Category Archives: STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL

Berlin Wine Diary: Day 4 – Kallstadt, Germany Origin of The Donald and Home to One of the World’s Great Dry Whites

That Kallstadt remains unknown to everyone except some wine geeks is a little bit bizarre when you consider that the parents of Donald Trump’s – yes, I’m talking about The Donald – come from this small wine town in the Pfalz, Germany. That becomes even more incomprehensible when you think that the Heinz family – yes, I am talking about the canned soup people – come from the same place. I humbly suggest what we have here is a classical example of Americans denying their own German roots and/or other Americans’ German roots.

This wouldn’t be worth mentioning here if it weren’t for the fact that Kallsatdt is home to one of the greatest dry white wines in the world. Yes, I’m talking about the dry Saumagen Riesling from Koehler-Ruprecht. The Saumagen – the word refers to a haggis-like dish of meat, potatoes and herbs cooked in a pig’s stomach – and the vineyard seems to have acquired this name because of the shape of this ex-Roman chalk quarry. The Saumagen Riesling and I go back a long way. My first visit to this producer was in May 1985, and in May 1986 a number of colleagues and I took part in a tasting there that spanned the vintages 1985 – 1932. That was truly remarkable, because in spite of all the terrible events of those years, and the Cold War was still ongoing, those wines possessed a resilient consistency, no, an I-am-what-I-am attitude that was truly breathtaking. Those wines were made by just two people, the multi-talented larger-than-life Bernd Philippi and his grandfather.

Since then this estate has changed hands, and changed winemaker too. Some people in the German wine scene didn’t like these changes and there was some talk of a stylistic sell-out or less professional winemaking. However, on the basis of the vertical tasting this afternoon at Martin Zwick’s wine salon in Berlin that spanned the vintages 2014 – 1996 I have to say that this producer has not wavered at all, rather, under the direction of Dominik Sona and Franziska Schmitt (pictured above), it has remained true to it’s unique wine style yet also moved an important step in the direction of more elegant wines.

What makes these wines so special? It is a combination of weight and delicacy, liveliness and mellowness, plus a properly dry balance. When most dry white wines reach the age of five to seven years they start to head downhill rather fast, but that is the age that the Koehler-Ruprecht Saumagen Rieslings start to become really enjoyable to drink (assuming you like the taste of mature wines), and begin standing out from the crowd of self-important, but interchangeable wines that dominate the market. That’s why this tasting that looked backwards in time in order to look forward to the pleasure of drinking the wines of the vintages Dominik Sona has made (he has been the winemaker since 2008) when they have had even more time to show their hand..

As exciting as the 2014s were – it is probably Dominik Sona’s best vintage to date and the best wines from it haven’t even been released yet! – and as impressive as the 2012s were – this is one of the producers who shone in that vintage – it was with the 2009 vintage that we began to see what the Saumagen Riesling is really all about. This is the age when the magic starts to happen, the point where the wines become winey in a sense that goes far beyond the regular meaning of that word. Then they turn to face us frankly in a way that seems thoroughly old-fashioned compared with all the fashion wines of today that throw all kinds of simplistic obviously aromatic stuff at us in the hope that we will freak out about it. There is nothing showy about a Saumagen Riesling, and this is a reason that they aren’t yet world-famous like The Donald, or even Heinz soup, and for this reason it may still be the most underrated dry white wine in the world. For those of you seeking a more concrete orientation in the form of a direct comparison with another well-known wine, it bears quite a similarity to Trimbach’s Clos Set Hune, the most expensive dry white wine from Alsace, France.

Thankfully sometimes there are tastings like today at which some people get the chance to see things as they are, and there are also a bunch of good restaurants in Germany and America where you can order these wines for rather friendly prices and find out for yourself. That is exactly as it should be! The glass is neither half-full, nor half-empty, rather however much there is in it there is enough for anyone who wants to drink!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 31 – Rieslingfeier Returns to New York Wine City February 20th, 2016!

This is a photograph of the second Rieslingfeier, or Riesling Celebration (the direction translation of the German) that I attended on the evening of Friday, February 21st, 2014 in the private function room of the old Rouge Tomate Resaturant in NYWC (New York Wine City). On Saturday, February 20th 2016,  thanks to Stephen Bitterolf of the importing company VOM BODEN the event’s founder and dedicated organizer, Rieslingfeier returns with two big events in one action-packed day. For more information and to book tickets go to: http://rieslingfeier.com

What makes Rieslingfeier so special? The same thing that makes a great story: the people and their interaction. It’s not just that a great many of the most important people involved in the Riesling grape and its wines (for a list of the 18 participating winemakers scroll to the bottom of this story) come together, they do so in a way that’s entirely free of the nagging self-doubt and neurotic self-searching that plagued Riesling during its years of crisis a decade and more ago. The Rieslingfeier euphoria also has to do with the presence of some very serious Riesling fans – I mean people not professionally involved with the wines – and the way they can connect with the producers, top somms etc. That doesn’t happen in this way at many wine events of any kind anywhere, and I hope that the photographs below communicate some of that free-flowing, high-energy interaction. The first of them shows Paul Grieco, aka The Chairman (of Riesling) of the Terroir wine bar in TriBeCa, NYWC on the right with Gernot Kollmann of Immich-Batterieberg in Enkirch/Mosel. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast of personalities than these two, but as you can see at Rieslingfeier they connected big time. The resulting inspiration is what it’s all about!

The problem for a writer to describe the atmosphere of such an event without rapidly falling into a series of clichés that give no more than a vague idea of how the Rieslingfeier dinner at 7pm at the Wythe Hotel at 80 Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn will really be. $330 plus tax is quite a price, of course, but what you get is not only a great meal with remarkable wines from the participating winemakers and you’ll get to sample a bunch of high-end Rieslings brought along by the guests. At the 2014 event I suddenly had three vintages of the Scharzhofberger Riesling TBA from Egon Müller-Schazhof in Wiltingen on the Saar (Egon Müller is attending again this year!) For those of you who cannot put up that kind of money there’s The Gränd Tasting from 11am through 3pm at Back Label Wines on West 20th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. The VIP ticket for this which gets you exclusive access to the 12 producers and their wines during the first hour costs just $50 plus tax. That is a steal and I’m making a “buy” recommendation!

All of this has a personal aspect that it would be indiscrete of my to reveal in full, and I have to admit that this kind of situation cramps my style as a writer. However, I can tell you that I had a most remarkable conversation with a most remarkable person at the 2014 Rieslingfeier, and I hope very much to speak to them again at the 2016 event. That one conversation lead to many others, much reading and thinking, and as a result I am living very differently now to how I did back then. That means I striving to be a more positive, open, compassionate and loving person, rather than often narrow, sometimes closed and judgmental one I was before. How well I’m succeeding at that is another matter, but all meaningful change starts with the decision to change, the growth of the determination to change, and potting that into practice is almost never as easy as it sounds. I humbly suggest that if Rieslingfeier could not only stun me with many amazing Rieslings, but also introduce me to someone who changed my life, then it could do so for you too!

Top of my personal list of participating winemakers is Katharina Prüm of J. J. Prüm in Wehlen on the Mosel. We haven’t been able to talk in quite some time, although I have no illusions about the fact that there will be several other people at Rieslingfeier with the same idea! Here is the list of winemakers who will be attending and pouring:

Jochen Beurer of the Beurer estate of Stetten in Württemberg, who makes some remarkable dry wines in this rising star among Germany’s wine regions.

Caroline Diel of Schlossgut Diel in Burg Layen in the Nahe makes brilliant dry and sweet wines that have made her one of the region’s top winemakers.

Gernot Kollmann took over the direction and winemaking at Immich Batterieberg in Enkirch on the Mosel in 2009, and within very few years he has turned it into one of the region’s leading producers of dry Riesling.

Florian Lauer of the Peter Lauer estate in Ayl on the Saar, who since 2005 has taken this small estate from anonymity to international star status with complex wines ranging form bone dry to aromatically sweet.

Johannes Leitz of Josef Leitz in the Rheingau, who since the turn of the century firmly put Rüdesheim back on the map for top quality dry and west wines, and transformed this producer from being a name known only to insiders into a global Riesling brand.

Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen on the Mosel is an unlikely Riesling Hero. Completely unknown when he took over control of his family estate in 1987 he is now a German Riesling Superstar and one of the nation’s most successful quality wine exporters.

Egon Müller IV of Egon Müller-Scharzhof in Wiltingen on the Saar continues the tradition of this producer for world-class sweet Rieslings that range from the delicate to the unctuous and honey-sweet.

Roman Niewodniczanski took the almost literally crumbling van Volxem estate, also in Wiltingen on the Saar, and turned it into one of the region’s largest, best and most acclaimed producers in just 15 years.

Katharina Prüm of J. J. Prüm in Wehlen on the Mosel has already been introduced. This producer is synonymous with Mosel elegance and finesse!

Hansjörg Rebholz of Ökonomierat Rebholz in Siebeldingen in the Pfalz producers some of the best and most original dry wines on Planet Riesling; character and elegance rather than raw power are their hallmarks.

Dr. Carl Ferdinand von Schubert has directed Maximin Grünhaus in Mertesdorf in the Ruwer since the early 1980s and today this famous estate is once again right at the top of its game, making uniquely aromatic and strikingly racy wines.

Dominik Sona does things the traditional way at Koehler-Ruprecht in Kallstadt in the Pfalz, just as his predecessor Bernd Phillipi did, and that makes for deep and complex dry Rieslings.

Christian Witte has taken world-famous Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau out of a period of erratic performance back to the very top since he took over there in 2005; great dry and sweet Rieslings!

Stefan Steinmetz of Günther Steinmetz in Brauneberg on the Mosel is one of the rising stars of this region.

Johannes Weber of Hofgut Falkenstein on the Saar, has made a major commitment to traditional winemaking techniques is also one of the stars of his region.

Wilhelm Weil of Robert Weil of Kiedrich in the Rheingau has taken that estate from the  mid-field of that famous region to the top since he took control of it in 1987; world-famous desert wines!

Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler jumped into deep water in 2005 when they purchased their first steep vineyards with slate soils and launched Weiser-Künstler in Traben-Trarbach on the Mosel.

See you there!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 4 – Kelby Russell of Red Newt Cellars in the FLX is My Riesling Hero 2015

How quickly do things really change on Planet Wine? Often if you look past the headlines that try keep trying to persuade us the winemaking wheel has just been reinvented again, then take a thoughtful and probing look at history you find that many of those supposed game-changing innovations are not really that new. However, every now and again a young wine region really does take a massive leap forward within the space of a few years, and sometimes that leap is in good part the result of one person’s remarkable efforts. The FLX (Finger Lakes) of Upstate New York is a young region with just over 50 vintages with vinifera grape varieties behind it, and currently it is being shaken up by a group of dynamic and often young winemakers. One of them stands out for what he has done with Riesling during just the last couple of years. Kelby Russell (right in the above photo) will be 28 years old on December 19th this year and he began his winemaking career only six years ago, but what he has achieved in that time is truly revolutionary for the FLX and for the world of Riesling.

Kelby became the winemaker of Red Newt Cellars of Hector on the eastern bank of Seneca Lake at the end of the 2012 vintage. The wines he made that year are all nice stuff, but many of them are rather cautious and few of them are really exciting. However, with his 2013 and 2014 vintage Rieslings he has done things I never expected from this region, and he has taken Red Newt high into the FLX first league. Much as I appreciate the recent leap in quality at Red Newt, particularly for the winery’s larger production wines like the medium-sweet Circle Riesling (scroll down to my Riesling Revelations 2015 for more about the latter wine), the radical stylistic innovations strike me as being even more important. They are most clear in the new high-end wines that Kelby has created with the considerable encouragement and support of winery owner Dave Whiting (left in the above photo).

I never came across FLX Rieslings before with the striking nose of yellow grapefruit and smoke that the 2013 and 2014 vintages of the Red Newt Dry Riesling have. They also have a racy energy that reminds me of James Joyce’s observation that, “white wine is electricity,” and we are talking about a wine that costs just under $20! They do the kind of things most somms will tell you only top quality European Rieslings can do, and it is surely significant that Kelby has studied those wines very intensively and tried to learn everything he could from them. The grapes for this wine came from Harlan Fulkerson’s Lahoma Vineyard on the western bank of Seneca Lake, a new fruit source for Red Newt. The winery’s new top dry Riesling The Knoll comes from one particular block – it is indeed a knoll – in that vineyard and debuts with the recently released 2013 vintage. It has even more of the smoke aroma than the 2013 Dry Riesling, and this is combined with a fresh pineapple note. On the palate there’s great concentration for this generally rather wishy-washy vintage (due to high crop levels that winemakers didn’t see coming until it was too late) and it lacks the Botrytis note that slightly mars many 2013 FLX Rieslings. The even drier 2014 The Knoll is still science fiction, by which I mean that it will be almost a year before it reaches the market, however, it is surely one of star wines of this often great vintage in the region. For all its intensity and despite having some serious tannins (yes, tannin can be positive in Riesling!) this is a very elegant wine with flavors of way too complex to be adequately described with a few standard winetasting terms. So let me stick my neck out and say that it’s an intricately patterned tapestry of acidity, fruit, spice and minerals.

There is also medium-dry pendant to this with the working name of The Big H (as the photo right shows Harlan Fulkerson is a big guy in every sense). It has more exotic aromas, is more succulent and weighty, but is also graceful and subtle. With just 18 grams of residual sweetness in the 2014 vintage, this too is very much a gastronomic wine. Kelby is also responsible for making the excellent Dry Riesling for Boundary Breaks winery (again see my Riesling Revelations 2015 below) and almost equally striking Empire Estate Dry Riesling launched with the 2014 vintage by the Nomad Hotel group. These are also both stylistic innovations for the FLX. Then there are the wines that he makes under his own Kelby James Russell label, but they deserve separate description at a later date so they don’t get lost in the crowd of all these other wines.

Given all this you are probably wondering why you haven’t heard Kelby Russell’s name before. Winemakers who don’t continually blow their own horn are often overlooked and underrated, and Kelby is anything but a loud mouth or  24/7 self-publicist. Of course, he hasn’t been up at full speed for very long, and this is also a reason for the modest crop of high praise he has gathered to date. However, it’s a journalist’s job to see what’s going on, and regions where so much is moving so fast (many more stories on the young winemaker of FLX will follow and ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 will be devoted to them) ought to excite journalists. Dear colleagues, it is high time that you woke up to what this young man is doing, because he is changing an entire region!

Of course, that statement prompts the question how it is possible for someone so young to get so far in such a short period of time. Part of the answer is the way that Dave Whiting spotted his talent and almost immediately gave Kelby the freedom he needed to turn his vision into such exciting wines. However, you have to have a vision and the necessary knowledge to be implement it before that kind of mentorship will work. Kelby graduated from Harvard in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in government and a minor in economics, both subjects enormously far removed from wine. He had been planning to go into orchestra or choir management, but a little taste of winemaking in Italy in 2008 made him change his mind. On the first day of the 2009 harvest he turned up at Fox Run Vineyards and became one of the “students” at the “school” of winemaker Peter Bell. Many other young FLX winemaker have done the same, and Peter helped any number of them thoroughly grasp the foundations of their craft. Somebody should give Peter a medal for what he has done for the entire FLX wine industry!

In 2010, ’11 and ’12 Kelby worked two harvests per year by going to the Southern Hemisphere in the Northern Hemisphere spring, working at Whitehaven in Marlborough, NZ, then Piper’s Brook in Tasmania, before finally graduating to Nightshift Red Winemaker at Yalumba in South Australia. Not surprisingly, he’s also doing exciting things with the Cabernet Franc reds at Red Newt. From the 2014 vintage there’s a joyful, fragrant fruity tank-aged Cab Franc and the 2013 Glacier Ridge single vineyard bottling is the best Cab Franc the winery has made to date with a floral elegance that puts it in the first league of FLX reds. Other remarkable and sometimes daring new creations are about to emerge from Red Newt Cellars! These exciting other wines show that this year’s Riesling Hero is by no means limited to his and my favorite grape variety!

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will already know that Kelby is also a good friend of mine and that I have been his house guest several times. That closeness has enabled this young winemaker to have a mind-expanding effect upon my awareness of Riesling in the FLX and beyond. Only a couple of other winemakers of his generation did that for me, and they are world-famous names. READ MY LIPS: TASTE THESE WINES!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 2 – John Winthrop Haeger’s Excellent New Book “Riesling Rediscovered”

2015 was not an easy Riesling year, and I’m not talking about the vintage (probably great in Europe, possibly less exciting in many parts of North America). During the last year I’ve been told any number of times but people who are convinced that they know for sure that Riesling has quite simply run out of steam, that in spite of the considerable growth in Riesling sales since 2000 the grape never topped a 1% market share and therefore doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously, was turned into a fashion by the Summer of Riesling promotions and is now oh so very 2013, also that the Summer of Riesling made a catastrophic mistake in not focusing totally on dry Riesling and the grape as a whole now paying the price for this. There is a grain of truth in all of this, but the whole truth is so much more complex and more positive than these gibes suggest.

2016 will be a very different Riesling year, not least because John Winthrop Haeger’s book Riesling Rediscovered (University of California Press) appears and is a great answer to all of this negativity. It both takes Riesling extremely seriously and enthusiastically celebrates the great dry wines made from the grape around the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Wine (for reasons of time and space the Southern Hemisphere was excluded). It also examines the prejudices that still clings to Riesling – most importantly that Riesling is a sweet wine in an ugly negative sense – and exposes their surprising deep and historical roots. Nobody has told that story anywhere near as well as Haeger, and along the way he provides a lot of fascinating insights into the development of the wine industry and wine market between the Middle Ages and the present day. Even if you are not particularly interested in Riesling this is a great read. If you are Riesling obsessed, then you will need to read the chapter on clones, because it is the only place this information is available in this thorough and complete form.

However, all this only prepares the ground Haeger’s in-depth survey of the contemporary world of dry Riesling. That spans roughly 200 pages, and to read this mass of detailed description of the best dry Riesling in Europe and North America you certainly need to feel some fascination for the enormous diversity of wines made from this chameleon among white grape varieties. What makes those 200 pages worth working your way through is the wealth of information about the top vineyard sites and the producers who are responsible for the wines that made and make them famous. The complex interaction of natural and human factors that lies behind all great wines is Haeger’s real theme, and the world of dry Riesling is just as fertile a subject for him as the Pinot Noirs of North America were beforehand. Some prior knowledge of winegrowing and winemaking methods will certainly help you to follow all this properly, but if you are halfway intelligent and fascinated by the subject you shouldn’t have much trouble.

Of course, although 200 pages is a lot it isn’t nearly enough to describe the many hundreds of top producers of dry Riesling in the Northern Hemisphere, and Haeger therefore concentrated on a personal selection of the best. It is here that the book can most easily be attacked, particularly due to the omission of detailed description of a few famous high-end producers like Dönnhoff in the Nahe, Germany. In a few regions that are experiencing rapid change like the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York Haeger’s last visit was clearly a year or two prior to completion of the manuscript, and he therefore seems to have missed some new developments with long-term implications (see my Riesling Revelations 2015 below). However, these small weaknesses don’t significantly detract from the enormous value of the book as the single serious guide to this subject. My own Best White Wine on Earth (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014) took a very different approach by looking casting a wide net that took in the entire range of Riesling wines from both hemispheres, and rarely went into this kind of detail. If you want that then Haeger’s new work is the sole reliable and thoughtful source. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in Riesling, and to all somms who are genuinely interested to have an overview of the entire world of wine, and to all those who have been throwing those anti-Riesling gibes around recently. To pre-order it click on the following link or contact your local bookstore. The price is just over $30:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520275454?keywords=John%20Winthrop%20Haeger&qid=1449928268&ref_=sr_1_3&s=books&sr=1-3

 

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 11 – My Riesling Revelations 2015

Ein deutschsprachige Version von diesem Text wird bald folgen. Ich bitte um Geduld!

Late last year the announcement of my Riesling Revelations for the year caused quite a stir, so there was never any doubt in my mind that I would have to repeat the giving of these awards at the same time this year. The first time the winners were all North American wines, but this year I decided to simply pick the most exciting and innovative Riesling wines I encountered during the last year in each of the four categories of the IRF (International Riesling Foundation) taste profile: Dry / Medium-Dry / Medium-Sweet / Sweet.  Sometimes the choices were very difficult and that’s the reason there’s an official runner up in the Dry category. I am, of course, very interested to hear all your reactions. My apologies that it’s impossible to list all the importers for these wines around Planet Wine, but this information should be easily accessible on the Internet.

RIESLING REVELATION 2015 DRY:

2014 Watervale Riesling

from Mitchell in Clare Valley, South Australia

Not without some reason do somms and consumers in America and elsewhere sometimes accuse Australian Riesling producers of making extreme wines. Often the bone dry, high-acidity style combined with the intense lime character of these wines makes them challenging in their youth, which is why I often refer to them as Bladerunner wines. It is the intense sunlight, the enormous day-night temperature differences and very dry summers in Australia that are responsible for that acidity and that aroma. The normal suggestion is that the wines need some sweetness, but this always struck me as the easy way out. This wine proves that greater elegance can be achieved in this style without resorting to sweetness, or in any way changing the fundamental personality of these wines. This dry Riesling is the best that the Mitchell family made since the first vintage back in 1977. The aromas of lime, passion fruit, melon and citrus blossom are only made more exciting by the slightly funky note from the wild ferment. However, you have to feel the textural complexity, succulence in your mouth, then savor the elegant, delicately mineral finale in order to find out why this wine had to win in this category.

Typical retail price: AUS$22

US importer: Red Earth Wines, contact www.redearthwines.net

UK importer: Merchant Vintners, contact www.merchantvintners.co.uk 

Runner up RIESLING REVELATION 2015 DRY:

2014 Riesling “239”

from Boundary Breaks in the Finger Lakes, New York

Until recently when I tasted the dry Rieslings of the FLX (Finger Lakes) in Upstate New York I almost always felt that they lacked enough ripeness to claim a place in the global first league for wines of this category. The only frequent exceptions were the wines of Hermann J. Wiemer on the west side of Seneca Lake (who made some great wines in 2012 and 2014). With the last couple of vintages a small handful of other winemakers have proved that they too can pull this off through the combination of excellent vineyard cultivation and late-picking. Bruce Murray’s first vintage at the vineyard he planted while still a market researcher in NYC was 2011, so this wine comes from the 4th crop of his vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake. By waiting until October 28th he picked perfectly ripe golden Riesling grapes that were entirely free of rot. Then Kelby Russell of Red Newt (see below) vinified this mold-breaking creamy and delicately spicy FLX dry Riesling with a great feeling for balance. The result is a wine so far outside the FLX box that it is sure to both praised and damned when it is released March 16th,2016.

Typical retail price: $19 (release March 16th 2016)

New York distributor: Polaner Selections, contact: www.polanerselections.com

Winery contact: info@boundarybreaks.com, www.boundarybreaks.com

RIESLING REVELATION 2015 MEDIUM-DRY:

2014 Riesling Kabinett Feinherb “Rotlack”

from Schloss Joahnnisberg in the Rheingau, Germany

How can a Riesling from the most famous producer of wines from this grape in the world be a revelation? Schloss Johannisberg is best known internationally for sweet Spätlese type wines, and since Christian Witte became the estate director back in 2005 (aged under 30!) they have once again shone very brightly in this category (look out for the amazing 2013 Riesling Spätlese “Grünlack”!) More recently, the estate’s Riesling GG “Silberlack” has moved into the first league of dry Rhine wines (the 2014 vintage is probably the best so far). Less sought after or loudly acclaimed are the “regular” wines from Schloss Johannisberg like this masterpiece of peachy filigree with a brilliance and tantalizing dry mineral finish that makes it the perfect beverage for seduction or polite conversation. With just 10.5% this is a great wine you can drink and entire bottle of and still feel up to anything that the seduction or conversation might lead to.

Typical retail price: Euro 23 / $ 32

US importer: Mionetto USA, contact www.mwimportsusa.com

UK importer: Hallgarten Druitt, contact www.hallgartendruitt.co.uk

Winery contact: www.schloss-johannisberg.de

 RIESLING REVELATION 2015 MEDIUM-SWEET:

2014 Riesling “Circle”

from Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lakes, New York

Let me be completely frank with you. The reasons I picked this wine for this award is the combination it’s excellent quality, the production quantity of 36,000 bottles and the astonishingly friendly $13 retail price. How could Red Newt Cellars’ biggest production and lowest-priced Riesling be this good? The fact that most of the vineyards supplying grapes to this winery that doesn’t own a single vine have a high standards of viticulture was certainly key (Harlan Fulkerson deserves a mention because he was the main supplier for this wine). Then came the excellent fall weather and winemaker Kelby Russell’s decision to delay picking until late October even for this “basic” wine. It fermented very slowly, and remained on the full fermentation lees for fully 10 months before racking, filtration and bottling. It won’t be released until about May/June 2016 and that should mean that it hits the market in optimum form. The aromas range from peach and apricot to smoke and grapefruit, the wine is only just sweet enough to demand inclusion in this category, but has a mouth-filling succulence, then a super-clean finish. In short, it is a beauty that the entire team lead by Dave Whiting must be congratulated on!

Typical retail price: $13 (release May/June 2016)

New York distributor: Verity Wine Partners, contact www.veritywines.com

Winery contact: www.rednewt.com

RIESLING REVELATION 2015 SWEET:

2014 Wolfer Goldgrube Riesling Spätlese

from Daniel Vollenweider in the Mosel, Germany

Back in 2000 Swiss Daniel Vollenweider became the first non-German winemaker in the Mosel Valley. I will never forget how a decade ago a German colleague asked me to name an exciting new Mosel winemaker to him and when I recommended this young Swiss guy he asked in a tone heavy with scorn, “who is Daniel Vollenweider?” However, when he tasted the wines he immediately praised Daniel as the new star of Mosel Riesling. Of course, he isn’t so new anymore, but he continues pushing the envelope both for dry and sweet Mosel wines, and this is one of the most exciting young Riesling Spätlese from the region I ever tasted. Packed to the brim with all manner of white and yellow fruit aromas, floral notes and bristling with both ripe acidity and juicy sweetness it is already delicious. However, just like The Force, this wine also has a dark side, and that’s what gives it a dangerous kick other wines of this category lacked.

Typical retail price: Euro 20 / $30

US importer: Vom Boden, contact www.vomboden.com

UK importer: Howard Ripley, contact www.howardripley.com

Winery contact: www.weingut-vollenweider.de

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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 winesearcher.com 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 www.weinstory.de 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!

 

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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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