The moment I arrived in San Francisco the city’s cool, moist air caressed the parched and splitting skin of my hands that had been desiccated by the desert air of Western Colorado and Arizona. Although it feels distinctly more edgy on the streets of SF compared with the last time I walked them 6 years ago the city almost instantaneously started to work its magic on me again.
It’s a huge cliché, but when I first came to SF in 1986 I was just another lost soul seeking inspiration and enlightenment. I quickly realized that the sidewalks weren’t paved with either of them, but after I returned several times to the City Lights bookstore, the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park, then headed into the wine country of Monterey, Napa and Sonoma Counties all kinds of beautiful, dangerous and liberating ideas started popping into my head. However, during the last 6 years ago not only San Francisco but also Planet Wine changed dramatically.
“French winemakers used to look down on the California wine industry, but not any more. Now many Californian winemakers look down on places like Michigan and Virginia, Arizona and Colorado,” an anonymous American industry figure recently told me. My gut tells me that sentiment’s all prejudice, but for Arizona and Colorado I have fresh research, so I can back up that feeling with evidence and decisively say NO!
I just flew into SF after a few days in Grand Junction/Colorado for the VINco winemakers conference, then Phoenix for the 4th annual symposium of the Arizona Vignerons Alliance followed by 5 days traveling around the vineyards of Arizona’s mountainous North (pictured above is Caduceaus Cellars’ Judith Vineyard in Jerome) and the high plains in its South (pictured below is Rune’s new planting in Sonoita). The results of my research indicate that the term “emerging regions” for these places is not only patronizing, but also highly misleading, because there was significant wine production in both states prior to Prohibition. In the case of Arizona the history of winemaking goes back about around 400 years!
California certainly stole a march on those states during the late 20th Century, but that is not an adequate reason for some of the state’s winemakers, and all manner of other people across the US, to look down their noses at Arizona and Colorado and treat them as marginal areas with very limited potential for high quality wine production.
The spirit of California, also the spirit of Californian winemakers, was always one of daring to see and grasp new possibilities. It was freewheeling in the sense that there was not only a willingness to try the unfamiliar, but also to accept and live with the mistakes that would be made by choosing that path. I can’t tell you yet if California and the state’s wine industry still has that spirit, but the dynamic Arizona wine industry certainly has it.
It was my first trip to Arizona’s vineyards in almost five years and the leap forward both in quality and stylistic diversity was considerable. The red wines from producers like Doc Cabezas Wine Works, Caduceus Cellars, Callaghan Vineyards, Château Tumbleweed, Los Milics, Rune and Sand Reckoner Vineyards (in the latter case also the whites) now taste fresher, better balanced and more polished than almost anything that I tasted last time I was there. However, the most important change is the way they also taste way more striking than they were before. The best of them have strikingly original personalities that say, “I AM WHAT I AM and only this place, these people and this season could have made me that way!” This is the result of vision, a steep learning curve and the uncompromising determination of these winemakers.
Although Colorado is not yet as advanced with this process, there too I encountered a bunch of very well-crafted wines that had distinct personalities and would have no problem in the wine bars and restaurants of SF if they were given a chance. IF ONLY! The best of them were from Red Fox Cellars, Snowy Peaks Winery, Stone Cottage Cellars and The Storm Cellar. Here the range of grape varieties and blends is as eye-popping as in Arizona and must it too must be tasted to be believed.
That might make it sound as if these two winemaking regions are cut from the same cloth, and it’s true that both are high-altitude wine regions with almost no vineyards planted below 1,000 meters/3,300 feet above sea level. However, climatically they’re very different. The biggest challenge in Arizona is the “monsoon” rains that descend upon the state’s vineyards shortly before the grapes are ready to be harvested and it is still warm, i.e. August/September. Of course, this can lead to rot, and sadly Riesling is one of the varieties that’s most susceptible to that. For Western Colorado the biggest problem is early frosts in fall, as happened in 2019. Just look at the graphic above (from an excellent interactive article in the New York Times about the weather pattern in 2019 around the world) that shows how Grand Junction experienced a sudden hard frost on October 10th. Not only did it make the curtain fall on grape ripening, but it also killed many of the vine buds for the 2020 crop and no doubt some vines of tender varieties too. Thankfully, the best producers saw this coming and picked their grapes of the late-ripening varieties (inc. Riesling) just in time.
Theoretically, California has a balmy climate compared to both these states. I remember how some Napa winemakers were shocked by the merest hint of frost back in January of last year. However, the fires of 2017 and 2019 in California wine country show that climate change has many ugly faces. Several farsighted producers in Napa now expect Cabernet Sauvignon – the region’s main grape with 65% of all vineyards and a grape crop value of $1 billion – to become untenable around 2030 because of the warming climate. Of course, they are preparing for that. Oh, and there’s a glut of unsold bulk wine. So, the reality is nobody has it easy and everyone is challenged. There is no Holy Land on Planet Wine!
Here is the second part of the presentation the Paula Sidore and I made at the ProWein Media Summit on Climate Change at the Geisenheim Wine University. We wanted to prove that you can taste a variety of strategies for dealing with what we call the Climate Challenge. Scroll down if you want to start with the more theoretical Part 1. #unitebehindthescience !
Stuart Pigott: Not so long ago I wrote a blog posting called Cool Climate is Dead in Old Wine Europe. It was inspired by the fact that the heat summation for the vegetation period of 2018 in Geisenheim/Rheingau (not the warmest place in Germany) was just below the long-term average for Barossa Valley/South Australia, by no stretch of the imagination a cool climate wine region! 2019 was another warm year with a new summer high record being set in Germany. The last cool years here 2010, 1996, 1991 and 1987, so they are getting ever rarer. The last cold year was 1984, so global warming already abolished them. This is part of a general pattern through the continent’s “classic” winegrowing regions, that is Old Wine Europe.
Cool climate still exists though in New Wine Europe, for
example, Poland. That coutnry now has 534 hectares of vines split between 447
wineries, up an incredible 2,500% since 2000. Two years ago Paula and I showed
a dry white wine of the Solaris grape produced by the Turnau estatePoland’s largest
with 24 hectares, at another ProWein tasting and it astonished everyone who
attended. Solaris is also the most important grape variety (42%) for Denmark,
which now boasts a total of 98 hectares of vines split between 90 commercial
vineyards. There are around 40 vineyards in Sweden and perhaps as many as 12 in
Norway (including Weingut Keller of Flörsheim-Dalsheim/Rheihessen!) However,
statistically the most important member of New Wine Europe is the UK, and our
first wine, a sparkling wine, comes from there.
Balfour 1503 Classic Cuvée
Brut NV from Hush Heath in Kent/United Kingdom
Since 2000 the vineyard area of the UK increased by 300% to
3,579 ha. Just under 70% of these vineyards are planted with the three main
Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, and they are used
almost exclusively for the production of Champagne methode sparkling wines.
2018 was the largest vintage to date in the UK with a total wine production of
13.2 million bottles, or which just over 9 million bottles will be sparkling
wines like this. Balfour is very much part of the UK spakling wine boom, the first
vineyard having been planted in 2002.
Paula Sidore: 1503 refers to the year the
Hush Heath Manor was built. The cuvée is 64% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay and 4%
Pinot Meunier, the vines were 14 years old, planted on clay over sand, a
different geology to Champagne’s chalk. The base wine was fermented in
stainless steel with 12 months on the lees to retain fruit freshnes. The the
acidity is a staggering 12 grams/Liter (measured as tartaric acid), even higher
than in Champagne. There are 10.6 grams/Liter of sweetness from dosage, but because
of the huge acidity ithey are’t obvious. And there’s just 11.5% alcohol, which
would be an unusually low figure for a Champagne. In the end it tastes rather
Champagne like, but with a fresher acidity.
Even as England is enjoying a boon from rising temperatures,
across the Channel the Champagne region is getting very nervous. Over the past
30 years there has been a 1.1° C increase in average temperature during the
vegetative persiod in the Champagne region and grape maturation is now happening
closer to 80+ days after bloom, rather than the traditional 100 days after
bloom. That means harvest is taking place an average of 18 days earlier than 30
years ago. 2019 saw a 10-11% crop loss due to sunburn, with the highest
temperature ever recorded in Champagne: 42.9° C. During the last 30 years acidity
levels have also dropped by 2 grams per liter (measured as tartaric acid) and
potential alcohol levels have increased by an average of 0.7%.
Many winemakers are already stressing that, as a result, the Champagnes they are producing today are very different from those made by their fathers. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Chef de Cave for Louis Roederer, joked: “We invented bubbles to make up for unripe grapes. As farmers, our job, our life, our passion has been to adapt to climate change for hundreds of years. If the future heats up too much,” he jokes, “we’ll just have to make Burgundy.”
Intense “mag 15” BRUT NV from A.R. Leonble in Champagne/France
In 2014, organically minded, 18 hectare, Champagne House AR Lenoble in Damery/Marne, co-owned by winemaker Antoine Malassagne and sister Anne, began bottling their “mag” series in an effort to drive continued freshness in their Champagnes. Reserve wines are traditionally a kind of insurance policy against crop damage, or to blend with the current vintage to achieve a particular, replicable style. The percentage of reserve wines contained in this blend is an unprecedented 45%, many of which were aged in magnums under natural cork under a pressure of 1.5 atmospheres. The magnum format has the ideal “liquid to oxygen” ratio, and as these reserve wines age under pressure are therefore protected from oxygen, resulting in a subtly aromatic palate and excellent freshness. They feel that reserve wines also add extra freshness.
This wine was hand harvested, pressed using the traditional
vertical wooden press, only the first run of juice going into the fermenter. The
blend is 45% Pinot Meunier, 40% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay. Each varietal
was vinified separately, mostly in stainless steel vats, but about 15% was
fermented in new oak barrels. The doasge is a very low at 3 grams/Liter.
Variety may be the spice of life, but when it comes to what you plant in the vineyard it’s also a really significant decision for the winemaker. Here are two different approaches to the question of survival through the choice of grape variety. While some winemakers have reached for disease resistant vine crossings (so-called Piwis), many others are reaching for the past to prepare for the future by fostering heritage varieties that were all but extinct.
2017 Orléans from Weingut Georg Breuer in Rheingau/Germmany
Native varieties are
often far better suited to an individual terroir than international varieties. Orleans
is one of those varieties. It is a rare white wine grape variety grown in small
proportions in the Pfalz and Rheingau. During the 19th century, the
thick-skinned, high acid variety thrived in the best vineyards of the Rheingau
and Pfalz, especially on the Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg, and often in field
blends together with Riesling, Silvaner, and others. The high demands it placed
on the vineyard – only the very best were good enough to ripen it – meant that
it was eventually almost entirely replaced by the earlier-ripening and more
aromatic Riesling. The variety is among the earliest proven Frankish varieties,
first mentioned under the name Hartheunisch in 1539. By 1890, Orleans was down
to 11.4 ha and the last Orleans wine was pressed in 1921.
The variety was long thought to be extinct, then in the 1980s a few old feral vines were found growing on the terraces of Germany’s Rüdesheimer Berg vineyard by Professor Helmut Becker of the Geisenheim Wine University. Experimental plantings were carried out in Laumersheim/Pfalz by Weingut Knipser cloned from 7 old vines from the Cistercian monastery Eberbach. In November 2008 five wild Orleans grapevines were discovered by the biologist Andreas Young near the single vineyard monastery Disibodenberg of the Klostermühlenhof winery in Odernheim/Nahe), estimated to be at least 500 years old, making them the oldest vines in the world.
In 1995, Bernhard Breuer
of Weingut Breuer returned Orléans to its Rheingau origins, by planting 500
vines on the slopes of Berg Schlossberg. The wine is vinified in a small wooden
barrel, as an homage to the region’s tradition and story. Production is about
400 bottles annually. The wine has a certain general resemblance to Riesling,
but the aromas are totally different.
Stuart Pigott: Now let’s turn to a totally
contrasting example of a heritage variety being rediscovered.
2016 La Mirande de Secastilla
from Vina del Vero in Somontano/Spain
The vineyards of the Vina del Vero estate in the DO Somanto are situated in the foothills of the Pyranees at 400 – 800 meters above sea level. The region is lush, green and hilly, and as a somewhat new appelation (1984) has taken a fresh approach to winemaking, varieties, vineyard practices and packaging. And while the region is famous for ripe but elegant Cabernet Sauvignon reds, the traditional grape of the region is actually the indigenous Garnacha, aka Grenache. After Vina del Vero was acquired by Gonzalez Byass in 2008 they decided there was great potential in the region’s Garnacha reds and they now produce two excellent wines, of which is the cheaper at just Euro 8,95. I included it in our tasting to demonstrate that sustainability is not just for super-premium wines drunk by the cool people and can also be undertaken by major players.
Garnacha is a late ripening variety, meaning that in warm
climates the grapes can be left on the vine quite long to develop complex
flavors. The high acidity/low pH and the delicate floral aromas of this wine show
what Garnacha is capable of at the cooler end of its climatic range. Low bush
vines planted at a low density require much less waterthan denser plantings of vines that are spalier trained on wires
in the conventional way, The hoodlike canopy of leaves also protects the grapes
from the afternoon sun and slows the evaporation of moisture from the ground directly
beneath the vine. Even if Somontano warms and dries considerably, the predicted
change in Spain generally, then Garnacha will still produce good wines with a
rather similar anlytical profile. In contrast, to extend Cabernet’s future in
the region it must be planted at higher altitude, which brings us to the next
Paula Sidore: Finally, we move from the
cooler climates into the powerhouse reds that fueled wine consumption in the
80s and 90s, the red blends of California and Bordeaux. With a rich, dense
opulent style and alcohol levels already topping 15% in warm years, the climate
challenge is real and heavy on the palate.
2016 Sonoma County Cabernet
Sauvignon from Benzinger in California
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes make America’s favorite wine, and
they are the lifeblood of Napa Valley, the USA’s most famous wine region.
Cabernet accounts for fully 65% of the grapevines grown in Napa, where last
year the crop reached a record $1 billion in gross value. But Cabernet, like much
of Californian agriculture, is under threat. As Napa’s wine industry continues to
confront rising temperatures a small but growing contingent of vintners is
becoming more vocal about the need to address climate change head-on.
While individual approaches in the estates (shade cloths, rotating the exposition of the vines) help, they are only a bandaid. Winemaker Dan Pietrowski from Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga/Napa said: “There’s going to come a point with Cabernet in Napa where you have it seared on the outside and completely raw on the inside. Cabernet sauvignon may no longer be well-suited to Napa Valley’s climate in 20 to 30 years.” Larkmead’s research block will include Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, “heritage varieties” that once were popular in Northern California, but were largely supplanted in recent decades by Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay as the market for those wines grew. The goal at Larkmead isn’t to replace Cabernet entirely, but to develop a larger palette of grape varieties with which to supplement it.
Stuart Pigott: Sonoma has not seen as much warming as many parts of the USA during the last century, in fact certain parts of the county have cooled slightly. However, the catastrophic forest fires in parts of Sonoma in 2017 and again this autumn, are almost certainly linked to climate change, so warming isn’t the only problem. Changes in rainfall patterns can only bring challenges.
The Benzinger family bought the old Wegener Ranch on the lower slopes of Sonoma Mountain back in 1980 and from 2000 the 85 hectares of high-altitiude vineyards they began conversion to biodynamic cultivation. They make classic style California wines without the massive to monolithic structure or the intense vanilla oak of many modern reds. They have also worked to make less of an impact on the environment, for example, reducing, water consumption per liter of produced wine from 100 to about 1. On average it takes 496 liters of water to produce a liter of California wine. This wine grew at between 130 m – 200 meter above sea level on volcanic clay and loam. It has 14.5% alcohol and a pH of 3.75, but California Cabernets can easily top 15% alcohol and sometimes go as high as 18%, pHs above 4.0 are not unusual.
2015 Château La Grave Trigant de Boisset from
More than any other famous Bordeuax wine appellation Pomerol
has a problem with climate change. Today 14% – 15% alcohol has become normal for
these wines in warm years like 2010, 2015 and 2018. As one of the region’s
leading winemakers who wishes to remain anonymous recently said, “if it gets
any warmer, then we will have to replace the Merlot grape, because in the good
vintages it now gives 15% alcohol.”
This wine is the best Pomwerol we could find for just under
Euro 50 per bottle. The property has 8 hectares of vineyards planted with 85%
Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc on gravel and clay soils on the western side of
the plateau of Pomerol. It was acquired by Christian Moueix in 1971 and they
aren’t afraid of modern winemaking technology. For example, all their top reds
are pressed under nitrogen. Thermo regulated concrete and stainless steel
areused for fermentation, extraction is cautious and the wine then spends 16-18
months maturing in French oak, 40% of which is new. That makes for a very silky
and sauve wine in spite of 14.5% alcohol. Quo Vadis Pomerol? No, I think rather
it’s rather Quo Vadis Bordeaux!
You see, according to France’s meterological service, in Bordeaux the average temperature during the vegetative period has risen 2°C since 1950. However, during the last decades the fashion for soft red wines with full body lead to a boom in the planting of the rather early-ripening Merlot grape. In 2000 it accounted for a whisker under 50% of all the region’s vineyards with 62,209 hecatres, but since then plantings leapt to 58.5% or 71,637 hecatres in 2017. This is exactly the wrong trend and the leading winemakers of St. Emilion, Pomerol and their “sattelite” appellations are already moving away from Merlot and towards the later ripening Cabernet Franc that gives wines significantly lower in alcohol and higher in acidity.
Paula Sidore: Recently, as a result of the research presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council initiated in 2003, winemakers in the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur appellations have the possibility to experiment with 7 additional varietals from the 2021 vintage: Arinarnoa, Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets; Alvarinho, Lilorita and Petit Manseng. Most of them are late-ripening, some are new to the region and some are forgotten ones making a comeback. “Climate change is challenging the very nature of our appellation system,” Bernard Farges, president of the AOC Bordeaux said, “If our wine is defined by the blend of grapes, the style and typicity will change with the climate. Or is it defined by a style and flavors? If the latter, you need to change the blend to maintain the wine’s identity in changing circumstances.”
Climate Challenge is of course NOT the first challenge the wine industry has faced, nor will it be the last. Europe faced the Phylloxera outbreak in the 1860s, then the great frost in 1956. Grapevines, like people, are resilient. All over Planet Wine, hard-earned wisdom that has been passed down through generations is being reconsidered. Where to put vineyards, which grape varieties to choose, hhow to farm the vines, how to make the wine and how to sell it — these key issues for wine producers must all be rethought as a result of ongoing climate change.
Then there is the consumer. These approaches only work when the consumer gets involved, educating themselves and then showing their support through their buying power and advocacy. As Ghandi said, “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…We need not wait to see what others do.” Personal and social transformation, he is suggesting, go hand in hand. We agree!
Here is the first half of the presentation that Paula Sidore (pictured above) and I made at the ProWein 2020: ProWein International Media Summit at the Geisenheim Wine University in the Rheingau/Germany on the 21st November 2019. The second half – coming soon! – includes what we said about the 6 wines we poured that day. Minimal editing was been undertaken for the sake of clarity.
Paula Sidore: I am an American wine writer, certified sommeliere and translator, specializing in German wine. I came to Germany from the USA in 2002, shortly before the summer that really seemed to “kick off” the awareness of Climate Change here in Europe, here in the wine industry. It was the point at which people – my president perhaps excluded – could no longer deny what was happening. 2003 presented conditions unlike anything many producers – especially those in traditional cool climate regions – had ever seen before. People died; crops withered. This was the point at which winemakers realized that talking, noticing, watching wasn’t enough. This was the point at which they knew: “We have to do something different.”
Now we’ve all spent the last 24 hours learning about the
threats of Climate Change to an industry we hold near and dear to our hearts,
our pens, and our lips. And even if
this information we’ve been receiving is upsetting, overwhelming, and frankly
depressing, Stuart and I are here to present you various approaches to sustainability, or, as I like survival.
Our presentation is called: Stayin’ Alive — we decided to spare you the sound track but imagine it running in the background. Since 2003 we’ve all been talking about Climate Change, but I’d like to change the vocabulary. See for me a Change implies a start and an end. It’s finite. If the last 15 years have done anything, they have proven to us that what is happening is anything but finite. It’s ongoing and its unpredictable, a locomotive barreling down on us with no indications of stopping. And farmers, winegrowers included, are in the crosshairs, standing on those railway tracks. So, for me, I prefer to think of it as a Challenge. A Climate Challenge. We all need to figure out an approach, realistically manyvaried and ever changing approaches to survival.
And part of that survival
is based on resilience, on figuring
out how to preserve a centuries’ long history and tradition, in many cases
taste, in a changing world. Ripeness levels are rising, and with them alcohol
levels. The last really “cool” vintage we had here in Germany was likely 2010,
and in Bordeaux you have to look even further back than that to 2002.
And yet the modern palate is crying out for Freshness! Lower Alcohol! More Acid! LIght, bright, lean and green. According to the PW Business report, 63% of retailers expect consumers to demand lighter and more refreshing wines as the shift in seasons continue. Even as longer, hotter summers continue to naturally bring heavier, riper and hotter wines. A very real and very difficult dilemma, because there’s no silver bullet for it. Perhaps it’s simply a case of people want what they can’t have, but I don’t think so. And regardless, part of survival is not just getting the wine produced, but also getting it sold. So what’s a winemaker to do?
There are as many survival options as there are wine regions. And over the course of an hour we certainly cannot even begin to cover them all. I do think, however, that it’s possible to break them down into 3 basic categories.
I Change the LOCATION in the polar and/or high altitude directio
1.10% of producers for the ProWein business report 2019 reported moving to different vineyards, with 17% considering such a move in the near future.
2. Grapevines have long thrived best in borderline environments and today Winemakers are pushing those limits: by seeking out cooler climates
3. Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway (2018 saw a Norwegian Riesling from Klaus Peter and Julia Keller of 76°Oechsle at 58° North!)
II Change the set up of the VINEYARDS: 60% of producers reported specific adaptations taken or planned in viticulture as a result
1.Growers are looking to curtail sunlight exposure of the grapes and/or canopy through a number of approaches in order to prevent overripening, rather than prevent under-ripening as had been for years the thinking
2. Change in exposition, vine height, canopy, variety and rootstocks that might do better in riskier conditions (frost, drought, etc)
3. 14% of wine producers in the ProWein business reported already having experiencing the need for other grape varieties due to climate change. 24% are planning change of this kind
Here New World winemaking has an advantage, as they are not legally restricted as the Europe is in terms of varieties and winemaking methods. This gives them the freedom to pursue a number of different approaches in a short amount of time to see what works best
Boredeaux is allowing seven additional non-traditional grape varieties into the appellations Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur to mitigate the effects of climate change on the region
2. One in two large wineries and bottlers reported having to employ new enological technologies to adapt their wines to market needs
3. Packaging: lighter glass bottles, since glass production is energy intensive:
For example, according to Jackson Family Wines who have been measuring their greenhouse emissions since 2008, they found that glass bottles from production to delivery accounted for 25% of the company’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Moving to lighter bottles immediately reduced their emissions by 3%.
Stuart Pigott: What does sustainable really mean? Mostly, for the contemporary wine industry it means certification that the producer/importer/distributor/retailer/restaurant/bar can hold up to show they are on the right side of the moral divide. In many places around Planet Wine consumers percepeive a moral hierarchy of these certifications with producers who are “natural” and biodynamic right at the top, then, in descending order, those who are biodynamic or natural, organic producers, sustainable producers and, at the bottom of the ladder, small conventional producers followed in last place by those of an industrial scale. I don’t want to knock sustainable certification of any kind, and I am certainly not attempting to make any moral judgments myself, but for me sustainability is all about survival. Given the Climate Crisis we find ourselves in due to the acceleration of global warming, that‘s the real S-word on Planet Wine in the 21st century.
Of course, survival has multiple meanings. What’s the real bottom line? I suggest it’s the question if we have enough food to eat and water to drink, a matter we will have to think about during the coming decades, even in the wealthiest countries as crop shortfalls due to climate change become more common and severe. However, on Planet Wine whether we can still get, or will still be able to get, the styles of wine and wines from the grape varieties we want is also a question of survival. I’m going to call it cultural survival – the survival of things we don’t want to lose, like the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard on the Mosel (pictured above) and the Riesling vines planted there. That example makes it clear that cultural survival also has social and economic aspects.
To show you where we really are now and why climate change really raises the issue of survival I have a couple of charts to show you. The first of them (below) shows the heat summations on the Huglin Index for the vine growing season (April – October in the Northern Hemisphere, the opposite end of the year in the Southern Hemisphere) for a range of winegrowing regions during the latter part of the 20th century. Today, we are in Geisenheim in the Rheingau, so I suggest that you look at the bottom end of the table to see where this region was a generation ago.
You need to look up the table a long way to find where it would stand, because 2018 was the warmest year ever recorded in Germany, that is, since Geisenheim started regularly collecting weather data in 1884. With 2312 on the Huglin Index it was almost as warm in Geisenheim as on the floor of Barossa Valley, and that’s a region mostly associated with powerful Shiraz (Syrah) reds with alcoholic contents of 14% – 15% plus! In 2008-9 I was a visiting student at the Geisenheim Wine University and back then I learned this is where the climate models said we would be around 2050! That and the heat waves of late June and July 2019 are the reasons that earlier this year I wrote the headline Cool Climate is Dead in Old Wine Europe.
The second table (below) gives an overview over what happened in recent years. Each vintage is the product of the weather during the growing season and temperature is the most fundamental aspect of that. During the period 1961-1990 the average temperature during the growing season in Geisenheim was 14.5°C. Then the majority or vintages had average temperatures in the 14.0° – 14.9°C range and gave more or less good wines, but several times per decade there were poor vintages with average temperatures below 14°C and then there were problems with un-ripeness, meaning green aromas, aggressive acidity and gritty tannins.
The top vintages were those with those years with average temperatures during the growing season of 15°C or more. A lot has been talked about the fact that Riesling is a cool climate grape variety, but actually it was only in those vintages that it came close to optimum ripeness, e.g. 1971 & 1976 in the 1970s when the harvest was also significantly earlier than in those vintages with average temperatures below 15°C. Of course, this raises the question as whether the characterization of Riesling a cool climate, late-ripening grape variety is entirely correct. At least to some degree it is a legacy of the conditions that were typical during the last centuries. During the Middle Ages Warm Period conditions were more like those today than the situation in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Of course, the 2018 vintage raises the question
whether it is now, or will soon be too warm for Riesling in Germany. Certainly,
the fact that the last poor vintage, i.e. growing season with an average
temperature below 14°C, was 1984 and that’s a long time ago. Just look at what
happened since 2000, there was only one vintage, 2010, with an average
temperature below 15°C (the previous ones were 1996 and 1991)!
If we turn back to Table 1, then close to the top is Clare Valley in South Australia. The largest Riesling growing region in the Southern Hemisphere has a higher heat summation than the floor of Barossa Valley, but the Riesling grape still gives crisp and aromatic wines there! This has a lot to do with not the dramatic diurnal temperature shift there; something Clare has in common with many other New World Riesling regions such as the Columbia Valley of Washington State/USA and Marlborough at the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.
Clearly, Riesling has a wider climatic range than is commonly supposed by most people in the wine business (never mind consumers), but as Professor Schulz of the Geisenheim Wine University, one of the problems we face in trying to plan the vineyards of the future is that we don’t know what the upper warmth limit is for many grape varieties. Wine growing regions at the cooler end of the climate scale for winegrowing where climate change has been more pronounced have entered uncharted waters.
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!