Monday, January 20, 2014

2004 August Kesseler spatburgunder (pinot noir)


Let's decipher the very plain German label. 

The year 2004 and the name in big print, August Kesseler, are self-explanatory. The bottom of the label says "pinot noir," which also helps. 

As to the rest, including the fine print laid out sideways around the back of the bottle. Erzeugerabfullung means bottled by the producer, which is Weingut (winery) August Kesseler. Qualitatswein: legally this is a middle-tier quality of wine, made under more stringent conditions than a table or country wine, but under less stringent conditions than a Qualitatswein which has also earned the right to call itself either a Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet (QbA), wine from a guaranteed specific place, or a Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (QmP), wine of guaranteed place and special characteristics.

It's trocken (dry), from Assmannshausen, a village in Germany's Rheingau noted for its -- guess what -- red wines made from spatburgunder (pinot noir). This word incorporates both the German spat, meaning late, and the word burgundy, which is of course the French province that is pinot's home. "Late" refers to the grape's habit of ripening late, although Ron and Sharon Herbst tell us that Germany also grows another variant of pinot noir which ripens early and is called Fruhburgunder (The New Wine Lover's Companion). 

My notes:

russet-purple, autumn leaves color
cedar scent 
silk feel 
plum juice, plum skin 
tiniest bit of earth or smoke

I'm told, and reading in books confirms, that the spatburgunders of Assmannshausen are vinified in the French style, that is, they are meant to be light, delicate, and subtle, and not the roaring California grape jelly bombs that pinot lovers now complain about. Indeed, it seems a German pinot noir can't help but be delicate and subtle, since Germany's climate and the mountainous terrain of its grape growing regions gives pinot the long, cool growing season it needs. Pinot is the fragile, frustrating, siren grape. If it can struggle slowly to some ripeness without giving up the natural acidity which balances sugar levels, gives interest, and eventually helps the wine age in bottle, then it will come through at its best. And pinot, at its best, comes from cool, hilly places: Burgundy, the Rheingau, Oregon, the cool coastal valleys of California. Elsewhere, in hotter, flatter lands, including elsewhere in California, intense heat and sunshine send any grape's sweetness zooming up to boring plushness in no time, wiping out its acid levels and resulting in, well, the "California style" -- dark color, high alcohol (all that fermented sugar), and unctuous jamminess.  

This August Kesseler was not at all unctuous, was instead very lovely. (A customer at Ye Olde wine Shoppe once got irate with me because I used words like "lovely" and "nice" to describe a wine. "That means nothing to me," she fumed. However, I only used those vague words because she had already told me she knew nothing about wine and so didn't want to hear any jargon like "acidity" or "tannin." That too "meant nothing to her." How on earth do you describe a wine, or any product at all, to someone who forbids the use of language? "Well you old battle axe, it's not chocolate milk"? But one mustn't alienate the customer.)

Yes, lovely. It seems to me that with a little experience you can begin to distinguish a good wine from a more commonplace one -- and even here, we are not talking about $30 or $50 wines, although Kesseler languished on the shelf at $25 -- by the way a good wine tastes almost like a food. Wine writers will gabble about wine being a food when they are trying to defend its not being a drug, a depressant, a mere alcohol delivery system. They'll cite studies about its healthful properties and so forth. But a good wine is foodlike in another way. It can be as interesting as a food, can seem to have the varied tastes, textures, and aromas of something solid. It can tempt you back for sip after sip just for its own sake, not at all for mere purposes of study and cogitation. And if the alcohol levels are normal, rather than California jam jar style (there is a wine called Jam Jar, a sweet syrah), your head will stay nice and clear too, and you'll be able to enjoy your actual meal into the bargain.

If you can find August Kesseler spatburgunder from Assmannshausen, snap it up, but do be careful about serving temperature. It must be just cool enough -- too cold, say straight from the fridge, and it becomes thick, sluggish, and grainy-gummy, too warm and it turns harsh and spiky, as do all warm red wines. Take your bottle from the refrigerator on a warm summer day, pour the wine into a glass, and let it sit for fifteen minutes. That should be just about right.

Retail -- originally, $25; alas, now $9.99 on the closeout rack. No one is going to plunk down serious money for (triple threat) an unknown German red.

For more on German wines, you might consult the blog Schiller Wine, especially the article on Walter Schug's journey from Assmannshausen to California's Carneros AVA.

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