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New York Riesling Diary: Day 7 – A Tale of Two Wine Cities

Everyone has their blind spots, including me, and some of them are the product of the town you live in, as something that happened yesterday afternoon here in NYWC (New York Wine City) reminded me. I met up with a friend in the NYWC industry for a glass of wine, and as we parted she told me that the wine she was lugging around in a rucksack was Chablis. I told her how in my other home city of Berlin (pictured above) it’s really difficult to find top class Chablis, and that if you do the price is far higher than in NYWC. She found that very hard to believe, so to back up my argument I told her that the entire allocation for Germany from of the most famous Chablis producers is about the same quantity as just one top restaurant in NYWC buys of those wines each year from the local distributor! Most top class Chablis goes to Paris or New York. The extreme shortness of supply of those wines in Berlin allows the one completely reliable source, the KaDeWe department store, to charge high prices that nobody in NYWC would pay. My friend still seemed unconvinced. Why? Because the assumptions of our home town are deeply ingrained and get reinforced by daily contact with other people who are equally afflicted by them. The worst NYWC assumption is that everything on Planet Wine that’s any good must inevitably be obtainable here. The complete lack of distribution for many of Germany’s Jungwinzer, or young winemakers, is just one example of an NYWC blind spot. The other assumption that’s endemic to this city’s wine scene is that what is available here must also be available in all the other sophisticated cities around Planet Wine, which the example of top class Chablis reveals to be far removed from the truth. Sadly, as I told me friend I really like to drink Chablis, but only the top class stuff.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 3 – NYWC is the Place, #NOWIS the Time

The story of wine is one of the oldest, but there’s always a new way it can be told!

All the many projects I am involved with revolve around storytelling and recently (thanks Robert McKee for your wonderful book ‘Story’) I’ve come to realize that in spite of having been telling stories for more than 40 years I still have something to learn about storytelling.  Theoretically and practically it’s possible to tell a particular story anywhere that someone will listen or you can write it down, then transmit it (by whatever medium) to your readers. However, some stories really seem to grow so much better in a particular air, and, in the case of ones that demand really long-term commitment, they also appreciate some good soil to put their roots down into. So the location in which a story is told can really have an impact on how it is told in the positive sense. You also find every story, or find the new way of telling an existing story, somewhere too.

Ever since I arrived in NYWC (New York Wine City) I’ve been mentally working on a project that I’ve christened #NOWIS, although the ideas for this go back to the two semesters I spent at the wine university of Geisenheim in the Rheingau/Germany October 2008 thru July 2009. Not only did I learn a lot about wine growing and winemaking there, I also realized that a bunch of the “knowledge” I’d picked up beforehand was not just unsystematic or inexact (I was well aware of those problems when I arrived in Geisenheim), but plain wrong. The process of coming to all those realizations was a bit painful at the beginning, but I soon came to find it invigorating and inspiring, because I was jettisoning ballast and picking up a valuable cargo. That period of mind-expanding wine discovery fundamentally changed how I approach the subject I’ve been reporting on for 30 years. For reasons that will become apparent later, since I returned to NYWC from Toronto on Thursday #NOWIS has been exciting the conceptual phase and entering into the developmental one. So expect to hear a lot more about it during the months to come. WATCH THIS SPACE!

 

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Ontario Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The “Others” of Ontario

If you are on my wavelength, then you’re always interested in the things that don’t fit in, that is don’t fit into the mainstream, the pattern of convention, the box. Sometimes this is linked with failure, more commonly to modest success, so it was great to finally meet Norman Hardie of the eponymous winery in Prince Edward County who makes very unconventional, non-mainstream wines that don’t even acknowledge the box’s existence, but has managed to have a considerable success with them. His sleek and delicate, yet extremely expressive 2013 Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Riesling are probably the best wines he ever made. My iPhone photo shows him in the cellar of Barbarians Steak House on Elm Street in Downtown Toronto.

In his way Ilya Senchuk is every bit as daring as Norman Hardie, for his tiny Leaning Post winery in Stoney Creek/Niagara is a work of almost complete improvisation and the old barn that is its home has only been open to the public for 18 months. In spite of this his medium-dry 2013 Riesling has unusual ripeness and textural complexity for my favorite grape in this challenging climate, and immediately places him on my list of rising Ontario Riesling Stars. However, it its way his 2012 Syrah from the Keczan Vineyard was even more impressive, because it proved that exciting Syrah is possible in this region, something I’d not been entirely convinced of before. Not only did it have some real power (something different from sheer volume and weight), but more importantly pepper, smoke and lavender aromas leapt from the glass at me. Time prevents a serious description of Ilya’s no less daring Pinot Noirs.

Pinot Noir is the main focus of another new producer, Domaine Queylus run by Thomas Bachelder (ex-winemaker of Le Clos Jordanne) and Kelly Mason, pictured right. Their cellars are situated in the most unlikely of locations surrounded by green fields up close to the highest point of the Niagara Escarpment where no wine tourist ever goes. Possibly those are people they are also trying to avoid, and that certainly fits their wine style that assiduously avoids the sweetish, fruity charm that (ignore what the books and somms say) is rather easy to coax out of Pinot Noir. Instead, their wines are hard-core dry and it is the savory and the earthy qualities that interest them, and here too the 2013 vintage – just about to be bottled – stands out for its great balance. These wines may be outside the Ontario box, but if you put them in a row of Burgundies, I think they will taste very “classic”.

For me the most exciting thing about wine is the fact that even if you are on what seems to be familiar ground – this is my third trip here within less than two years, so it’s starting to feel familiar – there’s always another surprise. I already knew the wonderful Gamay reds that Stephen Gash is making at Malivoire, but I had no idea that the winery also makes one of the most delightful and delicious dry rosés in North America. This wine is somehow dead serious (so much so that some consumers will reject it as being too uncompromising) and yet totally playful. That’s a rare combination on Planet Wine and one that I was certainly not expecting yesterday evening. Sadly, it was also the end point of this elliptical pass I made through Ontario on the search for Rieslings and wines of other kinds that excite me. I feel like I’m just beginning to make sense of the place, but have by no means exhausted its potential to excite or surprise. I will return!

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Ontario Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Let me be Franc with You

As regular visitors are aware, this blog is devoted primarily to the wines of the Riesling grape, just like my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH (pub. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014), but I occasionally throw a sidelong glance in another direction completely, (as a journalist I’m interested in journalism and everything relating to it), or, more frequently, to the wines of other grape varieties. This is one of the latter type of blog postings, because good and great Ontario wine is certainly not only made from Riesling.

Yesterday’s tastings proved that Cabernet Franc isn’t just another interesting variety for the Niagara Peninsula, rather a big part of the future for the region’s red wine production. As the photograph above taken in the vineyard at Stratus close to Niagara on the Lake, my favorite producer of Cab-based red wine blends in this region, shows Cabernet Franc comes through the hard winters here remarkably well. Last winter was the coldest ever recorded, and yet this vine still looks good. The thing that you can’t see from this photograph is that the team lead by director J-L Groux will prune each of these vines three times instead of one in order to optimize the crop for the growing season that’s just begun. That is an awful lot of work and it requires skill. I’ve pruned vines a number of times, but never done this kind of patient, step-by-step pruning spread over several weeks watching which buds produce shoots and which of those shoots will actually bear fruit; the whole point of viticulture!

The 2010 Cabernet Franc from Stratus is cast-iron proof of this grape’s potential to give world class wines here, because it tastes neither like a red Loire wine from this grape (there is only the merest hint of green, a hint of parsley rather than green bell pepper) nor like a red Bordeaux (the tannins are rich, but silkier than is normal there), much less like a American West Coast interpretation (it has some violet aroma, but not the opulence of California & Co). Instead, it is entirely itself and beautifully balanced. This grape also plays a role, it was 15% in the 2010 vintage, of the Stratus red blend, adding freshness and aroma to help this powerful wine remain light on it’s feet in spite of all it’s tannic power. A grape that manages a great solo performance and can play in a quartet like this (with 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot and 15% Petit Verdot) clearly makes a lot of sense in this special wine growing location.

However, the great thing about Cabernet Franc is that it you can produce a range of different styles from it. For example, the 2010 Cabernet Franc ‘Whimsy!’ from Southbrook (not far from Stratus) is quite powerful, but already charming and graceful with a hint of bottle age, but plenty of fruit showing. Here, Cab Franc makes up fully 31% of the blended 2010 ‘Poetica’ red that is conceived by owner Bill Redelmeier as the region’s answer to Bordeaux’s Léoville Las Cases, (one of my favorite wines from the Médoc area, as long as it has some bottle age. The ‘Poetica’ also needs some bottle age to mellow its bold dry tannins, but as the 2007 (the first vintage of this wine) showed, it doesn’t take as many years to mellow this wine as it does Léoville Las Cases. At this point in the day I was about as far away from Riesling as you can get!

Cave Spring are most famous for their CSV Riesling, pictured above, and that was the main reason they were my last appointment yesterday evening. However, they also make some excellent Chardonnay (ranging from Blanc to Blanc sparkling to the elegant, discretely oaken ‘Estate’), and some Cabernet Franc that has a perfume, vibrancy and lightness of touch that no other producer in Ontario quite achieves. The 2013 vintage ‘Niagara Escarpment’ bottling will be a great introduction to this style for many people, and the more concentrated ‘Estate’ bottling makes a serious statement that will impress others. These wines are just about to be bottled, so please be patient. Patience will also be needed for the top Cave Spring Rieslings from the 2014 vintage. The 2014 ‘CSV’ Riesling has intense peach and citrus aromas (not just lemon, but mandarin too) and marries terrific concentration with a tingling mineral freshness, the hint of residual sweetness (technically it is medium-dry) perfectly balancing the generous acidity. The 2014 ‘Estate’ is a smaller scale version of this wine, and the 2014 ‘Adam’s Steps’ is a more succulent (a lot of orange, some pineapple and passion fruit) wine with serious mineral saltiness at the finale. Normally, I don’t do tasting notes here, but let me be frank with you, these are some of the best Rieslings cave Spring ever made and deserve this attention. Maybe they’ll age as well as the great 1999 ‘CSV’ I drank here last time.

 

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Ontario Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Canadian Inspiration (with Thanks to Steve Driscoll & Ian Brown)

Every time I arrive here I have the same feeling of pleasant disorientation, because Toronto is so obviously one of the great cities of the North American continent, yet this is also most definitely not America What makes it different is damned hard to pin down, and the best I can do now is to say that it its something hanging in the air that makes me feel relaxed and sets me thinking. So, when I stumbled upon this mural by Toronto artist Steve Driscoll on the side of a restaurant on College Street I was totally fascinated. It is the first work of art I’ve encountered that takes the Canadian-American relationship as its theme, and it does so in a way that I’d need to write an entire essay to describe properly. To see Steve Driscoll’s recent work go to:

http://www.stevedriscoll.com

This strikes me as exactly right, not least because historically the Canadian-American relationship has been complex and continually shifting. To be frank, the closer the two nations came to being in political lockstep the worse I found that relationship, because it always seemed to mean some Canadian politicians were blindly following the then American administration, and the more successfully Canada developed and articulated an alternative position the better I found that. Of course, the border between the two is just a line on the map and therefore its position is arbitrary. Students of Canadian and/or British colonial history will know that it has been moved several times. However, if you go to Google Earth and look at that border out West, then you will see it clearly from Outer Space due to the contrasting treatment of the land on the USA side (you can see the 1 mile by 1 mile grid that Jefferson and Co. threw over their section of the continent more than 200 years ago) and Canada side (some linear roads, but no grid). What does this say? You don’t have to do things the American way, and it isn’t always the best way. Sadly, that’s something many intelligent Americans don’t accept, because of a tendency by them to support the status quo they see as economically beneficial to them. This has lead to to long-term problems like racism or the destructive effect of US agricultural policy being ignored with major consequences.

Yesterday, I attended the Terroir 2015 conference (the twitter hashtag is #Terroir9, for those interested to get an overview of what happened) here in Toronto where I spoke, but much more importantly listened. The very first presentation of the day, by Ian Brown, Roving Reporter for the Globe and Mail – “Canada’s rational newspaper” - here in the city, was worth the journey here and the serious state of burn out I experienced last night. Early in the summer of  2013 Ian Brown set off on a journey of culinary discovery traveling across Canada coast to coast to find out what people actually eat. He did this without a list of top restaurants to test or fast food joints to check out, and with no political agenda of any kind, although he was clearly intensely aware of the economics and social context of all that encountered. He didn’t avoid saying what tasted good and what didn’t, for example, daring to say that some First Nation (Canadian for the native inhabitants of this land) food was horrible, but in the final analysis he undertook this epic journey, “as an empty vessel”. To read his stories go to:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/authors/ian-brown

Not only was the way he described things he ate, like a humburger in a nudist restaurant (called The Naked Lunch – had they read Edgar Burroughs book of the same name?), very finny and extremely perceptive, he came to some inspiring conclusions of which the following are the most important: “anything that might qualify as the national dish has been eaten by the First Nations for millennia,” and “there’s something more important than judgement, and that’s gratitude for having been fed, or for having someone to cook for.” Thanks Steven Driscoll and Ian Brown for feeding me with your distinctively Canadian inspiration. Now it’s time to taste some wine and seek liquid inspiration!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Where the Next Story is to be Found (Welcome to the Corner of West 16th and 6th Ave)

I often ask myself where the next story is to be found, particularly when I’ve been in one place for a long time and familiarity has made me contemptuous of my surroundings, so that I have ceased to take them in properly. Let’s be frank, that means I’m less alive than I could be and ought to be. Then life gives me a jolt and brings me back to my senses. That happened most recently on Thursday when I flew from Berlin to New York, then I was suddenly confronted again with things like the corner of West 16th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, just a few yards from where I live when I’m in New York Wine City (NYWC). As you can see, even the closest and most familiar street corner can still be full of surprises. However, this time I hardly have the time to take all this in, because tomorrow (Sunday) I’m flying up to Toronto for the 2015 Terroir Symposium on Monday, May 11th. I would be able to write more here if I hadn’t spent much of the day figuring out exactly what I have to say on Monday afternoon, and I’m still not entirely sure…but as you can see from the picture above, my heart is in the right place.

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 8 – Very Long-Term Planning

Most of my work is horribly short-term stuff. I taste a wine/various wines in order to write about it/them here or in my column in the Sunday edition of the FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG (German language) on the same day, or within a few days at most. Rarely can I chew over these impressions for months, in fact only in books like BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH / PLANET RIESLING or in my quarterly column in FINE magazine (German language) can that happen. Today’s main task was in stark contrast to this very short-term turnover of material and deserves the description “very long-term planning” because it has implications that potentially stretch decades into the future. I just purchased a small, but extremely centrally located apartment in Berlin where this eternal student of Riesling will reside (when in this city) for the foreseeable future. As you can see from the picture above, it is currently under construction, and I won’t be moving in until the end of 2015 or very early 2016. I will, of course, keep you posted and the short-term turnover of wines tasted and things experienced will continue unabated. By the way, I don’t intend to stop doing this until I die, and given that my grandmother lived to be 101 that could mean several decades more!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 6 – $196,000 for a Bottle of Smith-Madrone Riesling from California

Pictured above are Stuart (left) and Charles Smith (right) of the Smith-Madrone winery on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, California. They’ve got good reason to look happy, because a bottle of their dry 1997 Riesling just sold at auction for the staggering sum of $196,000. If you think this is absurd, then I must point out that this is a delicious wine now at the peak of maturity. For the full exciting story click on the link below.

https://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/in-search-of-the-incredible-cult-riesling/

To my mind, this is not a triumph for the Smiths’ dedication to this grape and their dramatic, but challenging vineyard location (pictured below) since the early 1970s, but also a fitting answer to the Riesling bashing that some American journalists and somms have been engaging in recently. Much of this has been driven by envy of the success of Riesling advocates like Paul Grieco of the Terroir wine bars in New York Wine City (NYWC), but some of it has been plain old-fashioned bad blood.

If you can’t afford $196,000 per bottle – I certainly can’t! – then I strongly recommend you the Smith-Madrone 2012 Riesling (a bit closed and worth cellaring for several years before opening) and the youthfully effusive 2013 Riesling. You should be able to find both of them on the shelf for under $30 per bottle. By the way, this was the only American wine included in the hit list of the world’s best dry Rieslings in my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH (pub. Stewart, Tabori & Chang in NYWC)!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 4 – Can You See the Real Me?

Can you see the real me? Can you? 

I first heard The Who’s Quadrophenia album in November 1976 just over three years after it was released, and that line from the song The Real Me instantly etched itself into my consciousness. It’s been going through my mind again during the last days, because a new rumor about me has been going around here in Berlin. The fact that I’m about to buy a small apartment in an ultra-downtown location has lead some people to start saying that, “Stuart’s moving back to Berlin!” On one level this is all good clean fun, but it’s factually incorrect and therefore demands an answer. The fact is, that although I spent a lot of time in New York Wine City (NYWC) from the end of November 2012, and since I moved into my present apartment there in September 2013 it has felt like home, I never left Berlin. It has always remained my official place of residence and with good reason. Most of my work is published in German in Germany, Berlin is my base for reporting on the wines of Europe, and this is the country where I have paid the majority of my taxes since 1994. Buying my own place will cement my connection with Berlin as my long-term base in Germany and also give STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL a European HQ. The location close to Alexanderplatz in East Berlin’s Mitte district also means that I’ll be within walking or cycling distance of some of the world’s best wine bars!

So, you see, I feel at home here in Berlin and in NYWC. That situation is what many of the rumor-tellers can’t cope with and that’s the reason this explanation is necessary. Far more than the inhabitants of NYWC, those of Berlin want to put every person into one pigeonhole and get deeply frustrated when this isn’t possible. Ten years ago when I was developing a career as a painter (which sadly failed) alongside my continuing journalistic this double identity caused many of my acquaintances in Berlin a lot of trouble. Now my double allegiance to this city and NYWC is stressing the same people and some others too. Their reaction is that of the child who tries to force the square peg into the round hole come what may, rather than accepting that only a round peg will fit that hole. Like that child they will get over this in time and, reluctantly, accept the reality of the situation. I am what I am. Can you see the real me?

 

 

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On the Riesling Road: Day 3 – 2014 in Germany is Up in the Heavens & Down to Zero

The Mainzer Weinbörse, the annual major presentation of the new vintage by the German VDP producers association is just about to end after two grueling days. They weren’t grueling only because of the sheer number of wines on show (more than a thousand, I think, but I didn’t try to taste them all), but also because 2014 is a vintage that spans the entire range from Up in the Heavens all the way to Down to Zero. Even a few of the VDPs almost 200 members, theoretically the elite of Germany’s wine producers, managed to present wines that I considered so bad that they were incompatible with the designation Qualitätswein, or quality wine. They now need to do some serious soul searching and figure out if they really want to put world-famous vineyard names on bottles of Riesling that smell of wishy-washy rotten grapes and taste drab and bitter. There is also more general problem with bitterness in many of the Riesling wines from the Saar sub-region of the Mosel. Exactly why that is I can’t figure out, but it was a clear pattern.

At the other end of the scale are those winemakers, like Martin Franzen of Müller-Catoir in Neustadt-Haardt in the Pfalz (pictured above), who managed their vineyards so well and were so on top of the harvest that they had no problems at all. His dry Rieslings were probably the most exciting wines I tasted during the last two days, and the other varieties (Rieslaner, Scheurebe and Weißburgunder) were also striking. Other serious highlights were Diel, Dönnhoff, Emrich-Schönleber and Gut Hermannsberg on the Nahe, Flick, Franz Künstler, Prinz and Spreitzer in the Rheingau, Groebe, Wagner-Stempel and Wittmann in Rheinhessen. The Mosel was confusingly heterogenous, although the wines from von Othegraven (who only showed sweet Rieslings) Dr. Wagner on the Saar stood out. Franken is an even more mixed and confusing picture, but with many exciting wines, and I will return to this subject at a later date after more tasting.

Of course, even these days were not totally dominated by wine tasting and the highlight of yesterday evening was meeting the young chap pictured above, Gustav, a tame baby wild boar. I was having a relaxed and delicious dinner at retired top chef Franz Keller’s Falkenhof farm high in the taunts Mountains to the north of the Rheingau’s vineyards and suddenly there was Gustav playing games and generally being the life and soul of the party. The highlight of dinner was thankfully not wild boar, rather the filet of a recently slaughtered Charolais from the fields of the Falkenhof. I’m not a big fan of beef filet, but this one had an up in the heavens flavor!

 

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