Ever heard of Dunkelfelder? If not don't be alarmed - if I wasn't such a German wine nerd I probably had not heard of it either. It is a rare grape variety that doesn't have the best reputation, but it does have one of the coolest alternative names in wine classification: "Froelich V 4-4". Well, if you like to name your grapes after super weapons perhaps. Leaving unusual names aside, Dunkelfelder is one of the varieties that went into the 2005 vintage of "Pur Pur", and so eventually into my wine glass.
Is the Dunkelfelder wine a secret weapon or yet another of these German oddities we sometimes write about?
At times, I am quietly envious of my fellow Wine Rambler, who recently won British citizenship. I sometimes think I was born into the wrong country, as I rather fancy I would make a passable Brit myself. Case in point: I get acutely embarrassed in situations that nobody else would find even mildly troubling. When strolling through the heart of Munich recently, I stepped into the Dallmayr wine department on an impulse to see if any exclusive and glamorous new discoveries were on display. Having looked around and seen what I had come in to see, it suddenly occurred to me that I could not possibly leave without buying something (that would have been embarrassing, you see, because the shop assistants would form all kinds of disadvantageous opinions about me). Dallmayr, on account of their general adventurous pricing and the kind of impulse shopper they cater for, is not the best place to have a fit like this. At least I was sane enough to not want to leave a lot of money, so, fighting a rising sense of completely self-induced panic, I was relieved to find this bottle from my very favourite German winery lying invitingly beneath a fine cover of dust.
I already knew its story: 2006 had been so poor a vintage in Baden that Hans-Peter Ziereisen, quality-obsessed ruddy-cheeked devil that he is, did not want to bottle either his usual top-of-the-range Pinot Noir nor his varietal Syrah. His solution: Mix the Syrah with Pinot Noir to make a mid-range cuvée that would be interesting, but no more than it claimed to be. Hence the completely unusual grape mix, hence the name, Zunderobsi being a lovely dialect term for "topsy turvy". This is classic Wine Rambler territory.
Rock star, film director or actor - you haven't really made it to the top unless you own a vineyard. If you want to be up there with Aykroyd, Banderas or Coppola making your own wine is now an even better status symbol than a private jet. In the case of Barbara Laithwaite I suspect the motivation was different. Like her husband Tony, the co-owner of the UK's biggest wine company has stayed away from the limelight, and I'd be surprised if she'd own a jet. She also resisted the urge to buy an existing winery in California or Provence and instead planted vines in the Chilterns to make sparkling wine.
Fast forward a few years to find the Wine Rambler sitting down with a glass of 2009 Wyfold Vineyard brut.
Since the early days of the Wine Rambler I occasionally (and boldly I like to think) set out to explore the world of German wine as UK consumers experience it: in the supermarket. Despite many setbacks I have persevered, out of patriotic and journalistic duty. However, after the flop with German wine from Waitrose even I needed a break - and so I have switched both supermarket and country, in the hope that Tesco and New Zealand would deliver the goods.
And as if that was not enough firepower I also brought in the tenth most powerful woman in wine.
If you have a look around on the Heymann-Löwenstein website you will eventually stumble upon a message from a Belgian wine merchant. He reports from a blind tasting of Champagnes into which he smuggled a bottle of Löwenstein's non vintage sparkler - and despite being the cheapest wine it got by far the highest score, beating the likes of Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse and Ruinart. This is the type of underdog story that would usually be told about English fizz, but it doesn't hurt to remember that other countries also produce great wines made according to the classic Champagne method.
That Germany is one of them should not be a surprise, after all it consumes around a quarter of the world's sparkling wine and produces close to 400 million bottles a year.
We could not leave the waning year behind without giving you the official shortlist you've all been nervously waiting for. Just to make sure you don't get the wrong impression: This is a highly subjective parade. It's ours alone, and it's in no way a comprehensive ranking. The following are simply those that impressed and delighted us most out of the minuscule drop of German Wine ocean that we happen to have sampled over the past year. It so happens that all of them were from past vintages, rather than fresh out of the 2011 barrels, but again, that is in no way a judgement on the qualities (or lack thereof) of the current vintage.
Seven years is not a biblical age for a bottle serious red wine, but the Austrian wine scene being obsessed with youth and each new vintage, it is not quite so easy to find older bottles of interesting Austrian reds. Except if you manage to navigate this Wine Rambler's tiny cramped cellar. Recently, I got lucky down there, and found this. Upon seeing the label and suddenly remembering having bought it all those years ago, I made the executive decision that its time had come. It had that in common with the goose who had lost her life for Martinmas and was about to be cooked with some apples and red cabbage.
The Leithaberg is a range of low hills northwest of Lake Neusiedl that a few winemakers from Austria's Burgenland region discovered for its cooler, steeper vineyards after they had become bored by the powerfully fruity, but somewhat complacent wines to be made from their lakeside plots.
Andreas Durst likes his photography natural, but stylish. And, not being one to be taken in by glossy surfaces and wines that wear a lot of make-up, as it were, Andreas Durst likes his own wines straight and clear. So when he makes a rosé, it's no surprise that it doesn't turn out all fruity and sweet.
By now word has got around that there is German red wine. I mean, it has, right? If it hasn't, can you please just nod politely and leave me the illusion that after shouting about it for a few years we have at least got that message out? So, as we all know by now that there is German red wine, let's deal with the fact that there is quite a lot of it these days. Germany, for instance, is the world's third largest producer of Pinot Noir - or Spätburgunder as it is known there and as you can see on the label below.
At the Langenwalter winery they don't just make some of this - almost half the grapes grown in the Pfalz vineyards are red, actually. This includes Portugieser, Dornfelder and Cabernet Sauvignin. So you'd think that with that much quantity around and a few hundred years of family history the Langenwalters will know something about making good red wine.
It has been a while since France, the world's greatest red wine country (yes, deal with it!) has drawn me into its sway. This time, it's the unlikely region of the Touraine. Lured by the relative exoticism of that appellation for red wine, by the very original varietal mix of Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Malbec, and not least by my love for regional French reds of any ilk, it was more than easy to give in to temptation.
But don't get the idea that some highly strung luxury cuvée caught my eye with a suggestive wink. No, it was a working man's red, as befits the outcome of the recent presidential election.
Dear readers, you know what we're about here. You know how much we try to promote a sense of place and provenance as the basis of wine culture. And we always will. But when it comes to the traditional German way of naming a wine not by what might catch on with people, but by a hermetic kind of descriptive prose that tells you about the exact vineyard that produced the grapes, how ripe they were when harvested, how dry or otherwise the finished wine will taste and so on, we're torn. It can be great for wine nerds like us, but, language problems aside, it's fair to accept that many people don't care about it: Just tell me what wines are good to buy, ok? Fair enough, and up to a point, I even agree. Branded wines are a great thing, if and in so far as they do what, in a perfect world, brands should do for consumers: Find something they can like and depend on without reading up on what Germans call Warenkunde - specialist knowledge to decipher and recognize product quality and decipher the codes that products are packaged with and sold by.
And by introducing the PinoTimes project created by two young winemakers from the Pfalz, I think I can give you an example of what I mean:
It usually takes some convincing to get continental folk to accept that English sparkling wines are not only drinkable, but can be quite excellent. But since we already know that, we hold them to a higher standard than most other German wine drinkers probably would. It is from this fairly lofty perspective, and only from there, that this one disappointed us somewhat when it was soundly beaten by a French sparkler costing less than half in this mildly humiliating Wine Rambler blind tasting.
Tasting wines blind can be cruel. I wonder if Rober Parker Jr. or Jancis Robinson have been there before - that red-faced moment when you realise that what you thought was, say, the 1990 Médoc was in fact the 2001 Lemberger from Württemberg, that where you thought you were on the safe side, you've been as wrong about the identity of two wines as you can possibly be. That sinking feeling. That barely disguised glee in the eyes of the other participants, who knew all along. If so, cheer up, Robert and Jancis, we've been there as well. If you have followed our blind tasting adventures so far, you may get the impression that we have an uncanny tendency to end up there as soon as the paper bags come off, but if so, we do all this in the spirit of selfless sacrifice and journalistic objectivity.
But let's take a step back from the brink of embarassment, and meet the two colour-coded contestants henceforth to be known as Green and Blue. Here is what we knew: One was a classic, somewhat pricey bottle of the very finest English sparkling, provided by London Wine Rambler Torsten, who may be the German-speaking world's most tireless advocate for English Sparklers. The other was a bottle of Vouvray Brut for a mere third of that price, and with absolutely nothing to lose. Not much hope for the underdog, was there?
Much as we here at the Wine Rambler make it our business to spread the word about the fine German, Austrian and English sparkling wines, it would be foolish not to recognize which region of the world sets the gold standard in this category. As a matter of fact, If I could give a few pieces of advice to humanity in general, one would be: Drink a bottle of decent champagne as often as finances allow. But then, that means "never" for such a large part of humanity (It means two or three times a year for me, if you must know) that after some thought I keep my advice to myself.
Speaking of gold standards, it was with a mind to stress-test my own personal one, Larmandier-Bernier's Tradition extra brut against a new candidate from what could be called received Indie Champagne: Jacquesson's "Cuvée 735". So, is there a new kid in town?
Sometimes Burgundy is not in France. Well, technically it might still be in France, for all I know, but metaphysically speaking I believe Burgundy is also a state of wine that can travel - and like the holy spirit of wine it can come down elsewhere and turn red wine into true Pinot Noir. Some of you heathens will now think of Oregon, New Zealand or California, but I have seen it happen in one of the more unlikely places on earth: the cool climate Mosel.
Yes, the Mosel makes Pinot Noir that can rival Burgundy. There may not be much of it, but I think of one man in particular, driven by faith in his vines: Markus Molitor.
If you want to test the German wine savvy of your knowledgeable friends, here's a little experiment you can conduct in the safety of your own living room. Tell them you want them to taste a German rosé, and inform them that it will be off-dry, well over ten years old, and come with a label sporting a coat of arms and cryptic Germanic font. Mention in passing that this bottle will come from the Müller-Catoir winery. 95 per cent of all wine drinkers will at this point have run away screaming, the living daylights scared out of them.
The remaining 5 % will ask for a screwpull without further ado. From then on, listen to those people.
We have all been there. You meet someone. At a wine bar, a pub, a club. They look nice, approachable. You talk a little and it goes easy, very easy. Almost too easy - you realise: a smooth operator. Now you should be careful, but somehow it feels good. Until disappointment finds you at last. However, as you get older, more experienced, you learn to spot them before it is too late: pleasant surface, charming, very smooth - but shallow and hollow, a disappointment. You are now a grown-up, and you won't fall for that trick.
I am a grown-up, and I won't fall for that trick. Or will I?
While sifting through the candidates for this year's Wine Rambler shortlist, we noticed hat we were less generous with top ratings in 2011 than previously, withholding our highest praise, "monumental", completely. Whether that means we are becoming more exacting in our critical standards or whether the truly stellar wines somehow passed us by and we had to make do with the enormously good we can't quite say. A bit of both, most probably.
As you may not want to take our word for it in every case (and indeed you shouldn't!), we have provided direct links to the wineries' websites for the adventurous among you to follow up, get into contact and inquire about distribution and availability. Almost all German wineries do their own shipping and are quite good at it. In case of deliveries to the UK, however, newly estranged from the European mainland, this will probably have to be arranged via the United Nations. Just joking. Needless to say, The Wine Rambler is entirely his own man, as it were, and not commercially associated with any wineries or merchants, although wines like the following sometimes can make us wish we were.
In a large blind tasting that pitted a selection of German Pinot Noirs against a wide range of international contestants, seven out of ten of the top ten scored bottles were German. This was widely publicised - not least on the Wine Rambler's Twitter account, of course - and even made some small headlines in the German general press. To be honest, I think you're well advised to take tastings of this kind with a pinch of salt, as they tend to follow their own marketing rules and cycles, and are often designed to fit into a Judgement of Paris kind of narrative. You can't help noticing, in fairness, that no Grand Cru Burgundies of the battleship class were lined up.
But I was pleased nonetheless, of course, because it underscored the validity of the case we've been making since the beginning of this blog: German Pinot Noirs can be very, very serious and deeply satisfying reds. And we have another one of these for you right here:
Other than many of my British acquaintances, I don't often complain about the weather in London as I usually like it. Today though it has thrown a spanner in the works of the carefully planned Wine Rambler schedule. Expecting autumn to make its appearance, I had opened a Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) the other day but now England is hotter and sunnier than it has been all summer - and here I am reviewing a wine that most people would rather associate with autumn. Having said that, a good Pinot should always be a great companion, so I hope you can forgive me for appearing unseasonal.
The Pinot in question comes from a highly respected producer in the Pfalz. On about 20ha, Steffen Christmann grows Riesling, Pinot Noir and a range of other grapes including Pinot Blanc/Gris and Gewürztraminer. Christmann is not only lucky to own parts of several very well known vineyards (such as the Ölberg), he also happens to be head of VDP, the leading German association of premier estates.