New York Wine Diary: Day 17 – Dry Austrian Riesling Past & Present, and Nearly Always Great!

Although Austria is one of the most important producers of dry Riesling on Planet Wine the profile of these wines varies enormously from market to market, and here in the USA is well below the relative prominence and popularity of Grüner Veltliner. This was no doubt the reason that the Austrian Wine Marketing Board staged a very ambitious tasting of these wines that covered all the significant producing regions, and spanned the vintages 2013 back to 1990. The 1990s was the period of fastest growth in the vineyard area planted with Riesling in Austria (and it still continues to grow, if at a slightly slower pace), and was also the period of my most intense involvement with these wines, so there was a personal reason for me to be seriously interested to taste these wines.

Although just 4.06% (2009 figures from Statistics Austria) of the nation’s vineyards compared with Grüner Veltliner’s 29.4%, much of the latter produces everyday quaffing wine and almost nobody is making that kind of wine from Riesling in Austria (here the contrast with Germany is striking!) With Riesling Austrian winemaker are focusing on producing good to top quality. Combine this with the fact that, in contrast to just about every other Riesling producing nation/region, Austria is making almost exclusively dry wines and you can see why these are way more important for the nation than that 4.06% suggests. However, there are also massive differences in the degree of commitment to Riesling of the various regions. 16.4% of the Wachau’s vineyards are planted with Riesling, the figures for the Kamptal, Kremstal and Wien (Vienna) are 9.4%, 10.3% and 13.7% respectively. At the other end of the scale in Mittelburgenland – the heart of the homeland of the red Blaufränkisch grape – it is just 0.16%, or about one hundredth of the regions specializing in Riesling!

Of course, the important thing is how the wines taste, and the excellent 2013 vintage is the right place for those Riesling drinkers unfamiliar with these wines to start. 2013 was a cool vintage, but those growers with a good standard of vineyard cultivation who picked late ended up with wines around 13% and a bright acidity . The 2013 Heiligenstein “Atle Reben” from Jurtschitisch in Langenlois, Kamptal is a beautifully elegant example with great subtlety of aroma and flavor, entirely drinkable now but with many years of life ahead of it. The 2008 Heiligenstein “Alte Reben” (old vines) from Willi Bründlmayer also in Langenlois showed how brilliantly wines like this can age. It still had bright peach and grapefruit aromas, and a racy finale with serious mineral intensity.

In warm years like 2011 dry Austrian Rieslings like the Steiner Kögl from Salomon Undhof in Stein, Kremstal can push 14%  alcoholic content with the power and richness that brings, also the much softer acidity that comes with those things, but still have a really satisfying balance. Those wines can also age very well as the 2003 Reserve from Müller-Grossmann in Palt, Kremstal, a wine from a very hot year that still has great citrusy freshness. It is this style that is more widely associated with Austrian dry Riesling and Germany very rarely come up with wines of this type, so there is something unique about it in Europe.

Inevitably, it was the older wines in the tasting that took the limelight. For Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, the 1997 Achleiten “Smaragd” from the Domaine Wachau – it is that region’s co-operative winery – was particularly significant, because he was the director of that winery when this wine was made. Although this was quite a warm year that wine had a moderate 13% alcohol and at 18 years of age was delicate and filigree in flavor with a had impeccable balance. No less exciting and lively were the more powerful and concentrated 1999 Loibenberg “Smaragd” from F.X. Pichler in Loiben, Wachau (conclusively disproving the rumor this producer’s wines don’t age well), and the 1997 Steinrigl “Smaragd” from Prager in Weissenkirchen, Wachau that was simultaneously mellow and energizing. I vividly remember these wines when they were young and they have kept all the promises they made back then when Planet Wine was a very different place to what it is today.

What more do you want from mature dry white wine?

Photo of the Achleiten & Klaus sites of Weissenkirchen, Wachau by Gerhard Elze

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New York Wine Diary: Day 14 – Ernst Loosen Pushes the Mosel Riesling Envelope Yet Again

In more or less it’s present form the GG (Grosses Gewächs) category of single-vineyard dry German wines goes back to the 2002 vintage, and during those years a bunch of things about this category have become standard practice to the point where they strike many people in the German wine scene as carved in stone and therefore beyond all discussion. One of those things is the principal that because the rules state the release of the GGs may not happen before September 1st of the year after the vintage that this is when those wines must be released. Although this is a major advance over the situation beforehand in which high-end dry Rieslings were sometimes being rushed onto the market less than 6 months after the grapes were picked, there is no evidence to back up the argument that making these wines so they can be sold from September 1st after the harvest is always ideal. In fact, September 1st has become the standard because most of the wine merchants and restaurants in Germany want to get their hands on these wines as soon as they can, according to the ancient motto SELL! SELL!! SELL!!!

That’s why what Ernst Loosen of the Dr. Loosen estate in Bernkastel on the Mosel, pictured above, is doing is so important. He’s question what the ideal way to make these powerful dry wines really is. Already his “regular” Riesling GGs don’t fit into the regular time frame, because they are released on November 1st after the vintage, and with the 2011 vintage he has created two new categories: GG Reserve that is aged for two years longer before release, and GG Hommage that will aged many years longer before sale. Of the latter category not one bottle has so far left the Dr. Loosen cellars except for tastings. “I think we will probably release the first of them, the 2011 Hommage from the Ürziger Würzgarten in 2021,” Ernst said, as if this was the most normal thing in the world to do. In today’s hectic wine world in which modern cellar technology makes it possible to bring wine to market within weeks of the harvest this is really seriously abnormal!

There’s much more though. To understand what he’s doing properly you have to realize that Ernst’s not just hanging on to these wines longer, that is being more patient, these dry Rieslings are spending almost the entire time until bottling sitting in the traditional Mosel Fuder (1,ooo liter / 263 gallon) barrels on the full deposit of yeast left from fermentation, also called gross lees. By not disturbing the lees, much less regularly stirring them (what the French call batonage), and this means that for at least two year much of that yeast remains alive, helping to keep the wine fresh and gently “feeding” it as they very slowly breaks down. This is the way Ernst’s great-grandfather Peter Loosen made his dry wines (he only made dry wines until 1953). Of course, this is an interesting and highly unusual method, but the proof is in the tasting, and yet more importantly in the drinking.

That’s why the tasting Ernst staged this afternoon at the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in NYWC (New York Wine City) was so important. He provided two chances to compare three of these wines, of which the first comparison was the vital one for seeing what the difference between the same wine after one year on the full lees, two years on the full lees and three years on the lees are. Those three wines were all dry 2011 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling GGs and were made from the same lot of grape juice picked in one corner of that site. The first of them was the “regular” version of this wines (one year), the second the Reserve (two years) and the third the Hommage (three years). The first of these was clearly the most developed of the trio and a little bit rustic compared with the others, but full of the herbal and berry character typical for this site with its red volcanic soil. The Reserve version was so much fresher, but also more elegant with more precisely delineated flavors, and to drink now the most pleasing. Then came the massive, almost monolithic and very closed Hommage. Those are not just my comments either, but were echoed by the other tasters, each of us finding our own words but coming to a very similar conclusion. Consumers often think this kind of unanimity is the norm in the wine scene, but actually it is really rare.

The second demonstration was the row of the 2012 Riesling GG “Alte Reben” Reserves from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr (grey slate soil), Ürziger Würzgarten and Erdener Prälat (red slate soil) sites, pictured above, that are about to be released on November 1st. They were bottled about one year ago and have been aged in bottle since then. The premium you will pay for this extended ageing process is about 100%. For example, according to the regular Riesling GG “Alte Reben” from the Ürziger Würzgarten averages $37 retail. The Reserve version will therefore retail for about $75. But on to that crucial factor, the taste! The differing characteristics of these three sites were very clearly apparent. Although the Sonnenuhr didn’t have the floral notes many wines from this site that are bottled young show, it did have the peachy fruit and the combination of ripeness and sleekness. Likewise, the Würzgaren was true to its name – it means spice garden – reminding me of the smell of spices being roasted in a hot dry pan. There was also the hint of dried strawberry that sometimes enabled me to recognize the wines from this site in blind tastings. It was very complex, warm and cool elements mingling and a hint of wild strawberry. In contrast the Prälat was massive and much more reserved, and in spite of its abundant power and concentration still finished fresh. By the way, all of the wines described above clock in at between 12% and 13% alcohol; analytically they are not monsters by any means.

Any readers still suffering from the prejudice that dry Mosel Rieslings are lean and tart and therefore a mistake need to experience these wines. Possibly, some of the decision makers in the VDP producers association that governs the production of the GG wines also urgently need to taste them. It seems that some of them would prefer that Ernst Loosen didn’t push the Mosel Riesling envelope and didn’t make the best dry wines from the Middle section of the Mosel Valley in living memory as he is now doing!


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New York Wine Diary: Day 2 – A Look in the Rear-View Mirror at 1990 (Mouton, Chapoutier and Riesling)

Drinking wine is always to some extent about looking back through the rear-view mirror at the past, because the wine in your glass didn’t just miraculously form there, rather, in the more or less distant past somebody made it then put it in that bottle. Even – a heretical statement I know! – so-called “natural” wines have all been made and bottled by someone, even if she or he’s claiming to have a direct line to God, can literally feel the Force, or has the hots for the divine. Good, bad and ugly wines are all made.

Of course, you can do this rear-view mirror thing more systematically as a group of friends and I did on my last night in Berlin, by focusing on one particular vintage. We Berliners picked 1990 because just the it was the other day that there was the 25th anniversary of German reunification on October 3rd, 1990. I’d missed the Berlin Wall coming down, because I had terrible spinal problems in the summer and fall of 1989, but on October 2nd 1990 I rose early at my apartment in Bernkastel on the Mosel and set off by train Berlin (a 12 hour journey back then!) to experience the celebrations there that night. At the very moment of reunification, midnight of the night October 2nd to 3rd I passed through the Brandenberg Gate at the center of a peaceful crowd estimated to be one million strong. The best thing of all was that the PA system was too weak for us to be able to hear the politicians pontificating about their great achievement and the momentous historic moment; perfect!

1990 was also an excellent vintage for German Riesling – arguably the first of the current Golden Age – and I stashed a lot away as a result. However, during the intervening 25 years there were plenty of opportunities to open those bottles, and so my stocks are now down to the point where I could just about offer a selection of these wines. A couple of friends were in the same situation, some of them having high-end French reds that I hadn’t bought back then, so we clubbed together and invited a handful more people who we felt would really appreciate the wines to join us in the Kurpfalz Weinstuben in Berlin. That’s where the photograph above (taken by my dentist Gerhard Gneist, like all the following pictures) was taken. I’m holding the first wine of the evening, the 1990 Dunkley red from England (!), a wine that was theoretically made from Pinot Noir grapes and was just about alive.

After this bizarre start to the evening we turned our attention to more serious red wines, including the 1990 Château Mouton-Rothschild with the painting by Francis Bacon on the label – the Irish painter died just before the wine was released and the painting had been lying in a draw at Mouton for years – and its smaller brother from the Medoc, Bordeaux the 1990 Château Clerc-Milon. The 1990 Mouton was darker in color, more youthful and more oaky in aroma, more powerful and tannic in taste than the 1990 Clerc-Milon, but opinion in the group was divided as to whether all this “more” made it better. I was one of the group who preferred the more elegant and harmonious taste of the smaller brother; a delicious glass of wine, if not mind-blowing. More than anything else it was the characteristic aroma of roasting coffee beans of the 1990 Mouton that either turned us on or off the Mouton according to our personal taste. The real competitor to it was the 1990 Hermitage La Sizeranne from the house of Chapoutier in the Northern Rhône, a wine of peppery power and great balance. The wines from this producer today are much more flashy and bigger than this, and I wonder if they will age anything like as this one did.

Then we switched to German Riesling and the change was like going from day to night, because of the enormous freshness of the 1990 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Auslese from Weingut Willi Schaefer in the Mosel. I remember this as a young wine and it always had the same diamond-like brilliance and positive hardness (it has a stack of acidity!) that it did the other evening in Berlin. Blind I would have guessed it to be no more than half it’s actual age. nobody was hesitant about praising this wine and it was a tough moment when the last drops were poured from the bottle. My guess is that in another 10 or even 20 years this masterpiece of Mosel vitality and delicacy will taste just as good!

Then came a pair of Gold Cap, i.e. best barrel bottlings of Auslese that were truly extraordinary. The 1990 Kiedricher Gräfenberg Riesling Auslese Gold Cap from Robert Weil in the Rheingau was an opulent wine packed with dried apricot aroma and at least as much power as the 1990 Mouton had in its very different way. Here was a wine of the kind that win blind tastings, and not without good reason. As imposing as it was, I was completely bowled over by the 1990 Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese Gold Cap from Dr. Loosen in the Mosel, because here there was no fat on its sinewy and tautly muscular body. As Paula Sidore of said, it tasted of the peach stone rather than the flesh of the peach. To me it tasted as mineral as any wine gets, and this component of the wine seemed to soak up the sweetness (not high) in it completely, so that it tasted totally clean and invigorating. As I swallowed the first sip of it the 25 years seemed to dissolve for a moment. Then I realized that all I was doing was looking in a rear-view mirror that was turned in a particularly favorable direction, and the next morning I would have to pack my bags and fly to New York…

Many thanks to Rainer Schultz of the Kurpfalz Weinstuben who will be retiring at the end of October after 40 years at Berlin’s most historic wine bar. Much of that history he wrote!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 6 – FLX Launches a Great Riesling Vintage!

I am really not a fan of vintage tables, much less the declaration that this or that year is a Great Vintage, because every vintage varies considerably in quality from winery to winery, and sometimes no less from one plot of vines to the next wine. However, if we accept those facts as given, then I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that 2014 is a great vintage for Finger Lakes (FLX) Riesling. That was amply demonstrated this afternoon at the Riesling Vintage Launch of the FLX Quality Alliance at the Scandinavian Center on Park Avenue in New York Wine City where wineries large and small with widely contrasting winemaking styles shone.

Of course, some shone brighter than others, none more so than the tiny Boundary Breaks with their dry 2014 Riesling “239″, one of the wines of the new vintage that will help to change professional and public perception of what an FLX Riesling is like. You see, there are still plenty of people out there ranging from the somnolent to the somms who think that dry FLX Riesling is a light, tart and austere wine only for acid hounds and Riesling geeks. This kind of full ripe stone fruit aromas and elegant freshness just isn’t what most people expect from the region – some somms and journalists will be seriously disappointed because the acidity doesn’t bite! -  but I strongly believe it’s the taste of the future. In a less extrovert form it was also strongly present in the medium-dry 2014 Round Rock Riesling from Lamoreaux Landing on Seneca Lake, and in the sleek and mineral dry 2014 Estate Riesling from Thirsty Owl on Cayuga Lake. However, it was more or less present in all the 2014 Rieslings shown at today’s tasting.

In some ways, the most remarkable achievement showcased today was the leap in quality that the wines from Wagner Vineyards on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake have made recently.  They were represented by marketing director Katie Roller, who is one of the tight team lead by John Wagner that has steadily cranked up the quality at this large producer (225 acres of vineyards) over the last five years. She had good reason to smile, for not only was the 2013 Dry Riesling from Wagner recently declared Best in Class of the dry Rieslings at the 2015 Finger Lakes Wine Symposium, but the 2014 vintage of the same wine is at least as good as the 2013. Here is a prototypic new style FLX Riesling with a vibrant acidity and more than enough fruit aromas to carry it, a hint of spitz to lift the wine’s juicy, surprisingly full body and a very clean, beautifully balanced finish that draws you back for more. And we are talking about a wine that retails for just $15!  This combination will further push the reputation of the FLX as the premier Riesling producing region on the Eastern Side of America, and of Riesling as the premier grape of the Finger Lakes. Wagner’s rise is seriously good news for the FLX and for wine drinkers in the United States of Riesling!



Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 6 – Wu are You? Introducing ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA

Here in Berlin I’m still struggling with that virus in my lungs, but I’ve been trying not to let it get me down. One of the best things about being back in Berlin is being able to visit Hot Spot,the Chinese restaurant known to almost all of its customers by the name of its remarkable manager  and guiding as Wu or Mr. Wu. Here an astonishing synthesis of Chinese culinary culture and German wine culture has been achieved that is, as far as I know, unique in the entire world. Not that Wu considers his own achievements to be in any way remarkable, for he would say that all he has done is to take the logical step of combining worlds of flavors that belong together. That may be true, but before he did it nobody else saw it that way, or at least if they did they didn’t do anything about it.

Regardless of the field of human endeavor, that is the decisive question, not who believes to some degree in a certain idea, but who acts upon their belief and does so in a way that cannot be ignored by their contemporaries. It’s sometimes been suggested to me that somehow I was responsible for the renaissance of Riesling since the last turn of the century, but this is complete nonsense. If I’d died back in 2000, then the developments of recent years in Germany and elsewhere on Planet Riesling would all have happened very much as they did. The one thing I can rightly claim is that pre-2000, before the new and mighty wave of enthusiasm for my favorite grape and its wines was visible, I sang the praises of what was then an almost completely forgotten and horribly misunderstood category of wines. I did this decisively and in way that couldn’t be ignored here in Germany, and this certainly sent a signal out into the world that was received by many.

Wu’s achievement at Hot Spot is the uncompromising way he runs his restaurant according to his unique culinary concept. He has proved that you can mix food and wine cultures in ways previously regarded as impossible, or at the least totally improbable. And that is very much what my next project is all about.

Yesterday, after 8 months of work on and off I just completed the first in a series of e-pamphlets (available shortly for Kindle through Amazon) on the subject of America, wine and I. The above logo will appear on the cover of all these publications and stands for the spirit of a generation of winemakers scattered across America in unlikely locations who are daring to make remarkable wines where most people would consider this impossible, or at least totally improbable. My role is that of the traveler who dares to take the new underground Rock Star winemakers of America seriously, visits them with an open mind and the desire to understand their world, then reports on their achievements. It is, of course, bizarre that I an Englishman should be doing this rather than patriotic American wine journalists, but it seems to me that this mix of cultures is an important part of the entire project. That’s why #1 in the series tells the outrageous story of my first journey of discovery to America and how that set me on my present path. Watch this space for more information very soon!

Important note: Dear German winegrowers, Dear fans of German wines, the fact that I will be writing a series of e-pamphlets about the wines and winemakers of America does not mean that I will be taking the wines of Germany any less seriously than during the last decades. This is not a matter of either / or!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Mosel Unplugged inc. staring Niels Frevert & Unforgettable Riesling

Because maybe / You’re gonna be the one that saves me…

Note: Many apologies that it’s been such a long time since the last posting, but a horrible virus made its home in my lungs, and it was a struggle to manage even the most urgent work. Thankfully, I could still taste and smell, because I traveled to the Mosel and tasted some great wines there. Here’s the story:

Niels Frevert, pictured above, is one of the stars of Germany’s answer to Brit Pop. You can hear at least a hint of Oasis or Blur in all of his songs, at least I thought I could last Saturday evening when he played at Weingut Immich-Batterieberg in Enkirch, Mosel. Of course, this is not what the world associates with Germany or with Mosel Riesling, nor is it what normally happens when a rising phoenix producer on the Mosel presents it’s new vintage. However, this “unplugged” style concert in the garden of this producer really did fit the spirit of modern Mosel Riesling very well: wines that are at once rather serious, but with a playful and gentle side. At least, that’s how I’d describe the way that Niels Frevert played songs like Waschmaschine last Saturday evening.

I also played a part in this event, following classical pianist Yorck Kronenberg – a very hard act to follow! – the previous evening with a talk about what terroir really means, both in general terms and specifically in relation to Immich-Batterieberg, a producer who’s wine already had bundles of terroir (vineyard site) character under the last of the original owner family, Georg Immich (I met him back in ’89 and he sold the property in ’92). I received a fee for giving that lecture, but that doesn’t alter the fact that under the present owners Dr. Volker Auerbach and Roland Probst, and director-winemaker Gernot Kollmann (since 2009) this estate has bounced back and rightly been showered with praise. To my mind, it makes striking wines with a lot of terroir / vineyard character. However, I suggest that you taste and make up your own minds about that.

Although time was very short I also managed to visit three other producers with my old school friend Richard Aczel, a lecturer on English literature and related subjects at Cologne University. He’s just purchased a house on the Mosel and begun an in-depth exploration of the regions wines. Our visits to the historic Weingut Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch (VDP) in Bernkastel, then Daniel Vollenweider and Martin Müllen, two pioneers in Traben-Trarbach, were discoveries for him.

Sofia Thanisch is currently making the best wines of her career and has developed a style that remains true to this house’s commitment to the filigree style that most of the wine world considers “classic” Mosel with an impressive amount of backbone. Although the majority of the wines are in sweeter styles there are two impressive new dry wines from the 2014 vintage, the Graben Riesling GG and the Lay Riesling feinherb. Normally I don’t attach much importance to numbers, but in the case of the Lay they are particularly interesting. Although this wine is dry enough to accompany savory food (it would be great with all kinds of moderately spice dishes too) it weighs in at 11.5% and costs only Euro 14,50 direct to private customers from the estate.

As far as I know, Daniel Vollenweider was the first complete outsider to found a winery in the Mosel when he purchased just over 3 acres of vines in the forgotten top site Wolfer Goldgrube back in 2000. Although Vollenweider comes from the wine producing canton of Graubünden in the German-speaking East of Switzerland there were no wine growers in his family. Since then he has expanded his holdings fourfold and built an excellent reputation for both sweet and dry Rieslings. He proved that you can start with almost nothing and become a Mosel winemaker with your own vineyards, and within five years he had his first imitators. Those in this part of the Mosel now have their own club, for more info see:

Even Vollenweider’s basic, bone-dry 2014 Riesling Felsenfest is packed with aroma and has great vitality, and single vineyard wines like the 2014 Goldgrube Riesling “GG” and 2014 Goldgrube Spätlese are seriously concentrated without in any way being massive or in any other way willfully overdone.  Thankfully, you can say the same about his prices! The painting pictured above hangs in his tasting room and depicts the Traben-Trarbach section of the twisting Mosel Valley in a manner rooted in tradition, yet is also strikingly original just like these wines.

Martin Müllen is definitely not star material, because what interests him is growing and making the wines, not dancing in the spotlight on the wine and gastronomic stage, nor unleashing Twitter-storms on a world already jaded by their frequency and repetitiousness. And I think that the photo above confirms that very well. One of his focuses is light, dry wines and at their best – e.g. the 2014 Hühnerberg Riesling Kabinett trocken * – they weight in under 11% alcohol, but have great herbal and floral aromas, the acidity crisp rather than biting (often a problem in low-alcohol dry Riesling). However, it is his dry, and medium-dry Spätlese wines that blow my mind with complex spice and mineral freshness combined with enough power and discretely succulent fruit. Most of them lie in the Euro 13 – 20 range if you buy direct from him as a private customer, and for this they represent outstanding value for money. Perhaps the best value on the list at present is the 2014 Riesling Revival feinherb for Euro 11,90, a typical Müllen wine with the special character of the Hühnerberg already described above. A lot of younger newer winemakers tell me that they make their wines like a century ago. Usually, this means that they are inspired by what they think the style of those wines was and use modern equipment. Müllen actually uses an old basket press and does wild ferments in the traditional Fuder barrels of the Mosel (263 gallons, neutral oak) for all his wines! Hence the name of this wine and the slogan on the label: Unforgettable Tradition.

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Rheingau Riesling Diary: Day 1 – The Grapes Begin to Soften ! (Technical Word: Verasion)

After the hottest summer in Western Europe since 2003 & 2006 and the driest summer in Western Europe since 1961 how do the grapes look? I have to admit the combination of hot and dry made me worry that a lot of the vineyards in Germany and elsewhere would look yellowed, maybe wilted, or even sometimes close to collapse. However, I just got back from an intensive tour of the vineyards in the eastern end of the Rheingau with Hajo Becker of J.B. Becker in Walluf, Rheingau and was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw. By no means is 2015 doomed to be a problem vintage, in fact the great majority of vineyards that were well cared for looked very good.

The photograph above shows the plot in the Eltviller Rheinberg site from which J.B. Becker regularly makes a dry Riesling and harvests the base wine for the sparkling Riesling Sekt. As you can see, it lies right on the bank of the Rhein and that makes it a warm location. The soil is very sandy, which means it can hold little water. This together with the heat and drought has resulted in the grass between the rows completely browning (something it rarely does in the generally moist climate of Germany), yet the vines are obviously in excellent health. Only in one small corner of the vineyard did I see any drought stress, and I saw absolutely no sign whatever of fungal disease. I also found the first berries that were beginning to soften (technical word: verasion), a sure sign that  the final ripening process is beginning.

This softening is accompanied by a change appearance of the grapes. White wine grapes become translucent, but this is very difficult to photograph (my Olympus EP-5 is great, but I don’t usually have a tripod with me or all the time in the world). Red wine grapes turn color at verasion, and this is much easier to photograph. The picture above shows grapes on Hajo Becker’s oldest Spätburgunder / Pinot Noir vines in the Wallufer Walkenberg site that were planted in 1959. As you can see, the change of color is almost completed, and they look extremely healthy. This is the ideal state for red wine grapes at this point in the year year, and it suggests that as long as theres on heavy rainfall between now and the harvest this could be an excellent red wine vintage for Germany. Don’t forget, Germany has the third largest area planted with Pinot Noir in the world!

Riesling dominates in the Rheingau where it accounts for about 70% of all the vineyards (only the tiny Mittelrhein region has a higher percentage of Riesling in Germany, or indeed the world). From what I saw here yesterday and today there is clearly variation between the vineyards of one commune to the next, because summer storms brought rain in some places and not in others. In a few places, like the Rüdesheimer Berg vineyards, the intensity of the storm (more than two and a half inches of rain in about half an hour!) was so great that it actually reduced the size of the crop. These factors, and differences in cultivation methods, have lead to widely varying crop levels. That and the longer time until the late-ripening Riesling grapes are ready to pick, makes it yet more difficult to predict the result. However, the general good health of the vines and the fact that serious drought stress has only occurred in a few corners, suggests that a positive result can be expected as long as the pre-harvest period and the harvest itself aren’t plagued with heavy rains.

Famously, those who predicted the end of the world fell became a laughing stock, and it’s the same with those who dared to predict to a great vintage many weeks or even months before the first grapes were picked. On the West Coast of America some wine producers have foolishly been playing that game this year, basing their prediction on the exceptional advanced development of the grapes. Excuse me, but this is complete BS! My experience says that vineyards like the plot of old Riesling vines in Hajo Becker’s holdings section of the Wallufer Walkenberg site, pictured above, give very good to exceptional wines year in, year out. There are many, many examples of this in Germany, Western Europe and the world of wine as a whole. The excitement about the new vintage each year is a good thing, but even good things can be carried too far! A good wine in your glass is the main thing!


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 13 – Graham Tatomer and the New Aromatic Dry Whites of Santa Barbara County, CA

I have to admit that when I first tasted the dry Rieslings from Graham Tatomer’s eponymous winery in Los Olivos, Santa Barbara County in California I hesitated. They were so different from anything else I encountered during the research for my 2014 book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) that I wasn’t sure what to make of them. And what I’ve tasted several times recently, the three single vineyard dry Rieslings of the 2013 vintage, are also way outside the conventional Riesling box. For those seeking Rieslings with effusive fruit aromatics and a bright interplay of acidity and sweetness this is not the place to go, except for reasons of curiosity. However, if you aren’t afraid of some tannins and plenty of yeasty (technical term lees) character, nor of a hint of bitterness and a lot more power, then you should  find them fascinating and impressive.

There is a very special backstory to these wines and the equally distinctive Grüner Veltliners from Tatomer Wines (Meeresboden and Paragon Vineyard, both $28 direct from the winery), and it begins in the village of Loiben in the Wachau, Austria where Graham, pictured above, went to learn and work in 2003. There a love of Grooner was added to his fascination with Riesling. After he returned to California he founded his winery in 2008 and since then he has roughly tripled production to about 14,000 bottles per year. He uses grapes from some of the coolest sites in the entire county to makes his three single vineyard Rieslings ($22 to $35 direct from the winery), and the result is some of the most daring whites being made in this part of the state.  Although I’m sure that the development of Graham’s white wine style hasn’t reached an endpoint, after making seven vintages of dry white wine from these grapes he’s already become something of a role model in the region.

Just the other day at the offices of Soilair wines in New York Wine City (NYWC) Volker Donabaum showed me an impressive handful of wines from the tiny Solminer winery in Santa Barbara County that included these delicious 2014 dry Riesling and Grüner Veltliner ($28 and $30 direct from the winery). Anyone who finds the Tatomer style too extreme and not fruit-driven enough is strongly recommended these vividly aromatic and expressive wines. The Riesling has a lot of lemony and some floral character, the Grooner has a very authentic white pepper and green apple aromas. NYWC will surely go for this pair, and Anna and David deLaski have only been doing this since 2012! No doubt it helps that she’s originally from St. Pölten in Lower Austria, however, I’d say that they must be doing a lot of things right in the vineyard, choosing good picking dates (the alcohol levels are modest), and that the 6 months in neutral oak before bottling is enabling the wines to develop at their own pace.

This isn’t the end of the story of the new aromatic dry whites of Santa Barbara County though, for although Jeff Fischer’s Habit Wines doesn’t yet produce Riesling, it does produce a good Grooner and a great Chenin Blanc. Here is another aromatic grape that dislikes oak and really gains something from prolonged contact with the yeast after fermentation; the twin secrets of Jeff’s distinctive wine style. Although their orientation point is Northeastern Italy Steve Clifton of Palmina (and Brewer-Clifton) is also making aromatic dry whites in this vein under that label. I love the Malvasia Bianca from Palmina and the Pinot Grigio is very good too. All of which says to me that an era of major innovation is beginning in this part of California and this is something I have to explore there at the first opportunity.


@CityofRiesling Diary: Day 4 – Tonight’s the Night (of 100 Rieslings in Traverse City, Michigan)

Other wines have their annual day and Riesling used (in theory) to own the summer, but actually most people enjoy wine as part of a great night out, and I’m not arguing with that. It may be a simple observation, but if Riesling is the Best White Wine on Earth (the title of my book on the subject published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang), then it could well be the best wine to drink tonight. And this will be particularly true here in Traverse City, Michigan, because tonight the second @CityofRiesling festival kicks off with the Night of 100 Rieslings downtown close to the shore of Lake Michigan. Normally I don’t kick off a posting with a landscape image, but this picture shot from the deck of a boat on the lake last night was so spectacular I wanted to give you an idea of what the backdrop will be tonight. If you are unable to join us tonight, I suggest you scroll up to this shot and open a bottle of Riesling, or maybe two or three.

Although the @CityofRiesling is all about celebrate the wines of my favorite grape it has a serious purpose as well and, hard as it may be to believe, the above picture illustrates that. It shows Sam Smith of Smith Madrone winery in Napa Valley, California relaxing in the waters of Grand Traverse Bay last night. He’s one of the many winemakers who travelled large distances to be here, to pour their wines and to exchange ideas. The dry 2014 Riesling from Smith Madrone has as much vitality and elegance as this winery’s better known Cabernet Sauvignon reds (the 2012 is a beautiful example of this), and likewise proves that even that region so associated with massive, opulent and sweetish tasting wines has a completely different side of which Riesling is a part. This proves that it wasn’t the Great God of Wine who ordained that Napa should produce Big Cabs, but men and women, consumers (who I regard as co-producers) no less than producers.

The most important thing about Riesling is that it is a seemingly endless source of surprises. I’ve been studying, tasting and drinking it for 30 years, but I still get a rush of excitement from realizing that I’ve just bumped into another new star in the Riesling firmament. Or would you expect to find that there’s a producer of high-end dry Riesling wines in Pennsylvania? Sarah Troxell of Galen Glen winery in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania is another participant of the @CityofRiesling and yesterday was the first time we’d met, so already the event has provided me with one very pleasant surprise.



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New York Riesling Diary: Day 6 – Almost Famous 2013 Dry Rieslings from Tim Fröhlich & Vincent Bründlmayer

Yesterday, at the the Rudi Wiest Selections tasting of German wines here in NYWC (New York Wine City) I bumped into Tim Fröhlich of the Schäfer-Fröhlich winery in Bockenau in the Nahe. Tasting some of his 2013 and 2014 Rieslings reminded me what a great winemaker he is, how that fact still isn’t widely realized in many places around the world, and as a result the reputation of the Nahe is also not always what it should be. One reason for all this is that Tim’s top dry Rieslings (what he’s best known for in Germany) can be pretty funky during their first year in bottle, sometimes even stinking a little. This is what winemakers refer to as reduction, which is the opposite of oxidation. Doing wild yeast ferments and allowing his top dry wines to go into the bottle with a slight reduction results in this youthful awkwardness. However, when I taste a wine like Tim’s 2013 Felsenberg Riesling GG (from a steep south-facing site with very stony volcanic soil), then I have no problems at all. This wine now has intense grapefruit and smoke aromas, is powerful but still quite sleek, and has almost impossibly intense mineral freshness at the finish. During the better part of a year in the bottle the funk this wine initially had has blown off completely. This wine must be tasted to be believed!

Unfortunately, I forgot to take my camera with my to the Terry Theise Selections tasting in NYWC  just two days before, so there’s no photograph of Vincent Bründlmayer to accompany my description of his sensation dry 2013 Riesling Heiligenstein ‘Alte Reben’. This wine is so concentrated, yet has a supermodel silhouette and an amazingly long aftertaste that literally took my breath away. I haven’t tasted an Austrian Riesling which did quite that to me in quite a few years and it was the high point of this tasting. The other important conclusion I drew here is that in 2014 the dry Grüner Veltliners from Austria are a bit more consistently successful than the dry Rieslings.

What both tastings made clear was, that although there are some pretty poor 2014 vintage German and Austrian white wines out there on the market, the top producers in both countries were able to pull off a minor miracle and their 2014 wines are more charming than their 2013s. Any rumors that 2014 is a poor vintage in Germany and Austria are unfounded and based on ignorance. Cheers!

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