New York Riesling Diary: Day 2 – I don’t need a Medal, a Prize or even a Wine Blog Award!

I’ve just been nominated for a blogging award – more details of that below – which has made me to do some serious thinking about what I’m up to here at STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL. First of all, right from the beginning I’ve been well aware that this is what the world calls a blog, but I always saw myself as a journalist, and this as another (special, as much because editor-less and very rapid as because electronic) medium for publishing my work. Regardless of the medium, journalism is a two stage process, the first part of which is research like the tasting of Finger Lakes Rieslings at the Hotel of Hope in New York Wine City’s (NYWC) East Village earlier this year pictured above. However, as regular readers are well aware, much of my research is conducted on the road with winegrowers in their home regions, some of which I feel familiar with, while others are completely new to me.

Even when it all seems familiar to me, for example when I visited the Dönnhoff estate in Oberhausen/Nahe about a year ago (see the photo below), there are always surprises for which I must try to be open. In this case it was the first vintage of dry Riesling from the Höllenpfad vineyard site of Roxheim, a wine which tasted very different from anything else I’d ever tasted there since my first visit back in May 1986. Back then Helmut Dönnhoff was a virtually unknown, but obviously talented and (quietly) ambitious winemaker. He was what Germans now call a Jungwinzer, or a talented young winegrower. Whether the winegrowers and wines I encounter are famous or completely unknown is part of their identity, but that doesn’t alter the fundamental challenge of telling their story at all.

This side of my work is all about selecting and arranging the impressions I gathered and the ideas which I (and others) had about them in a form and sequence which enables them to function as well as possible in the particular medium. This is what most people consider “creative” work, but I’m guessing that my last sentence strikes many of you as making that process sound banal and very “uncreative”. However, I promise you that, as New York-based novelist Tom Wolfe said in a bunch of recent interviews, writing is mostly hard work and the pleasure is nearly all in completing a story that seems to work well. By “work well” I mean a text which strikes me as conveying my impressions and ideas in a way that’s comprehensible and compelling for readers unfamiliar with the particular material. Of course, it always takes some time for me to find out if my gut feeling was right and it’s actually comprehensible and/or compelling. If it’s not and my gut feeling was wrong, then I have to do some rethinking before the next try.

And that brings me to the most important thing I’ve got to say today, which is that writing this stuff is not about winning a prize like the Wine Blog Award for the Best Single Subject Blog, for which I am a finalist this year. Of course, it would be flattering to win this award and it might also be very good publicity for STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL, however, the whole point of my work is communicating something of the exciting winegrowers and wines to readers, that is connecting with them. The sole measure of my success is your interest and excitement. So if I win this prize I’ll continue, listening to and read your comments as avidly as I do now. Let’s be frank, I don’t want or need a medal, a prize or even a Wine Blog Award!

Experience has taught me is that it’s strong and surprising things which touch you most. Often it’s funny things which get the best response, but only if they also have something important to say. You, the readers, certainly want to be entertained, but you want to discover stuff (and I’m talking that old-fashioned thing called truth) you can’t get elsewhere and that’s exactly what I’m trying to give you. Thank you for your interest and for your excitement!

 

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 1 – My First Step on the longest Riesling Journey

Yesterday evening I returned to my Room with a View at the Hotel of Hope in the East 7th Street of New York Wine City’s (NYWC) East Village and immediately hit the Riesling trail. By a minor miracle I walked into Pearl & Ash  at 220 Bowery and got a seat straight away, in spite of that rave review in the New York Times just a couple of weeks ago. (See www.pearlandash.com) I tried a bunch of sensationally flavorful and subtle dishes from creamy chicken butter with toast to wonderfully fresh marinated salmon, and from squid pan-roasted with seaweed to well-done and melt skirt steak in a richly savory sauce. Every one would have been flattered by one or other of the slew of Rieslings on the list that ranged from sweet Spätlese from Zilliken’s Rausch vineyard on the Saar to the Leitz of the Rheingau’s dry wines from the top sites of the Rüdesheimer Berg. However, even if you ignore those Rieslings which are just perfect given the current sub-tropical weather it’s a great wine list that’s neither trying  to show off how clever the sommelier, nor to pander to the popular thirst for well established names. It was a great start to my long visit to the US during which I will be based here in NYWC, but seeing a large chunk of this mind-boggling country. I will, of course, be regularly reporting from the Riesling Trail here. WATCH THIS SPACE!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Let it Grow!

When I arrived at the two parcels of vines which my team and I planted at Weingut Klosterhof Töplitz in Töplitz/Brandenburg yesterday this is what I found. Just 16 days after planting almost 100% of the nearly 1,000 Pinotin vines we planted were already growing, some of them as vigorously as the vine pictured above. For almost 52° 30′ North that’s really not a bad result! This was due not only to the team’s dedicated work, but also to a near ideal weather pattern with alternating rainy and sunny days, no cold, but no extreme heat either.  The large lakes on three sides of the “Island” of Töplitz certainly played a role in moderating temperatures and helping the vines get a really good start. More evidence that this 2.6 hectare / 6.5 acre south-facing slope is a “Grand Cru” site in the reemerging wine growing region of Brandenburg. Reemerging? Yes, the earliest record of wine growing here was in 1360 and it was Cistercian monks who were responsible. During the Middle Ages they also played an important role in establishing winegrowing regions as diverse as Burgundy and the Rheingau.

Tomorrow I leave for New York Wine CIty (NYWC) and my New York Riesling Diary will resume. It’s exactly two months since I left and I’ll no doubt find NYWC in a very different mood to when I left. This time I will be in the USA for almost three months and will do a lot of traveling, including the Riesling Road Trip organized by the German Wine Insitute which during the second half of June will take me by the land route from LA to NYWC via a southerly route through Las Vegas, Texas, New Orleans, Alabama and the Carolinas. These are all places which are new to me. In early July I’ll be in Vancouver/British Columia, then nearby Okanagan Valley, the most northerly wine growing region on the American continent, which will be exciting because this is serious Riesling territory that’s unfamiliar to me. However, even there wine growing doesn’t extend to 52° 30′ North!

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On the Riesling Road: Day 2 – Cellar Extension and Consciousness Expansion

I’m just a humble citizen of Planet Wine and a Riesling Fellow Traveler who’s repeatedly damned to adopt the mantle of a prophet. OK, in this case that’s like me complaining that the forest is burning down after having been caught playing around with matches. It was I who picked that shawl out of the cloakroom at Heymann-Löwenstein in Winningen/ Terrassenmosel myself when Reinhard Löwenstein said that it was time to taste the young 2012s down in the cellar. Then of my own free will I answered Cornelia Heymann’s question as to whether she could use my camera in the affirmative and bingo I’m a Riesling Prophet again! And what does this Riesling Prophet have to say for himself? At first sight it looks like some kind of odd Germanic riddle.

Pictured above is a complete section of the half-finished facade of the new cellar extension at Heymann-Löwenstein. The „background“ is a layer of charred wood, on which the German translation of the ‘Ode to Wine’ by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973) is written in stainless steel letters. For Reinhard Löwenstein the combination of these archaic and modern materials is as important as the optical effect. However, if you don’t know Neruda’s ‘Ode to Wine’, then I strongly recommend one of the most amazing poem about wine ever written. Here’s a good English translation:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/ode-to-wine/

If you open the doors of perception, then you can find all the images and ideas of Neruda’s poem in the Heymann-Löwenstein wines, so this is not as crazy a piece of wine architecture as it might seem at first glance. Chance brought me to the estate at exactly the right moment to taste the young 2012 wines, because the last of them had finished fermenting and been racked (separated from the heaviest lees, or dead yeast) ten days before I arrived, so they were in a really good state to gain a first impression.

They strike me as being the perfect realization of everything Cornelia Heymann and Reinhard Löwenstein (pictured below) have been doing since they founded what seemed like a very alternative winery back in 1980. It’s hard to believe now, but back then founding alternative wineries was really the last thing that was considered possible. They were really exploring the Outer Limits of the Previous Wine Epoch, as I call the period before daring and creativity became desirable in the world of wine and the possibilities seemed carved in stone by (a French wine) God. And of course, as has been repeatedly proven right around Planet Wine, that  was complete bullshit!

The first Heymann-Löwenstein wines I encountered were the 1987 dry Rieslings, which was the vintage with which they switched to labeling the wines with the vineyard name printed most prominently and everything else small. That also seemed seriously revolutionary at the time. It was also a bitch of a vintage for dry wines, being on the thin and the sour sides, but the 1987 Heymann-Löweinstein wines were a revelation; harmonious and full of character. 2012 is an extremely good vintage, (in the hands of a good winegrower) at once ripe and intense, yet charming. The 2012s at Heymann-Löwenstein have all the spicy complexity of previous vintages married to a stunning brilliance. To drink them you’ll have to wait until at least September though.

Yesterday evening was the big party for the opening of the new cellar extension at the much more famous Weingut Robert Weil in Kiedrich/Rheingau. I decided not to photograph them due to the crowds, and because the estate’s website has much better photos than I could ever have done. To catch them go to:

http://www.weingut-robert-weil.com/index.php?id=142&L=2

The party was great fun, except for the fact that the “special” winetasting for journalists that (very long) lunchtime had half-rubbed me out. Why is it that at important events like this, it is always felt that without a bunch of Big Reds (in this case 15 of them) something vital is missing? I think the answer lies largely in the twin prejudices that those wines are the Right Stuff to drink with red meat (which isn’t necessarily the case, as can easily be showen) and that red meat is the Right Stuff for the “main” course. It often strikes me that this also has a macho element, as if the color of the red wine in a grey-haired man’s wine glass somehow emphasizes or even enhances his virility. And if that nonsense isn’t hanging in the air, then the well-known high prices certain Big Reds command are felt to enhance the sense of self-importance of the (generally male) drinker, even to give him a halo of sophistication through mere association. To my mind that’s just so much junk left over from the previous Wine Epoch, and actively detracts from wines like the rich, yet refined 2005 ‘Opus One’ in Napa Valley/California or the vibrantly youthful and seriously concentrated 2010 ‘Saffredi’ from La Pupille in the Marema/Tuscany.

Riesling was allowed a ghetto in the form of the first flight in the tasting, which many older wine professionals consider no more than a warming up lap of the track before the serious business of those Big Reds. That was a bit sad, because Wilhelm Weil and his team produce 100% Riesling including top wines in the dry style (his 2004 Gräfenberg Riesling Erstes Gewächs was included in the tasting) and sweet style (conspicuous by their total absence). Was it really more important to live up to the outdated expectations of the older wine professionals at the table, than to show that for which the Robert Weil estate has been famous for for more than a century? I can’t make any sense of that.

At the party, which like the tasting for the journalists was perfectly organized, a slew of excellent wines from members of the VDP association of top German producers were poured. None stood out more for me than that which this picture shows someone photographing, the dry 2012 Riesling ‘Mineral’ from Emrich-Schönleber of Monzingen/Nahe. It had everything including the refreshing quality of all lighter Rieslings. In spite of his critical and popular success Frank Schönleber is one of the most underrated young winemakers in Germany. He’s been making the wines at this estate since 2006 and has built upon the achievements of his father Werner in a remarkable way. ‘Mineral’ is one of his creations, and as the name says it really is an intensely mineral wine,  in 2012 with every bit as much charm as depth. At once it was refreshing and the full fathom five of Riesling!

 

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 12 – Crazy Alsace Riesling Stats

I found this funny sign – I’m in complete agreement with it, of course! – in the tasting room at Maison Trimbach in Ribeauville/Alsace where I had an amazing vertical tasting of Clos Ste. Hune and Cuvée Frédérik Emile dry Rieslings with Pierre Trimbach going back to the 2005 vintage, which I then extended to 2001 at the dinner table that night. The first vintage of Clos Ste. Hune was the 1919 and the effective first vintage of Cuvée Frédérik Emile was 1964, dates which seem to emphasis Alsace the continuity of dry Riesling production in the region.

Since I returned from Alsace the story of this complex region has been going through my mind and I’ve been delving into the stats to see what they have to tell. The only major changes I expected to find was the virtual replacement of Sylvaner by Pinot Blanc & Auxerrois (usually bottled as a cuvée and marketed under the Pinot Blanc name) as the grape supplying the basic dry wine of the region, which the stats fully confirm. In 2009 Sylvaner accounted for just 3,573 acres / 1,446 hectares compared with 8,231 acres / 3,331 hectares for Pinot Blanc & Auxerrois. More surprising was the growth of Pinot Gris, partly due to fashion, but also as a result of the new clones (which crop more generously and reliably than the old ones) which began to be planted in the 1980s. And indeed that is the case. In 1982 there was just 1,360 acres / 550 hectares of Pinot Gris in Alsace, a figure which had hardly changed during the previous twenty years, but by 2009 this had risen to 5,822 acres / 2,356 hectares a leap from just under 5% of the entire vineyard area to around 15%. That says to me that the global Pinot Grigio (Italian name for this grape) phenomenon has also extended to Alsace.

This set me thinking about time frames, which are of vital importance in analyzing any statistics and have a relationship to them somewhat analogous to that for the context to the facts. For example, the fact that a particular stock has risen sharply today on Wall Street may be highly significant if it is part of a trend extending over many months, or virtually insignificant if during the same period that stock has been yo-yoing up and down by similar amounts. So I decided to look back much further than the stats from the 1982, the year of my first brief visit to the region. Then there were 5,560 acres / 2,250 hectares of Riesling planted in Alsace compared with 8,357 acres / 3,382 hectares today. That’s 50% growth, but over a period of 27 years or less than 2% per year, which is rather unspectacular. However, change the time frame and look back to 1958 and the radical nature of the change becomes apparent. Then there were just 1,945 acres / 787 hectares of Riesling in Alsace, which means that between 1958 and 1982 there was 185% growth, which is an average of 7.7% growth per year for 24 years; very serious growth. I would say that represents the change from Riesling being a notable speciality in the region to being a major grape variety (1958-1982), to then overtaking Gewürztraminer to become the clear number one grape variety in the region (1982-2009).

So the international success of Trimbach’s Clos Ste. Hune and Cuvée Frédérik Emile really did inspire the winegrowers of Alsace and as each wave of producers developed Riesling ambitions, so the stylistic diversity of Alsace Riesling expanded and expanded until it reached its current delightful and sometimes confusing complexity.

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 5 – Success for my Team, my Hoe and I in Töplitz/Brandenberg

Thanks to the élan and professionalism of my team the planting of my two parcels with just short of 1,000 Pinotin vines in the historic vineyard of Töplitz/Brandenburg went like a dream. Instead of needing two days, they raced through the task in a single day. The photo above shows my hoe and I at the end of the afternoon after we all returned to the estate building after finishing work. It was only this morning when I woke up that I realized just how hard I’d thrown myself into this work. As well as wielding my hoe to the clear the ground for the planting of the vines, I also two TV teams (local station RBB and the national ZDF) to look after, plus a handful of newspaper journalists throwing a stream of questions at me. However, it was worth going through all that in order to communicate the fact that climate change really has changed the entire ball game of wine growing at latitudes like this – 52° 26′ 23″ – far north of the long supposed limit of viticulture in the Northern Hemisphere at 50° N.

This is nothing entirely new though, for during the Middle Ages when the climate was even warmer than now there already was wine growing this far North. It was Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Lehnin who first planted the vineyard of Töplitz/Brandenburg back in 1360 and it was only in the Mid-19th century that the combination of bad frosts and cheaper wines imported from further south by railway killed off winegrowing in this part of Germany. From 2007 Klaus Wolenski replanted the vineyard and since the 2012 vintage a team lead by Ludolf Artymowytsch has continued to cultivate Weingut Klosterhof Töplitz organically. Their 2012 “Cuvée Blanc” and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) prove what’s possible here. Although 2012 wasn’t a specially good growing season the Grauburgunder was picked in early October at a ripeness of 94° Oechsle, which translates into 12.5% natural alcohol. Better still it tastes at once ripe – an aroma of ripe melon – and fresh, without any hint of green or sharpness from too much acidity.

I chose the red Pinotin because it too will reach full ripeness in early October in an average year or late September in warmer than average year, is very resistant to mildew (Oidium) and noble rot (Botrytis is only negative for red wines), has good resistance to downy mildew (Peronospera) and will had less trouble with drought stress than white varieties would. To enhance this I chose the Paulsen 1103 rootstock which is very drought resistant. It was the very sandy soil – the south-facing hill is basically a huge sand dune – which made me think about the potential drought problems in years with summers like those of 2003 and 2006. They would be the only years warm enough to ripen Riesling grapes properly, but the drought stress would then almost certainly lead to wines with untypical premature aging (technical term UTA) and/or intense petrol aromas (technical name TDN). It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was sadly a rather unsuitable place for my favorite grape variety.

The sandy soil and the gentle 8% slope made it really rather easy for us to plant those thousand or so Pinotin vines. The picture left shows one of the young vines going into the ground. Those feet belong to Horst Hummel (left) of the Hummel estate in Villány/Hungary, who is also a lawyer in Berlin, and Helmut Reh (right) a physiotherapist from Regensburg/Bavaria, who I met when I was a guest student at the famous wine school in Geisenheim/Rheingau back in 2008/9. A sizable group of my former fellow students came to help me, notably Nico Espenschied of Weingut Espenhof in Flonheim-Uffhofen/Rheinhessen, Fabian Mengel of Weingut Zimmer Mengel in Engelstadt/Rheinhessen, Johannes Sinß of Weingut Sinß in Windesheim/Nahe, Christian & Johannes Spiess of Weingut Spiess in Bechtheim/Rheinhessen and Gerrit Walter of Weingut Walter in Briedel/Mosel. To my surprise they were joined by several somewhat older colleagues, namely Erik Riffel of Weingut Riffel in Bingen-Büdesheim/Rheinhessen and Christine Bernhard and Bernd Pfluger of Weingut Janson Bernhard in Harxheim-Zellertal/Pfalz. So, in spite of the fact that it was the first time I’d planted a vineyard there was no shortage of experience!

And, of course, after we were finished the wines needed to be watered both in the physical sense (essential work undertaken by Ludolf Artymowytsch), but also in the metaphysical one. A slew of good and great wines flowed before and during dinner, and I almost lost complete track of time, just catching the last connection back to Wine Metropole Berlin and a very different world to that inhabited by the cows, sheep, deer, geese, hawks and vines of Töplitz. THANK YOU EVERYONE!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 4 – Today is the Day I plant “my” Vineyard

Yes, today is the day! Today is the day that I plant “my” vineyard in Töplitz just outside Berlin on the southwestern side in the state of Brandenburg. Sadly, even with the assistance of global warming Riesling won’t ripen there except in the warmest years. The combination of low rainfall and a sandy soil (typical of Brandenburg) also means that drought stress for the vines is almost inevitable. This is another good reason to think twice about the grape variety. That’s why I decided to go for a new red grape variety (pictured above) called Pinotin. It was developed by the Swiss vine breeder Valentin Blattner in the Pfalz region of Germany with the Freytag vine nursery of Neustadt. It has a bunch of additional advantages including excellent resistance against mildew (Oidium) and noble rot (Botrytis), plus good resistance against downy mildew (Peronospera). I followed Pinotin in an experimental vineyard in Werder/Brandenburg for two years to see how it actually did under our weather conditions and was very impressed; it outperformed a range of grape varieties from Pinot Noir to Tempranillo (both not so bad for Brdenburg)! I also tasted the Pinotin wines from the Rummel estate in Landau/Pfalz, who proved that Pinotin has a fine cherry aroma and interesting dry tannins. I thank them for the photograph above. Today a crazy group of friends, some from my days as a guest student at Geisenheim, others from Berlin, are gathering to help me plant 1,000 Pinotin vines on the south-facing slope which belongs to Weingut Klosterhof Töplitz. Wish us luck!

I will, of course, report in full on how it went. Please be patient.

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Wine of the Month May

2012 Westhofener Riesling trocken from Rupper-Deginther for just Euro 6!

Sorry Riesling friends in America, Japan and a bunch of other countries. You can’t just pop out to the neighborhood liquor store and buy this delicious dry Riesling from Jungwinzer Justus Ruppert of Dittelsheim-Hessloch/Rheinhessen! However, that is not a valid reason to ignore such wines as these, rather it’s a good reason for STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL to draw attention to these jewels that are just lying around waiting to be picked up by smart and innovative wine importers!

“Dittelsheim-Hessloch, where the hell is that?” I can hear you all saying. Yes, I also said that when I first heard the name exactly nine years ago in the early hours of the morning of 1st May 2004. Then I tasted a wine from Jungwinzer Stefan Winter (vintage 1980) called Leckerberg, tasty hill, and was amazed both by the rich peachy flavor of the wine and its beautiful balance in spite of hailing from the often heavy and clumsy 2003 vintage. Then I was stunned to hear that Leckerberg is actually the officially recognized name of a vineyard site. And it’s no the only vineyard site in this corner of Rheinhessen with a funny name. There’s also one called Mondschein, moonlight, and another called Lebkuchenberg, gingerbread hill, but more of that later.

Stefan Winter just became a member of Germany’s elite VDP winegrowers association, and as such can hardly qualify as a Jungwinzer any more, but Justus Ruppert (vintage 1987) certainly does. We first met in November 2008 when I was a guest student at the Geisenheim wine school back in November, and since then he’s become one of the most talented Jungwinzer  in Rheinhessen, (although even Dittelsheim-Hessloch offers him stiff competition in the form of the Wernersbach brothers, Stephan and Florian). This wine is perhaps the best value for money in his wide range of impressive dry Rieslings, Silvaners and Grauburgunders (Pinot Gris). Although it weighs in at only 12% alcohol it has a bouquet of yellow peach and ripe mini-banana, tasting at once really ripe and delightfully fresh. Here is the taste of the Wonnegau area of southern Rheinhessen without the bulky body and ponderous power you sometimes find here due to the combination of a favorable climate and sometimes rather deep, fertile soils.

If you want to taste the best dry Riesling Justus made to date, then you’ll have to wait until September when the 2012 vintage of his “Weisser Stein”, white stone, a wine from the Lebkuchenberg site, is released. It’s only called that name, because the name Lebkuchenberg is currently banned by the Government wine inspectors, after having been abolished under the auspices of the 1971 wine law. This is much more herbal and mineral wine with underplayed power, and it costs just over double the price of the new wine of the month. However, it’s worthe wait and the money!

2012 Westhofener Riesling trocken is Euro 6 from

Weingut Ruppert-Deginther

Kämmerergasse 8

D 67596 Dittelsheim-Hessloch

Tel.: (49) / (0)  6244 292

Email: kontakt@ruppert-deginther.de

Internet: www.ruppert-deginther.de

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On the Riesling Road: Day 5 – The Great Wines and Identity Crisis of Alsace

Normally I don’t expect you to share my enthusiasm for the intricacies of the plant world, but I had to show you this wild tulip Tulipa sylvestris growing in the Grand Cru Hengst vineyard cloase to Wettolsheim/Alasce. It was a sign of just how seriously Maurice Barthelme of the Albert Mann estate takes bio-diversity in his vineyards, and in this, no less than in the use of biodynamic cultivation methods, he is the same wavelength as most of his colleagues. In fact there’s more agreement about this among the best Alsace winegrowers than on some of the other most fundamental questions. Seen from this perspective they’re a contradictory, even schizophrenic group.

They may hate me for saying this, but many of the rifts between opposing schools of thinking about the right direction for Alsace winemaking to go have their roots in the way the region moved back and forth between France and Germany over the centuries. You and see and hear the legacy of this everywhere you go in the region Most of the towns bear Germanic names (though some like Ribeauville switched to French names), but most of the people now speak French first and it’s quite rare to hear the Germanic Alsace dialect spoken (not least because French has been the official school language since the end of WWII). The more ancient architecture in the towns looks distinctly Germanic, however, during the mid 19th century some imposing French-style official buildings and imposing private residences were erected. Then after Alsace became part of Germany again following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 it was back to Germanic architecture, and so forth.

The previous version of the Wine Identity Crisis in Alsace revolved around the question of how sweet or dry the wines should be. No sooner had the better producers resolved this by reaching an unspoken agreement that as far as possible Riesling should be properly dry (along with Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Muscat) and that both Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer both generally need a hint of sweetness, than the next split developed. This is between those who are in favor of varietal wines and those in favor of the mixed planting of varieties, the simultaneous picking of their grapes (regardless of differences in ripeness levels between them) and their co-fermentation. Because of the ethos of the promoters of this path I call them the Prophets of the Cosmic Mix. This controversy is a special version of the ancient divide between cuvées, for example in Bordeaux (where the different grape varieties are grown, picked and fermented separately), and mono-varietal wines, for example in Germany. I think that the latter association is one reason why what I will call Varietal Modernism is rejected by the Prophets of the Cosmic Mix.

Jean-Michel Deiss is the leading Prophet of the Cosmic Mix, although his wife Marie-Héléne (pictured right) often gives a more articulate explication of how grapes of many varieties from a single vineyard are better at communicating the character specific to it, our old friend terroir. No, let’s express it with the correct emphasis for this situation: Holy Terroir! Here it’s important to make clear that the white wines which Jean-Michel and Marie-Héléne Deiss make at Domaine Marcel Deiss in Bergheim are amongst the best and the most distinctive in Alsace, even France. However, I must add some simple observations to this so that you don’t come to the wrong conclusion about their wines. The inclusion of Pinot Gris and/or Gewürztraminer in many Riesling-based mixed plantings pushes the ripeness (sugar-content) of the juice to the point where the resulting wine cannot be dry. Of the 2011 vintage wines I tasted only the simple ‘Alsace’ tasted struck me as properly dry. Now the residual sweetness in many of the 8  single vineyard wines (let’s call them unofficial Premier Crus) and 3 wines from Grand Cru vineyards which I tasted will certainly become less obvious as those wines age, but that process takes years. Complex, highly distinctive and refined they all are, but that doesn’t make them all dry and I wonder when I would drink some of them. That, however, is not the problem.

There seems to be a Big Problem because Jean-Michel Deiss demands that others follow him on this path and they are often unconvinced by his statements. His dogmatism is causing some of colleagues to switch off when he talks, and some of them clearly feel some resentment. I think I might feel that way too if the excellent dry Riesling I had made from a plot in a Grand Cru vineyard inherited from my father or grandfather was rejected out of hand, because it was not only from a varietal planting (sin), but from a single clone of that variety (mortal sin). Give me that Old Time Religion: Holy Terroir!

Maurice Barthelme of Albert Mann (left) in Wettolsheim is the opposite, a believer in Varietal Mondernism, a pragmatist who seeks to grow delicious wines in a manner that respects eco-systems and natural cycles without turning this into a substitute religion. At Albert Mann most of the 2012 wines were already bottled, whereas most of the top producers won’t bottle anything before September, and most of the wines were bottled with screw caps, although most of the top producers cling to corks (while worrying about cork problems). Sure some Alsace wines, particularly the dry Rieslings with their pronounced acidity can benefit from extended contact with the yeast before bottling, but I loved the citrusy freshness, discrete juiciness and fresh, but already harmonious acidity of the freshly-bottled 2012 Riesling “Cuvée Albert”. Although the 2012 Riesling from the Grand Cru sites – Schlossberg (granite) and Furstentum (calcareous clay) – were less open, but in a few months they too will show very well. And in spite of being made only in stainless steel tanks (another sin for some traditionalists), they were dramatically contrasting wines full of terroir character.

Then there was the best surprise of my entire trip. I knew that the dry Rieslings form the Grand Cru Sommerberg which Jean Boxler (pictured above) was making at Domaine Albert Boxler in Niedermorschwihr were stunning, however I had no idea that his regular quality Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Riesling were also superb wines that also grow on granitic soils and have the delicate aromas and sleek, lithe body this makes possible. That was the reason why the 2011s tasted so elegant in spite of having 13.5% alcohol.

“Normally we harvest the Rieslings towards the end of the harvest, but on the first day of the 2011 harvest I realized that the Riesling grapes were already very ripe and if I waited any longer I wouldn’t be able to produce the dry wines I want to make every year,” Jean Boxler explained to me, “so we changed plan and picked all the Rieslings first.” The result is the coolest,  most delicate and elegant Riesling Grand Crus I tasted from this vintage. If those had been mixed plantings with members of the Pinot family, then the sugar level of the resulting juice would have been too rich in sugar for dry wines.

From my point of view each of these paths – Varietal Modernism and the Cosmic Mix – are equally legitimate, and both clearly yield superb wines (though of clearly different types). The existence of them side by side is certainly an expression of France’s democratic culture, but of course from the point of view of the normal wine drinker far from Alsace this is confusing, and possibly seems schizophrenic. It’s not my job to tell people what to think, only to offer an additional, and possibly alternative perspective that helps them to see things more clearly. Hopefully, I have been successful in that for Alsace, about the beauty of which I have spoken too little. But others have written so much about that already…

 

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On the Riesling Road: Day 4 – Finally I catch up after the complete failure of the WiFi in my Colmar/Alsace hotel

What the fuck!? On my first day in Alsace was I was riding high and rolling with the punches. My first tasting at Zind-Humbrecht close to Turckheim blew my tiny little mind, but then the WiFi in my Colmar hotel failed completely for no obvious reason at all. So I had to hammer out the story below on the computer in the hotel lobby. However, the keyboard was so bizarre that there was no question of repeating this kind of stone age word processing. So it’s only now, three full  to bursting days later, that I’m catching up with you., and I’ve really got too much to tell. It was not only a extremely stimulating trip, it was also inspiring and slightly shocking.

Of course, when, on my second day in Alsace, I saw this miniature version of the Statue of Liberty I also though, what the fuck!? I mean, the half-timbered, winstub-dominated world of Colmar is about as far away from in-your-face, get-out-of-god-damned-way Manhattan as I can imagine! But this strangest of sights during my Alsace tour was immediately explained to me by 32 year old Mélanie Pfister of Domaine Pfister in Dahlenheim who was driving me back to Colmar after an impressive tasting at her domaine. “You know that Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the man who designed the State of Liberty, was born in Colmar?” she asked and I had to admit that I didn’t know that.

As a winemaker Mélanie Pfister is almost completely unknown compared to Pierre Trimbach in Ribeauville who I had visited that morning, and her top dry wine, the Riesling Grand Cru Engelberg costs just one tenth of what Trambach’s Clos Ste. Hune does! However, just like Trimbach she is also committed to properly dry wines and pursues a super-clean and super-straight style of wine with a strong mineral character that’s designed for long-ageing. So this style is obviously not an accident in Alsace, but something which fits the climate, geology (i.e. terroir) and the gastronomic (i.e. consumption) culture of the region. She can now doe this rather better than when I first met her four years ago because of her new cellar facility pictured below.

The deep roots of the dry Riesling tradition of Alsace were amply demonstrated by my tasting with Pierre Trimbach. Although we tried the full range of 2011 and 2010 wines, this was only the beginning of a tasting which stretched back to the 2005 Riesling Cuvée Frédérick Emile and Clos Set. Hune. Later at dinner Melanie and pushed this a bit further with a bottle of 2001 Riesling Fédérick Emile, the aromas of which were as fresh as the 2005, although the flavor was even more harmonious. It was just perfect with the roast guinea fowl morels and snow peas I ate. I floated back to the WiFi-free zone of my hotel.

Yesterday it struck me even more that one of the secrets of Alsace Rieslings special style (next to the area immediately west of Colmar being one of the driest places in France, and during the summer one of the warmest) is the way that for generations the winemakers thought about their wines in a very particular gastronomic context that was part rustic regionally (think choucroute) and part parisian haute cuisine (think Auberge de l’Ile). This really hit me at Domaine Weinbach, which is run by the trio of Colette, Cathey and Laurence Faller, where the tasting was followed by a lunch of black truffle sandwich (!), pan-roast sole both cooked by Cathy Faller, and followed by excellent French cheeses. Although I felt a bit like a peasant stealing from the queen’s table, that didn’t detract at all from the way in which rich, but dry and refined style of the Faller wines fitted this consumption situation perfectly. That’s something still too little appreciated internationally…just like how well this kind of Alsace wine (particularly the Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer that are slightly sweeter than the Rieslings) goes with many spicy East Asian cuisines.

But it’s getting late here in the ICE express train taking me towards the Rheingau and the next stage of my adventure, so I will finish now and give you the final installment of my Alsace adventure tomorrow morning. So you’ll have to be patient if you want to hear the story of the region’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde split personality: WATCH THIS SPACE!

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