Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The Kurpfalz Weinstuben is one of the World’s Best Wine Restaurants and a Very Good Reason to Travel to Berlin (like I just did)

The Kurpfalz Weinstuben is one of the world’s best wine restaurantsand a very good reason to travel to Berlin (like I just did). But it’s so eccentric that many unadventurous people, who really ought to know better, i.e. be more open-minded, say things about it like, “well…yes I suppose if the other interesting places are full…”. That’s just the sign of a lack of imagination and appreciation though, that they aren’t able to accept how some “old-fashioned” things only seem that way because over decades and they’ve been perfected to the point where it’s very difficult to push them any further. Those words certainly apply to the Saumagen which Rainer Schultz, cook and patron (pictured above), has served since 1976. This pork and potatoes-based haggis like “sausage” from the Pfalz never tasted better than in Berlin’s Kurpfalz Weinstuben (the herbs and spices! the delicious pork fat!) although it often tasted wonderful in the Pfalz. The ideal wine for this dish is a bold, but subtle dry Riesling from the same region from dyed-in-the-wool traditional winemaking specialist Philippi of the Koehler-Ruprecht winery in Kallstadt/Pfaz. Many mature vintages of this wine are on offer in the Kurpfalz Weinstuben for the simple reason that this is a wine which really does taste so much more exciting when it’s had a few years in the bottle to mellow, then double-melloow, after which it is still bursting with life and energy. Need I write more? No, but of course I could go on and on. However, since I got to Berlin I’ve not been in good health and this is best kept short and to the point, as in this is a place you have to experience!

PS All I’ve done is to hint at what this place has to offer. The wine list is mind-blowing with sometimes absurdly friendly prices. The only things you shouldn’t expect here are light, low-fat food, bright modern lighting or permission to use your cellphone/smartphone. It might even be an NSA/GCHQ-free zone!

http://www.kurpfalz-weinstuben.de

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 67 – Another Nail in the Coffin of the Absurd and Disastrous Mosel Bridge?

The shit is hitting the fan because the absurd and disastrous Mosel Bridge under construction close to Ürzig and Zeltingen-Rachtig on the Mosel Valley is finally being questioned. A week ago I reported how Der Spiegel, Germany’s equivalent of TIME magazine, had obtained internal papers from the economics ministry of the German state of Rheinland that cast serious doubt on the feasibility of the bridge due to the geological instability of the steep slope on the Ürzig side of the river (left bank). Their article published on December 20th landed like a bombshell in the state capital of Mainz.

Today came the next hammer blow for the dumb politicians and civil servants in Mainz who have repeatedly refused to face up to the facts on this project. The major regional newspaper for the Mosel, the Trierischer Volksfreund printed three serious articles about the literally fundamental problems affecting this project. On the front page Harald Ehses, the director of the state office for geology and mining was quoted as saying of the site for the supporting pillar of the planned bridge on the Ürzig side of the river, “more than a decade ago we pointed out that this is an unstable slope“. What he means is that the foundations of that pillar are planned to go down to a depth of 47 meters, but the bed rock doesn’t begin until 70 meters below the surface, and above it is mix of small rocks and boulders bigger than a house. And sometimes all that stuff moves about! For these reasons Ehses considers a detailed study of the site absolutely essential, but this study was only very recently ordered and there’s good reason to think it will be rushed or even fudged. The most important of the three stories was the editorial by Katharina Hammerman who asked several of the questions that we in the opposition have been posing for years (and been laughed at by the politicians and media for asking), “Why did construction start before these questions were answered? That’s completely incomprehensible, yes absolutely mindless. That the government is trying to keep this information from becoming public says everything.” 

The photos here show how far construction has advanced without the stability or safety of the bridge being guaranteed. That’s totally mad when you consider that planning began during the 1960s! Since then the political justification for the bridge has changed many times, and the federal transport ministry’s calculation of the benefit-cost relation has been revised down to below the acceptable minimum for major new construction projects. However, the Mosel Bridge still went ahead. By the way, if the benefit-cost relation were recalculated today it would be revised down again. And none of the politicians ever took the damage to the wine and tourism industries from which the region lives seriously. Shame on them!

WHEN WILL ALL THIS MADNESS STOP? HOPEFULLY SOON (i.e. 2014)! Thank you Katharina Hammerman and the Trierischer Volksfreund for putting one more nail in the coffin of the Mosel Bridge! Here are the links to the German language stories in Trierischer Volksfreund:

http://www.volksfreund.de/nachrichten/region/mosel/aktuell/Heute-in-der-Mosel-Zeitung-Streit-um-die-Standsicherheit-der-Hochmoselbruecke-neu-entflammt;art671,3748185

http://www.volksfreund.de/nachrichten/kolumnen/kommentare/Kommentare-Kommentar-Die-Hochmoselbruecke-ist-leichtsinnig-geplant-worden;art158795,3748426

http://www.volksfreund.de/nachrichten/welt/themendestages/themenderzeit/Weitere-Themen-des-Tages-Warum-Landes-Geologen-den-Hochmosel-Brueckenbau-so-schwierig-finden;art742,3748601

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 65 – Wine of the Month, January 2014

El Maestro Sierra Oloroso (15 years old)

Euro 11,95 in Berlin from www.vinos.de

$ 19,99 per half in NYC from www.flatiron-wines.com

Not Riesling? Not even a complex aromatic white? Nor even a rich and subtle red?

No. My wine of the month spot finally returns after a long break due to work on BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (pub. Stewart, Tabori & Chang June ’14) with the wine I have been enjoying the most during the last few days. This is a wine style which Riesling can’t do, because the kind of long-term and hard-core oxidation which developed the toasted nut and dried citrus peel aromas of this elegant, discreetly bitter Oloroso sherry just destroys the things which make Riesling enticing and fascinating. In contrast, the Palomino grape seems to lap this kind of treatment up revealing a completely different side to its personality to the fresh and lively character of pale and young Fino and Manzanilla sherries, that I also enjoy in summer. This is one of the great winter wines, and it’s still too little appreciated right around the world outside Spain. If the bitterness of this Oloroso is a bit too much for you, then try it with blue cheese. Yes, this combination is anything but classic, but the slightly sweet creaminess of blue cheese make this kind of sherry taste yet more mellow. My only wish is that I could buy it here in New York for the friendly price I can get it in Berlin!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 64 – A New Year and New Life!

I may be British and a visitor to the USA, but the assertion of the American Declaration of Independence of July 4th 1776 that there are certain  rights and that these include, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” made a great impression upon me from the moment I first heard those words as a small school boy in suburban London. The opening words of the preamble of the American Constitution of September 17th 1787, “We the people…“, struck me as being no less momentous. 2013 was a year during which I thought often about those two statements in all manner of situations, and as you can see from the picture above here in New York I managed to find the right direction for happiness, even if that path has been anything but straight or smooth. I hope very much that all of you, wherever you are reading this, have also been able to move in that direction. If not I extend my sincere hope that you will succeed in doing so during the coming year. To all readers, the occasional no less than the regulars I send my best wishes for the New Year!

A lot of stuff happened to me during 2013 and I don’t propose to review it all, because that would be too long-winded. My aim on this blog is to be up-to-date yet thoughtful, reporting in depth without becoming long-winded. However, certain things stand out and deserve a mention. The first of these was the planting of  almost a thousand vines of the red grape variety Pinotin at Klosterhof Töplitz vineyard in Töplitz just SW of Berlin at roughly 52° 30´North. Excepting those in the very driest corner of the slope they grew well, as you can see left, and we are set for a first harvest (probably one barrique) in 2015. Thank you everyone who helped with the planting and subsequent care of the vines. Soon after that my attention switched back to Riesling and I began traveling to all the important winergowing regions in North America where Riesling is grown. They are, in the order that I visited them, Columbia Valley/Washington State, Willamette Valley/Oregon, various parts of California, the Finger Lakes/New York, Okanagan Valley in British Columbia/Canada, the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas/Michigan and the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario/Canada. It was striking to how Riesling seemed to be more or less on a roll in all of these locations. In New York State it recently became the main vinifera grape variety, in Ontario it is about to become the most important white vinifera grape variety and in Washington State the vineyard area devoted to it doubled during the last decade. Even in Oregon where it is overshadowed by the vast Pinot Noir acreage and the serious Pinot Gris plantings it has grown a third during the last ten years. I photographed the bunches of Riesling pictured here in a vineyard belonging to Cave Spring on the Beamsville Bench of Niagara in Mid-September. Many thanks to all the winemakers who went out of their way to help me understand how Riesling ticks in their regions and who introduced me to competitors.

I must also thank the team from Wines of Germany in New York with whom I undertook the first Riesling Road Trip from Venice Beach in Los Angeles/California to New York City during the latter part of June. Not only did I see a great swathe of the country I’d never been to before (e.g. Arizona, Texas, New Orleans, Alabama), but I got to hear how Riesling is developing in the US market. Perhaps it isn’t racing ahead as Moscato did during the last years, but the foundations of its growth seem rock solid and consumers right across America are slowly drifting in the direction of less sweet wines. That strikes me as extremely positive news.

Of course, at this point my mind also turns back to the many amazing wines, Riesling and otherwise which I drank and tasted during the last year. It’s hard to single one out of the many Riesling discoveries and innovations I encountered over the others, although I gladly did so for www.Wine-Searcher.com and you can find it by clicking on the link below. Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one of their authors to pick a new North American Riesling as their wine of the year. That was also a wine I considered picking, so congratulations are also  due to Bob Berthau of Chateau Set. Michelle in Washington State for the revolutionary Auslese-style ‘Eroica Gold’:

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2013/12/our-wines-of-the-year

The bottle I enjoyed drinking the most was probably this one. In a tasting of the 2003 vintage dry German Rieslings for the German wine magazine FINE at the end of August (see issue #4 / 2013 for my report) the 2003 Hermannshöhle ‘Großes Gewächs’ (GG) from Helmut Dönnhoff in Oberhausen/Nahe was the most ravishing of the handful of stand-out wines. Was I ever going to drink it though? Then, when I got back to New York in early September I found I had a bottle of it in a box of mixed mature dry Rieslings saved for a blind tasting. Because too many wines were now lined up for that tasting I pulled it and drank it with friends one evening instead. This wines has a liveliness and delicacy for the vintage shaped by the “summer of the century”, for a vintage which was an almost 1:1 rerun of the opulence and creaminess of the 1959 vintage in Germany. It also has a treasure chest brimming with golden aromas of all kinds that I could spend all evening going back to again and again. Time has only improved it and if you can run get hold of well-stored bottles and the cork is good this is one of the most amazing Rieslings young or old I can recommend you. And yes, it ought to hold, I’d say at least another decade. So, to all intents and purposes this is my wine of the year!

The late summer and early fall were dominated by work on the manuscript of the book which I’ve been researching since February 1st 2012 (when I arrived in Adelaide/South Australia) BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story, due for publication in Stewart, Tabori & Chang in early June 2014. I wrote most of it at this small desk on the 14th floor high above West 16th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) in Manhattan. Perhaps the cramped working space helped me to be concise. Certainly, at just under 200 pages it is much more compact than anything I’ve written in a good while, although the subject is the Riesling wines of the world and the global Riesling phenomenon. It’s also my first book in English in almost a decade. In a few days I’ll get the first sample pages back from the designer and the last phase of work before the book’s appearance will begin. Since it will primarily be illustrated with my own photography that will be particularly exciting. But don’t let me turn this short look back turn into a tome!

MAY THE RIESLING FORCE BE WITH YOU IN 2014!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 62 – Thank You Wynton Marsalis! (Thank you Jürgen Fränznick!)

When I see New York Wine City (NYWC) looking like this the music I hear in my head is Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet, for even though he was raised in New Orleans no other contemporary jazz musician strikes me as having absorbed so much of the musical history of this city into his own playing as he has. To be frank until hours ago that statement would have been based on the shaky evidence of  listening to a few of his many albums. Then, suddenly, I received a telephone call from Jürgen Fränznick of the Hotel of Hope in the East Village, my first real address in NYWC, who told me that he had a free ticket for the Wynton Marsalis Septet at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in the Time Warner Building. So I raced up there for what turned out to be the best jazz concert I can remember experiencing in many years.

I’m not an expert on jazz, but I could clearly hear how Eric Reed (piano), Victor Goines (sax and clarinet), Wessel Anderson (sax), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Reginald Veal (bass), Herlin Riley (drums) and Wynton Marsalis all have a great appreciation and knowledge of jazz and many other types music. It oozed from their precise and finely-nuanced performance. The remarkable thing is how in spite of this their music never had a hint of cold virtuosity, even when they took a jazz classic like Thelonious Monk’s ‘Thelonious’ and turned it upside down in a way that was as brilliant as it was  sophisticated. Perhaps the most amazing thing they played was a no less radically reinterpreted version of Geroge Gershwin’s ‘Embraceable You’ in which Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet took on the role of the vocal. It was breathy – I mean that we could hear him breathing through his trumpet! – and yet it was also warmly melodic, it was joyful and it was haunting. It was also totally New York in the way musical worlds were intertwined with a delight in cultural cross-pollination, but actually the latter is one of the things which has made America great and continues to do so.

PS I drank a glass or two of Riesling, a German wine appropriately called simply ‘Hooked’, and the view out of the window over Central Park and the Upper West Side had something of the mood of the photo of the Financial District above.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 60 – Finally, Hope for the Mosel and the End for the Mosel Bridge?

Sarah and Knut are hopeful for the first time in almost three years, and that makes me hopeful too. In fact, this is my second reason for feeling hopeful this Christmas (for the first scroll down to the previous post). Maybe it isn’t too late for the terrible monster threatening the Mosel to be stopped. Read on to find out why.

Pictured above are Sarah Washington (left) and Knut Aufermann (right), central figures in the campaign to stop the Hochmoselübergang or “Mosel Bridge”, the largest bridge under construction in Europe that is planned to span the middle section of the Mosel Valley at its widest point close to the famous wine towns of Ürzig, Erden, Zeltingen, Wehlen, Graach and Bernkastel. If ever completed the concrete white elephant would be over a mile long and 525 feet high, but would carry an absurdly small amount of traffic for the expense – planned 130 million Euros, but probably impossible to build for even triple this. More importantly, it would have an unquantifiable but seriously negative impact upon some of the most famous vineyards in the Mosel and on Planet Riesling. This photo dates from the high point of the international campaign against the Mosel Bridge in 2010 when the Green Party of the state of Rheinland Pfalz (RLP) were committed to stopping the project. Their surprising success in the state elections in the spring of 2011 made that look like a very real possibility, then when they entered the present coalition government with the socialist SDP party they immediately caved in, dropping their opposition. Not only were Sarah and Knut shocked, also Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and untold thousands of supporters of this cause around the globe were too. I will never forget how the news reached me on New York’s Fifth Avenue just yards from where I write these lines. As I read the text message from Sarah I almost fainted, because at that point I’d already been active in the campaign for 8 years. Now, finally, after more than a decade after I joined in 2003, there finally seems to be some positive movement and that gives us hope. Here’s the news and Sarah’s comment upon it:

On December 20th 2013 Der Spiegel, Germany’s equivalent of TIME magazine reported that there are serious risks in the construction of the High Mosel Bridge. Here is a summary of the initial SPIEGEL report (translated by Sarah Washington):

According to information received by SPIEGEL, experts for the
government of Rheinland Pfalz say the building of the bridge is
significantly more risky than previously acknowledged.

According to internal documents from the Green Economy Ministry of
Eveline Lemke, the state agency for geology warns of “significant
structural and financial risks” in the creation of pillars up to 150m
high on the west side of the Mosel valley.

The experts point to geological “slip surfaces” on the slope ranging
up to 70 meters in depth, which are “not reliably explored”. The
“geological risk” is assessed as “very high”.

The 130 million euro project is currently the largest bridge
construction site in Europe. The road bridge is to better connect Hahn
Airport in the Hunsrück Eifel region.

Residents and winemakers have been protesting for years in vain,
however the Social Democratic Ministry for Internal Affairs and
Infrastructure claimed that it could “not comprehend” the criticism.
The stability of the bridge could be ensured by “engineering
measures.”

For the German language article in Der Spiegel use this link:

http://www.spiegel.de/auto/aktuell/hochmoselbruecke-experten-warnen-vor-risiken-a-940209.html

My reaction: This confirms what we have feared all along – that
we will be left with half a bridge. There is information stretching
right back to the 1950s which suggests that the Ürzig slope may be too
problematic to build upon. As the government would not provide any
information, an independent geologist was engaged in 2011 who
confirmed the likelihood of significant problems. The campaign group
Pro-Mosel recently took the local government to court to try to find
out under the Freedom of Information Act what the problem is with the
static calculations for the bridge, which have seemingly already
caused a one-year delay. The court ruled that the government could
remain silent by invoking the protection of ‘trade secrets’ of the
building companies. It seems that protesters were right to be
suspicious of the lack of transparency, and that the government is
withholding vital public information for the sole reason that it is
embarrassingly damaging for them. Our current Ministers appear to be
content to wait this problem out in the hope that it will become
someone else’s future responsibility. It is time to stop the charade
and protect the taxpayer and the vineyards from further abuse.

A very Merry Christmas to you all. Raise a glass for the Mosel and
keep your fingers crossed.
Best wishes,
Sarah

For further information on the campaign use the link or email below:

http://www.b50neu.de/e/index.html

contact@pro-mosel.de

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 58 – Dear NSA, Dear GCHQ (Part 6 – Out of the Vast Shadow, again!)

There are no shadows without light!

Dear General Keith Alexander (Director of NSA),

Dear James Clapper (National Director of Intelligence),

Dear Sir Lain Lobban (Director of GCHQ),

the publication today by The Washington Post of an in-depth interview with Edward Snowden forces me to delay several other stories in order to be up with events as they unfold. The background to this is, of course, the December 16th decision of US District Judge Richard J. Leon that the bulk collection of U.S. domestic telephone records is probably unconstitutional because it contravenes the Fourth Amendment, and the December 19th publication of the NSA Review Panel’s report which called for considerable changes to operational procedures to limit that agency’s powers, which the closed-door oversight of Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had both woefully failed to do. For the three of you this was no doubt seriously bad news, but for many millions in the US and billions around the world who value liberty this was all extremely welcome.

Before I move on to the thoughts that have been going through my mind I must sadly add a warning note. The good news has almost exclusively to do with the relationship between the NSA and American citizens, corporations, etc within the borders of the US. The recent development of German-American relations illuminates this problem rather well. In early August as the German government prepared an official statement that the “NSA Affair” was over the US government held out to them the prospect of a bilateral no-spying pact. However, all the indications are that this is now no longer on offer (if it ever really was), because the US Government doesn’t want to extend the no-spying promise President Obama made personally to Chancellor Merkel to other German citizens or foreign nationals resident in Germany (including myself). That means your surveillance of other countries and their citizens is set to continue. US and British embassies give diplomatic immunity to the NSA and GCHQ employees engaged in this activity, but that doesn’t alter the fact that under German law they are frequently committing felonies. As Edward Snowden pointed out in that interview today, earlier this summer the US government told Congress that in Germany they follow German laws, but now we all know that they were lying. The same principally apply to all other nations outside the Five Eyes group (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

Now on to my thoughts. It’s difficult to step back from this morass and all its details, because it’s implications are so far reaching. On the one hand, it’s all too easy to forget that a great many NSA and GCHQ employees (Hi everyone!) are convinced that all they’re doing is fighting terrorism and protecting America/British national security. On the other hand it’s difficult to get a broader picture of what has happened during the period since 9/11 and beyond that. In that connection, one of Edward Snowden’s comments in that interview seemed particularly important to me. “What the government wants is something they never had before…They want total awareness.

Nietzsche famously said that, “God is dead and we have killed him,” which strikes me as being true in many more senses than those he intended when he wrote those words. One of the ways that we have killed God in modern times is by appropriating for ourselves those powers we previously ascribed exclusively to Him, beginning with His wrath or the power to destroy anyone or everyone. The development of the atomic bomb then the hydrogen bomb made this alarmingly possible. Stating that the intentions of those who developed, deployed and controlled these weapons was not to kill everyone ignores the simple fact that this (or something very close to it) would have been the effect of a full nuclear exchange, which was well known to the actors involved on all sides. The only real question mark here is to what degree the nuclear weapons technology was actually controlling the people who believed they were controlling it.

The same issue comes up with the NSA in the form of the argument that it was the growth in the technical possibilities of electronic espionage which drove the NSA and GCHQ to vacuum up ever more gigantic volumes of data. I deliberately leave the question of whether that’s true or not to one side for the moment. In this case, the direct goal is something comparable to divine omniscience, which would have indirectly lead in the direction of omnipotence. Hubris is the word for both of these forms of delusion, and its history is as long as man’s relationship with God. May I suggest that this is something you three gentlemen might like to reflect upon, if that is possible.

The nuclear weapons systems of the Cold War cast a vast shadow over the entire world that instilled fear into billions of people, of whom the vast majority were entirely innocent of any ill intent towards the major powers. In the event of the Cold War turning hot something like a million civilians would have been killed for each member of the enemy leadership. The electronic surveillance systems of the Information War cast a vast shadow over the entire world instilling fear into billions of people, of whom the vast majority are entirely innocent of any ill intent towards the major powers. You are scooping up (by means legal and illegal) the data of a million times as many civilians as terrorist combatants. The means have become more subtle, but the basic model remains the same from the beginning of the Cold War to this day. Its fundamental principal has also remained the same in the Information War: the abolition of the distinction between friends and foes, combatants and civilians.

You were used to watching and listening without being watched and listened to; a God-like position. Now you are under intense scrutiny and the coming year offers us the very real hope that your project may be redirected towards what has always been its theoretical goal: the prevention of the loss of civilian life like that which occurred on 9/11, and the protection of the national security so badly damaged on the same day. That is my first message of hope for 2014. The second, very different one follows in a couple of days. Merry Christmas to you gentlemen and to everyone else!

 

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 55 – Remembering Pan Am Flight 103

25 years ago today Pan Am Flight 103 from London Heathrow to New York JFK broke up in mid-air after a bomb ripped a hole in it and crashed on the village of Lockerbie in Scotland. This anniversary has a special significance for me, because I was on that flight to New York exactly one week before and when the news of the bombing came through I had just returned to London from New York and was still suffering from jet lag. I think about the victims of this terrorist act, but also the New Yorkers who I got to know during that first visit to the city who have since died. The most important of them are Lamar Elmore the then head of Wines of Germany, and Louis Broman who was later head of Wines of Spain with whom I stayed. Both were generous, extremely intelligent and charming people. No image can adequately accompany these thoughts.

PS Regular stories will return to this blog very shortly. Several have been delayed because of the bout of influenza I’ve just had.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 52 – Ontario’s Delicious (Riesling & Pinot Noir) Contradictions

It wasn’t part of any plan, but one thing lead to another and yesterday afternoon at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg/Brooklyn I hosted a tasting of Rieslings and Pinot Noirs from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario/Canada for a group of New York somms. I find Niagara, where 93% of Ontario’s 15,000 acres/6,000 hectares of vineyards are situated, a totally fascinating place. It seems to us to be rather far north, but it’s actually at the same latitude as Chianti Classico, 43° N. We think of it as cold because of the winters, but the mean July temperature of 71° F/21.7° C is identical to that for Napa Valley! Most of the vineyards are either on the bench lands of the Niagara Escarpment (cool) or on the alluvial plain below (uncool), but either way most of them are either flat or north-facing. Sure there are limestone soils on the benches, but the glaciers dumped a lot of other rocks from the Canadian Shield on top of them; an odd mix. However, for me the more important reason for doing this tasting was that when I was in Niagara this September I found a huge leap in quality compared with my previous visit 9 years before. Then there were no good Pinots and only a few exciting Rieslings, and now there’s a bunch of both.

On paper the timing of the tasting was good for the Rieslings, since we mostly tasted wines of the unremarkable 2011 vintage. However, that kind of vintage is the real test for a winemaker, and this was a test that Charles Baker and Hidden Bench (Marlize Beyers and Harald Thiel) passed with flying colors. Their 2011s – the Vinemount Ridge from Charles Baker with its delicate herbal character and near-perfect (medium-dry) balance, the sleek and dry Roman’s Block from Hidden Bench with its pronounced mineral character – showed what’s possible in Niagara even when nature doesn’t smile. There was general agreement that most concentrated and remarkable of the Rieslings was certainly the medium-dry 2010 CSV from Cave Spring, and we were sad that it wasn’t possible to give this one more time in the glass. It was also interesting to see that the group had the same trouble I have guessing how much grape sweetness is in these wines. It is always more than you think, that is more than you can taste.

There was some general comment about the Pinots being too oaky, but I remember hearing this same comment being made by somms about Pinots from all kinds of other places. Only when Burgundy is in the glass does the subject of the oak aromas and tannins suddenly evaporate (although they are certainly in those wines and sometimes there’s too much of them in Pinots from Burgundy too). The stars of this group were definitely the regular 2010 and 2006 Pinot Noirs from Hidden Bench. As Lisa Granik said of the 2006, “there’s some delicacy to the tannins here, the wine has poise”, and that was something the other wines lacked. These are wines which ought to be much better known in places like New York Wine City (NYWC).

We finished with three Riesling Ice Wines. After all it was with Ice Wine (the 1989 Vidal Ice Wine from Inniskillin won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at the 1991 VINEXPO) that Canadian wine first attracted international attention. Everyone seemed to love the bloodorange and passionfruit aromas of the 2008 from Cave Spring, but for some in the group the acidity of this wine was clearly a bit too much. Certainly the 2008 from Inniskillin was lusher with more baked fruit (pear tarte tatin) character, but for me didn’t have the vibrancy of the Cave Spring wine. These are really details though. The main result was that many in the group tasted a row of Canadian wines for the first time, and we were all agreed that this is an important winegrowing nation that deserves to be taken more seriously.

 

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New York Diary: Day 50 – The Truth about American Wine, starring Clark Smith (author of ‘Postmodern Winemaking’)

For a moment yesterday afternoon I was lost in the designer basement of the ACE Hotel on West 29th Street. Which of the many black doors was it behind? I decided to start “at the beginning” with the door with a big white A on it, and when I opened it I found Clark Smith and the audience for his tasting of American wines. I’d met the author of the brilliant ‘Postmodern Winemaking’ (University of California Press, 2013) on Saturday evening at Lisa Granik MW’s dinner table in the snowy wilderness of Brooklyn, but that conversation with him barely prepared me for yesterday’s tasting.

He began with some general, yes, sweeping assertions. “The paparazzi of the wine industry have hit us with the accusation of manipulation.” He was talking about my profession, and I cast nervously around the room to see which of my colleagues were there, but apart there were no other wine journalists present, in fact the New York Wine City (NYWC) scene was conspicuous by its absence. “It is my view that all winemaking is extremely manipulative. It’s all about artisanality,”he continued. Of course, artisanal derives from art, which we in the West instinctively contrast with nature. Today “natural” and “authentic” are crucial words for the wine scene and not only in NYWC, but when I hear them I often wonder what my colleagues are really talking about. From the beginning of the tasting we were in deep waters, but I gladly let myself be sucked into Clark’s maelstrom where so much conventional thinking gets turned upside down.

The first two wines were both 2003 Chardonnays from Wine Smith, Clark’s own micro-winery for hi-end bottlings. The first had an alcoholic content of 12.9% and the second of 14.8%, and no wonder we all preferred the first of them! With it’s aromas of lemon oil and lees funk (technical term: sulfides) it was very much in the Chablis mould. Best of all it had a mineral freshness at the finish (it was remarkably fresh for a 10 year old Napa Chardonnay) which was not dependent upon the wine’s (moderate) acidity, just as the mineral note in good Chablis isn’t. In contrast, the second wine was hot and bitter with none of that freshness. Then Clark hit us with the horribly truth: the first wine with it’s “terroir” character was made from the same grapes as the second, but had just shy of 2% alcoholic content removed from it through the use of reverse osmosis (which Clark describes as, “just a really tight filtration). So, the wine which we journalists would regard as manipulated tasted better and had the “terroir” character we’re looking for!!!

Then came the next bombshell in the form of the 2005 ‘Crucible’ from Wine Smith, a Napa Valley Cabernet with medium-body and the kind of dry fine-grained tannins that the NYWC and other wine scenes tend to associate with Bordeaux and find very cool. After we’d all praised it Clark revealed that it has, “lots of Brett”. Brett is short for Brettanomyces, a type of yeast that lives in wine barrels (and sometimes other places). If it becomes too active can give the wine a smell of band-aid or horse stalls. Of course, that’s negative, so how did his wine have so much Brett, but lack those ugly aromas? “By knitting together the wine’s structure with oxygen,” was Clark’s answer. What he means is that if the maturation process goes well (something the winemaker strive for), then the tannins, color, aroma and other substances in red wine “build structure” giving it a “soulful resonance”. Then aromas like Brett, that can stick out like dog balls, become subsumed in the whole and are no longer directly perceptible. More deep stuff for a Sunday afternoon!

Additional examples of structured reds followed in the form of under-appreciated American wines like the cool, lively 2007 Cabernet Franc from Jamesport Vineyards on Long Island/New York with its nose of raspberry and lemongrass, a graceful wine for this grape with polished tannins and no hint of green bell pepper (a Cabernet aroma I hate). The 2010 Norton from Augusta Winery in Augusta/Missouri just a short drive west of St. Louis was one of the best wines I’ve tasted from this grape (that from Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg/Virginia being the other star). I loved its bitter chocolate and blackberry character, and it was a seriously concentrated with generous supple tannins. That’s pretty amazing for $18.93 direct from the winery! More extraordinary still was the 2012 Petit Blue from Hermit Woods in Meredith/New Hampshire, which provoked a lot of discussion when served blind. However, nobody got the reason for the great berry aromas: It had actually been made from wild blueberries. “I heavily manipulated it!” winemaker Ken Hardcastle with an wry smile. However, it did not taste one dimensionally fruity (there were some discrete tannins) and it had great balance. Maybe I’m amazed!

By this point the entire audience was reeling in the best possible way. Then came the whites and amongst them was the single most surprising new wine I’ve tasted in a long time. It too was served blind and from its peach, passion fruit, grapefruit and floral aromas you could have thought that it was a young Riesling from a cool climate region. In spite of the delicious interplay of a juicy grape sweetness with a bright acidity and those aromas I immediately sensed that this couldn’t be a Riesling. But what the hell was it? It turned out to be from the Le Crescent grape, a new hybrid from Minnesota, made by Coyote Moon  Vineyards in Clayton/New York. I’m not talking about Long Island, the Finger Lakes or even the Hudson Valley though, for Clayton lies on the St. Lawrence Seaway! Although it has won a slew of medals including Best of Class at the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine competition, direct from the winery it costs just $14,95! Then came the Cahaba White from Morgan Creek Vineyards in Harpersville/Alabama, a Muscadine with an eye-popping bouquet that reminded me of my rare childhood candy orgies, but was delicious in an entirely adult way and costs just $10.99 direct from the winery.

Because more than 20% of all American vineyards are planted with Chardonnay and the big brands of Chardonnay dominate grocery and supermarket shelves right across America  - something that the handful of big Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Grigio brands also do – so the majority of wine drinkers here have no idea that such wines exist, never mind how good they taste. The American wine market is one huge optical illusion which creates a no less widespread “taste illusion”!

I share Clark’s belief in the enormous potential of the other wine regions of America (i.e. those outside mainstream California) and the other wine grapes (i.e. those that are not Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Grigio), and this tasting was a very convincing argument in their favor. What made it one of the most amazing tastings of my life was the way Clark’s thoughts on so many of the key issues for the wine industry and for wine drinkers in the 21st century were interwoven with the actual tasting.

“The revolutions in wine are not the work of scientists,” the scientist and winemaker explained, “but of lunatic heroes who try stuff which orthodox thinking says should never be tried. There’s maybe a 3% success rate, but once in a while something really works.” Yesterday’s tasting had a success rate many times that and I felt that it was also just the beginning of a great journey of discovery to the unknown Wine America.

 

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