New York Riesling Diary: Day 16 – Rieslingfeier Returns to New York Wine City!

Two years ago Stephen Bitterolf of the vom Boden wine importing company took a daring decision and launched the Rieslingfeier festival celebrating German Rieslings in New York Wine City (NYWC). Last night this year’s Rieslingfeier began with a dinner at Má Peche restaurant with wines from Emrich-Schönleber of Monzingen/Nahe and Rebholz of Siebeldingen/Pfalz. It was sold out as are this evening’s big event at Rouge Tomate restaurant and tomorrow’s dinner with wines from Willi Schaefer of Graach/Mosel and Dönnhoff of Oberhausen/Nahe at Betony restaurant. All the winemakers are present for these events too. That means that although it looked a bit risky two years ago Bitterolf’s decision to give German Riesling this platform in NYWC was spot on. Of course, all of you who don’t already have tickets are now wondering how you can be some part of the Rieslingfeier. The answer is that tomorrow (Saturday, February 22nd) is the Riesling Crawl in Manhattan with a handful of stunning tastings you don’t need a ticket for or even to pay for, just come along. I look forward to seeing you there! Here’s the list:

12:00-2:00pm: Cornelius Dönnhoff 

at Acker Merral & Condit, 160 West 72nd Street

1:00-3:00pm: Hansjörg Rebholz and Christoph Schaefer 

at Crush Wine & Spirits, 153 East 57th Street

2:00-4:00pm: Florian Lauer 

at Flatiron Wines & Spirts, 929 Broadway

3:00-5:00pm: Frank Schönleber of Emrich-Schönleber

at Moore Brothers Wine Co., 33 East 20th Street

4:00-6:00pm: Johannes Leitz and Egon Müller IV

at Union Square Wines & Spirits, 140 4th Avenue

5:00-7:00pm: Christian Vogt of Karthäuserhof

at Astor Wine & Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street

PS Many thanks to Birgitta Böckeler for the great picture of NYWC!


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 14 – I’ve Nothing Against Elegant Chardonnay, but I Hate “Bullshit Chardonnay”

Yesterday I was at a very interesting blind tasting hosted by Patz & Hall winery of Sonoma/California at Corkbuzz Wine Studio in New York Wine City (NYWC). Called “site matters”, it was divided into two halves and it was the first devoted to the Chardonnays made by the duo of Donald Patz and James Hall’s that really interested me for professional and for personal reasons. You see, some somms, bloggers and journalists treat me as if I was the embodiment of the ABC phenomenon, that is the widespread desire for Anything But Chardonnay. Generally no evidence is offered to back up for this demonization of me apart from pointing to the fact they I’m pro-Riesling, which is so obvious it sticks out like dog balls. To be frank all this doesn’t bug me very much, because if you stick your neck out like I do you’ve got to expect a left hook or two, and rolling with the punches is the best strategy when they come. However, the truth often get lost due to all this.

It is that I often enjoy and sometimes love elegant Chardonnay. My problem with that delicious and often fascinating group of wines is its rarity (and sometimes its price) compared to the huge crowd of “Bullshit Chardonnays”, in which it all too often gets lost. Bullshit Chardonnay is my term for the generally cheap wines of this grape made from over-cropped vines that need considerable manipulation in the cellar. By manipulation I mean  doing things like adding a slew of oak aromas through steeping oak “chips” in the wine and/or blending with grape concentrate to sweeten up the wines and/or blending with more aromatic grapes to add fruit aromas (Muscat was a favorite for this before the Moscato craze started) to make them at least superficially attractive. Then there’s the sub-group of Bullshit Chardonnays that would be pleasant, even very good to drink if the vanilla and toast aromas form the oak (barrels and/or chips) weren’t so horribly dominant. The Chardonnays from Patz & Hall are an elegant contrast to these kinds of “comic book” wines.

At the NYWC tasting I wasn’t wowed by every one of the Patz & Hall Chardonnays I tasted, but that wasn’t the really important point. Rather, it was that all of these wines tasted very distinctive and there was no way you could mistake one of them for another. Although they’d all been made in small barrels, the oak aromas in all of them, even the recently bottled 2012s, were strikingly discrete. There was a healthy acidity in each of wine too, although all of them had been put through complete malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity of any wine. If Chardonnay always managed all those things, then I’d be really happy!

Tasting them blind I was unable to discern which appellation each wine came from, much less each vineyard, lacking the deep tasting experience of Chardonnays from this part of California. However, it was really interesting to compare my impressions with James Hall’s comments about each of his wines at the end, because my descriptions were always close to his own. So there was definitely a logic to those differences in aroma and flavor, call it “terroir” or whatever else you want. My favorite amongst them? It was the as yet unreleased 2012 Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay from  Carneros, which was a bit funky, but also had an excellent balance of richness and creaminess with fresh acidity. It got better and better the longer it stood in the glass and my guess is that it will become more elegant with a couple of years of age, and should keep a good decade if the cork holds. One bottle of the 2003 Alder Springs Vineyard Chardonnay proved that Patz & Hall’s Chardonnays can age well in contrast to the many fancy California Chardonnays which either fade or crack up after a couple of years in the bottle.

Does that make it plain that I’m not an ABC axe-wielding maniac, and that you can please me by pouring a glass of elegant Chardonnay?

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 10 – Joelle Thomson on New Zealand’s 3rd National Riesling Tasting

Joelle Thomson (the women with the Riesling back turned to the camera) is a journalist, wine writer and author of 14 books about wine in New Zealand. She was first bitten by the Riesling bug in 1994 and has never looked back. Here is her report on the current state of NZ Riesling, an underexposed part of Planet Riesling. 

The bus that took New Zealand Riesling devotees up State Highway 1 to this year’s National Riesling Tasting might have been half full but our glasses were over-flowing as we tasted our way through over 100 Rieslings from dawn till dusk – and beyond.

How important is Riesling to New Zealand? It’s a question that’s easy to dismiss, if numbers are all you go by.

On one hand, Riesling is the sixth most planted grape in New Zealand today; on the other, it’s been completely eclipsed by Pinot Gris over the past decade but – the biggest but – Kiwi Riesling has always aged brilliantly and its quality has never been better.

The country’s slow growth of Riesling – just 356 hectares since 2003 compared to Pinot Gris’ rise by 1,448 hectares during the same period (to 1,764 hectares today) in New Zealand.

Marlborough winemaker Andrew Hedley from Framingham Wines is one of the country’s most avowed Riesling devotees and the way he sees it, New Zealand will never compete on volume or price.

“Riesling is not trendy, popular or big volume for New Zealand, but it adds to New Zealand’s high quality image,” says Hedley.

Fellow Riesling maker Mat Donaldson from Pegasus Bay Winery used to think Riesling might one day be the new Sauvignon Blanc but now he thinks the quality is the best it’s ever been and that those who understand it are staunch followers. The wines prove both of them right.

This year is the third that New Zealand has had a National Riesling Tasting and it has been part of the country’s Summer of Riesling movement; picked up and carried from what New York restaurateur Paul Grieco first began. And as importantly, this year was the first in which New Zealand Winegrowers supported the National Riesling Tasting; coordinating logistics, promoting it to New Zealand wineries, collecting information about the wines entered and collating  tasting sheets. If it all sounds functional rather than the romantic Riesling dream, Angela Clifford is not complaining. She is New Zealand’s go-to Riesling organizer for the Summer of Riesling event each year, which she co-founded in New Zealand with winemaker Duncan Forsyth.

Clifford also co-owns Tongue in Groove wines with winemaker Lynnette Hudson while Forsyth is one of the owners and chief winemaker at Mount Edward in Central Otago. The pair both hope to see the support of New Zealand Winegrowers grow.

But there is no profit in Summer of Riesling. It wasn’t designed to be profitable, but to entertain and to champion diversity.

So, what is the future of New Zealand’s Riesling movement?

The lack of profit in the annual Summer of Riesling almost echoes the lack of profitability which has seen so many Kiwi winemakers turn to Pinot Gris instead. Almost. Those who champion Riesling in New Zealand are getting more adept at marketing and selling it, not least because they recognize just how superbly well it ages. Marlborough winemaker Dr John Forrest cracked open a bottle of eight year old low alcohol Doctor’s Riesling with me last month and it blew both of us away. As always with Riesling, it tasted about half its age. Screwcaps help no end, as a long lineup of Pegasus Bay Rieslings tasted this year, which dated back to 1996, showed. This year there were 70 wineries who took part in Summer of Riesling. There were 12 international media at the National Riesling Tasting and two local media (myself and fellow wine writer Jo Burzynska).

“One international journalist told me there was just no way they could write another story about Sauvignon Blanc  because it’s taken up so much airtime and they needed another white wine to write about from New Zealand. That person was hugely supportive of our Riesling,” says Clifford.

There is strong support for Summer of Riesling from those who attend, but as Framingham winemaker and Riesling fanatic Andrew Hedley said, “Riesling doesn’t have to just for   summer. Where would I be in winter without a big, dry, full bodied Riesling with pork belly? That’s my ultimate comfort food.”

Summer of Riesling, autumn of Riesling, Winter of Riesling or spring… I need no convincing; my New Zealand Riesling glass overflows with great choice from an exceptional line-up of top producers; my pick are shared below. No doubt many of their wines are not available internationally but if the chance presents itself to try these wines, leap in.

Joelle Thomson’s top New Zealand Riesling producers

Aurum Wines, Central Otago, winemaker Max Marriott

Babich Wines, Marlborough

Black Estate, North Canterbury

Cloudy Bay Wines, Marlborough

Forrest Estate, Marlborough

Framingham Wines, Marlborough

Fromm, Marlborough

Greenhough, Nelson

Greywacke, Marlborough

Maude, Central Otago

Misha’s Vineyard, Central Otago

Mount Edward, Central Otago

Neudorf Vineyards, Nelson

Nga Waka, Martinborough

Palliser Estate, Martinborough

Pegasus Bay Wines, North Canterbury

Prophet’s Rock, Central Otago

Seifried, Nelson

Terrace Edge, North Canterbury

Tongue in Groove Wines, North Canterbury

Waipara Hills, North Canterbury

Zephyr, Marlborough

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 8 – Wine of the Month February 2014

2012 Kiwi Wine $22 per half bottle from Hermit Woods Winery

My humble apologies for the delay in posting the new wine of the month, but as soon as I got back to NYWC the last vital round of corrections of BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story, landed on my desk and there was no choice, but to push everything else aside. I only just completed that task and writing some urgent columns.

Of course, I’m well aware that you’re all going to say I’m totally crazy for declaring a wine made 97.6% from kiwis and 2.4% from apples in New Hampshire my wine of the month. And honestly, before I met Ken Hardcastle from Hermit Woods Winery I also couldn’t imagine that something made that way could be of interest to anyone who likes good Riesling (or, for that matter, other wines made from the co-called “noble” grape varieties). But something I learnt during the last years is that the world of wine is very much bigger and fuller with surprises than any of us, including me, can imagine.

All of us have convictions and suffer from them, because they create a rather rigid framework of preconceptions and prejudices which shape the way we see the world around us, and how we taste the world of wine. The reason I couldn’t imagine a kiwi wine tasting good is that the kiwi was a fashion fruit during early my twenties, when it made New Zealand seem cool long before the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc did or anyone had thought of filming the Tolkein novels on those green islands in the South Pacific.

Then, just over a decade ago I had my first epiphany with fruit wines when I encountered the apple and pear sparkling wines from Eric Bordelet in Normany/France, then Andreas Schneider of Nieder-Erlenbach close to Frankfurt/Germany started producing equally astonishing sparkling and still wines from those fruits. Those experiences opened my eyes to the fact that exciting wines can be made from all manner of fruits, as long as those fruits have exciting aromas an flavors. I have to admit though, that this is the first kiwi wine that I enjoyed drinking, and that I still don’t know if this is just one of a kind.

Actually the wine’s bouquet reminds me as much of passion fruit as kiwis, and perhaps that’s the reason that it also smells a little bit like a good Riesling. The balance is very different though, for the acidity is fresh, but doesn’t have the drive of Riesling. Then there’s a tannic element in the aftertaste which is different to the tannins of any grape wine I can remember drinking, but if it’s made from kiwis, then surely it should taste very different from Riesling or any other grape wine. It certainly made me sit up and say, “what the hell’s that?” Yes, a kiwi wine from New Hampshire blew my mind!

Hermit Woods Winery

56 Taylor Road

Sanbornton, NH 03269

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Florida Riesling Diary: Day 3 – The Warm Nostalgic Glow of this Sub-Tropical American Paradise

America is famously the place where everything, including the portions in restaurants, is BIG, but in many respects in recent years America has been overtaken in this by China, parts of the Ex-Soviet Union, the Arabian Peninsula and Brazil (just to name the most obvious candidates). However, in Florida it’s hard to remember that any of this has happened. If it wasn’t for the fact that I heard a few Russian accents I’d have thought the Cold War was still being fought. In Florida the America of the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s and even the ’50s live on, and I keep being reminded of photos, movies and movies from those periods. I’m not talking about some kind of zombie-like state of un-death either. No, the nostalgic glow that envelopes everything from freeway-side palms to high-rise apartment blocks is like the rosy cheeks which indicate good health.

Above you can see me with one of those BIG portions (but certainly not the biggest portion) I was served here. It reminded me of a cartoon book called ‘Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head’ which I read as a teenager. I ate this mega-salad on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, which in one important way was a total exception to the Florida Rule. I’m 53 years old, but usually here I’ve been the youngest person in the room/on the street. In contrast, in Miami Beach I was surrounded by cool young sex-bombs flaunting their smooth, evenly-tanned flesh.

Then something ugly happened and the glossy magazine calm of Lincoln Road was ripped asunder. As I was attempting to make a dent in that salad suddenly two big dogs were locked in what looked like a battle to the death, and people in this outdoor sub-tropical mall were panicking. In the end (miraculously) no blood was spilt and everything quickly returned to what they consider normalcy here. Later a new friend in Miami Beach explained to me that this was definitely a, “Miami Moment”, giving the appearance on the street of a guy riding a bicycle dressed only in a golden thong as another example…

Although I’m anything but a beach person, and I try very hard to keep my tendency towards nostalgia tightly in check (in order to focus on that strange place called NOW) I’ve really enjoyed the experience of being immersed in this preserved version of earlier decades. You see, there’s no whiff of formaldehyde, in fact the place and the people almost always smell fresh, even when you know that they’re way too old to count as fresh. Wine was sometimes an exception to that rule. In liquor stores I found entire shelving units filled with White Zinfandel, a product invented back in 1975 by Sutter Home Winery, which I thought had long since disappeared from the market and been replaced by cool Pink Moscato. One of the younger people I talked to opened his wine cooler and pulled out a bottle of 2002 Liebfraumlich to ask me what I thought of it. That wine sure fits the nostalgia of this place, but I’m not sure that it would smell fresh if he’d opened the bottle. In fact I’d say that it was a full decade past its drink-by date and that proper Riesling (medium-sweet with a spritz of natural carbon dioxide?) would make much more sense in this climate. While New York has been hit with snow again every day here the temperature topped 80° F. Where is that Mosel Riesling Kabinett?

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt here, apart from how richly-colored and seductive nostalgia can be, is how everything is relative. I mean that very personally. When my self-confidence is below normal and work problems are bugging me (a combination we all face sometimes), then I start to think of myself as rather old, a bit unfit and slightly over-weight. Florida kept on showing me that I’m young, in great physical shape and positively lean. At the pool I felt like a an olympic athlete at peak fitness. And I’m really grateful to Florida for hammering that home again and again. I recommend it!

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London Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Vaughn Tan and the View thru the Windshield instead of the Rear-View Mirror

Vaughn Tan is one of the most interesting people I ever met. From the moment he opened his mouth the first time we met in a Cambridge/MA café on a snowy afternoon in early 2012 I could tell that we were what are simplistically called “kindred spirits”. This was and is extraordinary considering that Vaughn is a radically new type of sociologist and I’m trying to be a radically new type of wine guy. He grew up in Singapore and I did so on the edge of London. That first brief conversation opened up multiple new vistas of thought for me, and simultaneously encouraged me that my rejection of the conventional way that wine authors focus on the wine in the glass in favor of seeking out as many connections between it and the rest of the world as possible was the right path for me to follow. This is what my forthcoming book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (Stewart, Tabori & Chang from June 2014) does.

So it was probably inevitable that when I met with Vaughn earlier today in Maison Bertaux on Greek Street (my favorite café in the city and so much more than just a café) I should begin by returning to that point. “I think the type of wine journalism which focusses in on the wine in the glass to the exclusion of everything else is a lie. The problem is that it pretends that there aren’t all these connections between the wine and the rest of the world, beginning with how it got in that glass on this table.” Actually only cups of coffee and tumblers of water were on the table in front of us, but that same argument could equally be applied to them.

This set Vaughn talking about how his efforts to find a publisher for a book on “new food” have run into some difficulties, because the editors of publishing houses insist on regarding it as a Food Book, rather than a book about the interconnection between cooking, creativity, agriculture, the economy and the entire social dimension. That’s too big and too new for them, so they scuttle for safety on what they think is the firm ground of conventional food literature and what they call objectivity. For Vaughn (and I) the latter is complete nonsense as there is no objectivity, only continually shifting activity, ideas, sensory impressions and emotions. We feel the most honest thing to do is not only to present things in their context (i.e. how the wine got in that glass on that table and what that means to people in the situation it’s consumed in), but also how we came to the conviction that those things and that context demanded our attention. For us, the why and how of reaching our conclusions are inseparable from the conclusions themselves. We go a step further than Nietzsche when he wrote that, “the context is the facts”.

“How long have you been in Las Vegas?” Vaughn suggested I ask him, which seemed like a strange question considering he recently began three years of teaching at University College, London . I felt a bit silly as I dutifully threw back the question, although everything Vaughn ever suggested I do turned out to be right. “About five weeks,” was the beginning of a long story about the “Anti-Strip” of Vegas, a city I had a short and sharp introduction to last summer. He was referring to Spring Mountain Road, which is composed of a string of strip malls where a food revolution is clearly happening. That took me back to Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”  and made me start feeling I ought to go back there with Vaughn as a guide. Last summer when I was there briefly for the first time I felt that I completely failed to find a story worth telling about the city.

“Las Vegas is a place which seems to be predicated on chance, but actually it’s not, it’s based on risk.” Obviously out on Spring Mountain Road a bunch of chefs are taking some serious risks that have nothing to do with the huge casino-resorts, but may express some new American Dream. Surely this is a great food story and my guess is that there’s a wine story in there too. However, if you’re thinking in terms of conventional food literature and objectivity, then you won’t see it because your gave will be fixed on the rear-view mirror instead of looking at what’s in front of you thru the windshield.


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London Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Steel in the Soul

Outrageous! The energy and creativity, greed and arrogance of London are right outside the window as I write this (above) and I don’t think there’s anything I need to say more about them than to observe that I’m currently torn this way and that by them.  Instead let’s turning the clock back a few days to my visit to Winzerhof Stahl in Auernhofen/Franken and my tasting of Christian Stahl’s (below) embryonic 2013 wines.

With just 150 inhabitants the sleepy hamlet of Auernhofen is about as far removed from Central London as you could possibly imagine. “Where the hell is that???” asks London looking down its long nose. The thing that London could never believe about Auernhofen is that, as well as growing a lot of wheat and using most of it to raise pigs it is also home to the Quentin Tarantino of Dry White Wines (as I christened him back in 2009). Already when I first met him a decade ago Christian Stahl was turning what “ignoble” white grapes like Müller-Thurgau and Bacchus can do upside down. Since then he has expanded this endeavor to include Silvaner, Scheurebe and the supposedly “noble” Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (which he reinterprets no less radically). However, Christian isn’t just a talented winemaker he’s also a thinker who pulls the myths of the wine world apart as if they were so much pink candy floss!

For him the terroir theory of wine is pushed way too far by some of its proponents and he pours scorn on the idea (let’s face it this is part of many sales pitches) that, somehow, those wines widely praised as being the ultimate expression of terroir are produced without any winemaking taking place; as if terroir removed the need for winemaking and enabled the production process to happen all by itself. The truth is that all wines are made, at least in the sense that they’re all the result of various decisions being taken in the press house and cellar, certain techniques having been chosen in preference to other possible methods.

The best argument in favor of this position are Christian’s 2013s wines, which strike me as being a remarkable work-in-progress. They have a racy brilliance and cool fruit aromas and mineral freshness that make me long for hot days and balmy evenings.  For Stahl the harmonization of this vintage’s substantial acidity is the greatest challenge in the cellar (assuming that only clean grapes were used, which doesn’t go without saying in this rot-prone vintage), and the normal German method of using a few grams of unfermented sweetness to do this job is really a last resort for him. Lees (the deposit of yeast left after fermentation) contact, lees stirring and some cautious use of malolactic fermentation (which turns the “unripe” malice acid in wine into the softer lactic acid) are his main methods of achieving this. However, if a small amount of chemical deacidification helps, then he doesn’t hesitate to do that. The proof this works is the wines success in the German market.

Christian is also an excellent cook (see left) and I’d certainly have given the guinea fowl breast he cooked after our tasting a Michelin star if I’d been a tester. No wonder his wines sell so well in the good and great restaurants of Germany (right up to Tantris in Munich!). I think his excitement about cooking and food has driven the development of his wine style, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he started an even more ambitious gastronomic venture than the excellent catering he and his wife Simone already do at their estate. Then the story of this winegrower who’s name means steel and who has steel in his soul will enter a new phase that London will find even more impossible to understand. However, the truth is that he doesn’t need the London market, just like a bunch of other German Jungwinzer!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 11 – Horst Hummel’s Hungarian Red Wine Revelations from the “ignoble” Portugieser Grape

One of the most fundamental aspects of the way we think about wine is the division of grape varieties into two groups, the “noble” wine grapes and all the other wine grapes which are considered more or less “ignoble”. For insiders the “noble” wine grapes are those from which a significant number of highly-regarded wines are produced, but the average consumer’s perspective is always behind the times, shaped primarily by the wines produced 20 years to 50 years ago. For them, the list of “noble” wine grapes  is much shorter, because back then many fewer exciting wines with a high international reputation were only being produced. However, whichever list it is the red Portugieser grape is not on there! Then it takes a daring pioneer like Horst Hummel, pictured above, to show that the Portugieser grape ending up in the “ignoble” corner is far too simplistic.

Recent research suggests Portugieser a native grape of Austria, and the story of it having been brought to Austria from Portugal by an aristocrat during the 18th century seems to be as much a fairy tale as the Shiraz grape (the Australian synonym for Syrah, recently adopted by various other winegrowing nations) coming from the Persian city of that name.  Today, Portugieser is only widely cultivated in Austria, Germany and Hungary, but in all those places it is renowned as a grape variety for the mass-production of pale, insipid reds. The reason for that it its ability to regularly give crops of 120 hectoliters per hectare or 8 tons per acre without any trouble, and more is possible with the help of generous additions of nitrogen fertilizer to the soil. Grapes grown that way give red wines with weak color and a low tannin content. The genetic make-up of Portugieser is far removed from that of say Cabernet Sauvignon and the family grape varieties related to it, all of which still give wines with plenty of color and tannin even when over-cropped.  (Those tannins don’t taste as good as those from low-cropped vines, but that’s another story). When Portugieser is cropped heavily the acidity content also shoots up and can make it taste seriously tart. Then winemakers can be tempted to add sweetness in the form of grape juice or grape concentrate to “balance” it. My first ever Portugieser was consumed in a apartment block in the industrial town of Ludwigshafen am Rhein/Germany back in the spring of 1975. It called itself a red wine, but was more like a rosé. It tasted thin, cold (although it was served at room temperature) and sweet-sour. Ouch, ouch, ouch!

It took me a long time to realize that, along with Pinot Noir, Portugieser belongs to the group of grape varieties which give light red wines (i.e. with weak color and low tannin-content) when heavily cropped, but respond to drastic yield-reduction by giving much more color and tannin. For that reason the vertical tasting of Portugieser red wines which Berlin lawyer Horst Hummel gave at the Weinstein wine bar in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg the other evening was not fundamentally surprising to me. He has been making wine in the Hungarian region of Villány since 1998 and the first wine he ever made was a Portugieser red. For most of the somms and wine lovers that attended the Weinstein tasting it was a total revelation. Many of them said things like, “how can this 15 year old Portugieser have such a deep color and still be so vivid and powerful?” And I have to admit that even I was stunned by Horst Hummel’s 1999 Portugieser “Reserve”, because I’d never experienced a mature wine from this grape which had aged so well.

This photo looking directly down into the glass gives an idea of how the wine looked (although the color at the rim of the glass didn’t look quite that amber in Weinstein). The current vintage of Horst Hummel’s top Portugieser, the 2011 Jammertal, is far deeper in color, has really polished supple tannins and a pronounced mineral note at the long filigree finish. It costs about 20 Euros, which is quite something for a wine from this grape variety, but in absolute terms that is still moderate. What red wines can you get from Burgundy for this price? Nothing that comes close to the sophistication of this wine from one of those “ignoble” grapes! Hats off to Horst Hummel!

PS Almost every wine in this vertical tasting was at least impressive (although the 1996 had an acetone problem – one of the dangers of “wild ferments” without any added yeast), and to describe them all would require another two postings of this length.


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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 8 – Dear NSA, Dear GCHQ (Part 7 – The Life of the Others)

Are the German people really no more than shadows?

Dear General Keith Alexander (Director of NSA),

Dear James Clapper (National Director of Intelligence),

Dear Sir Lain Lobban (Director of GCHQ),

as you well know I’m now in Berlin writing this in St. Oberholz on the Rosenthaler Straße, a café full of young people online. Of course, without an invitation of the kind that I extended to you late last year, you are following some of them because they’re involved in what you call “low-level” terrorism, i.e. express opinions contrary to the official line in your countries. But then, the German government is doing that too by insisting that, whether your governments sign no-spy pacts with Germany or not, on German soil German law applies to you and the employees of your organizations no less than to anyone else. Since I arrived here I’ve found that you can also read all about the opposition to your activities here on the websites of conservative pro-America newspapers such the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). But you’re better informed about all this than I am, my only question is whether you realize what this means.

As you know all too well we live in an age when information is easily available by the tetra bite, but the really valuable alpha stuff is much hard to come by. We journalists see that, but have a different take on it to you. We are acutely aware that if you want to acquire knowledge you need to understand the context, not just the raw information. When you that information becomes knowledge. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “the context is the facts”. The problem in the present situation is that for you the people of Germany are so many “other” people, just a crowd of shadowy virtual silhouettes. You can see where they (almost) all are and their outlines, but the shape of a shadow is something very different to how a person thinks and feels, in this case also how a large and complex nation thinks and feels.

Let me fill you in on the true situation here. The Snowden Revelations hit a particular nerve here, not least because it came out that you’d been monitoring the cellphone (or Handy as the Germans call it) of Chancellor Angela Merkel for many years. No major politician in Germany is more pro-American than Frau Merkel and this is why it shocked and outraged people here, most of all the conservative pro-America section of society. This you have inadequately described as “blowback”, and much of the American media has followed you in using that word. The problem is that outrage is way more than hot air blowing back. That’s something that the Germans have a feeling about in their guts  (im Bauch as the Germans say), not least because of Germany’s modern history, because of  the surveillance undertaken by the Nazi Gestapo and Communist Stasi. Every high school kid knows that history, but you don’t seem to have any idea what it does to a nation’s people to have been at the sharp end of that, as Chancellor Merkel’s generation was as young people. Since I returned here just over a week ago the beast in the Germans’ guts has stirred and sometimes roared.

The reason is the apparent refusal of the US Government – the buck stops on President Obama’s desk in the oval office – either to offer Germany a no-spy pact or to make a concrete commitment to obey German law on German soil. Instead of this Obama has made another eloquent speech and made a lot of other friendly noises, and the US ambassador to Germany has done a lot of smiling (its a really nice smile too!). The expectation in Washington DC and in your offices seems to be that, as in the past, the Germans will fall obediently into line albeit with great gnashing of teeth this time around. This is a massive miscalculation and shows how, in spite of listening in and reading so much government and private communications in Germany, you don’t begin to understand Germany, most imortantly the new generation of politicians and voters. I mean what you call the millenials and I call Generation Riesling.

Even if some of the Old Guard of German politicians are willing (with great reluctance) to do what you want, those belonging to Generation Riesling will refuse to accept this and will turn on that element of the Old Guard if they try push through something which breeches the spirit and letter of Germany’s constitution. In fact, another large part of the German Old Guard regards that prospect with the same revulsion, and some of them  are clearly willing to man the barricades to prevent it. From both these directions and across party lines Chancellor Merkel is already coming under such pressure to take some kind of stand. Also, although I’ve never met her, nothing suggests to me that she’s willing to just cave in on the position stated above regarding Germany’s constitution and other laws. Although she will do everything possible to smile when she meets President Obama in Washington DC in February/March when the door closes behind them there will be no more smiles. If no concessions are made and the President sticks to his current position, then the alliance of Germany and America which goes back at least to 1949 effectively ends, you gentlemen will face prosecution in Germany (assuming enough evidence can be found), and quite possibly the NATO treaty will become just another  piece of paper.

I write none of this with relish. You see I’m journalist who tries to understand the world around him, but I’m also a child of the Cold War for whom America was something inherently positive, and when I first visited America back in 1985 I fell in love with it (also because it fascinates the journalist in me). That’s why I fear the outcome I’ve just described, also because geo-politically it leads in a direction that isn’t good for Germany or America. At this juncture, I should point out that I was never a member of any political grouping, movement or party except for the Peace Pledge Union, a London-based pacifist organization. You already know all that, but all my readers don’t

I suggest that you all sit down with a big glass of good Riesling and think over which directions you and the politicians are pushing the Germans, and with them many of your other traditional allies. Then all of us in the Western World will be living in what my colleague Jürgen Fränznick calls, “the Wild West”. I’ll be drinking that glass of Riesling to remind myself that there are so many good and beautiful things in Germany, America and all over the world!



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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!


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