Israel Riesling Diary: Day 12 – The not so Narrow Road to the Far North

Yesterday I took the not so narrow road to the Far North of Israel, that is to the hill country of Upper Galilee very close to the border with Lebanon, but before I got there I stopped at Yair Teboulle’s Domaine Netofa in Lower Galilee. His vineyards, pictured above, are situated close to Mount Tavor (in the background of the picture) and they are planted with what he calls “hot climate” grape varieties, which mostly means our friends GSM (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre), GM originating in the Spanish Mediterranean and S coming from the French Mediterranean. The reason for this strategy is the fact that Lower Galilee is significantly warmer than Upper Galilee where most of the best Israeli Cabernet Sauvignons grow.

The rich, yet delicately spicy and velvety Domaine Natofa reds from the 2012 vintage suggest this was a very smart move by Yair (on the left in the picture below) and that vineyard manager Shahar Marmor (on the right) is already expertly cultivating these varieties for high quality in the 12 hectares of vineyards. Certainly, the vineyards looked impeccable and everything Shahar told me fitted what I saw. Considering the youth of the vines (the first were planted in 2006), and that he hasn’t been there since the beginning, this is a major achievement. Why am I going on about vineyard cultivation at such length? Well, wherever you are on Planet Wine there’s no possibility of making great wines without great grapes and to get them you need near-perfect vineyard cultivation, which is usually a great deal of work. More about these wines after my big article about Israeli wines appears in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a couple of weeks.

This morning I made my way onward and “upward” (i.e. northwards) to Ramot Naftaly winery in the village of the same name. Their red wines are quite powerful, like most Israeli reds, but you can taste the cool mountain air in them too. They have made quite a name for themselves here in Israel with their Barbera and to a lesser degree with their Malbec and Petit Verdot. The Barbera has a natural acidity that I wouldn’t instinctively associate with this warm climate, the Malbec was moderate in alcohol for this variety (which so easily climbs over 15%) yet tasted properly ripe, and the Petit Verdot managed to combine great concentration of black fruits with an uplifting freshness. They’re model examples of modern Upper Galilee reds without any trace of exaggeration (e.g. too much ripeness, alcohol, tannin, oak). The picture below shows the pressing of one of their 2014 red wines, and this does seem to be at least a very good vintage.

In my glass as I write this is the 2012 ‘Shoresh’ red wine cuvée from Tzora in the Judean Hills, and if after reading all of the above you doubt that Israeli red wines can taste dry and subtle, then you need to experience this masterpiece from winemaker Eran Pick. This is no showstopper, much less a blockbuster, but during the last decade Israeli winemakers were often too obsessed with making wines like that to attract attention, gain recognition and to sell their wines for prices that turned a profit. The best winemakers here have now dumped those goals in the trashcan and are seeking a distinctively Israeli kind of beauty like that of the ‘Shoresh’, rather than working a standardized, off-the-peg style     that could just as easily have been achieved in a dozen other places around Planet Wine. Now we are starting to taste Israel!

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Israel Riesling Diary: Day 11 – The Impossibility of Defining the Genius of Israeli Wine

I feel sure that, in spite of having tasted a slew of Israeli wines and met many Israeli winemakers since I arrived, I’m still a long way from having an overview of what is happening here, but there’s one thing that I’m already sure of, and that’s the impossibility of defining the genius of Israeli wine today with any kind of simple formula or definition. Something remarkable has happened here since the turn of the century, just as it did in Germany, but the (socio-cultural) context is utterly different and, of course, the winemaking conditions are too. The latter make one type of wine – genuinely light white wines – very difficult to produce, but apart from that this there are clearly enormous possibilities here and they are being explored in an ambitious and serious way. The result is an enormous range of interesting and exciting wines, some of which lie well outside what the description “Mediterranean wines” would lead you to expect.

Sure some Israeli red wines are massive, have plenty of alcohol and are seriously tannic, but during tastings I rarely felt that the wines had been overly-extracted. Instead, I encountered the normal range of wine styles and differences that variations in the growing conditions were responsible for (our old friend “terroir”). The truth is that red wines made by Eran Goldwasser at Yatir Winery, to take a prominent example, lie at the massive and tannic end of the scale because of the landscape in which they are grown. The photograph below was taken just a few miles away from the Yatir forest where those vineyards are situated. In this desert environment the summer days are hot, but temperatures plummet at night. Irrigation is essential for wine growing, but must be carefully judged, and great care must be taken that the grapes aren’t picked overripe. Eran Goldwasser has mastered this difficult discipline and his wines have a herbal freshness, and even the most concentrated of them still taste invigorating.

Then there are the elegant, dry reds from Flam winery that are clearly inspired by modern Tuscan red wines. That was particularly apparent in the ‘Classico’ red that had the red cherry aroma I associate with Chianti Classico, although the wine is mostly made from Cabernet Sauvignon (entirely from vineyards in the Judean Hills). Even the top red wine made by Golan Flam, the 2009 ‘Noble’ (mostly from Galilee), is not dominated by black fruit aromas and lacks any trace of inky density, remaining light on its feet. That really is a huge contrast to Yatir, although both wineries are largely using the same grape varieties.

Golan Flam is a thinker, and reminded me an architect or a mathematician. Assaf Paz of Vitkin winery, just a short drive from where I’m staying to the north of Tel Aviv is more like a rock star or a DJ, and it makes complete sense that his wines strike out in many directions that are unconventional for Israel. One of his best wines is the Old Vine Carignan, which is herbal and fruity, warm and mellow, yet weighs in at a moderate (in the Israeli context) alcoholic content of 13.5%. He’s not only obsessed by Mediterranean varieties like this, but also with making crisp and refreshing dry whites that have the maximum aroma intensity. One of those wines is Israel’s best dry Riesling, from the same vineyard as the sweet Sphera Riesling described in my previous posting. 2014 looks to be an excellent vintage for this wine, but also for Assaf’s Columbard dry white, which is packed with exotic aromas of a kind I never experienced in this “inferior” French variety before. The photo of Assaf below shows him in a quiet moment. I wish I could have captured the rock star-DJ Assaf in full flow, but maybe this page wouldn’t have been wide enough to accommodate that expansive personality.

Not every wine from all the winemakers I’ve described in my many postings from Israel has been optimized yet, but they are all on their way in that direction and this incompleteness and that dynamic make the nation and its winemakers irresistible to me. You can be sure that I will continue to follow this subject during the years to come. Israel has bitten me in the best possible way. Of course, this isn’t a nation without problems, and the long term future of this part of the Middle East is endangered by the conflicts between Israel and many of the Arab countries around it (Israel also has some serious internal conflicts). That is something I cannot ignore, but first I’m tasting the wines, talking to the winemakers and absorbing all the impressions of Israel that I can without falling into the trap of making hasty and simplistic judgments of this complex situation.

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Israel Riesling Diary: Day 10 – Revelation in Tel Aviv

Many apologies for the long radio silence, which was not planned. Unfortunately there were internet problems at my hotels in Jerusalem and on the Dead Sea. Then I got back to this internet paradise in Even Yehuda too late last night to put this posting online. 

During my ten days in Israel there have been many surprises, the great majority of which were positive or at least amusing, and there were also some unexpected Israel Riesling Moments (IRMs). However, none of these came close to the moment of revelation yesterday in the Tel Aviv restaurant Hashulhan at the global Riesling tasting organized by Eldad Levy of Boutique de Champagnes. I always enjoy sharing good and great Riesling with a group of interested wine drinkers, but this was just one aspect of the evening. The 2013 Riesling which winemaker Doron Rav Hon, pictured above, brought with him from his Sphera winery was nothing short of mind-blowing and third Ultimate IRM made my entire trip to Israel worth while.

If you had told me before I tasted this wine that it would be possible to produce a delicately aromatic Riesling with enormous freshness and a Mosel-like balance of juicy sweetness and racy acidity in the Mediterranean climate of Israel I would have told you that this must be completely impossible. However, Doron Rav Hon has succeeded in doing exactly this by finding a really cool site, precise use of irrigation water to encourage aroma formation, and picking early enough to have a ton of natural acidity. This wine, which is the first vintage of Riesling, from his all white wine winery (in Israel!), has notes of floral and dripping leaves, which for me are amongst the most noble Riesling aromas. It is so delicate and filigree in flavor, the balance of sweetness, acidity and those great aromatics so expertly judged that I guessed its alcoholic content to be 10% or below, although it is actually 13%.    I can’t wait to taste his other white wines. A star is born!


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Israel Riesling Diary: Day 5 – The Other Wine Israel

No doubt, I’m not the first to comment upon the way a lot of Israeli wines are now well made, but taste pretty much like a bunch of wines made in the so-called “New World”. The modern Israeli wine industry isn’t as old as those of California, Australia or Chile, never mind South Africa (founded in 1659), and given how recent the reorientation towards the production of dry table wines here, perhaps it’s not surprising that much of the industry adopted models from over the seas and far away instead of from the nearby nations around the Mediterranean that have a broadly similar climate. This is the main reason why the fruit-driven and lush wine styles that dominate in most of the “New World” wine countries also dominated here until recently. It was also easier to focus on the grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay that are well-known to consumers at home and around Planet Wine, rather than to take the more risky path of committing themselves (vines live 30 years plus) to more obscure grape varieties that are possibly better-suited to the Israeli climate. However, that is now changing fast.

There was a pioneer for this, and for much else, who remains at the cutting edge of the process of redefining what Israeli wine can be. He is the larger-than-life Zeev Dunie, the founder of Seahorse winery in Moshav bar Giora up in the Judean Hills, pictured  above. I say all this although Seahorse produces a number of exciting wines that have nothing directly to do with the Mediterranean region, like the ‘James’ dry Chenin Blanc, one of the best wines I’ve tasted made from this grape outside it’s homeland in the Loire/France. I can’t begin to explain how barrel-fermentation and extended lees contact leads to a dry white this fresh, as well as texturally exciting and aromatically complex. No less remarkable is the ‘Lennon’ Zinfandel, which has more vitality than this variety has in California, with which it is most closely associated, but every bit as much spice as a Zin from Sonoma or Paso Robles. Every wine from Seahorse that I’ve tasted here, regardless of its color or type, had as much personality as their maker, even if I wasn’t wowed by every one of them. In fact, I think it’s ridiculous to expect that from any winemaker and if it did happen, then it would make me a bit skeptical.

The photograph of Zeev above shows the former film director in front of his freshly harvested Counois grapes, a “lesser” Southern Rhône variety that he feels may have an important role in adding subtlety to his Grenache and Syrah-based red blends. He’s also exploring the possibilities of Cinsault, another grape that features in many Chateauneuf du Pape reds. Our visit was the first time I’d tasted both of these varieties as grapes, rather than as elements of blended red wines. The Cinsault grapes had surprisingly little flavor, while the Counois were off the other end of the taste-intensity scale and reminded me a bit of certain North American wild grapes I’ve tasted. Somebody has to do this practical research and Zeev Dunie’s non-intervention winery seems to me to be an ideal place. Before this work is done nobody will know if ignoring these grape varieties has meant a significant loss to the Israeli wine industry. It is part of the long, elliptical and exciting process of figuring out what grape varieties works best here, that is what gives the most interesting and distinctive top quality wines, as well as what gives the most pleasing everyday wines. At the moment many of those new wines aren’t well-known, much less mainstream, but they are making waves that will expand on the surface of the global wine pond and, in the long-term, completely change the image of Israeli wines.



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Israel Riesling Diary: Day 3 – The Taste of the Future

This blog rarely devotes a great deal of space and praise to red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon and the other so-called Bordeaux grapes, because many of those wines are already showered with (well-earned or ill-deserved) praise, and some of them are also grossly over-priced due to their prime role as the fetish objects of wine cults and investment commodities. Today at the cellars of the Margalit estate in Binyamina I encountered the best Israeli wines I ever tasted, and they were all made exclusively or primarily from those Bordeaux red grape varieties. Pictured above is the father (Dr. Yair Margalit, right) and son (Asaf Margalit, left) team responsible for these remarkable wines.

What makes them so special? As the Margalits explained to me, the problem in Israel is not to ripen the grapes, rather to avoid getting jammy over-ripe aromas and flavors in the wines, but to end up with beautiful ripe flavors, and in the case of red wines, the right kind of tannins. On the basis of today’s tasting I’d say they have been doing this with great success since 2000, the oldest vintage we tasted. All the Margalit red wines have great harmony and subtlety, never being even slightly rustic, much less loud or overly demonstrative. At one point I asked myself, which do I really prefer, the  2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012 Petit Verdot or the 2011 Cabernet Franc? Not only did I fail to reach a decision by the end of my visit, the list of those favorites had grown to include the super-elegant 2008 ‘Enigma’ ( a cuvée of those Bordeaux grape varieties). However, by that time I had realized how Margalit Snr. and Jr. have thought through and explored a great many of the possibilities of this wine style. Their answer to the question how wines of this kind should taste is one of the most convincing on Planet Wine, not just in Israel.

The Margalits have opened up new possibilities for Israeli winemakers, not least the possibility not to define themselves solely as Kosher wine producers (I have nothing against Kosher wines), rather to see themselves firstly as makers of excellent Israeli wines. This is something which inspires the new generation of winemakers like Yael Sandler of nearby Binyamina Winery, one of Israel’s largest producers of Kosher wines. 2014 is her first vintage in Israel after getting into wine while working in one of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants in London, then studying winemaking in Australia, and finally working both in the Australian and in South African wine industries.

Like many of her generation, she is trying to make wines with more freshness and vitality than those of the past, and from the cask samples (some still fermenting) of the 2014s I tasted at Binyamina (where it is her first vintage) I’d say that she is already well down the path to that goal. This will surely help Israeli wines achieve wider international recognition, since it will make them taste less like correctly made “New World” wines and more like wines from an old land with a new and distinctive personality. I can’t wait to taste her 2014s after they are bottled. Watch out Wide Wine World, Israel is coming!

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Israel Riesling Diary: Day 2 – They Don’t They Make Them Like These Anywhere Else on Planet Wine?

Why don’t winemakers elsewhere make Cabernet Franc Blanc de Noir or blend Gewürztraminer with Sauvignon Blanc like Tulip Winery does?

This is David Bar-Ilan, the winemaker of Tulip winery since the 2012 vintage. He didn’t come up with idea of blending Gewürztraminer with Sauvignon Blanc to make the bone dry ‘White Tulip’ of Tulip Winery with it’s wonderfully vibrant bouquet of grapefruit and discrete tropical fruit notes, but he was the man who perfected it’s seriously refreshing personality (with just 12.5% alcoholic content!) that perfectly fits the Mediterranean climate of Israel. He also didn’t come up with the idea of making a Blanc de Noirs from Cabernet Franc and a dash of Sauvignon Blanc to add crispness to ‘White Franc’ and balance the hint of grape sweetness in this wine from Tulip Winery, but he perfected the style and color (see the photo below) of that wine too.

Actually Tulip Winery, an hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv on the inland side of the northern tip of the Carmel Mountains, is best known for its red wines. Quite rightly so, for they are technically impeccable and full of personality right across the range from the fruit-driven and supple, modestly-priced 2012 ‘Just Merlot’ right up to the imposing and tannic, but still elegant (in spite of 15.5%) 2011 ‘Black Tulip’, a red blend that doesn’t quite fit into any of the established international stylistic categories.

It was a difficult tasting for David, because his right-hand man in the press house kept bringing samples of the 2014 red wine that was being pressed right then for him to follow the progress of the pressing, and he had to make some important decisions about it. Then, just as we reached the last of the red wines in the tasting, a truck loaded with French Columbard grapes (some of the last of this year’s harvest) rolled up. That’s the reality of the sharp end of winemaking!

All of this was quite a contrast to my first Israeli Riesling Moment (IRM) and an astonishing choc-non-choc experience at the Imperial Craft Cocktail lounge in Tel Aviv. Not that I expected any of this when we parked the car, because this bar is in the Imperial Hotel located in an odd part of Downtown Tel Aviv. The electrical system of the building next to the parking lot where we left the car was hanging out all over the facade like so much spilled guts. Across the road was an historic building that was in a depressing state of dusty decay and boarded up as a result. That nullified the effect of the astonishing news that this had just been voted the best cocktail bar in the Middle East and Africa – interesting, but so what? Once I got into the imperial all of this was instantly forgotten.

This photo is one of my many attempts to capture the atmosphere in the Imperial, I think the best, because other images my be slightly sharper (I mean more in focus), but they don’t quite capture the civilized, urban hedonism of this remarkable bar. Not being a cocktail person, and being too thirsty to risk refreshment through a high-alcohol cocktail, I decided to order a glass of white wine before I moved on to one of their complex creations. Then the IRM happened. “Do you want Sancerre or Riesling?” asked the barman and, of course – what else could I do? – I went for the latter. It turned out to be the ‘Dr. L.’ from Dr. Loosen on the Mosel, and it was indeed as titanically refreshing as I had hoped it would be. Then I was in exactly the right mood to move on to the ‘Tobago’ cocktail pictured below.

Although the ‘Tobago’ contains no chocolate at all it had an aroma which reminded me totally of the best Venezuelan bitter chocolate (e.g. Domori Puerto Mar). And I loved the presentation which half-pretended that it was a cup of coffee, and half-pretended that it was some kind of exotic chocolate-based chai. I apologize for the quality of the photo, but the low lighting in the Imperial pushed my new camera (an Olympus Pen EP-5) to the limits of its capability. This comes with the territory if you are a hard-core blogger trying to capture things as they happen in their full unruly and mind-bending “thisness”. If you want to do that seriously, then you need to roll with those punches and hit those curveballs, somehow. But, to be honest, that’s great training for life as a whole.

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Israel Riesling Diary: Day 1 (Part 2) – Living Together

This is the sunset at Jaffa, on the southern edge of Downtown Tel Aviv, and as you can see it has an orange glow. That makes complete sense to the child in me, because when that child was all of me in London during the 1960s one of my absolute favorite things was the Jaffa Cake chocolate and orange biscuit. As beautiful as this image is, it cannot compare with the most beautiful thing that I experienced today, but no single photo, or even, a short series could do that. I’m referring to the entirely peaceful intermingling of (mostly young) Israelis and Arabs on and around the Tel Aviv beach. This is something that none of the countless press reports about Israeli life I read during the months between deciding that I would come to Israel and stepping out of the plane just over 24 hours ago. The only aggression I experienced was between two Israeli car drivers trying to go in opposite directions along the narrow harbor side road in Jaffa who got stuck into a stupid macho face-off.

By lunchtime I’d realized that the Israelis and  the Palestinan Arabs are about as different as oranges and lemons – two fruits that are so closely related that some varieties of one look more like the other – so above is a picture of lemons. They’re preserved lemons at Manta Ray Restaurant where we had a delicious lunch. With it we drank a glass of the ‘Cuvée Blanc’ from Flam winery, which I’ll be visiting later on during my visit. It is the perfect answer to those people who say things like, “Israel can produce some good reds, but the climate is totally wrong for white wines.” In just 24 hours I’ve come to the conclusion that although Israel may be a small country (about the size of New Jersey, I think), it is far too complex to be reduced to any simple description along the lines of, “Israel is…”

Even the oranges and lemons metaphor I introduced above is way too limiting, so I thought I’d throw another fruit into the mix. I drank the sweet, tart and slightly tannic juice of these pomegranates as a mid-morning refreshment outside the Baroque Catholic Church of Jaffa. While I drank it, and thought about how the apple in the Garden of Eden was probably actually a pomegranate, I noticed that on the recently modernized square in front of the church I saw a sculpture by the British artist Henry Moore from the 1950s and a cannon that had been used in Jaffa during the Ottoman period (1515 – 1917). Here the religions and historical periods mingle in a way they don’t either in New York or Berlin. And in spite of all these realizations, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this crossroads of so many cultures and eras.


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Israel Riesling Diary: Day One – UNIS Spectacular!

Last night I arrived in Israel for the first time. It’s my worst jet lag in years, perhaps because I’m used to those 6-8 hour flights back and forth across the Atlantic. Flying east for more then 10 hours threw me, and it’s a long time since I’ve been in a mediterranean-type summer. Then we headed to the local gas station in Even Yehuda, a short drive north of Tel Aviv, but not for gas, to put more air in the tires or even a car wash. No, we were there for a restaurant called UNIS, and the local food was spectacular!

The humus (the plate with the chick peas swimming in olive oil) was the most delicious that I ever had, delicate in flavor with a creamy-dreamy texture.

I feel sorry that the bread is only partially seen in this image, because it was also something special. No doubt, I ate too much of it and everything else on the table too!

Yes, these are a kind of shish kebabs, or rather several kinds of them. The one I liked best was the chicken hearts, something I’d never had cooked this way before.

And, no, yesterday I drank no wine of any kind. Two small beers plus all this food were enough to knock me out for almost 11 hours.

The wine tasting starts tomorrow, so please be patient! My apologies in advance for any names I spell incorrectly. This is bound to happen.


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 26 – FLX Top Secret

However well you think you know the wines of a region there’s always another surprise out there waiting to make you fall off your chair, and that’s the real reason that I do this strange, ridiculous, arduous and fantastic job. As those of you who follow me on twitter (@PigottRiesling) already know, last weekend I was in the Finger Lakes (FLX) on a Top Secret mission, and this involved exactly zero wine tasting. After I arrived on Friday afternoon, I had to concentrate on that mission to the exclusion of all else, and thankfully it appears to have been successful. All will be revealed when I know if that impression turns out to be correct. When I’d done all I could, I realized that there were a couple of hours “free”, so I headed out to Red Tail Ridge winery between Geneva and Penn Yan on the western bank of Seneca Lake. I’d already tasted a couple of good wines from this producer, but I hadn’t got a clear picture of the winery and its products, because the time interval between those experiences had been rather large. In my experience, this always makes it difficult to come to a conclusion, so there was no substitute for tasting a long row of the wines in all one go at some point; better sooner than later.

At 3pm on Saturday afternoon the Red Tail Ridge tasting room was hopping and I was lucky they could fit me in at one of the three tasting tables. I was already impressed by the 2013 “Sans” unoaked Chardonnay and the barrel fermented Chardonnays, which are both very honest and well made wines with far better balance than a slew of the competitors from the West Coast. Then, when I got to the Rieslings they figured out who I am and suddenly there was the winemaker Nancy Irelan (pictured above with her husband Mike). Together we tasted the 7 different (!) Rieslings ranging from properly dry up to dessert and they were all pristine, aromatic and elegant.

How many FLX winemakers are equally talented at making dry Riesling as making sweet wines from my favorite grape? Very few and Fred Merwarth of Hermann J. Wiemer heads that short list, which means that Nancy is in the very best company! How does the California native who founded this winery just a decade ago do that? Attitude and attention to detail are the answers, I think. As she told me, “drinking a glass of wine should be seamless. It shouldn’t interrupt the conversation or anything else you’re doing.” Note Nancy’s omission of the obsessive-compulsive, pseudo-science of wine pairings and her mention of that old-fashioned analog activity, conversation.

Then she poured the 2012 Pinot Noir and 2012 Blaufränkisch, which were two of the most expressive and polished red wines I ever tasted from the FLX. There were no green aromas in either of these wines, no edgy tannins (Blaufränkisch easily gets those in regions as cool as this), no inkiness or chewiness due to over-extraction (frequent Pinot Noir problems in this region) that distracted from the positive aromas and flavors, much less excessive oak masking those things. Red winemakers of the FLX please take note that this is your stairway to red wine heaven; forget power, go for balance and fragrance!

On top of this, Red Tail Ridge is the most energy-efficent winery I ever saw (I mean anywhere on Planet Wine), exclusively using geothermal energy. The investment in that technology was considerable, which requires a leap of faith that few are willing to make, but the payback can be enormous. This system paid for itself in just two and a half years and the monthly energy costs for the cellar are below $500. That’s something not only the local wine industry could learn from.

PS If you already found out what my FLX secret, either by chance or deduction, please don’t spread it around, but please spread the word about these joyful FLX wines!


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 22 – My Answer to Jancis Robinson’s Question, “Will Riesling ever catch on?”

Riesling grapes in Cave Spring Vineyard in Ontario, Canada. Riesling is in the process of overtaking Chardonnay to became the No. 1 white vinifera grape variety in Ontario.

Jancis Robinson’s just posted a story called ‘Riesling – will it ever catch on?’ that addresses the central theme of this blog and of my recently published book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) and therefore has to be answered. From the title it’s clear that she feels deeply skeptical about our favorite grape’s chances, an impression the full text completely confirms.  Coincidentally, during the last weeks I was thinking a lot about why Riesling hasn’t been doing better recently in certain markets, so I’m glad to have been prodded into getting my thoughts out there.

It seems to me that just as Riesling is a many-sided wine in terms of its taste characteristics – from feather-light to ton-heavy, from bone-dry to honey-sweet and every conceivable combination of those things – it is also many different things to many different people in many different places. A glance at the vineyard statistics confirms this on the production side, the numbers telling a very different story in each winegrowing region and nation where Riesling plays a significant role.

In Australia, for example, in spite of all the changes in image, marketing and styles for the entire wine industry during the last decades, (which enormous fluctuations up and down), the Riesling vineyard area has remained remarkably stable for almost half a century. Bone-dry wines have also remained the dominant style for the grape. Riesling seems as firm a feature of the Australian landscape as Uluru, and no other country on Planet Wine confirms to this pattern.

The situation in the US is an utterly different one, Riesling having been completely overtaken by the explosive growth in the popularity and vineyard area of grapes like Chardonnay and Merlot during the 1970s and ‘80s. Then, largely under the radar, Riesling has grown remarkably since the turn of the century due to dramatically improved winemaking, grass roots interest (also far outside the cool East and West Coast cities) and a healthy dash of guerilla marketing. This story is all about the American spirit of innovation.

Pictured below is Mike Beneduce of Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown, New Jersey for whom 2013 was the first vintage of estate vineyard Riesling. I did his Blaufränkisch too!

Sure, there are global trends in wine consumption, but even when exactly the same wines are being drunk around the globe, they are drunk in different ways in different cultures and mean different things to those very diverse drinkers.  This strikes me as being at odds with Jancis Robinson’s conclusion that a world-wide Riesling bubble, which was only ever partially inflated has burst, because, “Riesling just has too strong a personality to appeal to enough consumers to gain global traction.” Sure, Riesling hasn’t grown in every market lately and has fallen back a bit in some places as moods and fashions have changed, but even in those places it isn’t hard to find elements of the global Riesling network. That, as much as the wines from the best white wine grape on earth, is the subject of this blog and my book.

Globalization, in the sense of truly global trade, dates back almost exactly 450 years, (see Charles C. Mann’s book 1493). However, its new instantaneous electronic form has obviously radically changed what that word means very fast. Even in the 21st century wine is a cumbersome product to transport, so it’s remarkable how it has become part of global-social-media-pop-culture. Even more extraordinary to me is how “little” Riesling (not quite 1% of the global vineyard area) has been particularly successful at this. In contrast, Cabernet Sauvignon has not done well as a social media phenomenon, rather the wines of that grape seem locked in rigid hierarchical structures that prevent them creating a viral buzz. I feel sure that the lack of a global community of Cabernet winemakers (unlike either Pinot Noir or Riesling) and the high prices and elitist image of many of the wines reinforce this effect.

My guess is, that it is precisely because Riesling is so open to different uses and interpretations that it has been able to connect with so many people in so many places. The generally modest prices and free global exchange of ideas amongst winemakers clearly encourage the feeling that Riesling is a democratic wine to spread. Only older consumers who have a fixed notion of Riesling as sweet and bland, and younger status-orientated consumers who take their cues from the older generation (in order to feel secure in their judgments, I think), seem completely unable to find a new use or positive interpretation for Riesling. As Jancis Robinson rightly notes, she and other writers can only have a rather modest influence upon these deeply-seated prejudices.

Why do those consumers cling to an outdated idea of what Riesling is? I think the answer is that it is often linked to a macho conviction these mostly male consumers have that they knows about wine in some decisive or even absolute sense. What they actually know is a particular conception of wine that more or less fitted reality at some now rather distant point in time, usually the late 20th century which was dominated by Chrdonnay, then big reds. All those Parker points only reinforced this, even after wine fashions and styles had begun moving in very different directions (elegant, more aromatic dry whites and fresher less inky reds). As the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, most of the time most of us see the world within the comforting frame of the rear-view mirror, rather than through the windshield.

Pictured right is Peter and Brigitte Pliger’s ‘Kaiton’ Riesling from the Eisaktal/Val d’Isarco in Südtirol/Alto Adige. Anyone who wants to know how minerality in wine tastes is recommended this Italian Riesling (and yes, it is a real Riesling, not a Riesling Italico). I was never able to buy a bottle of this wine from the them, because it was always sold out, so I was bowled over to find it on the list at Hearth Restaurant in New York where this picture was taken.  Seen through the bottle is Janie Brooks Heuck of Brooks Wines in Oregon, one of that state’s leading Riesling producers. The 2003 Willamette Valley dry Riesling from Brooks was one of the most exciting white wines I tasted this year!

I think there’s a logical conclusion to all this, which is that the more an individual, group or culture is open to the taste of wine (and what it can do for the drinker) the better Riesling tends to do.  The more they are ruled by ideas of status and/or ”face”, the greater the uphill struggle that the wines will have, and in extreme cases that might be like the North Face of the Eiger. Perhaps this is why, as Jancis rightly points out, Riesling does so well in Norway.

Let’s have a closer look at Norway. On the 2014 United Nations Human development index it places first (compare with the US fifth and the UK 14th). The Economist Intelligence unit produces a Democracy Index every two years and in the 2012 edition Norway was first (compare with UK 16th and US 21st). Reporters Without Border publishes a world press freedom index and Norway is 3rd in the latest edition (compare with the UK 33rd and the US 46th). When I went to Norway in 2007 I certainly didn’t like everything I found, but the openness of many, many people was remarkable. That is the kind of air which Riesling likes to breathe and in which it flourishes.

By the way, none of the world’s leading Riesling producers have much problem selling out each year and even I have to be sharp in order to buy some wine directly from German winemakers like Helmut Dönnhoff in Oberhausen, Nahe and Klaus-Peter Keller in Flörsheim-Dalsheim, Rheinhessen, or their colleagues in Australia like Jeffrey Grosset of Clare Valley and Hermann J. Wiemer of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York.