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New York Riesling Diary: Day 25 – A Counterintuitive Question and the Surprisingly Delicious Answer

I know that it might seem counterintuitive for me to ask this question, because this blog is largely focused on Riesling, but why are German dry whites from the Weissburgunder (aka Pinot Blanc / Pinot Bianco) and Grauburgunder grapes (aka Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio) nearly invisible in New York Wine City (NYWC) restaurants?

I just had lunch at Le Coloniale on East 57th Street (between Lex and Third Ave) and this was my scallop and shrimp salad. I had a glass of semi-dry Riesling from Hermann J. Wiemer with it, and that was good (it would have been better if the bottle hadn’t been open for a couple of days already). However, a full-bodied dry Weissburgunder or medium-full dry Grauburgunder would have been sensational with this dish. OK, Le Coloniale is a French-Vietnamese restaurant and there aren’t so many of them in NYWC. On the other hand this combination of seafood and vegetables with a slightly spicy sauce is nothing unusual in the city’s restaurants, in fact it’s so common it’s almost standard.

Why am I going on about this? The German Wine Institute (DWI in Mainz on the Rhine) just released the vineyard stats for 2014 and they did something very interesting with them. Instead of just comparing 2014 with 2013, they also made a comparison with those for 2000 to reveal the long-term trends. During that time the vineyard area in Germany planted with Grauburgunder more than doubled (to 13,900 acres / 5,627 hectares) and that planted with Weissburgunder almost doubled (to 11,846 acres / 4,794 hectares)! Those are very substantial figures, making Germany the number two (only Italy has more vineyards planted with Pinot Grigio) and the number one producer of wines from these grapes in the world. Does anybody realize that yet?

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 11 – Flashback to Singapore, or how Iggy’s Restaurant Blew My Mind

Some stories absolutely demand the right photos before they are told, and those photos only arrive much later, then it can be difficult to use them for a blog posting, because blogging is theoretically all about the moment. OK, it’s now almost two months since I was in Singapore and the above photograph was taken of me (left) with “Iggy” or Ignatius Chen (middle) and Tan Ying Hsien (right). I was at Iggy’s Restaurant at The Hilton in Singapore on Tuesday, February 3rd for a Riesling dinner in honor of my book Best White Wine on Earth, but, to be frank, I forgot all about my book when the first dish was served. I expected that it would be a really good meal, because friends had told me about Iggy’s Restaurant, but the dinner that evening exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. One dish,  quail with mushrooms, lily bulbs and black truffles, was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten, but the experience was remarkable even before I put the first forkful of food into my mouth. That’s why it still demands a blog posting.

This is what that dish looked like when it was brought to the table: a sealed transparent plastic bag in which broth was boiling because of the heat from the cast iron sizzle plate it was lying upon. That was already a mystery, because if the broth was so hot that it was boiling, then why didn’t that plastic bag melt? However, the overwhelming aroma of black truffle that escaped from the bags brushed this and all other questions aside. I never experienced a truffle smell that intense before, and it would have been worth the evening at Iggy’s just for that experience! Then the bags were opened and we began to eat a dish which had the most captivating contrasts of flavor and texture, yet was direct and uncomplicated too; a miraculous combination. Even the quantity of truffles used was modest, compared with how some fancy restaurants throw the stuff around in order to look important, and to pump up the bill.

With this unforgettable dish was served the 2012 Morstein Riesling GG from Weingut Wittmann, one of the most exciting dry Rieslings of that excellent vintage in Germany. I’ve tasted this wine many times, but never did it reveal its dark earthy secrets as it did on that evening. At the end of the evening I felt that I’d not only fully experienced black truffles for the first time, but also the Rieslings from the Morstein vineyard, although I’ve been tasting and drinking them for more than twenty years! That’s what happens when I hit the Riesling Trail and I get really lucky.

As I write this snow is billowing past the window although spring officially begins in just a few minutes. It makes me nostalgic for that evening in Singapore with Iggy, Ying, that amazing dish and beautiful wine! Many thanks to both of you for making that moment of revelation possible. Also thanks to Michael & Tina Thurner in Vienna and Unique Food and Wine in Singapore for organizing that dinner. Thanks Tina for the photos.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 8 – That Strange and Rare Substance Called TRUTH

Yes, this blog is all about that strange and rare substance called truth. Sometimes, I feel as if truth has become something seriously dangerous to be found in possession of. Political leaders of all persuasions, but particularly those of a “nationalistic” type who regard the nation, religion, party or belief-system that they stand for as beyond criticism, have become very anxious to prevent the general population from getting their hands on this substance. One method of achieving this goal, is to deny us access to as many of the facts as possible; another is to remove as much as possible of the context from the facts that are available, so that they become ciphers. What does the above photograph depict? If I tell you it was taken late at night in a street of the town of Geneva in Upstate New York while I was there recently researching the wines of the Finger Lakes, then it might suddenly make a great deal more sense than it does without that information. As Nietzsche wrote, “the context is the facts,” that is the two are as inseparable as space-time are according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In fact, I see a very close parallel between these two things.

This is undeniably a “dark” posting, but although I’ve been sick the last couple of days there’s no direct connection between that and the content of these lines. This stuff has been going through my head for a long time. Let’s face it, as long as life goes on there’s no exit from the situation I’ve just described, although during my lifetime there was certainly a period when it was much less dangerous to be found in possession of  that strange and rare substance called truth. However, political paranoia and the related desire for a clear front between friend and foe have won out again, as they did during the First Cold War. Regardless of the subject, to be a journalist today in the full sense of that word is to take a position that will be attacked by one or more political establishments. For a long time I naively imagined that the harmless subject of wine would protect me, but as long term readers know I often fail to stay on subject, and even if I did, wine connects with so many other fields (most notably, but not only, land-use, economics, global trade, law and science). And I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t the case, as some other journalists writing about wine do. By, the way, the photo above was taken in the ‘Microclimate’ wine bar in Geneva/NY. Watch this space and watch your back!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 5 – Is this the ROCKY HORROR RIESLING SHOW? No, it’s FLX Sweet Surrender!

After KISTLER MY ASS (scroll down to see my previous blog posting)

is this now the ROCKY HORROR RIESLING SHOW ???

No way! These are just some of the nobly-rotten grapes from which Red Tail Ridge winery in the Finger Lakes (FLX) in Upstate New York made their sensational 2013 Riesling ‘907’, one of the best sweet white wines produced anywhere in America. And a 500ml bottle of this nectar costs only $29.99 from the winery!

The combination of FLX, Riesling and sweet on the label used to be a recipe for disaster. The problem was that only the least good grapes were used for these wines, and due to poor vineyard management that often meant the dregs. Any Riesling grapes that were reasonably ripe and clean were used for dry and medium-dry wines. Back in the Bad Old Days sweetness was used by many FLX winemakers as a kind of all-purpose Band Aid that would, to some limited degree, mask green acid, the murky flavor of non-noble rot and a multitude of other minor sins. However, there’s no way to hide the lack of attractive ripe aromas in Riesling; that leaves a hole no amount of sweetness can ever fill. So those wines were at best boring, at worst crude and cloying. No thanks!

My recent trip to the FLX hammered home how much has changed for the better and raised an important question: Why did the upswing in the quality of FLX dry and medium-dry Rieslings during the last couple of years receive such wide media coverage, but the transformation of the sweet FLX Rieslings got only a tiny fraction of those column inches and web pages? Because “sweet” is still a major turn-off for the older generation of male consumers many of whom cling to the dry wine gospel as if it were a life-saver and they were drowning men.

Few people in the wine industry, except for Tyler Balliet, the creator the Wine Riot phenomenon (see www.secondglass.com for more info), have succeeded in actively reaching out to the Millenials; a generation with none of the old-fashioned hang-ups about sweetness in wine. The reason you didn’t already hear about the stunning new sweet Rieslings is that most wine and food journalists belong to that older generation and are fixated on Germany for that wine style. Sure, Germany makes some amazing sweet Rieslings, but this is far from being the whole story.

Logically, the FLX ought to be an ideal location for sweet Riesling, because most years the grapes can hang long into the fall without losing the acidity needed to give sweet wines the laser-like brightness that makes them shine like diamonds. The wine growing challenge is to prevent rot of the non-noble kinds from destroying them before those great aromas develop. Recent research in the FLX by Imelda Ryona & Gavin L. Sacks of Cornell University has shown that most of the exciting Riesling aromas develop late to very late in the growing season. The lakes supply the necessary moisture for noble rot to develop, but noble rot is only really noble when it strikes grapes that are already ripe or slightly over-ripe. For Riesling “long hang time,” isn’t just a buzzword!

Given dry conditions after noble rot (the fungus Botrytis cinerea) infects ripe or over-ripe grapes, the fungus punctures the skin of every berry hundreds of times and water evaporates through those holes resulting in the berry shriveling, thus concentrating the aromas and flavors. Simultaneously enzymes released by the growing fungus transform hundreds of substances in the grape. In total, a “magical” transformation occurs and it worlds wonders with the Riesling grape. Even a little bit of this process makes elegant and moderately sweet “Spätlese-type” possible, and once the majority of the berries in each bunch have shriveled significantly the lusher and more honeyed “Auslese-type” are on the cards if the winemaker understands how to properly handle stuff looking like the first picture. (I use the German terminology for lack of anything better).

On my recent trip to the FLX I tasted some great Spätlese-type sweet Rieslings at Boundary Breaks (’11 and ‘14), Kemmeter (‘12) Red Newt (‘13 and ’14), and in the Auslese-type category Bellangelo (’14) Bloomer Creek (‘13), Kemmeter (’13) and Red Tail Ridge (’13), and this is not a complete list! Johannes Reinhardt of Kemmeter, pictured above, is the rising star in this field, although the first vintage for his new winery was 2012. Look for his spectacular 2013 ‘SanSan’, when it is released.

The one name missing from this list is Hermann J. Wiemer, but Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke are the masters of this style. Their Spätlese-type and Auslese-type Late Harvest Rieslings have been stunning since I first visited the winery back in fall 2004. Their 2013 and ’14 wines of these styles (from $24.50 per bottle at the winery) are spectacular and remain the benchmark for all other FLX winemakers. Clearly, Fred and Oskar, pictured below in their new combo tasting room and press-house, have now become a source of inspiration for many of their colleagues. Thankfully, none of those named above are trying to carbon-copy the Wiemer style, rather each is reaching out in their own direction. That, no less than the special climatic conditions, is what gives the new wines their originality.

Last, but not least, there remains some confusion about the role for these wines on the dining table. My experience is that even the lusher Auslese-type wines are rarely sweet enough to accompany dessert. However, with blue cheeses both the Spätlese-type and Auslese-type wines are spectacular, and if you put some blue cheese in your hamburger that would be a great combo too. The Spätlese-type Rieslings are also great with shrimp and vegetable tempura, or even fish and chips. And those are just the no-brainers!

For much more about sweet Riesling consult my BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (pub. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, NYC, 2014).

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 1 – “Kistler sucks!” or the Painful Truth about High-End Bullshit Chardonnay (and an Exciting Alternative)

I got some flak for writing the words Bullshit Chardonnay in my recent book ‘Best White Wine on Earth – The Riesling Story’ (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Some people, including those of high intelligence with a well-developed sense of irony, didn’t appreciate the fact that I was not dismissing all dry white wines and sparkling wines made from the Charodnnay  grape, but was talking about Chardonnays that are too oaky, and/or too alcoholic, and/or too sweet and/or have no real Chardonnay character. Sadly, there’s an ocean of that kind of bullshit wine out there on liquor store shelves and on wine lists.

On the other hand, I love elegant and subtle Chardonnay. One of my favorite dry white wines in the entire world is the Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, and the Terroirs Blanc de Blanc Champagne from Agrapart is one of my favorite sparkling wines in the entire world. Today in New York Wine City (NYWC) was a day of dramatic Chardonnay contrasts, and I feel compared to share with you the most important of them. I know that there are a bunch of other people out there in NYWC and beyond who feel the same way as me, but mostly they’re whispering these things amongst themselves, because this is an opinion widely considered to be politically incorrect. One of them who knew he couldn’t be overheard put it bluntly, “Kistler sucks!” What I’m talking about is High-End Bullshit Chardonnay, that is expensive wines made from this grape with famous brand names on the label that suck. Unfortunately, there are a bunch of producers of this category and Kistler in Sonoma County/California is one.

Kistler describe themselves as “a small, family-established and privately owned and operated winery dedicated to the vinification of world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.” To underline this, on the front page of the website the only text is a quote from Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate, “If the Kistler Winery could be magically transported to the middle of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, it would quickly gain a reputation as glorious as any producer of Brugundy grand crus.” Unfortunately, every time I tasted the Kistler Chardonnays during the last years including today in NYWC, I found them gruesomely oaky, lacking in charm and balance. The best way I can communicate to you how I feel about these wines is to ask you how you would feel if someone took one of Matisse’s richly colored  paintings and nailed some boards across it as is done with the windows of abandoned homes?

The problem with the Kistler Chardonnays is not only that claim to be world class, but the prices that go with it. www.wine-searcher.com gives the average retail price of the ‘Les Noisetiers’ Chardonnay from Kistler as $69. The 2013 vintage of this wine was the cheapest of the Kistler Chardonnays I tasted today, and the 2013 Vine Hill Chardonnay was the most expensive at $104 according to wine-searcher. Clearly, there are a bunch of people out there who feel different about these wines to me, or they wouldn’t sell so well, but to my mind they are caricatures of what the Kistler Chardonnays used to be back in the 1980s and early 1990s. No thank you!

Finally, we come to the wine pictured above, the 2013 Sonoma County Chardonnay from Lioco. This is a rather new California winery, just a shade under ten years old. I first encountered their wines about a year ago, and since then I’ve tasted and drunk them many times. However, today was the first time I experienced this, their cheapest Chardonnay. It is a vividly fresh wine with just a touch of creaminess and bright lemon and pear aromas that leap right out at you; a joyful Chardonnay that is screaming to be poured with dinner tonight! Wine-searcher gives the average price as $21, but it was no problem for me to find a source for this wine at $17.99. There is an alternative and it isn’t expensive!

“They call us New California,” Matt Licklider of Lioco said to me today, “but the irony is that we’re Old California. We’re making wines that are like those from before the Wine Spectator and Robert Park explosion hit the state.” There’s something to mull over, maybe also for the folks at Kistler.

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Finger Lakes Riesling Diary: Day 4 – FLX Dream Teams

You could say that writing how certain wine winemaking teams have done something for an entire region like the Finger Lakes (FLX) in Upstate New York is just stating the obvious: producing wine in any quantity in any wine region is always the work of more than one person. However, this argument ignores the fact that there are positive and negative teams. In the latter case energy is wasted, the initiative is lost and either practices that are detrimental to wine quality (and even profitability) are stupidly perpetuated, or a lot of random dumb shit happens. In contrast, the members of a positive team reinforce each others’ determination, hard work and creativity, lifting the quality of the wines and the appreciation of them out there in the Big Wide Wine World.

Shannon and Paul Brock, pictured above took over Silver Thread Vineyard back in the summer of 2011 and since then they have successfully reinvented the small and slightly eccentric (in the positive sense) winery that Richard Figiel founded. Just like his wines, theirs are daringly original and always need some time to show their best, however, they’re considerably more consistent in style and quality than Figiel’s wines were. Their quartet of single vineyard dry Rieslings from 2013 (current vintage) are just beginning to come into their best form; racy and mineral terroir wines of considerable subtlety.

The winemaking team of Kim Engle and Katy Koken at Bloomer Creek, pictured above, also work on the Eastern Shore of Seneca Lake and share the Brocks’ disdain for the way some wine producers throw chemicals around in the vineyard with too little concern for the consequences. However, here Katy is the “assistant vigneron” and Kim is the founder, or perhaps I should say the “inventor” of a daring wine style that emphasizes spice and texture, rather than bright fruit aromas and crisp acidity (the style that’s still the norm in FLX). Here, the wines get all the time they need to unfold before bottling, and the number of different lots of Riesling in the cellar is staggeringly large for a producer. More about these FLX Outer Limits wines will follow in the near future!

Bellangelo on the west bank of Seneca Lake has been around for a while, but under Chris Missick (centre) it has acquired a new dynamic that has just been shifted up a couple of gears by the appointment of Nathan Kendall (left) as winemaker from the 2014 vintage. From the cask samples of Riesling and Chardonnay I tasted (yes, I believe this variety also has a future in the FLX) he and assistant winemaker Daniel Bissel seem to make a great team in the cellar and form a creative triumvirate with Chris. Certainly their new Rieslings will be more aromatically and texturally complex than the wines of the previous vintages from this producer. Watch this FLX space!

 

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Finger Lakes Riesling Diary: Day 3 – My Great Eye-Opening in the Land of Ice and Snow

I’m sure that many of you think, that after 30 years of doing the Riesling Thing as intensely as I have, I’ve got nothing to learn from another trip to a wine region like the Finger Lakes (FLX) in Upstate New York like my present one. And to be honest, during the five hour Greyhound Bus ride up to Ithaca on Wednesday I also thought that I’d taste a bunch of new wines and get a first feel for the 2014 vintage in the FLX, but probably not much more. However, through running around and tasting those wines I discovered something fundamental to this region’s identity, something that I’d never have got if I hadn’t come up here.

It was Kelby Russell of Red Newt Winery in Hector, pictured above, who at the breakfast table this morning pushed me towards full realization of an important truth: during the icy and snowy depths of the FLX winter the wine in the outdoor tanks partially freezes. Currently a good part of the contents of every outdoor tank (the water in the wine) is a thick sheet of ice on the inside of the tank. This probably sounds seriously mad to, and I also feared that that it might seriously harm the wines – all those delicate Riesling aromas! – but the fact is that all it does is put them into a state of “suspended animation”. Kelby told me that he sees this as a positive, “because while the wines are in that state nothing can happen to them.” Being the precise and thoughtful winemaker he is, he then pointed out that you still have to watch out for oxidation, because at the moment they unfreeze they are most vulnerable to that (something else I didn’t realize before).

My guess is that word about this highly unusual situation will spread as a result of the upward curve these wines are on in the marketplace, and within a couple of years at the max wine geeks will be probing FLX winemakers about every single one of their Rieslings, honing in on the wines that went through the Big Freeze.  The mainstream wine press will run stories about the Big Freeze and earnestly debate it’s advantages for the wines. Somms will apologize to customers that the wines which went through the Big Freeze are not noted on the list, “but if you ask me, then I’ll tell you which ones did.”

I’m afraid this is the only decent picture I got of the outdoor tanks (at Red Newt), because it was so cold I didn’t dare hang out with those tanks for any longer than I really had to. Even coming from New York Wine City, which had its coldest winter weather in a long, long time this is another dimension of cold. For the first time this winter there was absolutely no question of going out for even a short walk without long johns. To my mind, this is part of the nature of this region, even it’s terroir. This is the second year in a row that there will have been winter damage to the vines and it will be interesting to see just how many of the vine buds actually do spring into growth when spring finally comes. This (again) raises a fundamental question as to the future of frost-sensitive varieties like Merlot and Grüner Veltliner.

The other thing which I didn’t realize is more basic, but perhaps of even greater importance. Dry FLX Riesling has made a big leap up in popularity during the last couple of years, and it did so without poaching consumers from the medium-dry field. The new excitement for the dry wines means that people are daring to drink FLX Riesling with food in the same kind of way they drink Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc (not always as dry as they claim to be) with food. The volumes of wines like the Fox Run and Boundary Breaks Dry Riesling have increased dramatically, and that is a trend which seems to still be on an upward curve. How far can it go? My guess is that in about five years the main market for FLX Riesling will split between dry and medium-dry wines, with the sweeter wines becoming an important niche. Rieslings that taste more like juice than wine will become rarer. But maybe I’m being too optimistic and I’m heading for another Great Eye-Opening at some later date.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 10 – Problems Past, and the Present Challenge

It’s often asserted that the 1971 German wine law was The Great Problem, the one cataclysmic cause of that Temporary Lapse of Riesling from which the world has been emerging (some places faster than others) since the last turn of the century. However, I have to point out that de facto nearly all of that wine law still applies, and, in spite of that fact, German Riesling made a quantum leap in average quality during the last 15 years and achieved much wider acceptance on the domestic market as a direct result of this development. In fact, the problem in Riesling’s homeland was an interlocking set of mutually reinforcing factors of which the wine law was one, but that would require a scholarly work of some length to adequately analyze. Internationally, the complexity of the situation was lesser and is therefore more easily unravelled.

Recently in London, Jancis Robinson spoke about how her first wine was an off-dry white called Lutomer Laski Riesling from what is today Slovenia, but was then part of Yugoslavia. I shivered involuntarily as she spoke that name, because this was usually the cheapest wine in a 75cl bottle on the shelf in UK supermarkets when I started drinking wine with some regularity back in the late 1970s. It is hard to describe how rough and ugly that wine tasted back then, because today no wines on the supermarket shelf taste that bad! Of course, Lutomer Laski Riesling wasn’t made from the noble Riesling grape, but from Laski Riesling, aka Welschriesling, aka Riesling Italico, a grape with no close genetic relationship to Riesling. Emerald Riesling, a crossing of Riesling and Muscadelle bred at UC Davis for the warm climate of California (it’s also quite widely cultivated in Israel, because it retains it’s acidity when grown in warm climates) is another example of this. International trade agreements that stopped grapes like this using and abusing the good name of Riesling were a vital step towards my favorite grape’s rehabilitation.

What the 1971 German wine law did was to simultaneously enable the long term exploitation of geographic names traditionally associated with high quality Riesling wines, e.g. Piesport/Mosel and Nierstein/Rhienhessen, and to virtually free producers from any limit on the level of sweetness that those wines could contain. It was the combination of those factors which created sweet ‘n’ cheap ‘n’ famous-sounging, the combination that achieved such mass appeal with such deadly consequences. However, that shouldn’t be seen as an isolated phenomenon rather in the supermarket shelf context where those wines stood close to Lutomer Laski Riesling (in the UK) or Emerald Riesling (in the US) and other similar pretenders. That shelf became a bozos’ corner which any wine drinker who believed she or he was drinking only better wines avoided like a leper’s colony, and it was this that hammered Rieslings reputation.

Thankfully, that stuff either isn’t going on any more, or is drastically reduced (depending upon where you are on Planet Riesling). The problem for Riesling today is really only the challenge of persuading consumer to try the wines with an open mind, that is without thinking that it must all be sweet ‘n’ cheap and Germanic. Today, a lot of contemporary dry German wines don’t taste the way consumers expect Germanic wines to taste! That sweet ‘n’ cheap image is the long shadow of the Temporary Lapse of Riesling, and it’s length results from deeply-rooted prejudices. For many people it still seems to be unthinkable that the same nation could produce The Ultimate Driving Machine (BMW’s slogan in the US) and also offer The Ultimate Drinking Pleasure. That’s the slogan I propose for German wine in the US with the goal not only of changing the wines’ image, but also the image of Germany as a whole. Why not?

PS My apologies for delay in getting this brief story up, but I was sick for almost a week with a very nasty cold.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 4 – Holy Burgundy (and the actual wine growing region that’s contiguous with it)

I’ve been to Burgundy in France many times, mostly I had a great time there, and I tasted many wonderful burgundy wines red and white (next to some grossly over-priced inferior wines), but in spite of all that I never saw, felt or tasted Holy Burgundy. Many somms, experts, critics and wine freaks have talked to me at length about that “place”, and clearly they believe implicitly in its existence, but it remains a myth to me. I therefore have to assume that it’s like an aura exactly overlapping the actual wine growing region of Burgundy and its wines that some people can see with a kind of vinous “third eye”. For better or worse, I just don’t get that, perhaps because I’m a member of the reality-based community. That’s the reason I find all this Holy Burgundy stuff seriously spooky.

All of that went through my head as I entered the glitzy Restaurant A Voce in the Time Warner Centre in Manhattan, one of the least spooky places that I can imagine on this wine planet of ours. There the NYC importing company of Frederic Wildman held their annual Burgundy tasting at which the 2013 vintage was presented (nearly always in the form of cask samples). This was a fascinating contrast to the tasting staged yesterday in NYC by In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB – see below), the group of California producers of wines from the same grapes – the red Pinot Noir and the white Chardonnay – who’s collective goal is to make wines with balance, elegance and subtlety. These are exactly the qualities that are supposed to make red and white Burgundy stand out so far above other wines that prices going into the hundreds of dollars per bottle wholesale are justified.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve tasted this many high-end burgundies in such a short period of time, and the reason for that long gap is that pricing. However, I assiduously judged these wines purely on taste, then looked at the price list, just as I do for all other wines. How a person feels about the smell and taste of a wine is a fundamental form of reality, but it is one that’s easily influenced by things like price and the situation in which a wine is served (which I have described for that reason). Although there were a few tart and lean reds, and some of the whites from less famous appellations were rather simple, there were many impressive wines. Most exciting of all were the innovations, by which I mean an excellent producer I was previously unfamiliar with, and the results of a radical change of direction at a very well established producer.

Domaine Jacques Prieur is one of Burgundy’s Big Names with holdings in a slew of the elite Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyard sites upon which the region’s reputation depends, and which are also a focus of the Holy Burgundy cult. In 2008 Edouard Labruyère, pictured above, took over direction of winemaking at the family’s wineries including Domaine Jacques Prieur, and what he’s done for the white wines since then is really remarkable. The 2013 whites I tasted had a stunning freshness and purity of aroma and flavor, the oak aromas form aging in oak barrique casks (only 20% of them are new) and the creaminess from contact of the young wines with the lees (there is no stirring of the deposit of dead yeast in the casks) very discrete. The 2013 Meursault Santenots her Cru had a delicate aroma of honeycomb, was racy and intensely mineral; one of the best young white burgundies I’ve tasted in years! Riesling fans, you will almost certainly love these wines as I do (but please look at the prices before ordering!) Maybe the change in style at Domaine Jacques Prieur is less pronounced in the red wines, but they too are brighter, less opulent and oaky then they used to be (all positive). Congratulations!

The discovery was Domaine Lignier-Michelot in Morey St. Denis. The 2013 Bourgogne Rouge from Virgile Lignier is the first wine of this lowly Appellation (I’d say it was an almost anti-Holy Burgundy designation on the label) that impressed me in many years. Not only did the wine have plenty of fruit, but also supple dry tannins and a harmonious acidity for this high-acidity vintage. There were more expensive examples of this Appellation on show at the tasting which tasted mean and tart in direct comparison. I also found the 2013 Chambolle-Musigny from this producer stunningly “untypical”. Chambolle is supposed to be a delicate and lacy wine, but this was powerful, tannic red full of ripe black berry aromas. I find it exciting when producers dare to be that different, also in (Holy) Burgundy!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 3 – In Pursuit of Balance (and Open-Mindedness) in NYC, now with an important PS

Often Riesling People – producers, somms, writers and fans – look across at the world of the wines from the red Pinot Noir and white Chardonnay grapes as if that were a parallel universe in which everything is always seriously exciting, completely harmonious and very cool at prices far above what even the most famous Riesling producers command. At best, this is a gross over-simplification that reduces the complex and subtle shadings of the real world to the level of a cartoon. If you attended the NYC tasting of the In Pursuit of Balance group of California producers today, then it must be clear to you that in fact this universe (be it alternative or otherwise) is the location an epic struggle, and this is not about details, rather it goes to the very core of what these wines could or should be.

The important thing to point out right from the beginning is, that the wines I tasted today were not willfully strange or extreme in the way some so-called “natural” wines are. Instead, there was a common striving for bright aromas, freshness, moderate body, together with alcohol and tannins that aren’t obtrusive, much less dominate the flavor of the wine. I think it’s fair to also describe this as the search for wine styles that avoid the heaviness of body, monumental density of flavor and up-front power that were long touted by many critics and experts as the Holy Grail of West Coast winemaking. Along with those things, the members of IPOB reject the combination of very high alcoholic content, low acidity, massive tannins and one-dimensional sweet flavors that often resulted from pursuing these goals. Many of the IPOB members are actually no longer in pursuit of balance, because their wines have it and in ways that are impressive, surprising and invigorating. It was really exciting to taste the best of them, and found this the most interesting wine tasting in NYC for a very long time.

However, not everyone in the wine scene sees it that way, some of the most important wine critics in America are skeptical about these wines, and a few of them, most notably the Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube, seem to regard these wines as the result of a misguided view of what California wines are all about. The skeptics fear that the IPOB members are not often picking their grapes unripe, condemning them to be thin, tart and unharmonious. I think it’s important to point out that those wine critics didn’t come to those conclusions alone, rather there’s a community of wine professionals and passionate amateurs out there who are of the same opinion as Jim Laube. These are the front lines in that epic struggle.

It struck me today how IPOB is often portrayed as being a group of producers fixated upon making wines with a low alcoholic content, but actually the alcoholic contents of the wines varied enormously. Often I’m rather good at assessing the alcoholic content of wines by tasting them, but today I failed again and again, because the impression of lightness did not always correspond to low alcoholic content. At one end of the scale were the wonderfully vibrant and fragrant 2013 Pinot Noirs from Jamie Kutch that were all under 12.5% alcohol. Right at the other end of the scale was the stunningly elegant 2012 Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir from Josh Jensen’s Calera which had a substantial 14.7% alcohol. In the middle, were lovely wines like the 2013 Morning Dew Vineyard Pinot Noir from Drew Family Cellars in Alexander Valley with its bright cherry nose, and a simultaneously rich and slightly sappy flavor that tasted lighter than its rather conventional 13.8% alcoholic content. In short, there was great stylistic diversity allied to that common sense of purpose. I found myself in pursuit of greater open-mindedness and the fruits of this search were delightful and inspiring!

PS I think it’s important to point out that the most completely impressive groups of wines at the IPOB tasting were those from the “Old Hands” of Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Josh Jensen of Calera and Jeffrey Patterson of Mount Eden. Practice really does make perfect when it comes to elegance and subtlety in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

 

 

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