Last week, in Germany, I tasted a couple of Sylvaners. And there was something distinctive about them, to the point that yesterday when I was poured one blind, I recognised it immediately. Last night, Andre Ostertag brought along his Sylvaner, and it was lovely. So I quizzed him about this grape variety, which he says 20 years ago formed a quarter of Alsace’s vineyard area, but since then has shrunk to just 8%.
‘I love Sylvaner,’ says Ostertag. ‘For me, it is a very important grape. It is one of the keys of Alsatian cuisine, which is a pure white wine cuisine.The first wine I tasted in my life was a Sylvaner. It was on my parents’ table. It has the same freshness as a Riesling, it has an aromatic profile, and it has the ability to age well if it is made well.’ He points out that most people don’t take care of it and allow it to over-crop, but things are looking up. ‘There is a real renaissance of Sylvaner in the last five years. I would not be surprised if it makes a comeback in the next couple of years.’ In terms of sites, he reckons it needs nutrients and a fairly fertile soil, such as at the foot of a hill.
Jean Frédéric Hugel suggests that one of the reasons people are interested in Sylvaner is because of vine age. ‘No one has planted Sylvaner for the last 50 years. So that’s why there’s maybe a revival. There are very old vines. It is still a high-yielding grape variety, and I’m not sure if we planted it now the wines will be as interesting,’
Here are some notes on Sylvaner wines that I’ve tried over the last few days. This is an interesting variety, making wines that taste less of fruit and more of wet rocks and stones.
Ostertag Sylvaner 2014 Alsace
Lively, pure and fresh with lovely purity and precision. Notes of grapefruits and lemons, and also a core of minerals and stones with some interesting herby notes. Love;y. 93/100
Zinck Sylvaner Terroir 2013 Alsace
Stony, mineral, fresh and direct. Lemony and precise with lovely purity and direct apply, lemony fruit. Very stony, with lovely precision. 93/100
Hugel Sylvaner Classic 2014 Alsace
Lively, stony and pure with focused lemony fruit with lovely precision and freshness. Pure, stony and long. 90/100
Pierre Frick Sylvaner Bergweingarten 2013 AlsaceFrom limestone soils. Very lively and stony with pithy, nutty citrus fruits and some herby intensity. Complex and a little cheesy with lovely detail. 91/100
Sipp Mack Sylvaner Vieilles Vignes 2014 Alsace
Very lively, stony and bright. Lemony and focused with nice freshness and some pithiness. Really linear. 89/100
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Alsace Riesling can be very special indeed. Here are some highlights from the Millesimes Alsace tasting yesterday here in Colmar. Some more to follow tomorrow.
Weinbach Riesling Schlossberg Grand Cru 2015 Alsace
This is amazing. From granitic soils. Bright, taut and linear with a stony, mineral edge to the palate, which is tight and lean with lovely acidity and an almost saline character. Such precision and linearity, and real length. 95/100
Biecher & Schaal Riesling Grand Cru Rosacker 2015 Alsace
This is from a pure limestone terroir in the middle of the Clos Ste Hune in Hunawhir. Julien Schaal’s 2015s are an amazing set of wines, but this has the slight edge for me. It has some depth but also tightwound, lemony fruit. 70 year old vines have produced a mineral, textural wine with nice acidity and purity. 94/100
Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru Kitterlé 2012 Alsace
From volcanic soils. Taut, complex, linear and stony with bright citrus fruit to the fore. Very stony and focused with great concentration and purity. I just love the taut finesse of this wine, which is pure and dry. 95/100
Dirler-Cadé Riesling Grand Cru Kessler 2013 Alsace
From a very consistent biodynamic producer, this is a lovely wine. It’s really aromatic, lemony and pure with some wax and nut characters under the fruit. The palate has ripe apples, pears and nuts, and it’s really distinctive, mineral and intense. 94/100
Pierre Henri Ginglinger Riesling Grand Cru Ollwiller 2013 Alsace
This producer is new to me, and I was so impressed by the wines. Fermented in large oak casks, this has a stony, mineral, appley nose that’s really focused with some waxy hints. The palate is lively and focused with lovely depth and texture. Stony, fine and mineral with really good concentration. 94/100
Josmeyer Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2001 Alsace (magnum)
This was a treat: a Riesling with some maturity on it. Complex, nutty, waxy nose with spuce, citrus and a bit of toast. So expressive and textural on the palate with white peach, lemons, minerals and wax. Very detailed, quite mature, but very fine too. 95/100
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I’m in Alsace, and last night I began with some crémant, Alsace’s traditional method sparkling wine, of which over 30 million bottles are produced annually. Here are a few that I tried.
Dirler-Cadé Brut Nature 2013 Alsace, France
Lively and focused with nice bright citrus fruit and a hint of wax and lemon. Lovely fruity style. 89/100
Domaine Bores Blanc de Noirs Sec NV Alsace
This is quite rich and a bit sweet with nice depth to the clean pear and citrus fruit. Works well in this sweeter style. 87/100
François Schmitt Blanc de Noirs NV Alsace
Lively and bright with nice ripe apple with some cherry fruit. Has a lively, fruity personality with some savoury notes in the background. Really appealing. 90/100
Alfred Meyer Brut de Katz NV Alsace
This is 100% Auxerrois. Lively and fresh with nice citrus fruit and a bit of pithiness. Dense and fresh with a hint of herbiness and even some cherry fruit. Stylish. 89/100
Schoenheitz Brut 2008 Alsace
Zero dosage. Very fresh and tart with appealing lemony fruit. Lively and bright with lovely elegance and purity, and a lemony core. 91/100
Vincent Fleish Dame Nature Zero Dosage NV Alsace
Complex, rich and quite bold with nice lemony fruit. Spicy, ripe, appley and appealing with nice weight and richness. A really interesting wine. 90/100
Zeyssolft Brut NV Alsace
This is majority Pinot Blanc. Fresh and linear with nice lemony fruit. Bright, focused, fruity and focused with some pithy notes. 88/100
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Lunch at Daniel Primack’s on a perfect June day. We sat outside, listened to music, ate salt marsh lamb and talked. And drank some lovely wines.
Champagne Pierre Gimonnet Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru Oenophile Extra Brut 2008 France
This is just such a pure expression of Chardonnay. It’s direct and quite taut with precise lemony fruit, as well as subtle toast and crystalline fruits. Lovely taut wine. 93/100
Château Le Puy Rose-Marie 2014 Vin de France
This is a naturally made rosé from Bordeaux, and it’s a varietal Merlot, and it’s a remarkable wine. It’s sort of a half-way house between a rosé and a lighter red wine. Full pink/red colour with a bit of bricking on the rim. Fine and silky with lively spicy structure. This has real finesse showing sweet red cherries and plums as well as a savoury pepperiness. Complex, vital and delicious with a forest fruits quality, and also just a hint of strawberry jam. 95/100
Fedellos de Couto Bastarda 2013 Spain
I’ve written about this wine before, so it was nice to be able to encounter it again. It’s a lighter red wine from the Ribeira Sacra region of Spain. It’s from the Merenzao variety, which is the local name for Bastardo (Portugal) and Trousseau (France). The Fedellos do Couto project (which translates as the ‘four brats of Couto) is a collaboration between Jesús Olivares, Carlos Bareño, Pablo Soldavini and Luis Taboada, and they have 5.5 hectares of vines. Very supple, fresh and detailed with lovely sappy raspberry and cherry fruit. Nice and bright with a leafy, sappy edge. There’s fruit sweetness here but also freshness. Fine and expressive. 94/100
Lino Maga ‘Montebuono’ Oltrepo Pavese 1990 Lombardy, Italy
Daniel reckons this wine ‘tastes of life and death.’ It’s supple, spicy, grippy, tannic and tarry with notes of iron, spice and blood. Lively acidity here with cherries and citrus fruits. Supple, bright and focused. 93/100
Le Domaine de Lucie Les Saviaux 2012 Crozes-Hermitage, Northern Rhône, France
This is an organic wine from Lucie Fourel. Very perfumed with lovely floral black cherry fruit. Very focused with good acidity. Expressive and pure with tar, raspberry and black cherry fruit, as well as some savoury meatiness. Nice and typical. 93/100
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Champagne isn’t a region known for innovation. When you have a product that’s so delicious and so commercially successful, then why would you mess with it?
But marketing is critical for Champagne. Its value isn’t so much in its intrinsic sensory qualities, as much as its perceived worth. Many normal people drink Champagne and enjoy it simply because it is Champagne: a true celebrity among wines. So smart Champagne houses have realised that there’s an audience they are missing out on. This is an audience who, when they go out, don’t want to simply order a glass of wine or Champagne. They want something a bit more elaborate. Spirits/cocktails/mixed drinks are becoming extremely popular, and the large Champagne houses are keen that they aren’t left behind.
Hence Veuve Clicquot Rich, a new product (first introduced last year, but with the very recent addition of the rosé to the range). It’s a Champagne ‘dedicated to mixology’. The idea is you serve it in a large glass, over ice, with a selected ingredient that is supposed to bring out the best in the wine.
I was curious, so I went to the Veuve Clicquot Aqua Nueva Roof Garden to check it out (30 Argyll Street, London W1F 7EB).
The Rich Rosé is a 45% Pinot Noir, 40% Meunier, 15% Chardonnay blend with 12% of red wine, giving it a full color. But in order to make it work in a mixed drink context, it is given a higher dosage (60g/l, compared with the standard 9g/l). The idea is to serve it over ice with ingredients such as lime, ginger, pineapple or Earl Grey Tea. We went for the ginger option, and it worked really well. Tried on its own, the Rich is noticeably sweet, but still balanced.
As a comparison, we tried it alongside the regular Rich, which came with a cucumber garnish. This was also pretty good.
These drinks fit very well with the trendy high-end bar vibe of Aqua. The big question: is it somehow wrong to use Champagne in mixed drinks and cocktails? Don’t you lose the nuances that make Champagne special? Wouldn’t any other – far cheaper – sparkling wine be able to do the same job? The answer is that it matters that this drink is all about two very powerful brands. There’s Champagne, and there’s Veuve Clicquot. When you pay for luxury, you don’t pay for the functionality of the product, although it has to be functional. No one buys a high end handbag because of its functionality as a handbag, and no one buys an expensive watch because of its accuracy in telling the time. Just as with Moët’s Ice, the concept can be copied, but the dual brand quality can’t.
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As I was waiting to board a recent flight, a group of young people in front of me were singing. Harmonising competently. Not too loudly, but for a moment it was quite beautiful. I’ve been in situations with colleagues where we’ve done some communal singing. Mostly bad and not entirely sober. But it has been lovely to sing along with others.
I reckon that many people enjoy expressing themselves artistically, but don’t do it all that often. They also want to connect with art: the consumption of the art of others is another way that we satisfy this internal need to express ourselves. Whether it’s music, theatre or art galleries, normal people are interested in engaging, but often experience frustration because often they can’t connect. The gap between where they are and the sort of experiences offered to them is simply too large.
So we have this gulf between popular culture, which is often trivial and unsatisfying (and is typically owned and delivered by large corporations), and highbrow art experiences. Relatively few cross over from one to the other, and the middle ground just isn’t there. And popular culture often is not participatory: it’s something that is delivered to us in easily digestible form.
There’s a need for something else. Art where we can connect and participate, without being experts or being to operate at the highest level. Is the accessibility problem the result of elitism? Is it that art gatekeepers are experts and are unable or unwilling to reach down far enough to bring people up a level? Or is it that you can’t make art accessible without losing that which makes it worthwhile?
I’d argue that it’s the former. A failure to see from the perspective of others. We are often guilty of this in whatever sphere we operate. We progress, and then we raise the barrier to entry. We readjust to our new level of expertise and normalize this, and then are surprised when no one is listening any longer.
Do we also do this with wine? Are people like me too elitist, writing about esoteric wines out of the reach of normal people? Do we make it too hard for people to get into wine?
I think we do. Those of us who write about wine we need to make more of an effort to be accessible. It’s not that we need to drop our critical faculties and tell people that crappy commercial wine is great. We just need to reach outside our geeky comfort zone and remember what it was like for us when we were first getting into wine. And we need to help people distinguish between good and bad commercial wine.
It was raining when we woke in the Mosel, and the rain continued most of the way on our journey to the Ahr Valley. It had mostly cleared by the time we reached this beautiful, but tiny wine region – Germany’s most northerly, and, surprisingly perhaps, one devoted to Pinot Noir. The day before the river had swelled to 4 m, and had taken with it some trees, vegetation, and low-lying vineyard rows. It looked quite scary.
Our visit was with Alexander Stodden, of Jean Stodden, one of the top producers in the region. We walked for a bit in the vineyards around his village of Rech, and then tasted through and incredible line-up of Pinots. Elegance, focus, purity and freshness are the hallmarks here.
From here, it was off to the Rheingau. We were to visit Leitz, and fortunately the rather ominous-looking clouds began to clear as we arrived in Rudesheim. This is where we took a ferry across the Rhine, which gave us a great chance to view the Rudesheim mountain, a big bump sticking out above the town, home to a lot of interesting looking vineyards.
At Leitz we had a spot of lunch and then headed out into the vineyards. In places, these are as terrifyingly steep as some of the Mosel ones, with interesting looking soils. We had a look at the amphitheatre that is at the end of the Roseneck, and then at the Schlossberg, with its castle. Back at the winery we tasted through the wines, with the Gross Gewachs – dry wines from privileged vineyard sites- being a particular highlight.
Oberhausen. Brücke is to the left of the river
Felsenberg. I had just climbed up this row of vines
After another drive, we arrived at Dönnhoff in the sleepy village of Oberhausen in the Nahe. We were taken on a vineyard tour by Anna, wife of Helmut’s son Cornelius, including a stop at a scenic spot high up on top of a hill that affords panoramic views of the region. Then we went back down, and a few of us clambered up one of the steep porphyry-clad slopes of Felsenberg to have a look at the tower at the top of the vineyard.
Dinner was a mellow affair, with Helmut, who is a complete legend. The following day I woke early and went for a walk over the bridge on the Nahe, to inspect the tiny but fabulous Brücke vineyard. This was followed with an extensive tasting focusing on the 2015 vintage, which is truly spectacular. Dönnhoff’s wines are brilliant: pure, concentrated, focused.
Then it was time to drive again: to the Rheinhessen, where we were to visit two producers. First, Guntrum, with the charismatic Konstantin Guntrum. There’s a bit more volume here than at other producers we’d so far visited, but the wines are consistently good. We lunched on quiche high up in the Hippinger vineyard, looking over the Rhine and down towards Nierstein. The red slate here is a very distinctive soil type that makes focused, ageworthy Rieslings.
The vineyards of Fierstein, Rheinhessen
Drinking the wine in the vineyard it came from
Our last visit was with another master of the red slate: Gunderloch. A few years back Fritz Hasselbach handed over to his son Johannes, and the winery seems to be in very good hands. Rothenberg is their key vineyard, and it has a talent for both dry and fruity wines, and both are made here. It was a lovely end to a really great trip.\
Just the briefest of blog posts this morning from what is turning into a truly enlightening but also incredibly fast-paced trip. The only downtime we have had so far is lengthy bus journeys between the various German wine regions, which are spread out quite a bit.
Sebastian and Paul Fürst
We began at Fürst, in Franconia. The strength of the house here is Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), although they also make very good Riesling and a lovely Sylvaner. It was nice to meet both Paul (father) and Sebastian (son), who are doing such great work.
Second stop was my first time in the Württemberg region, which is right next to the major city of Stuttgart. For a long time, the thirsty local market made selling bad wine profitable and easy, but we visited a quality minded producer who started from scratch in the mid-1990s: Schnaitmann.
Rainer Schnaitmann makes super Spätburgunder and really nice Limburger (Blauftrankisch). He also makes a really interesting natural wine from Trollinger, the dominant local red variety known for heroic yields and big berries.
It was a long drive from here to Johner, in the south of the Baden region, just over the river from the Alsace vineyards. We met with Karl and Patrick, the father and son team that not only run this winery, but also a winery in Gladstone, in New Zealand’s Wairarapa. The wines here are really good, with the strength once more being Spätburgunder.
Another long drive took us to Villa Wolf in the Pfalz region. Hosted by winemaker Sumi Gebauer, we tasted through the range, which spans well made, affordable varietals to some pretty smart high end Riesling from the better sites.
Sumi Gerbauer, Villa Wolf
Then another drive took us to the Mosel, where we met with Ernie Loosen. It was my second time here, and I was once again amazed by the vineyards here, some of them planted on astonishing slopes that I wouldn’t even walk down, let alone try working on. We tasted through the range, which included some really stunning dry Rieslings from GG sites, made with native yeasts and long ageing on the full lees in large oak with no racking.
More on all of this later. Today brings more driving, and more visits: Stodden in the Ahr, Leitz in the Rheingau and Dönnhoff in the Nahe. This is such an interesting trip.
About to get on a plane. The destination? Germany. A wine country that I visit all too rarely, but which I always enjoy. My most recent visit was to the Ahr Valley, and I’ll be going back there this week. And previously I did a trip round Germany’s wine regions that was great fun.
So, the producers on this itinerary:
- Fürst, Franken
- Johner, Baden
- Stodden, Ahr
- Loosen, Mosel
- Leitz, Rüdesheim
- Dönhoff, Nahe
- Guntrum, Rheinhessen
- Gunderloch, Rheinhessen
- Schnaitmann, Württemberg
- Villa Wolf, Pfalz
It’s quite a list and I’m looking forward to it. I so love travelling, and this year I think I may have set some sort of personal record for the number of nights outside the UK. Travel expands the mind; it disrupts routines. You can’t travel and remain in an unconscious rut. You are pushed into the mental and emotional space where you become open to directed change. And change is part of life.
I think about change a lot. We all change; it’s simply impossible to remain the same – like a plane in mid flight, it’s not possible to park up and remain where we are. For most, though, change is an unconscious thing that happens to them, like ageing. It’s as if they follow a pattern. A path not of their own choosing.
I guess I have been like this in the past, but I don’t want to continue that way. I’d like to change consciously. Travel is a prompt that helps me step back and look at myself and have some sort of honest appraisal. The ego observed is stripped of its destructive influence. All these people around me. All with their lives every bit as detailed and significant as mine. This big world. Suddenly I see myself as part of something much bigger. A part of a huge universe.
Back to wine. I suppose you could be a really good wine journalist and travel only occasionally. But it’s so much easier to understand a region or country’s wines when you’ve actually been there. At the beginning of a trip like this I know I am going to learn a great deal. I’m looking forward to it immensely. I think it’s also going to be tremendous fun. [The picture above is of the Ahr valley on a freezing winter's day. I'm hoping it looks a bit greener this week.]
This is a new wine. Naturally made Garnacha (deliberately chosen as the name to indicate a style difference, rather than the local Cannonau), just 360 bottles produced! It’s such an indulgence to write about wines like these, but this is what keeps wine interesting. It’s just great that someone cares enough about wine to make the special effort to do a project like this.
The grapes come from northern Sardinia, and Mick O’Connell, who works with Handford, and his partner, managed to blag some grapes and then pick a couple of weeks before all the locals to produce this wine (5 kg picked 29 August for pied de cuve, then 500 kg picked 31 August) which is made whole bunch (foot trodden in fibre glass tank, but one fifth done carbonic), then basket pressed into two glass demijohns. There was some temperature control: evian bottles were frozen and then suspended in the tank at the most violent part of ferment. No sulfur dioxide is added, save for a tiny bit after malolactic fermentation and a bit at bottling (free is 5 ppm and total 13, which is super-low; pH 3.57), and it weighs in at 12.9% alcohol. This is what is great about natural wine: picked early, super-smashable, but with a hint of seriousness.
Very few people will be able to get this wine, but it shows the potential of warmer regions such as Sardinia to make amazing wines, if the culture of the growers changes. Europe has astonishing terroirs that are largely currently not being used properly.
Garnacha not Guerra 2015 Sardinia, Italy
Juicy, bright, fresh and vivid with supple, sappy cherry and plum fruit. There’s a bit of grip here, but not too much, and the fruit is on the red cherry, raspberry spectrum. Finely grained structure is present but not obtrusive with nice acidity. There’s no greenness here, despite the early picking. It’s not the world’s most complex wine, but it’s thoroughly delicious, beguiling and properly smashable. 92/100 (Availability: Handford and Carte Blanche have some in the UK, but Handford say they have sold all theirs. Retail price £22)