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.
For a long time I thought wine needs no visuals. In the early days of the Wine Rambler we did not even have photos on the blog. After all, what use is it to see the label when all you need to know is inside the bottle - and surely that is better captured in words? Well, I was wrong. Wine is more than just taste. Amongst other things it is also image - an image created by, amongst others, wine photographers. Today we have one of them, Andreas Durst - who is also a winemaker -, explain why he feels that wine photography is failing, stuck in old clichés that always were a lie. Enjoy, and learn.
What's wrong with commercial wine photography? A photographic guest ramble by Andreas Durst
Wine glass glistening, autumnal gold on sloped vineyards, the winegrower wandering the vines in his Sunday best - or, another favourite image, we see him with glass in hand, tasting wine by romantically flickering cellar candlelight.
Wine photography as Heimatfilm - a cheap, sentimental romance.
This image is old hat, and even in the olden days of winemaking it would have been far from realistic. Winemaking means work, hard work. However, these hoary old clichés, even today, continue to dominate our image of wine and of the people who make it.
Philipp Kuhn, so his website proudly proclaims, is not only a 50%/50% but also a 100% man. Mathematically that may be sound, in a confusing way, but how does it relate to German wine? In a confusing but sound way, I would say. With his percentage rule the Pfalz winemaker stands for an internationally still overlooked, but nationally even more important trend: while half of Philipp's wines are white, the other 50% are red. And all 100% are dry. Well, every other year there may be a few bottles of sweeter stuff, but if we generously round up the 100% is probably still true.
Anyway, this Riesling is dry. A top Riesling from a grand cru vineyard. Is it more a 50/50 affair or a 100% win?
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:
As far as red wine is concerned, Julian and myself have some kind of informal, never-spoken-of division of labour: he does France, I do Spain. Now, as you know we usually do Germany here on the Wine Rambler, but our world would be much less diverse and exciting if we only did Germany. So, when it comes to the more substantial reds Julian does France and I do Spain. How that happened I don't know - and certainly for Burgundy I should make an exception, but there is still some Tempranillo in my magic wardrobe.
And let's face it, when you have a good Tempranillo, who needs the Rhone or Bordeaux? So it's a good thing that they do really nice Tempranillo at Bodegas Aalto...
Here's a fun fact of German wine geography: From the one region that most people would intuitively associate, as a landscape, with German Riesling, you will most likely never have tried one. The Mittelrhein region, the slopes of the Rhine valley from just south of Bonn, past Koblenz, to the mouth of the river Nahe in Bingen, is an iconic landscape of germanophile romanticism. It is strange to hear, then, that quality winemaking is actually having a hard time there, with potentially superb vineyards unworked and given over to scrubland, terraces in some disrepair, and only a handful of creditable producers holding on. Among those, some say foremost among them, the Weingart family. I have long wanted to place an order there, but only last summer got around to do it for the 2010 vintage.
In the shipment, this off-dry Kabinett. The utter classicism of the category within German Wine is nicely underscored here, I think, by the sylishly subdued label, and the old-school brown bottle. But this alone will not get the Wine Rambler to approve, so let's get to the more significant qualities:
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?
As the wine review I posted on Good Friday revealed a lack of spiritual cohesiveness with regards to what an appropriate wine for Easter should feel like, I have decided to play it safe on Easter Monday. Rheingau winery Ankermühle have moved away from the usual German approach of confusing customers with long and unpronounceable vineyard names and instead use snappy ones like "Jungfer" (spinster), "Maria" and "Hölle" (hell) - or today's Gabriel.
Admittedly, Gabriel's feast day is 29 September and not today, but I figured that going with a archangel would somehow be keeping in line with the easterly spirit.
Is there any wine that feels truly like Easter? I have been pondering this question for a while in order to pick the most suitable wine review to publish today - but I have failed miserably. For me every year Easter feels different, and every day of Easter feels different and stands for something else. Good Friday officially would be about loss, death and most importantly sacrifice, but I am not sure I'd enjoy a wine that tastes like this nor does today actually have any resemblance to these feelings.
So with Easter being so elusive I have decided to write about the most elusive wine I have tasted recently: Philipp Kuhn's "Incognito".
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?
Is it wrong to celebrate two Rieslings in a row? After Julian's ecstatic praise of an off-dry Saar Riesling I am now getting all excited about a dry specimen from the Pfalz. While I may ask for your forgiveness for presenting yet another German Riesling, the grand cru Reichsrat von Buhl needs no excuse - even if it was caught stealing from the cookie jar repeatedly. Yes, it is that good.
And it has a striking advantage over its friend from the Saar: you can get it outside of Germany too!
If it isn't overly original of a German wine blog to bring you another Riesling review, then this one is at least as close to the heart of this whole enterprise as you're ever going to get. We bring you what is, despite our previous coverage, arguably the best unknown Riesling producer anywhere: Weinhof Herrenberg, the jewel of the river Saar. Please also note this outstanding micro-winery's fondness for bad puns. In Claudia and Manfred Loch, we salute two kindred souls.
And we duly salute this 2008 offering:
There are not many things I like more than a bad pun. Good wine is among them, of course. During rare moments of hilarity, good wines and bad puns come together. This can be in an intentional way, for instance when Mosel winemakers Haart name a Riesling "Haart to Heart". Other brands are unintentionally funny. And then there are good wines with bad puns that really only exist in my mind: when I moved to England I learned that the polite word for "ass" is "bottom" - and now whenever I hear the East Sussex winery "Breaky Bottom" mentioned I cannot help but giggle.
What a "breaky bottom" looks like I'd rather not imagine, but whatever vision I may now have planted in your brain just forget it. Your are looking at a serious sparkling wine that is neither bottom nor breaky.
You don't go to South East London. At least that is what my friend Sarah thinks, and yesterday she told me so when the question of where to live in London came up. After having lived in the South West, North and West Sarah now contemplates the East - but the South East just seems too far away, like another world. This is a common view in the murky blend of London post codes and identities. It is opposed by a smaller group of those who have lost their hearts to SE London, and they tell me of vibrant local communities with quirky shops, excellent and authentic food offerings and a satisfying restaurant scene. The other day I followed an invitation to explore this world at the East Dulwich wine shop and bar Green & Blue Wines.
It is no coincidence that I used the words "authentic" and "local", as Green & Blue champion wines from smaller producers, especially organic and natural wines.
It is one of our favourite projects for the Wine Rambler that someday we should explain to you the German wine classification and labelling system in a coherent and mildly entertaining fashion. Today, however, we meet another clear-thinking winemaker who has willingly downgraded his own wine to the simplest category available (in this case: "Pfälzer Landwein") to be spared the bureaucratic nightmare otherwise required - in my humble experience, that step is always a good sign. Andreas Durst is a part-time winemaker only, his real job is to professionally photograph other winemakers, wines and vineyards, which he does so well that in the hipper part of the German wine scene, wine-related photography is simply synonymous with his name.
About this and about his wines, we won't say too much just now, because we hope to read and see a little more of Andreas on this blog soon (fingers crossed for a real treat). For now, let's turn to the dry Riesling from his small portfolio that he was nice enough to send ahead to Munich Wine Rambler HQ:
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?
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.
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 got drunk on that stuff as students because we didn't know any better and had no money. That is not what I would say, at least not in public, but it summarises how many British acquaintances refer to German wine - in particular the dreaded Liebfraumilch. German wine is associated with sweet, and sweet with bad. The British wine trade tend to love Riesling, dry or sweet, and some also appreciate German Pinot Noir. This is usually where the knowledge ends though. There are even "wine experts" who say Germany should not move away from the sweeter style of Riesling - whereas the reality is that the German wine industry has become so diverse it has long gone beyond that. German dry wines are now so varied as would confuse even the most sober foreign beholder.
Last week the German Wine Agencies, a new distributor of German wines in the British market, invited members of the trade to be confused (and to leave everything else but sober, one would hope) by German wines.