Sunday, January 19, 2014

Six rieslings ...

... plus a few other nice wines, too. When I am swirling and sipping along with two salesmen in an upstairs office at 10:30 in the morning, jotting shorthand about wholesale prices and "case one" deals, my actual tasting notes are reduced to the minimum. Smiley faces here, a "meh" there summarize things. (Consult this link for a brutally honest but funny recounting of the way the "Three-Tier Schnook system" determines what wines your local store will carry. The Schnook article is ten years old, but its author, a wine importer, maintains a more current blog titled "The Amazing Misadventures of Captain -- Recovering -- Tumor Man," whose subject you can probably guess.)


Villa Wolf Gewurztraminer -- a grim-faced "smiley," and a VC for "varietally correct" which I think it was. Smell the lush floral perfume, feel the slippery texture, taste something like grown-up ginger ale. Fine I am sure, but a gewurztraminer is not a personal favorite yet. Retail, about $10.

Villa Wolf Dry Riesling -- big smiley. Lemon cake, cinnamon, pineapple, all crystal clear and sweet-and-acid. Nice. Retail, about $10.

Villa Wolf Pinot Gris -- big smiley -- peaches and a dry finish, and then there is the novelty of a German pinot gris. I was advised that this was "not made in the blowsy style of Alsace." But since when are Alsace wines blowsy? I thought they were steely and austere. Retail, about $10.

Villa Wolf represents the value buys of the Dr. Loosen (pronounced LOH-zen) and J.L. Wolf wine estates, both run by Ernst Loosen. Villa Wolf sources its grapes from the Pfalz (experts instruct us to think warmish weather and a large choice of grapes growing in sandy soil), Dr. Loosen from the Mosel valley (think cold weather, and riesling only, growing on chunks of slate, only); and here we venture a little bit into the geography of German wine. It all has to do with the Rhine river and its tributaries, and to the difficulty of growing and ripening grapes in a latitude as far north as Newfoundland or Mongolia.

The Rhine rises in Switzerland and flows north through Germany to the North Sea, joined gradually on its journey by the Main, the Nahe, and the Mosel rivers. Following the river from south to north, the wine districts are the Pfalz, the Rheinhessen, Nahe, the Rheingau, the Mittelrhein, and finally the Mosel, near the city of Koblenz. Where maps of the Rhine reach Bonn, wine districts stop and mapmakers -- at least those drawing for wine books -- allow the great river to flow off the page to oblivion.

Before oblivion, however, mapmakers pay careful attention to that northernmost region, the Mosel. It is named for that tributary, which empties into the Rhine at Koblenz after being fed by its two smaller streams, the Saar and the Ruwer. This is why bottles of wine from the area are cleverly labeled "Mosel-Saar-Ruwer." (By the way, the fact that rivers get their start as obscure murmuring burbles in forests and mountains, and then flow and broaden until they empty into a larger body of water, is strange to me. The Chicago river flows inland from Lake Michigan, because engineers long ago made it do so in order to spare the lake urban pollution. It has always seemed sensible to me that any large expanse of water should dump itself into a thirsting land. Quite wrong.) Anyway, all along the Rhine's system from Basel to Bonn, wherever a river's bend exposes a plot of land on the slopes above to the sun, even to reflected light from the glimmering water, grapes, especially riesling, are grown. The Mosel has always been the primest real estate in all of Germany -- for some palates, the primest in the world -- because its combination of slate ground, tall slopes, cool weather, and the perfectly sweet-acid riesling grape which enjoys all those conditions, create the most "thrilling, delicate, transparent" wines imaginable. As we move on to the next five selections, we enter this holy ground. Eventually -- and, dear things, it may not be today -- we'll have to try to understand how exactly one tastes delicacy and transparency.    

Dr. Loosen "L" Riesling -- your friendly local liquor store riesling, the one with the tidy, elegant swooping "L" on the plain white label. It's the step-up, "entry-level" wine (sshhh ... perhaps all of today's examples are step-up, entry level wines?) for those moving beyond Liebfraumilch. In my notes Dr. L earns a vapid-looking smiley. Pleasant, a notch drier than the below-entry-level bottles. Familiar. Retail, about $12.

Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Kabinett Riesling -- this one gets a grim smiley right beside another which looks moderately cheered. The wine grew on me. "It's aging, you'll get that petrol aroma," I was told, and I did. Petrol, honey, thick sweetness, a twist of acidity at the end. It must be good, better than my cryptographs would indicate, because once this particular vintage is gone, the price of the new one will almost double. Retail, about $10; next vintage, retail, about $18.

Dr. Loosen Red Slate Dry Riesling -- big smiley. A jump in expense. I don't suppose I have sampled a very dry riesling since attending my first trade tasting, where I found them strange and almost beside the point compared to the luscious, sweet versions. But the lemon, cinnamon, and honey aromas. the clean, fresh, fruity acidity and the dry finish were all delightful -- almost champagne-like. Not surprisingly the wine cries out, as rieslings are wont to do, for food. Retail, about $15.

More on Dr. Loosen Red Slate riesling

Robert Weil Riesling Tradition -- another jump in expense. I was told Robert Weil is a demi-god in the world of German wine, and that this sample was the treat of the eight on the table. He was spoken of as if he still lived, but it turns out he founded his estate in the 1870s, having bought it from an Englishman in the days when English gentlemen making the Grand Tour found everything in Germany wholesomely Gothic and the people charming and sentimental, and wanted their own bucolic piece of the action. (Think Jo's suitor, Mr. Bhaer, in Little Women. " 'Ach, mein Gott!' he exclaimed. 'Yes, we Germans have sentiment, and we keep ourselves young mit it!' ") Today Robert Weil is run by the fourth generation of the family, but is owned by a Japanese conglomerate. Go figure. My notes on this riesling say only "acidic -- meh?" Perhaps by now I had palate fatigue, but I'm sorry to say this wine struck me as having little personality. Perhaps it was transparent. Retail, about $22.

Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnen Spatlese -- yet another jump in expense. I gave it a healthy-sized smiley, and several question marks to stand for a rich taste and texture I couldn't quite describe, accompanying the lemon cake, the spice, and the honey. "Meaty," could it be? Delicious. Retail, about $29.

Again, by this point palate fatigue -- and the awareness that time is flying, we're done, these salesmen want an answer and we all have other work to do -- may have prevented my doing the wine complete justice. Good rieslings are enchanting but difficult. How in the world are we to taste and appreciate that prime quality, "transparency," defined as the wine's ability to show the characteristics of the place it came from, or "delicacy" too? Might not an inexperienced drinker react to such ethereal qualities with a confused meh?

While we are venting our confusions, I may as well say that I do believe the sales sheet I was given, listing all these offerings from one to eight, included a typo from which we may learn something new. Our $29-number 8 should have been called "Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr" Spatlese, not simply "...Wehlener Sonnen___ Spatlese." Wehlener Sonnenuhr is the vineyard -- "the sundial of [the town of] Wehlen" -- where this wine comes from. It happens that there are three Mosel vineyards named for a Sonnenuhr, a sundial, in their midst, and all three lie along that stretch of the river called, cleverly, the Mittel-(middle) mosel. The other two are the Brauneberger [from the town of Brauneberg] Juffer-Sonnenuhr, and the Zeltinger [ditto, Zelting] Sonnenuhr. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible explains:

The huge sundials that give them their names were built more than a century ago in the sunniest part of three excellent slopes so that vineyard workers would know when to stop for lunch for the day. Because the vines in the vicinity of the sundial also got the most sun (and made the richest wine), the areas around the sundials soon came to be considered separate vineyards. Today the sonnenuhr vineyards are among the best along the Mosel. Each has multiple owners who possess tiny plots. Some 200 wine estates [as of 2001] own pieces of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr. 

Ah so. This sort of thing helps in deciphering German wine labels, which look terrifyingly wordy but are meant to tell you absolutely everything you deserve to know about your purchase. Open up a recent Wine Spectator, for example, and pick a riesling from the long columns of reviews at the end of the magazine. April 30, 2011, page 122: "Joh. Jos. Prum, Riesling Spatlese Mosel Wehlener Sonnenuhr 2009." Bingo. There's one of our three sundial vineyards again, only this time the producer is not our friend Dr. Loosen but Joh. Jos. Prum -- no doubt, one of the 200 estates (and J.J. Prum is major league) that own a piece of the bucolic action.

A few more minor notes. Have we noticed that after sampling eight good German wines and chronicling several "jumps in expense," we have only just reached the $30 price point? It's often the same if you care to browse more diligently through lists of recommended German bottlings at the end of any issue of the Wine Spectator. You'll find lovingly favorable comments along with curiously low prices -- around $21 is common -- followed by assurances that you may age this sample for five years, or even ten. We may hesitate before plunking down $20 on a single bottle of an unknown quantity, but to be advised you may age the incognito is to get a signal that this a very good value for your money. It may also signal, after all these years, that German wines are still largely unwanted because everybody thinks they're oversweet, mid-'70s Blue Nun dreck.   

On the other hand, some of them apparently still are oversweet dreck. Germany is a big place. Not every vine sunning itself above every river-bend turns out fruit that is delicate and thrilling. Wine writers claim that when Germany revised its wine labeling laws in the early 1970s, far too much poor, high-yield, flavorless stuff hauled in from huge growing regions was allowed to call itself Qualitatswein; Jancis Robinson even dismisses, or used to, the entire QbA category -- wines that announce in general merely where they are from -- as the country's "shame." For his part Hugh Johnson, in his very handy 2010 Pocket Guide to Wine, chimes in with right thinking about one of those huge regions, whose name looks so precise and meaningful on a terrifyingly wordy label. Of  Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, which you have probably seen on a local shelf just before your eyes glazed over, he commands: "avoid."

Will do. But even eight years ago in the third edition of her Wine Course, Ms. Robinson acknowledged that "the German wine business is in turmoil, thank goodness." It still seems to be. While we're avoiding Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, we should be aware, for example, that the next category up from those "shameful" QbAs (now simply Qualitatsweins), the QmPs or Qualitatsweins mit Praedikat (mit special characteristics, namely the grapes' level of ripeness at harvest, kabinett, spatlese, auslese, and so on) are now just called Praedikatsweins. Does it matter? Yes, if we want to decipher German labels correctly in 2011. Head spinning yet? Good. Then be aware that the newest trend in Germany is for very good producers to raise and harvest their grapes as if they were going to label them with the familiar kabinett, spatlese, and so on, but then to define them only as Qualitatswein on the label so that they are free, legally, to ignore the whole ripeness-level thing and concentrate on vineyard and terroir instead. (How about now?) German law doesn't bother much about the specifics of terroir for wines that say "we're only humble QbAs," so this leaves good makers of what might have been Niersteiner-level glop free to craft most interesting and tasty wines from bits of land that used to be ignored as such. Bits of land, especially, outside the sacred Mosel which American drinkers still fixate on. Knowing this will help you pass the pop quiz I now give you, based on a random pick at the back of this month's Wine Spectator. Thusly:

2009 Baron zu Knyphausen Riesling Qualitatswein Rheingau Erbacher Steinmorgen. Retail, about $60, and a whopping 95 points. So much, I should think, for the Qualitatsweins being Germany's shame. But the question is, what is it?

Above, the three-tier schnook system in action. Note the absence of vintage years on the provided sales sheet. The fact that I forgot to jot them down from all eight labels is my own fault.

For more on German wines, see the blog Schiller Wine, which is invaluable.

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