Blog

34 Years of Charta Rieslings – A Tasting at Weingut Robert Weil on 30 May 2017

The Dry Wave (die Trockenwelle) was the stylistic sea change that transformed German Riesling from sweet in some degree to mostly dry. When it began at the end of the 1970s, it was loudly controversial. Some proponents of the dry style vilified traditionalists as “confectioners of lemonade;” some traditionalist winemakers countered that early editions of dry Riesling were “devastatingly unbalanced,” “undrinkably acidic,” and sometimes “bitter.” Today, the facts behind these characterizations are no longer of much concern to consumers, producers or critics, since the wines are now essentially unavailable, but they are of historical interest, and history is (sometimes!) interesting. Were the early editions of dry Riesling made in Germany during the 1980s as bad as their critics asserted and if so, why? (Conversely, were the 1970s editions of Kabinett and Spätlese wildly over-sweet, but that is a question for another day.) Were yields (driven by clonal selections, agricultural restructuring and a free hand with chemical fertilizers) so high that the grapes were hard to ripen in all but the warmest years, resulting in wines made in whole or part from underripe fruit? Had winemakers been away from dry traditions in winemaking for so long that they had forgotten how to make dry wine well? Or, were the most extravagant and colorful criticisms of the “early” dry wines hyperbolic, reflecting the unfamiliarity of dryness in German white wines at the time, and the potentially shocking contrast such wines could have presented to makers, consumers and connoisseurs of the time.

 

Charta, an organization of Rheingau vintners created in 1983, was probably the best organized, most deliberate, and most visible force in the early years of the Dry Wave. (A proper history of Charta does not exist, as far as I know, but deserves making, because there is more still to know that we have learned thus far. See Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 52-29 for a summary of Charta involvement in the Dry Wave.) Though visible, Charta was never large, never involving many more than 30 vintners and 140,000 bottles of wine per annum, which was a tiny fraction of total Rheingau production. Sixteen years after its founding, Charta was absorbed into the Rheingau chapter of the Verband Deutscher Präedikatsweingüter (VDP.) Happily for historians, however, a library of wines created under the Charta insignia still exists, and new Charta wines are still made.

 

Charta is an interesting lens through which to review early editions of dry Riesling, at least in the Rheingau. The organization was unarguably serious. Its founders included many self-avowed proponents of the Dry Wave.   Its wines were offered widely for professional and trade tasting, not only in Germany but also in key export markets. Since Charta is reported to have its members to higher standards that the basic German wine law required, it is even possible that its wines may have been atypically good, see below.

 

To have an unmediated look into Charta Rieslings from the 1980s, I appealed this past spring to Wilhelm Weil, director of Weingut Robert Weil and regional president of VDP Rheingau, and to Mathias Ganswohl, the chief administrator of VDP Rheingau. Weil and Ganswohl generously agreed to organize a tasting of 42 Charta Rieslings covering vintages between 1983 and 2015, with ten of these from the critical “early” period from 1983 to 1989, and another nine from between 1990 and 1999. On 30 May 2017, in one of the comfortable tasting salons at Weingut Robert Weil in Kiedrich, Weil and I were joined by two winemakers still actively making wines that carry the Charta name and logo, Max Schönleber of Weingut Allendorf and Mark Barth of Wein- und Sektgut Barth, for three hours of tasting and discussion. After the tasting, Mathias Ganswohl gathered analysis data for 33 of the 41 wines; no data was available for the other eight.

 

The entire tasting was utterly fascinating. Overall the wines tasted were sound and attractive. One corked bottle survived rigorous screening before the tasting began, and one other, the 1984 Erbacher Marcobrunn from Baron zu Knyphausen, was in decline and effectively died in the glass, viable for only a few seconds after it was poured. But most of the older and oldest wines were in perfect condition, and very good. The 1983 Rauenthaler Baiken from the Hessische Staatsweingüter was round and complex, very deeply flavored, tinged with beeswax and menthol. Weil’s 1983 Kiedricher Gräfenberg was also impressive: slightly honeyed but still very clean, bright and floral, with a noticeably herbal edge, notes of lemon curd and a long soft finish.   Johannishof’s 1996 Goldatzel Kabinett was flavorful, fruity, bright and rewarding. Two Hochheimer wines from Weingut Künstler, the 1988 Reichesthal Kabinett and the 1990 Hochheimer Hölle Spätlese ranked among my personal favorites. The Reichesthal displayed an impressive marriage of ripeness with brightness of flavor, especially herbal fruitness, in a delicious, low alcohol package. And the Hölle Spätlese was genuinely beautiful: savory, almost saline, very intense, with a long, dry finish. Truly impressive for a 29 year-old wine.

 

None of the wines from the 80s or 90s tasted excessively acidic, or unbalanced, to any of us, though some of them did seem to have passed their natural peaks. (Nor, I hasten to add, did any seem overtly sweet.) Is it possible that some had been tart or edgy in their youth? Of course. Sensory research has repeatedly shown that time can mellow the perception of acidity. Is it possible that these Charta wines tasted less acidic than other dry wines of their day because of “the Charta exception?” (Wines containing up to 13 g/L of residual sugar were accepted as Charta bottlings even though the European Community ceiling for officially dry wines was and is 9 grams.) This is theoretically possible but seems unlikely, see below. What about the question raised supra, that the Charta wines may simply have been better wines than non-Charta wines from the same period and region? To test this hypothesis one would need a control group of non-Charta Rieslings that were officially dry, and imagination sufficient to conjure what those wines tasted like when they were young. A nice idea, but for another day.

Can we learn anything further from the analytic data available for 33 of the 42 wines tasted on 30 May? (The spreadsheet is attached here: probe.charta.0517.list.analysis. In sum: for the 80s vintages the average alcoholic strength was 10.7°, total acid 8.4 g, and residual sugar 10.5 g. For the 90s, alcohol increased to 11.4° while acid remained largely unchanged, and sugar dropped to 9.3. For the wines made since 2000, the average alcohol rose again, this time to 12.0°, while total acid fell to 7.5, and residual sugar crept up slightly to 9.7. (Note that the most impressive delta here, higher alcohol and lower acid, are explained as a consequence of climate change.) Concentrating first on the oldest wines, is it likely that wines averaging 10.7 with 8.4 g of acid and 10.5 g of sugar tasted sour a year after bottling? I doubt it. Especially when the numbers are compared with those for young Charta wines made since 2000. True that the low alcohol in the 80s wines may have sharpened very slightly the perception of their acidity, especially when they were first released, but the acid to sugar ratio for the 80s is almost identical to the ratio for 2000-2015 (1:1.25 vs. 1:1.30) and identical to the maximum ratio permissible under EU regulations for dry wines (9 g of sugar but not more than acid plus two, or 1:1.28); in other words, far from being unpleasantly acidic, the early Charta wines were probably hovering near the ceiling for sugar in a dry wine and close to the threshold where such sugar could be perceived as sweetness. To believe otherwise requires that one hypothesize fruit that had been picked significantly under-ripe, and containing a high percentage of malic acid, all of which seems highly unlikely in vintages like 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989, all of which were average or better in the Rheingau, with harvest start dates before 15 October. Much more plausible, I would argue, is that the sensory and analytic data from this tasting is consistent with well-made wines from ripe fruit that hovered close to the inflection point between dry and half-dry, which would have seemed unpleasantly acidic only to palates accustomed to the much lower ratio of acid to sugar that had come to characterize almost all German Riesling from the end of World War II to the end of the 1970s.

 

A further reflection. My notes for this tastings make no reference to wine texture before 2000. No notes about minerality, grip or knit, and only occasional mentions of edge. In the tasting the older and oldest vintages showed primarily as expressions of fruit, flowers and occasional spice, rather than as wines of shape and structure. True that most of the wines in this tasting came from sites east of Rüdesheim, where soils are typically loamier and less rocky than they are on the Rüdesheimer Berg. But could it also be that, as others have noted, winemakers grew only slowly to appreciate the contribution that skin contact pre-fermentation and lees contact post-fermentation could make to the excellence and appeal of dry wines? Were the 1980s and sometimes also 1990s vintages typically made without benefit of either, at least in the Rheingau?   Has this matter of texture become a crucial parameter of quality in modern dry Riesling? In this context it is helpful to remember than traditionally dry or dry-ish wines made during the 19th Century and into the early part of the 20th were also made traditionally. Grapes were pressed slowly in basket-type presses wherein extended skin contact was normal, and with very long contact with gradually decreasing quantities of lees. When the dry idiom returned at the end of the 1970s and 1980s, these traditional parameters had been largely abandoned in favor of bladder pressing and short élevage in reductive environments. Was it therefore wine structure that had to be relearned, and this perhaps more importantly than the matter of a new “balance” between acid and residual sugar?

 

Of course, no single tasting can answer all the questions that remain, more than forty years later, about the early years of the Dry Wave. This tasting was, however, very illuminating. Huge thanks to Wilhelm Weil and Mathias Ganswohl for organizing it, and also to Mark Barth and Max Schönleber for hard work and valuable insights. Barth observed after the tasting that Charta remains for him “a living tradition,” having “opened the door” to both Erstes Gewächs in the Rheingau and the VDP’s Grosses Gewächs program everywhere.

 

 

Red Newt Turns a Corner – News from New York’s Finger Lakes – July 2017

When research for Riesling Rediscovered took me to the Finger Lakes (locally abbreviated FLX but not to be confused with the FLX airport code, which is found in Fallon, Nevada!) in 2012, I spent a few hours at Red Newt, located on the southeast shore of Seneca, the region’s largest and deepest lake. There were some very good wines on offer at the time, but it was hard to find the combination of single-vineyard and convincingly dry that were needed to meet the profile I had set for coverage in the book. Last month (July 2017) I returned, inspired by recent coverage of Red Newt in Wine & Spirits, recommendations from my colleague Stuart Pigott, and a happenstance conversation with Red Newt’s winemaker at this year’s Internationales Riesling Symposium in the Rheingau.

 

Today’s Red Newt is Red Newt Reinvented. The premises have not moved since David and Debra Whiting founded the enterprise in 1998 as a combination of small, landless winery and the region’s first locavore restaurant, and David Whiting is still very much in charge.   In the wake of Debra’s untimely death in 2011, the full-service restaurant has been trimmed to a lunch-only bistro, but the latter still sports the region’s largest list of good local wines, some very tasty food, and impressive lake views. The winery has morphed from about 1200 cases of assorted whites plus Bordeaux reds to more than 20000 cases annually, of which three quarters are now Riesling. Most importantly, perhaps, the Riesling program itself has been remade, acquiring seriousness, depth and a focus on vineyard-specific wines that are unambiguously dry.

 

Today two vineyards anchor Red Newt’s Riesling program: Tango Oaks on the lake’s southeast shore not far from the winery, and Lahoma, which is found about four miles west-southwest as the crow flies, on the lake’s west shore, south of Glenora. Tango Oaks has been the source for a vineyard-designated bottling since 2012, and for a cuvée that carries the name of Red Newt’s winemaker, Kelby James Russell (see below); some Tango Oaks fruit is also used irregularly in the winery’s two anchor blends, Dry and Semi-Dry.   Lahoma, where Red Newt takes grapes from at least three blocks, is the sole source for a block-designated wine called The Knoll, occasionally also for a vineyard-designated Lahoma wine, and the main source of fruit for the Dry and Semi-Dry blends.

 

Located on the south edge of the Sawmill Creek Vineyard where Red Newt’s single-vineyard program debuted back in 2009, Tango Oaks is an unusual example of literally new terroir. It is almost pure gravel, deposited in what had been a ravine by a flash flood in 1935, when half a meter of rain fell in less than 24 hours, partially filling the ravine. Like most of the so-called Banana Belt on Seneca’s southeast shore, it basks in long afternoon sun. Counter-intuitively, Tango Oaks is not an especially precocious site, however, and tends to ripen late, possibly owing in part to the extremely porous soil. “Soils” composed mostly of gravel, rock fragments and sand, because they also contain large amounts of air, reflect heat well but tend not to absorb it, cooling rapidly at the end of each day. Unusually again, at least in the FLX context, Tango Oaks is planted entirely to CTPS 49, which is the anchor for Riesling in Alsace, but is not widely planted elsewhere.

 

Lahoma, a sort of counterpoint to Tango Oaks, faces east across the lake, and is buffered by topography from the warmer afternoon sun. It occupies a series of east-west oriented hills, and is planted entirely to 239 Gm, almost certainly the most widely planted clone of Riesling anywhere. One small piece of Lahoma, a two-acre parcel on a sandy knoll that rises higher than the other hills, is used preferentially for The Knoll. The site is well ventilated, with low pressure from botrytis, and thus works especially well for dry wines.

 

Vertical tastings of Tango Oaks and The Knoll in July 2017 documented an odyssey of incremental changes to winemaking. If the credit for enabling the reinvention of Red Newt lies with David Whiting, who took the first crucial steps toward a Riesling-centric focus and toward single-vineyard bottlings, the architect of its technical and stylistic transformation belongs to Kelby Russell, the winemaker since 2012. Russell, an upstate New York native educated at Harvard University in government and economics, plunged into wine soon after graduation, working first at Fox Run, across the lake from Red Newt. His on-the-job viticultural and enological training was supplemented by off-season (in the northern hemisphere) experience in the vineyards and cellars of New Zealand and Australia. With Russell in charge, Red Newt Rieslings have taken deliberate and incremental steps toward lesser amounts of residual sugar and a newfound emphasis on structure and texture.

 

Tasted this year, the 2012 Tango Oaks wine was racy and friendly, strewn with mint, other green herbs and white pepper. It was also long and very slightly round, finished with about 7 g/L of residual sugar. From 2013, these wines gradually showed more citrus and apple character, and also more edge, as skin contact pre-fermentation and lees contact was increased bit by bit, gradually making a slightly larger wine, with concentration and structure, while residual sugar dropped ca. 2 g/L to a new average of about 5 g/L. A similar vertical of The Knoll told much the same story more boldly. The 2013 Knoll, all about lovely stone fruit but not convincingly dry (in fact about 9 g/L of sugar), saw a three-day cold soak before pressing, but little post-fermentation contact with lees. The 2014 was much more textured from longer contact with lees, and was loaded with yellow plums and spice. The 2105 showed very round and complex, tinged with citrus pith. By 2016, the wine presented brightly, with an impressive attack, plenty of mid-palate complexity, flavors of lime and quetsch, and barely 4 g/L of residual sugar, hence plainly and unambiguously dry.

 

From its debut in 2013, the Kelby James Russell bottling was deliberately bone dry, averaging <2 g/L of sugar. The objective here, according to Russell, is an “FLX interpretation” of Australian Riesling’s signature style, low in both alcohol and pH, fermented quite cold, redolent of lime (and in this version also lilac), crisp from double-yeasting, and eventually also very textured, tightly knit and tightly wound.

 

The velocity of change for the better in FLX has increased progressively over the last decade, as the number of wineries, the surface under vine, the concentration of professionally trained winemakers, the penetration of FLX wines into serious restaurants in major markets, and support for the wine industry at Cornell University have all increased and left their marks. Even in this benign milieu, however, Red Newt’s turnaround seems a noteworthy chapter. Miss no opportunity to taste these wines, and expect yet better from vintages to come!

 

 

 

 

 

Wachenheim’s “Secret” Vineyard: Odinstal

This post is a profile of the virtually unknown Odinstal vineyard at Wachenheim in the Pfalz, a monopole recently rehabilitated by a new owner and his remarkable winegrower, now producing Rieslings (among other vartieties) of truly uncommon interest.

 

Wachenheimer Odinstal

All but one of Wachenheim’s best vineyards are found between the town center and Forst, on well manicured, gently sloping, sandstone-based land between 140 and 180 meters above sea level. The outlier is Odinstal, which sits two hundred meters higher, in the foothills of the Haardt Mountains, southwest of town as the crow flies, up a sinuous and partially unpaved road through forest, buffered from other vineyards and other agriculture, almost on the rim of an ancient volcanic crater. It commands an exceptional view across the Rhine rift valley.

Odinstal is actually several vineyards side-by-side. First there are areas of more of less pure basalt that once poured molten from the crater. (Some of that found its way downhill to the Pechstein vineyard in Forst, where it is said to give a special character to the wines.) Then, on both sides the access road that links Odinstal with Wachenheim, there are areas of limestone and sandstone, not jumbled together as they are throughout the rest of the Mittelhaardt, but quite distinctly separate. The highest elevation point in Odinstal is 350 meters above sea level, a tad higher than the top of Kastanienbusch in Birkweiler, which is usually cited as the “roof” of the Pfalz. This isolated terrain seems not to have been planted with vines, or otherwise exploited agriculturally, until early in the 19th Century, when the unimproved land was purchased by the then mayor of Wachenheim, one Johann Ludwig Wolf, who later created the quite separate and unrelated wine estate known today as J. L. Wolf Erben. Wolf cleared several hectares in Odinstal to plant vines, probably concentrating on the basaltic soils; “roten Boden” had especially attracted his attention. He also built the handsome, Mansard-roofed stone house that still stands today, whose upper floors are said to have housed staff who worked the vines. The house fell into disrepair over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was not connected to running water or electricity until 2003.

Odinstal was and remains a monopole. Although the property changed hands several times, it was never divided. The first change of ownership occurred when Wolf lost it in a card game to another Wachenheimer named Kuhn, then when Kuhn’s granddaughter brought it as dowry when she married into the Siben family of Deidesheim, and most recently, when Weingut Georg Siben Erben sold it to Thomas Hensel, see below, in 1998.   At least part of the vineyard seems to have remained in production throughout these vicissitudes, although vines were replaced, blocks replanted and varietal composition altered.

Today Odinstal covers a total of 20 hectares, of which just five hectares are in vine; most of the rest remains as forest or meadow. 3.5 of the 5 hectares standing when the property was sold to Hensel have been retained, while 1.5 ha that Siben had used for Mueller-Thurgau have now been replanted to “more appropriate varieties.” Now the area under vine extends from the access road, which is found at the bottom of a shallow draw, up the slopes on each side, those on the north side of the road facing more or less south, while those on the south side face east or northeast. Two blocks on basalt anchor the south side, the higher of the two reaching almost to the rim of the crater; west of those and immediately below the residence-cum-winery is the lone limestone block, just 0.67 ha, on ground that slopes gently to the east. The higher of the two basalt blocks, which was planted in 2004, is dedicated to Auxerrois, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc, while the lower basalt block, planted in 1983, is devoted entirely to Riesling. The limestone block – geologists refer to this type of shell limestone as Muschelkalk, which is also Odinstal’s name for the block –was developed in two phases. The first vines were planted in 1996, but the younger were not set out until 2009. On the north side of the road there are four vineyard blocks on colored sandstone (Bundsandstein), three of which are dedicated to Riesling; these were planted in 1978, 1983 and 1986 respectively. The fourth sandstone block, planted in 2004, is dedicated to Pinot Blanc. The fifth block on this side of the road is a type of mudstone that geologists call Keuper; this block was planted in 1988 to Silvaner and Pinot Blanc.  All blocks except Muschelkalk are laid out in roughly north-south-oriented rows each two meters from the next, with various intervine spacings; vine rows in the limestone block run approximately east-west. Odinstal’s high elevation makes the site late-ripening overall, with Riesling rarely picked before mid-October and harvest sometimes delayed into the first half of November.

Odinstal’s trio of soil-specific Rieslings are exciting wines and a reminder, if any is needed, that different soils really do make quite different wines. The Muschelkalk Riesling is the most dynamic, fresh and exuberant of the trio, showcasing lime and other citrus fruits, green apple and occasionally pear in a wrapper of herbs; in warmer vintages the fruit component can shift toward melon and exotic tropical fruits. Muschelkalk is usually tightly knit, intense and sometimes even saline. The Bundsandstein Riesling is more overtly aromatic and flavorful, and its texture dustier overall; probably seeming more complex to some palates. The Basalt Riesling is the most baroque of the bunch: darker in its flavors, bigger in impression, tending toward orange-fleshed citrus with notes of cured meat and whiffs of smoke. Perhaps a perfect pairing for Melone e Prosciutto? In a tasting that combined vertical and horizontal components at the estate in June 2017, the 2013 wines were favorites across the board, a cool growing season having produced uniformly bright, high-acid wines with firm textures and low levels of residual sugar. From another cool vintage where patient growers were able to see complete ripeness with startlingly high acidities – 2010 – the only example in this tasting was the Muschelkalk. This exceptional wine showed beautifully near its seventh birthday: a cocktail of citrus and apple with herbs and exuberant minerality. Anyone who follows dry German Riesling should taste whichever Odinstals appear on his or her radar; just as anyone visiting the area should make time for the seems-long-but-is-in-fact-quite-short drive up the hill from the center of Wachenheim. (Appointments are mandatory, however, there is no tasting room here, nor any hospitality staff!)

§

Weingut Odinstal • 67157 Wachenheim

Today’s Weingut Odinstal is a recent creation. True that the house-cum-winery occupies a building originally constructed early in the 19th Century, and that some vineyard has been in production here ever since, but most contemporary production depends on vines planted since 2004. 2004 was also the first vintage to carry the Weingut Odinstal name and 2010 the first to include separate terroir-specific bottlings of Riesling from the three distinct soil types. The winery’s ascent to acclaim has been meteoric, beginning with recognition for the 2010 Muschelkalk Riesling in Der Feinschmecker’s Riesling Cup competition in 2012. Placements in Michelin-starred restaurants followed, then export to Scandinavian markets and the USA.

The proprietors are Thomas and Ute Hensel; he a successful real estate entrepreneur from Mannheim. They loved the site and the elegant ruin of a house, which they found easy to imagine as a home in which to raise their three young sons. Nearly a decade was required to persuade the Sibens to sell. Their determination to revive the old estate was born with time.

Since 2004, vineyards and cellar are have been in the hands of Andreas Schumann (b. 1978), a Neustadt- and Geisenheim-trained enologist who had previously worked at Dr. Deinhard (now Weingut von Winning) in Deidesheim, Mueller-Catoir in Haardt and Dr. Buerklin-Wolf in Wachenheim. Hensel charged Schumann to revive Odinstal’s identity as an estate winery, and as a wine estate, and to manage both vineyards and cellar without qualitative compromises. Taking advantage of the site’s isolation, biodiversity, and space for farm animals, and the misfortune of grave damage done to the vines by a highly unusual summer hailstorm, Schumann and Hensel began a transition to biodynamic viticulture in 2006. All necessary infusions are now made onsite, with nettles, yarrow and other plants grown on the estate, and cows pastured there during the warmer seasons of the year.   Schumann loves working in the vineyards, and can often be found spraying biodynamic tinctures.

Odinstal’s Riesling portfolio is still a work in progress, but consists for the moment, in each vintage, of terroir-specific bottlings of Rieslings produced entirely from the Basalt, Muschelkank and Bundsandstein blocks, a sparkling wine made from now eight year old vines, and a “basic” Riesling called now called 120 NN. (NN is an abbreviation for Normal-Null, meaning sea level. When the basic wine was made from the young vines on the Odinstal site, it was called 350 NN.) The source for the 120 NN bottling is a vineyard on the border between Deidesheim and Friedelsheim, astride the 120-meter contour. The final 2015 edition of 120 NN, tasted in 2017, was a dry, friendly, yellow-fruited, Pfalz-type Riesling with floral overtones and some nice mid-palate grip. Atypically for the Pfalz, however, it was blessedly low in alcohol, around 11°. “Our interpretation of Pfalz Riesling,” Schumann explained: “bone dry, but with full malolactic conversion.”

Winemaking is so basic and straightforward – apart from a singular twist — that it seems revolutionary. Grapes are pressed after 6-18 hours of skin contact. But, for many wines in many vintages, a quantity of intact (neither destemmed nor crushed) clusters is added to the freshly pressed juice, where they remain for the duration of the primary fermentation, and for any malolactic conversion that may naturally occur, until the soup of juice and whole clusters is pressed again, nine or so months after the process started. There is no introduction of exogenous yeast, no addition of enzymes or colloidal material, certainly no bentonite, no temperature control, and very little sulfur. The winery’s tanks are a combination of stainless steel with wooden casks of all sizes, plus a few amphorae. The wood casks are custom coopered from forest behind the estate. Fermentations, both primary and secondary, are entirely autonomous. This means interalia that some wines finish very dry while others contain noticeable residual sugar. “Of course you can add yeast,” Schumann explains, “and maybe get the wine more dry, but you cannot get it more beautiful, and we care primarily about the balance that is born in the vineyard. In the cellar we accept what happens [naturally.]” After the post-fermentation pressing, the various press fractions are tasted; normally they are reintegrated with the main body of finished wine, but anything excessively phenolic is excluded. A few weeks later, normally in July following the vintage, the wines are bottled with minimal filtration and a touch more sulfur. Typical chemistry for the finished terroir Rieslings are around 12.5°, with total acids between 7 and 8 g/L, and residual sugar falling anywhere between 4 and 12 g/L. Schumann finds that Odinstal Rieslings typically “go through a valley two to three years after the vintage,” tasting fresh and energetic for their first year in bottle, but not fully impressive until the “begin to climb out of the valley” about four years after the vintage.

 

 

 

Another Wonnegau Star: Dreissigacker

This post is a profile of the Geyersberg vineyard in Bechtheim, and Bechtheim-domiciled Weingut Dreissigacker, which I visited in May 2017.

 

Bechtheimer Geyersberg (Rheinhessen)

Bechtheim is a tidy, compact town of 1800 persons in the southeast corner of Rheinhessen, about 13 kilometers northeast of Westhofen (see “Westhofener Morstein, Aulerde, Kirchspiel and Bruennenhaeuschen” in Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 223-25.) It sits astride the Riederbach, a very small and indirect tributary of the Rhine, in a wide, slope-shouldered and east-west oriented valley that is hospitable to many crops. Wine grapes have been grown here for centuries, along with field crops of many kinds, though there is evidence that cognizant administrators tried to confine wine grapes to less fertile sites, and to encourage the planting of higher quality and less productive varieties, as early as the late 18th Century. Today there are about 650 hectares of grapes in Bechtheim, distributed across a horseshoe of vineyards that almost surrounds the town, but is open at the shoe’s west end.

Geyersberg anchors the horseshoe’s northeast corner. It is Bechtheim’s highest elevation vineyard, rising to about 180 meters above sea level, or about 40 meters above the town. Most of Geyersberg’s eighty planted hectares face more or less due south, but since some vine rows wrap around a convex hill, the vineyard’s shoulders face a bit southwest and southeast. The slope looks modest from a distance, and in fact averages only about twenty percent, but Geyersberg is a healthy climb from town, rewarding workers and hikers with postcard views of the roofs below, and of the Pfarrkirche St. Lambert, whose oldest stones were laid in the 11th Century.   The dark topsoil in Geyersberg is a fertile mix of loam, loess, sand and clay well strewn with broken limestone; this surmounts a deep but porous base of limestone bedrock that has been partially crushed in the course of geologic time. Geyersberg doesn’t really look rocky to most casual observers, especially when it is compared to vineyards like Frauenberg (in nearby Nieder-Flörsheim) where broken stone is so ubiquitous that some of it must be moved to make room for vines at all, but compared to adjacent vineyards in Bechtheim, Geyersberg is relatively rocky. Most vine rows are laid out across the slope but run approximately north-south, and the most common vine spacing, at least since Flurbereinigung, has been 2.0 meters between rows, with 1.0 or 0.8 meters between the vines in each row. The top of the vineyard is flatter than its mid-slope, and is more deeply covered with loess; sometimes this part of the vineyard can be a bit too cool and windblown to permit complete ripening. So it is instead a wide swath across its south-facing and partially wind-protected mid-slope that is generally considered to be Geyersberg’s “filet.” Here the subsoil is poorer than the loess found in higher precincts, giving small berries and excellent concentration. Weingut Dreissigacker, domiciled in Bechtheim (see below), is the single largest proprietor in Geyersberg, owning a bit less than one third of the total surface and much of the “filet.” When local winemakers generalize about Geyersberg and adjacent vineyards, the special stamp of Geyersberg is dense structure, minerality and a signature “smokiness;” it is not unusual for Geyersberg Rieslings to be reticent until they have been in bottle for two or even three years.

In May 2017, I tasted two vintages each of Dreissigacker Rieslings from the vineyard immediately west of Geyersberg, called Rosengarten (2014 and 2013), and a vineyard west of Rosengarten called Hasensprung (2011 and 2014). Both sites are lower and warmer than Geyersberg, and loamier overall, and the four wines showed roughly as one would expect. The Rosengartens were brighter and more angular than the Hasensprungs, accented with citrus peel and summer herbs. The Hasensprungs were a bit more fruit-driven and the 2011 aromatically evolved, mimicking sweetness and botrytis without either being present, a reflection of that vintage’s extreme warmth in a site that already tends to run warmer that its neighbors to the east. A six-year vertical of Geyersberg (2015-2010) followed, demonstrating the compelling structure which this site, of all those in Bechtheim, imprints on Rieslings.   Across all six vintages, textural properties dominated the wines, which are variously flinty, stony and sometimes smoky. Fruit appears only in the background, and mostly as fruit peel rather than flesh or juice, and as fruits we associate with low-sugar like apples, or with so-called red passion fruit, which can seem as savory as it does sweet; sometimes the sour-savory fruit seemed wrapped in herbs. Warmer vintages like 2012 and 2015 were rounder, of course, but, still flinty and angular. My personal favorites were the 2010, a special cocktail of fruit peel with 9.5 g/L of acid, and the amazing 2013, a brilliant combination of herbs and texture, exuberant and almost explosive on the palate with athletic backbone, an amazingly long finish and a kaleidoscope of textures.

 

Weingut Dreissigacker, 67595 Bechtheim

Parts of the estate known today as Dreissigacker carried the name of the Sauer family for most of the last three centuries; one Jacob Sauer was recorded as its proprietor in 1728. The Dreissigacker name was not applied until after a Dreissigacker acquired the estate by marriage in 1952. For most of its early history, it was of course more a family farm than a wine estate, growing a variety of field crops and vegetables, and raising a bit of livestock. But the Sauers had begun to get serious about wine at the top of the 20th Century, and this path was further traversed by Frieder and Ute Dreissigacker, the current vigneron’s parents, when they took the reins in 1991, divesting other forms of agriculture entirely. However, it was only when Jochen Dreissigacker (b. 1981) entered the family business in 2001, having found that his first career in accounting did not suit his orientation or personality, that today’s Dreissigacker estate began to take shape. Determined, in his own words, “to take something good and make it truly excellent, and to elevate pleasant wines to an inspiring experience,” Jochen first reinvented himself. He apprenticed with neighbors, notably the now legendary Klaus Peter Keller, and absorbed what wisdom he could from Klaus Peter’s father, who had been among the first visionaries in Rheinhessen to privilege quality over quantity. Jochen also spent time at the St. Lamprecht winery at Neustadt, and did formal studies at the Staatliche Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt fuer Wein- und Obstbau at Weinsberg, across the Rhine in Baden-Württemberg. On the ground in Bechtheim, the first giant step was to transition the family’s vineyards from conventional to sustainable and then to certified organic farming, while simultaneously making drastic reductions to average yields. The elimination of herbicides was a key element in the plan, since a healthy cover crop was needed to compete with the vines for water and nutrition in Bechtheim’s relatively fertile topsoils, and green compost derived from herbs and legumes, tilled every other year into alternate vine rows, was a fully adequate approach to vine nutrition. Opportunistically, Jochen also traded mediocre vineyard parcels, which had often been planted to Dornfelder or Müller-Thurgau, for stands of old-vine Riesling; in 2006 eight hectares in Geyersberg and neighboring Rosengarten came to Dreissigacker from Bechtheim neighbor Weingut Dr. Koehler in a single transaction. Overall, between 2001 and 2017 the estate grew from ca. 12 hectares to about 38, while production increased only a bit, thanks to dramatically lower yields. The Dr. Koehler name and winery persist, now owned and managed by Jochen’s brother Christian, and reportedly work closely together.

The Dreissigacker approach to organic farming involves much more than the basics, however. Jochen is an uncommonly close observer of his vines and of year-on-year variations in temperature, moisture and plant phenology. In most years the early summer green harvest removes all but ten clusters per vine, and whatever leaves have emerged on the top side of the horizontal cordons; Jochen wants these leaves out of the way before the clusters gain weight and begin to hang downwards. Less chance of botrytis that way, he observes, and he wants his fruit as clean as possible. At the same time, he wants to hedge his vines no more than twice during each growing season, and never to top them, so that the canopy protects but does not compete with the grapes. But “every year is different,” he repeats over and over, requiring one or another modification to default protocols. “A lot of my business is gut feeling,” he admits happily. When individual vines must be replaced, or parts of a vineyard replanted, the standard practice is to take cuttings from individual healthy, small-berried and shy-bearing vines nearby, or in other parts of Rheinhessen, or even in the Mosel, and to have these cuttings custom-grafted by a nursery; this approach enables him to avoid standard clonal selections almost entirely. Dreissigacker vines are also entirely dry-farmed; the clay-rich loams retain plenty of water naturally. Realizing now that all Dreissigacker Lagenweine (of which Geyersberg is the flagship) are now made almost exclusively from vines more than 25 years old, and in the case of old-vine parcels acquired through swaps with neighbors, from vines Jochen has now husbanded for more than ten years, giving the wines the deep flavors, concentration and density he associates with “true excellent” wines, Jochen is now inclined to pick earlier than he used to, so that even warm vintages, with age, can present with less creaminess and more edge. “If a [really warm vintage like] 2011 were to come again, I would pick it earlier,” he said.

The Riesling portfolio here (about 60% of total production) builds on two basic wines, an Organic Trocken made from a combination of purchased fruit and estate grapes, and an Estate Trocken that relies primarily on fruit from Heilig-Kreutz, a giant site of more than 200 hectares on the south side of the L 409 road. Some Dreissigacker parcels in Heilig-Kreutz have been part of the estate since it belonged to the Sauers. There is also a Bechtheimer Riesling blended from parcels in Stein (the southeast corner of the “horseshoe”) and younger vines elsewhere. The top wines are single site bottlings from the oldest parcels in Hasensprung, Rosengarten and Geyersberg (see above) and, since 2010, small lots of single site Rieslings from estate parcels in three Westhofen vineyards, namely Aulerde, Morstein and Kirchspiel. The estate also gives serious attention to Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay; there is also a bit of Pinot Noir and St. Laurent.

 

At the end of most harvest seasons, Dreissigacker has about 180 fermentation lots of Riesling to work with. Lots suitable for the Lagenweine are culled first, though not without tasting pre-blends twice, the second time two weeks after the first, to be sure the wines have the staying power the house wishes to see in its single-site wines. The Bechtheimer Riesling is next in line, followed by the two basic wines, those too are careful blends with a purity, shape and balance that is unusual for their price points. The house style is relentlessly dry across the board, with many wines finishing with less than a single gram of sugar (against total acidity of 6-7 g/L in a warm vintage and 7-8 g/L in a cool one) and alcohol around 13°. To compensate for the lesser structure and concentration achieved in lots used for the core of the basic wines, up to 70 hours of pre-fermentation skin contact is sometimes permitted, and with clusters left intact, though partial foot treading is sometimes practiced before fermentations begin. (Jochen finds he is “not a friend of destemming;” foot-treading is gentler, he finds, and releases fewer unwanted phenolics.) Skin-contact declines to around 48 hours for lots destined for single site wines. Fermentations kick off spontaneously, but (to ensure dryness) neutral champagne yeast may be added to lots that visibly lag around the fermentation’s midpoint. The new wines remain on the full lees for up to ten months before everything is blended and bottled. All Rieslings, basic wines included, then spend another year in bottle before release. Although a few of these wines can still be challenging on release, especially to palates accustomed, even in dry wines, to residual sugar in the range of 5 to 7 g/L, they are wines of impressive precision and unfailing excitement, loaded with tension and texture. Dreissigacker is Bechtheim’s leading producer, and no less important to the ongoing Wonnegau renaissance than its eminent neighbors in Westhofen, Dalsheim, Flörsheim and Hohen-Sülzen.

Poderi Colla: Elegance in Barbaresco, Barolo and the Langhe

 

The twin appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco, respectively southwest and northeast of Alba, on the south bank of the Tanaro River, are awash with the names of iconic producers known around the wine world. In the case of Barolo, think Bruno Giacosa, Bartola Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, the late Aldo Conterno, Paolo Scavino and Elio Altare, for starters. Barbaresco is a bit less star-studded, blessed with one ne plus ultra superstar, the redoubtable Angelo Gaja (b. 1940), but Barbaresco is also home to one of the most respected wine cooperatives on Planet Earth, Produttori del Barbaresco. In both appellations, however, there are producers who deserve more attention than they get. Consider, for example, Poderi Colla, presently domiciled on the Bricco del Drago hill on the southwest edge of the Barbaresco DOCG, within the township of Alba.

 

Collas have been in some part of the wine business, and always somewhere in the Langhe, for more than 300 years, but Poderi Colla in its present form dates just from 1996. Ernesto (Tino) Colla (b. 1949) and his son Pietro (b. 1980) are in charge, focused firmly on estate-grown fruit and site-specific wines. There are vineyards in three sites: Nebbiolo for the Nebbiolo d’Alba bottling, plus Dolcetto, Pinot Noir and Riesling on the Drago Hill; Barbara and Nebbiolo for the Barbaresco DOCG wine at Roncaglie, about two kilometers northwest; and Nebbiolo for the Barolo DOCG bottling at Dardi le Rose, part of Bussia, the most celebrated cru in the township of Monforte d’Alba.  Many things about the Collas impress and ingratiate, not least their gregarious good humor and ever-ready hospitality, as I learned when my visit in 2010, which unintentionally overlapped with the end of a later-than-usual harvest.   True that Pietro had to disappear when a gondola of grapes from Bussia arrived just before nightfall, but other members of the family kept the tasting on track and well supplied with tasty comestibles. More impressive, however, is the seriousness of purpose that underpins their good humor. Not just the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG wines, but most of Colla’s varietal wines – the Dolcetto (dubbed Pian Balbo), the Barbera (dubbed Costa Bruna), the Pinot Noir (dubbed Campo Romano) – are single-site bottlings, as is the Langhe Rosso, a blend of Dolcetto with Barbera and Nebbiolo, which carries the Bricco del Drago name. The Collas are said to be the first to have planted Pinot Noir in the Langhe, ca. 1970, inspired by Tino’s time in Burgundy, where he worked after formal training at Alba and before returning to the family’s own vineyards. And the first (or perhaps the second after Vajra) to plant Riesling, whose popularity in the Langhe is now growing. Pietro spent some time in California after his own Alba-based training, a generation later The family’s commitment to site-specificity is also strong; they are said to have been the first to have use “Bussia” on a label; long before Bussia was recognized as a cru of Barolo.. In the vineyard there is dedication to sustainable viticulture that is usually organic-in-fact.

 

Most of all the Collas are steadfast about elegance. The 2015 vintage of Dolcetto Pian Balbo, tasted in February 2017 in San Francisco, was the prettiest Dolcetto I think I have ever tasted, soft and gentle of grip as one would expect, but also precise, saturated, feminine and serious, and very lightly filtered, possibly benefitting from the choice of large neutral wooden casks for élevage. The 2013 Barbaresco Rongaglie was beautiful and mellow at mid-palate, and redolent of incense, before tightening up on the finish. But just three years older, the same wine from 2010, was brilliant and high-toned and textured more like fruit and citrus peel than tannins, and enjoyable mouth-coating. A high acid vintage helped here, no doubt, but the wine was already enjoyable, less than seven years after the harvest. A 2011 Barolo Bussia was also very drinkable at an age when most Barolos are challenging, with savory and nutty highlights; the same wine from 2010 married a lively and bright impression with deep flavors and great intensity. “We search for Barolo with elegance,” Tino explained, “not Schwarzenegger.” Virtually all Colla reds finish closer to 13 than to 14, which is decidedly unusual.

 

Although Colla wines have been available in the States for some time, a new importer is now in charge: The Source Imports in Thousand Oaks.

For the Record: Oregon Chardonnay ca. 2007

In 2007, Saveur Magazine asked me to write a story on the state of chardonnay in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  In the end, the text below was not published in the magazine, but is now (2017) posted here for the record.  The text has not been fact-checked or copy-edited, not has it been updated for this post.   — JWH

Imagine New World chardonnay with the bright, apple-hazelnut character of Rully; the pear, melon and yellow plum found in early editions of chardonnay grown on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley; some fresh, white peach that seems more characteristic of viognier than chardonnay; plus earthy, resinous and citric notes, excellent acidity, and a touch of Chablisian minerality. Modest alcohol, and only a suggestion of oak. No hint of residual sugar, butter, or tropical fruit. Such is the portrait — against all odds, expectations and track record – to emerge from a cross-section of several dozen chardonnays grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, across three recent vintages.   Serious, appealing, food-friendly wine that is often age-worthy, sold for astonishingly reasonable prices.

 

Chardonnay in Oregon runs a distant third to pinot noir and pinot gris, which occupy seventy percent of the state’s vineyard. Although, for decades, nearly every grower in the Willamette Valley planted it, it rarely made a vintner’s favorite wine, and often behaved more like a varietal black sheep. When Roy Andries de Groot surveyed American wine early in the 1980s, he liked chardonnays made at The Eyrie Vineyards, Ponzi Vineyards, Knudsen-Erath and Elk Cove, which he found, variously, “crisp,” “fruity,” “tart” and “subtle,” but in every case he preferred the same producer’s pinot noir. Chardonnay frustrated many Oregon vintners, producing “lackluster” results, especially in cool vintages. From 1995 to 2005 vineyard acreage devoted to chardonnay declined by almost half, and some producers abandoned it entirely. Newcomers to Oregon’s wine business invested almost entirely in pinot noir, or in just a few rows of pinot gris alongside their pinot noir, to give themselves a bit of something white for home consumption and tasting room sales. The contrast with neighboring California, where chardonnay has been the uncontested behemoth for a quarter century, is stark. So too the contrast with Greater Burgundy, from Chablis to the Maconnais, which Oregon resembles climatically and aspires to imitate, where pinot noir and chardonnay together, in roughly equal shares, account for nearly everything.

 

Context is part of the story. Neither chardonnay nor riesling was able to compete with the inexhorable success of Oregon pinot noir, internationally acclaimed since The Eyrie Vineyards’ legendary performance against a passel of outstanding red Burgundies tasted at Beaune in 1980. Pinot noir sucked oxygen from Oregon’s other varieties, becoming, as veteran wine writer Matt Kramer explained in 1996, “all anyone in Oregon wine talks about, thinks about or prays for.” Economics took care of the rest. The price of pinot soared; demand kept pace; more pinot was planted; and a shadow settled over other varieties, including chardonnay. Another bit of the picture lies with chardonnay outside Oregon, where it swept like a tsunami across the wine landscape, flooding the market with all qualities of chardonnay at all price points, and leaving little room for upstart competition. Worse, with a nod to Burgundy but more caricature than imitation, the New World’s warmer regions also imposed an international consensus style on chardonnay, creating demand and acceptance for soft, round wines redolent of tropical fruit, vanilla and butter, seasoned with a bit of residual sugar. The Willamette Valley is too cool to have made chardonnays in this mould, even if its vintners had been so inclined.

 

As Oregon vintners tell the story, however, their core problem with chardonnay was not contextual but botanical. Although all the world’s chardonnay has been propagated from a single Mother vine that grew, probably somewhere in Greater Burgundy, in late medieval times, spontaneous mutation (and human intervention designed to eliminate disease) has generated multiple instances of chardonnay over time, and each instance is a bit different from every other. The first chardonnay vines planted in Oregon, the vintners explain, were cuttings taken from California instances of the variety, already several plant generations removed from French antecedents. Planted in Oregon, these selections ripened late and developed little flavor until the tail end of the ripening process. In warm years, producers were able to coax “pretty good” wine from these selections – Dick Shea remembers “lovely” chardonnays made from California selections planted in his vineyard in years when autumn rains held off until the end of October – but more than a few were sappy, ponderous, tasted mainly of red apple, and lacked “zing.” Mindful that Burgundian colleagues reported chardonnay that ripened simultaneously with pinot noir, and that good white Burgundy was anything but ponderous and sappy, several Oregon vintners, including Adelsheim Vineyard’s founder David Adelsheim, concluded that that their devil must lie with the California selections. These, they hypothesized, had adapted a bit too well in California, and now refused to perform “true to variety” at a more northerly latitude. So the vintners turned their sights to Burgundy, where government-sponsored programs had been following vineyards for twenty years, taking cuttings from the healthiest and earliest-ripening vines, propagating small parcels exclusively from those cuttings, making batch after batch of experimental wines, vintage after vintage — effectively bettering the breed. The Oregonians persuaded the French to part with a few cuttings from their programs, forged a relationship with Oregon State University to manage importation, and organized their own trials. Finally planted commercially in 1989, 1990 and 1992 at Adelsheim, Argyle and Ponzi, the new selections behaved like chardonnay in Burgundy. They ripened just as the doctor had ordered: two weeks earlier than the “old” California selections and right in sync with pinot noir. However, although they hinted at the flavors and structures the vintners sought, the first finished wines were still underwhelming. Adelsheim noticed that an appealing “subtle white peach fruitiness” developed early in the ripening continuum, but also tended to disappear early, as soon as acid levels headed down. After three years of less-than-inspiring results, Rollin Soles, Argyle Winery’s partially Europe-trained winemaker, learned the trick: he picked the French selections “before they got too ripe.” Gradually, quite a few producers replanted entirely to French selections. Argyle made its first chardonnay exclusively from French selections in 1995; Ponzi in 1996.

 

Perhaps as important as the fact of the new selections, which have now grown to account for about half of the chardonnay in Oregon vineyards, is the new attention lavished on chardonnay by vintners sensing a “better future” for the hitherto underperforming variety. At Chehalem, winemaker Harry Peterson-Nedry devised a “bracketed picking” scheme to address the singular ripening profile of the French selections. He picks some vines when the grapes reach barely 12 percent potential alcohol, then others at around 13 and 14, and builds the final blend from a combination of lots, to achieve verve and body in the same wine. Eyrie’s new winemaker, David Lett’s son Jason, has adapted barrel fermentation followed by long élevage in neutral wood, plus other “tricks I learned in Burgundy,” to produce an especially well-built edition of chardonnay for his personal Black Cap label — from heritage vines in the family’s estate vineyard. Patty Green, Patricia Green Cellars’ eponymous winemaker, reports an evolution for the chardonnay she makes from the Four Winds Vineyard (in the Coast Range foothills west of McMinnville) from “inspiration by village-level Meursault” to “inspiration by Chablis,” based on zero use of new barrels, and harvest early enough to capture a mix of still green and ripe berries. Green calls the 2005 vintage “a lean, mean, fighting machine.” Westrey Wine Company has resuscitated 28-year old vines propagated from the California selection used in Eyrie’s estate vineyard to anchor the reserve tier of its chardonnay program, using six months of lees contact and batonnage to showcase pear and Golden Delicious apple flavors in a straw-colored package.   An impressive list of producers, apparently led by Chehalem’s Peterson-Nedry, but now including Adelsheim, Sineann, Halloran, Bethel Heights, and Boedecker Cellars among others, has converted all or part of its chardonnay program to an oak-free protocol where the wines are fermented and raised entirely in stainless steel. Production of Chehalem’s unoaked chardonnay (“Inox”) has soared 500 percent since its debut in 2002. Argyle’s Soles thinks the “new American palate” has now learned to like minerality and acidity, and cites the popularity of pinot grigio as proof. “It was tough up here in the old days of fat, ripe chardonnays,” he recalls. “We were trying to please the palate of the time, but we just couldn’t do it.” David Adelsheim thinks a consensus Oregon style is emerging from experimentation: light-handed use of new oak, fresh acidity, modest alcohol and low tannins. The wines’ body is built naturally from low yields, and bright flavors can persist through complete malolactic fermentations because the unfermented juice starts out with high effective acidity.

 

Some Oregon makers have begun to talk about chardonnay with the same awe and respect they previously reserved for pinot noir. There are references to “the inherent greatness of the variety” and its “exciting tension between floral and fruit aromas.” Eric Hamacher, who has made both pinot noir and chardonnay in Oregon since 1995, now declares that chardonnay is “the other half of the Holy Grail.” Others argue that, as a matter of good business, chardonnay is the only white option for Oregon growers. Since, in the neighborhood of the 45th parallel, all viable varieties compete to be grown on the same prime, south-facing hillsides and to be cropped at not much more than two tons per acre, growers and vintners must cast their lot with a variety than can, with time and excellence, produce wine that justifies prices in the same range as those commanded by pinot noir. Of all white varieties, vinified as dry table wine, only chardonnay has a track record for such results. If the Oregonians are wagering correctly, fine Oregon chardonnay will not sell in its current $18-$35 price range forever. Carpe diem.

 

 

 

Dry Riesling in Los Angeles – March 2017

The Wine Education Council presented Riesling Rediscovered: A Seminar and Tasting with John Winthrop Haeger, on Tuesday 21 March 2017, at Spago Restaurant in Beverly Hills. This event was part of WEC’s programs to support professionalism in wine service, and participants were largely working sommeliers from across Southern California.  Further information about WEC is found at  http://www.wineeducationcouncil.org/about-us/.  .

The tasting featured dry Rieslings from Germany, Alsace, Austria, Italy, Australia, Oregon and California, and a single beyond-dry wine from Domaine Marcel Deiss at Bergheim (Haut-Rhin).   The Tasting Book is found here – wec.tastingbook.final.

Fogarty Redux in the Santa Cruz Mountains

23 February 2017.  Located on the lee side of the Santa Cruz Mountains just below their crest, the wine estate that Thomas Fogarty established in 1979 has persisted, and is in some ways little changed, across nearly four decades. It remains family owned and run, with Fogarty’s son Thomas Jr. now in charge. Fewer than ten percent of the land surface is built or planted to vines; the balance has been left deliberately undeveloped, and the entire property is protected in a land trust. Its views east and south, which extend across the Stanford University campus and Palo Alto to the east and south shores of San Francisco Bay, remain uncompromised. Only one of its vineyards – a two-acre knoll adjacent to the winery buildings, planted in 1980 and called Windy Hall — has been replanted. The rest of the original vines – mostly chardonnay and pinot noir with a small stand of nebbiolo — soldier on. Michael Martella, the legendary winemaker Fogarty-père engaged in 1980 to help him develop the estate, made every vintage here until 2012 and remains somehow omnipresent, even though he now devotes the lion’s share of time to a brand of his own. (Separately, Fogarty has developed a second winegrowing location on the west side of Skyline Boulevard, facing southwest, where Bordeaux varieties are grown for a second label, Lexington.)

The continuity masks real and consequential evolution, however. A January 2017 tasting of Fogarty’s 2013 pinots, contrasted substantially – even dramatically – with a similar tasting of the 2004 vintage done in 2008 to inform Pacific Pinot Noir: A Comprehensive Winery Guide for Consumers and Connoisseurs (University of California Press, 2008). The 2004 pinots were uniformly dark, large-framed and fruit-driven, and exceeded 14°. My notes speak of “black fruit,” “strong structure,” “muscle” and “omnipresent tannin,” and suggest that several years of bottle age might help to tame their brawn. The 2013s represent a polar contrast with this picture. The 2013s are pretty, bright, elegant treble-clef wines. They are also tightly-knit, texturally engaging, sometimes savory, sometimes spicy and often red-fruited. They are a great showcase for the estate’s kaleidoscopically different terroirs. And their alcoholic strength stands almost two degrees lower on average than in 2004. The 2013s are, in a word, beautiful. I asked Nathan Kandler, the Michigan-raised and Fresno-trained winemaker who succeeded Martella as winemaker in 2013 after nine years’ experience as his associate what had happened.

The answer, according to Kandler, begins in the vineyard. True that the Fogarty pinot program still depends on the same vines used in and before 2004, save for Windy Hill, which was taken out of production for replanting from 2011 to 2014. But viticulture across the estate has changed in small and incremental but ultimately revolutionary ways in the interim. “An estate [like Fogarty] that is spread out over a large surface makes it easy to get stuck in the cellar,” he explains. “Now we deliberately spend a lot more time outside and “pay more attention now to what we are doing there.” He points especially to soil health, and to the improvement of “diversity of life” in the soil. A legume-rich cover crop is seeded after harvest and tilled into the soil the following spring, mitigating erosion during the rainy season and increasing available nitrogen thereafter, helping to improve the “diversity of life in the soil.” Chemical herbicides have been abandoned — along with most insecticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers. Farming in most vintages now meets most requirements for organic farming, though the vineyard is not certified. Good vine balance (technically a relationship between fruit weight and brush weight) is now a lodestone here, with shorter pruning now preferred. “In the mid-2000s,” Kandler observes, “some of our vines looked their age; now they are visibly healthier.” Healthier and better-balanced vines have also given fruit that is flavor-ripe with less sugar. To help demonstrate what has happened Kandler shared data on pinot grapes from one of the estate’s vineyards, called Rapley Trail. From 2004 to 2007, the average Brix at picking in this vineyard was 26.4 (=16.1° of potential alcohol), giving an average finished alcohol in these years of 14.3°; from 2013 to 2016 the analogous numbers were just 22.9 Brix (=13.6°) and 12.9°!

From 2004 to 2013 there were also important changes in the cellar. A period of experimentation with stem inclusion has led to the routine use of between ten and thirty percent of whole clusters for most wines in most vintages. Fermentations, which were routinely inoculated in and before 2004, now typically rely on naturally occurring yeasts. Cooperage has also changed from a wide mix of coopers, including some with notoriously flavor-forward styles like François Frères, to exclusive use of Sirugue, usually coopered from Châtillon oak, which has an enviable reputation for subtlety. At least as consequential was the choice, made incrementally over the aforementioned period, to support multiple block-designated wines. Before 2004, Fogarty made Reserve pinots, and a Santa Cruz Mountains blend that relied in part on purchased fruit, but no block designates. The latter practice began with Rapley Trail and Rapley Trail Block B bottlings in 2004. Razorback, a 1986 planting of Swan and Dijon selections and the estate’s lowest elevation vineyard at ca. 1300 feet, followed in 2011; Will’s Cabin Vineyard, a north-facing site at 2400’, planted to Mount Eden, Swan and Mariafeld selections, was first made in 2012. Windy Hill, back in production after replanting, debuted as a block-designate in 2014. My notes (from January 2017) show that Rapley Trail remains the most hedonistic of the block designates, relatively rich, dark, intense, and spicy, but in 2013 these signature properties had been wrapped into a stylish and elegant package. Will’s Ranch, reflecting the cool breed of a high-elevation site, was tightly-knit with gentle grip on the finish, but pretty and bright a mid-palate. Razorback, a lower elevation site where marine sediments and old volcanic materials predominate, was my personal favorite: very high-toned, red-fruited, tightly-knit and savory with resinous herbs, and irresistibly delicious.

It has probably been helpful that the winemaking team also makes three vineyard-designated pinots from purchased grapes, and that the Santa Cruz Mountains blend now relies preponderantly on non-estate fruit. The blend, the only one of the Fogarty pinots that is bottled before the following vintage, is all about red berries and dusty earth, with a nice accent of juniper berry; an absolutely perfect wine for weekday evenings and by-the-glass pours. La Vida Bella Vineyard, which sits above the fog line on the Aptos side of the appellation in sandy loam soils, showed as a bright, spicy wine with a silky texture and red berry flavors. Mindego Ridge Vineyard – Ehren Jordan is the winemaker for Mindego Ridge’s own label — is a 2009 planting in shale-dominated soils that gives a fleshy, saturated wine driven by fairly dark fruit.

The Santa Cruz Mountains have matured as a winegrowing region over the last decade. The region now boasts considerable professional winemaking talent. New vineyards have been planted in all corner of the AVA, some challenging Mother Nature for sites that as qualitatively promising as they are hard and risky to farm. Legendary Silicon Valley fortunes have been indispensible to some of these. Bottom Line however is that there is now an impressive list of benchmark pinot noirs from this area. Among the near pioneers that have persisted, Fogarty stands out as a twice-made success: the “new” pinots from this now “old” site are as exciting as those from any of the newly-planted vineyards and newly-minted brands.

Is a Riesling Renaissance beginning in California? – Chapter 1 (Ryan Stirm)

Ryan Stirm’s “winery” inhabits the slab floor and metal siding walls of a repurposed warehouse on Santa Cruz’s west side, most recently used as a welding shop. Barrel racks now fill about half the floor, with room left for a tiny grove of stainless steel tanks, a crush pad during harvest, and a small lab year-round. “The space has advantages,” Stirm points out, not least that the rent is reasonable, and that “it is less tainted than apple sheds in Correlitos,” never having been used for anything organic. Metal and concrete harbor few pests or fungi and clean up easily – an advantage if the new use of the space is for wine.

 

The winery is home to Stirm’s eponymous Stirm Wine Company (www.stirmwine.com), which made and marketed its first wines in 2013, when it was domiciled in Santa Barbara County, and to wines made for several custom crush projects, in some of which Stirm also has an ownership interest. The barrel racks are filled with mostly red wines – Zinfandel, zin co-fermented with a small amount of orange Muscat,Mourvèdre, Cabernet Pfeffer, and (in a tilt toward the mainstream) Pinot Noir. A single rosé is made from more or less everything (think Mission and Carignane in addition to the aforementioned varieties) that grows in the Enz vineyard, approximately 50 miles southeast of Santa Cruz in the Lime Kiln AVA. Whites, entirely tank raised, include a surprisingly appealing co-ferment of orange Muscat and palomino (!) from Enz, Grüener Veltliner from Rancho Arroyo Perdito in Santa Barbara, and several Rieslings: from old vines in the Wirz Vineyard in the La Cienega Valley AVA, a stone’s throw from Enz; from the Kick-On Ranch in Los Alamos, and from Luis Zabala’s rock-and-gravel strewn vineyard in Arroyo Seco. At least for 2016, the Zabala will go entirely into 375 or 500 ml cans for a project Stirm does with partners, but the other Rieslings are the core of Stirm’s brand. “We love Riesling,” Stirm explains, “it’s loaded with terpenes, transparent, dynamic and exciting.” Stirm is one of perhaps eight or ten young vintners, almost all newly minted, who are now rediscovering and reinventing California Riesling, searching out old vines when they can, buying fruit from growers who have planted Riesling when the cannot, and grafting or planting vines anew when all else fails.  With only a few exceptions, this cohort is focused on dry wines.  Watch this space for additional chapters of the Riesling renaissance in California.

 

Stirm, who grew up conventionally in an East Bay suburb, in a family with no special sensitivity to food or wine, developed an early interest in the out-of-doors, gardens, compost, farms and cooking. Initially tempted to choose his college based on the ranking of its wrestling team – he wrestled competitively in high school — he turned instead, in 2006, to viticulture, enology and soil science at California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo. A senior-year internship at Saucelito Canyon Winery exposed him to dry farming. Some time in Australia’s Margaret River, a harvest with Martin Mittelbach at Weingut Tegernseerhof in the Wachau, and several years with Justin Willett at Tyler Winery in Lompoc cemented his interest in Riesling. Stirm thinks first and foremost about vines, farming and terroir, and currently manages 44.5 acres of vineyard across the northern Central Coast, including Enz.   He is a self-avowed “huge fan of dry farming [because] it saves money” and [because] it makes much better wines;” in 2017 33 of the 44.5 acres are both organic and dry-farmed.  He also likes old vines for their smaller berries and the greater grip they give to wines. Where Stirm controls the ways farming is done, he strives for relatively open canopies to discourage botrytis and develop skin tannins, which also darkens the skin color of berries, fostering deep flavors. In most of the vineyards from which he sources fruit, he tries to pick early. At Wirz in 2015 he picked Riesling at 21.1 Brix, almost a full degree less than the previous year, and 7-10 days earlier than other winemakers aiming to make dry wines, saying that he noticed “no loss of weight or fat or ripeness,” and that the result was “more in the [stylistic] direction I want to go in.” In the cellar, his approach is relatively straightforward, albeit with a few wrinkles. About 24 hours of skin contact is permitted before fermentation. Once pressed, the juice is moved to a closed stainless tank, wherein Stirm leaves a goodly amount of headspace. “Stainless steel does not breathe,” he observes, “but headspace ensures some contact with air.” Fermentations are spontaneous, and sulfur is avoided until later, while the tank’s temperature is controlled to between 17 and 23° C. Malolactic conversion is not interdicted and generally runs its course before the primary fermentation has ended. Sulfur (see above) is finally added after the later of malolactic conversion or primary fermentation is complete. The new wines remain on their full fermentation lees until May following the vintage, left entirely alone, without stirring. Because Stirm likes “the texture of wines bottled unfiltered,” he relies on the combination of full malolactic conversion and essentially complete dryness (less than 1 g/L of residual sugar) to make filtration unnecessary. (Worldwide, nearly all Riesling is filtered before bottling. Even makers who tolerate malolactic conversion say they would be unable to sleep nights if they did not sterile filter before bottling. Stirm is one exception.  So is Peter-Jakob Kühn in the Rheingau.  And Michael Malat in the Kremstal, but Malat also interdicts malolactic conversions.)

 

Ryan Stirm is an unusually curious winemaker. For the present at least, nearly every wine and vintage is an occasion for experimentation with some parameter of time, temperature or technique, while custom crush operations, grown just slightly, have the potential to finance grander experiments. He aspires to plant some Riesling in the Santa Cruz Mountains, perhaps in a vineyard he farms now for pinot noir near Glenwood, around 1000 feet above sea level. Longer term, he has his eyes on the Sierra Foothills. He says he might “take a gamble on higher elevation sites in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties,” to capitalize on “long, sunny, late season days” and “soils composed on granite and slate, trading warm southern exposures for altitude.” Or even farther north, where “pockets of granite and limestone” are found in the Trinity Alps.

 

Meanwhile, his 2015 Riesling from Wirz is delicious and impressive: Very pale straw.  Intense attack featuring lemon peel, pith and juice on an underlay of macerated herbs and stone fruit pits. Mint, tarragon and citrus throughout.  Smooth at mid-palate and resolutely dry and slightly grippy on the long, mineral-y finish. 

 

Stirm is also optimistic about the future of Riesling in California. Pointing to its history here, its late-to-ripen propensity, and the mini-wave of new producers featuring Riesling, he sees newfound enthusiasm for Riesling on the horizon.

 

 

 

 

A New Pinot Noir brand… that is distinctly different!

Ever since 2004, when Sideways shone a spotlight on pinot noir, new labels of this variety have appeared like mushrooms after rain, especially in California and Oregon. Last year, I was serendipitously introduced to one of the newest among these: Nicholas Maloney’s Father John brand. Father John debuted commercially in 2012 with just 200 cases of pinot from the Oehlman Vineyard, a 1989 planting of UCD 13 on Vine Hill Road west of Santa Rosa, and has since expanded to include pinots from Greenwood Ridge Vineyards on the west side of Anderson Valley and from a Redwood Valley site that will be identified on-label simply as Mendocino. Unusually, a small amount of pinot noir and chardonnay from Burgundy is also produced under the Father John label, see below. A recent tasting of the 2014 edition of Oehlman and barrel samples of all the American pinots from the 2015 vintage provided ample evidence that Father John is a project of much more than routine interest.

 

The 2014 Oehlman (this site has now been rechristened Vine Hill Vineyard on Father John labels) is a beautiful, very transparent, brilliant rosy-raspberry-red colored wine showing some red berry fruit on the palate, but the wine is also savory and finely chisled, with just a hint of tannin-derived texture on the finish.  Like really good Burgundies, it is intense but almost weightless, “all silk and lace,” as a Burgundian maker once described his ideal wine to me. Maloney likes whole clusters, and generally leaves more than half of each press lot intact, and he does not add acid. The latter is scarcely necessary since he picks early, when the fruit still has plenty of natural acid. Early picking in cool climates also means that the finished alcohol almost always stays under 13°, and is often closer to 12°, which is a welcome relief from the mainstream of American pinots that finish between 14° and 15°. The spontaneous fermentations are cool, and involve no yeast nutrients or enzymes. There is some cold soak on the front end, pumpovers rather than punchdowns for the duration of the primary fermentations, and no post-fermentation maceration. The press fraction is normally reincorporated into the final cuvée, but kept separate until its character has been assessed.  The 2015s, from barrel, are extremely promising, and each is distinctly different from the others. The Oehlman is true to form: light-footed and elegant. The Greenwood Ridge, now resting in an assortment of barrels, is noticeably different: somewhat deeper color, though still comfortably transparent; it is also a bit fruitier, though not in any way “fruit-driven” and signed with notes of savory herbs and conifers. The barrel regime is a work in progress. For the first time in the short history of Father John, two new barrels are being used, both very slightly toasted barriques from François Frères, while two others are Damy barrels previously used for a few vintages of chardonnay.   Most of the barrel stock remains as it has been from the outset, however: barrels between two and five years old. The Greenwood Ridge is an exceedingly pure and sleek wine, but its shape, structure and flavor profile may appeal to consumers (and critics!) who need a bit more fruit and color to satisfy their image of California pinot, while the Oehlman/Vine Hill find greater favor in the ranks of traditional “Burgundophiles.” The 2015s will be released early in 2017.

 

Maloney is a Sonoma County native who first cut his winemaking teeth at Clos du Bois in 2007, but it was time in France, and especially at Domaine Rollin Père et Fils in Pernand-Vergelesses between 2013 and 2015 that focused his passions around pinot noir.   Although he does not follow mainstream Burgundian winemaking protocols (the vast majority of Burgundians destem their fruit, ferment in open tanks, punch down fermentations manually, and use new barrels generously) he does aspire to the lacy, ageworthy, highly aromatic, iron-fist-only-when-it-is-covered-with-a-velvet-glove profile for finished wines that many of us associate with very good red Burgundies from the first three quarters of the 20th century.   He is also a champion of dry-farmed vines, and wines whose organoleptic space is not given predominantly to ripe fruit. For the record, the Burgundian wines in the Father John portfolio are a white from Les Larrets Blancs near Echevronne, north of Pernand-Vergelesses, and a red from En Lutenière, on the east side of the D974 road not far from Clos des Réas. The 2014 Les Larrets Blancs, raised in a 50-50 combination of stainless steel and well-used barriques, is an appealing, bright, treble clef chardonnay. I have not tasted En Lutenière. Stay tuned as the 2015 wines from both sides of the Atlantic come to market.