The Wines of Germany by Anne Krebiehl MW was just published by Infinite Ideas Books in London (30 Pounds Sterling, ISBN 978-1-906821-85-2), is the first new book on German wines in English in quite a few years and it deserves your attention. My own Best White Wine on Earth (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, NYC) really doesn’t count, because it was about the global Riesling phenomenon in which Germany is a minority shareholder and it’s now a good five years old. In the dynamic wine industry of Germany things move fast and there are exciting new producers that were invisible or did not even exist back then.
At just over 300 pages The Wines of Germany is a substantial work that fits astonishingly neatly into the canon of modern British wine books. That’s surprising because Anne Krebiehl was born in Germany and only as a young adult did she adopt English as her culture of choice. It is as much this cultural synergy as her thoroughness and questioning mind that make Anne Krebiehl’s work such an excellent book of its type. She has an instinctive feeling for the socio-cultural context and history of her subject that is rare amongst British authors writing about things German (Giles MacDonogh is an important exception to this very peculiar British blindness). That helps her enormously in making this subject accessible and fascinating rather than dauntingly complex.
The introductory chapter of The Wines of Germany on the German wine laws has a clarity no other modern author on this subject achieved. Those on Riesling, Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) and Sekt (aka German sparkling wine) tell you more about these subjects than some top sommeliers could. However, the heart of the book are the 12 chapters on Germany’s 13 winegrowing regions (the two small East German regions are rightly combined in a single chapter) that contain a couple of hundred short portraits of the most important producers. Some of them are not well-known outside Germany and for many readers it will be the first time they have read about talented winemakers like Johannes Sinß in Windesheim/Nahe and Uwe Lützkendorf in Bad Kösen/Saale-Unstrut. Together, these texts add up to an excellent overview of the best that contemporary Germany has to offer, and here lies the book’s prime importance.
Currently, a few German winemaking stars like Ernst Loosen in Bernkastel/Mosel, Egon Müller in Wiltingen-Schrzhof/Saar and Klaus-Peter Keller in Flörsheim-Dalsheim/Rheinhessen get a lot of international attention, but this barely helps the majority of Germany’s best winemakers tend to get the attention that they deserve based on wine quality. So deeply rooted is the widespread prejudices against German wines – that at best they’re light, playful and at least slightly sweet, but almost never of much consequence or originality – it usually takes blind tastings in which the top dry white wines (Weissburgunder aka Pinto Blanc and Silvaner deserve serious attention as much as Riesling) and the best new reds stand next to international competition to demonstrate their class. Only then do many wine professionals and wine lovers in the English-speaking world realize that these wines often offer stunning value for money. This book should play an important role in improving the understanding and appreciation of these wines that have remained stubbornly underexposed.
I’m not trying to become some kind of climate prophet, but my work for Club of Stones reporting on the wines from the stony places around Planet Wine keeps confronting me with shocking new evidence of the reality of climate change. I recently got another jolt when my friend Sean O’Keefe posted on Facebook a story about climate warming in the USA published by The Washington Post on 13th August, 2019. It included the map below where the intensity of red-brown color corresponds to the degree of warming One of the darkest spots (scroll down for a detailed view of the map) is centered on Sean’s home town of Traverse City/Michigan and Mari Vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula (OMP) where he works as winemaker. Hence his very serious interest in what the map has to say.
Since I first met Sean at a conference in Seattle in July 2000 I also have an interest in this beautiful and fascinating wine region. When I first travelled there in October 2005 it was sunny and the temperatures were balmy, but when I arrived for my second visit in December 2007 it looked like an icy wasteland. As Sean said to me then, “we are right at the climatic edge where sometimes, very late in the fall, miraculous things happen…and of course, sometimes we fall off the edge.” If you’re on the edge then even a small movement one way or another can make a huge difference.
In the winter temperatures fall so low here that
there’s a real danger of winter vine kill, but as long as the waters of Grand
Traverse Bay, part of Lake Michigan, don’t freeze, the vineyards along the
narrow OMP aren’t threatened with extinction. Additionally, the cold waters of
the lake at the beginning of the year delay the arrival of spring, reducing the
risk of frost damage to the young vine shoots. Then, the warm waters of the
lake at the end of summer extend the fall, crucially assisting the ripening
process. As Sean also likes to say, “we’re a very continental location, but,
paradoxically, we’re also maritime.”
When Donald Trump and other Americans with the same perspective deny the reality of climate change they often point to scenes like that I encountered in late 2007, but the weather stats have no axe to grind and speak a very different language. The taste of the wines confirms the pattern of warming, their aromas and flavors having got progressively riper during the almost 20 years I’ve followed them. For example, today Mari vineyards makes a string of surprisingly powerful reds along with excellent dry Rieslings.
Some of you are no doubt wondering if you really
need to pay attention to the wines of this region, that’s so little known
compared with Napa Valley/California. However, the growth and increasing
sophistication of tourism in the Traverse City area and the stunning Lake
Michigan shoreline (think spectacular giant sand dunes) is introducing ever
more Americans to them. On top of that, the hard work of Sean and colleagues
like Lee Lutes of Black Star Farms and Brian Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley has
made the international wine scene rather well aware of the rapid improvement in
wine quality achieved there during the last decade.
These facts, no less than my friendships with Sean’s family and colleagues, were in my mind when I saw that dark spot on the climate change map of America at the breakfast table of my home close to Frankfurt/Germany. My heart missed a beat. Then my mind kicked in and I thought, “Oh shit!” because there’s no pause button for climate change, no cherry picking the positives and leaving out the negatives. The cherry metaphor fits well, because the area around Traverse City is also the Cherry Capital of America.
So, I asked Sean if he could organize me heat
summations for his region, specifically Huglin Index figures. They measure the
total amount of warmth during April to September when the vines are growing and
the grapes ripening. Shortly afterwards I received a table of this data for
four locations in Northern Michigan from Professor Jeffrey Andresen of Michigan
State University and the state climatologist. The Huglin Index figures for the
OMP only went back to 2001, but those for Traverse City started in 1900.
The 2001-2018 average Huglin Index figures for the OMP and Traverse City are 1641.57 and 1,725.935 respectively. However, if you decide to take inro account the influence of the Lake in pushing back the growing season and calculate the Huglin Index for the months of May to October), then you get significantly higher figures, 1,753,74 for the OMP and 1,823.33 for Traverse City. The former is easily enough to fully ripen Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, almost enough for Cabernet Franc. This gives a good idea of what kind of wines are currently successful here.
But for the sake of comparability with other
regions let’s be classical and stick with the Huglin Index figures for April to
September. They say that the climate of the area is roughly comparable to that
of the Rheingau or Burgundy in the period 1961 – 1999 (scroll down to the first
table in my penultimate blog posting for this comparison). In which years
during the 20th century was the Huglin Index for Traverse City at
least the current average figure, i.e. which were the warm years? They were:
– – – –
1921, 1922, 1925
1930, 1933, 1934, 1937, 1938
1970, 1975, 1977
1991, 1995, 1998, 1999
It’s striking how there are several duos of consecutive
warm years, but no trios. Now let’s turn to the 21st century:
2005, 2006, 2007
2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018
In less than 20 years there have already been two trios of consecutive warm vintages and one quartet of consecutive warm vintages! That is a very major change and it seems to acceleration of warming from 2010.
There’s a flip side to this pattern of warming though, which is the increasing frequency and duration of so-called Polar Vortices. The warming arctic seems to have resulted in a sluggish arctic jet stream that enables very cold air to push down through Canada and across Lakes Superior and Michigan into the USA during winter. “We can handle a couple of days of this and have so in the past, but several weeks of sub-zero (F) weather is deadly to grapevines, especially if the lakes freeze,” Sean explains. “That happened back during the winters of 2013/14 and 2014/2015. We just barely missed getting hit again last winter, though Southern Michigan and Ohio were not so lucky.”
Anyone who thinks that Northern Michigan is an unusually negative example of what climate change can do to a wine region, and that other region’s have it much better should think hard. For example, a glance at the map at the top of this story shows that Napa Valley only warmed a fraction as much as Traverse City and the OMP. However, back in early October 2017 it was hit by terrible fires that resulted in smoke tainted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (the region’s most important and valuable crop) and a couple of wineries were burnt down. In next door Sonoma County entire residential districts were reduced to ash. Those fires were part of a pattern that’s undoubtedly connected to climate change.
How much more proof is needed for politicians to join us in uniting behind the science, rather than doing what the fossil fuel industry lobbies want, which is exactly nothing. We need action NOW!
This photograph shows “sunburned” Riesling grapes in the Mosel Valley immediately after the second extreme heat wave of 2019 Germany in late July. No less than the melting ice cap of Greenland or the catastrophic damage just caused in the Bahamas by hurricane Dorian it should be regarded as a warning of what it is to come. Things are moving fast and we need to act now before it is too late.
Almost six weeks have passed since I gave my seminar about Riesling in regions with warm and warming climates titles Wrong Side of the Tracks at the FLXcursion conference in the Finger Lakes (FLX), Upstate New York/USA. It’s now high time for an update on the latest developments regarding climate change and it’s influence upon wines made from the Riesling and other grapes in what used to be the cool climate regions of Europe and of the other wine continents.
My last blog posting (scroll down) ran under the headline Cool Climate is Dead in Old Europe, because during my research for my FLXcursion seminar I came to that conclusion. To be precise, if it is a decade or more since there was a genuinely cool vintage in a winegrowing region, then I don’t see how that region can be called “cool climate” any longer. For the Riesling regions of Germany 2010 was the last cool year (and the one before that was 1996). Of course, as I wrote, how the wines taste is another matter and I’ll return to this point after we’ve looked at the weather stats of the last three months for Norheim in the Nahe Valley. I have a particular interest in the Nahe, because I work as Riesling Ambassador at the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) estate just upstream from Norheim, with the nearest weather station. I therefore experience much of this personally too.
The weather summary for June 2019 in Norheim is below in my previous blog posting, above is that for July 2019 and below for August 2019. In all these months the monthly average temperature was just above 20°C, which means that in both July and August it was 2.6°C above the late 20th century (1961-1990) average, and in June it was 3.9°C above that figure. This results largely from the high number of warm days with the temperature reaching or exceeding 25°C on 67 days and 30°C on 31 days – more than a third of all 92 days! – during this three month period. On only 25 days – less than a third of all days – did it fail to reach 25°C. There was one heat wave each month, the maximums recorded for each being 39.6°C in June (on the 30th), 39.7° in July (on the 25th) and 34.2°C in August (on the 31st).
This lines up with the total of 840 sunshine hours during the last three months, with 297 hours in June alone. That’s 42.4% above the late 20th century average! This is something with fundamental implications that’s far too little discussed in the German wine scene Rainfall is the other side of this equation. After the extremely dry June with just 18mm of rainfall we were lucky there was slightly more than 50mm of rain in both July and August and this was enough to keep the vines in decent shape. And if that’s the case on the extremely stony soils at GHB, then it should be no great problem elsewhere in Germany.
Except where there was massive sunburn damage late July the vineyards of Germany look very good as the Riesling grapes go into their last ripening phase. Picking of the pinot family of grapes (another quarter of Germany’s whole vineyard area) will begin much sooner and they also look good. Thankfully the acidity levels look healthy. However, that doesn’t mean 2019 was a “normal” year. I now expect that the growing season average temperature will not be far below the figure for 2018, the warmest growing season ever recorded in Germany with an average temperature of 18°C. Compare that figure with the late 20th century average of just 14.5°C and 16.9°C, the average for the warmest year of the 20th century, 1947, to get a feeling for what has changed and how fast.
The truth is that nobody knows how the 2019 wines will taste. It may be counterintuitive, but in 2018 GHB, along with many other German Riesling producers with vineyards on stony soils, made wines that still have cool climate characteristics. By that I mean they have bright aromas, sleek body, and a refreshing acidity. Analytically this translates into moderate alcoholic content and low pH. The problem is that what happened in 2018 doesn’t mean that in 2019 German Riesling producers are in the clear, only that they have a good chance of not losing the “cool climate” characteristics that historically made those wines special. I wish them the best of luck.
The next instalment of this story will look at developments in a distant location in North America where things are also changing fast. This is a local and global challenge and we need action on both those levels!
I just attended the wonderful and stimulating FLXcursion global Riesling conference in the Finger Lakes (FLX) region of Upstate New York where I also presented a seminar on Tuesday, 23rd July. I got a lot of requests to post at least my introductory comments, so here they are.
Welcome to the Wrong Side of the Tracks seminar at the FLXcursion conference about Riesling in warm and warming regions around Planet Wine in the 21st century. I suggest we all belong to the reality-based community and that means there’s no place here today for nostalgia or wishful thinking. The title of this seminar is appropriate, because it’s seriously shocking. I know I’ve got a reputation for liking to shock people, and it’s true I enjoy doing that, but this is shocking solely because of the massive change that recently occurred in many Riesling regions.
We all know the climate is warming, but I think most of us think it’s a slow process and for Riesling it is mostly positive. I felt that way too until I took a long hard look at the recent weather stats and came to the conclusion that Cool Climate is Dead in Old Europe. Global warming just abolished cool climate viticulture there (though not in the New Europe of wine, by which I mean places like Poland, Denmark and England). This is particularly clear if you look at the Riesling regions of Europe. I must stress that what I’m talking about here is the weather in certain Europe regions during the last decade. How this new climatic pattern affects the aroma and flavor of the wines from these regions is another matter entirely, and with today’s tasting we’ll be seeking answers to that question.
This seminar has a global theme, so it is also about understanding what’s happening in Riesling regions far outside Europe with very different landscapes and the implications of warming climates there. If you taste those wines with an open mind, then I think you find many Rieslings from rather warm regions that show characteristics (for example, fresh fruit and floral aromas, crisp acidity and sleek body) we consider reliable markers for cool climate wines. Clearly, in spite of the warm conditions there this type of wine is possible, but in those regions too, the situation is changing fast. For them too the question is what happens next.
Now on to the stats. Let’s start with how things were at the end of the 20th century. The first table shows the long-term average heat summations (on the Huglin Index) for a selection of winegrowing regions around the world, some important for Riesling, others not. This picture, plus a bit of warming, is what most wine industry people around the planet regard as the current situation, but even then we tend to make some serious mistakes. For example, Clare Valley in South Australia is frequently declared to be cool climate, but it has a heat summation of 2388, which is higher than Barossa at 2342! This common misjudgment results from the fact that Clare is the largest Riesling region in the Southern Hemisphere and because the fresh aromas and crispness of Clare Rieslings make us wrongly assume the region must be cool.
Now let’s turn to the 2018 vintage in Europe. The second table shows what happened in Geisenheim in the Rheingau (the location wine university and research station) last year. The heat summation for Geisenheim in 2018 is marked in red. Note that the Rheingau is not the warmest winegrowing region in Germany by far. Southern Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, Southern Baden and Central Württemberg are all significantly warmer. In 2018 Geisenheim had a heat summation of 2277 compared with an average of just 1623 during the period 1961-1990. What a huge leap! A Huglin Index of 2277 means Germany was warmer than Eden Valley and almost as warm as the Clare Valley, the two premier Riesling regions of South Australia!
The third table shows how a rather similar situation is developing this year. Here is the weather report for June 2019 for Norheim in the Nahe Valley, one of the “classic” cool climate Riesling regions of Europe. I chose Norheim, because it’s the closest weather station to Weingut Dönnhoff and to Gut Hermannsberg where I work as Riesling Ambassador. Cornelius Dönnhoff (a member of my panel) tells me the Norheim weather station is positioned close to a cliff that may push the highs up by as much 1°C, so you may want to adjust these figures accordingly.
Globally, June 2019 was the warmest June ever recorded by a margin of 0.1°C. For Europe it was the warmest June ever recorded by a margin of 1.0°C, and in Norheim June 2019 was fully 3.9°C warmer than the average for the late 20th century. Even if you correct down the measured high of 39.6°C in Norheim, then,it still tops the month’s high of 37.1°C in Bordeaux and that of 37.8°C in Madrid. The 297 sunshine hours during June 2019 in Norheim are also extraordinary, since they are 42.4% more than the average for the late 20th century. July 2019 started cooler in the Nahe like most of Germany, but today’s high in Norheim is 32°C and the predicted highs for the next four days are 37°C, 38°C, 37°C and 34°C!
I’m sure that some of you are now saying to yourselves, “yes, but there are still some vintages in Europe that are much cooler,” because that’s what I also said to myself. Unfortunately, we are wrong.
The fourth table shows the mean temperatures during April – October (the growing season) for the last six years and selected earlier vintages in Geisenheim. When I started getting interested in Riesling in the early 1980s I could still buy wines of the great 1976 vintage rather cheaply and I can still remember that very warm dry summer in England. Only much later did I learn that the summer of 1947 was the warmest of the 20th century. The mean growing season temperatures in Geisenheim for those exceptional vintages were 15.7°C in 1976 and 16.9°C in 1947, far above the average for the late 20th century of 14.5°C.
Now let’s turn to the figures for the last six years. For example, wine industry people inside and outside Germany generally regard 2013 as a cool vintage, because the harvest conditions were cool and the wines have high acidity/low pH that makes them taste sleek and taut. However, 2013’s mean growing season temperature in Geisenheim was 15.5°C, almost as high as that of 1976. Since then the figure for every year equaled or exceeded that for 1976. In 2018 the record of 1947 was smashed by a margin of 1.1°C ! I rest my case and pose the question, where do we go from here?
When I was a child in England I hated it when my parents, grandparents and other adults repeated expressions like „practice makes perfect“ or „all good things come to an end“ to me. That it happened frequently only increased my inner resistance to accepting these painful truths. Later, much later, I realized that this was egotistical of me and I flipped over in the other direction and started frequently repeating the American catch phrase, “it is what it is.” However, there are, of course, moments when it is still painful to accept that one or other of these things are unavoidable, and this is one of them.
On the 31st July 2019 the wine bar Weinstein in
Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg will close forever. Maybe it sounds childish to find
that painful and probably it is rather childish of me, but I don’t care. The
reason for my pain is that for almost a quarter of a century those rooms – they
reminded me of a tapas bar in Spain when I first walked into them in 1995 – were
not only my second Berlin living room in the obvious sense of those words, but the
place that I met with winegrowers, journalistic colleagues and other wine
business people visiting my home town to exchange thoughts and experiences.
It goes even further than that though, because over those years my conversations with them and the Weinstein team reshaped the entire way I saw the world. I know that’s a sweeping statement, but if I’d recorded just one of my conversations with Roy Metzdorf, Weinstein’s guiding spirit, and could play it to you now I’m convinced that you’d get what I mean. For me Weinstein wasn’t just a wine bar, rather it was a state of mind, and in today’s world that also means a state of resistance to the brutal forms of thinking that are currently rampant.
Roy sudden death of heart failure in March 2017 aged 54 was a huge shock
for everyone who knew him, (you can
scroll down to read more about him). That his brother Marc couldn’t solve the business
problems that slowly grew in scale during Roy’s last years despite long and
dogged efforts, should be no surprise. The result of this is that many people
including myself are about to lose what for felt like a fixed point which helped
us navigate the turbulence of our own lives and of the wider world. What should
I say? It is what it is and all good things come to an end.
What does that really mean? I’m not going to be analytical, also because that was something Roy’s training in electrical engineering made him much better at than I am or will ever be. Instead, I’m going to tell a Weinstein story. Not the one of my evening in Weinstein with star German TV presenter Thomas Gottschalk (who was very charming), or how I got to know the German singer Max Raabe (who was very drunk). To be frank, I always missed meeting the most interesting of Weinstein’s famous guests, notably British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and members of the German heavy metal group Ramstein. Instead, I’m going to tell you about someone who is only known to a few people in the New York and German wine scenes, Rienne (pictured above with me in Bistro Sommelier in Düsseldorf, Germany on the 8th July this year).
Paul Grieco is the larger than life Canadian sommerlier with a goatee
beard who runs the Terroir wine bars in New York City (NYC), started the global
Summer of Riesling festival and has often stirred up the city’s wine scene in a
positive way. One day in early September 2012 I got an email from Paul saying that
a young member of his staff a “somm”, that is sommelier in American English, called
Rienne Martinez was coming to Germany to work the wine harvest and would arrive
shortly in Berlin. Could I meet with her and help her make sense of German
wines? “Show her how it really is!” Paul instructed me.
I was fascinated by her name and I had to pay Paul back for all his
generosity, so of course I said yes. I was not in a good state at the time thanks
to a grinding depression caused by the failed marriage I’d failed to extract
myself from, so it felt good to get out alone and have something positive to do.
I packed a bag full of interesting German wines that I felt reflected the
dynamism of the nation’s wine industry and set off on my bicycle from my then
home on Hackescher Markt.
As I waited in Weinsten my plans to leave Berlin for New York City later
in the year went through my mind. I planned to stay for two months from the end
of November, I’d already found a place to stay and booked the flights. My plan
was to find a publisher and write my first English language book in many years.
It was only just before my departure
date that I realized this trip could be my exit strategy, but I no idea that two
months would turn into four years of a very different life to the almost two
decades in Berlin before.
Rienne was so engaging and interested that it was a delight to take the vision of German wine she’d acquired in NYC and gently demolish it. The very first wine I’d brought for her, the full-bodied bone-dry Hasennest Müller-Thurgau Christian Stahl makes at Winzerhof Stahl in Auernhofen/Franken accomplished most of that process all by itself. It was (and still is) a quintessentially German wine far removed from the more or less sweet Rieslings that made up most of the good German wine then sold in America. Instead it had a bright passion fruit aroma, was crisp, mineral and exciting; all things that were (and still are) abnormal for the wines of the humble Müller-Thurgau grape. Rienne was stunned and I could sense her struggle to cope with the way the ground was moving beneath her feet as if an earthquake was happening.
“So most German wine isn’t the way I was taught it is?” she asked as I poured tasted the third wine for her. “That’s right,” I replied, “the sweet Rieslings you have got to know in NYC are just one of many styles. The majority of German wines are dry and made from other grapes than Riesling. And there are plenty of innovative winemakers like Christian Stahl, who I call the Quentin Tarantino of German wine!”
This kind of revelation was one of the most important things that
happened at Weinstein and Roy’s presence really wasn’t necessary for it to
happen, though he was often the catalyst and sometimes the shaper of such
situations. Those things that Rienne realized that evening have now become much
less astonishing to NYC somms than they were back then, and now it would probably
be impossible to repeat this “trick”. But so much of what passes for truth in
the wine scene is myth and that has only got worse in recent years due to the
idealization of so-called “natural wines”. So, there’s still enormous potential
for sudden revelation.
However, very soon there will be no Weinstein, no perfect stage for this to be played out upon. Then I will have no choice, but to focus on memories of such moments in Weinstein when I have to gently point out to a somm or someone else that the world isn’t how they think it is. At this point Roy would say that we never understand the world as well as we think that we do, and that it’s healthy to be reminded of that fact as often as possible. I couldn’t agree more.
There are no more dramatic vineyards than those in the breathtakingly rugged Middle Nahe Valley in Germany where the vines cling to steep slopes wedged between jagged cliffs of volcanic rock. They are now one of my twin homes. However, before Monday, 5th March 2019, when I became the Riesling Ambassador for the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) wine estate in Niederhausen on the Nahe, I was deeply committed to freelance journalism for 35 years.
No, it was more than that. I was a free spirit who wrote about wine and anything that was connected to the wines that interested me. This included subjects as diverse as geology, anthropology, military history and rock music. The border between the possible and impossible in winemaking fascinated me and I was frequently a bladerunner on that edge. My gonzo journalist’s life was sometimes exhilarating for other reasons, because I wasn’t afraid of controversy and several times I sailed straight into the heart of a storm. I sometimes got into trouble, but always managed to dodge the bullets fired in my direction. So why switch path?
The truth is that everything has down sides. In my case they begin with the fact that most of the daring things I wrote only appeared in German. That’s the reason most of you have not only never read any of them, you also didn’t realize they existed until this moment. This means that my trilogy about wine and globalization Schöne Neue Weinwelt (2003, Argon Verlag, Berlin), Wilder Wein and Wein Weit Weg (2006 and 2009 both Scherz Verlag, Frankfurt) never appeared in English and therefore failed to achieve their full potential. Regardless whether you consider these works successful together they add up to a revolution in wine journalism. The same basic problem applies to the more conventional Wein Spricht Deutsch (2007, Scherz Verlag, Frankfurt) which I wrote with Ursula Heinzelmann, Chandra Kurt, Manfred Lüer and Stephan Reinhardt, illustrated by Andreas Durst’s photos.
The second downside is that in all those years I never had a single big commercial success. However, if you have plenty of small and some medium-sized successes over half a lifetime, then they stack up and you build quite a reputation. Once when I gave an interview to a journalist from one of Germany’s leading newspapers and she told me that I was, “a B class celebrity, but you dress a lot better than most A class celebrities!”
Lastly, thanks to the Internet and social media most kinds of journalism are shrinking and some of them are dying in front of our eyes. Most of my medium-sized successes were with printed books, but the last of them – Best White Wine on Earth (published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York) aka Planet Riesling (Tre Torri Verlag, Wiesbaden) – appeared in 2014/15. Since then printed wine books have became an endangered species and my attempt to switch to self-published e-books wasn’t commercially successful. In 2012 the third series of my German-language television series Weinwunder Germany (for BR, the BBC/PBS of Bavaria) was another medium-sized success, but it was also my last tv project. In the autumn of 2015 the frequency of my wine column in the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany’s equivalent of the New York Times) was halved and with it my income from that source.
Perhaps this sounds like I have a negative attitude. However, it was my rapidly shrinking bank balance that pushed me to begin a radical rethink in the spring of 2016. Then, suddenly, in September 2016, James Suckling asked me to become a member of the tasting team for JamesSuckling.com, one of the world’s few really successful Internet wine publications. I coped with the considerable stress of that position for two and a half years, but my health started suffering and my wife wasn’t happy about me being on the road most of the time. That set me rethinking once again.
I came to the conclusion I needed a job that connected me directly with concrete products incapable of digitalization. You can post a picture of a wine bottle and describe its smell taste in words, but you can’t post its smell and taste. I also wanted to have get both feet on the ground: one foot in Eppstein in the hills above the Rheingau wine region where my wife has lived for twenty years, the other in some special vineyards that needed a voice.
That I, an “outsider”, could become the voice of GHB’s remarkable collection of vineyards – all 30 hectares are classified Grosse Lage / “Grand Cru” by the VDP – isn’t as ridiculous as it looks at first glance. I’ve been following the wines from there since the spring of 1984, through my entire career as a wine journalist. I’ve known estate director Achim Kirchner since 1999 and winemaker Karsten Peter since 2002. It was therefore rather easy to integrate into the GHB team although I’m a very different creature to anyone else who works at estate. One door has closed and another has opened. Riesling was the key!
Today is my 59th birthday and to celebrate that here’s the story of the crucial moment in my life as a wine journalist. Leonard Humbrecht, how can I thank you properly?
What was that „pungent“ taste I found in the first Kupfergrube wines I encountered at Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) back in 1984? The word “encountered” seems appropriate, because for me it was a kind of sensual Close Encounter of the Third Kind; my first contact with an alien world of taste far removed from all the flavours of my youth. Sometimes it shocked me, other times I felt it me pulling in with erotic force, but its mystery always fascinated me. Blindly, I searched for the answer.
Today, I would say that a taste characteristic to the wines from a single specific vineyard is definitely an example of terroir. Back in the mid-1980s I was already familiar with the French word terroir, or the taste of the place, but I assumed it could only apply to certain French wines, that is terroir was the taste of certain French places. During the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall Germany was such a different place from the France and when you looked at wine in the two countries the contrast was stark. That only reinforced that assumption, which certainly wasn’t limited to me.
Serendipity means chance discovery, and for me that means it is always
revelatory. In this case, it all began at a tasting of fancy French wines in London
one evening during the mid-1980s, an event that began in an atmosphere of
reverence towards the Grand Cru of
Francetypical for the period. In spite
of the fact that vintage and the degree of human commitment clearly influenced
their quality, these wines were often treated as timeless and holy, existing on
a different plane to all others. Of course, that attitude made some of these
tasting extremely boring, but this one was different.
After a cautious start, the expert presenting the tasting began drifting ever farther from the beaten track, and by the end of the evening I was hanging on his every word. It was poetry compared with the usual predictable platitudes and I wish I could remember you who he was and which wines we tasted that evening. However, one moment etched itself deeply into my memory. Speaking of the final wine he said, “as the Roman Emperor Hadrian once wrote, wine introduces us to the volcanic mysteries of the soil.” That sounded so exciting, but what did it really mean? Just a few days ago I discovered that those words sound too good to be true, because they actually come from Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 novel Memoires d’ Hadrien: “wine introduces us to the volcanic mysteries of the soil, to its hidden richness.”
Shortly afterwards the organizer of that tasting, Liz Berry MW of wine merchant La Vigneronne helped set up a trip to Alsace for me. Back in January 1987 when I departed from London Alsace meant France and the recent introduction of a Grand Cru vineyard classification system there only seemed to confirm that. However, when I arrived at Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss and tasted the last vintages of the cool and very mineral dry Rieslings from the Kastelberg Grand Cru I realized that Alsace had one foot in French wine traditions and the other firmly in Germanic wine culture. Even those wine names tell that story!
The next day I visited Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Turkheim and met Leonard Humbrecht, the charismatic and gentle giant who was the most important promoter of the Grand Cru system in Alsace. Leonard’s influence not only on his home region of France, but also on Germany and can hardly be underestimated, but this is largely forgotten, because it all happened back in the 1980s. In fact Leonard’s revolution began during the 1970s when he was one of a handful of growers who purchased the steep vineyards that most producers were abandoning in favour of gentle slopes that were easier to cultivate.
As we tasted his current releases in bottle and the 1986s from the barrel Leonard took great trouble to explain the typical aromas and flavours for each of his vineyard sites. We visited many of them so that I could better understand how the soil-type influenced the taste of the wine. I remember feeling enormously excited as Leonard revealed to me how terroir functioned in this wine culture outside the French main stream, also with Germanic varieties like Riesling and Gewürztraminer. The bulk of my work of the following 20 years grew out of these experiences and what I learned during those days is still essential for my work, also now at GHB.
On the last day we had lunch in a Winstub and Leonard poured some older wines each of which was so fascinating that I could have spent hours studying it. The last of these was the 1983 Riesling Grand Cru Rangen and I’ll never forget the moment of complete astonishment when I lifted that glass to my nose and smelt the wine for the first time. With its wild and intensely smoky character it was like nothing else I’d ever tasted from Alsace.
Then, Leonard told me the story of how the tasting team of the magazine Revue du Vin de France had been split down the middle by it: one half considered it untypical and therefore disappointing; the other was convinced it was remarkable and unique. He explained the reason for this special character was the Rangen’s volcanic bedrock. There it was in my glass in the most literal form, the volcanic mystery of the soil that Leonard Humbrecht had rediscovered, then kindly passed on to me.
In that moment, when the reality of terroir unbound by national and cultural borders became totally clear to me, a long journey of discovery began. It was one thing to grasp some general principals and quite another to make sense of the whole world of wine, not least because winemaking (for example, the decision on fermentation yeast type – adding no yeast is also a winemaking decision) always influences the taste of the wine in a major way. And so it was some time before, again by chance, I read in a wine book that the soil of the Kupfergrube vineyard was volcanic melaphry (from a strict geological perspective it is composed of andesite, an igneous rock with porphyritic structure). Suddenly that pungent character which had etched itself into my memory way back in 1984 made total sense to me: it’s the soil stupid!
This is the first posting on my blog under my new masthead and this is Part 1 of the most important story I have to tell. / Es tut mir leid aber Sie müssen eine Weile auf die deutsche Übersetzung von Teil 1 der ersten Story auf meinem Blog unter dem neuen Logo warten. Ich arbeite dran!
As I walked into the Hindenburg Raum of the Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Niederhausen-Schlossböckelheim/Nahe State Domaine, today Gut Hermannsberg (GHB), on the sunny morning of Wednesday, 26th April 1984 I was a 23 years old art student and had no idea that it would change my life several times over. Today is the 35th anniversary of that day and it seems like a good opportunity to start telling that story properly.
It was the fifth wine tasting during a weeklong tour of top Riesling producers in Germany by English gentleman and wine merchant Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) of Henry Townsend Wines based just outside my home town of London. I was both surprised and extremely grateful when, a couple of months earlier, he’d asked me to join him, his wife Jennifer and their son for the whole of this buying trip. It was my first professional wine tasting trip and, in spite of all I’ve learned and experienced since then, when I visit producers somewhere on Planet Wine I am basically continuing to do what I started doing that week. My first article about wine had just been published in Decanter magazine in England, and I also owed that connection to Philip Eyres! At the time those developments were so exciting that I barely gave this situation a second thought and never asked myself why he did all those things for me.
Although the atmosphere on that trip was extremely friendly, during the wine tastings it was also serious as we focused on the wines in near-silence. However, for Philip Eyres the entire undertaking was deadly serious, and without me realizing it at the time that made it serious for me too. It was many years before that all this started becoming clear to me and I may still not have reached the end of that process of discovery.
I remember the scene that greeted us in the tasting room very well. On a table in the Hindenburg Room stood a long row of tall brown wine bottles. Estate Director Dr. Werner Hofäcker had prepared every single Riesling they’d produced in the 1983 vintage for us to taste. None of the other producer we visited did that for us! It showed both Dr. Hofäcker’s thoroughness and that Philip Eyres must have made a very good impression upon him during his previous visits. The fact that it was my very first encounter with the wines from this producer resulted in an element of surprise that turned out to be of crucial importance.
Right from the moment when I tasted first wine in the row it was clear to me these wines were very different to those we’d tasted during the previous two days in the Mosel Valley, but that didn’t prepare me for the shock of the third of fourth wine in the tasting. It was a 1983 vintage dry Riesling from the Kupfergrube vineyard site and it stopped me dead in my tracks. “What the hell is that?” I remember silently saying to myself as I stood there and struggled to make sense of the smell and taste I’d just experienced. It was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced in the world of wine, or anywhere else for that matter. It instantly redefined what wine could be. In retrospect, I would say it was my first compelling experience of “terroir”. Although I understood this was the French word for the taste of the place, I thought it only applied to French wine and cheese.
Unfortunately, I lost the notes I made that day soon after, but the notes from my second experience of these wines in London on the 22nd November 1984 show that already I’d started describing the aroma of the Kupfergrube wines as “pungent”. This adjective usually has negative connotations in English, because it suggests a stink of some kind. I meant it positively though and stuck with it, because nothing else seemed adequate to conveying how intense and radical those wines tasted to me. I’m still struggling to find better words for the Kupfergrube wines. How do you combine “warm and spicy” with “firm and linear” then add “driving and primeval” plus “grapefruit zest and smoke” – my contemporary descriptors for them – and compress all that into just a couple words?
Although I had almost no disposable income when we I returned home I invested what for me was a gigantic sum of money in purchasing almost two dozen bottles of the best 1983 German Rieslings I tasted on that trip. The largest part of my expenditure was for 10 bottles from the Nahe State Domaine and a couple more bottles of their 1983 wines were added to that over the following years. I still have one of those bottles in my cellar!
I must make clear that back then none of this was due to any “Pro-German” feelings on my part. It was all about my very particular experience of discovery and revelation, and such moments were not limited to German wines, as my first taste of the red 1981 Château Cheval Blanc from St. Emilion in Bordeaux almost exactly three years before proves. However, during the next years the wine tastings of that week came to look like a turning point. Slowly, I realized I could better trust the leading winemakers of Germany to tell me the truth than I could their French colleagues. And I found I could sell stories about German wines more easily than those about France, because almost nobody else was writing about the subject in English. Thanks to Philip Eyres and my moment of revelation in the Hindenburg Room I’d found the path I follow to this day.
Die Wettervorhersage für Sonntag, den 7. April ist 17° C mit Sonne und ich habe ein Vorschlag für den Tagesprogramm: Niederhäuser Weinfrühling an der Nahe / The weather forecast for Sunday, 7th April is 17° C with sunshine. I suggest you visit the Niederhäuser Weinfrühling in the Nahe. For the English language story please scroll down.
Seit ich Anfang März 2019 angefangen habe für Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) als Riesling Ambassador zu arbeiten, haben mir zahlreiche Menschen zwei bohrende Fragen gestellt. Erstens: Warum haben sie plötzlich den freischaffenden Weinjournalismus gegen die Arbeit für ein Weingut gewechselt? Zweitens: Warum ausgerechnet die Nahe? Die erste Frage verdient eine ausführliche Antwort und ich bitte um etwas Geduld. Die kurze Antwort darauf ist, dass ich wenig Zukunft in der Art von Journalismus, die ich die letzten zwanzig Jahre gepflegt habe, gesehen habe. Die zweite Frage können Sie selber beantworten, indem Sie am kommenden Sonntag, den 7. April den Niederhäuser Weinfrühling besuchen und diesen Teil der Nahe persönlich kennenlernen.
Meine persönliche Antwort auf die zweite Frage ist Liebe. Als ich 1984-86 anfing die Nahe zu besuchen, habe ich mich hoffnungslos in dieses Gebiet verliebt. Schnell habe ich einen Draht zu den damals bedeutenden Figuren an der Nahe, wie Hans and Dr. Peter Crusius von Weingut Crusius in Traisen, Armin Diel von Schlossgut Diel in Burg Layen, Helmut Dönnhoff von Weingut Dönnhoff in Oberhausen und Dr. Werner Hofäcker, den Direktor der Staatlichen Weinbaudomäne in Niederhausen (heute GHB) gefunden. Sie haben mich immer wieder zurück an die Nahe gezogen und schrittweise habe ich entdeckt, was diese Gegend so besonders macht. Die Nahe hat nur 4.205 Hektar Weinberge, ist aber ein ziemlich komplexes Gebiet mit einer erstaunlichen klimatischen und geologischen Vielfalt. Diese Komplexität wäre vielleicht frustrierend, wenn es nicht zu solch einer großen Vielzahl von sagenhaften trockenen wie auch natürlichsüßen Weißweinen, Schaumweinen und auch Rotweinen führen würde. Zweifelsohne wird die Mehrheit der genialen Naheweinen aus der Riesling-Traube (28,6% der Gesamtrebfläche) gewonnen, aber Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) und Chardonnay spielen auch eine bedeutende Rolle an der Nahe.
Für mich ist GHB ein besonderer Teil dieser Welt des Weins und nicht nur weil 100% des 30 Hektar großen Weinbergsbesitzes des Hauses als VDP Grosse Lage klassifiziert sind. Das Gutshaus und seine Nebengebäude stehen zwischen GHBs 12,5 Hektar der Lage Kupfergrube und seiner 5,5 Hektar großen Monopollage Hermannsberg fast direkt oberhalb des Flusses. Drum herum liegen die Felsen und steilen bewaldeten Hänge in diesem wildromantischen Abschnitt des Tals. Aber sie müssen mir nicht glauben, kommen Sie einfach am nächsten Sonntag oder ein anderen Mal und schauen Sie sich das ganze von unserer Terrasse aus an. Dann sind Sie das Juwel in unserer Krone!
Das Beste an meiner neuen Rolle bei GHB ist die frappierende Weise, wie jeder der trockenen Rieslinge seine besondere Herkunft geschmacklich widerspiegelt. Das hat viel mit der harten Arbeit und Zielstrebigkeit von Winemaker Karsten Peter und dem Weinbergsverwalter Philipp Wolf zu tun, aber auch mit dem Wirken des ganzen Teams, unter Direktor Achim Kirchner und Jasper Reidel von der Besitzerfamilie. Wie Warren Winiarski, der Gründer von Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley/Kalifornien mir einmal gesagt hat: „Terroir ist taub bis jemand es entdeckt und einen Weg herausarbeitet über den es zum Ausdruck kommt.“ Jedes der führenden Weingüter der Nahe hat eine eigene Geschichte, wie ihnen das gelungen ist. Lernen sie das am kommenden Sonntag, den 7. April in Niederhausen und auf GHB kennen! (Fotos: Nathalie Schwartz)
Since I started work for the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) estate in Niederhausen/Nahe as Riesling Ambassador at the begining of March 2019 many people asked me two questions: Why switch from wine journalism to working for a wine producer? Why the Nahe? The first of these will require a lengthy answer at some point in the near future, but the quick version is that I don’t see a long-term future for the kind of wine journalism I dedicated myself to for the last twenty years. The second question is much easier to answer and you don’t even need to read the following to do so, just come to the Niederhäuser Weinfrühling next Sunday, 7th April in Niederhausen/Nahe and experience it for yourself.
My own answer to that second question is love. During my first trips to the Nahe in 1984 – 1986 I fell head over heels in love with this dramatic region and rapidly connected with several of the leading producers there. My contact with Hans and Dr. Peter Crusius of the Crusius estate in Traisen, Armin Diel of Schlossgut Diel in Burg Layen, Helmut Dönnhoff of the Dönnhoff estate in Oberhausen and Dr. Werner Hofäcker of the Staatliche Weinbaudomäne in Niederhausen (GHB today) pulled me back again and again to find out ever more about what makes the Nahe so special. The fact is that although it only has 4,205 hectares of vineyards it is geologically and climatically diverse is crucial. That might be frustrating if it wasn’t for the fact that it leads to an astonishing diversity of wonderful dry white, sweet, sparkling and red wines. Yes, the Riesling grape (28.6% of the total vineyard area) gives the majority of the great wines of the Nahe, but Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Chardonnay all play important roles.
For me, GHB is a special part of this world of wine, and not only because 100% of its 30 hectares of vineyards are classified as VDP Grosse Lagen. GHB’s 12.5 hectares in the Kupfergrube site on two side of most of them lie directly around the complex of estate buildings, and the 5.5 hectare monopole Hermannsberg site lied on the other, the river Nahe forming the forth side. Beyond those vineyards lie the volcanic cliffs, and forested sleeps that make this section of the river valley breathtakingly beautiful. But don’t take my word for it. Come along to GHB on Sunday and experience for yourself the view from our terrace. Then you’ll be the jewel in our crown!
The best thing about my new role for GHB is the arresting way each of the wines dramatically reflects its place of origin. That has a great deal to do with the hard yet thoughtful work of winemaker Karsten Peter and vineyard manager Philipp Wolf, supported by the entire GHB team under director Achim Kirchner and including Jasper Reidel of the owning family. As the great Californian winemaker Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley said to me many years ago, „Terroir is mute until someone recognizes it and enables it to express itself.” Each of the leading producers of the Nahe has their own story of how they did that. Come and experience this for yourself on Sunday, 7th April in Niederhausen and at GHB! (Photos: Nathalie Schwartz)
Since early March 2019, when I began work for the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) wine estate in Niederhausen in the Nahe region of Germany, the focus of this blog has certainly shifted. Here’s proof that it is by no means limited to stories about GHB.
Recently winemaker Dr. Nancy Irelan of Red Tail Ridge estate winery in Seneca Lake/FLX (Finger Lakes) in Upstate New York was recently on the list of semi-finalists for one of the James Beard Awards – the “Oscars” of food and wine in America – but she didn’t make it to the finals, much less has she won the award itself. I’m sure that she doesn’t see it this way, but I think you could say that once again she has been damned with faint praised. You see, again and again during the dozen years since the winery released its first wine people have said nice things about her, but nobody ever publicly celebrated her special form of genius. Maybe it’s because she never did or said anything outrageous enough to abruptly drag the world wide web’s attention to her. Maybe it’s because she’s a strong-willed, highly intelligent and extremely articulate woman. Maybe’s it’s because she doesn’t neatly fit into any of the established roles for women winemakers. Strangely, I’m pretty sure that if she were a movie director then she’d have a better chance of wining an Oscar, than she has of wining a James Beard Award as a winemaker!
But let’s begin this story in 2004 when Nancy and her husband Mike Schnelle, then an accountant and now a self-taught grape grower, purchased a 34 acre parcel of wooded land on the west side of Seneca Lake. At this point, the year of my first visit to the region, the reputation of the FLX was a pale shadow of what it is today. The first planting was 3 acres of various clones of Pinot Noir that went into the ground in the spring of 2005. However, a huge storm of the kind locals call a “gully washer” hit just a couple of days after it went in and the rain washed all the young vine stocks out of the ground. Mike was alone at the estate, because at this point Nancy was still Vice President for Victiculture & Oenonolgy RD for Gallo in California. He called her in a panic and she told him how he would have to try and find the vine stocks – they were all at the bottom of the hill – and replant them all by hand. He did that and in 2006 they picked their first crop, just half a ton of Pinot Noir grapes. Nancy turned them into a Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine (to this day sparkling remains of Nancy’s strong suits), “it was yummy,” she says, “sadly it’s all gone now, but one bottle.” Winemaking is a double-edged sword and winemakers have to lick that blade repeatedly.
Fast-forward to October 2014 and my first visit to Red Tail Ridge. I was up in the FLX from NYC with my then girlfriend and she insisted we had to visit Nancy. She was right to overrule my skepticism and our first meeting was one of those connections with a winemaker that changed how I think about wine, although in a very non-dramatic way. At this distance in time it’s hard to say exactly what lead to that, beyond stating the simple fact that Nancy is a very thoughtful winemaker who bases her decisions on strong science, but who’s goal can be expressed in one old-fashioned word that she makes liberal use of: delicious! I say old-fashioned, because in the natural wine scene “authentic”, “naked” and “real” have taken over the role “harmonious”, “elegant” and “delicious” play in the regular world of wine. And the natural wine scene’s disdain for the regular world of wine has made those words look increasingly like expressions of out-dated reactionary concepts.
Nancy has strong beliefs, not least in the central importance of deliciousness to the wine industry, but she’s never rigid in her thinking. Taking several leaves out of the natural wine scene’s book she makes an excellent skin-fermented dry white wine called “Miscreant” and Pet Nats (short for Pétillant Naturel). However, she also makes elegant dry Rieslings with bright citrus and stone fruit aromas in a style no natural winemaker would accept. Their generosity has a lot to do with the warm site and the limestone soil (unusual for the FLX) there. In the 2016 vintage it also has to do with the warm year she seemed to effortlessly master. You could say much the same about her Chardonnay too, a rare star for this grape variety in the FLX. And those Pinot Noir vines have matured to the point where they give silky and subtle red wines that no Burgundy lover would consider radical or revolutionary. Nancy is a self-confidently liberal winemaker who rejects all forms of dogma and the idealization that so often accompanies it.
I used to repeat in mantra-like way the statement, “Red Tail Ridge wines are unspectacularly excellent”, but then along came a red wine called Rebel with a Cause, a blend of Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger and Kékfrankos in its native Hungary) with Lagrein and Teroldego. It is spectacular in many ways, beginning with that blend. The first of those grapes has a small tradition in the FLX, but the latter pair of Northeast Italian varieties have zero tradition anywhere in North America. The idea of pushing these three together is radical in the extreme and for this reason the name is a perfect fit. As luck would have it I was at Red Tail Ridge on the 3rd October 2016 during the fermentation of these grapes (pictured above with Nancy’s hands) and could follow the development of this wine almost from Zero Hour onwards.
Of course, radical winemaking ideas is one thing and a delicious wine is quite another. Thankfully this bizarre marriage born in Nancy’s fertile mind is a very happy one, though not without a stunning tension that make the 2016 Rebel with a Cause one of the most exciting new reds I’ve tasted anywhere on Planet Wine. And during the last three years I tasted about 25,000 wines from all the wine continents. Just how is it delicious? What grabs me most is the forest berries and wild herbs character and strong, but there’s also the strident yet balanced tannins and vibrant acidity which together give it so much structure. This isn’t a red for the faint-hearted who need a smooth as silk landing, nor is it for those who demand plenty of (reductive) funk in their wines as proof that they’re “natural”. Once again, some people will fail to take her seriously and that’s the reason that the image on the label of Nancy preaching from a pulpit in the vineyard is spot on.