Is it too early to say that Italy, once haughtily ignored, is making a comeback on the Wine Rambler? In November, Torsten has had his eyes opened by a white from Trentino, and I, for my part, am more and more impressed with its northern neighbour, Alto Adige.
Now that everybody seems to concur that 2012 was over the roof on the banks of the Adige and the Isarco rivers, I have looked closer on reports of the last few vintages, and would you believe it, this has been going on for some time: Excellent on international varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, excellent on local growths like the reds Lagrein and Vernatsch.
So I've woken up to it: The Alto Adige has been stealthily creeping up on us. We can't have that, of course. So at the risk of blurring our core germanic focus, I will from time to time over the coming year report on what I have stocked up on.
We had heard a shy young Franconian winemaker talking about finding his own way, a sage dispensing Riesling wisdom, and the hulking star of the river Saar warn us of his own wines. But in spite of our heads beginning to spin, our palates starting to give out, and the lure of Dallmayr's fine sausages, cheeses and chocolates pulling us away, we had not yet heard enough...
In case you missed the first part of this report about Winzerelite ("wine growing elite"), the annual spring tasting hosted by posh Munich wine and fine food store Dallmayr, in which we were talking.... No we weren't, really. We resolved to, this once, fulfil our journalistic calling and let winegrowers do the talking. One wine each, and whatever they wanted to tell us about it and what choices they made in making it - those were the rules.
It does not always have to be Mosel. Nor does it always have to be Riesling. Well, there would be worse things in the world than to be limited to Mosel Riesling, but thankfully no demonic power has so far decided to make me choose between German wine growing regions. If that ever were to happen one of the other contenders would have to be the Pfalz. The Palatinate, as some of you may know it, is as large as it is diverse: amongst king Riesling and a range of other white grapes we see more and more exciting reds coming from the region west of Mannheim.
Like this Pinot Blanc most of the wines are dry. The Weißburgunder, as the Germans call it, comes from Koehler-Ruprecht, one of the renowned Pfalz estates. And damn is it drinkable!
I like Pinot Blanc. It's is that simple. As our regular readers know I am always in danger of rambling on for too long, so I will keep this short. I really like Pinot Blanc. In Germany it is called Weißer Burgunder or Weißburgunder ("white Burgundy") and one of the more popular white grape variety (although nowhere as common as Riesling or Müller-Thurgau). What I find particularly attractive about Weißburgunder is how it manages to be a very enjoyable drink but also has a more serious side, either in a leaner, smoky and edgy style or, especially when aged in oak barrels, a more complex and substantial one.
Julian has recently been somewhat unhappy with a Pinot Blanc from one of the top producers in Baden, so I wonder how this more inexpensive specimen from less prestigious Rheinhessen will do.
I always love it when a review is a first: To be able to report on a winery, or better still, a whole region of the wine world, that we have not yet touched upon. A mere check-up review, so to speak, on a well-represented winery and a vintage a few years past, seems much less exciting. But these, too, are very important. When wine guides, such as the very serious German online publication "Wein-Plus" regularly hold samples back for re-tasting and re-evaluation a few years after the first tasting, the results are often surprising, and always instructive. More wine guides and publications should do it, rather than to just keep celebrating each new vintage's potential.
I remember exactly the moment I first tasted this particular Pinot Blanc. It was at the annual autumn tasting extravaganza at Munich's Bayerischer Hof. I loved it right away for its streak of vibrant freshness that distinguished it among some of the blander white Pinots also on offer. My Co-Rambler Torsten, I also recall, was a bit more reserved. His may have been the better judgement.
Pinot Blanc. Currently 50th grape variety in the order of acreage planted worldwide. Often seen as Chardonnays less expressive brother. And one of Germany's most reliably satisfying grapes. Most British wine lovers, and indeed most of them around the world, primarily associate this grape with Alsace, a connection that won't be easily challenged (we have tried before). To prove that Germany can indeed do outstanding Pinot Blanc could seem an uphill battle, therefore, but in fact it's the easiest task in the world, as we can let wonderful German Pinot Blancs prove it for us (and get to drink them into the bargain).
This humble review is actually a double tribute. First, to wines that don't dazzle the nose or titillate the palate so much as enable food to shine by their ready availability, selfless service and smooth background operation. We Germans call them "bread and butter-wines". The kind of wine that you buy by the case and whose steady supply you take for granted, so much that it is only with the final bottle that you get round to properly appreciate (and review) it. Because of that, this is also a tribute to that specially cherished sixth bottle.
So here's to the very last taste of Heiner Sauer's more-than-serviceable 2009 Pfalz Pinot Blanc that I will ever have:
Growers' cooperatives, revisited. When we last mentioned them, we tried to be fair-minded and also point out their good and useful side, but ended up somewhat doubtful that particularly interesting wines could come out of them. Well, that only goes to show that the best of us sometimes have to eat our words, for the good wine growing people of Hagnau, a beautiful place on the Lake Constance shore, may have proved us wrong with a bottle of Pinot Blanc from their Burgstall vineyard.
We have had a lot of Pinot Blanc this spring and early summer - because it is a wonderful grape, because it seems to be made for this season and because it is one of the best companions for asparagus. And especially I tend to eat a lot of asparagus when it is in season. The asparagus season is over now, of course, but that does not mean it can't still be Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder) season!
This dry specimen comes from the Nahe valley and is made by a producer who has received a lot of praise for his Riesling over the past few years. Earlier this year, I met Tim Fröhlich at a wine tasting in London and was particularly impressed with his grand cru Rieslings. What about the entry level Pinot Blanc though?
It is one man in particular that every so often makes me crave American wine: Jim Clendenen, the Californian winemaker behind Au Bon Climat. The ABC Pinot Noir and Chardonnay I have tried so far were delicious and, if you consider how insanely expensive Californian wine can be, reasonably priced. As it has been a while since I had the pleasure and as I love all Pinot varieties I could not resist getting a bottle of ABC's Pinot Gris and Blanc blend.
With a label like this, impossible to imagine in France and probably even in Germany, I don't have to tell you what went into the wine, but for you lovers of more "natural" winemaking I can add that this ABC is an unfiltered organic product of spontaneous fermentation.
For me, the last couple of months were Silvaner and Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder) time - two of my favourite wines during asparagus season. A Pinot Blanc I was particularly looking forward to comes from Mosbacher, a well respected Pfalz winery. The Mosbacher Weißburgunder SL is made "sur lie", which is French for "on the lees", meaning that the wine spent extra time on the deposits of dead yeast - a process that is meant to result in more depth and substance.
I took the Weißburgunder with me to a four course asparagus menu, hoping it would be versatile enough to go with a range of dishes from asparagus soup to fish with asparagus spears and horseradish hollandaise.
Every spring I look forward to the asparagus season. Leaving aside the fantastic Silvaner grape, Pinot Blanc is one of my favourite wines to be enjoyed with asparagus. It also happens to be one of my favourite white wines, and so I used the last couple of months to reduce my stock of Weißburgunder, as the Germans call it. Wittmann's 2008 Pinot Blanc has been sitting in my wardrobe for two years now, waiting for a special moment.
When a fantastic looking turbot and two handfuls of lovely English asparagus found their way into my kitchen, that special moment had come. I had fairly high hopes for this wine, as Wittmann's "S-Class" have never let me down, some of them turning out to be truly stunning.
Those of you who have ever followed up on our coverage under the no other place-tag know that we have a special thing for out-of-the-way wine growing regions. But that doesn't mean that we want people to judge these wines more benevolently because of the originality or their provenance, nor do we. What we want is emphatically both regionalism *and* quality in wine.
Staatsweingut Meersburg, owned by my beloved home state of Baden-Württemberg, has certainly delivered before on publicly guaranteed wine quality. And they also own Germany's highest elevated vineyard, the Hohentwiel Olgaberg. Named, improbably, in honour of Olga Nikolajewna Romanowa (1822-1892),a Russian princess and later queen of the kingdom of Württemberg , it covers the hillside of one of the cone-shaped former volcanoes of the Hegau - a landscape of great beauty and distinctiveness that slopes from the edge of the black forest down to the lake constance basin, but has not so far been able to boast of any wine growing credentials whatsoever.
After taking a look at Pfalz wines in the last three reviews, time to bring you up to date on Germany's other bread-and-butter region, Rheinhessen. Many german wine drinkers turn there for lower-priced, everyday wines that they order in larger quantity, but don't necessarily talk about the way they would about last weekend's Großes Gewächs or the Mosel Auslese they serve at their own posh dinner party. Everybody has their place of choice - at the moment, mine is Dr. Heyden, whose workhorse wines are carefully made and very dependable, but who also overachieve significantly with their stylish and concentrated old vines-Silvaner and their truly excellent Frühburgunder. In what has become a little tradition, I have been going to see Frank Heyden behind his table at a twice-yearly wine fair in Munich for two years now, both to have a chat and to slip him a follow-up order.
Another wine that he served me there is his Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc cuvée. I liked it there and then. But how will it fare under the cruel light shone on the Wine Rambler's tasting table, where neither friendship nor enmity can hope to sway the incorruptible critic?
Our regular readers know that we think highly of Baden's southernmost subregion, the Markgräflerland, have enjoyed its original Gutedels and serious Pinots, and count on it to make its name in the international wine world fairly soon. You also know that we have explored the world of German sparkling wines with growing enthusiasm.
If we put those two together, what do we get? We get this all-organic sparkler from the (as yet) little-known Harteneck winery of Schliengen, halfway between Freiburg and Basel.
As far as aged wines go, eight years may not seem seriously old, but Pinot Blanc, especially from Germany, tends to be drunk as a younger wine, light and fresh in style. Having said that, some German wineries also produce more substantial Weißburgunder (German for Pinot Blanc), matured in oak barrels, that can and should age a few years. Dr. Heger is one of those wineries, located in the Kaiserstuhl, the warmest wine growing area in Germany with fantastic volcanic soil.
The dry Auslese from the Winklerberg vineyard is one of those more substantial Pinot Blancs. The colour shows the wine's age, an intense honey coloured gold that promises substance and maturity.
It's been a while since we last talked Pinot Blanc. So gather round me, friends: Pinot Blancs's reputation is generally lacklustre. In Burgundy, it's rather like Stephen Baldwin to Chardonnay's Alec - the younger brother who doesn't quite have the talent and will always be outshone. Mostly though, it is because international drinkers get their Pinot Blanc bearings from Alsace and Northern Italy, where results are often very drinkable, but ultimately rather bland, that Pinot Blanc is still underrated. In Germany, though, where it makes for about 3.5% of vines planted, it can be granted great growth status when grown in the best vineyards, and can indeed turn out distinctive and quite majestic wines. When we last checked in with one of the country's very best Pinot Blanc producers, the Bercher family of Baden's Kaiserstuhl subregion, we were confronted with rather too majestic a specimen: The 2004 great growth dry Spätlese. Impressive for its power, but pulled out of balance by high alcohol content, was our verdict back then.
Well, I'm most happy to report back to you on a younger version of the same wine:
And yet again I am drinking a Pinot from sun-kissed Baden; this time it is a Pinot Blanc, known in Germany as Weißburgunder (=white Burgundy). As I have written a lot about the producer, the Salwey family recently, I will keep this introduction short and jump right into the wine:
The bouquet is a mixture of melon and apple - Bramley apple, in particular -, with earthy mineral, soft notes of hand lotion and, surprisingly, the faintest hint of petrol. Light, smooth and enticing.
These days, I find myself drinking more and more Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc). It can be very food friendly (especially when you go for lighter food, fish and the seasonal asparagus (even though the latter is always a bit tricky)) and I enjoy the contrast to the sharper Riesling. A particularly good and typical recent example for Weißburgunder came from the Saar river, very close to the Mosel. It looked a little bit like this:
Yet again it is back to Baden for the Wine Rambler (this year I seem to drink more and more wine from Germany's sun-kissed southern wine region), and yet again a wine from the Heger winery: a surprisingly fresh and fruity, but otherwise very typical Pinot Blanc, if you want the short summary.