During the busy January wine trade tasting season there was one event of special importance for the Wine Rambler, the annual tasting of The WineBarn. The WineBarn is a UK distributor dedicated to German wine with a great portfolio including some of Germany's best wineries and some our the long-standing favourites. So one January afternoon I trekked over to the posh Mayfair neighbourhood of St James's Hotel and Club to enjoy some German wine and German wine conversation.
I found myself in a somewhat labyrinthine room with very low ceilings and an interesting combination of natural and artificial light coming from the roof.
While there wasn't much space as such, the different sections were well separated and it never felt really crowded. It also meant there was space and time enough to speak to the producers and ask general questions about German wine and winemaking.
2010 - bullshit or first class vintage?
The first question I asked everyone was about the 2010 vintage. The weather had been rather difficult in Germany and initially there was much concern about the vintage. A German wine journalist even called 2010 "Arschjahr" (literally: "arse year"; "bullshit" also sums it up). Soon after he published his article, all hell broke loose and winemakers complained that it might be best to taste the wines before condemning them. The picture that now emerges is a little more complex, with some producers claiming to have created outstanding wines whereas in other areas very high acidity needs to be balanced in the cellars.
The producers at the WineBarn tasting were confident about the 2010 vintage and in one case I was even told that it was hoped the top wines might age better than those from previous, hotter years. Most wineries took the risk of harvesting very late last year and a spell of good weather in late autumn seems to have saved the brave ones. On the other hand all of them paid a price for the bad weather and particular the late spring - yields are down massively. For some only 20-30%, in extreme cases even up to 50%, as suffered by Bassermann-Jordan.
The general consensus was that the good producers in Germany will soon start to sell great wine, but not very much of it. And some may be a little more expensive than in previous years.
German red wine
This may not be big news to Germans, but as it keeps surprising our international audience we will keep repeating it: year after year Germany turns out more and more top class red wine. Of the 14 producers at the tasting 7 showed red wines or rosé and red sparklers. Two of them, Meyer-Näkel and Friedrich Becker, had only sent reds. Winemakers Näkel and Becker are figureheads of German quality red wine and their Pinot Noirs have won them many prices and much respect, nationally and internationally.
Becker, unfortunately, could not make it, so his Pinots were presented by a French woman working for the hotel. Claire clearly was no typical French wine snob because she freely admitted that she thought Becker's Pinots were very good indeed. The Pinots were of consistently high quality with the 2008 Grand Cru "Sankt Paul" standing out for its earthy mineral, gripping acidity and smoky red berry flavour.
The Meyer-Näkel wines were also of consistently high quality. I was particularly interested to find out how age-worthy Meyer-Näkel's Grand Cru Pinot Noirs would be. The Wine Rambler often found that good German Pinots should be given 4-6 years and will make it up to ten years - which also seems to be the Meyer-Näkel opinion -, but are German Pinots substantial enough to age well for two or more decades? The honest answer I was given is that even at Meyer-Näkel they are not sure yet. The Meyer-Näkel wines of the 80s and 90s were made to be drunk younger. This has changed since, but we will need a few more years to find out how well they age.
What became pretty obvious to me though is that the drive to produce high quality red wines made to age is becoming stronger in Germany. In three or four years maybe try the Meyer-Näkel 2007 Dernauer Pfarrwingert Grand Cru, a wine that already impresses with lots of berries and well-balanced tannins.
Pinot, Noir and beyond
Another winery that had great red wines to show off was Weingut Bercher from sun-kissed Baden. Their Grand Cru Pinot from the Feuerberg vineyard was still quite young (2008) but had great fruit and substance, although the tannins suggest to give it a couple of years more before drinking it. Bercher also showed a very likeable cuvée of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Lemberger and Pinot Noir, and a range of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris that were not only very good but also, in the best sense, typical embodiments of these two fantastic varieties. The 2009 Pinot Blanc Grand Cru (again the Feuerberg - "Fire Mountain" vineyard) impressed me most with a surprising nut flavour and melon-mineral notes. A 2009 late harvest Chardonnay was very fresh and finely balanced.
Dr. Heger is another great winery from Baden that turns out lovely Pinots and Chardonnays. However, we have already reviewed their current range at a recent tasting in Munich. Also located in the volcanic Kaiserstuhl area is the Franz Keller winery who presented their latest Pinot Blanc, Gris and Noirs. I would recommend them for a visit, not only because of the quality of the wine, but also because they own a restaurant that has received awards for its wine list and has managed to hold on to a Michelin star since 1969.
Franz Keller, who died a few years ago, is also among the pioneers of quality dry red wines in Germany, and I found it very sweet that some of the Keller wines are named after him.
Obviously, I also drank tried some Riesling. As I had attended a food and Riesling matching dinner hosted by Nik Weis of the St. Urbans-Hof winery last year I made sure to again sample his Rieslings, from dry to deliciously sweet. Yet again I found a very accomplished flight of wines and my tasting notes are full of "good balance", "great fruit", "deliciously tropical with grapefruit" - highly consistent and a great expression of what Mosel Riesling is all about. Enough said.
High quality Riesling also comes from the Nahe, where Schäfer-Fröhlich is one of the wineries to watch. Just recently, Tim Fröhlich has been crowned winemaker of the year by the German wine guide Gault-Millau. His dry Rieslings are very impressive, focussed and no-nonsense wines. Just try, (among others) the 2009 Grand Cru Riesling from the Felsenberg vineyard for edgy character, great fruit and mineral galore. The sweeter wines were also good, but the Felsenberg was one of the wines of the tasting that stood out. When I spoke to Tim he emphasised the importance of relying on natural yeast to give the wine character, and his Rieslings are certainly not short of that.
A little less edgy, but nonetheless very accomplished were the wines at the next table at Bassermann-Jordan. When I spoke to Gunter Hauck the 2010 vintage (with yields reduced almost by half) and the British market were the main topics. Bassermann-Jordan should be of interest to British consumers as the supermarket chain Waitrose carries their Riesling, which makes them available to those who do not want to order a case. When asked whether it was difficult to get into Waitrose, Hauck laughed and matter-of-factly told me: "We have a good name." Smiling, he want on to say that it was still a competitive business and working with an estate that has 300 years history would still not stop Waitrose pulling a wine within weeks if it did not sell enough.
Keep an eye out for the great Rieslings from the Ungeheuer vineyard - but if you can get your hands on a bottle of the 2006 Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling (that sells for £150 plus VAT) make sure to share a glass with me. An outstanding example of sweet Riesling and one of my favourites with its syrupy sweetness and hot spice finish.
Another estate with hundreds of years of history is Wittmann, going back to 1663. Now organically managed, Wittmann grow a range of varieties, including great Silvaner, but are best know for their Riesling from Westhofen. Unfortunately, Philipp Wittmann had only brought three wines to the tasting. I will be as brief and just say that the 2009 Grand Cru Morstein Riesling should over the next few years mature into staggering greatness. If in about five to ten years you fancy breaking into Philipp's cellars to get some, I am in.
The table being deserted, I didn't spend much time with the Winter wines, but found that the Rheinhessen winery had dry Rieslings with gripping mineral for a fair price. Special mention for value has to go to the 2009 Red Slate Riesling from Göttelmann. While not one of the age-worthy, very complex wines, its good acidity, crisp mineral and tobacco plus apple aromas convinced me. The 09 Chardonnay was also very fresh, with lots of zingy mineral, but the real surprise was the 2009 Auslese from Rheinberg that showed depth, balance and a lovely juicy finish.
Going back to the really old estates, we come to Schloss Reinhartshausen. Wine has been grown here since the 14th century and, as with Bassermann-Jordan, their cellar holds many treasures from past centuries. Maybe the first heist should be here, before weI hit the Wittmann cellars in a few years? The greatest treasure I found at the tasting was the 2009 Grand Cru from the Erbach vineyard that was a little reserved at first but also very harmonious. Like this one, the other 2009 wines were all very convincing.
Last, but not least
No proper tasting can be complete without sparkling wine. Sekthaus Solter provided the right dosage of fizz with a range of wines made following the traditional Champagne method. "Sekt" is the German name for sparkling wine, and German wineries produce sparklers made in the French style as well as Rieslingsekt, fresh and focussed bubbly made from Riesling grapes. With vineyards in the Rheingau and the volcanic Kaiserstuhl, Solter can grow booth Riesling and Pinot under ideal conditions.
Having never tasted a Solter wine, I found already the first Sekt a pleasant surprise, a cuvée of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (Cuvée Henri Reserve) that was fresh and blossom scented. While I liked the Rieslingsekts a lot, I was particularly impressed with the 2005 Brut Pinot Cuvée (made from 40% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Blanc and 30% Pinot Gris and fermented in oak) that had a lovely creamy mousse and fresh spice. The 2007 Pinot Noir Brut should also be mentioned with lots of character and a nice round body.
And then there is Franken, home of the wine bottles with the funny shape. It was represented by Wirsching, one of the top wineries. When asked whether the export market took to the Bocksbeutel bottles, Wirsching representative Uwe Matheus gave me a lecture on wine bottles, pointing out that the "odd" shape historically was the original one for wine bottles. Selling wine is always easier when also selling a story... As we have written about the latest Wirsching wines in another context I'd just want to yet again point out how wonderful Silvaner is - and the whole range of Wirsching Silvaner, from Kabinett to Spätlese, Grand Cru and Beerenauslese, should be recommended.
A chance encounter
Instead of yet again praising the 2009 vintage or German wine or amuse you with vague general conclusions, I will finish with a chance encounter. Among the attendees of the tasting was wine legend Steven Spurrier. I am not usually one for the cult of the wine celebrity, but as I had reviewed the movie Bottle Shock in which Spurrier features, I had to ask his opinion. Spurrier, it has to be said, has something quintessential English to him: gentlemanly behaviour, fantastic English, a style of clothing I cannot but describe as British and not afraid to speak his mind in the most pointed manner.
So when I asked his opinion about the film he looked me in the eye, raised a hand and said: "There are only five things that are true about this movie." Counting his fingers and thumb he went on: "The name of Chateau Montelena. The identity of the wine that won. [...]" Clearly, he was not pleased and had tried to keep his name out of the movie. When he was asked to provide a short quote about the movie he told the journalist: "Not Bottle Shock but bull shit."
This brings us back to the start, the 2010 vintage that was called "bullshit" by a German wine journalist. I look forward to next year tasting the 2010 German wines at the WineBarn tasting, perhaps again with Mr Spurrier, so that we can get his pointed comment on what he thinks about 2010.