Wine tastings are like battlefields, it is everyone for themselves - or so I have heard people say. Actually, at least the recent VdP tasting in Munich was more like playing a part in the submarine movie Das Boot. Periscope out, zoom in on the next lovely wine and then you give the order: 'Both planes zero. Stand by battle stations.' 'Bottle one through four are ready.', the reply is almost instantaneous. However, before you can strike your helpless target, sonar picks up that sound again: Swoosh slurp swoosh schrub slurp. A split second of panic, then you go: 'Close bow caps! Dive!' Luckily, the enemy passes above you and disappears again. 'Is it getting louder?' 'It seems constant. Ahead of us.' The awaits your next move. As the Old Man said in Das Boot: 'Now it gets psychological, friends.'
That it was, but also great fun with some amazing wines, this year's VdP wine tasting in Munich. VdP stands for 'Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter', or Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, a group of highly decorated German estates, 'the world’s oldest association of top-quality wine estates'. Every year in November some VdP members hold a wine tasting in Munich. And the Wine Rambler attends, hungry for prey.
The story starts on a lovely autumn afternoon in the heart of Munich.
The setting: Hotel Bayerischer Hof, a Grand Hotel, right in the city centre of Munich. This is the place to meet the rich, powerful and famous. And it is the place to get invited to to taste the wines of estates from all over Germany: Franconia, Baden, Swabia, Rheingau, Saxonia etc. and Burgenland. Well, Burgenland is part of Austria, obviously, which means that Weingut Juris are neither German nor, for that reason, members of the VdP, but they show up every year anyway and as no one else seems to mind we won't complain either.
Overall, ten estates assembled their collections at Bayerischer Hof: a few sparkling wines and spirits, lots of dry white wines, quite a few reds and a small number of sweet wines; bread and water are free too. The tasting starts at 2pm and goes on for about seven hours. It gets fairly busy after five, so we made sure to be there early to have a chance to speak to some of the producers.
The audience are mostly middle aged (or above), well-to-do Bavarians, with the percentage of women, especially good looking women under 35, being fairly low. Should you ever go there and speak to people, be prepared for some Bavarian humour, notably the old joke that 'the waiter said there was no Grauburgunder, but he had some Pinot Grigio instead'. Interestingly, you can get to hear that joke from both the the elegant as well as the grumpy and somewhat run-down man in his late fifties - the only difference being that the first one will have brought his overly decorate wife while the latter one just has his underly decorated mate with him.
The Wine Rambler, however, does it in style, and we even brought our own groupies (under 35 and good looking, of course). This was just a way of blending in with the crowd, of course, as we really went there to taste some god-damn wine. So here is the run-down in geographical sequence, from north to south. If you read through to the end, you will also find out what the submarine thing is all about.
Despite being located in one of the smallest wine growing areas of Germany, Saxony, Schloss Proschwitz is a fairly large estate, actually the largest privately owned in Sachsen. It was also the first Saxonian estate to become a member of VdP (in 1996). Located on the 51st parallel, Sachsen is one of the northernmost wine growing areas in Europe and I would not be surprised if not many of our international audience would have tasted a wine from Sachsen/Saxony.
We started our Saxonian experience with a sparkling wine, a 2007 Riesling Sekt brut, that was not bad but also a little thin. The 2008 Müller-Thurgau was alright, with the fruity nose promising a little more than the more rustic taste could deliver; it did not leave too much of an impression and felt too expensive for 9.50 €. We liked the Weißburgunder Kabinett 2008 better, a wine with some fresh acidity and quite a bit of nut flavour – but then again I am not sure if I would pay 11.50 €. More interesting were two Spätlesen (late harvests), a Traminer (a charming nose, notes of apple and vegetable, herbs and something perfumed to it, but Julian found the taste a little soapy) and a Grauburgunder that seemed well balanced and was memorable for a nice mix of vegetable, fruit and some rougher notes with a hint of tobacco. The Spätburgunder, again, did not leave too much of an impression, but the 2007 super-sweet Scheurebe had lively fruit.
Overall, not a bad showing for the wines from up north, especially the Grauburgunder, but we sometimes would have hoped for more depth and certainly for lower prices, especially compared to the other producers. Take 20-30% off the price and we are talking.
Moving a little further south and a long long way to the west we enter the Rheingau. Not too far away from Rüsselsheim (of Opel fame) we find the Künstler estate, one of Germany's most prestigious wineries. Their Kirchenstück and Hölle vineyards in Hochheim will be known, at least by name, to most wine lovers in Germany. You may have seen my previous review of the 2008 Riesling Kabinett trocken from the Hochheimer Hölle.
We started off with the dry 2008 Riesling Kabinett from Hochheimer Herrenberg that had some nice acidity and felt almost off-dry, with some nice mineral and a good finish; not bad for € 8.50, especially if you like Riesling with lots of fresh acidity, although also not among the truly memorable wines of the evening. Definitely memorable was the 2008 Alte Reben (old vines) from the Stielweg vineyard; fresh and lively, but with substance and a good finish - delicious meaty peach. A true highlight of the afternoon was the 2007 Hochheimer Kirchenstück Goldkapsel, an outstanding wine that had balance, mineral, fruit and, well, balance, in an elegant yet juicy way. They do charge € 27.50 (compared to 14.90 for the Alte Reben) per bottle, but I would say it is money well spent. Still decent, but significantly less impressive was the 2007 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) 'Tradition' that lacked the substance and elegance of the Rieslings; I do still remember it for some malty, yeasty notes – well, notes! It actually tasted like a yeast bomb had exploded in my mouth.
While the Spätburgunder did not impress too much, the Rieslings are definitely worth your attention. Künstler's prestigious vineyards delivered yet again; I particularly loved the Alte Reben. Interestingly, the chap in charge of the Künstler table seemed to remember us from last year, particularly for the comments on the Old Vine wines. We remembered him too, as he is a great entertainer and it is almost impossible to get some wine without a pun or joke being thrown at you. Brace, brace! But also: drink, drink, if you like Riesling at all.
Geographically, our next visit was to the Mosel, or, to be more precise, the Saar. This area of Germany may be the one best known internationally, especially for world class Riesling, and in particular Riesling of the sweeter variety. As the Schloß Saarstein estate was the only producer with a noticeable selection of sweeter wines, we went there last, but due to tasting fatigue we eventually only sampled two yummy Rieslings. The 2002 Spätlese (€ 12.50) and 2003 Auslese (€ 21) from the Serrig vineyard. Both wines had aged nicely and presented that lovely mix of petrol, mineral and sweet peach fruit that we do enjoy so much in a good Riesling. A great way to end the tasting and quite refreshing too.
We cannot really judge the collection from the two wines we sampled, but next year we will pay more attention to what they have to offer.
Moving from west to east, we now enter Franken (Franconia), Bavaria's wine growing region, famous for Silvaner, its rustic style of winemaking (at least traditionally; Frankenwein is said to go well with the robust food of the area) and the Bocksbeutel wine bottles that are of rather bellied shape. Wirsching is a well know estate. Mostly Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau are grown on about 75h of land. Being the 'local' estate to people from Munich, the Wirsching table is always busy and features a wide range of grape varieties (Bacchus, Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Weißburgunder, Kerne, Scheurebe, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir) of which we could only sample a few.
As we are still on a mission to feature Silvaner, we started with the 2008 Silvaner Kabinett trocken from the Julius-Echter-Berg vineyard that had nice balance and seemed good value for € 6.50. We moved on to the dry Silvaner Spätlese 'S', a wine that, for €14.80, had lots of Silvaner muscle in the nose and elegance in the mouth, a really pleasant apple experience that fully convinced us. It was followed by another Spätlese 'S', a dry Scheurebe (11.50) that had lots and lots of exotic fruit – we had sampled a Swabian Sauvignon Blanc before and had to wait for this Scheurebe to deliver the fruit we had hoped for from the Swabian. More sweetness was available in the shape of the 2008 Kerner Spätlese that was made 'in Riesling style'. The 2008 Spätburgunder was alright, a little more on the sweeter side, but nothing to write home about.
This may be a stereotypical comment, but for the Wine Rambler Franken is very much about the Silvaner, and Wirsching does definitely deliver on that. The estate also shows that you should not limit your thinking of Franconia to that variety. Next year we will check out more Riesling.
The Pfalz, or Palatinate, is Germany's second largest wine growing area. It is home to way over 3000 estates (although a large number are tiny and should not even be called 'estate') as well as the Deutsche Weinstraße (German Wine Route), a scenic route, created in the 1930s to attract tourists. The Knipser estate, however, is a proper estate and has even been awarded the title of estate of the year 2009 by Wine Guide Gault Millau. Our expectations were high and we were not let down.
We started with the 2008 Grauburgunder Spätlese trocken (€ 11.70), that, despite being fresh and fruity and not bad at all, probably impressed us least among the Knipser wines. The dry 2007 Riesling Spätlese 'Kalkmergel' (10.80) had nice tropical fruit and was very likeable. We moved on to the 2008 'Himmelsrech' Riesling Großes Gewächs (Great Growth), a dry Riesling from the Dirmsteiner Mandelpfad vineyard that brought deep thunder, good structure and body to the table, enhanced by stone fruit and a long, mineral finish. Really good stuff and definitely worth the € 19. The last of the white wines was a basic 2008 Riesling that was made 'Mosel style' when Knipsers realised that, unusually for the area, the weather gave them the chance to create a light Riesling with lots of fresh acidity and some sweetness.
We moved on to the reds to sample a good 2007 dry Blauer Spätburgunder (8.80), followed by the 2005 'Kalkmergel' Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) Spätlese trocken that I mostly remember for its smoothness (16.20). After that, Knipser brought out the big guns: a nicely aged Pinot Noir, the 2003 Großkarlbacher Burgweg Spätburgunder Auslese dry (€ 27). A very fine wine that, it seemed to us, had just about integrated the effects of being matured in a wood barrel, and featured yummy red berries and a hint of mushrooms. This was one of the wines that we just could not get ourselves to spit out; not even a drop. We finished the Knipser experience with the 2005 Cuvée X (€ 32), a Medoc-style blend (Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc plus Merlot) that was aged in barrique for 20 months and showed that some German red can bring the same thunder as the Bordeaux. All Knipser reds had noticeable 'dark' fruit; Julian commented that they were so well made, they felt almost too smooth.
I you are interested in German red wine, made in a more international style perhaps, give Knipser a go, but make sure not to forget the outstanding whites too!
Leaving the Pfalz behind, we moved on to the south-western German state of Baden-Württemberg, where we first encountered two producers from the Württemberg region (roughly the area around Stuttgart). Württemberg is one of the few wine growing areas in Germany where most of the wine is actually red (about two thirds, if I am not mistaken), with the regional Trollinger grape being very popular. Drautz-Able is one of the oldest estates in the area, with its roots going back to the late 15th century. The estate is member of the 'Hades' group that focusses on the use of barrique barrels for winemaking.
We started off with the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc trocken 'Hades' (€ 17.85). Drautz-Able are Sauvignon-Blanc pioneers in Württemberg, where they started with this grape in 1987. This should give them a lot of experience with making Sauvignon-Blanc, but the result is just not for us. After seven months in barrique barrels, the wine seemed to have almost completely lost the fruit taste. This may be an unfair judgement from a barrique sceptical Wine Rambler, but this wine did nothing for us and we completely lost interest in this style of winemaking after the first sip. The next wine was the 2007 Riesling Großes Gewächs, a wine that we found very difficult to get to terms with. It somehow seemed too old and too young at the same time and confused us with various flavours that it could not (yet?) integrate (banana, resin). For € 21.42 I would expect much more. Our next, and last, wine was the 2006 Jodokus Rotwein trocken 'Hades' that also did not quite deliver, especially if you think what else you could have bought for € 26.18 on that day.
The Drautz-Able style of barrique winemaking just does nothing for the Wine Rambler; maybe others can appreciate it.
We stayed in Württemberg, to explore the other Swabian estate, the Weingut Gerhard Aldinger. Also one of the really old estates (late 15th century), the family owned producer focusses on Trollinger, Riesling and Spätburgunder, but other varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown too. I feel some local pride here, having lived in Fellbach for a year as a child. Little did I care about wine then, but now I have to explore the area's wine.
The first Swabian wine we had on Monday was the 2008 Untertürkheimer Gips Weißburgunder *** trocken (€ 21.70). I remember nut and melon, a good balance and some substance, although we also felt the wine could have been a little cheaper for what it delivered; the oak did not really convince us that much. Next it was time for Fellbach, the 2008 Fellbacher Lämmler Großes Gewächs Riesling 2008 (25.30). This dry Riesling was fresh and had lots of lemon with a hint of sweetness; despite not being the deepest wine it was quite likeable. However, on this day it competed with a few outstanding Rieslings in the same price range and, we felt, it could not fully stand up to them – again a little cheaper would have been fine. We had a similar response to the 2008 Untertürkheimer Gips Spätburgunder *** rosé (16.20) that again was a little too much on the oaky side. Our overall favourite, especially if you think in terms of value, was the 2008 *** Spätburgunder Untertürkheimer Gips, a decent Pinot Noir with lots of uncomplicated cherry. Still, in that price range we found other wines we liked better.
In many other tastings, Aldinger probably would have stood out as really good producers. At this VdP tasting, however, they had to compete with some exceptional wines that, at least for our taste, were better value.
Julian commented on the winemaking approach of the two Swabian estates by saying that they seemed to approach the use of oak as Spinal Tap use their amplifiers: 'But don't you see? This one goes to eleven!'
Moving a little further west, we arrived in the region of Baden, Germany's southernmost wine growing region. A (for Germany) very warm region, Baden estates feature a lot of red wine, especially Pinot Noir, and a range of other grapes such as Chardonnay.
The Salwey estate is particularly strong on Pinot Noir and Grauburgunder, with Riesling and Weißburgunder also prominent. We started our Salwey-experience with the 2008 Silvaner Kabinett trocken, a really good example of a Silvaner that delivered what you would expect for € 8.50. Because of so many wines available, we skipped most other wines from the entry level and focussed on the big guns. There was, for instance, the 2008 Weißburgunder RS trocken, a Spätlese from the Oberrotweiler Käsleberg, an excellent example of what a good Weißburgunder can deliver ('sortentypisch', as the Germans would say). A no-nonsense wine, the RS combines nut, mineral and some melon (but mind you, it is not overly fruity) with good acidity to deliver quite a punch, even though it will probably open up a bit more with time. One of our personal favourites and really good value for €13.80. For the same price and almost as good, Salwey are offering a Grauburgunder RS that has a little more fruit and also a good finish. However, it gets even better. After tasting the very good Riesling from the Glottertäler Eichberg (2008, ***, a Great Growth with good fruit, acidity and mineral, to which tobacco and some brimstone notes made a great addition; one of the best Rieslings of the day, € 19.80), we sampled the Grauburgunder Great Growth (2008, ***, € 23,85). This wine was matured in big oak barrels and despite an obvious need to ripen a little more in the bottle, it left us really excited. It has power and focus, fruit and some mineral, and delivers quite the punch. Go, Salwey!
Salwey also demonstrated that they can make outstanding red wine. While the basic Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder Qualitätswein trocken, 2007, € 7.95) was 'just' a good light red, the 2007 RS took it a level further (€ 19). Even better was the 2007 Great Growth *** from the Eichberg vineyard (€ 29.50), that was one of the best reds of the day.
All Salwey wines we tasted were convincing, with the price reflecting the quality very well. A great collection, for sure, and do keep an eye on the RS Weißburgunder! There is something else you may want to keep an eye on though. The Salwey table was run by Wolf-Dieter Salwey, the grand master himself, who brought along his oldest son Konrad (who is now chief winemaker at Salwey estate) - and Konrad does look a little bit like Prince Harry, in a more charming way though. So ladies, if you are after (wine) royalty, but don't like men in uniform, join us next year and check out wine and winemaker.
My favourite experience of the day was the Dr. Heger table. The chap running it was not only very friendly, he also told us a lot about the estate, their winemaking philosophy and the wines we tasted. Heger only produce dry wine and they have a range of barrique wines that are meant to age for a few years.
We started with a sparkling wine, the 'Credo' Sekt, Pinot Noir, Blanc de Noir (€ 12.90). A good sparkling wine with character and interesting notes of vegetable from the Pinot Noir. After that we jumped right into the Great Growths, starting with the 2008 Grauburgunder *** Großes Gewächs from the Ihringer Winklerberg (18.50). A robust yet elegant wine, the Grauburgunder showed off a good mix of nut, wood and stone fruit, that was combined with lively acidity and great finish; the wine has a good body, but it is yet a little too stern to develop its full potential. Even so, an excellent white wine! Not quite on the same level, but also very good was the Riesling GG (2008, 18.50) from the same vineyard; the bouquet was lovely, featuring lots of mineral. My personal favourite though was the 2008 Chardonnay Großes Gewächs (€ 23.20). This means quite something, because I am notoriously sceptical of white wine and oak. However, Dr. Heger clearly know what they are doing and this wine blew us away, despite the oak taste still being quite present. Give it a few years and it will be, I trust, perfectly integrated. In the mean time, if you buy a few more bottles, just open one with food and you will be delighted. A wine with lots of power and yummy juiciness. Another outstanding wine was the 2008 Grauburgunder *** Großes Gewächs from the Achkarrer Schloßberg vineyard. Again, this wine will need a few years to fully develop its potential, but it already shows what a good Pinot Grigio can be like – and again the barrique was a welcome addition.
All the red wines Heger presented in Munich were matured in barrique. We sampled the 2007 'Mimus' Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from the Ihringer Winklerberg vineyard (21.90) and the 2007 'Novis' (21.90), a 'Bordeaux blend' from the same vineyard. The Pinot had the typical oaky toastiness, mixed with quite a bit of ripe berries and some herbal mineral. Perhaps not quite on the same level with the absolute top reds of this tasting, it was still quite good. The Novis felt surprisingly light, perhaps due to its fresh acidity, which was not unpleasant at all.
Dr. Heger is definitely an estate to keep an eye on; especially as they seem to be among the few who know how to handle barrique well in the winemaking process.
Julian also asked me to add that both the Heger and Salwey style of (red) wine making was a little lighter and edged than the smooth Knipser, with lighter fruit and overall more 'German' in style perhaps.
Last, but not least, we move to Austria. The Juris estate is located in Gols in the Burgenland region of Austria; it is an estate with quite a bit of tradition, going back to 1516. We tasted two of their wines, a 2006 Pinot Noir Reserve (€ 25) and a 2006 cuvee of St. Laurent and Pinot Noir, called 'St. Georg' (€ 25). Both are light reds with fresh acidity and good balance, a very smooth-tongued style of winemaking that we liked, but found a little less interesting than Heger and Salwey.
Summary - Große Gewächse rule
Now after all this wine talk, what about the Swoosh slurp swoosh schrub slurp.? If you have ever watched serious wine tasters, you will have noticed that they do not instantly swallow the wine, but rather keep in it their mouth for a while, sucking in some air and making gurgling noises. This is mostly done to impress girls and laypeople, but it also helps to bring out more flavour before you either spit the wine out or, eventually, swallow it. So you may hear this sound standing near a spittoon or at a table at a professional tasting. The Wine Rambler, however, experienced it in a scary way. Imagine you stand in a crowd of people in front of lovely wine bottles. People are struggling to get through, when suddenly you hear Swoosh slurp swoosh schrub slurp. A serious middle-aged wine lover takes direct course towards the spittoon at ramming speed. And you are between him and the vessel into which, within a second, the contents of his mouth will be emptied. As he came out of nowhere, we could only jump aside and hope that the water bomb would miss us, because his face and the Swoosh slurp swoosh schrub slurp. made it quite clear that he would take no prisoners. After this impressive display, the unknown hunter disappeared into the crowds, only to strike next to us a few more times, always appearing out of nowhere, with only our good sonar operators saving us from being sunk.
Despite this scary experience, we had lots of fun and spent a good three hours at the tasting. We tasted many interesting wines, with a few favourites standing out: Künstler's Hochheimer Rieslings, especially Alte Reben and Goldkapsel; the Große Gewächse from Knipser, Salwey and Heger, with a special mention of the Salwey Weißburgunder RS and the Heger Chardonnay.
If you happen to be in Munich next year, make sure to join the fun!