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Why is Germany the Wrong Side of the Wine Tracks?

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 there!

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.

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I return to for a One Off Tasting Report to Ensure Continued Coverage of German Wines

Tasting for is demanding work, but often a lot of fun too!

The cancellation of major trade events such as ProWein Dusseldorf in March, the largest annual trade fair on Planet Wine, then Vinitaly and the Mainzer Weinbörse in April created huge problems for the wine trade and media this year. Even Bordeaux’s 2019s have had to work extra hard to win the attention they deserve. Unable to travel to Bordeaux to taste the 2019 vintage from barrel as he’d normally do, James Suckling had cask samples air-freighted to him in Hong Kong and was able to taste more than 1,000 wines for his comprehensive 2019 Bordeaux report. Check out those reports for some of the most extensive coverage:




James Suckling with one of his collection of Cuban art at his home in Tuscany

Even domestically Germany’s exciting 2019 vintage received scant media attention. This is a great shame, because on the basis of the small number of 2019 Rieslings I’ve tasted so far, the new vintage has everything I look for in great German wines: impressive ripeness and concentration, racy brilliance, minerality and subtlety. There may be a few overblown wines out there due to the unusual harvest weather – a very warm southerly wind in mid-October 2019 pushed both ripeness and the development of noble rot – but so far, I haven’t encountered them. With the current economic crisis nobody in Germany is going to increase prices, so this looks like a great buying opportunity.  

There’s a limit to how much wine a single critic can taste, so James Suckling has asked me to cover this year’s new releases in Germany. I was a member of the tasting team from September 2016 through March 2019 and was a Senior Editor at the end of that period. As well as leading coverage of the wines of Germany and Austria, I also tasted with James in France, Spain, Italy, Chile, Argentina, and California and reported on the wines from the US states east of the West Coast. I left the company to work as a consultant for the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) estate, one of the leading producers in the Nahe region of Germany. Of course, there’s a conflict of interest there, so James will taste the GHB wines for the report. I will also take a month’s unpaid leave from GHB during August, when I will undertake the tastings and visits necessary for the report.   

With James Suckling at Nick Stock in Beijing, November 2018

Before making this announcement, I spoke with a number of leading producers in Germany and all of them were supportive. They’re delighted that James is determined to cover Germany in the same depth as the other leading wine regions of the world. Continuity is vital to building interest in Germany’s distinctive wines. That applies as much to the stunning 2018 reds (most notably to the Spätburgunder/Pinot Noirs) as it does to the 2019 whites.

I’ve tasted the young wines of each vintage on the German Rhine and Mosel since the 1983 vintage and was recently awarded the Professor Muller-Thurgau prize for lifetime achievement by the famous Geisenheim Wine University in the Rheingau. Since 2015 Germany has had a run of very good to excellent vintages. My goal is not only to find the most exciting new wines for the readers of, but also to figure out if 2019 really is the best of these vintages, as it currently appears to be.  

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For a writer it can be shocking to realize out how few of your own strongest associations aren’t shared by the majority of your readers. However, almost everybody who reads this will know who the original Big Brother was. The events of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (1949) take place in the year of the title in Airstrip One, the former Great Britain is now just a province of Oceania, one of the three totalitarian empires that rule the world. Big Brother is the personification of the ruling party of Oceania and the party’s most important slogan is Big Brother Is Watching You.

The hero of the novel, Winston Smith, finds out just how closely he is being watched, not only by every telescreen – in 1984 each television is also fitted with an eye-like camera – but by further hidden cameras. He lives in a world where the Newspeak language is the tool of the all-powerful party’s policy of doublethink. All opposition is deemed to begin with thoughtcrime and is ruthlessly crushed, if necessary with the ultimate weapon Room 101, usually before the potential rebel even acts. Who doesn’t find this vision of totalitarianism combined with 24/7 surveillance frightening? There’s even a word for anything that reminds us of this scenario: Orwellian.

In spite of this, with extremely few exceptions, each of us is carrying a mini telescreen around with us and that doesn’t even seem to worry us. Of course, our mobile/cell phones or whatever else we call them are extremely useful and often serve our needs and wishes. That’s why we carry them around with us and why we push the thought that somebody might be using them to spy on us to the backs of our minds. Occasionally, a media report jolts some of us out of that state of complacency, but we still carry the thing around with us.

The Big Brother reality TV shows are something else entirely, since the TV audience “spies” on a group of paid volunteers who live together in a sealed container. It’s a competition and the winner is the last person left in this cramped luxury prison. They were developed by the Endemol production company, and the first of them aired on the 16th September 1999 in the Netherlands. There are now 54 Big Brother franchises around the world, and this ubiquity combined with the trivial and voyeuristic nature of the show has helped make Orwell’s vision seem much less threatening. The show also pushed the reality TV category into the big league. But recent events have changed this whole situation in an entirely unexpected way.

It was a very strange moment recently when Romana, one of the contestants in the German SAT1 station’s Big Brother TV show, was released from the container. Less than three weeks earlier the show’s producers broke with normal practice and told the contestants what was going on outside the container, that is all about the global Covid-19 pandemic. It led to shock and tears.

The odd thing about that situation is how it must have slowly dawned on the contestants that they weren’t exceptional any longer, because exactly that very day the great majority of Germans began living in a few rooms sealed off from the outside world except for brief shopping trips. If I’d been one of the contestants I’d have thought, “Shit! Now nobody will want to watch us any more!” However, the Big Brother contestants remained different form the rest of us, because they started isolating long before we all did and they did so of their own free will. That was enough to keep them watchable.

The moment when Romana stepped out of the container into “freedom” was even more bizarre though, because not only was she suddenly confronted with the uncomfortable reality that were all struggling to cope with, but she was merely transferring from the isolation of the Big Brother container to the more extreme isolation of her own home where she had even less people to talk to or do things together with than in the container! That remained me of one of the slogans of Oceania’s ruling party in 1984: Freedom is Slavery.

All this made it plain how reality TV is only “real” for the participants (but never the audience) as long they’re inside the container and they don’t really know what’s happening in the outside world. As soon as they step out of the container the TV reality collapses like a bursting bubble and is revealed to have been a form of self-delusion. From an outside world perspective the Big Brother container is an alternative reality with its own alternative facts.

Of course, the other people in our world creating alternative realities out of alternative facts are the new generation of populist leaders. They are simultaneously like the Big Brother contestants and the show’s producers, since each of them is forming the alternative reality within the “container” of their administration and also believing totally in all their own alternative facts. Perhaps this is the reason several of them seem convinced they can’t catch Covid-19, a trap at least one of them fell into.

What is it that makes these people enter those “containers” of their own free will? That’s a question for psychologists, but my guess is that just as we had to be persuaded and prodded into our present/recent confinement, some part of each of them had to be pushed reluctantly in there by another part that was much stronger and more demanding.

Let’s face it though, a great many of us are members of of cliques or associations that demand a degree of agreement with the other members regarding whatever’s the focus of the group, be it skateboarding, flower arranging or socialism. Who doesn’t sometimes tow the party line in such a group in order to fit in? Psychologists have a horrible Orwellian term for this phenomenon that turns groups into bubbles: Groupthink. It causes everyone inside a bubble to see the world differently to how everyone outside their bubble does and that distortion alters their members judgement and behavior. So, a lot of us were already in a limited form of self-isolation in a kind of invisible container – a social bubble – before Covi-19 came along!

Of course, mainstream reality has been shaped not by populist leaders, but by the untold millions of people in various degrees of self-isolation and those people unlucky enough to be in the more frightening isolation of hospitals. Our huge number makes the basic facts of our everyday lives overwhelmingly objective. Now it is the populist leaders who look to be the most isolated people of all in their totally subjective bubbles.

Shut inside their alternative realities they’re desperately trying to spin the unfolding catastrophe as a story of their own heroism, although the reality of the outside world frequently contradicts their narratives. The real cause of their isolation though is not some physical barriers or the guards who man them though, rather it is the way they turn away from the enormous suffering they are surrounded by. Although they all have that in common I think they fall into two distinct groups, the first of those being the leaders who are genuinely hungry for power and control. These Big Brothers are still watching us, that is watching for any sign of dissent or opposition from among the populations of the countries they rule in order to crush it.

The other group of leaders isn’t interested in power for its own sake, but because it makes them the center of attention. They are obsessed with having vast numbers of people watching and listening to them, with being at the top of the TV ratings, filling the newspaper and magazine front covers. These New Big Brothers don’t feel any empathy for us, nor even curiosity and therefore are uninterested in watch us except in order to measure how much we are watching them!

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Im “Hotel of Hope” bei dem deutschen TV-Journalist Jürgen Fränznick (oben) habe ich Herbst 2012 bis Sommer 2013 in East Village von New York City gewohnt. Gerade habe ich diese bewegende Nachrichten von Ihn erhalten. Die Fotos sind auch von Jürgen und (mit Ausnahme des Letztens) sehr aktuell Hiermit der Link zum erwähnten TV-Beitrag mit Christiane Meier (ARD New York Korrespondentin):

I lived in the German TV journalist Jürgen Fränznick’s “Hotel of Hope” in the East Village of New York City from the fall of 2012 through summer of 2013. I just received this moving news from him. The photos, including that of the author above are his. All of them very fresh except for the last one.

NOW the shit hits the fan! 

Now the shit hits the fan!

Bis gestern strahlte das Wetter wie in jenen Frühjahrstagen 1986, als der Reaktor in Tschernobyl geschmolzen war. Und das Datum springt nochmal: “9/11 – we never forget” – doch diesmal sitzen wir alle in den Twin Towers. Aber auf welchem Stockwerk und wie weit zum Treppenhaus?

Until yesterdaythe weather was beautiful like in those spring days of 1986 when the Chernobyl reactor melted down. And that date comes to mind again: “9/11 – we never forget” – however, this time we’re all in the Twin Towers. But on which floor and how far from the stairs?

Und ganz schlimm: diese brutale Ruhe – in Grand Central Station (ohne Verkehr zum schönsten Shelter der Stadt mutiert) kannst Du die Obdachlosen atmen hören. 

And really terrible: the brutal silence – in Grand Central Station (without traffic converted into the most beautiful shelter in the city) you can hear the breathing of the homeless.

Kein Flugzeug am Himmel. Mehr Corona als in China. Die Stimmung kippelt. “Help me make it through the night” (Kris Kristofferson) .

No airplanes in the sky. More Corona than in China. Moral collapses. “Help me make it through the night (Kris Kristofferson).

Seit der Nacht zum Donnerstag – wir waren dabei, die “Tagesschau 20 Uhr/26.03.2020“ vorzubereiten – unser Studio-Kameramann Peter war da bereits unter Verdacht isoliert, aber noch wussten wir alle nicht, dass Peter am Morgen des Donnerstages positiv getestet sein würde – kriecht jetzt doch Sorge hoch in mir: das mobile Leichenschau-Zelt hinter dem “Bellevue Hospital” Downtown Manhattan ist groß genug, um mich zu erschüttern; und die Bilder vom “Elmhurst Hospital“ in (meinem) Queens machen mir – nein keine Angst, aber machen mir klar: Hilfe hier wird schwerlich zu finden sein.

Since the night of Wednesday to Thursday – we were preparing the 8pm news for the 26.03.2020; our studio cameraman Peter was already in isolation with a suspected infection, but we didn’t know that on the Thursday morning he would test positive – the worry grows in me: the mobile tent morgue behind the “Bellevue Hospital” Downtown Manhattan is large enough to shock even me; and the pictures from “Elmhurst Hospital” in (my) Queens don’t frighten me, but they make it clear: help would be hard to find here.  

Heute  meine Sorge wächst… aber ich kann über mich meine Verfassung noch spotten: Sicherheitshalber übe ich schon mal der Text zum letzten Lied der Bordkapelle auf der Titanic ein: “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!” (Lowell Mason) … 

Today my worry grows…but I can still poke fun at my condition: to play safe I practice the last song of the ship choir on the Titanic: “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!” (Lowell Mason)…

Und natürlich geht “stay home“ ab five o’clock leichter vonstatten: Dann darf der “Moon over Bourbon Street” (Sting) aufgehen. Glasweise. Und wenn das nicht hilft, dann geht’s in den Arm von “Sister Morphine” (Rolling Stones). Die “liquor stores“ in Manhattan gelten als “substantial business” und bleiben offen. Klar, New York ohne Drogen geht gar nicht – es gibt noch Verlässlichkeiten in dieser Welt im neuerlichen Stresstest. 25 minutes to go 🙂 

And, of course, from five o’clock “stay home” is easier: then the “Moon over Bourbon Street” (Sting) can rise. By the glass. And when that doesn’t help, then there’s the arm of “Sister Morphine” (Rolling Stones). The “liquor stores” in Manhattan qualify as “substantial business” and remain open. Of course, New York dan’t function without drugs – there are still certainties in this world undergoing a new stress test. 25 minutes to to 🙂

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Der Wein spricht / The Wine Speaks

Listening to my old friend the 1983 Hermannsberg Riesling Eiswein at GHB

If “in vino veritas” and “the truth will out” also apply to wine, then maybe some wines have something to say to us that’s worth listening to? I’ve been thinking about this idea for years and those ideas just came to fruition. Scroll down for the English language version of this story about wines that speak to you. Like these lines it is in italics.

Wenn „in vino veritas“ und „the truth will out“, die Wahrheit wird aus eigener Kraft ans Tageslicht kommen, auch beim Wein zutreffen, dann haben vielleicht manche Weine uns etwas wertvolles zu erzählen? Darüber mache ich mir seit Jahren Gedanken und diese Gedanken tragen jetzt Früchte. 

Was macht eine Reihe von neuen Wein-Probierpaketen im Netz so interessant? Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) gehört zu einer wachsenden Gruppe führender deutschen Weingüter, deren Antwort auf die Caronavirus-Krisenzeit solche Sonderangebote sind. Versandkostenfrei ab 6 oder 12 Flaschen (bei GHB ist es ab 6 Flaschen) ist ein essentieller Teil von dieser Strategie; es ist der Treibstoff für den Online-Versandgeschäft-Motor. Leider wird das Kernprinzip von dieser Strategie häufig als rasender Ausverkauf falsch verstanden.

Trotz der attraktiven Preise ist das Ziel davon keinesfalls gute und großartige Weine zu verschleudern nur um irgendwie Geld in die Kasse zu führen. Sondern es heißt während der Krisenzeit  den Verkauf und Konsum am Leben zu halten. Dabei versucht man auch neue Konsumenten für unterschätzte Produkte zu gewinnen. Wenn das sehr gut funktioniert, könnte es sogar zu einem Imagegewinn für das Weingut führen. Die Erfahrungen aus vorherigen Wirtschaftskrisen lehrt, dass übertriebene Preisnachlässe zum umgekehrten Phänomen führen können, nämlich „Brand-Suicide“, bzw. Marken-Selbstmord!

Nicht nur Weinerzeuger haben diesen Fehler mehrmals gemacht, sondern auch ein paar große Luxusgütefirmen, die davor stapelweise Millionen in den Aufbau ihrer Marken gesteckt hatten. Das kann in einer Spirale die nach unten zieht enden, wenn nach ein oder zwei schlechten Jahren nicht genug Geld in der Kasse ist, um das gewohnte Qualitätsniveau weiter zu gewehrleisten. Dann ziehen schwache Produkte den Ruf der Marke immer weiter nach unten. Davon ist hier nicht die Rede!

Ich bin persönlich für den Aspekt der GHB-Kampagne verantwortlich, der es anders als die Üblichen macht und es ist mir klar, dass es umstritten ist und in manchen Kreisen belächelt wird: in den Werbetexten sprechen die Weine des führenden Nahe-Weinguts direkt mit den Konsumenten. Das klingt vielleicht etwas kindisch, aber was sie erzählen ist sachlich und gänzlich Quatsch-frei. Dazu gibt es keinen Hauch des Schulmeistertons, sondern auch die edelsten GGs reden auf Augenhöhe mit den Konsumenten. Schließlich, wenn man davon redet, dass jeder Weine eine eigene Persönlichkeit hat, wie ich es häufig getan habe, ist das die logische Konsequenz.

Aber lasst mich ganz ehrlich sein, diese Idee habe ich geklaut. Als ich Ende der 1980er Jahre meine erste Kiste Pinot Noir Rotwein vom damaligen Garagenweingut Williams Selyem in Sonoma County/Kalifornien kaufte fand ich beim öffnen der Kiste ein erstaunliches Blatt. Der Text darauf erklärte, „nachdem Schock des Transports brauchen wir ein paar Wochen Ruhe in einem kühlen Raum um uns wieder in bester Form präsentieren zu können.“ Die Weine haben mit mir geredet und alles was sie sagten hat gestimmt!

Der neulich verstorbene Burt Williams und sein Geschäftspartner Ed Selyem waren weder ausgebildete Önologen, noch erfahrene Werbeprofis, doch auf Beiden Felder waren sie stark. Von den beiden Autodidakten habe ich viel gelernt, ganz und vor allem, dass „Regular Guys: World Class Wines“, normale Kerle: Weltklasse-Weine (danke Wine Spectator Magazin für diese tolle Schlagzeile!) möglich ist, wenn man unbeirrt eine bestimmt Weinstilistik konsequent perfektioniert. Inspiriert davon ging ich ins GHB Flaschenlager und habe zugehört. Mit abertausenden geballten Stimmen haben die Weine gerufen, „sollen wir ausgerechnet jetzt mucksmäuschenstill bleiben?“

A wine’s eye view of me while I listen to what it’s saying

What makes a bunch of new mixed cases from a wine estate on the Internet so interesting? Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) in the Nahe region belongs to a growing group of German wine estates whose answer to the Caronacrisis is special offers like this. Free delivery from 6 or 12 bottles (at GHB it’s from 6 bottles) is an essential part of this strategy: the oil that keeps the online mail-delivery motor running. However, the core principle of this strategy is often misunderstood as panicky discounting.

In spite of the attractive prices, the special offers many leading producers are currently making aren’t about emptying their cellars through rock bottom pricing, rather they’re all about keeping sales and consumption alive through this challenging period and along the way winning new customers for underexposed and underrated products. When that works really well, then it could even end up enhancing the image of those wineries.

The experience of previous economic crises teaches us that too drastic discounting can result in the opposite phenomenon: brand suicide. Not only wine producers made this mistake, also large luxury goods companies who’d spent a stack of millions on building the image of their brands during the previous years. That ends in a downward spiral when there isn’t the money to maintain quality standards any longer, leading to sub-standard products that pull down the image ever further. That’s certainly not the idea behind these German wineries current strategy!

I’m personally responsible for the thing that makes GHB’s current campaign a bit different from the others you’ll find in the Internet, the thing that will make it rather controversial and make some people laugh at it: in the promotional texts the wines talk directly with the customers. Maybe that sounds a bit childish, but what they have to say for themselves is (volcanic and slate) rock-solid and BS-free. Additionally, they don’t talk in a schoolmasterly tone, rather even the top GGs speak with you on equal terms. And, having often talked about how each wine in the GHB range has its own personality this is the logical conclusion of that.

But let me be completely honest with you, I stole the idea! When at the end of the 1980s I opened the first case of Pinot Noir red wine I purchased from the then garage winery Williams Selyem in Sonoma County/California I found an extraordinary piece of paper in the case. The text printed on it said, “after the shock of transport to you we need a few weeks of peace and quiet before we can give our best to you.” The wines spoke to me, and everything they said was true!

The recently deceased Burt Williams and his business partner Ed Selyem were neither trained winemakers nor marketing experts, but I learned a great deal from the two autodidacts, most importantly that “regular guys – world class wines” (thank you Wine Spectator magazine for that great headline!) is possible if you apply yourself to the perfecting of a particular wine style and its promotion. Inspired by them I went into the GHB bottled wine store to listen. Suddenly, thousands of voices called out to me, “should we really stay as quiet as church mice at this critical moment?

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The Strange and Wonderful Story of Gut Hermannsberg’s 10th Anniversary Book – Part 2

There’s so much I learnt from working on Gut Hermannsberg’s 10th anniversary book, like the Salvador Dali quote on the inside of the front cover: “Whoever drinks with real enjoyment doesn’t drink just wine, they drink secrets.” Our designer and printer Steffen Fickinger found those words that so perfectly fit the estate’s wines.

For many people writing and editing a book sounds like a lot of fun, but the truth is that it’s also a strict discipline driven by technical processes and deadlines. If you can adapt to that discipline, as I did long ago, then each book becomes a journey of discovery that takes you places you didn’t realize were there; a special and addictive form of excitement.

Research literally means looking again and for any serious book project you have to do that many times. Then, when writing, you have to ask yourself again and again if this is really the right selection of facts, stories and observations. And is the sequence right, or is your text actually just a row of anecdotes that don’t add up to anything? Hard questions! My new book was no exception.    

10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft is the hot off the press story of the last decade at the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) wine estate in the Nahe. It may only be 32 pages long, but it has an unusual over-sized format with a sophisticated interplay of image and text, and it’s available in both English and German language editions.

On the purely technical side, there was the challenge of finding photographs good enough that they would take been blown up to 28 cm/11 inches wide and still look great. 300 dpi is the publishing industry standard for the sharpness of photos, but as GHB director Jasper Reidel and I quickly discovered, it’s woefully inadequate for this format. Those huge double-page spreads really make the photographs we picked shine, but as we also discovered without enough text those wide-screen pages look empty. However, writing stuff just to fill empty space was no solution either.   

It helped a lot that we had a good story to tell with a really interesting cast of characters, and that some of them spoke for themselves in a way that reads very differently from the material I wrote. The contributions of GHB’s owners Jens Reidel & Christine Dines, winemaker Karsten Peter and of our neighbor and colleague Helmut Dönnhoff of the Dönnhoff estate in Oberhausen, are all compelling. Their texts alone make the book worth reading!

So, you are probably asking yourselves, what exactly did I discover through the months of work on this project, apart from the fact that the number of pages doesn’t begin to tell you how substantial a book’s content is? Most importantly, although the book’s focus is on what happened at GHB between summer 2009 and autumn 2019, again and again I bumped into the long shadow of the estate’s Prussian founders. Only a couple of short guest commentaries failed to mention them directly or indirectly, and these were from the writers farthest removed from our history.

The fact is, GHB’s Prussian founders continue to exert a major influence on the estate. Their combination of perfectionism and the determination to implement that regardless of the effort required remains our guiding spirit. The first products of that spirit are still clearly visible to every visitor. The establishment of GHB’s core vineyard sites in 1902 was an engineering feat comparable with the construction of the Eifel Tower and they still look much as they do in the oldest photographs.

Our unique winery architecture followed in 1910, and when these buildings were carefully renovated by the Reidels in 2010-11 (creating our guest house) they augmented them with a single new element. The copper cladding of the new press house entrance with the massive terraces of the Kupfergrube GG/”Grand Cru” site behind it is now the defining image of GHB. That’s why we put it on the cover.

The other thing I discovered through this book is how the chasm between current events and the kind of unique terroir and tradition wines we strive to make at GHB becomes ever wider. Karsten Peter is in the process of refining a winemaking style inspired by our special history that has nothing to do with mainstream wine fashion, what just went viral on the social media or other 21st century fluff that will all be forgotten tomorrow. In an increasingly rootless world GHB’s wines have very deep roots indeed!

10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft is available in both English and German language editions through for €9,95 including packing and postage.

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The Strange and Wonderful Story of Gut Hermannsberg’s 10th Anniversary Book – Part 1

The publication by Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) of 10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft gives me both strange and wonderful feelings.  For the author it’s always wonderful completing a project as complex as this: 14 interlocking texts in both the German and English language editions describing from multiple perspectives the first 10 years & vintages since Jens Reidel and his wife Christine Dinse bought GHB back in August 2009. It also felt rather strange, because in spite of only 32 pages plus the cover for me this really is a new and innovative wine book.

Behind that feeling of strangeness stood a painful realization. Although my last published book Best White Wine on Earth (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 2014), in German Planet Riesling (Tre Torri Verlag, 2015), sold quite well it left me with the gut feeling that wine books would soon be finished for good. True, since then a couple of successful wine books were published. I strongly recommend Cork Dork (Penguin, New York, 2017)by Bianca Bosker, which recently appeared in German translation as Das Große Weinmaleins (Piper, 2019). However, these are all half-wine book and half something else. More importantly, my conversations with various publishers made it clear that not even a TV/movie tie-in would set the presses rolling again!

When I began work on GHB’s 10th anniversary publication it seemed too small to count as a wine book, and the purpose of documenting the last 10 years at the Nahe wine estate where I’ve workes as a consultant for exactly one year felt quite limited in scope. However, after GHB’s co-director Jasper Reidel pushed me to dig deeper and see wider connections I realized the last decade at GHB had the potential to make a really good wine story. It’s all about the vision of the Reidels and winemaker Karsten Peter together with their team to take what was one of Germany’s greatest wineries back to the top where it stood for the first 85 plus years since its foundation in 1902.

That might sound quite straightforward, but beginning the task of climbing back to the top after almost 20 years of underperformance makes it a huge challenge. That’s long enough for any wine producer to be forgotten by consumers and the trade alike, and it makes the back-to-the-roots policy of the Reidels and Karsten Peter pursued much harder to implement too. Making wines like half a century ago sounds great, but is much more difficult than it sounds because all the equipment has changed. And how do you know exactly how everything was done back in the Good Old Days, or how those wines tasted when they were young?

But it was and remains tougher than that. In spite of some claims to the contrary, the words “Riesling” and “German wine” are not great selling points except on the domestic market and a handful of smaller export markets. Then, come the effects of the little talked about global over-production of good and great wines, plus the growing political and economic conflicts of the 21st century. No wine producer is immune to them, but they’re certainly greater obstacles for those climbing up towards the top, than for those with well-established reputations. Here are the fundamental tensions driving the GHB story, to which you must add the weather roller-coaster ride in the age of global warming. For example, the catastrophic frost damage in spring 2017 was followed in 2018 by the warmest growing season ever recorded in Germany!

Seen from the inside, it is clear to us that during the last couple of years GHB took several decisive steps along the steep upward path. For me, the current range of wines from GHB’s 7 terroirs, or GG/”Grand Cru” sites, is the strongest since my first visit to the estate on the 26th April, 1984. However, that doesn’t mean everyone sees it like that. So, although the story in the book ends with the high notes of GHB’s 10th anniversary celebration and the exciting climax to the 2019 harvest, enough tension remains.

There’s no helicopter service to the summit of Mount Everest. Instead, you have to climb every step of the way up. One thing makes that huge task easier: the top is already in sight!

10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft is available in both English and German language editions through €9.95 including packing and postage.

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Arizona & Colorado Dreaming (Greetings from San Francisco)

The moment I arrived in San Francisco the city’s cool, moist air caressed the parched and splitting skin of my hands that had been desiccated by the desert air of Western Colorado and Arizona. Although it feels distinctly more edgy on the streets of SF compared with the last time I walked them 6 years ago the city almost instantaneously started to work its magic on me again.

It’s a huge cliché, but when I first came to SF in 1986 I was just another lost soul seeking inspiration and enlightenment. I quickly realized that the sidewalks weren’t paved with either of them, but after I returned several times to the City Lights bookstore, the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park, then headed into the wine country of Monterey, Napa and Sonoma Counties all kinds of beautiful, dangerous and liberating ideas started popping into my head. However, during the last 6 years ago not only San Francisco but also Planet Wine changed dramatically.

“French winemakers used to look down on the California wine industry, but not any more. Now many Californian winemakers look down on places like Michigan and Virginia, Arizona and Colorado,” an anonymous American industry figure recently told me. My gut tells me that sentiment’s all prejudice, but for Arizona and Colorado I have fresh research, so I can back up that feeling with evidence and decisively say NO!

I just flew into SF after a few days in Grand Junction/Colorado for the VINco winemakers conference, then Phoenix for the 4th annual symposium of the Arizona Vignerons Alliance followed by 5 days traveling around the vineyards of Arizona’s mountainous North (pictured above is Caduceaus Cellars’ Judith Vineyard in Jerome) and the high plains in its South (pictured below is Rune’s new planting in Sonoita). The results of my research indicate that the term “emerging regions” for these places is not only patronizing, but also highly misleading, because there was significant wine production in both states prior to Prohibition. In the case of Arizona the history of winemaking goes back about around 400 years!

California certainly stole a march on those states during the late 20th Century, but that is not an adequate reason for some of the state’s winemakers, and all manner of other people across the US, to look down their noses at Arizona and Colorado and treat them as marginal areas with very limited potential for high quality wine production.

The spirit of California, also the spirit of Californian winemakers, was always one of daring to see and grasp new possibilities. It was freewheeling in the sense that there was not only a willingness to try the unfamiliar, but also to accept and live with the mistakes that would be made by choosing that path. I can’t tell you yet if California and the state’s wine industry still has that spirit, but the dynamic Arizona wine industry certainly has it.

It was my first trip to Arizona’s vineyards in almost five years and the leap forward both in quality and stylistic diversity was considerable. The red wines from producers like Doc Cabezas Wine Works, Caduceus Cellars, Callaghan Vineyards, Château Tumbleweed, Los Milics, Rune and Sand Reckoner Vineyards (in the latter case also the whites) now taste fresher, better balanced and more polished than almost anything that I tasted last time I was there. However, the most important change is the way they also taste way more striking than they were before. The best of them have strikingly original personalities that say, “I AM WHAT I AM and only this place, these people and this season could have made me that way!” This is the result of vision, a steep learning curve and the uncompromising determination of these winemakers.

Although Colorado is not yet as advanced with this process, there too I encountered a bunch of very well-crafted wines that had distinct personalities and would have no problem in the wine bars and restaurants of SF if they were given a chance. IF ONLY! The best of them were from Red Fox Cellars, Snowy Peaks Winery, Stone Cottage Cellars and The Storm Cellar. Here the range of grape varieties and blends is as eye-popping as in Arizona and must it too must be tasted to be believed.

That might make it sound as if these two winemaking regions are cut from the same cloth, and it’s true that both are high-altitude wine regions with almost no vineyards planted below 1,000 meters/3,300 feet above sea level. However, climatically they’re very different. The biggest challenge in Arizona is the “monsoon” rains that descend upon the state’s vineyards shortly before the grapes are ready to be harvested and it is still warm, i.e. August/September. Of course, this can lead to rot, and sadly Riesling is one of the varieties that’s most susceptible to that. For Western Colorado the biggest problem is early frosts in fall, as happened in 2019. Just look at the graphic above (from an excellent interactive article in the New York Times about the weather pattern in 2019 around the world) that shows how Grand Junction experienced a sudden hard frost on October 10th. Not only did it make the curtain fall on grape ripening, but it also killed many of the vine buds for the 2020 crop and no doubt some vines of tender varieties too. Thankfully, the best producers saw this coming and picked their grapes of the late-ripening varieties (inc. Riesling) just in time.

Theoretically, California has a balmy climate compared to both these states. I remember how some Napa winemakers were shocked by the merest hint of frost back in January of last year. However, the fires of 2017 and 2019 in California wine country show that climate change has many ugly faces. Several farsighted producers in Napa now expect Cabernet Sauvignon – the region’s main grape with 65% of all vineyards and a grape crop value of $1 billion – to become untenable around 2030 because of the warming climate. Of course, they are preparing for that. Oh, and there’s a glut of unsold bulk wine. So, the reality is nobody has it easy and everyone is challenged. There is no Holy Land on Planet Wine!

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Stayin’ Alive – Part 2: Taste the Climate Challenge

Here is the second part of the presentation the Paula Sidore and I made at the ProWein Media Summit on Climate Change at the Geisenheim Wine University. We wanted to prove that you can taste a variety of strategies for dealing with what we call the Climate Challenge. Scroll down if you want to start with the more theoretical Part 1. #unitebehindthescience !

Stuart Pigott: Not so long ago I wrote a blog posting called Cool Climate is Dead in Old Wine Europe. It was inspired by the fact that the heat summation for the vegetation period of 2018 in Geisenheim/Rheingau (not the warmest place in Germany) was just below the long-term average for Barossa Valley/South Australia, by no stretch of the imagination a cool climate wine region! 2019 was another warm year with a new summer high record being set in Germany. The last cool years here 2010, 1996, 1991 and 1987, so they are getting ever rarer. The last cold year was 1984, so global warming already abolished them. This is part of a general pattern through the continent’s “classic” winegrowing regions, that is Old Wine Europe.

Cool climate still exists though in New Wine Europe, for example, Poland. That coutnry now has 534 hectares of vines split between 447 wineries, up an incredible 2,500% since 2000. Two years ago Paula and I showed a dry white wine of the Solaris grape produced by the Turnau estatePoland’s largest with 24 hectares, at another ProWein tasting and it astonished everyone who attended. Solaris is also the most important grape variety (42%) for Denmark, which now boasts a total of 98 hectares of vines split between 90 commercial vineyards. There are around 40 vineyards in Sweden and perhaps as many as 12 in Norway (including Weingut Keller of Flörsheim-Dalsheim/Rheihessen!) However, statistically the most important member of New Wine Europe is the UK, and our first wine, a sparkling wine, comes from there.

Balfour 1503 Classic Cuvée Brut NV from Hush Heath in Kent/United Kingdom

Since 2000 the vineyard area of the UK increased by 300% to 3,579 ha. Just under 70% of these vineyards are planted with the three main Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, and they are used almost exclusively for the production of Champagne methode sparkling wines. 2018 was the largest vintage to date in the UK with a total wine production of 13.2 million bottles, or which just over 9 million bottles will be sparkling wines like this. Balfour is very much part of the UK spakling wine boom, the first vineyard having been planted in 2002.

Paula Sidore: 1503 refers to the year the Hush Heath Manor was built. The cuvée is 64% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay and 4% Pinot Meunier, the vines were 14 years old, planted on clay over sand, a different geology to Champagne’s chalk. The base wine was fermented in stainless steel with 12 months on the lees to retain fruit freshnes. The the acidity is a staggering 12 grams/Liter (measured as tartaric acid), even higher than in Champagne. There are 10.6 grams/Liter of sweetness from dosage, but because of the huge acidity ithey are’t obvious. And there’s just 11.5% alcohol, which would be an unusually low figure for a Champagne. In the end it tastes rather Champagne like, but with a fresher acidity.

Even as England is enjoying a boon from rising temperatures, across the Channel the Champagne region is getting very nervous. Over the past 30 years there has been a 1.1° C increase in average temperature during the vegetative persiod in the Champagne region and grape maturation is now happening closer to 80+ days after bloom, rather than the traditional 100 days after bloom. That means harvest is taking place an average of 18 days earlier than 30 years ago. 2019 saw a 10-11% crop loss due to sunburn, with the highest temperature ever recorded in Champagne: 42.9° C. During the last 30 years acidity levels have also dropped by 2 grams per liter (measured as tartaric acid) and potential alcohol levels have increased by an average of 0.7%.

Many winemakers are already stressing that, as a result, the Champagnes they are producing today are very different from those made by their fathers. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Chef de Cave for Louis Roederer, joked: “We invented bubbles to make up for unripe grapes. As farmers, our job, our life, our passion has been to adapt to climate change for hundreds of years. If the future heats up too much,” he jokes, “we’ll just have to make Burgundy.”

This year’s ProWein Media Summit will take place under the motto” Our climate – what are the effects of the changes on the wine industry and how is the industry dealing with them?” A multi-faceted programme, developed in cooperation with the University of Geisenheim, sheds light on the most diverse aspects of this complex of topics

Intense “mag 15” BRUT NV from A.R. Leonble in Champagne/France

In 2014, organically minded, 18 hectare, Champagne House AR Lenoble in Damery/Marne, co-owned by  winemaker Antoine Malassagne and sister Anne, began bottling their “mag” series in an effort to drive continued freshness in their Champagnes. Reserve wines are traditionally a kind of insurance policy against crop damage, or to blend with the current vintage to achieve a particular, replicable style. The percentage of reserve wines contained in this blend is an unprecedented 45%, many of which were aged in magnums under natural cork under a pressure of 1.5 atmospheres. The magnum format has the ideal “liquid to oxygen” ratio, and as these reserve wines age under pressure are therefore protected from oxygen, resulting in a subtly aromatic palate and excellent freshness. They feel that reserve wines also add extra freshness.

This wine was hand harvested, pressed using the traditional vertical wooden press, only the first run of juice going into the fermenter. The blend is 45% Pinot Meunier, 40% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay. Each varietal was vinified separately, mostly in stainless steel vats, but about 15% was fermented in new oak barrels. The doasge is a very low at 3 grams/Liter.

Variety may be the spice of life, but when it comes to what you plant in the vineyard it’s also a really significant decision for the winemaker. Here are two different approaches to the question of survival through the choice of grape variety. While some winemakers have reached for disease resistant vine crossings (so-called Piwis), many others are reaching for the past to prepare for the future by fostering heritage varieties that were all but extinct.

2017 Orléans from Weingut Georg Breuer in Rheingau/Germmany

Native varieties are often far better suited to an individual terroir than international varieties. Orleans is one of those varieties. It is a rare white wine grape variety grown in small proportions in the Pfalz and Rheingau. During the 19th century, the thick-skinned, high acid variety thrived in the best vineyards of the Rheingau and Pfalz, especially on the Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg, and often in field blends together with Riesling, Silvaner, and others. The high demands it placed on the vineyard – only the very best were good enough to ripen it – meant that it was eventually almost entirely replaced by the earlier-ripening and more aromatic Riesling. The variety is among the earliest proven Frankish varieties, first mentioned under the name Hartheunisch in 1539. By 1890, Orleans was down to 11.4 ha and the last Orleans wine was pressed in 1921.

The variety was long thought to be extinct, then in the 1980s a few old feral vines were found growing on the terraces of Germany’s Rüdesheimer Berg vineyard by Professor Helmut Becker of the Geisenheim Wine University. Experimental plantings were carried out in Laumersheim/Pfalz by Weingut Knipser cloned from 7 old vines from the Cistercian monastery Eberbach. In November 2008 five wild Orleans grapevines were discovered by the biologist Andreas Young near the single vineyard monastery Disibodenberg of the Klostermühlenhof winery in Odernheim/Nahe), estimated to be at least 500 years old, making them the oldest vines in the world.

In 1995, Bernhard Breuer of Weingut Breuer returned Orléans to its Rheingau origins, by planting 500 vines on the slopes of Berg Schlossberg. The wine is vinified in a small wooden barrel, as an homage to the region’s tradition and story. Production is about 400 bottles annually. The wine has a certain general resemblance to Riesling, but the aromas are totally different.

Stuart Pigott: Now let’s turn to a totally contrasting example of a heritage variety being rediscovered.

2016 La Mirande de Secastilla from Vina del Vero in Somontano/Spain

The vineyards of the Vina del Vero estate in the DO Somanto are situated in the foothills of the Pyranees at 400 – 800 meters above sea level. The region is lush, green and hilly, and as a somewhat new appelation (1984) has taken a fresh approach to winemaking, varieties, vineyard practices and packaging. And while the region is famous for ripe but elegant Cabernet Sauvignon reds, the traditional grape of the region is actually the indigenous Garnacha, aka Grenache. After Vina del Vero was acquired by Gonzalez Byass in 2008 they decided there was great potential in the region’s Garnacha reds and they now produce two excellent wines, of which is the cheaper at just Euro 8,95. I included it in our tasting to demonstrate that sustainability is not just for super-premium wines drunk by the cool people and can also be undertaken by major players.

Garnacha is a late ripening variety, meaning that in warm climates the grapes can be left on the vine quite long to develop complex flavors. The high acidity/low pH and the delicate floral aromas of this wine show what Garnacha is capable of at the cooler end of its climatic range. Low bush vines planted at a low density require much less waterthan denser plantings of vines that are spalier trained on wires in the conventional way, The hoodlike canopy of leaves also protects the grapes from the afternoon sun and slows the evaporation of moisture from the ground directly beneath the vine. Even if Somontano warms and dries considerably, the predicted change in Spain generally, then Garnacha will still produce good wines with a rather similar anlytical profile. In contrast, to extend Cabernet’s future in the region it must be planted at higher altitude, which brings us to the next wine.

Paula Sidore: Finally, we move from the cooler climates into the powerhouse reds that fueled wine consumption in the 80s and 90s, the red blends of California and Bordeaux. With a rich, dense opulent style and alcohol levels already topping 15% in warm years, the climate challenge is real and heavy on the palate. 

2016 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon from Benzinger in California

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes make America’s favorite wine, and they are the lifeblood of Napa Valley, the USA’s most famous wine region. Cabernet accounts for fully 65% of the grapevines grown in Napa, where last year the crop reached a record $1 billion in gross value. But Cabernet, like much of Californian agriculture, is under threat. As Napa’s wine industry continues to confront rising temperatures a small but growing contingent of vintners is becoming more vocal about the need to address climate change head-on.

 While individual approaches in the estates (shade cloths, rotating the exposition of the vines) help, they are only a bandaid. Winemaker Dan Pietrowski from Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga/Napa said: “There’s going to come a point with Cabernet in Napa where you have it seared on the outside and completely raw on the inside. Cabernet sauvignon may no longer be well-suited to Napa Valley’s climate in 20 to 30 years.” Larkmead’s research block will include Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, “heritage varieties” that once were popular in Northern California, but were largely supplanted in recent decades by Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay as the market for those wines grew. The goal at Larkmead isn’t to replace Cabernet entirely, but to develop a larger palette of grape varieties with which to supplement it.

Stuart Pigott: Sonoma has not seen as much warming as many parts of the USA during the last century, in fact certain parts of the county have cooled slightly. However, the catastrophic forest fires in parts of Sonoma in 2017 and again this autumn, are almost certainly linked to climate change, so warming isn’t the only problem. Changes in rainfall patterns can only bring challenges.

The Benzinger family bought the old Wegener Ranch on the lower slopes of Sonoma Mountain back in 1980 and from 2000 the 85 hectares of high-altitiude vineyards they began conversion to biodynamic cultivation. They make classic style California wines without the massive to monolithic structure or the intense vanilla oak of many modern reds. They have also worked to make less of an impact on the environment, for example, reducing, water consumption per liter of produced wine from 100 to about 1. On average it takes 496 liters of water to produce a liter of California wine. This wine grew at between 130 m – 200 meter above sea level on volcanic clay and loam. It has 14.5% alcohol and a pH of 3.75, but California Cabernets can easily top 15% alcohol and sometimes go as high as 18%, pHs above 4.0 are not unusual.

2015 Château La Grave Trigant de Boisset from Pomerol/Bordeaux

More than any other famous Bordeuax wine appellation Pomerol has a problem with climate change. Today 14% – 15% alcohol has become normal for these wines in warm years like 2010, 2015 and 2018. As one of the region’s leading winemakers who wishes to remain anonymous recently said, “if it gets any warmer, then we will have to replace the Merlot grape, because in the good vintages it now gives 15% alcohol.”

This wine is the best Pomwerol we could find for just under Euro 50 per bottle. The property has 8 hectares of vineyards planted with 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc on gravel and clay soils on the western side of the plateau of Pomerol. It was acquired by Christian Moueix in 1971 and they aren’t afraid of modern winemaking technology. For example, all their top reds are pressed under nitrogen. Thermo regulated concrete and stainless steel areused for fermentation, extraction is cautious and the wine then spends 16-18 months maturing in French oak, 40% of which is new. That makes for a very silky and sauve wine in spite of 14.5% alcohol. Quo Vadis Pomerol? No, I think rather it’s rather Quo Vadis Bordeaux!

You see, according to France’s meterological service, in Bordeaux the average temperature during the vegetative period has risen 2°C since 1950. However, during the last decades the fashion for soft red wines with full body lead to a boom in the planting of the rather early-ripening Merlot grape. In 2000 it accounted for a whisker under 50% of all the region’s vineyards with 62,209 hecatres, but since then plantings leapt to 58.5% or 71,637 hecatres in 2017. This is exactly the wrong trend and the leading winemakers of St. Emilion, Pomerol and their “sattelite” appellations are already moving away from Merlot and towards the later ripening Cabernet Franc that gives wines significantly lower in alcohol and higher in acidity.

Paula Sidore: Recently, as a result of the research presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council initiated in 2003, winemakers in the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur appellations have the possibility to experiment with 7 additional varietals from the 2021 vintage: Arinarnoa, Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets; Alvarinho, Lilorita and Petit Manseng. Most of them are late-ripening, some are new to the region and some are forgotten ones making a comeback. “Climate change is challenging the very nature of our appellation system,” Bernard Farges, president of the AOC Bordeaux said, “If our wine is defined by the blend of grapes, the style and typicity will change with the climate. Or is it defined by a style and flavors? If the latter, you need to change the blend to maintain the wine’s identity in changing circumstances.”

Climate Challenge is of course NOT the first challenge the wine industry has faced, nor will it be the last. Europe faced the Phylloxera outbreak in the 1860s, then the great frost in 1956. Grapevines, like people, are resilient. All over Planet Wine, hard-earned wisdom that has been passed down through generations is being reconsidered. Where to put vineyards, which grape varieties to choose, hhow to farm the vines, how to make the wine and how to sell it — these key issues for wine producers must all be rethought as a result of ongoing climate change.

Then there is the consumer. These approaches only work when the consumer gets involved, educating themselves and then showing their support through their buying power and advocacy.  As Ghandi said, “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…We need not wait to see what others do.” Personal and social transformation, he is suggesting, go hand in hand. We agree!

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Stayin’ Alive – Part 1: The 21st Century Climate Challenge

By Paula Sidore & Stuart Pigott

Here is the first half of the presentation that Paula Sidore (pictured above) and I made at the ProWein 2020: ProWein International Media Summit at the Geisenheim Wine University in the Rheingau/Germany on the 21st November 2019. The second half – coming soon! – includes what we said about the 6 wines we poured that day. Minimal editing was been undertaken for the sake of clarity.

Paula Sidore: I am an American wine writer, certified sommeliere and translator, specializing in German wine. I came to Germany from the USA in 2002, shortly before the summer that really seemed to “kick off” the awareness of Climate Change here in Europe, here in the wine industry. It was the point at which people – my president perhaps excluded – could no longer deny what was happening. 2003 presented conditions unlike anything many producers – especially those in traditional cool climate regions – had ever seen before. People died; crops withered. This was the point at which winemakers realized that talking, noticing, watching wasn’t enough. This was the point at which they knew: “We have to do something different.”

Now we’ve all spent the last 24 hours learning about the threats of Climate Change to an industry we hold near and dear to our hearts, our pens, and our lips. And even if this information we’ve been receiving is upsetting, overwhelming, and frankly depressing, Stuart and I are here to present you various approaches to sustainability, or, as I like  survival. 

Our presentation is called: Stayin’ Alive — we decided to spare you the sound track but imagine it running in the background. Since 2003 we’ve all been talking about Climate Change, but I’d like to change the vocabulary. See for me a Change implies a start and an end. It’s finite. If the last 15 years have done anything, they have proven to us that what is happening is anything but finite. It’s ongoing and its unpredictable, a locomotive barreling down on us with no indications of stopping.  And farmers, winegrowers included, are in the crosshairs, standing on those railway tracks. So, for me, I prefer to think of it as a Challenge. A Climate Challenge. We all need to figure out an approach, realistically many varied and ever changing approaches to survival.

And part of that survival is based on resilience, on figuring out how to preserve a centuries’ long history and tradition, in many cases taste, in a changing world. Ripeness levels are rising, and with them alcohol levels. The last really “cool” vintage we had here in Germany was likely 2010, and in Bordeaux you have to look even further back than that to 2002.

And yet the modern palate is crying out for Freshness! Lower Alcohol! More Acid! LIght, bright, lean and green. According to the PW Business report, 63% of retailers expect consumers to demand lighter and more refreshing wines as the shift in seasons continue. Even as longer, hotter summers continue to naturally bring heavier, riper and hotter wines. A very real and very difficult dilemma, because there’s no silver bullet for it. Perhaps it’s simply a case of people want what they can’t have, but I don’t think so. And regardless, part of survival is not just getting the wine produced, but also getting it sold. So what’s a winemaker to do?

There are as many survival options as there are wine regions. And over the course of an hour we certainly cannot even begin to cover them all. I do think, however, that it’s possible to break them down into 3 basic categories.

I Change the LOCATION in the polar and/or high altitude directio

1.10% of producers for the ProWein business report 2019 reported moving to different vineyards, with 17% considering such a move in the near future.

2. Grapevines have long thrived best in borderline environments and today Winemakers are pushing those limits: by seeking out cooler climates

3. Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway (2018 saw a Norwegian Riesling from Klaus Peter and Julia Keller of 76°Oechsle at 58° North!)

II Change the set up of the VINEYARDS: 60% of producers reported specific adaptations taken or planned in viticulture as a result

1.Growers are looking to curtail sunlight exposure of the grapes and/or canopy through a number of approaches in order to prevent overripening, rather than prevent under-ripening as had been for years the thinking

2. Change in exposition, vine height, canopy, variety and rootstocks that might do better in riskier conditions (frost, drought, etc)

3. 14% of wine producers in the ProWein business reported already having experiencing the need for other grape varieties due to climate change. 24% are planning change of this kind

Here New World winemaking has an advantage, as they are not legally restricted as the Europe is in terms of varieties and winemaking methods. This gives them the freedom to pursue a number of different approaches in a short amount of time to see what works best

Boredeaux is allowing seven additional non-traditional grape varieties into the appellations Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur to mitigate the effects of climate change on the region

III Change the CELLAR (inkl. packaging)

1.Whole cluster pressing, yeast selection, blends, reserve wines under pressure, etc

2. One in two large wineries and bottlers reported having to employ new enological technologies to adapt their wines to market needs

3. Packaging: lighter glass bottles, since glass production is energy intensive:

For example, according to Jackson Family Wines who have been measuring their greenhouse emissions since 2008, they found that glass bottles from production to delivery accounted for 25% of the company’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Moving to lighter bottles immediately reduced their emissions by 3%.

Stuart Pigott: What does sustainable really mean? Mostly, for the contemporary wine industry it means certification that the producer/importer/distributor/retailer/restaurant/bar can hold up to show they are on the right side of the moral divide. In many places around Planet Wine consumers percepeive a moral hierarchy of these certifications with producers who are “natural” and biodynamic right at the top, then, in descending order, those who are biodynamic or natural, organic producers, sustainable producers and, at the bottom of the ladder, small conventional producers followed in last place by those of an industrial scale. I don’t want to knock sustainable certification of any kind, and I am certainly not attempting to make any moral judgments myself, but for me sustainability is all about survival. Given the Climate Crisis we find ourselves in due to the acceleration of global warming, that‘s the real S-word on Planet Wine in the 21st century.

Of course, survival has multiple meanings. What’s the real bottom line? I suggest it’s the question if we have enough food to eat and water to drink, a matter we will have to think about during the coming decades, even in the wealthiest countries as crop shortfalls due to climate change become more common and severe. However, on Planet Wine whether we can still get, or will still be able to get, the styles of wine and wines from the grape varieties we want is also a question of survival. I’m going to call it cultural survival – the survival of things we don’t want to lose, like the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard on the Mosel (pictured above) and the Riesling vines planted there. That example makes it clear that cultural survival also has social and economic aspects.

To show you where we really are now and why climate change really raises the issue of survival I have a couple of charts to show you. The first of them (below) shows the heat summations on the Huglin Index for the vine growing season (April – October in the Northern Hemisphere, the opposite end of the year in the Southern Hemisphere) for a range of winegrowing regions during the latter part of the 20th century. Today, we are in Geisenheim in the Rheingau, so I suggest that you look at the bottom end of the table to see where this region was a generation ago.

You need to look up the table a long way to find where it would stand, because 2018 was the warmest year ever recorded in Germany, that is, since Geisenheim started regularly collecting weather data in 1884. With 2312 on the Huglin Index it was almost as warm in Geisenheim as on the floor of Barossa Valley, and that’s a region mostly associated with powerful Shiraz (Syrah) reds with alcoholic contents of 14% – 15% plus! In 2008-9 I was a visiting student at the Geisenheim Wine University and back then I learned this is where the climate models said we would be around 2050! That and the heat waves of late June and July 2019 are the reasons that earlier this year I wrote the headline Cool Climate is Dead in Old Wine Europe.

The second table (below) gives an overview over what happened in recent years. Each vintage is the product of the weather during the growing season and temperature is the most fundamental aspect of that. During the period 1961-1990 the average temperature during the growing season in Geisenheim was 14.5°C. Then the majority or vintages had average temperatures in the 14.0° – 14.9°C range and gave more or less good wines, but several times per decade there were poor vintages with average temperatures below 14°C and then there were problems with un-ripeness, meaning green aromas, aggressive acidity and gritty tannins.

The top vintages were those with those years with average temperatures during the growing season of 15°C or more. A lot has been talked about the fact that Riesling is a cool climate grape variety, but actually it was only in those vintages that it came close to optimum ripeness, e.g. 1971 & 1976 in the 1970s when the harvest was also significantly earlier than in those vintages with average temperatures below 15°C. Of course, this raises the question as whether the characterization of Riesling a cool climate, late-ripening grape variety is entirely correct. At least to some degree it is a legacy of the conditions that were typical during the last centuries. During the Middle Ages Warm Period conditions were more like those today than the situation in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Of course, the 2018 vintage raises the question whether it is now, or will soon be too warm for Riesling in Germany. Certainly, the fact that the last poor vintage, i.e. growing season with an average temperature below 14°C, was 1984 and that’s a long time ago. Just look at what happened since 2000, there was only one vintage, 2010, with an average temperature below 15°C (the previous ones were 1996 and 1991)!

If we turn back to Table 1, then close to the top is Clare Valley in South Australia. The largest Riesling growing region in the Southern Hemisphere has a higher heat summation than the floor of Barossa Valley, but the Riesling grape still gives crisp and aromatic wines there! This has a lot to do with not the dramatic diurnal temperature shift there; something Clare has in common with many other New World Riesling regions such as the Columbia Valley of Washington State/USA and Marlborough at the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.

Clearly, Riesling has a wider climatic range than is commonly supposed by most people in the wine business (never mind consumers), but as Professor Schulz of the Geisenheim Wine University, one of the problems we face in trying to plan the vineyards of the future is that we don’t know what the upper warmth limit is for many grape varieties. Wine growing regions at the cooler end of the climate scale for winegrowing where climate change has been more pronounced have entered uncharted waters.

Watch this space for Part 2!

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