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.
2011 has been a busy year. We fought evil, kissed wine queens, travelled the world (and Swabia), climbed skyscrapers, mastered high-speed drinking, survived dangerous self-experimentations, had English red and whites from the heart of Africa, met mad winemakers and -merchants, stole wine out of our neighbours rubbish bins - and drank a lot of good wine. It was a busy year for the Wine Ramblers (also outside of this hobby of ours), but as far as wine is concerned it certainly was a good year.
And as it is the time of the year to look back I'd like to invite you on a journey across our wine year 2011.
Of all the longer and shorter wine tours and winery visits I have undertaken the 2008 trip to the Mosel is the one I have the fondest memories of. Not only was it part of a longer holiday and involved the full Wine Rambler committee, I also had the chance to meet some of my favourite winemakers and cycle along the fantastic Mosel cycle paths. And it was asparagus season - easy access to white asparagus is probably where London is weakest on the food supply front.
Among the wineries we visited was Reuscher-Haart, one of several branches of the Haart family living in the famous wine village Piesport. The last wine left from that visit is (or was) this 2006 late harvest Riesling.
This being a sort of Anglo-German blog, we live under constant Christmas confusion. Is the 24th the important day, as the Germans believe, or the 25th, as the British and several other nations assert? We don't claim to have the superior wisdom here, especially not after a Christmas meal that came with a stunning grand cru Riesling from the Pfalz (actually, when would one have more wisdom than after enjoying first class Riesling?), so we aim for balance. Last year it was the 24th, this year the 25th is the day when we send our seasonal greetings and best wishes to all our friends in wine.
If you follow this blog regularly (and if not: why not?), you will know that the VDP, Germany's trade association of elite wine estates, hosts an annual tasting in Munich every November that has special significance for the Wine Rambler. We have reported on it last year and the year before that. And we will do so again in a minute. Just a few words to introduce the photographic theme of this posting: Since that chandeliered, psychedelically carpeted lounge has become an extension of our living rooms, as it were, we also take a keen interest in the other tasters gathered there. There are always some sociological observations to make, of course, and to discuss afterwards, about age structure and gender of the sample group, and in fact I think we can report some tentative progress in those two categories, wink wink. But this time, it was something rather different that caught our attention: Shoes.
Hip shoes, boring shoes, sexy shoes, sensible shoes. Endless variety with a few common themes, which makes shoes a bit like wine. That's the kind of thought that looking at mind-altering carpeting in state of growing tipsiness will bring up in the course of an afternoon. In pursuing it, however, we could profit from Wine Rambler Torsten's keen photographic eye, as well as some underhanded camera moves he learned by prowling London as a street photographer.
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:
Despite many nice aspects, such as being allowed to drink wine, growing up comes with its disappointments. Many of your childhood heroes suddenly look rather ridiculous, whereas others pass into the realm of memory and myth. Like the Easter Bunny, *the* Stork and Father Christmas. Or the Expert. After years of watching TV - or perhaps just a fortnight during the Eurozone debt crisis - the TV Expert no longer looks as authoritative as he was during my childhood, and the same goes for pretty much every other type of expert. So in a way I am quite happy that I haven't been labelled as "international wine expert" as last year's contributors to Every Wine Tells a Story were.
This year it is about the much more important love for wine. So I proudly declare that as of last weekend I have it in writing that I am an "international wine lover".
Quoting Shakespeare is fine. In fact, it is recommended to do it at least occasionally when you write in English. For some reason though the Germans are less likely these days to quote their national poet. Unless you write editorial for a conservative newspaper there seems to be something stuffy to it - although I'd recommend reading some of Goethe's obscene love poems if you believe the old man is stuffy. Anyway, today is the day I am going to quote Goethe in a wine review. However, in order not to turn you away before you have at least glanced at a great wine I shall do it at the end of this piece.
So before we get to the national icon, let's take a look at one of the national wine icons, the Rieslings made by the Emrich-Schönleber family.
The Germans and their compound words. Even people who haven't heard more than three words of German (presumably those will include "Achtung", "nein" and "Fuehrer", although amongst the more sophisticated "Kindergarten", "Zeitgeist" "Schadenfreude" und "Weltschmerz" are also candidates) know that the Germans like to build long words into even longer ones by attaching them to each other. Worry not though, I shall not be troubling you with yet another very complex word the length of the journey from Land's End to John O'Groats. Instead I will use a review of a Rheingau Riesling to introduce you to a short compound word every wine drinker should know.
The word is Zechwein.
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.
Buying clothes and shoes is a difficult business. Even if you happen to know what you want and even if the market agrees that you should want it and offers it to you, there is no guarantee it will fit. I cannot remember how often I have tried trousers or shoes of the size I have bought for years and continued to buy for years after - and the bastards won't fit. Like the EU size 46 trainers that my 43-44 size feet would not even get into. Producers apparently like to interpret size in line with changing fashion. This of course does not fit my modernist brain that believes a size is a size and not a fashion statement. Wine bottles are different though - a 750ml bottle will pretty much always fit your wine rack. Unless it is a Franconian Bocksbeutel, of course.
Admittedly, this is not very practical (and I wonder if there are Bocksbeutel racks for the serious collectors of Franconian wine), but to me it is a satisfying change from the norm, and as you get what it says on the label it is also honest. Like a good Franconian Silvaner should be.
Is this the time when we should start the pre-Christmas season of wine with big hefty reds? No, no, no me brotha. This Wine Rambler abides by his statement of principle: Freshness, freshness, freshness. It's a well-documented fact by now that I am no great fan of the South of France, at least not any more. I've developed a kind of allergy to the overripe cherry and generic dried herbs-approach on offer from there. But there is a style, pioneered mostly, with some hits and misses, by the Gauby family, that I think of as Mediterranean avant-garde: Sprightly, slender-bodied, drinkable reds with a lighter, more focused spectrum of fruit.
Another winery that has moved in this direction is Christophe Peyrus' Clos Marie.
FX - for most people these letters stands for excitement, explosions and all sorts of sparkles. The same is true for fans of Austrian wine, just that they don't think of digital visual or sound effects, they think of Franz Xaver (Pichler)'s Wachau wines. On 16ha of vineyard land in what to me is one of the underrated wine regions in Europe, the Pichlers grow Grüner Veltliner and Riesling (plus a little Sauvignon Blanc), and over the years have managed to build up an excellent reputation.
Because of all the praise for the Pichler wines, I was confident I would not just get fancy special effects from their 2003 Smaragd Riesling - or would I?
London, wine metropolis. You may not think of it in those terms, but I have learned to appreciate the dynamic wine scene and the exciting range of wine events and venues here. You can explore wine in cellars built into Thames or railway bridges, at fantastic food markets, in world class restaurants, you can drink it on bridges spanning the river, at the Tower of London, in post-modern temples of glass, and you can engage with wine merchants with centuries of history, with entrepreneurs with new approaches or with a vibrant scene of wine writers and communicators. It is an exciting place and I love every minute of being here - especially when a unique place and wine meet.
I would like to invite you to share one of those moments with me.
Said Mr. Munich Wine Rambler to a bottle of Lake Constance Chardonnay: "There's nuthin' in this town 's been a surprise, 'cept for you". Oh no, wait, that wasn't me, that was Kevin Costner, the romantic free-grazing, sharp-shooting cowboy in "Open Range", to Annette Bening. But that was exactly my sentiment when I took the first sniff of this 08 offering, my last bottle (for the time being) from the Staatsweingut Meersburg.
After a long, joyless day, any glass of wine would have cheered me up, and I wasn't expecting anything special, really. A white that would work with the nice pumpkin soup set before me, not too acidic, not too thin, with some smooth buttery notes (yes, it had indeed been that kind of day). But as it happens, this eloquent, outstandingly matured Chardonnay surprised and charmed me far beyond my modest designs:
For stereotypical American or Japanese tourists who also love wine, a visit to Schlossgut Diel has to equal the feeling of a child realising it has been locked in an ice cream parlour for lunch break. After all we are not only talking about one of Germany's top wine estates, we are also talking about a "castle winery", as that is what "Schlossgut" translates to. Castle Layen, where the Diel family has been based since the Napoleonic wars, was built in the 11th century. The wines in the cellar are not quite as old, but rumour has it some go back to the early 20th century, so the both lovers of medieval towers and old wine should be very happy there.
Sadly, I have yet to visit Schlossgut Diel (preferably leading a raiding party), but at least I managed to get my hands on a few bottles of their Riesling - this Kabinett Riesling from the "gold hole" vineyard being one of them.
One day, I will invite other wine bloggers to contribute to an anthology of awkward introductions to simple wine reviews. The things that you ponder, and then reject, so as not to have to jump in with a straight "Here is a Franconian Pinot Gris that I had recently". One thing that struck me just now, while thinking of something new to write, was how often I, while recalling a tasting experience to put together a review, will sip on a completely different wine. Today, it's Dr. Heyden's very proper old vine-Silvaner from 2009. Then, I ruminated on the pun-producing potential of the Ruck winery's name, since it means something like "jolt" or "lurch" in German.
I thought of former German president Roman Herzog's 1997 speech in which he demanded "durch Deutschland muss ein Ruck gehen" ("A jolt needs to go through Germany"), of the strangeness of this image, and whether it could be put to some kind of humoristic use vis-a-vis the Ruck family of Iphofen, Franconia. But then name jokes are off limits in serious journalism, which led me to the question whether the Wine Rambler actually...
Wine, you would think, is the common theme for a wine trip. At least that's what I thought when a few weeks ago I set out on a press trip to the German wine region west of Mainz. Yet while there was wine, and plenty of it, I soon realised that there was another theme to this trip. It was about family, about death, destiny and the dreams of winemakers - and there was a bit about rock 'n' roll and obsession too.
German winemaking is very much about family. Not only have many wineries been in the same family for generations, they also tend to be small enough so that a family can run them without a lot of staff. Whatever happens in the family has real impact on the whole business. A serious argument, the only child turning their back on winemaking or a father dying unexpectedly - such events can be make or brake for an estate. This means that German winemaking is also a story about family. A story about love and death, a story about children following tradition or breaking with it, a story about getting old and growing up. In the end, winemaking is a story about life.
Don't tell this to anyone, but is true, I don't drink much Sauvignon Blanc. At least not voluntary. I drink it involuntary as it often is served at functions, such as the one I attended earlier this week at the Palace of Westminster. That particular wine was inoffensive, but often I find the aggressive fruit-bombiness of Sauvignon Blanc hard to stomach. It is as if it is shouting so loud to get your attention that you cannot actually hear what it says. Having said that, there is also really good Sauvignon Blanc, both from the new and the old world. Interestingly, some of the most pleasant specimens I have tried recently came from Germany. Yes, there is German Sauvignon Blanc.
This particular wine comes from the Pfalz, a region that continues to confuse foreigners with the wide range of grape varieties grown.
Winemaking in Namibia is such a small business, you can actually count the families involved in it on one hand. Wait, did the Wine Rambler just say "Namibia"? Yes, he did. What you see in front of you is a wine from a country you will perhaps just associate with arid Africa, whereas historians and Germans amongst you may be reminded of the German colony "Deutsch-Südwestafrika" (German South West Africa). There is a reason I mention this, as it were German priests who brought vines to Namibia, and the people behind Kristall Kellerei, who, indirectly, brought this wine to me, also seem to have German roots.
The Colombard from Omaruru in Namibia undertook a long journey on its way to my dinner table, and there is a story (and another wine) to be covered another time. The question for today is rather simple: is a wine made from a grape variety often described as boring and coming from an arid, hot African country actually worth drinking?