Finger Lakes Riesling Diary: Day 7 – It’s the People, Stupid!

At the end of my week in the Finger Lakes (FLX) in Upstate New York I’m in no doubt that this region on the cusp of gaining recognition as one of the most important winegrowing regions in North America, and not just for Riesling. I’m also sure that this recognition will come both because of long-established (i.e. already in the second or third generation) wineries like Hermann J. Wiemer on the eastern side of Seneca Lake and Dr. Konstantin Frank on Keuka Lake, and because of new winemakers who are pushing various envelopes further than seemed possible  just a few years ago. Together they’re dramatically increasing the amount and diversity of good and great wine produced in the FLX, and at the same time consumers outside the region – not only in New York Wine City (NYWC) – are picking up on the quality revolution here.

BEWARE: SUDDEN CHANGE OF TACK – Please bear with me for a moment! There are a bunch of theories of wine, of which terroir (authenticity through a sense of place) and so-called natural wine (authenticity through the minimal use of technology) are the most important contemporary ones. My experiences during the last days made me think about how if either of those theories is pushed to the limit it ends in a deterministic dogma that all but excludes the role of human decision-making and action, aka wine growing and winemaking. And this is precisely what the Young Turks of FLX winemaking are not.

Probably the terroir and matural wine fanatics are already flipping out and accusing me of not understanding the importance of their pet theories, or not hesitating and calling me a heretic straight out. However, I am not rejecting their ideas nor are FLX winemakers like Kris Matthewson of Bellwether on the western side of Cayuga Lake, pictured above. He’s really interested in terroir, producing several single-vineyard dry Rieslings that are very distinctive, and he also has a couple of wines that definitely fall into the “natural wine” category, one of which is a 2013 Riesling Petillant Naturel. This is a sparkling wine which finished it’s second fermentation in the bottle after release onto the market. It couldn’t have done that if it contained a significant quantity of sulfites or was sterile-filtered, and is therefore what I’d call a low-sulfur, unfiltered wine.

More important for me is what Kris’s decision to go down this path has done for the wine, which strikes me as being significantly more harmonious than the same wine made by more conventional methods, the 2013 Tuller Vineyard Dry Riesling. I prefer the steely, but expressive (white currant, elderflower) 2013 A & D Vineyard that spent almost 9 months in a tank under carbon dioxide pressure in order to delay adding sulfites to it. The result is a wine with way more mineral character than is the norm in this region. More conventional, but also more supple and immediately appealing is the juicy and elegant dry Riesling from the Sawmill Creek winery. Here it is important to remember that before Kris made his 2011 Pinot Noir here Bellwether was dedicated entirely to hard cider. Grape wine is that new for this producer!     

That can’t be said for Red Newt in the so-called Banana Belt (so-called, because it’s the warmest part of the region) on the eastern side of Seneca Lake where Dave Whiting has been producing good Rieslings ranging from harmoniously dry to succulently sweet since many years before my first to the FLX a decade ago. What’s new here is winemaker Kelby Russel, pictured above, a graduate of Harvard in social sciences (they don’t offer wine as a subject, at least not yet). It was jut 5 years ago that Kelby stumbled into winemaking at Fox Run on the western side of the same lake. Fox Run’s Peter Bell has not only been one of the most consistent winemakers in the region over the last decade, the cellar he presides over has also been an incubator for new talent in the region.

Obviously, from the 2013 vintage Rieslings I tasted at Red Newt – just his second vintage there – Kelby learnt very fast. Of the 11 wines I tasted all were very good and there were 2 stars, the dry Tango Oaks Vineyard, the medium-dry ‘The Knoll’   and the frankly sweet ‘The Harlan’ (both from Lahoma Vineyard on the opposite shore of Seneca Lake). Kelby hasn’t changed the style of the Red Newt wines, which were always very bright and charming, but the best of them now have a “dark side” that creates a terrific tension with the fruit and floral aromas. Maybe this isn’t conventional winetasting vocabulary and would result in certain failure in the Master Sommelier exam, but it strikes me as exactly the right metaphor of how the best new Red Newt Rieslings taste. I can’t wait to taste them when they get into the bottle.

I tasted Kelby’s most remarkable wine to date at nearby Boundary Breaks Vineyard with owner Bruce Murray, pictured above. I was lucky to meet him here, because he spends the great majority of his time in NYWC where he works in market research. The wine I’m talking about is the 2011 “No. 198 Reserve”, a sweet Spätlese type wine that has the same kind of aromatic richness, finely-nuanced flavor, weightless feel and enormous freshness as the best German Rieslings of this type. It’s the first time I’ve come across a wine of this type and quality in the FLX, or anywhere on the eastern side of North America for that matter. The number refers to the Geisenheim Riesling clone GM 198, from which the wine was made by picking very late and putting the grapes straight into the press uncrushed (technical term: whole cluster pressing). There was also a very exciting Riesling here which Kelby also made, the as yet unnamed dry 2013 No. 198. It struck me as being one of the first dry Rieslings from the FLX which fit in the mold of the German ‘Grosses Gewächs’ (GG), but that wine needs maybe a year or even two in the bottle to show it’s best, just like the GGs. There were also some other very good wines made by Peter Bell and Dave Breeden of Sheldrake Point, the other members of the Boundary Breaks winemaking team.

A special mention has to go to a non-winemaker, Boundary Breaks vineyard manager Kees Stapel. This property wasn’t planted until 2008, but already the vines looked better than any others I saw in the entire region. It may take this producer to achieve the stylistic and quality consistency to put it in the region’s first rank, but it is clearly moving fast in that direction.

The only disappointing thing about all this for me is that while I picked up on Kris Matthewson’s new wines early enough to get him BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story and Red Newt earned a good place there too, I latched onto Kelby Russel’s talents too late to acknowledge his role at that producer. Bruce Murray was more unlucky, because I bumped into a couple of his less successful – i.e. merely good – bottlings while I was researching and though, “yes, but…” Space was tight and Boundary Breaks didn’t quite make it. If I’d realized that his office was just around the corner from where I stay in NYWC, then all of that might have been different…BUT THE FLX STORY CONTINUES and continues to surprise me!

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Finger Lakes Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Riesling & Co. at Hermann J. Wiemer & Co.

Sure, I came up from New York Wine City (NYWC) to the Finger Lakes (FLX) for the Rieslings – I’m at least as interested in those wines as when I first came up here almost exactly 10 years ago – and they have indeed continued to develop and improve. 2013 is a much better vintage for FLX Riesling than I had dared to imagine, particularly where the winemaker gave the wines plenty of time in the cellar, rather than hurrying them into the bottle. Nobody pushed that envelope further than Oskar Bynke (left) and Frederick Merwarth (right) of Hermann J. Wiemer on Seneca Lake (pictured in front of their new vineyard mind-map) where so far only the “regular” Dry and Semi-Dry Rieslings have been bottles and a couple of tanks are still fermenting. Some of their wines are still pretty embryonic, but my gut tells me that in their (very different – the ’13s are a little lighter in body, more acidic and less lush in aroma) way they will be every bit as the great 2012s. The big surprise of my visit so far was some of the other, i.e. non-Riesling, wines.

Clearly some somms and wine lovers still wonder what I’m talking about when I say that Riesling never demands an exclusivity in the vineyard. Everywhere Riesling gives exciting wines other grape varieties grow successfully next to it. In Lower Austria Grüner Veltliner and Riesling are partners, in the Great Southern of Western Australia Shiraz (Syrah) and Riesling flourish next t one another. OK, the Rheingau is very Riesling-heavy, but even there Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is an important grape and now gives some very impressive wines. The FLX winemakers have finally really got Riesling – the acreage went up by more then 50% during the 5 years! – in a big way. The question is now what the “partner” grape variety might be. Chardonnay is well established here, but produces many solid wines, some good ones, but rather exciting ones. For a long time a lot of Finger Lakes winemakers wanted their second string to be Pinot Noir, because that is also one of the “classic” cool climate grape varieties, and it is also a very cool grape in the other sense.  However, to date I have tasted just one completely convincing FLX Pinot Noir, the 2012 Reserve from Sheldrake Point on Cayuga Lake.  So, if it definitely isn’t Chardonnay, and doesn’t seem to be Pinot Noir what could it be?

My visit to Hermann J. Wiemer yesterday provided a completely different answer to that question. Their “regular” 2012 Cabernet Franc is already a delicious wine, at once generous (discrete dry tannins) and fresh (moderate acidity and bright black berry notes) with a beautiful violet aroma. It is already way better than a slew of Loire Cabernet Francs which NYWC somms worship for their “terroir” character (often actually just the green paprika aroma of pyazines and tart acidity). The 2012 ‘Magdalena Vineyard’ Cabernet Franc is a game-changing wine that proves the FLX can make great reds from this grape. I’m not talking about aromatic intensity or sheer concentration on the palate, rather breathtaking dry elegance (thanks to even finer dry tannins). Although the aromas of the wine are rather different and the balance different (most importantly less weight), it reminded me of the 2000 Château Cheval Blanc, perhaps the best young red wine I ever tasted from St. Emilion/Bordeaux. By the way, this is only the 6th crop from young vines and the prices seem friendly for red wines of this sophistication: $23 for the “regular” and (not yet fixed) about double that for the ‘Magdalena Vineyard’ bottling.

Sparkling wine ought to be a no-brainer for the FLX wine industry, but so far they have mostly just toyed with the style of wine which first made their reputation (then with native American grape varieties) back in the late 19th century. The above image shows Fred Frank of Dr. Konstantin Frank holding a bottle of the Château Frank ‘Célèbre’ Rosé, which is made from Pinot Meunier. This bottle has completed the second fermentation in the bottle and the deposit in it is the yeast from that second fermentation. This and the white Château Frank ‘Célèbre’, which is 100% Riesling, are great sparkling wines that are full of fresh fruit aromas and beautifully balanced. $20.99 is a very nice price for this quality. No wonder they’ve garnered a large pile of medals at wine competitions across America. However, for the American wine and gastronomic media they don’t count, because they’re not properly dry. Dr. Frank also produced dry sparkling wines in the Champagne mold from Chardonnay (the 2008 Blanc de Blancs is very elegant and still fresh) and Pinot Noir and I although they got more media attention I think they are still seriously underrated. Of course, setting up high-end sparkling wine production is an expensive business, because it takes several years before any product comes out. That is the simple reason that so few FLX producers have made a real commitment to it so far. However, based on the quality and success of these wines it is only a matter of time before sparkling wine becomes big in the FLX. The times they are a’ changing!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 13 – Wine of the Month July

2013 “Indica” Rosé from Lioco, $20.99 plus Tax at Skyview Wines

I guess that some of you are expecting wall-to-wall Riesling now that BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story is out, but as much as I love Riesling it would be a terrible mistake to think that there are no other delicious or remarkable wines out there. Exceptionally for my Wine of the Month, this time I present an image of the wine in the glass, because the color of the 2013 “Indica” Rosé is so striking and this photograph seemed to capture the way it shades from salmon pink into a warm copper tone. From that appearance, and given its origin in California, the first time I tasted it I expected a wine in the mold of Provencal Rosés, and it was quite a shock because I was totally wrong. Instead of being weighty (i.e. alcoholic) and supple it is sleek and light in body, effusively aromatic and enormously refreshing.

What makes this possible is the moderate alcoholic content of 12%, daringly vibrant acidity and mix of aromas ranging from lemon and lime to redcurrant and something vegetal that I’m not sure how to describe, but which certainly gives the wine a decisive kick. I would never have thought that a wine from the unfashionable Carignan grape grown in Mendocino County could taste like this, and I promise you that enthusiasm for it is not theoretical. I’ve already drank several bottles of this great rosé. Here is one of the new wines of California which are redefining how the wines of this state can taste, and simultaneously developing new definitions for “delicious” suitable for the early 21st century. Beyond that, when temperatures climb into the 90s this wine is a perfect answer to the summer heat…that is if you don’t feel an overwhelming thirst for Riesling.

2013 “Indica” Rosé is $20,99 plus tax at Skyview Wines in Riverdale/New York

Tel.: (01) 718 601 8222

Email: gary@skyviewwines.com

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 11 – Juliette Pope of Gramercy Tavern is the First Riesling Queen of New York!

When I first got interested in German wine and Riesling just over 30 years ago – at that point the two almost seemed synonymous to me, so horrible weak was my knowledge – the German Wine Queens used to make me cringe. These young women who’s job was to smile for the wines of their country, were so obviously a piece of pseudo-tradition that provided male and middle-aged regional politicians seeking reelection with photo opportunities, and also a crude marketing strategy to sell more mediocre wine with a bit of below the waterline sex appeal. It was often pretty gross and sexist too.

So when, beginning in the 1990s, a new generation of young women flipped this thing around and turned it into a method of advancing their careers, and put some real wine content into this hitherto hollow, stereotypic role I was seriously surprised. That development also got Paul Grieco all excited about the German Wine Queens as an ironic device for making Riesling look cool, and I have some video material that proves this actually worked. All that set my head spinning, and after throwing many ideas around during the last year I decided to create an award called the Riesling Queen/King of New York for a somm or someone else involved in wine professionally who has exceptionally advanced the cause of Riesling in a manner that is neither elitist or nerdish. The beginning of the Summer of Riesling seemed like the perfect moment to announce this, but there was just too much going on to give it the space it deserved, so here is the official announcement on the last day of New York Riesling Week. Juliette Pope, the Wine Director of Gramercy Tavern at 42 East 20th Street is the First Riesling Queen of New York!

How did it take me so long for me to wake up to what Juliette Pope has been doing with Riesling at Gramery Tavern? Well, her self-assured, but naturally modest nature has something to do with it, but also the status of this restaurant as an established classic, or even, in some peoples eyes, an establishment place. Gramercy Tavern has been around for two decades, Juliette have joined it in 1997 as a cook, then worked her way “up” (although it might not have felt like that at the beginning) to become Wine Director 10 years ago. The single page of the Gramercy Tavern wine list devoted to Riesling might seem too cautious to some fanatics, but what a page it is! I would be happy with any wine on it, the diversity of styles and places of origin being such that I could keep going back every day for a couple of weeks, order Riesling every time and still not get bored. It is a near-perfect introduction to the Big Wide World of Riesling that is my subject in BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story.

In common with the rest of the list, there are no status wines for the sake of having status wines, nor are there self-important looking verticals of cult wines. Juliette and the restaurant sometimes take some flack for those things, which, to my mind, is a sure sign that they are not establishment. “There is so much other more interesting stuff out there,” she told me when I asked her about that. She’s a self-confessed “bad salesperson”, which means she would much rather excite a customer with a bottle Riesling, or wine from another grape, at the lower end of the $50 – $100 core of the list than persuade them to go for something higher priced that could end up pleasing them less. Last, but not least, there’s nothing strident about her commitment to Riesling, no posturing or egotistical role playing. For her, it’s simply a special wine that deserves a special place and gets it for that reason. She’s an extremely knowledgable ambassador of Riesling who would simply like to introduce those customers open for it to this remarkable source of drinking pleasure, and to expand the pleasure and awareness of those who have already been introduced.  As it says on the award certificate:

It doesn’t get better than this!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 10 – Welcome to Sean O’Keefe’s American Riesling Time Machine!

When it’s not full of hipsters, and I didn’t see any of them there late Wednesday afternoon, then Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg/Brooklyn really looks a bit like a time machine. Of course, it only feels like a historic hotel saloon bar, and when those hipsters are there in force the coolness is no less artificial than the patina. I was there for the last of the series of special tastings held in conjunction with publication of my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story, which have been called Welcome to the American Riesling Time Machine. The host was Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse  close to Traverse City/MI, pictured above, who brought with him two boxes of Riesling from his family’s winery going back from the just bottled 2013 vintage to 1984.

In spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, white Americans keep telling me that America is not old and – they ring their hands as they do it – that it is chronically and appallingly lacking in tradition. Of course, they’re telling me that because I come from “Old Europe” the mythical home of all important traditions and the only Good Deep Roots on the planet, tantalizingly far away on the other side of the Diving Waters. Sometimes there’s a hint of desperation in their voices which makes me feel like somebody’s acutely ill, and I should call can ambulance or even attempt mouth to mouth resuscitation, although – should I feel embarrassed? – I don’t know how.

In the US when it comes to wine those 30 years seem like half an eternity and might easily be considered evidence of tradition in winemaking although this one part of the US that Americans associated least with winemaking (hell, it’s the home of automobile industry and “failing” Detroit)  and with a grape variety many older white Americans still stubbornly refuse to take seriously (a bald prejudice based upon the idea that it comes from the wrong part of Old Europe, i.e. Germany). So, this was not just an interesting wine tasting, rather we all entered Sean O’Keefe’s American Riesling Time Machine Sean to discover the truth about this Other Wine America which few somms or other wine professionals know much about.

By chance it happened to be the 16th anniversary of Sean joining Chateau Grand Traverse and becoming the second generation of his family to run the company (he does so with his brother Eddie), following his father Ed O’Keefe. Ed was nicknamed the Ayatollah of Riesling for planting this grape, then widely considered totally unsuitable to the Northern Michigan climate back in 1974/5, and he relished being considered a maverick. He still does, just like Sean. By the time we got started explaining all this background stuff to the audience just after 5pm Sean was dripping in sweat, because he’d lugged the wines over from his Manhattan hotel, arrived late due to the traffic, then rushed to get all the wines onto ice before the first guests arrived. “I feel like Meat Loaf on encores!” he quipped as he went on to tell his own story, of which the most important episode was spending a year the the famous Geisenheim wine school in the Rheingau/Germany, “the Hogwarth’s of Riesling.”    He returned to Traverse City in the summer of 1998, since when he has been developing a series of wines that flew and continue to fly in the face of the dominant wine fashions. Our tasting focussed on the most important of these, the medium-dry, medium-bodied ‘Whole Cluster’ Riesling of which we tasted the 2013, ’12, ’11, ’10, ’09, ’08, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’04, ’02, ’01 and the first vintage ’98. Parallel to this we also sampled the more powerful and usually slightly drier ‘Lot 49′ Riesling from ’13, ’12, ’11, ’10, ’09 and the first vintage ’08.

There was nothing approaching the holy preciousness – don’t breathe or you might smash something metaphysical! – of the atmosphere in which many professional tastings take place, not least because much of the audience was mad up of young women somms, who “don’t do that stuff”, as they might put it. Nobody hesitated to say that the 2001 ‘Whole Cluster’ was oxidized, or to enthuse about the youthful vitality of the racy and herbal-mineral 1998. Everyone stayed to the end too, perhaps because the wines were so very different from anything else on Planet Riesling that they were familiar with. “Fennel and licorice,” are the words Sean uses to describe the distinctive style of the wines from what he and other Northern Michigan winemakers refer to as the OMP (Old Mission Peninsula). This strip of glacial deposits is almost the same size as Manhattan and extends into Grand Traverse Bay, which is part of Lake Michigan. That might sound like the Middle of Mid West Nowhere, but luxury homes compete with vineyards for every piece of lakeside or close to lakeside real estate.

A lot of the vineyards which went in recently were planted with Riesling, and as you can read in my book, the area planted with that grape in Michigan consequently soared 180% during the decade 2001 – 2011. Sean’s ‘Whole Cluster’ Rieslings success was one of the reasons for this boom. New York Wine City (NYWC) is just beginning to wake up to the existence of these wines, and clearly given their absence at the tasting in Hotel Delmano some of the city’s older somms would prefer to pretend that these wines don’t exist. The current vintages of the ‘Whole Cluster’ make that attitude look very narrow-minded, even look like the opposite of the openness which those older somms theoretically stand for. Sure, the 2013 still has some tropical fruit aromas and an up-front juiciness which are the equivalent of puppy fat in Riesling, but it is also racy with that salty-mineral quality so sought after by NYWC somms. The latter qualities are much more pronounced in the 2012 vintage, which ought to age like the 1998.

Of course, we were all hanging on the edge of our seats for those wines from the 1980s, which were made by Roland Pfleger of the Pfalz/Germany, who was Chateau Grand Traverse’s first winemaker. Although a tad sweeter than Sean’s ‘Whole Cluster’ wines the 1985 ‘Semi-Dry’ Riesling bore a certain resemblance to them and was still very much alive, if a little rustic. By the time we reached that wine nobody present expressed any more doubt that Northern Michigan can producer drier style Riesling wines that are of a quality and distinctiveness which merits their being taken seriously by NYWC. We all thanked not only Sean, but also Alex Alan who writes the (excellent) wine list of Hotel Delmano that we could use their back bar for our own dangerous purposes. At least, I’d say that the demolishing of myths is a dangerous purpose, whether it takes place in a hipster bar in Williamsburg or on the pages of a book like BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 7 – Heaven & Hell at Momofuku Ssäm in Manhattan

There were several moments yesterday evening at Momofuku Ssäm, 207 Second Avenue in Manhattan, when I felt that like the best solution would be just to run for the exit. “Let me out! Let me out!! Let me out!!!” The problem was the way the “service” kept creating problems, were barely capable of grasping what those problems were even when this was pointed out to them, then hesitatingly and reluctantly tried to solve them, often botching this.  They weren’t actively trying to insult us, but they still came damned close to doing so. David Chang, what went wrong? Your restaurant may not square with the traditional concept of fine dining, and that’s one of the things I like about it, but it is a high profile place with prices to match. Then there’s no excuse for staff behavior so crass that it makes it difficult to focus on the food.

Obviously the joint is jumping, both because the food is so (mostly Asian) creative and so delicious. Let me briefly describe a few of the dishes we had last night. Pictured right are the sardines on toast, which sounds as simple as it looks, but the flavors, textures and freshness of this dish are spectacular. Optically more in tune with the world of “fancy” restaurants was the smoked liver mousse with currants, maitake mushrooms and red mustard, left, and I was glad we also ordered the bread and butter in order to have some baguette type white bread to spread that smoked liver mousse on. That was so delicious. Not pictured are the incredibly refreshing fluke with cucumber, lily bulb and amaranth or the simultaneously cool and spicy Uni with tofu, trout roe and wasabi peas, both of which were really memorable. Even the flat iron steak with ramps pesto (non-Asian and non-fancy) was spot on. Why then let hellish service take away the heavenly impression left by dishes like these? I really don’t get it! It was never like this during my previous visits to this restaurant, quite the opposite. Each time the service was at once relaxed, competent and attentive, adding to the pleasure of the experience.

The NYWC person who invited me to Momofuku Ssäm last night thought they knew what the problem is and expressed themselves rather more abruptly than I did. Of the service personnel they said, “they all think they’re so fucking special, because they work for David Chang and they know that he’s something fucking special.” If that’s what it is, and I fear that is exactly what it is, then it could very quickly lead to what my NYWC friend calls the, “asshole problem”, as in, “the problem if you employ assholes, is that people think you’re an asshole! That’s why at my place we have a zero asshole quota; zero asshole tolerance.” Having once employed an asshole on one of my projects in Berlin, only realizing my mistake when it was way too late, then having had to pay a hefty price to disassociate that person from my project I think I know what my NYWC friend was talking about.  That project was my one cast-iron business failure! David Chang, don’t let this situation do anything like that to your business. You’ve provided me with too many moments of gastronomic inspiration for that!

PS I am not a restaurant critic, nor do I ever want to have one of those jobs!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 6 – To Tesch or Not to Tesch, that WAS the Question

The picture shows the scene around 4pm this afternoon in an upstairs room at Le Bernardin Restaurant on West 51st Street in Manhattan as guests at the tasting of dry Rieslings from the Tesch winery in the Nahe region of Germany studied at the 3D map of Dr. Martin Tesch’s vineyard holdings. Shortly afterwards, as they tasted the first of the wines, the bone dry 2012 Riesling ‘Unplugged’ (all of the Tesch wines are seriously dry) their faces would have made an even better picture: some delighted, some incredulous, others slightly shocked. The wine was as bright and sharp as a samurai sword and cut the air in the room polarizing opinion. However, I’d put my camera down to concentrate upon the wines and figure out what I could say next, so I stupidly missed that moment. It wasn’t a surprise for me though, because since at least 12 years when the first dry Riesling ‘Unplugged’ was released Dr. Martin Tesch has been delighting, overwhelming and shocking somms and normal wine drinkers alike. Everybody who tastes them, whether they end up drinking Tesch wines or avoiding them like the plague, mentions their pronounced acidity of his wines and their bone-dry balance. Their “finely-etched” were much less often discussed, not least because some people don’t get that side of them at all. None of this surprises Tesch any longer, because it’s been like that for so many years and this knowledge has shaped his character.  If all that suddenly changed, then he’d be the one who was shocked!

All this only hints at the man’s outsized personality, which is as big and taut as Tesch is tall and lean. It strike’s me that this image captures the energy of the Dr.’s delivery and the expansive, yet precise nature of the thoughts he expounded. Can you in the picture that although he doesn’t reject tradition – let’s face it wine is a product often over-loaded with tradition! – he considers it his right to pick and choose what traditions he’s going to reinvent? Maybe not, but he’s used to freely thinking his way through the maze that is wine growing, winemaking and the marketing of wine. Probably, the impression he made on most of the guests was doubled, because so few of them had met him or hear him speak and it was not what they were expecting. The Le Bernardin tasting was actually the second we did together today and it was striking that several people attended the afternoon event as well as the one at late breakfast time this morning. In No-Show New York that’s something so astonishing that it borders on the bizarre!

As both tastings proceeded it was striking how each time the mood in the room changed, and how much of the initial shock and skepticism melted away. People clearly got used to tasting Rieslings that speak a different dialect to most German wines and a completely different tongue to any of the wines France, Italy, California and the other usual suspects for the New York wine scene. By the time the 2012 and 2011 vintages of Tesch’s dry Rieslings from the St. Remigiusberg – all those citrus aromas and something exotic like the bright colored tiles of a mosaic, the wines’ acidity illuminating them like a shaft of sunlight – were poured most of those present were silently preoccupied with the wines, and the question was no longer whether to Tesch or not to Tesch, but how to Tesch and when to Tesch

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 5 – The GG Personalities of Idig & Morstein

This afternoon the tasting of single-vineyard Rieslings of the new ‘GG’ category at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg/Brooklyn was one of most fascinating tastings I’ve attended in a long time, period. Steffen Christmann of the Christmann estate in Gimmeldingen/Pfalz, and president of the national VDP producers association that created this category just over a decade ago, explained in fascinating detail how his Riesling ‘GG’ from the Idig vineyard came to be what it is today, beginning with the history of this site that goes back to 1367. However, it only became important for the Christmann estate in 1988, when Steffen was able to lease (later purchase) a large chunk of it from the then much larger and better-known von Buhl property in nearby Deidesheim. With its combination of a south-facing slope, serious exposure to wind and heavy, slow-warming limestone-clay soil it is a real exception in an area dominated by gentle easterly slopes and sandy soils (generally derived from red sandstone).

The 2011, ’09 and ’07 vintage Idig ‘GG’s which he showed were rather rich and texturally complex dry Rieslings, but with an underplayed power, intense herbal aromas and serious freshness. That is also a long way from the ripe, fruity norm of the region, but this difference is not the result of any kind of “freaky” winemaking techniques that pretend to turn the clock back to a time when wine was supposedly more “natural” than it is now. For him taking a minimalistic approach in the cellar is just the best way to preserve the quality and character of his wines. Likewise, Steffen’s vineyard cultivation is biodynamic, but this is no dogma in his case, rather a pragmatic decision to take the path which he believes leads to the best possible grape quality. The only agenda is the openly declared one of making wines in which  sophistication and originality are balanced. Too much sophistication might result in an affected or overly cerebral wine; too much originality might taste brutally authentic.

When Philipp Wittmann of the Wittmann estate in Westhofen/Rheinhessen – the region historically most closely associated with Liebfraumilch, but today “the Dream Factory of dry German white wine” (my quite frequently quoted words) – spoke about his ‘GG’ wines from the Morstein site of Westhofen he emphasized the word personality. I think you can see from the photograph that he used that word very precisely, and that what he meant is that a special vineyard site should give a wine of a special character that cannot easily be confused with that of other wines, “what makes  a vineyard a Grand Cru is that you get this personality every year.” In the case of the Morstein this has to do with the limestone bedrock that is covered by a layer of clay-loam that looks heavy, but is often only a thin covering over the bedrock. This is a high-altitude site (up to almost 800 feet above sea level) and the grapes typically ripen five days later than in the Idig, just 20 miles south.

After the 2007 vintage Philipp moved the style of his Rieslings from dry to bone dry and the mineral – almost reminiscent of brine – flavor in the ’12 and ’11 vintages is much clearer as a result. They also have plenty of ripe yellow fruit aromas and the tension between them and the mineral character, no less than between richness and freshness makes them amongst the best Riesling ‘GG’ wines produced today. Both vintages are still very young and the more air these wines get (without becoming too warm) the better they show. Of course, like Christmann’s Idig the Wittmann Morstein isn’t cheap, but compared with the bubble-prices for Premier Cru and Grand Cru white burgundy they look rather friendly. And in quality terms that’s certainly a fair comparison, because ‘GG’ is conceived of by the VDP as the dry “Grand Cru” of Germany, Spätlese and Auslese from the top sites being the equivalent for sweeter wines.

What we had today was two “case studies” that were both fascinating and, for anyone looking for sophistication and originality, delicious. For information on the other dry Riesling ‘GG’ wines that belong in the same league turn to BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. Thank you Alex Alan for making this great seminar tasting possible!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 5 Meet the Riesling A Team

Here they are at Terroir Murray Hill at the end of yesterday’s launch of BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH (aka #BWWOE), the Riesling A Team. As you can see, there were some surprise additions to the advertised line up, from left to right Steffen Christmann from the Christmann estate in the Pfalz, Fred Merwarth from Hermann J. Wiemer in the FLX of Upstate New York, Bob Betheau of Chateau Ste. Michelle & Eroica in Washington State, Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen in the Mosel and Eroica in Washington State, (that’s me behind him, of course, but I’m no winemaker), Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse on the OMP in Michigan, Philipp Wittmann of the Wittmann estate in Rheinhessen, Dr. Carl von Schubert of Maximin Grünhaus in the Ruwer (a tiny sub-region of the Mosel), Jochen Becker-Köhn of Robert Weil in the Rheingau, behind him Chris Williams and on the far right Janie Heuck Brooks both of Brooks in Oregon. Unfortunately, Oliver Haag of the Fritz Haag estate on the Mosel had to dash to JFK for a flight and couldn’t be in the picture. Obviously, some of them are a little distracted by the FIFA World Cup football match between Ghana and Germany that was screened during our event. Although the tasting was no competition, I would say that Germany showed better yesterday at our tasting than on the soccer field, and the USA team will have to be on top form to match the performance of their leading Riesling producers yesterday afternoon.

There are still a couple of places left at this afternoon’s dry Riesling ‘GG’ (the new category of hi-end single-vineyard wines) seminar. It takes place at Hotel Delmano, 82 Berry Street in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn (just a couple of blocks from the Bedford Avenue station on the L subway line). Anyone seriously interested should turn up there at 2pm and announce their intention of coming by sending an email to alexthealan@gmail.com beforehand. See you there!

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 4 – JOIN US NOW on Planet Riesling at Terroir Murray Hill!

New York is the place, now is the time!

“It isn’t cold and there’s no creek!” Bob Bertheau just told me about the Cold Creek Vineyard from where one of his best 2013 vintage Rieslings came. The chief winemaker of Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington State, the world’s largest Riesling producer, was doing some straight talking about the delicious mystery of the wines from my favorite grape variety. The truth is – I speak from personal experience – they seduce you, suck you in, and before you know it there’s no going back, not that you’d ever think about such a ridiculous thing. Just look at Bob’s face, it says everything about what Riesling can do for you. If it can do that for him it can the same for you – I speak from personal experience. Forget all those alternative therapies, those expensive vitamin and nutrient supplements and the promises of politicians of all varieties! JOIN US NOW on Planet Riesling at Terroir Murray Hill (439 Third Avenue between 31st and 30th Streets) in New York!

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