Pinot Grigio is dull. That would be a textbook provocative statement to catch the interest of the reader, and of course the author would qualify that statement to the extent that it was almost turned into the opposite. However, I do honestly believe that Pinot Grigio is dull. Not on principle, but the vast majority of Pinot Grigio I encounter is mass produced dullness to the extent that I'd discourage everyone to choose one - unless there are reasons to have hope for the wine, for instance when sourced from a good wine merchant or knowledgeable sommelier.
That at least is how I see the situation in the UK with imported Pinot Grigio. In Germany, or where German wine is available, there is a second route: buy wine made from the same grape variety, but done in Germany style. Sometimes, these wines are labelled Pinot Gris, like in France, but mostly you will find the German name Grauburgunder.
A while ago a friend introduced the Wine Rambler by saying that "Torsten and Julian write about German wines, mostly sweet ones". Looking back over the last month, last few years in fact, it is easy to see that that's not true - this year we haven't featured a single sweet wine and only a couple off-dry ones. As much as that reflects the German trend towards "trocken" (dry) it is also a serious oversight on our parts. So, to make up for it we, er, give you another dry Riesling - because the first half of 2013 has been a really "dry" year for us. Well, unless you think of the weather of course.
There will of course be sweeter times again, but for today let's turn to a German wine region that is not as visible internationally as it deserves, Rheinhessen, and an old vines ("Alte Reben") wine made by a young winemaker from grapes grown in a famous vineyard.
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.
Supermarkets are fascinating. They are evil, they are convenient, they are uniform, they are where we shop. Not all of us, not all of the time, but still often enough that the big chains have a turnover that dwarfs the GDP of many a country. And, despite what wine critics with their writings about hand-crafted wines from family-run vineyards sold by independent shops will make you believe, supermarkets are also where most people get their wine from - about 80% of the UK retail market. This means that if you want to reach the average wine consumer or if you want to understand what or how they buy, supermarkets are the place to go.
So every once in a while I venture into a supermarket and buy whatever German wine I find. If you have followed my supermarket wine exploits you will know that at times this has led to dangerous self-experimentation, and often to disappointment. Is today's wine any different?
It's not a typo (my auto-correct feature suggests "Riesling" instead), I haven't had too much to drink (sadly), it's not a new marketing term (as you probably are not sure how to pronounce the full name of this beauty you may have figured this out on your own) --- Rieslaner is indeed yet another of those German grape varieties you may have never heard of. You don't have to be too confused though, as Riesling was in fact one of its parents. I'd like to think Riesling was the father, whereas the Silvaner grape surely must be the mother, but I am probably falling for half a dozen sexist clichés here. However, one cliché is true: this German wine is sweet indeed. Very sweet. And delightful!
So let me introduce you to the child of my two favourite German grape varieties, a bright and fun kid that just doesn't like to travel much from home.
Arson, sieges, war - not really the first words that would come to mind when thinking about wine: or a mill. And yet such events feature prominently in the long history of the Steinmühle (stone mill) winery in Rheinhessen. Since the Middle Ages, the mill in Osthofen has been burnt down a few times, and yet there it still stands. And it is still in the hands of the same winemaking family, for eleven generations now.
I did not know that when I was handed a bottle of their 2010 Sylvaner (the date 1275 on the label could have been a hint) - but then wine should mostly be about the enjoyment and the history lesson just a good swashbuckling story to be told after the second or third glass.
There is not much I have in common with Cato the Elder. I am not a politician, I never gave a banquet in honour of Jupiter, my Latin is mediocre and I never supported a ban on women riding in carriages. I don't even drink much Italian wine. And yet at moments I have sympathy for the old grump, and that is when I end statements on German wine with: ceterum censeo you have to try Silvaner! In the UK, where knowledge on German wine beyond sweet Riesling is rather limited, this sometimes makes me feel like a lonely preacher, repeating the same mantra like a bumbling (rambling?) fool. Now imagine my joy when I finally met a man who showed me what real Silvaner obsession is.
Or Sylvaner obsession, as wine grower and maker Michael Teschke prefers to spell it. Michael's dedication to Sylvaner has turned him into a figurehead for the grape variety, so much so that some call him the "Sylvaner God". Interestingly, others refer to Micheal as "Arse Teschke" - and if you want to know how that actually relates to Sylvaner quality you will just have to read on.
Wine travel writing has to feature passionate winemakers, gorgeous vineyards and fabulous wine. I will get to these in future posts on my recent visit to the German wine country around Mainz, but today is about looking at wine writing from the other side. It is about wine writers and communicators, about introducing the press trip and - most importantly to me personally - it is about a man holding up a piece of cardboard. Or rather: his absence.
Ever since I stepped off my first airplane as a child, this man held the key for my ascendancy to a higher level of human existence. Looking at this man, waiting with his piece of cardboard at arrivals, the young Torsten concluded that there are two types of travellers: those who just pass through, and those who, as a person or through their mission, have been deemed worthy enough to by picked up by that man. I travel a lot for work, but the highest appreciation I have been shown so far is being walked from Coventry train station to the university. Walked. And there was no sign with my name on it. Now imagine my joy when the invitation from the German Wine Institute to participate in an "international press trip for bloggers" contained the magic words: "arrivals", "driver" and "sign". On 6th October I would finally meet that man at Frankfurt Airport, and his name would be Mr Würzburger.
If like us you fell in love with the Silvaner grape you will probably forgive me for featuring yet another wine made from this German variety - and if you don't love it yet, well, I am not going to shut up until you do. In fact, there will be more Silvaner coming your way on the Wine Rambler over the next weeks. Anyway, Wittmann. I was really looking forward to try the basic 2010 organic Silvaner from one of Rheinhessen's, in fact Germany's, best producers, especially as the 2008 Silvaner had been such fantastic value.
Can Wittmann repeat the success of putting a highly enjoyable white wine for (a little) less than nine Euro on the table with the 2010 vintage?
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.
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?
Looking back over the wines I have enjoyed over the past few months it was an impressive range of delightfulness and excellent quality. Despite having spent quite a bit on wine I think it was worth every penny, but I was also reminded not to forget to explore what is available on the cheaper end of the market. So during a recent visit to Sainsburys I grabbed a random bottle of relatively inexpensive German wine to set my experiences in perspective.
Mind you, there are people out there for whom £4.99 for a bottle of wine is anything but cheap. However, if you consider that around half of the price goes to the government (tax, excise duty etc.) and quite a bit to the retailer (and that does not even take into account the cost of shipping etc.) then you realise that such a wine has to be produced very cheaply indeed to be commercially viable. Too cheaply?
In the early 20th century the Germans embarked on a mission to create a genetically modified race of - no, not über-soldiers, but grape varieties. They were also not so much genetically modified as traditionally cross-bred, but the idea was to create varieties that could handle bad weather better, were robuster or addressed some other actual or perceived flaws in existing varieties. Scheurebe ("Scheu's vine") was created in 1916 and was for a long time thought to be a cross between Silvaner and Riesling, but has only recently been revealed to be a cross between Riesling and a wild vine.
Aromatic and with some similarities to Riesling, Scheurebe is often used to create complex sweet wines, and - while not exactly grown on large scale - is increasingly popular with some of Germany's top winemakers.
The Keller winery in Rheinhessen is among Germany's finest, no doubt. Keller regularly receive high praise from wine critics and their wines command impressive prices. Recently, a double magnum of what some consider the top wine in the Keller range, the Riesling G-Max, fetched €3,998.40 at an auction, making it Germany's most expensive young dry wine. Now, can you imagine that the German authorities would even consider not allowing winemaker Klaus-Peter Keller to release one of his wines to the market? And yet this is what happened to the Silvaner I am introducing today.
What could have happened, you may wonder? Was the wine contaminated, a health risk perhaps? No. The authorities objected to the 'Feuervogel' arguing the wine was not typical for the region - and hence not worthy of being approved for sale.
The 2009 vintage in Germany has received lots of praise, in many cases way before the first wines were bottled and sometimes even before the last grapes were harvested. So it is high time for the Wine Rambler to more systematically explore what the vintage has to offer. Today's object of study, a Riesling (from the Rheinhessen region) that answers to the name of Ice Stream ('Eisbach'). It is one of the basic wines produced by the Battenfeld-Spanier winery, just a little above their range of entry wines. Over the past years, Battenfeld-Spanier have built up an impressive reputation, both for entry and grand cru level wines, so I was curious to eventually get round to try one of their Rieslings.
Being about a Litre bottle, the hardest part of this review was, of course, the choice of pun: "Following the litre" is lame, "Take me to your litre" is good, but has already been taken (I can't remember where I've read it). I'll have to come back to you on the puns. First, here's the message: Anyone can make an expensive wine that is at least very good. To make an estate-grown, non-industrial cheap wine that is enjoyable and has character, that's the difficult part. Dr. Heyden has joined the contest for Litre of the Pack (sorry) with his 2008 Silvaner, and we are talking 3,90 € for 1000 ml of it.
It is still Chardonnay time here at the Wine Rambler. Following some of my recent 'foreign' Chardonnay adventures, I decided it was time to go back to what Germany has to offer. This time the journey leads to Rheinhessen, where Philipp Wittmann goes from strength to strength with his biodynamic wines (yes, outstanding Riesling, but not only Riesling). What about his Chardonnay?
Today, we continue our exploration of under-the-radar grape varieties in german wine by introducing Pinot Noir's little brother (come on out, don't be shy): Frühburgunder literally translates as "early Burgundy", so we are dealing with a particulary early-ripening member of the pinot family. Like any precocious child, this small-berried variety can be difficult to raise, but promises great complexitiy and aromatics once it really comes into its own. In France, it is known as Pinot Pommier or Pinot Madeleine - except that it isn't really, because it is routinely blended with Pinot Noir without declaring this on the label. In Burgundy, for example, it is often not even known in which of the older Pinot vineyards it exists, and in what proportion. Such ignorance is not for us systematically-minded germans, of course, and in the 1970s, a winemaking college sent out researchers with clipboards, pens behind their ears (as I like to imagine it), into the vineyards to find out. One of the places where they were pleased at what they found must have been Dr. Heyden's vineyards in Rheinhessen, which have given us this excellent example for the grape's qualities:
My last few wine weeks were dominated by Pinot Blanc, so it seemed a good idea to return to the wonderful world of Riesling - in this case to the German wine region of Rheinhessen, where the Keller winery is based. Kellers have an awesome reputation and the demand for their premium wines is high enough that they can sell them in subscription. The wine to introduce today is not one of them, it is Keller's basic Riesling, no subscription necessary and a reasonable price.