Australian Riesling Diary: Day1 – The Wild West of Riesling Oz (with Irony)

Andrew Hoadley of La Violetta Wines in Denmark/Western Australia (WA), pictured above, is a winemaker with a sense of irony that’s married to a great feeling for harmony, a combination that I haven’t come across in this form since I first met Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz/California for the first time more than 20 years ago.  He’s holding a bottle of his 2014 “Das Sakrileg”, the sacrilege, a barrel-fermented Riesling in which the oak tannins are beautifully interwoven with the fruit tannins and the oak aromas do nothing to interrupt the flow of fruit aromas. That’s like squaring the circle and I can’t begin to explain to you how he did it, which is the best thing of all, the feeling that something miraculous happened that made this unexpected beauty not only possible, but seem inevitable.

I had this – and several other epiphanies – at Jeremy Purs’ Lalla Rookh in Perth, surely one of the best wine bars in Australia (and the beers are great too!) during yesterday afternoon’s “Riesling Market” there. I would have posted this story earlier, but I was torn this way and that by the fun I was having and the jetlag plus I was suffering from.  I add “plus” to the jetlag, because I always get a special form of disorientation when I arrive in Australia. Mentally I was chewing on that all day and evening, but now in the car en route to Frankland Estate I’ve finally got the time to hammer this out onto electronic paper.

The next Big Surprise at the Riesling Market were the wines from Paul Hogan of Xabregas in the Porongurup Hills of WA. It started with the regular Xabregas Riesling which is dry, but has a whisker of natural sweetness that teases some charm out of the normally austere and smoky character typical for the Rieslings from these ancient granitic hills. Then there were Paul’s mind-bending Rieslings under the “Mad Men of Riesling” label. One of these is an NV, filled in a Champagne bottle with a crown cork, is a full-on orange wine with a dried orange peel character and dense dry tannins. I found the 2014 which did two weeks of skin contact more interesting, because the tannins were less dominant and more complex.

These wines are only “mad” in the sense of being eccentric within the Australian context that was once more narrow and rigid than it is today. “Even 10 years ago I’d have been laughed at for doing this, but today it’s not a problem and there are some people out there looking for different wines,” he told me. Paul Hogan is one of WA’s great innovators and in few years some of the styles he has pioneered will have become established wine categories. The Gonzo Wine Show in Canberra is already offering Gold medals in several of them, and the mainstream shows usually lag just a couple of years behind the Gonzo.

Stylistic innovation was also apparent in some of the dry Rieslings at the “Great Southern 2014 Snapshot” tasting organized by the Great Southern Winegrowers Association immediately before Riesling Market. To my mind the standout wines were those with extended lees contact, which had filled out the mid-palate, rounded the finish and also added something to the nose, most notably the 2014 from West Cape Howe in Mount Barker (when did I last encounter an Oz Riesling with a yellow peach aroma and this kind of salty minerality?) and the 2014 from Snake & Herring’s “High & Dry” (when did I ever encounter an Oz Riesling that smelt of dried seaweed and this kind of positive tannic power?) Congratulations are due to Tony Davis for the latter. The craziest thing about this wine is that the biggest customer for it is the conservative Marks & Spencer chain in the UK!

 

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Singapore Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 4) – In Memory of Philip Eyres

“Those who deny history are condemned to repeat it,” George Santanaya

This is the fourth and final installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship evening on Thursday, January 29th at Vintners Hall in the City of London. My apologies that a mere 15 minutes had to be broken up into four chunks, but I was anxious not to overwhelm readers with too much uncomfortable truth in one go. I think this is much more difficult to take when read on the computer screen than when spoken. Some will say that by publicizing this I have done myself a disservice, but I owe a debt to wine merchant Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) to continue pursuing what we discussed and corresponded about at the end of his life. It was he who helped me onto the Riesling trail that I’ve followed for more than 30 years.

I have to start by reading you a short section of Philip Eyres’ letter to me of 16th January 2012, written just a few months before his death: “On the subject of bombing during the last war, I always felt moral repulsion of the way that civilians in Japan and Germany were targeted and the fact that this was largely concealed from public knowledge… While “Bomber” Harris is generally assumed to be the architect of the attempt to win the war by killing civilians, Churchill must take the blame.”

This is an unpopular view even 50 years after the death of Winston Churchill. He is now the central figure in the mythical WWII in British minds and hearts, at once super-human and super-British, his weaknesses (for example, his white suprematism is well documented) barely discussed, and then only superficially. The reason for this is the key part that this mythical WWII plays in the larger myth of British identity to which popular British history is now largely subservient. That’s another subject though, that this blog posting can only touch upon. Let me give you a few quotes from Winston Churchill from 1940-41 that show how early he had set his mind upon the so-called “Area Bombing” (i.e. carpet bombing of residential urban areas) campaign against German civilian targets that began in 1942 and reach its climax during the spring of 1945.

“We will make Germany a desert, yes a desert!”

On the subject of Adolf Hitler: “But there is one thing that will bring him back, and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”

“There are less than 70 million malignant Huns, some of who are curable and others are killable.”

It is perhaps important to point out that it was clear to all the senior figures in the British government and the Royal Air Force that the policy of bombing German civilians targets during WWII was in contravention of international law, specifically the 1907 Hague convention to which Britain was a signatory. It explicitly bans all attacks from the air on civilian population centers far from front lines. Of course, there is the argument that the Nazi atrocities, particularly the obscenity of the Holocaust, were so terrible that anything was acceptable in the struggle against them. I obviously don’t agree with that, for the simple reason, because it is based on the idea that a great wrong on one side justifies a smaller one on the other side; that an orgy of killing demands more killing as recompense, or as naked revenge.

Philip Eyres was very struck by the following quote from the physicist Freeman Dyson (born 1923). In it he describes his work in the office of Air Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris during the last years of WWII: “I sat in my office until the end, carefully calculating how to murder most economically another 100,000 people.” Dyson then turns to the organizers of the Holocaust and observes, “They sat in their offices, writing memoranda and calculating how to murder people efficiently, just like me. The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals, while I went free.”

Today, the assumption is often made that WWII was actively fought against the organizers of the Holocaust, and it is true that when the Allies found out about the extermination of the Jews the British and American governments made important statements in parliament and congress condemning this. That was in December 1942, but as far as I can see no significant actions followed those fine words, in fact, there wasn’t even an attempt to think through what would have been necessary in military terms to stop the Holocaust. Instead, the Allies leadership stood by while the Jews were exterminated by a rag-bag coalition of German Nazis and like-minded monsters belonging to many of the nations Germany had occupied.

What was the attitude of the British government to the fate of the Jews? In early 1943 the Bulgarian government requested that Britain allow part of its Jewish population to be transported to Palestine. Britain refused and those Jews were transported to Poland from where very few of them returned after the war. Shortly after this the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wrote in a memorandum, “There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.” I see no evidence that Churchill was of a different opinion to Anthony Eden at this time. For “extrusion”  read deportation, and for “alien immigrants” read Jews.

My training as a cultural historian (Royal College of Art, 1984-86) taught me that the most fundamental question concerning history is what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Systematic forgetting is denial, and it is possible to live a long time in denial. Keeping the majority of the population in ignorance of the truth is a very effective method of preventing them breaking an established cycle of denial. Philip Eyres and I came to the conclusion that the British establishment has been very good at denying important chunks of its history, of which the bombing of Germany civilians during WWII is a prominent example. The problem is that, as the Spanish philosopher George Santanaya (1863 – 1952) famously wrote, “those who deny history are condemned to repeat it.

I’m pretty sure that today RAF Tornados took off from air bases in Cyprus to bomb targets in Iraq. It is a little-known fact that the first RAF raids against targets in Iraq were in 1922 as part of a policy called “air policing”. The attack on Samawah in Iraq of November 30th/December 1st 1923 left the town in ruins with an unknown death toll. This happened 14 years before the destruction of Guernica by the German Lufwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. The architect of the “air policing” policy was Winston Churchill during his short period as Colonial Secretary 1921-22. A certain Arthur Harris was one of the RAF squadron leaders in Iraq.

It was Philip Eyres and German Riesling that lead me to these painful conclusions. And I told their story under the swan, the lion and the unicorn.

POSTSCRIPT

How did I succeed in upsetting some of my countrymen with the above words?

In ‚A Room of One’s Own’ Virginia Woolf (1928) talks about how male self-confidence and self-assurance are generated through “looking-glass” games involving women who accept looking smaller than the men they “reflect” in order that the latter can feel bigger, that is more important. Of course, the smallness of women’s in such games is no less illusory than the magnification of the men whom they serve.

Racism and nationalism do much the same. By thinking down and talking down the natives of a distant land or the inhabitants of a nearby country the members of the dominant group build themselves up in their own minds. And there’s no reason why such games can’t be played retrospectively.

I think that the myth of Britain’s absolute moral victory over Germany in WWII that many of my countrymen frequently replay in their minds is just such a retrospective game. Like the sexist looking-glass games it too depends upon  selective cognition, in this case the quiet ignorance or the forceful denial of much historical fact.

 

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 3) – In Memory of Philip Eyres

This is the third installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship evening on Thursday, January 29th at Vintners Hall in the City of London. I was also invited to speak for 15 minutes while a wine I had selected was served. The wine was the 2012 Kupfergrube GG, one of the most racy and exciting dry Rieslings of that vintage in Germany. Please scroll and read the first two installments of this story before moving onto this one if you aren’t already familiar with them. My discussions and correspondence with wine merchant Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) during the last years of his life left me with an intense feeling of obligation to tell this story as straight as I could. I have added a few lines where it strikes me that I skimmed over an important point due to the time limit that evening. My talk was very controversial, and these blog postings will be too, but all of the following is true and for me as a trained historian that is an argument which it is hard to reject.

The photograph above shows the new exhibit about the RAF “Area Bombing” campaign of 1942-45 in the Imperial War Museum, which uses the example of the raids on Hamburg. The stick-like objects top right are 4 lb incendiary bombs (manufactured by ICI), the main weapon used to make the city burn like no city had ever burnt before; it was the first man-made firestorm. Seeing the ruins left by this raid while he was an officer of the Scotts Guards in the army of occupation in 1946 inspired Philip Eyres’ commitment to the Rieslings of Germany as much as his love of those wines.

When, in 2005, I realized why Philip Eyers had taken so much trouble to help me connect with the leading Riesling producers of the Mosel, Nahe and Pfalz I felt there was lost time to make up, so I got back in touch with him. I found that he was still working as an independent wine merchant, although he was 80 years old! We began tandem research into the air war against Germany, each adopting a different approach, but regularly exchanging our discoveries. Philip Eyres focused very directly upon the events of 1942-45 and on their perception in Britain today, while I explored both the backstory to those events, and what the consequences of not facing up to them after the end of WWII were for Britain and the rest of the world. Both of us experienced intellectual excitement when we were able to follow how one historical development lead to another, combined with horror at what had been considered acceptable by a country that perceives itself as fair and humane. There was no element of “Britain bashing” about this alternative history of our own country we pieced together, but we both felt intense regret for the mass slaughter of civilians during WWII regardless of nationality, race or religion.

What did we discover? Firstly, that Pit Falkenstein was far from being the only German civilian refugee that had been deliberately strafed by British fighter pilots. For German refugees in the last months of the war that was a common experience. Tiefflieger was their word for those Allied fighter planes that were flying low for only one reason. Certainly German pilots also strafed civilians during WWII, but I suggest that being second or third doesn’t justify any act of savagery.

When it came to Hamburg the facts were very clear. On the night of 27th/28th July 1943 a massive force of 787 British bombers, mostly Lancasters, dropped an enormous quantity of bombs, most of which were 4 Lb incendiaries, upon Hamburg. The weather was hot and had been so for a while, so everything was tinder-dry. This raid was codenamed Operation Gomorrah, which says almost everything. Let me quote the official Bomber Command Diary, which is part of the British National Archives: “The concentrated bombing caused a large number of fires in the densely-built up working-class districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm and Borgfelde…The firestorm raged for 3 hours. The burnt out area was almost entirely residential. There were few survivors from the firestorm area…40,000 people died.”

What these lines also don’t tell you is that the firestorm generated winds of up to 170mph that sucked people into it where they spontaneously combusted. Although some sources give other figures for the death toll (not all of which are lower), none gives a more precise figure, and that inexactitude is telling. You can count the bodies of asphyxiated victims, but how do you count people when all is left of them are incinerated body parts, or small heaps of ash? For comparison, 40,000 is the number of British civilians who died during the entire Blitz, a period of 267 days.

Philip Eyres and I found that this scale of death and destruction was not collateral damage, much less a mistake or an accident. The bombs had hit their target and this was the intended result. Internally, RAF Bomber Command celebrated Operation Gamorrah as their great successes to date. Soon it was no longer an exception, rather just one in a series of massive raids that targeted the urban civilian population of Germany, their homes and much of the cultural fabric of their country. “Dresden” is the name most British people give to their misgivings (if any) about what their military did in WWII. The Dresden raid became infamous because the American newspapers reported it, unlike many others before it (e.g. Hamburg) or after it (e.g. Pforzheim). There is no exact figure for the number of victims of the RAF “Area Bombing” campaign against Germany. 600,000 is the best estimate that Philip Eyres and I could find. Of course, this far less than the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust – mostly in a sickeningly industrial manner – or the roughly 5 million Slavs killed in a less organized, but no less brutal manner during the same years. However, it’s still an awful lot of dead civilians to sweep under the carpet. The past cannot be changed, but Philip and I believed that it is far better to be honest about it than to live in denial.

In Riesling there is peace and that’s one reason I’m glad to have Riesling in my glass!

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

    

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 2) – In memory of Philip Eyres

This is the second installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship evening in the Vintners Hall in London on January 29th. To fully grasp the context of the below it would help to scroll down and read my previous posting (Part 1) before this one. Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) was not only a great wine merchant, he was also a man with a strong sense of justice and great compassion. I spoke about these things on that evening, both because I had promised him that I wouldn’t let this subject drop and the Vintners Hall is the home of the Establishment of the British wine trade.

Then something Philip Eyres did 10 years ago changed everything. Harry Eyres describes this so well in his Slow Lane column in the (London) Financial Times of March 12th/13th 2005 (pictured above) that I will read the first half of his column (I pick up newspaper clipping and begin to read).

“HUMANITY’S VEIL OF DARKNESS

On the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden last month my father quietly brought out a black and white photograph. It showed a long street reduced to rubble, with no building standing higher than the first story, and most completely flattened. As he made no comment, my sister remarked that it looked like Hiroshima. No, it wasn’t Hiroshima, my father informed us, it was Hamburg in 1946. He had taken the photograph while serving in the Allied army of occupation. The RAF bombing raids on Hamburg in July 1943 practically demolished Germany’s second-largest city. More than 40,000 people died (probably more than were killed in Dresden) during the three nights in July 1943 when the firestorms reached 1,000 degrees centigrade. Three years later the city was still a wasteland.

Seeing the almost unimaginable destruction wrought on Hamburg as a young man of 20 had a profound effect upon my father. He is no supporter (unlike many British people of his generation I have spoken to) of Air Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. He does not agree with the sentiment expressed by the present British ambassador to Germany that in the context of the war the raids on German cities were justified. Nothing, for him and for Slaughterhouse Five author Kurt Vonnegut, can “justify” dropping incendiary bombs on people and turning them to sticks of carbon, a view I share.

One good thing that came out of my father’s posting in Germany at the end of the war was an enduring love of German wines. Later, as a wine merchant, my father made a specialty of the beautiful, delicate Riesling wines of the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, and Nahe rivers. For a number of years I used to go out with him, in the cool Rhineland-Palatinate spring, to taste the young wines at estates such as Maximin Grünhaus on the Ruwer, the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier (Karl Marx’s old school, which has a priceless dowry of vineyards) and the State Wine Domain at Niedershausen on the Nahe. I share his affection for these green-glinting wines, for the valleys with their gravity-defying vineyards and for the German wine growers and makes who approach their craft with the unselfish devotion of orchestral musicians. But I also realized that for my father were not simply about wine. They were a kind of reparation, a way of restoring Anglo-German amity through a cultural exchange based on the shared pleasure of wine. “ 

Suddenly, I realized that for 20 years I had unknowingly been involved in Philip Eyres personal campaign of reconciliation, and his work of reparation. I was immediately reminded of a conversation with a German wine journalist colleague, Pit Falkenstein, back in the summer of 1998. I had already known Pit for some years, but knew little about his life. On a walk through the vineyards of Assmannshausen in the Rheingau he told me his life story. (I put down newspaper clipping and pick up an email). Pit was born in Berlin in 1935. After the family home bas bombed out during the war they moved to a safe place, the Salzkammergut area of the Austrian Alps. Pit was sent to Stift Admont, a monastic boarding school. At Easter 1945 the food ran out and the monks sent the younger children home.

“There were many groups of four or five boys. A 13 year old lead our group…The trains were not running any more. I therefore marched the 60 kilometers to the Salzkammergut with my group in two and a half days. The two sandwiches each we were given at Admont were quickly eaten, because we were hungry. We slept in barns on hay and friendly farmers gave us plenty to eat. On the second day as we had almost made it to Tauplitz we were surprised in open fields by Spitfires. We were making our way up a hillside meadow between large rocks. We tried to reach the nearest piece of woodland, but didn’t make it. The British pilots shot mercilessly at us with their machineguns. We lay flat on the ground and were very lucky. Almost nothing happened to us. One friend of mine was grazed by a bullet on his right shoulder. The heel of my right shoe was blown off. Only some minutes later did I realize that my left hand was bleeding. A tiny piece of shrapnel from a bullet that had hit one of the rocks next to me and flown into my middle finger. To this day I carry this “trophy” around with me.

Stuart, why did those pilots do that?“

I was very shocked by the story, but I also felt terribly confused. What did it have to do with me? I was born in 1960 and my parents were children during the Second World War. Only much later did I realize that my maternal grandfather had been an electrician in the RAF and worked on fighter planes. Quite possibly he had serviced the planes that shot at Pit Falkenstein and his school chums.

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 0 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 1) – In memory of Philip Eyres

Here is the first installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship yesterday (Thursday, January 29th) evening at Vintners Hall in the City of London. Along with Hew Blair and Sebastian Thomas I was made a Riesling Fellow by Wines of Germany, which is kind of them, but not necessary as I don’t do this thing for prizes. More importantly, I was also invited to give a 15 minute talk while a wine I’d selected was served. I followed Jancis Robinson, David Motion and Hugh Johnson, and what I said caused quite a stink, but that didn’t surprise me. What I said was all true though, and I believe it’s far more important to speak an uncomfortable truth that has been swept under the carpet, than to be polite in return for polite applause. These are my opening remarks and they might seem uncontroversial, but were the foundation for all that followed. I think it’s worth noting that three symbols were to be seen all over Vintners Hall. The white swan, which an anthropologist would call the totem of the vintners tribe, was almost as ubiquitous as the lion and the unicorn. The latter are of course part of the coat of arms of the House of Windsor (the British royal family), and are vital symbols of the British Establishment. To this episode, like those that follow, I’ve added a few extra words to those I actually said, because I forgot one or two important details.

This evening each of us is telling reminiscences, but mine will be very different from the others. I have to show you my new book (I held up my book),  even though I’m not going to read anything from it, because in it the labels of the first wines – including Riesling – I ever drank with pleasure are reproduced.

Call from the audience: “is it in English?”

Yes, it is in English, and I think you should all be able to read the cover. The title, BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story, and it’s in English, in American English.

In the book I also tell how I came to drink those wines. (I put down my book). It was April 1975, I was 15 years old and on a language exchange to Germany. I didn’t get on with my exchange partner at all, but that didn’t matter because I got on so well with his family. They lived in a bungalow in a suburb of Ludwigshafen and when I arrived they showed me around. Last stop was the kitchen where the father of the family swung open the refrigerator revealing rows of beer and wine bottles. Then, he said a magical word, “Selbstbedienung”, or self-service. I did so frequently during my stay, enjoyed what I drank and was rarely more than slightly hung-over.

The wine that’s just being poured for you is the 2012 Kupfergrube dry Riesling GG from Gut Hermannsberg, to which I’ll come in a moment. It might seem a banal thing to say, but wine connects us. Most obviously, this wine now connects us all, because we are tasting and drinking it together. Of course, this is the same kind of connection as between a group of people at a dinner table or in a bar who share a bottle. However, beyond that banal level the wine in the glass connects us with the place where it grew and the people who made it.

In this case, it not also connects us with Dr. Christine Dinse and Jens Reidel who purchased the ex-Nahe State Domaine in 2009, and with Karsten Peter, the young winemaker from the Pfalz they hired. Of course, he has a team under him and it also links us to them, to the Nahe wine region and to Germany as a whole (both can be found on the label). Beyond that it connects us with the convict laborers who in 1902 started clearing the scrub  around a disused copper mine to build the terraces of this now famous vineyard site and plant it as part of the Prussian Wine Domaine of Niederhausen-Schlossböckelheim, and with those responsible for the first ever vintage of dry Kupfergrube Riesling in 1912. When we choose to drink a wine, then we choose to make those connections, although few people take the trouble to follow the connections in the kind of detail I just have. Of course, you can also choose not to drink and not to make that connection, for example, with Germany.

My direct personal connection with this wine goes back to a sunny day in May 1984 when I first visited the then Nahe State Domaine for the first time with British wine merchant Philip Eyres (pictured above, right). He had invited me to join him, his wife Jennifer and his son Harry (pictured above, left) for a week on one of his regular wine buying trips to the Mosel, Nahe and Pfalz. During that trip it was this tasting which made the greatest impression, and it was the drier and sweet Rieslings from the Kupfergrube vineyard site that etched themselves into my memory.

If there was a moment that I started on my present course, then that was it. Over the last days I was in the Mosel, Nahe and Rheinhessen visiting wine producers and tasting their wines, much as I did during that week. For more than 20 years I kept on that course in a thoughtless way. By this I certainly don’t mean that I didn’t think while I was tasting German wines and talking to the winemakers responsible for them, rather that I didn’t think about why I was doing it. During this time I think it’s fair to say that the success of my articles and books – I mean of each individual work – ranged from negligible to modest. However, there was a cumulative success of sorts, without which I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today. Surely, it masks sense to look back with a critical frame of mind, rather than to idealize the past and in that way to misrepresent it?

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

 

 

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Mosel & Rhine Diary: Day 2 – Let #Riesling & Music do for You What They do for Me

New York somm Peter Weltman was still under age – shock, horror! – when he drank his first Riesling back in 2004. It was a Spätlese from J. J. Prüm in Wehlen/Mosel, probably from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr site that owes it’s global fame to the Prüm family. The photo above shows him in front of that site early this morning. Yesterday J. J. Prüm was our first appointment and we tasted the 2012s and 2013s with Dr. Manfred and Amei Prüm, which are exciting, but very contrasting wines (the 2012s are elegant and graceful, the 2013s much more racy and mineral with quite a challenging acidity). I first visited J.J. Prüm back in May 1984, so this was some kind of double anniversary, for Peter a 10 year one and for me a 30 year one. However, as I recently observed, sheer age doesn’t make wine or anything else more important.

From this and the photo you can tell that there’s a generational gap between us, but this is one of those friendships where I only really feel as a distance when we talk about something that was new for the young me and therefore before Peter’s time. For differing personal reasons, but in the same basic way, the Rieslings of J.J. Prüm and the jazz piano playing of Bill Evans are things which bridge this generational gap. Wine, like music, bridges distances between people both in space (for example Mosel wines being drunk in New York or Berlin) and in time (the age difference between Peter and I or any other two people). This is because wine and music are “abstract”, that is they don’t have an obvious content – song lyrics are content, but often not consumed as such, particularly by people with other mother tongues. They touch us emotionally, that is they connect directly with the traces intense experiences in the past left in us. This is something fundamental to being human that has nothing to do with the intellectual side of us, but of course connects with that too. I think that’s enough philosophy for one grey, winter morning!

If you look closely at the photo it shows something that a lot of wine books talk about, but you can seldom actually see. The snow melts first in the best vineyards, because they have the best exposure to the sun and are warmer for other reasons too (lower altitude, less exposed to cold wind, etc). You can clearly see that the lowest third of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr is the best part of the site, and that’s where most of the best Rieslings we tasted at J.J. Prüm came from. Some aspects of wine, like the way it connects with our memories and emotions are very difficult to analyze, while others such as this are rather easy to explain and grasp. This combination is what makes my job so endlessly fascinating. Every day that gives me a Riesling to live.

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Mosel & Rhine Riesling Diary: Day 0 – “Schaefer” is a Magical Word in the Riesling Vocabulary

NYC somm Peter Weltman (left) was lucky that Christoph Schaefer of the Willi Schaefer estate in Graach/Mosel (right) was the first winemaker he ever visited in Germany. What better place could there be to start deep immersion in the world of this nation’s Rieslings than here at Willi Schaefer with some of the most delicate and intense, archetypal and lovable (A&L) wines from my favorite grape. That last pair of descriptors says everything about what makes these wines so different from the great majority of the world’s best wines. How many of them are really A&L? Mostly they’re either A or L and don’t have much of the other to offer, at least no to the high degree that is possible with German Rieslings when they are of the calibre of the Willi Schaefer wines. Personally the wines I tend to enjoy least are those which are over-loaded with the archetypal thing to the point of being enormously self-important. The phrase “icon wines” describes this kind of untouchable vinous monuments to themselves perfectly. Icons are there to be venerated and are so holy you could never feel something as simple as love for them. There is none of this pomposity to the Schaefer Rieslings, rather they speak directly to you, welcome love and calmly accept statements like, “sorry, not my thing.”

I don’t think the fact that a wine has reached a great age is really a criterium for judging its quality, because I’ve had some really sensational tasting wines that were extremely young (for example the 2013 de Fleveaux Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa – and I promise you that normally I hate Sauvignon Blanc). However, when joyful and subtle young Rieslings of the kind the Schaefer’s have been making for generations get the opportunity to age for the equivalent of a generation, like the bottles in the Schaefers Schatzkammer pictured above, then they can taste simultaneously mysterious and sexy. That’s the way the 1976 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese was this evening, as well as tasting mellow and creamy, yet very alive and enticing. Tasting this wine persuaded me that I must work much harder to live a healthy life so that I will still be around to experience the literally brilliant 2013s from Willi Schaefer reach the same kind of age. Please don’t lead me astray from the true path of Riesling!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 9 – My Romantic / Obsessive-Compulsive Wine Cellar

I’m often asked about my wine cellar, and sometimes I can see from the way the eyes of my questioner glaze over that they’re expecting something which looks like the crypt of a cathedral or at the least the cellar of a Medieval castle in Scotland. They want cobwebs and the dust of centuries, also at least a few rare and exceptional bottles of the kind even serious wine collectors can only dream about. In short, it should be a dark and damp Wine Heaven on Earth illuminated only by a few flickering candles! The few people I actually took down there were therefore seriously disappointed when they found what you can see above: rows of plastic crates and cases between concrete walls with no hint of stone, wood, much less any serious cobwebs. The only dust is from the plaster on the walls and ceiling crumbling, the only light is from fluorescent tubes of the standard kind.

But for me it is still a romantic place, because of the wine in the bottles. In his poem ‘L’ame du vin’ Charles Baudelaire wrote about the soul of wine being imprisoned behind the glass of the bottle, waiting to be released by the drinker, and that’s exactly how I see it today. Of course, some of this is also in my mind in the form of memories of the people who made those wines, the places the grapes grew, and situations in which I previously experienced them. What you see is just packaging (at the front of the picture literally so, those being the labels of Keller in Flörsheim-Dalsheim/Rheinhessen and of Sinß in Windesheim/Nahe). Frankly, that is all ballast weighing the wines down. I dread to think what the carbon footprint of all the glass bottles in my cellar is (of course, I recycle), and hope one day a better technical solution will be found. Some are ridiculously and unnecessarily heavy, particularly those for the GGs (Großes Gewächs). VDP please take note and address this problem, because currently you’re in denial!

The other thing which immediately strikes me when I go into my cellar is that there is a ton of wine in there, maybe 2,000 bottles (my list isn’t complete so I can’t calculate exactly). Is this too much? The library function of my cellar is undeniable and it really does help me build up a picture of how the important wines of earlier vintages taste now, which also tells me something useful about the producers responsible for them. Of course, that’s all good for my work as a wine journalist. However, in retrospect, there was a time when I took it all too far. By that I mean there was an obsessive-compulsive aspect to my wine purchases. If you suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD is the correct name not the widely-used OCD), or have a close friend/relative who suffers, then you know what I’m talking about. If not I promise you that suffering impacts many parts of your life. I’m trying to overcome, or at least, to seriously dampen down this side of my personality, so I’ve put much less wine in the cellar the last couple of years.

And, yes, I did buy almost all the wine that went into this cellar. Winegrowers who sent wine presents that went beyond one bottle at Christmas received bottles from me in return and/or dinner invitations which included wine from my cellar. A couple of wine merchants sent me single expensive bottles, generally of French wine. These were always put to good use in blind tastings. The only wines I ever asked producers for were samples for specific tastings, and that is a strict policy. A lot of wine from this cellar was poured without charge at charity events in Germany and New York. I am not perfect, nor can I be, but I try to be straight, fair and, most importantly, to share.

 

 

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London Riesling Diary: Day 2 – England’s Violent Dreaming

I would be hard to find a more boring scene to present to you than the above corner of Bromley, the London suburb where I – also David Bowie – come from. The point is that I could have used another photo taken in another part of the Great London Area that would have been virtually indistinguishable from this one. It was a bland place when I grew up there, but it has become much more bland since then. Every time I come here to visit my mother this simple fact shocks me again. However, that’s not all I experience when I’m suddenly immersed in the world I turned my back on a quarter of a century ago. There’s a very different, parallel shock I experience through the British media and on the streets. This results from the fact of, acceptance and glorification of violence. The only place I was ever violently attacked was on a street corner in London almost indistinguishable from the above. Thankfully a friend pulled my drunken attacker from me after he’d landed only one blow to my head and a young woman who saw what happened stopped her car and rescued us before the youth’s friends could join him.

Bad as this kind of violence is, the way, for example, the British media make bombing Iraq seem the most natural and moral thing to do is worse still. That British troops first entered the territory that is now Iraq (then a province of the Ottoman Empire) just over a century ago on November 6th, 1914 and was it occupied by the British again (although it was then a neutral country) during WWII is forgotten. The standard formula British politicians use for this kind of forgetting is, “it’s time to move on,” and their catch-all motto for our participation in military adventures far from these shores is that we must, “punch above our weight,” in world affairs. George Orwell had some pertinent words to describe this kind of talk: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

Of course, in the leafy suburbia where I grew up all was and is not evil. And it was here that I developed my own way of looking at the world. A good part of British creativity – also, for example, David Bowie’s music – grows out of this leafy suburbia, that is a reaction against it that would be impossible without it. If you doubt the relevance of my words to David Bowie’s music I suggest you listen to ‘Life from Mars’ on the ‘Hunky Dory’ album, which rather precisely describes the world he and I grew up in.

On rainy, grey winter days like today on which England looks all brown, grey and (absurdly for the season) very green I wish myself back to Berlin or New York where I feel free from the weight of British history’s ballast of violence. Of course, the histories of both Germany and America are also laden with ballast of the same kind, but there I feel a sense of detachment from it when I think about it, because those are not my national identities. Oddly, both those cities were also important for David Bowie. His album ‘Heroes’ was the soundtrack for my first immersion in Germany that same year, 1976. When ‘The Next Day’ suddenly came out in 2013 I immediately recognized the New York I was then exploring. Listening to it now it sounds doubly appealing due to the distance.

I will have more to say about England and Germany on January 29th. So watch this space on that day!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 36 – Arizona Dreaming – “There are no Facts, only interpretations”

A brief philosophical intro: There’s no way around the fact that the context (the natural and human aspects are so interwoven it’s almost impossible to separate them) in which a wine is produced shape it. However, there’s also no way around the fact that the context in which a wine is experienced no less radically shapes the experience of its smell and taste. A wine tasting in one location with one group of tasters is NOT going to lead to the result as the “same” tasting in another place with another group of tasters, not least because they will taste the location and the contents of their heads every bit as much as the wine in their glass. These too are so interwoven that you can hardly separate them. I write this listening to ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ from Nirvana, and I promise you that colors these words too, and it would do so differently if I was hearing it for the first time, rather than for the (still electrifying) thousandth time.

But now, let’s get down to business: Sunday afternoon I forgot all the above for a long moment, because I was focusing on the brass tacks of staging a blind tasting of wines from Arizona plus a couple of pirates from California and France at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg/Brooklyn for a group of New York somms (thanks again Alex Allan for the great support, both moral and practical). And that’s how I blindly sailed straight into the dark heart of a storm.

I didn’t begin realize what was happening until one of the somms politely asked me if the winegrowers of Arizona focussed on terroir, French for the taste of the place and NYC-Sommspeak for a taste that is indefinable – je ne sais quoi - in a simultaneously sexy and holy way. I politely pointed out to him how young the contemporary AZ wine industry, but I don’t think he has any idea how hard it is establishing vineyards in locations where there’s no previous generation who’s experiences you can draw upon. Terroir is a luxury for established winegrowers, or, at least, for winegrowers in regions that are well established. It’s also a method for selling wines more expensively (see the example of  Burgundy where the T-word enables some mediocre wines to be sold for fancy prices).

Only after that exchange did I sense how behind that question lurked the expectation – of course! was anything else even conceivable? – that the winegrowers of AZ would be focusing on terroir. You see, in France terroir is holy  and from there this religion has been spread around the world by French winegrowers, their importers and SOPEXA. With it has travelled a mythical France that is a timeless land of wine on the western edge of the wine continent of Europe which the Great God of Wine favored above all others. That this marketing strategy was successful is proven by the prices charged the famous wines of France, which bear no relation to the production costs of them. Of course, I deliberately exaggerate for effect, but also because this way you’ll pay more attention than if I was cautious and understated everything.

The tasting started quite well with a flight of three dry whites. However, when the the first reds – young wines made from the grapes of the Cabernet family – were poured something odd suddenly happened. NYC somms can have a knee-jerk reaction against the combination of the sweet fruity aromas of fully-ripe grapes plus clean, modern winemaking. These wines certainly smelt that way and provoked that knee-jerk reaction. To be fair, I would say that there was a touch of over-ripeness in all of them, that they would have been better without. But did this justify the force of those reactions? Some people seemed to feel they’d been insulted by the wines. In fact, they’d only tasted some wines of a style they personally don’t prefer.

I have to admit here that most of the AZ wines had tasted better to me when I was there in a more relaxed context that was undeniably friendly to them. Many also tasted quite a better and very different after 24 hours further aeration. For example, on the day of the tasting the 2012 “Gallia” from Saeculum Cellars (55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc) had quite an intense sweet redcurrant character, but the next day it was dominated by firm, dry tannins. I’m not arguing with the tasters characterizations, rather pointing out their  vehemence and how that inclined some present to pay less attention to the taste experience. Those somms may also have projected a high alcoholic content and lots of new oak onto the wines, because often in the big wide world of wine those sweet aromas are married to high alcohol and lots of new (in what used to be called “Parker Wines”, after the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr who liked that combination). The AZ wines actually had below 14% and were not full of new oak.

This situation repeated itself with the GSM (named after the combination of the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre grapes in a blend) flight, at which point the attention oif some somms was seriously wandering – we want funky terroir wines, and we want them now! – their comments becoming rudimentary, vague and dismissive. My experience is that at many blind tastings a mood is established early on and casts a show or an aura over all the wines that follow. I’ve been swept along by such moods myself, and am certainly not immune to that effect. In this case it was a deep shadow, as the grudging nature of the praise for impressive wines like the 2012 “Kitsune” (Sangiovese) and 2012 “Judith” (60% Tempranillo, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) from Caduceus Cellars made clear. With that latter wine the tasting ended with an at-least-its-finally-over-and-we’re-all-still-alive mood.

I don’t mind what any individual taster or drinker makes of a particular wine, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and opinions contrary to mine are welcome. My doubts about the tasting have to do with the influence of local culture (the NYC wine scene is no less an island than Manhattan is) and the role group dynamics. As Nietzsche wrote, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

An important conclusion for me: It was interesting to ride this ship through the storm and listen to all the screams (including my silent ones at a couple of moments). When I chewed it all over after I was back home, it became clear to me that my decision to make AZ as a major research project in 2015 is a daring one, and some people here will think me mad for pursuing it. My experience with Riesling has ably prepared me for being out on a limb (particularly when it was totally “out” 20 and more years ago). There’s iron in my soul! I shall proceed regardless of any and all reactions!

Full sail ahead!

 

 

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