Württemberg is not one of the wine regions the average wine drinker will know much about; most likely they will not even have heard about it. Now, I could tell you a that it is a rather interesting area - a red wine making region dominated by a plethora of growers associations and rivers - but the main reason I like to drink wines made by the local tribe of the Swabians is that I was born there. In fact, as a child I played not far from Rainer Schnaitmann's Lämmler vineyard.
So every now and then I need to go back, to check what my homies are up to.
Northwest of Stuttgart, there is a land of wooded hills and industrious little towns called the Stromberg. In the Stromberg, there is the tiny village of Schönenberg. In Schönenberg, there is an Inn called Lamm, the lamb. There, I've had some of the best, most unpretentious Swabian regional food of my life, and took away this bottle of home-produced Lemberger.
Price tag: below 4 €. You can't say fairer than that, can you?
How to start a posting on a topic on which I may have bored half my readership to death, whereas the other half may not even know it exists? Even after a glass or two I haven't worked it out, so you will have to forgive me for this uninspired start. To summarise what I have said on this topic earlier: yes, there is German Sauvignon Blanc, and it brings a lean, mineral and precise elegance to this grape that is just adorable - but there isn't much of it. On the positive side the fact that the grape is rare means that it tends to be grown by vintners who put effort into it, which may explain why my previous encounters have been so enjoyable.
This time I am looking at an SB from Württemberg, my home state in the south west of Germany, and to make it even more unusual it comes from a garage winemaker.
It's well known that for the first few years after planting, vines yield bumper harvests, but cannot quite produce the concentrated, characterful flavour in their grapes that old vines are renowned for. So it struck me as somewhat self-defeating when I saw "from young vines" clearly spelled out on this Swabian Cabernet Franc (yes, that's right: Swabian Cabernet Franc) - as far as I'm aware, there is no obligation for a wine grower to inform customers of this on their label. It's either unusually decent and straightforward of Hans Hengerer, who is still a fairly young vine himself, to put it on there.
Or, and this became more plausible for me with every sip of this wine - it is actually a teaser: "It's that good now. Just wait till you taste it when they're fully grown...". Because it actually is that good now:
Frickenhausen-Linsenhofen - say that five times real fast? I would particularly encourage you to try this after you have had a few glasses of wine, for instance the old vines Silvaner pictured below. While you might have to disentangle your tongue afterwards I can at least assure you that it is otherwise perfectly save to say even in polite German company - unless perhaps the Germans are from a neighbouring village that has a long-standing feud with the Frickenhausen-Linsenhofeners.
Now, despite being born in the area my knowledge of local feuds and other details is scant, but I do know that Frickenhausen-Linsenhofen is home to one of Germany's highest vineyards. And it is here where Helmut Dolde makes a Silvaner from 50 year old vines ("Alte Reben").
If you're a regular follower of this blog (and you better had be) you know that there are several threads or agendas woven into it without much subtlety. One, doomed to failure, is the notion that we could get to understand Burgundy. Another, with better progress, is to bring the use of cheap puns in wine reviews to new lows. A third is that, both of us with roots in the German southwest, we are tirelessly working to see Swabia rise. Not so much rise to world dominance through thrift, Kehrwoche and the manufacture of car parts. That will happen inevitably, without our doing. No, we would see her rise in the world of wine also. And rise she will, as Germany's up-and-coming red wine region.
Quietly pruning their vines to this goal, plotting away, are people like those from the Zimmerle family winery of Württemberg's Remstal subregion, northeast of Stuttgart. Could their three-varietal red wine cuvée be another step forward in the quest?
It's a sad thing indeed when a wine lover is failed by a wine, but can a wine also be failed by its tasters sometimes? We had such a case on our hands at a recent Wine Rambler full committee meeting: You judge for yourselves whether we are being too hard on ourselves. While the dry wines that go with dinners at Wine Rambler Munich HQ are usually settled on beforehand, the dessert offering is, for some reason, usually selected spontaneously during the course of the evening after lively, alcohol-fuelled debate. This has led to some very fortunate choices, inspired by the moment, but sometimes, some prior planning would have been preferable.
When the name Merkle came up on the most recent of these occasions, I thought of the 2009 Riesling-Gewürztraminer cuvée I had tasted at the winery last year. I remembered Gewürztraminer lushness, coupled with the Merkles' typical herbal spiciness, and I remembered above all sweetness. Just the thing, and a change from the more usual Mosel Spätlese or Auslese. I should have realised that the 2010 I had in my cellar was as different from the previous vintage as can be:
Our regular readers (is there any other kind?) know that we have a special fondness for wines that come with a bit of history. Today, I would like to take you with me, if you'll come, to the vineyards of the former Cistercian abbey of Maulbronn, some 50 kilometers north-east of Stuttgart. For their monasteries, the monks of the Cisterican order sought out places of utter solitude, far from any previous settlement. At least this was the theory since the 12th century. While that was mostly technically true, remote land doesn't mean bad land. In fact, the Cistercians were more like agricultural property developers, with an canny sense of where the most fertile new land could be found, and with an unrivalled grasp of the technology and organisation to remake it and reap its riches.
Among other clever things, they pioneered grape varieties and wine growing techniques exported out of Burgundy in much of the German-speaking lands.
When last encountered on this blog, the plucky little Württemberg winery of Georg and Anja Merkle was in the immediate aftermath of a damaging freak frost. I reported on the brave face that Georg and Anja Merkle put on what was a serious (and completely undeserved) setback, as well as on their philosophy of quality winemaking (you'll find the full story here). It seemed to me then, as I tasted my way through their portfolio, and I tried to put this very politely in the article, that their red wines especially might be pushing too hard. Too hard for power, too hard for concentration, that, impressive as they are, they may sometimes have left lightness and charm behind in order to run with the big boys.
As it so happens, I found the biggest boy of those I took home with me last year still sitting in my cellar, silently flexing his muscles. So is it time for another look, and maybe a reassessment?
Swabian Muscat, anyone? There's no doubt that solid old Swabia (that's "Württemberg" for you, in wine label terms) can do much: She can do somewhat dubious specialties like Trollinger and Samtrot, harmlessly light regional reds, but then she can also come out with powerful Rieslings and surprisingly high-brow Lembergers and Pinot Noirs. But dry Muscat, that feathery-light, elderflower whiff of springtime? Let's just say it takes a certain leap of faith. To be honest, if this offering had not come from Kistenmacher & Hengerer, an up-and-coming winery that has recently impressed us with the seriousness of their old-vines Lemberger, we might not have given it a chance either.
Have they actually pulled it off?
This little review revisits old Wine Rambler territory: Swabia's Stromberg region, last seen in the throes of a damaging freak frost in the spring of last year. This time, another winery, just one picturesque beech-forested ridge away. The Steinbachhof is an ancient estate created by the cistercian abbey of Maulbronn, then owned by the dukes, later kings of Württemberg, and now by two adventurous young people, Nanna and Ulrich Eißler, who supplement their income from wine growing by hosting wedding and business receptions in a beautifully refurbished old barn.
From a recent short visit, I brought a bottle of Riesling that, sadly, you won't be able to find outside of Germany, or Swabia for that matter, for any time soon:
Whenever I come across good wine from the Württemberg region, I feel some irrational pride - irrational if you consider that while I have been born there, I left my Swabian homeland many years ago and have never looked back. While I went away, others clearly thought it was good to move to Swabia - at least in the middle ages when the noble family of Hohenlohe acquired property in Öhringen, north-east of Stuttgart. They clearly liked it there and after some branching in and out, some pruning etc., there is still a branch of the famous family residing there, the Hohenlohe-Oehringens.
Instead of quelling peasant rebellions, the Hohenlohe-Oehrigens of today are growing wine, organically of course. Like this grand cru Riesling.
Grower's cooperatives, in all fairness, are not the category of wine producers that one would look to for outstanding quality or individuality - neither in Germany nor anywhere else. In a way, though, they are more interesting in judging vintages and wine growing regions, because they tend to have somewhat more mixed grape material to work with, and usually cannot organize and motivate everybody to work extra hard and select more thoroughly to make up for weaker vintages, like individual wineries sometimes can. This makes winemaking technology more prominent - not something we wine snobs want to see as such, don't get me wrong, but looking for ever more characterful and expressively "natural" wines, you can loose track of the state of what the rest of us get to drink, other than resorting to supermarket brands. A bit like missing the fact that the chinese takeaway in your street has got much better under the new proprietor because you only ever eat at Gordon Ramsay's - if this clumsy analogy makes any sense.
Anyway, I wasn't thinking anything nearly as coherent when friends from - wait for it - Esslingen presented me with this bottle of cooperatively made, multi-varietal white. It was more along the lines of "Bottle o' swabian wine. Yummy".
If Swabia were a nation, it would as of now be the world's only nation ruled by an environmentalist green prime minister. And it would have a national grape. And that grape's name would be Trollinger. Trollinger, known also as Vernatsch in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy, a grape that Jancis Robinson's authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine classifies as "distinctly ordinary". Not many outside of Württemberg deny that this is so. What it makes for, so received wisdom has it, are pale reds with harmless light strawberry aromatics and hints of almonds at best, and a thin, metallic, boiled mash of berries if you're not so lucky.
The Swabians, however, will have none of it, and stubbornly and inexplicably stand by their grape, downing Trollinger as if it had the proverbial cure inside. It weren't so bad if this was a bread-and-butter grape like Müller-Thurgau, unexciting, but at least easy to grow and reliable even on vineyards with less than ideal soil, climate and slope. But it is very much a diva among varieties and needs ideal conditions to fully ripen, effectively making every acre of it an acre lost for Riesling or Pinot Noir. So to see for myself if this is just a lesson in sociology or collective psychology (for which read provincialism, parochialism and auto-suggestion), I decided to taste three Trollingers that had received good press.
One Saturday in early may, the regular 08.50 to Ochsenbach left Sachsenheim Station after having waited for the regional train from Stuttgart. The contents of that bus as it wound its way through what in a larger town one would call the outskirts, on to Hohenhaslach, past Spielberg and through increasingly picturesque beech forests, half-timbered villages and sun-streaked fields of flowers: 17 chatty, hiking-gear-attired senior citizens off to a walking tour, one insufferably precocious 13 year old boy giving a lecture on the importance of sunscreen to nobody in particular, and one Wine Rambler from Munich.
I had begun the ride somewhat under the weather due to an impossibly early start, but as we got under way, a feeling of deep provincial calm was beginning to settle over me. I was going for a strolling visit of a recultivated historical vineyard all by myself, and then the tasting room of the winery that made this happen. Shuffling into a more comfortable position in my Swabian-made bus seat, I was loving this already. Little did I expect to also learn the lesson that not all in wine making is sunlight and prosperity.
I confess that I read my co-Rambler Torsten's fine report on the marketing of German wine in the UK with the kind of sinking feeling that comes over me when faced with the strange irreality of wine marketing - a loop of popular perceptions created by marketing trends, which then need to be catered for by even cleverer marketing, a sense that I found nicely captured in Andrew Connor's comment as well. But how to leave the loop behind? By trying some goddamn German wine, instead of "German wine". Recently, we have been looking a lot at Württemberg, land of the engineers and car-parts manufacturers, and recently also the country's environmentalist stronghold, for that kind of new blood and new places. An example of how much can be achieved outside the classic growing areas, and outside pre-defined stylistic moulds, is the Kistenmacher-Hengerer winery of Heilbronn, a smallish town on the river Neckar.
So you're not quite prepared yet to move your Piesporter Goldtröpfchens and your Bernkasteler Doktors aside to make room in your cellar for this? Well then, here is our review:
A recent encounter with a Swabian Riesling from the Schnaitmann winery has done a lot to build up my pride in Swabian winemaking. The German wine growing region of Württemberg is mostly inhabited by members of the Swabian tribe, who outside of Germany are probably better known for their engineering than their winemaking skills.
They are also known as very tidy, law-abiding citizens, so it is somewhat unusual that a Swabian wine is called 'Evoé!' - this after all being the battle cry of the followers of the Greek god Dionysus. Are we looking at a totally un-Swabian, orgiastic rowdy wine?
Time to go regional on you again, with a grape variety hardly ever talked or thought about outside of the roughly 35 acres of land where people actually grow it. Tauberschwarz literally translates as "River Tauber black". While this does seem to provide a first tentative clue about the colour of the wine, a bit more remains to be explored: A bit more about what Weingut Hofmann, an estate that specialises in the all-but-forgotten grape, has brought to the bottle, and a bit more about the vinous backwater that has conserved this endangered species.
I am a Swabian. It is not easy for me to admit this. Not even in English and to an audience for which this may not mean anything at all. In Germany, there is nothing cool about being born into the tribe that is famous for bringing the world inventions such as the compulsory weekly sweeping of the staircase (I am not kidding, it is called Kehrwoche) or a special mortgage savings account (Bausparvertrag).
The latter may recommend us to the English, but I am coming out tonight for another reason. Yes, I am a Swabian and there is nothing cool about it. But I am also a Swabian who as a child played just a stones' throw from where Rainer Schnaitmann now makes this great value kick-ass Riesling in the town of Fellbach. Also, I am the Swabian who was lucky enough to down the wine with a cool Scottish girl who likes her white wine dry and has a crush on Swabians.
Before we give this unexpectedly gorgeous rosé from - get this - Württemberg its due, a word about its grape variety: Muskattrollinger is a cross between - you'd never have guessed it - Trollinger and Muscat that has been grown in Württemberg since the mid 19th century. Trollinger is the signature grape of Württemberg and usually produces very light, unmistakeably fruity reds - usually. Muscat is well known and adds its trademark floral explosiveness to the genetic mix.
And what a mix it is: It starts with an appetising salmon-copper-colour. It has red and white currants (yeah, get the white currants), gooseberry, elderberry and orange in its smell, and great fresh acidity and intensive spicy and floral fruit flavours in its taste. Wonderfully light on the alcohol as well. We are not known as the world's greatest rosé advocates here at the Wine Rambler, but you simply need to call a killer wine a killer wine.