wine on the western edge of the wine continent of Europe which the Great God of Wine favored above all others. That this marketing strategy was successful is proven by the prices charged the famous wines of France, which bear no relation to the production costs of them. Of course, I deliberately exaggerate for effect, but also because this way you’ll pay more attention than if I was cautious and understated everything.

The tasting started quite well with a flight of three dry whites. However, when the the first reds – young wines made from the grapes of the Cabernet family – were poured something odd suddenly happened. NYC somms can have a knee-jerk reaction against the combination of the sweet fruity aromas of fully-ripe grapes plus clean, modern winemaking. These wines certainly smelt that way and provoked that knee-jerk reaction. To be fair, I would say that there was a touch of over-ripeness in all of them, that they would have been better without. But did this justify the force of those reactions? Some people seemed to feel they’d been insulted by the wines. In fact, they’d only tasted some wines of a style they personally don’t prefer.

I have to admit here that most of the AZ wines had tasted better to me when I was there in a more relaxed context that was undeniably friendly to them. Many also tasted quite a better and very different after 24 hours further aeration. For example, on the day of the tasting the 2012 “Gallia” from Saeculum Cellars (55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc) had quite an intense sweet redcurrant character, but the next day it was dominated by firm, dry tannins. I’m not arguing with the tasters characterizations, rather pointing out their  vehemence and how that inclined some present to pay less attention to the taste experience. Those somms may also have projected a high alcoholic content and lots of new oak onto the wines, because often in the big wide world of wine those sweet aromas are married to high alcohol and lots of new (in what used to be called “Parker Wines”, after the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr who liked that combination). The AZ wines actually had below 14% and were not full of new oak.

This situation repeated itself with the GSM (named after the combination of the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre grapes in a blend) flight, at which point the attention oif some somms was seriously wandering – we want funky terroir wines, and we want them now! – their comments becoming rudimentary, vague and dismissive. My experience is that at many blind tastings a mood is established early on and casts a show or an aura over all the wines that follow. I’ve been swept along by such moods myself, and am certainly not immune to that effect. In this case it was a deep shadow, as the grudging nature of the praise for impressive wines like the 2012 “Kitsune” (Sangiovese) and 2012 “Judith” (60% Tempranillo, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) from Caduceus Cellars made clear. With that latter wine the tasting ended with an at-least-its-finally-over-and-we’re-all-still-alive mood.

I don’t mind what any individual taster or drinker makes of a particular wine, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and opinions contrary to mine are welcome. My doubts about the tasting have to do with the influence of local culture (the NYC wine scene is no less an island than Manhattan is) and the role group dynamics. As Nietzsche wrote, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

An important conclusion for me: It was interesting to ride this ship through the storm and listen to all the screams (including my silent ones at a couple of moments). When I chewed it all over after I was back home, it became clear to me that my decision to make AZ as a major research project in 2015 is a daring one, and some people here will think me mad for pursuing it. My experience with Riesling has ably prepared me for being out on a limb (particularly when it was totally “out” 20 and more years ago). There’s iron in my soul! I shall proceed regardless of any and all reactions!

Full sail ahead!

 

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 31 – My American Wine Year Already Began

This is the first blog posting I’ve written straight into this slot without any plan for some time, and it sure feels good to be shooting from the hip again. Normally, I’m very cautious of using military or firearm metaphors, but this one fits my subject today (this first day of the so-called New Year of 2105) perfectly, because it’s so fundamentally American, and this really is My American Wine Year.

In fact, My American Wine Year began several months ago after I finished work on BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) / PLANET RIESLING (the German language edition from Tre Torri ). At that point it occurred to me that many of my best stories had either never been written down at all, or at least had never been told in English. Furthermore, nearly all of them took place in America, or had obvious American subjects. They span the entire period from my first eye-popping encounter with the US of A back in 1985, through many years of serious research and some serious craziness along the way, right up to the present. That’s the period during which wine entered mainstream American culture, the US became the world’s biggest wine consuming nation, and its entrepreneurial creativity eclipsed that of almost every competing wine producing nation.

That strikes me as a dynamite combo, and – what good luck! – the ideal basis for an outrageously true book about wine in America. Some new research will be necessary, but not so much that this new year I’ll have to be on the road for months at a go. However, I will be getting as close as possible, not only to the vines and cellars, but most importantly to my human subjects. This method is often called Gonzo Journalism, although you can just as well describe it as off-road deep-immersion, but whatever name you give it, this is the kind of searching for the truth and writing about it that I naturally gravitate to. To my mind, the best book anyone can possibly write is the one that converts their life directly into pages of text, and my goal with this project I’m calling #CBL is to do exactly that with myself immersed in Wine America big time.

It’s a little more than two years since I began spending a lot of time in the US both to intensively research the dramatic recent Riesling developments here (and in Canada) and to write BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH from an American perspective. Along the way I encountered a slew of exciting new wines made from other grape varieties, and many of the winemakers and vineyard locations responsible for them located were way outside the American Wine Box. None of these discoveries was more surprising and exciting than Arizona, which I visited in 2013 and ’14.

The usual reaction from Americans when  I mention of vineyards in Arizona is, “it’s way too hot for vines! That’s the desert!” Of course, Phoenix is one of the hottest places in the US and much of Arizona is desert, but this is nowhere near the whole story as the photograph taken by Maynard James Keenan of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards in Jerome/AZ today shows. The press trip to Arizona’s vineyards which he, a group of colleagues and Dada PR man David Furer organized in Mid-November was a turning point for my project. Not only did I write some of my best stories for this blog (scroll down and click on “older posts”), it also give me another great subject, and with that the basic plan for the book took much clearer shape. The serious work had begun, and that was seriously exciting: exactly the combination I look for.

Official Warning! : I just completed the first chapter of #CBL and it isn’t only outrageous, but dangerous too. Don’t worry though, this year you won’t be in acute danger, because I won’t complete the manuscript before the last days of August. That means it will be  a bit more than a year until it gets out into the big wide world in the form of print on paper an e-book where it can finally cause some real trouble. Then it will carry a parental advisory sticker to prevent harm being done to impressionable young people. The book will be a white-knuckle ride for adult readers and I feel responsible for young people, who are also the wine drinkers of the future. They may have to wait a bit longer to enjoy to the full.

Happy New Year!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 27 – RIESLING HEROES 2014 in Deutsch & English

Here, alternating in Deutsch and English, are my Riesling Heroes of 2014.

Riesling-Helden? Klingt das nicht abgedroschen? Vielleicht schon. The Stranglers haben 1977 sehr überzeugend „No More Heroes“, keine Helden mehr, gesungen. Dieses Lied gegen Helden begeistert mich heute wie damals. Die Stranglers hatten durchaus Recht, weil das 20. Jahrhundert der Welt ein Überangebot an Demagogen und idealistischen  Ungeheuern geliefert hat. Sie haben sich als Helden verkleidet ins Rampenlicht gestellt und Millionen von Menschen über den Tisch gezogen. Aber Riesling ist nicht Macht oder Ideologie, sondern ein besonderes Getränk, das Millionen von Menschen Freude bereitet. Meiner Meinung nach ist jemand, der sich hartnäckig und nachhaltig dafür einsetzt, diese Freude zu vergrößern Riesling-Held oder -Heldin. Weil die Leistung dieser Menschen eine größere Bekanntheit verdient, habe ich die Auszeichnung „Riesling Held(in) des Jahres“ ins Leben gerufen. Heute stelle ich die ersten Preisträger vor.

Riesling Heroes? Does that sound dated or clichéd? Maybe it does. The Stranglers famously sung “No More Heroes” back in 1977, a song seriously excited me back then and still does today. They were right. The 20th century gave the world an overdose of demagogues and idealistic monsters who dressed up in heroic garb, grabbed the spotlight and pulled the wool over millions of people’s eyes. However, Riesling isn’t power or ideology, it’s a remarkable beverage that gives enormous pleasure to millions of people. For me anyone who works long and hard to expand that joy against all the odds qualifies as a Riesling Hero. Because these people need to be more widely known I am creating a prize for the Riesling Hero(es) of the year and giving it today for the first time today.

Meine (oben abgebildeten) Riesling-Helden 2014 sind (von links nach rechts) Pascal Brooks, der Besitzer von Brooks Wines in Oregon, Janie Brooks Heuck, die Verwalterin, und Chris Williams,  der Winemaker. Pascal ist der Sohn des 2004 frühzeitig verstorbenen Gründers Jimi Brooks. Janie ist Jimis Schwester, die bis zu dessen Tod nichts von Wein verstanden hat, und Chris war zu Jimis Lebzeiten seine rechte Hand im Keller. Jetzt entwickelten sie gemeinschaftlich die besondere, von Jimi erfundene Weinstilistik weiter, vor allem bei Riesling und Pinot Noir. Ihre Geschichte habe ich ausführlich in PLANET RIESLING erzählt, aber sie ist damit nicht zur Ende.

My Riesling Heroes 2014, pictured above, are, from left to right, Pascal Brooks owner of the Books winery in Oregon, General Manager Janie Brooks Heuck and winemaker Chris Williams. Pascal is the son of founder Jimi Brooks, Janie is his sister, who prior to Jimi’s sudden death in 2004 knew nothing about wine, and Chris was Jimi’s assistant in the cellar. Together they continue to develop Jimi’s distinctive wine styles, particularly those for Pinot Noir and Riesling. I told their story at some length in BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH, but this story keeps developing.

Schon bevor mein Buch erschienen ist, hat Janie mit ihrer rechten Hand, Jess Pierce, die RIESLING INVASION in Portland/Oregon organisiert. Diese größte Präsentation von Oregon Riesling-Weinen aller Zeiten begeisterte am 19. Juli mehr als 300 Fans. An diesem Tag wurde mir klar, dass Oregon eine kompakte, aber äußerst dynamische Riesling-Szene hat, die von den Wein- und Gastro-Medien immer noch nicht richtig wahrgenommen wird. Den Grund dafür habe ich in meinem Buch „Pinot-Nebel“ genannt. Mehr als 60% der Gesamtrebfläche Oregons ist mit Pinot Noir bestockt, weitere 10% mit Pinot Gris. Zusammen lenken sie die Aufmerksamkeit der Konsumenten und Journalisten von Riesling und anderen Traubensorten ab.

Already before my book had appeared, together with her right hand woman Jess Pierce (officially she’s Director of Wine Education), Janie was planning the RIESLING INVASION event that took place in Portland/Oregon on Saturday, July 19th. It was the largest presentation of Oregon Rieslings ever and attracted a crowd of more than 300 fans. The event made plain to me how Oregon has a compact, but very dynamic Riesling scene to which the American wine and gastronomic media long paid too little attention. This is because of what I call in my book, “Pinot fog.” The dominance of Pinot Noir (more than 60% of the state’s vineyards!) and Pinot Gris (another 10%) in the Oregon wine industry seriously distract popular and media attention from Riesling, and everything else too.

Während dieses Oregon-Besuchs ist es mir auch klar geworden, dass das Brooks-Team nicht die einzigen Riesling  Helden in diesem Bundesstaat sind. Die Peterson-Nedrys der Chehalem Winery – Vater Harry (oben doppelt abgebildet) und seine Winemaker-Tochter Wynne – verdienen ebenfalls diese Auszeichnung. Und seit ein paar Jahren steht sie auch Andrea und James Frey von Trisaetum zu. Aber nur Janie Brooks Heuck ist so oft und so hartnäckig in Sache Oregon-Riesling unterwegs. Sie hat diese Weine zu einem Thema gemacht, das von den Mitgliedern der amerikanische Weinszene  nicht mehr leichtsinnig ignoriert werden kann.  Manche tun es trotzdem und geben dabei keine gute Figur ab.

During that visit to Oregon I also realized the Brooks team aren’t the only Riesling Heroes in this state. The Peterson-Nedrys of Chehalem Winery – father Harry (pictured above with his double) and winemaker daughter Wynne – have long deserved that accolade. And in the last couple of years Andrea and James Frey’s of the Triseatum winery have earned a claim to the title too. However, it is Janie who goes out on the road and makes a Big Noise about Oregon Rieslings that makes it almost impossible for people in the American wine scene to ignore them any more. Of course, some still do, but I think they end up looking a bit ridiculous.

Im stillen Kämmerlein des Kellers arbeitet Chris Williams weiter an der Verfeinerung der Brooks-Rieslinge.  Er hat das Sortiment in die zart-süße (die Spätlese-artige ‚Sweet P’) und süße (der mächtige und super-konzentrierte ‚Tethys’) Richtung erweitert. Staubtrockene Weine bleiben der Kern des Sortiments, und da setzt Chris so konsequent auf Spontangärung wie kaum ein anderer Riesling-Winemaker des Kontinents. Seine Weine sind Langläufer mit enormem Entwicklungspotential. Es gibt nur ein Handvoll trockener Weine auf dem PLANET RIESLING, die am Anfang ihres Lebens so karg und mineralisch wirken und durch Flaschenreife so viel Charme gewinnen. Diese Weine regelmäßig zurückzuhalten und erst auf den Markt zu bringen, wenn sie aufblühen, verlangt nicht nur starke Nerven, sondern auch einen Businessplan, der wie Janies extra darauf ausgerichtet ist.

Back at the ranch, Chris Williams has been quietly perfecting the Brooks Riesling and extending the range from its dry core into the medium-sweet (the deliciously succulent ‘Sweet P’) and  sweet (the unctuously concentrated ‘Tethys’) directions. Chris has strong principals that derive from his deceased mentor, and I don’t know any other Riesling winemaker in America who is so committed to wild ferments, or makes that work so well. His wines are all built for the long haul and have enormous ageing potential. I can’t think of more than a handful of other dry Rieslings on the planet that start life this austere and mineral, but gain so much charm as they age. Systematically holding these wines back and only releasing them when they begin to blossom requires not only strong nerves, but also the business plan Janie designed for that.

Neben der ganzen anderen Arbeit hat Janie den Betrieb im letzten Jahr durch eine große Umstellung gesteuert. Der alte Keller war nicht nur klein, er war viel zu klein für die Produktionsmenge und verlangte von Chris eine Meisterleistung an Improvisation. Inzwischen ist die geräumige neue Kellerei an der Spitze der Estate Vineyard in den Eola-Amity Hills im Betrieb.  Die Riesling-Helden 2014 haben eine neue Heimat!

The old Brooks winery was not just compact, it was tiny for the amount of wine that Chris Williams had to make there. I was amazed by his improvisational talent, without which this wouldn’t have been possible at all. On top of everything else going on during the last year Janie oversaw the construction of Brooks new winery at the top of their hillside Estate Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. The Riesling Heroes of 2014 have a new home!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 20 – RIESLING REVELATIONS 2014 in Deutsch & English

Here, alternating in Deutsch and English, are my highlights of 2014.

2014 war mein persönliches Riesling-Jahr: Ich habe mein Riesling-Buch fertiggeschrieben und einer durstigen Welt vorgestellt. BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH wurde im Juni in New York von Stewart, Tabori & Chang veröffentlicht, und PLANET RIESLING, die erweiterte deutschsprachige Ausgabe erschien vor wenigen Wochen im Tre Torri Verlag, Wiesbaden. Die Resonanz war überwiegend sehr positiv, am vergangenen Freitag gab es ein dickes Lob durch die israelische Zeitung Haaretz. Aber natürlich hat das Buch auch polarisiert. Nicht jeder versteht Riesling oder wird es je schaffen.

So muss es sein!

2014 was my Riesling year, that is the year in which I finished my Riesling book and presented it to a thirsty world. BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH was published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in New York in June, and the German-language edition (with a greatly extended chapter on Germany) PLANET RIESLING was published by Tre Torri early this month. The response to it has  mostly been very positive – just on Friday there was a rave review in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz! – but of course it has polarized opinion. Not everybody “gets” Riesling or my book, nor will they ever do so.

So be it!

Als mein Buch erschien, war es topaktuell, aber der PLANET RIESLING dreht sich so schnell, dass ich seither einige wichtige Entdeckungen machen konnte. Diese Weine werden als meine RIESLING REVELATIONS 2015 geehrt. Es gibt sie in fünf Kategorien, weil es fünf Riesling-Hitlisten in meinem Buch gibt: für die besten trockenen, feinherben, zartsüßen, süßen und „Bladerunner“-Rieslinge. Ein Bladerunner ist ein besonders gewagter Wein. Diese stilistische Vielfalt zählt zum wichtigen Kapital des Rieslings, obwohl es auch manche Konsumenten verwirrt.

So muss es sein!

Although my book was up-to-date at the moment of publication, the world of Riesling is very dynamic and I there made some exciting new discoveries after it appeared. It is these wines my RIESLING REVELATIONS 2015 honor. There are five of them, because at the back of this book are five hit-lists of the world’s best Riesling producers grouped by the four categories of the IRF Taste Profile – dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet and sweet – plus “Bladerunners” for pioneers and the daring. Of course, this stylistic diversity is both an asset for Riesling, but also confuses some people.

So be it!

DRY / TROCKEN:

2012 13th Street Vineyard Riesling – 13th Street in Catharines, Ontario/Canada

Die meisten Riesling-Weine von der Niagara-Halbinsel in Ontario sind feinherb oder zartsüß, weil hier die Säure in den Weinen fast immer sehr ausgeprägt ist. (Ja, Übersee-Rieslinge können noch mehr Säure besitzen als europäische Rieslinge!) Winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas ist mit diesem Wein der erste beeindruckende trockene Riesling des Gebiets gelungen. Erstmals habe ich diesen Wein September 2013 verkostet und seine überraschende Geschmeidigkeit in PLANET RIESLING gelobt. Seither hat er sich großartig entwickelt. Sein aromatischer Reichtum macht ihn jetzt zum besten trockenen kanadischen Riesling, den ich je erlebt habe. Der aus dem Burgund stammende Colas hat dieser Weinkategorie ein ganz neue Perspektive hinzugefügt. Zwar hat er darauf verzichtet, diesen Wein wie einen Chardonnay auszubauen, aber manche Ideen aus dieser ganz andere Welt des Weißweins hat er für den Riesling erfolgreich adaptiert.

Chapeau! Und der Wein ist noch für kanadische $23,95 ab Hof zu kaufen!

Most of the best Riesling wines from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario are medium-dry or seriously sweet, because these wines of this region are naturally full of acidity. Winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas has made the first great dry Riesling I encountered in Ontario. Although I first tasted the wine back in September 2013 and put it in my book, the wine has developed even better than I thought and now has an aromatic complexity that I never before found in a dry Canadian Riesling. That might not have been possible if Jean-Pierre hadn’t brought a fresh, Burgundian perspective to this challenge. However, he certainly hasn’t made this wine as if it were Burgundian Chardonnay, rather he adapted some of those techniques to this very different grape and climate.

Chapeau! This is still available from the winery for Canadian $23.95!

 

MEDIUM-DRY / FEINHERB:

2013 Riesling – Sphera in Kibbutz Gat, Judean Hills/Israel

Das Letzte, was ich in Israel erwartet habe, war ein eleganter Riesling. Denn das Klima ist „falsch” für diese Art von Weißwein. Das war meine feste Überzeugung. Dann hat mir Winemaker Doron Rav Hon von Sphera bewiesen, dass es mit der richtigen Lage (Nordhang) und einem sehr genauen Einsatz von Bewässerung möglich ist, sagenhafte Weine aus meiner Lieblingstraube zu erzeugen.  Die Aromen von weißen Blüten und nassem Laub, diese leichtfüßige und filigrane Art haben mich schwer an die Weinen aus Cool-Climate-Gebieten wie der Mosel erinnert. Als ich den Wein das erste mal im Oktober in Tel Aviv verkostete, war ich verführt, den Alkoholgehalt um mehrere Volumenprozent zu unterschätzen und die Süße des Weins genauso deutlich zu überschätzen. In der Tat hat der Wein ganze 13% Alkohol und nur etwa zehn  Gramm Restsüße/Liter. Nur ein visionärer Winzer wie Doron schafft es, solche bisher unerkannte Möglichkeiten ans Tageslicht zu bringen!

Leider war die Produktion ziemlich klein, und der Wein ist sehr schwierig aufzutreiben.

The last thing I was expecting to find in Israel was an elegant Riesling, because the climate is “wrong” for this kind of wine, or so I thought. However, with this wine Doron Rav Hon of Sphera has proven that with the right site (north-facing) and the precise use of irrigation it’s possible to achieve miracles with my favorite grape in Israel. What amazed me was that his wine has the aromas of white flowers and dripping leaves, plus the light-footedness and filigree I associate with the wines from cool climate Riesling regions like the Mosel. This lead me to underestimate the wine’s alcoholic content by several degrees and seriously overestimate its sweetness when I tasted it Tel Aviv in October. It actually has 13% of alcohol and roughly 10 grams/liter residual sweetness. It takes a visionary winegrower like Doron to uncover possibilities like these!

Sadly, this is a rather limited production wine that’s very difficult to find, even in Israel.

 

MEDIUM-SWEET  / ZARTSÜSS: 

2013 Oelsberg Riesling Spätlese Feinherb – Dr. Randolf Kauer in Bacharach, Mittelrhein/Germany

Seit mehr als 20 Jahren kenne ich Randolf Kauer, Professor für Ökoweinbau an der Wein-Uni in Geisenheim/Rheingau. Wie kann es dann bei ihm etwas wirklich Neues geben? Schon damals gelangen ihm einige erstaunliche herbe Rieslinge im Mini-Weingut in Bacharach im Süden des winzigen Mittelrhein-Gebiets. In PLANET RIESLING habe ich ihn für seine aktuellen Weine sowie für seinen Einsatz bei der Rekultivierung der terrassierten Spitzenlage Oberweseler Oelsberg gelobt. Seine ersten Weine aus dieser historischen Steillage waren genau so schlank, rassig und mineralisch wie seine anderen Rieslinge. 2013 hat er diesen überraschenden, zartsüßen Wein mit großartigem Schmelz, enormer Würze und fast ewig langem Finale erzeugt. Dieser Wein zeigt in eine ganz andere Richtung als alle anderen Mittelrhein-Weine die mir bisher begegnet sind. Übrigens, er stammt von jungen Reben!

Diese RIESLING REVELATION ist noch erhältlich, für Euro 12,50 ab Hof.

I’ve known Randolf Kauer, professor of organic winegrowing at the Geisenheim wine university, for over twenty years so how could there be anything new to report? Already back then he produced some remarkable Rieslings at his mini-winery in Bacharach in the tiny Mittelrhein region. My book praises him for this and for being one of a handful of winegrowers invested a great deal of time and money in the re-cultivation of the terraced Oelsberg vineyard site of Oberwesel. His first wines from that site were impressive dry wines that were sleek, racy and mineral like his other Rieslings. However, this richly-textured and powerful wine with enormous spicy aromas, just a hint of sweetness and a finish that glides off in the direction of eternity is different from anything else I ever tasted from the Mittelrhein. By the way, it comes from young vines!

This RIESLING REVELATION is still available from the estate for just Euro 12.50!

 

SWEET / SÜSS:

2011 Riesling “No. 198 Reserve” – Boundary Breaks in Finger Lakes, New York/USA

Jahrelang hat die Mehrheit der Winzer im Finger Lakes-Gebiet im Norden des amerikanischen Bundesstaats New York zwanghaft versucht, staubtrockene Riesling-Weine zu erzeugen, was sehr schwierig war auf Grund des ausgeprägten Säuregehalts und des schlanken Körpers dieser Weine. Erst in den letzten Jahren haben sie begriffen, dass ein harmonischer Geschmack wichtiger ist als irgendwelche analytischen Werte. Als Bruce Murray sein Mini-Weingut Boundary Breaks in den Finger Lakes gründete, da tat er dies aus einer Konsumenten- Perspektive, weil er noch hauptberuflich in der Marktforschung gearbeitet hat. Erstaunlicherweise  stammt dieser Wein aus seinem ersten Jahrgang.  Verantwortlich für diesen Wein ist Kelby Russell, der junge Winemaker von Red Newt Cellars; er kümmert sich auch um die meisten Boundary-Breaks-Weine. Es ist vermutlich der bisher beste Wein dieses Duos, er verfügt über die Reinheit, Brillanz und Feinheit, die viele Riesling-Fans mit den Weinen von Cornelius Dönnhoff an der Nahe verbinden. Noch steht dieser Wein am Anfang eines langen Lebens, genau wie Bruce Murray’s Boundary Breaks.

Leider ist diese süße Riesling-Sünde schon ausverkauft.

For many years the majority of the winemakers of the beautiful Finger Lakes region in Upstate New York struggled to make good bone dry wines although the Rieslings of this region naturally have a ton of acidity. Only recently did they being to realize that harmony of flavor was more important than analytical figures. Bruce Murray saw wine from a consumer’s perspective when he started his small winery in the region, because he was then still working full-time in market research in New York City. Amazingly, this wine comes from his first vintage. It was made by Kelby Russell, the young winemaker of Red Newt Cellars and a Harvard graduate, who now makes most of the Boundary Breaks wines. It is the best of many excellent wines this unlikely duo have made, a super-elegant naturally sweet Riesling that has a purity, brilliance and delicacy of flavor many Riesling fans associate with top Nahe/Germany winemaker Cornelius Dönnhoff.  It is still at the beginning of what will be a long life, just like Bruce Murray’s Boundary Breaks winery.

Sadly, this sinfully delicious sweet Riesling is already sold out.

 

BLADERUNNER:

2013 ‘Meskeoli’ -  Dos Cabezas in Sonoita, Arizona/USA

Was wäre wohl von einer Cuvée aus den Trauben Picpoul Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne (aus dem Rhônetal), Albarino (aus Nordwest-Spanien und Nord-Portugal), Muscat und Malvasia (aus dem östlichen Mittelmeerraum) und Riesling zu halten? Der ‘Meskeloi’ von Winemaker Todd Bostock schmeckt nicht nur einfach toll, er schmeckt als wären solche Cuvées ganz selbstverständlich. Als ich diesen Wein das erste mal im Oktober im Asylum Restaurant des Grand Hotels in Jerome, Arizona, verkostete, hat er mich richtig  umgehauen. Riesling (15%) bildet zusammen mit Albarino, Muscat und Malvasia (jeweils 3%) einen silbernen Faden von mineralischer Frische, der perfekt mit der Üppigkeit von Viognier (25%) und Roussanne (13%) verwoben ist. Picpoul Blanc (38%) wirkt wie das  Bindeglied zwischen diesen doch sehr unterschiedlichen Rebsorten. Ihre Summe führt auch zu einer beachtlichen aromatischen Komplexität. Riesling-Cuvées sind cool, wie dieser Wein beweist!

Dieser wunderbare Stück Riesling-Wahnsinn kostet US$28 ab Hof.

How could a blend of Picpoul Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Albarino, Muscat, Malvasia and Riesling from Arizona taste any good? Winemaker Todd Bostock’s ‘Meskeoli’ not only taste great, but it also tastes as if blending this seriously weird mix of grape varieties was the most natural thing on earth to do. When I first tasted it in the appropriately named Asylum Restaurant of the Grand Hotel of Jerome, Arizona this October the earth moved. It took some time from me to move from a state of wonder to thinking more logically about this wine. Then it struck me that together the Riesling (15%), Albarino, Muscat and Malvasia (3% each) formed a silver thread of mineral freshness that was perfectly interwoven with the richness of the Viognier (25%) and the Roussane (13%), the Picpoul Blanc (38%) filling out the middle. Somehow this mad melee of grapes also results in a serious complexity of aroma. Riesling blends are seriously cool and this wine shows why!

This magnificent piece of Riesling madness costs just $28 direct from Dos Cabezas.

 

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