Today is my 61st birthday and anniversaries are useful moments to look back. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1921 vintage for German wines, which is celebrating its centenary. It was not only a great vintage, but was the turning point for the nation’s wine industry in the direction of modern winemaking methods.
I searched and searched for information that went beyond general observations and was free of platitudes. Finally, I found something in the book Könige des Rieslings an Mosel, Saar and Ruwer, or Kings of Riesling from the Mose, Saar and Ruwerby Peter Sauerwald & Edgar Wenzel (1978, Seewald Verlag, Stuttgart) about the 1921 vintage at the Kathäuserhof estate in the Ruwer (now part of the Mosel wine region). My guess is that the first text below was written by Hans Wilhelm Rautenstrauch, the then owner of the estate, in August 1921:
“There was just one rainy day each month in May and June, apart from that burning heat. In July the heat and drought intensified. Occasional thunderstorms didn’t bring the hoped for cooling or the necessary moisture. Thursday, 28th July was the hottest day of the year, bringing enormous heat: 39° C in the shade and 50° C in the sun. At 10pm in the evening the thermometer still stood at 32° C. However, the vineyards look good and we expect a very good crop…”
That sounds rather reminiscent of the 2018 vintage in Germany. However, the Average Growing Season Temperature for 1921 in Geisenheim/Rheingau (sorry, but I don’t have historic figures for the Mosel) was 16°C and for 2018 it was 17.8°C! The books authors also give a rather detailed description of the 1921 wines from Karthäuserhof. Please note that a Mosel Fuder barrel contains 1,000 liters of wine, so the crop was about 120,000 bottles:
“The 1921 crop was 85 Fuder and the wines were bottled around 1925-27. Four of these Fuders from the 1921 vintage survived World War II in bottle. In contrast, the other 81 Fuders were more or less full-fermented out to dryness and those wines were therefore passé after 15 to 20 years of age. In contrast, the four top Fuders of Auslese had between 35 and 76 grams per liter sweetness. Only for this reason do they survive in great shape to this day…”
Today, 76 grams per liter sweetness in a Riesling Auslese would be considered low! The authors go on to give their tasting note for the 1921 Karthäuserhofberg Kronenberg feinste Auslese, the best Fuder of the vintage at the estate. Not only do modern wine critics write florid notes!:
“In spite of the great vintage this 1921 Karthäuserhofberg is a total Ruwer original. The deep colour speaks of its age and shimmers red-sapphire like a sunrise. It smells of an entire bouquet of flowers, also of pineapple and strawberry. The body is full, but not fat, the sweetness noble, the acidity mild, yet still piquant. Its temperament is harmonious, but still far removed from flatness or tiredness. A regal wine from which parting is painful, since one will probably never meet it again.”
This is my maternal grandmother Annie Pratt who
died ten years ago today on her 101st birthday, and this is one of
the last photograph I took of her just a couple of months earlier. She’s
sitting in her favourite chair in the house where she lived alone until one
week before her death and is surrounded by all her things. For a bit more than the
last decade of her life she lived in the small country town of Lenham in Kent/England
and after I took this photo we walked into the historic centre of town together.
The town fitted her perfectly, because it combined many modern conveniences
with the appearance of timelessness. She loved the antique stores and if tea had
not needed to be made at some point, then she would have spent all day in them
lovingly examining old things great and small. That might seem like a detail,
but I think not. Although she often had strong opinions I find it hard to
imagine a more peaceful person than her.
The truth is thought, that she lived through most of the turbulence of the 20th century. On the 21st of June 1919, aged 9, she witnessed the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands/Scotland, where her father was a customs officer. In 1928, aged 18, she came 6th in the national Civil Service examinations, and went to London alone to join the Civil Service. All this made a deep impression upon her and she often recounted these stories. In 1939, when she was 29 years old, the outbreak of the Second World War brought the worst period of chaos and destruction in her life. By then she was married to Neville Pratt and lived with him and their two children, my mother Sheila and my uncle Derek (later a famous watch maker), in the green London suburb of Petts Wood. One advertisement for houses like theirs in Petts Wood described them as “bijou baronial residences”, and this too fitted my grandmother perfectly. The family survived the war unscathed and the family business, Pratt’s Stores in the London district of Pimlico, was rebuilt. Pemberton’s Stores in the film Passport to Pimlico (1949, Ealing Studios) gives quite a good idea of what it was like, although Neville was nothing like the way Stanley Holloway portrayed Arthur Pemberton. Rationing in Britain continued until 1955 and this meant some suffering for my grandmother as she struggled to bring up her children. Throughout her adult life her health also frequently troubled her and she talked a great deal about that, often repetitively. In spite of all these things she was a contagiously happy person and I’m sure it was this that first attracted me to her as a very small child.
After Neville sold Pratt’s stores and retired in 1968, he and Annie moved to the small country town of Chulmleigh in Devon/England, the county of her birth. It might sound completely ridiculous, but for me their sprawling bungalow became an image of eternity. The kitchen was the centre of this seemingly unchanging world and the warmth from the old-fashioned Aga stove was the physical parallel of my grandmother’s love. For many years nothing gave me greater pleasure than to sit and talk with my grandmother at the kitchen table. When I was a struggling art student she and Neville supported me in many ways and when I graduated from the Royal College of Art/London in July 1986 she felt vindicated. The truth is I squeaked through, but that didn’t interest her one jot. I could put letters after my name and she was a terrible snob who attached great importance to titles. Of course, Royal was the most significant aspect of “MA Royal College of Art” for her. It took me a long time to share her enthusiasm for royalty, but the political upheavals in the UK since her death have proven how in troubled times they do offer stability, regardless of their failings. I now admit she was right not only about that, but about almost everything except the Channel Tunnel. She vehemently opposed it, clinging to her belief in a mythical England that was green and pleasant and where Jesus undoubtedly walked in ancient time. However laughable that may seem now, I was a beneficiary of her loving nature that was rooted in those beliefs. And I still feel her love for me just as I did when she was alive.
Note: Of course, England has long been many things other than a green and pleasant land. In order to avoid one-sidedness, idealization and nostalgia I end this posting with an image from one of the nation’s greatest satirists, William Hogarth. My grandmother would have greatly disapproved of everything this 18th century English image depicts!
In exactly one month it will be the 45th anniversary of the so-called Judgment of Paris tasting at which a French jury placed red and white wines from Napa Valley/California first ahead of the most famous wines of France. It was the breakthrough moment for so-called New World wines, a term that then only applied to the wines of North America, but would later be expanded to include wines from all the wine continents outside Europe (the Old World). Unquestionably, it was one of the great turning points in the history of wine. However, in my personal history of wine one month earlier in 1976 is the more significant date, because it’s the moment that Riesling and I hooked up.
45 years ago today, yesterday or tomorrow aged 15 the wine behind one of the above labels gave me my first moment of wine inspiration. I was sitting in a small bungalow in a suburb of the industrial city of Ludwigshafen in Germany at the edge of the Pfalz (then Rheinpfalz) wine region. The bottle of Riesling came out of the fridge in the kitchen that was always packed full of wine and beer. When I arrived a couple of day earlier the father of my language exchange partner – he and I didn’t get on at all – introduced me to the fridge with the immortal word Selbstbedienung, self-service. It went straight into my vocabulary and also became my motto, at least for the contents of that fridge during those weeks.
Several other crucial things happened during those days and in my mind they’re all intertwined. I had my first serious crush on a girl and I started making notes. She rejected me, but pen and paper didn’t and we stuck together, just like Riesling and I. However, I’ve got an admission to make. Although I drank my first Riesling during these days in April 1976 I don’t know which Riesling it was. A few years back I found these labels, so I guess it has to be one of them. That’s how history is though. There are things you can pin down, things that are probable and other things that are very uncertain. However, because our memories of smell and taster are emotional and associative they can co things that dry historical dates and facts can’t. They can seed networks of experiences and knowledge the have enormous power over an entire lifetime.
Für den deutschsprachigen Text bitte nach unten scrollen!
I went to Gut Hermannsberg (GHB), the ex-State Domain of the Nahe region of Germany, from JamesSuckling.com in March 2019 to be Riesling Ambassador for their 10th anniversary year under the ownership of the Riedel family. That went so well my engagement at the estate was extended for another year. Then, last summer James Suckling asked me to help him out due to all the problems resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. I wrote a series of reports for him, most notably about the great 2019 vintage in Germany, and as a result he recently made me an offer too good to refuse. So, in March 2021 I return to James Suckling full time. I shall continue writing for a number of German language publications and for my English language blog, as I’ve done for the last two years. I will also remain very good friends with GHB’s owners, Jens Reidel and his wife Christine Dinse, plus his son Jasper Reidel who has managed the estate since May 2018.
The last two years were an exciting time to be
at GHB, most importantly because of the high quality of the 2018, 2019 and 2020
vintages; the estate’s best wines since the late 1980s. I speak from long
experience, having followed all the estate’s ups and downs since my first tasting
there on the 26th April, 1984. The recent gentle shift in wine style towards more
fruit and charm has been less frequently commented upon in the media than the GG’s
intense terroir expression, but that’s the wine scene’s way of seeing things.
They strike me as being equally significant.
They were also two remarkable years due to the drastic contrast between them. In 2019 I spent a lot of time presenting the estate’s wines to sommeliers, wine merchants and other trade people. At GHB we felt that the wines were not always as well understood as they deserved to be, and that we must to try to close that gap. Along the way I learned a great deal about marketing and distribution from GHB’s managing director responsible for sales Achim Kirchner, an excellent teacher. Together we were able to make considerable progress in increasing awareness of the wines’ originality and GHB’s distinctive philosophy.
In August 2019 came the 10th
anniversary celebration of the Reidel family’s ownership to celebrate, for
which I had to take a crash course in eagle handling! (The Prussian eagle has
featured on the label since it was founded as a Prussian Royal Domain in 1902).
Have a look at the videos on the Internet to see what I mean. I also wrote and
edited the lavish booklet records of the achievements and some of the
tribulations of that decade, both for Gut Hermannsberg and Planet Wine. It also
functions as an extra chapter to the estate’s chronicle (researched and written
by Christine Dinse) published in March 2012, bringing that work up to date.
Of course, 2020 was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic
and GHB’s communications moved online, just like they did for everyone else. I
recorded and presented dozens of short videos, many featuring Gut
Hermannsberg’s winemaker Karsten Peter. We also shot a series of 20 minute programs
for Magenta TV #dabei (German language) in just a couple of weeks, something I didn’t
think possible until we did actually it. Karsten Peter played a vital role in
that project alongside Moritz Nagel, then a buyer for leading German wine
merchant Hawesko. Julian Huber of the Bernhard Huber estate in
Malterdingen/Baden generously helped us out with the shows that had red and
rosé wine themes. You can still view them all on Magenta TV!
Together with Jasper, I did a lot of work on the new GHB website and luckily that it went online just before the first lockdown in spring 2020, because that helped the wine estate master that difficult situation. Sadly, GHB’s guesthouse and restaurant were both closed for much of 2020 and early 2021. Hopefully you will soon be able to visit GHB once again (it’s just an hour’s drive west of Frankfurt Airport) to enjoy the breathtaking views of the famous vineyard sites from the terrace outside GHB’s Vinothek. I shall miss the view of the legendary Kupfergrube vineyard’s mighty terraces from my office window.
Looking to the future, I undertook an analysis
of climate change in the Middle Nahe Valley. The warming of recent years has
mostly had a positive effect, since it means great dry Rieslings can be
produced here every vintage. That certainly wasn’t the case back in the 1980s
when the estate focused on Rieslings with natural grape sweetness. Even the
2018 growing season – the warmest since ever recorded in Germany! – did not
make any of GHB’s dry Rieslings soft, heavy or dull. That’s a reassuring sign,
because I’m sure Germany will get more growing seasons like 2018 during the
coming years. GHB and the other top producers of the Nahe are very lucky that
the wines retain their cool climate personality even under such conditions.
Drought has become a major issue though,
affecting the vineyards each of the last three growing seasons, and gaining in
severity. In 2020 the irrigation of GHB’s younger vineyards was necessary for
the first time. The estate was far from being alone in Germany in having to
reluctantly take that step. Thankfully the recent rains have refilled the
vineyard soils with water, preparing them for the coming spring.
In both years the last two years GHB’s vineyards escaped massive spring frost damage by a whisker. The period of cold nights in April is a double-edged sword, because it is a danger to the young vine shoots, but also slows down their growth with positive effect. As a result, even in very warm years the Riesling harvest is late enough to benefit from cool autumn nights. They help preserve the acidity and promote the development of delicate aromas in the grapes.
Finally, I want to come back to one of the first
things I did when I arrived at GHB. The hashtag #GHBismyDRC (in German
#GHBistmeinDRC) caused a bit of a stir in the wine scene. Of course, DRC stands
for Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the most famous wine producer of Burgundy. It
was never meant as a bald statement of fact, rather one of intent; my personal
interpretation of GHB’s long-term goal. Today the estate is committed to returning
to the first rank of dry white producers on Planet Wine, just as it was on the
day I arrived. I’m delighted that I was able to help it take a few more steps
along the steep path to the very top. The summit is now in sight.
Many thanks to the Reidel family and everyone at GHB. I raise my glass of 2019 7 Terroirs to you all!
ZEIT FÜR VERÄNDERUNG – ALLES FLIESST (AUCH WEIN)
Anfang März 2019 ging ich von JamesSuckling.com zu Gut Hermannsberg (GHB), der ehemaligen Staatlichen Weinbaudomäne der Nahe, um als ihr Riesling Ambassador im 10. Jubiläumsjahr des Betriebs unter den Eigentümer der Familie Reidel zu arbeiten. Diese Zusammenarbeit ist so gut gelaufen, dass es um ein Jahr verlängert wurde. Dann, letzten Sommer hat James Suckling mich gebeten ihm auf Grund der Virus-bedingten Reiseeinschränkungen wieder zu helfen. Ich habe eine Reihe Berichte für ihn geschrieben, vor allem der sehr umfangreiche Bericht zum Thema des großen Jahrgangs 2019 in Deutschland. Darauf hat er mir vor Weihnachten ein sensationelles Angebot gemacht und am 1. März 2021 kehre ich fest zu ihm zurück.
Nebenher werde ich weiterhin Berichte für diverse deutschsprachige Zeitschriften und meinen englischsprachigen Blog schreiben, wie ich es die letzten zwei Jahre auch gemacht habe. Ich bleibe weiterhin freundschaftlich mit den Eigentümern von GHB, Jens Reidel und seiner Frau Christine Dinse, sowie mit seinem Sohn Jasper – seit Mai 2018 Geschäftsführer von GHB – eng verbunden.
Die letzten zwei Jahre waren eine aufregende Zeit für GHB, nicht am wenigsten wegen der hohen Qualität der Jahrgänge 2018, 2019 und 2020; die besten Weine des Gutes seit den späten 1980er Jahren. Das kann ich mit einer gewissen Sicherheit sagen, weil meine erste Verkostung im Haus am 26. April 1984 stattfand. Mit den neuen Jahrgängen gab es auch einen sanften Schwenk der Weinstilistik Richtung Frucht und Charme, aber die Medien haben eher die intensive Terroir-Prägung der Weine kommentiert, weil das eine ihrer großen Themen ist. Aus meiner Sicht sind aber diese zwei Aspekte der aktuellen Weine gleichermaßen wichtig.
Die letzten zwei Jahre waren extrem kontrastreich. 2019 habe ich sehr viel Zeit und Energie in Verkostungen für Sommeliers, Weinhändler und andere Weinfachleute gesteckt. Wir waren der Meinung die Weine seien manche Orts nicht gut genug verstanden und wir mussten diese Wahrnehmungslücken schließen und die Philosophie von GHB besser kommunizieren. Durch diese Arbeit habe ich sehr viel über Vertrieb und Marketing für hochwertige Weine von dem Vertriebschef und Geschäftsführer GHBs, Achim Kirchner gelernt, ein sehr guter Lehrer. Zusammen haben wir das Bewusstsein für die Originalität der GHB-Weine deutlich gesteigert.
Im August 2019 wurde das 10. Jubiläum der Übernahme des Gutes durch die Reidel Familie gefeiert und ich musste dafür sehr kurzfristig lernen, mit einem lebendigen Adler umzugehen. (Der preußische Adler steht auf dem Etikett seit das Gut 1902 als Königlich Preußische Weinbaudomäne gegründet wurde). Schau mal die Videos von der Feier im Netz an. Direkt danach habe ich ein großformatiges Heft zum Thema die letzten 10 Jahre auf GHB und auf Planet Wein geschrieben und lektoriert. Es fungiert als zusätzliches Kapitel zur Gutschronik (von Christine Dinse recherchiert und geschrieben) welches im März 2012 erschienen ist. Damit wurde dieses Werk aktualisiert.
2020 war natürlich vom Virus dominiert und die Kommunikation von GHB fand fast komplett online statt, wie es auch fast jedem anderen Weinbaubetrieb ging. Ich habe zahlreiche Kurzvideos selber aufgezeichnet. Eine Reihe davon wurden vom GHBs Winemaker Karsten Peter moderiert. Wir haben auch zusammen eine Stafel 20 minütiger Sendungen für Magenta TV #dabei gedreht. Moritz Nagel, damals Einkäufer für die führende deutsche Weinhandlung Hawesko hat auch kräftig mitgewirkt und Julian Huber von Weingut Bernhard Huber in Malterdingen/Baden hat uns bei den Sendungen mit Rosé und Rotwein-Themen großartige Unterstützung geleistet.
Zusammen mit Jasper habe ich viel Arbeit in die neue GHB-Website gesteckt und glücklicherweise ging sie kurz vor dem ersten Lockdown im Frühling 2020 online. Das hat dem Weingut sehr geholfen, um gut durchzukommen. GHBs Gästehaus und Restaurant waren leider für lange Zeit 2020 und Anfang 2021 geschlossen. Hoffentlich werden Sie bald wieder das Weingut besuchen können und die sensationellen Blicke auf die Spitzenlagen von der Terrasse und Vinothek genießen können. Ich werde den Blick auf die mächtigen Terrassen und Mauern der legendären Kupfergrube aus mein Bürofenster vermissen.
Mit Blick auf die Zukunft habe ich die Klimaveränderung im Mittleren Nahetal wissenschaftlich analysiert. Die bisherige Erwärmung war weitgehend positiv, weil es dazu führte, jedes Jahr hochwertige trockene Rieslingweine erzeugt werden konnten. In den 1980er Jahren war das Klima deutlich kühler und das Gut hat deswegen vorwiegend Weine mit natürlicher Restsüße erzeugt. Auch die extreme Witterung 2018 – die wärmste, die je in Deutschland gemessen wurde – hat keinen der trockenen Riesling-Weine von GHB plump, weich oder fad gemacht. Das beruhigt mich sehr, weil ich mir sicher bin, dass es zukünftig häufiger Jahre mit solcher Hitze geben wird. Auch dann werden die Weine von GHB und die der anderen VDP Betriebe an der Nahe ihr Cool Climate Geschmacksprofil behalten.
Dürre ist ein ernsthaftes Problem geworden und wurde die letzten Jahre immer schlimmer. Sommer 2020 hat GHB erstmalig die jungen Reben kräftig bewässern müssen. Damit waren wir keinesfalls alleine in Deutschland! Gott sei Dank haben die Regenfälle der letzten Monate die Weinbergsböden an der Mittleren Nahe wieder gut durchnässt und auf dem kommenden Frühling vorbereitet.
2019 und 2020 haben die Weinberge der Mittleren Nahe ganz knapp die Spätfrostgefahr überstanden. Die kalten Nächte in April sind ein zweischneidiges Schwert, weil sie eine Gefahr für die jungen Rebtriebe sind, aber anderseits ihre Entwicklung bremsen. Das führt dazu, dass auch in sehr warmen Jahren wie 2018 und 2019 die Weinlese an der Mittleren Nahe spät genug statt findet, um von kühlen herbstlichen Nächten zu profitieren. Sie helfen die Säure zu konservieren und die Bildung von feinen Aromastoffen zu unterstützen.
Anschließend möchte ich zu einer meiner ersten Taten auf GHB zurückkehren. Der Hashtag #GHBistmeinDRC (in Englisch #GHBismyDRC) wurde von manchen Mitgliedern der Weinszene falsch verstanden. DRC steht für Domaine de la Romanée Conti, der berühmteste Weinerzeuger Burgunds. Mit diesen Worten wollte ich nicht angeben, sondern das große Ziel von GHB persönlich interpretieren. Die Besitzer und das Team des Weinguts wollen es zurück zur Weltspitze führen und dieser Gipfel ist in Sichtweite. Es freut mich, dass ich helfen konnte, es ein paar Schritte weiter auf diesem steilen Weg zu bringen. Das große Ziel von GHB bleibt es, einer der führenden Erzeuger von trocknen Weißweinen auf Planet Wein zu werden.
Ich hebe mein Glas 2019 7 Terroirs und bedanke mich bei der Familie Reidel und dem ganzen GHB-Team für die Unterstützung!
Welcome to the deep end of 2020, the shortest and darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the original mid-winter festival. However, for the United Kingdom this is the Darkest Hour in my lifetime, and I am 60 years old. Not only has the last deadline for the negotiation of the post-Brexit trade treaty between the UK and the EU passed without positive result, but since midnight Germany, along with many European countries, has quarantined the UK due to the new strain of the coronavirus there.
England now find’s itself in a state of very Unsplendid Isolation. Although the shock of the referendum of 23rd June 2016 going in favour of the Leave campaign by a small margin was serious, I never imagined that the downhill slope this set the UK on would lead us to this terrible endpoint. During the last General Election campaign at the end of last year Prime Minister (Alexander) Boris (de Pfeffel) Johnson promised an “oven-ready” trade treaty with the EU. However, now the English Channel is deeper than it has been since the Fall of France in June 1940.
Of course, this is all very alarming, but some much less obvious developments in the UK make me feel equally worried. I am thinking particularly of the so-called Common Sense Group (CSG) of Conservative Party MPs and Peers. The formation last summer of this group with more than 50 members was inspired by the work of the co-called European Research Group (ERG) that successfully pushed the country in the direction of hard Brexit. The Cambridge Dictionary defines Common Sense as “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way”, and that’s what it meant when I grew up in suburban London during the 1960s and 1970s. However, what the CSG members mean by this term is very different and far more dangerous.
Their goal is, among other things, to promote a simplified version of British history emphasizing the role of their choice of national heroes to intensify patriotism. Recently, to this end, they have targeted professional historians like Professor Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester, accusing them of “rewriting” history and being “Marxist”. She is the author of an interim report for the National Trust entitled Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery. It makes clear the links between figures like Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill and British colonialism. None of that is disputed by anyone else familiar with the facts. Many of Rudyard Kipling’s literary works had more or less obvious colonial themes. Winston Churchill was Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921-22 and decades after that remained committed to preserving the British Empire, as the texts of many of his speeches show.
The National Trust preserves and manages a large number of the stately homes of the UK, and the fortunes of many of the families who built those stately homes were earned in part either directly or indirectly through slavery. During the 18th century investing in slavery was normal among the upper classes and extended into the middle classes. For example, the extremely profitable sugar plantations in British and other colonies in the Caribbean were totally dependent upon slave labour. These are likewise well-known facts.
Fowler has repeatedly pointed out that her work is, “evidence-based scholarship”. She, like me, is a member of the reality-based community that rejects the manipulation of and/or suppression of facts. The members of the CSG want to stick with the forthrightly patriotic version of British history they learned at school during the post-WWII period, that I was also taught. When they call this “common sense” what they mean is that it should not ever be questioned. This form of nationalism seeks to avoid and reject everything uncomfortable in Britain’s past in order to idealize and glorify a small group of almost exclusively male national heroes. Their assigned role is to be the focus for a form of patriotism implicitly antagonistic to other cultures. For the CSG the waves that Britannia used to rule were also what separated us from the foreigners and all things foreign.
In short, the CSG see Britain as being in opposition to “the continent”, i.e. Continental Europe, along with the other continents, excluding only communities descended from British colonists. Their worldview is unashamedly neo-imperialist and, at least implicitly, white supremacist and sexist. They believe that Splendid Isolation from other nations, peoples and cultures is a crucial prerequisite for the UK’s future greatness. These are treated as being infections from which the island of Great Britain must be isolated in order to become great once again.
Of course, that is perverse when you consider how the UK is now quarantined due to an infectious disease there. Now the British nationalists (who are often actually English nationalists) have the isolation they seek, though in a decidedly unsplendid form. My fear is that not only will the economic crisis resulting from the double whammy of Brexit and Covid-19 cause great suffering in my home country, but that it will also result in the CSG’s “common sense” vision of history growing in influence. There’s a real danger that it might become dominant in a nationalistic official culture openly hostile to a wide range of other nations, peoples and cultures. That path leads in the direction of war.
I don’t expect anyone will find it hard to believe that Berlin, where I lived from the end of 1993 until the end of 2012, currently feels very spooky. In virtually empty side streets and parks where the risk of catching Covid-19 is close to zero people are wearing masks to advertise their anxiety. The wall-to-wall fog and the sun low in the sky behind it give the scene a wan grayness. It’s the perfect backdrop to the creeping paranoia, as if the virus had a talent as movie director. Out on the street yesterday evening getting something tasty to eat at the Vietnamese eatery Monsieur Vuong, the bright Christmas lights were a feeble answer to the pervasive feeling of being under siege by an invisible army.
I’m certainly not the only person who’s found
wine helpful since the beginning of the pandemic, and wine consumption in
Germany is up by at least a quarter. Like many other long-term wine drinkers,
during the first lockdown I opened a lot of great bottles that had been waiting
in the cellar for a special occasion that somehow never came. And I really
savored them, in fact they provided some of the most intense wine experiences I
ever had and they colored many wonderful evenings.
During the summer, between the first and second
lockdown, I was suddenly busy tasting wine for JamesSuckling.com for the first
time in a year and a half. That was exciting because many of the German and
Austrian white wines of the 2019 vintage are really special. Most of the wines
from Alsace I tasted were of earlier vintages, but there were still plenty of
fascinating wines and some inspiring ones. Since I first got involved with it
professionally during the spring of 1981 in London wine has been able to
inspire me. That winetasting is my job for me doesn’t in any way impinge on the
intensity of those experiences, but the situation in this second lockdown has.
I think the root of this lies in the fact we all
know it’s the last Covid-19 lockdown, because the vaccine is now arriving, but
on the other hand it will be some time before enough people have been
vaccinated that the situation changes fundamentally. Each of us now has a fantasy
future we tell ourselves will be bright and shiny and so much more. It even has
a name: 2021, a much better year than 2020. Of course, it will be March, April,
maybe May before things get a lot better, but we’re still sticking with the idea
2020 = BAD / 2021 = GOOD. What we’re also doing, but seldom admitting to, is
deferring to our mental 2021 projections, because we want to believe they are
the sure signs of that better future is waiting for us.
On the other hand, some naïve people imagine
there will then be a return to normality, that is the way things were before
Covid-19. Others realize that during the last months plenty of things changed
permanently and other major changes will follow, so there’s no possibility of
going backwards. In spite of that they too, I too, sometimes feel nostalgic
about the pre-Covid-19 period.
The problem with leaning nostalgically backwards to our rosy memories or expectantly forwards to our personal fantasy future is that it makes us absent-minded, that is partially absent from the present. We are all away from everything that’s here and now to some degree (because the present is awkward, frustrating, painful or terrible) and that diminishes the pleasure of wine, since the aromas and flavors can only delight, fascinate, seduce or inspire us if we are fully present for them. And for me that’s what wine is all about. So, it’s time to open another good bottle, pour a glass and to sink into the liquid here and now.
being here for the first time in a couple of years has made me do a lot of thinking. So far Vienna has weathered the Covid-19 storm better than most big Western cities I’ve either seen or read extensive reports from, however, even before the virus arrived a lot of stores and some bars I used to frequent either closed or changed dramatically. So, I’m very glad that shortly after my last visit you were able to come here and got to experience the city when it was still on top form, complete with its own special arrogance.
I’m even more glad that it was possible to show you my Berlin and my London before they experienced much more major upheavals than Vienna. Although I never set out to show you my New York in the same way, and you know that city well enough yourself, I was also able to do the same thing with NYC to some extent. I’m so glad all this was possible and that you found interesting not only because of these cities intrinsic interest, but also because they shaped the way I think and how I see the world. I don’t want to beam myself back to the “good old days”, but in all of these cities some things that are important to me have been lost and others will go by the time the Covid-19 pandemic is over.
However, that’s not why I’m writing today. It’s to fill you in on what I do when I return to “my” cities, either alone or in company. At first here’s always an element of nostalgia, plus some curiosity to see if and how familiar places have changed, but this is only “foreplay”. As I wander around though I’m also looking for stuff that I lost or forgot. It’s rather like going to a favorite bookshop in the hope that serendipity will lead you to a great book you didn’t realize existed when you walked in the door, except that when the book’s “in my hand” I recognize it as a long lost friend. The interesting thing about this is that it only happens if I manage to become completely absorbed by the city and my mind is totally emptied of all the everyday trivialities. That feeling of recognition is delicious, because of the conviction that this thing has rediscovered me and that it is a thread that if I follow it will lead me somewhere surprising I could have gone a long time ago, but for some reason didn’t.
Vienna is a very old city, not only in the
strict historical sense, but also in terms of the widespread awareness of its
past amongst the citizens and without that I don’t think that I would have
discovered Hauenstein back at the end of the 1990s when I spent a lot of time
in Vienna, or that I would remembered him today, more than twenty years later.
He has an extremely rare combination of mutations that mean he ages very slowly
and is now much older than anyone else you or I know. Alternatively, he may be
suffering from a delusion coupled with extraordinary historical knowledge and a
great acting ability that enable him to persuade highly intelligent people he
really was there when major historic events occurred.
When I get home I’ll dig out his story and read it through again. I would send it to you, but it’s in German It’s one of many writing projects that got left at the wayside because other work that brought in money became pressing for various reasons (sometimes I desperately needed the money!) Loose ends, frayed edges and a lingering feeling that time is now getting short. At the same time the pressing knowledge distances that for most of my life were no more than short hops are now like the great voids between the planets and will probably remainso for a long time to come.
Thanks again for the chance to give you an
introduction to “my cities” as I experienced them and how they make me see the
world. That was a very special pleasure!
There’s a very apt American expression for the current position in the USA: IN DENIAL. This means not just denying one or two true facts on certain occasions, but living in a state of denial about a situation of some significance for your own life and those of others. The Germans have a great word for this that says exactly what it is: Lebenslüge or life-lie, i.e. a life based upon a lie that infects every part that life. However, we’re now learning about a form of being in denial that goes even further than that, in fact, one that takes it as far as you possibly can. I’m not talking about those mild cases who are simply continuing as before as if nothing had changed. It’s plain that some of them know all they’re doing is keeping up appearances; an activity that helps maintain the popular delusion they recognize for what it is. Their collusion in this process is the thing they’re really in denial about. However, for the hardcore cases it’s a completely different ball game, because their gripe is not with certain real world events, but with the real world, period. Their goal is a wholesale substitution of “alternative facts” for reality. I’m not comparing them morally with the most extreme 20th century authoritarian regimes – left or right – that attempted this trick, but I am pointing out that some of the same psychological mechanisms are involved (see Losing Reality by Robert Jay Lifton for more on this). It’s hard to imagine how they could succeed in their project for any length of time or to any great extent, but so many people are involved in this thing and it’s hard to imagine them all accepting – at some point – that the game is finally up. Surely, in-denial-groups will continue to reject the real world out of hand and clinging together if only not to feel alone in the face of reality. In a virtual space of their own they could realize their goal in a kind of parallel universe and a lost world far removed enough from reality to be inviolable. I’m not sure that I like that idea, but it would be preferable to the present situation.
For another take on this battle between the people of the United States of Fantasy and the American Reality Based Community see this brilliant story by Bruno Macaes in the New York Times of 12th November 2020:
At 10:29am this morning it became clear that the story I was planning to post here will have to wait for another day. That’s when the Wine + Partners press release announcing the resignation of Weingut F.X.Pichler in Oberloiben from the Vinea Wachau wine producers association they co-founded in 1983 landed in my email and the shit hit the fan.
The determination of winemaker Lucas Pichler (pictured above with his wife Johanna) to focus on place of origin and the character deriving from it, aka terroir, as the defining feature of his wines lead to a fundamental disagreement with Vinea Wachau and this radical step. The situation demands immediate explanation, because I think it represents a change of direction for the region no less important than that of 1983.
37 years ago the Wachau producers acted to protect the integrity and reputation of their region. There was also the pressing need to give consumers clear orientation to increase their confidence in the wines’ authenticity. For all these reasons three patented designations for exclusive use by Vinea Wachau’s members were introduced: Steinfeder (light-bodied dry wines); Federspiel (medium-bodied dry wines); Smaragd (full-bodied dry wines). Since then, those names have been learned by sommeliers and wine lovers right around Planet Wine.
Simultaneously, chaptalization – the addition of sugar to must and/or fermenting wine to increase the alcoholic content – was banned for all wines bearing these designations. Here, I must point out that back in the Wachau of the 1980s it often wasn’t possible to pick grapes with 13% potential alcohol, in fact, in some vintages even 12% natural alcohol was rare!
These principals, along with the leading producers’ uncompromising pursuit of quality, were the foundations upon which the modern reputation of the Wachau was built.
No less important a date for me was my first visit to Weingut F.X. Pichler on the 23rd November 1988, because this was my personal Wachau revelation. Later, in the Wachau & Krems chapter of the German-language book Wein Spricht Deutsch (2007, Scherz Verlag), I described this experience:
Not so long ago in
a vine-clothed river valley not so far away, when the steep and rocky hillsides
were dusted with snow, a wonder occurred. In a narrow alley in an ancient
village close to the river bank the wooden gateway to house Nr. 27 opened and I
entered the simple courtyard.
“The Heurigen is
closed today,” the wiry winegrower said to me dryly and I wondered if I would
get the chance to taste his wines. Then he invited me to follow him down a
steep stone staircase. In the dim light of the cellar between large old wooden
barrels his deeply furrowed face spoke of enormous determination. With a glass
pipette, the form of which spoke of an earlier century, he carefully drew a
sample of white wine from one of the barrels, then presented me with some of the
wine in a tall-stemmed wine glass.
Steinertal” he said in a professional tone. The wine had an incredibly subtle
bouquet and tasted as clear as a bell; an image of ferns surrounding a
waterfall popped into my mind. “Riesling Ried Oberhauser” quickly followed, and
this second wine was much richer with a seductive apricot aroma.
“Riesling Ried Kellerberg” rang out and I stretched out my glass for some of the wine. The Kellerberg totally amazed me with its immense power and every bit as much finesse – tension like that in the spring of a fully-wound chronometer!
As you can see from this true fairy tale, terroir and the striving for truly exceptional quality were the twin obsessions of Franz Xaver Pichler. The wines he made during those years redefined what dry Riesling could be and established new benchmarks for those wines. It was really exciting to follow all that during my frequent visits to the region and I often purchased small quantities of wine for my cellar. I still have bottles of Kellerberg Riesling from F.X.Pichler going back to 1994. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who was excited, and their reputation grew during those years in leaps and bounds. Sometimes there was literally a queue outside that gate waiting to buy wine!
By the time the 1994 Kellerberg Riesling was released every wine expert, along with everyone who thought they were a wine expert, had an opinion about the F.X. Pichler wines. Some preferred the Steinertal Riesling or the Loibenberg to the Kellerberg, while others were obsessed with one or other of their Grüner Veltliners. This was understandable because they all tasted so strikingly different, and wine drinkers’ personal preferences differ too. However, it wasn’t difficult to find naysayers who would tell you the F.X. Pichler wines were totally overrated. Franz Xaver and his wife Rudolfine relished the controversy, knowing that it only made them better known.
During the late 1990s Lucas Pichler became ever more closely involved in the family estate and it wasn’t long before he had to suffer those determined to tell the story of how the son wasn’t as great a winemaker as his father. It was all bullshit and many fans rushed to Lucas’ defense. Roughly ten years later the situation repeated itself when the modernistic new F.X. Pichler cellar was built. Now, Lucas really is in the spotlight.
The root of the current situation lies in the painful truth that the world has changed. The new climatic situation means there’s no longer any problem harvesting grapes with 13% or more potential alcohol in the Wachau. You just wait a bit longer before picking. Additionally, within the German-speaking wine world the focus has shifted completely away from grape sugar content as the defining principal of wine quality to place of origin. This is also usually divided into three categories: region; village; single-vineyard.
Here I’m thinking particularly of the German designation GG or Großes Gewächs for dry single-vineyard wines at the top of the VDP classification, and the Austrian equivalents EL or Erste Lage for dry single-vineyard wines at the pinnacle of the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter classification. Both are translations of the French Grand Cru and function as such in the marketplace; a hard fact that can’t be ignored without peril.
The introduction in the Wachau of the DAC regulations with the 2020 vintage – Austria’s version of France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée laws that focus on “classic” grape varieties and place of origin – brought things to a head. For Lucas Pichler, “the introduction of the DAC designations would have been the right moment for a modernization of the Vinea Wachau regulations, for example, by limiting the Smaragd designation to the top sites, or doing away with the three Wahau categories that climate change has made obsolete.” None of this happened, and with the support and his wife and parents, Lucas has taken the decision to stick his neck out. I suggest the sensational quality of his dry single-vineyard dry wines from the 2019 vintage is a strong argument in favor of his decision.
To find out who the wine princess pictured above is read on:
Trink is a new online magazine about German-speaking wines founded by American writer duo Paula Redes Sidore and Valerie Kathawala. At their invitation I took part in the second of their #TrinkTalks on Zoom recently. So did London-based writer on german-speaking wine subjects Anne Kebiehl MW and New York Times wine critic Eric Asmiov. The latter asserted that the reason German wines don’t have a better image in the US is the widespread perception of Riesling – Germany’s signature wine grape – as a sweet wine, though today the great majority of German wines are dry. He prescribed education as the cure, but I’m convinced there’s an additional problem that’s yet more fundamental. Let me explain:
None of the experts dispute that the best dry
whites from Germany are world class wines, yet, with a small number of
exceptions, they continue to struggle for recognition in America. Why?
Let’s take two bottles of a top dry German wine, for example, the Morstein GG (German for Grand Cru) from Wittmann in Westhofen/ Rheinhessen; one of the new wine classics of Germany (typically under $100 retail). We decant one of the Morsteins into an empty Burgundy bottle, say, the delicious Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru from Coche-Dury (around $4,000 retail if you can find it). Experience of many such comparisons tells me that most American wine lovers will prefer the Morstein in the bottle with the French label to the one in the original flute bottle, so the fundamental problem for the wines of Germany is not taste, but their national identity.
The image problem of German wine is rooted in the perception of Germany as a wrong wine location by a majority of Americans regardless of the facts regarding climate, soils, the winemaker’s ability and commitment and all other factors that actually determine wine character and quality.
It’s often supposed national and other stereotype must be frequently and clearly expressed to have a serious effect on the way people think and behavior, but my training as a cultural historian taught me that stereotypes beneath the waterline of easy audibility and visibility can still exert a pervasive influence upon the way we think about people and things.
The widespread belief that the Germans are excellent engineers, efficient technicians and excellent bureaucrats, but humorless people lacking in sensuality makes it hard for most Americans to imagine that they could make great wines. This stereotype is neither the product of experience nor the result of rational enquiry, yet it is rarely doubted, much less challenged.
The reality of modern Germany is physically and experientially far removed from the majority of Americans, even well-educated Americans, and therefore cannot disturb or disrupt the deeply rooted Groupthink that shaped this stereotype over decades and continues to shape it.
For most Americans France is romantic Paris,
Christian Dior, Coco Channel, Paul Bocuse, cheese, truffles and wine. That’s a
massive contrast to the automobiles, engineering, punctuality, order, sausages
and beer association with Germany. There’s no hint of romance anywhere in
For those Americans who watch TV Germany is the mythical
home of the Ultimate Driving Machine, because that’s been the slogan of BMW’s
TV ads for many years. How could the creators of the automotive equivalent of
the Terminator possibly be hedonistic, funny or sexy?
German supermodels like Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum might seem to contradict this image, but they became famous through association with non-Germanic cultures. Young Claudia Schiffer reminded everybody of the French Brigitte Bardot back in 1987 when she had her breakthrough in Elle Magazine and she still does. Heidi Klum’s already looked like an All American Girl in her breakthrough photos in Sports Illustrated Magazine in 1998, since when she became ever more Americanized in appearance.
The tendency for German immigrants to integrate in America in a way that de-Germanizes them goes back to shortly before 1917 when the US entered WW! and grew enormously from 1941 when the US entered WWII. It would be possible to write a substantial work of history about this largely undocumented aspect of American culture.
Of course, Americans sometimes encounter exceptions
to their stereotype of the Germans, but this rarely results their expectations
changing, because the stereotype is so deeply ingrained. Only direct experience
of Germany, for example of the New Berlin, seems to do that.
Recent events have begun to shift perceptions of
Germany in America and some American journalists have gone out of their way to
try and tell the truth about contemporary Germany, yet wider public perception continues
to lag far behind the reality.
Let us imagine a transgender woman winemaker in Germany who is funny, sensual and emotional, and that her wines wonderfully reflect her personality. In liberal and cosmopolitan New York City she ought to have a great chance of becoming the talk of the town. However, I fear there would be one obstacle to that and it would be neither her gender nor her sexual orientation. It would be the fact she’s German. If she were French or Italian, then she would have it so much easier! By the way, she exists and her name is Simona Maier and she lives in Mühlhausen/Baden close to Hiedelberg.
Why should all this occur to me? I lived in New York City for 4 years from the fall of 2012 and before that I’d spent at least another year traveling in the US. During that time my interest in German wines and culture frequently surprised many of the Americans I met and sometimes caused consternation. As a trained cultural historian I did a lot of thinking about all this and investigated the history of how Germany, the Germans and their wines were perceived in the US. I lived in Germany for 20 years before that, and live there again now. I have spent almost my entire adult life with one foot in one culture and one foot in another. As a result this kind of reflection come naturally to me. These observation are not moral judgments of any kind.