Meet Miguel Lepe: A young winemaker launches a new brand in Monterey, and makes Riesling interalia


Miguel Lepe explains that he makes Riesling for his eponymous label “because of Claiborne & Churchill.” Claiborne & Churchill (see Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 326-28) is the original aromatic white specialist among California producers, focused as early as 1983 on Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Lepe, born in Salinas, now the owner and winemaker at Lepe Cellars, interned there in 2009 while earning a degree in Wine and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.


Lepe calls himself a “millenial Hispanic.”  This is now the largest age cohort within the largest ethnic population segment in California. He is, however, by no means typical. He belongs to the first generation of his family to be college-educated. He had essentially zero experience with wine as a beverage – neither he nor his parents consumed much alcohol –when he chose vine growing as an elective to complete the requirements for an A. S. degree in Business Administration at Hartnell College in Salinas. To explain this choice, Lepe says simply that he “liked plants and gardening.” Out of the vineyard and into the cellar, he was gradually hooked; for him “the smell of wine fermenting” was mesmerizing. In 2009, A. S. degree in hand, Lepe transferred to Cal Poly’s program in Wine and Viticulture. In addition to Claiborne & Churchill he worked harvests and internships across a large swath of land, heading a few miles north to Justin in Paso Robles, south to Waters Edge Wineries in Rancho Cucamonga, and eventually farther south by almost 3000 miles to cool-climate-oriented Casas del Bosque in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. Drawn back to the area around his Salinas home in 2013, he was handed a full-time job at Figge Cellars on the strength of a single interview. In a remarkable turn of fate Peter Figge (1970-2017) then became Lepe’s boss and mentor, encouraging and enabling him to create his own brand in 2015, to be made side-by-side with Figge’s, in part of a business park recently remade as a wine ghetto in Marina, a sprawly seaside town tucked between what was Fort Ord and the artichokes of Castroville. Lepe’s 2015 and 2016 vintages consisted of just one ton each of five varieties: Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Syrah (for rosé) and Riesling, enough to make fifty cases of each. In 2017, production of each wine doubled to 100 cases of each, thanks in part to a successful Kickstarter campaign. More recently he has “teamed up with new Monterey vineyards” to help grow his fledgling business.


Lepe sources the grapes for his Riesling from Luis Zabala’s meticulously farmed vineyard in Arroyo Seco, just south of the pioneering plantings begun ca. 1971 at Ventana. The Riesling at Zabala was mostly planted in 2007, in the deep alluvial gravel typical of the area. To execute his take on Riesling, Lepe has created a pick and cellar protocol that seems simple at first blush, but is not. He likes Zabala qua site for its “very good acids,” by which he means acids that high enough and strong enough to handle his circumstances and preferences. The former include very small lots and barrels as fermentation vessels; the latter includes an affinity for some malolactic conversion; “personally,” he explains, “it’s better to start with more acid than not enough.” At the same time, Lepe is one of many Riesling makers around the world who prefer a dry wine persona overall, but still worry that the wine may turn out a bit too lean if it contains no residual sugar at all. Lepe trusts his palate to find the golden mean, which may vary from vintage to vintage. So his protocols are roughly as follows. First, he picks Riesling twice, once between 19 and 20 Brix for acid and structure, then again around 22 Brix for a bit more ripeness and fruit expression, the combination giving him a “broad sensory profile” — and two (rather than one) fermentation lots in each vintage. Two of anything creates a blending opportunity. He prefers whole-cluster pressing to pre-fermentation skin contact. He settles the juice overnight in a stainless steel tank before transferring it to “well used” barrels for fermentation. (Lepe notes that “well-used” barrels are all he can afford; a good thing in my view, since Riesling is too naturally flavorful to need makeup!) At this point, things get really interesting. He co-inoculates the settled juice with a combination of yeast (Assmanshausen) and malolactic bacteria. Although malolactic conversion was normal in Riesling a century ago, a natural concomitant of multi-year élevage in large wooden tanks, few makers encourage it today, and most block it completely. (There are notable exceptions, of course, e.g., Zind-Humbrecht and Peter-Jakob Kühn, see Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 188-90 and 199-200.) For Lepe, ML is an important part of his toolkit. While the Assmanshausen ensures a strong (and relatively slow) fermentation capable of carrying the wine to full dryness, the ML bacteria transforms part (but not all) of the grapes’ sharp malic (apple) acid into softer lactic (milk) acid. But because Lepe also seeks to avoid the normal signatures of malolactic conversion — think butter and popcorn – he proactively starts and stops the malolactic conversion simultaneously with the primary fermentation.  And he uses a strain of bacteria that does not produce diacetyl – diacetyl being the compound responsible for the aforementioned buttery aromas in most ML-converted whites. In 2018 Lepe added yet one more parameter to his protocol. He slowed the speed of the primary fermentation by moving the Riesling barrels to a temperature controlled space within the winery where he could set the ambient temperature at 45°F.  The cooler temperature gives him more time to taste the unfinished wine and react, should he wish to arrest the primary fermentation before the last grams of sugar are turned into alcohol. Once dry (or stopped as the case may be) and racked, Lepe likes to leave the new wine on its fine lees for 4-5 months, to gain complexity and texture and to avoid any impression of “linearity,” and he generally stirs the lees once every two weeks. The twin fermentation lots generated by the two-picks protocol remain separate until about two months before bottling, when they are reunified. Sulfites are used parsimoniously, “just enough to keep things sound.”


With his fourth vintage now in the cellar, Lepe’s finished Rieslings have varied noticeably from one vintage to the next. My experience is limited at this point to the 2015 and 2016, both of which are current. The 2015 (tasted in 2018) is a good wine, fruit-forward, round at mid-palate, redolent of resinous herbs. It is not entirely dry, containing about 12.5 g/L of residual sugar. By contrast the 2016 Riesling is almost bone dry and (to my palate) very impressive.   Pale straw in color, chamomile and lemon peel on the nose, citrus and pear on the palate, this is a taut, textured and long-to-finish wine with nice energy, intense flavors, and herbal accents of tarragon and summer savory. It is also extremely well priced at $22 per bottle. I look forward to tasting the 2017 when Lepe is ready to release it, and the 2018 in due season. The week after Christmas 2018, Lepe reported the 2018 still fermenting slowly, with about 8 g/L of sugar remaining. “I am aiming for as dry as I can,” Lepe wrote me, “but my decision will be based solely on taste.”


Lepe has attracted some attention for his unoaked Chardonnay, which has medaled in competitions, but the Riesling still flies a bit under the radar. For now, this suits Lepe quite well, giving him a product that can be sold in the tasting room he hopes to open sometime in 2019. For further information about Lepe Cellars, visit






Umbria and Azienda Paolo Bea (October 2018)

Umbria, central Italy’s only landlocked regione, has a sub-prime reputation for very good wine. There is reasonable evidence that “traditional” Orvieto, made sweet, may have been exceptional in the 19th Century, but that reputation seems not to have survived the subsequent reinvention of Orvieto as a mass-market dry wine in the 20th. Recently, some observers have offered more positive assessments of Umbrian wine, pointing to vintners like Georgio Lungarotti and Arnaldo Caprai, who are deemed to have boosted regional standards in the final decades of the 20th Century.  Here are a few notes from a visit to Umbria this autumn.


Umbria, like neighboring Lazio, is overwhelmingly white wine territory. Its most widely planted white grape variety is also Italy’s most planted white, known officially as Trebbiano Toscana. (This to the irritation of most Umbrians, by the way; Umbrians generally chafe when visitors situate them in Tuscany’s shadow.) This member of what is now called the “Trebbiano Group” is responsible for at least 60% of Orvieto, and is a component in white wines up and down the country’s peninsular length. Ian d’Agata’s excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy (2014) helps to sort the confusion among Trebbiani: the various members of the “Group” are not clones of a single variety but distinct varieties with little in common save spurious nomenclature.   For Umbria today, the good news is that Trebbiano Spoletino, another member of the Trebiano group but unrelated to Trebbiano Toscana, now attracts attention from local vintners, with good reason and results. This Trebbiano now appears to grow only in Umbria, especially between Spoleto and Montefalco, though it may or may not be genuinely autocthonous. It is far from ubiquitous, but single-variety Trebbiano Spoletino now shows up quite often on regional restaurant wine lists. Without seeking it out, I found it twice within a week. The first instance was Villa Mongalli’s “Calicanto” Trebbiano Spoletino Umbria IGT 2016, a crisp but voluminous wine handsomely built of citrus and herbs, vaguely reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc without Sauvignon’s signature expression of methyoxypyrizines. Tank fermented and raised, the Calicanto comes from calcareous hills about 360 meters above sea level, between Bevagna and Montefalco. The second was two of the three white wines made by Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea; the astonishing “Arboreus” Umbria Bianco IGT, which I tasted from the 2015, 2014, 2012 and 2011 vintages, and the nouveau-né “Lapideus” Umbria Bianco IGT, first made in the 2014 vintage. Both are, as far as anyone knows, “pure” Trebbiano Spoletino, the Arboreus from vines growing around 200 meters above sea level in the low hills between Montefalco and Trevi, while the Lapideus hails from 80 year old vines higher in the hills, closer to Pigge di Trevi. The 2015 Arboreus was savory and slightly nutty, like amontillado sherry, but also gritty, complete and kaleidoscopic. The 2014 was more about fruit peel and intensely aromatic, featuring lightly caramelized yellow fruits with giant complexity on the back palate. The 2012 showed orange- and tangerine-specific notes, as if citrus peel had been infused with verbena leaves to make an herbal tea. All these wines and the 2011 were made oxidatively, leaving the grapes to macerate on their skins for 22 to 36 days, and then leaving the new wine on the full lees for as long as 215 days! All are built with complex and dazzling structures from the extended skin- and lees-contact, while each remains memorably singular on its own. Astonishingly, all of Bea’s whites hover around 12° of alcohol; these wines are intricate and complex, and almost crowded with flavor, but not “big.” Like all Bea wines (see below for additional coverage), the fermentations depend entirely on naturally-occurring yeast and fermentation temperatures are not controlled.


Alongside Trebbiano Spoletino, Umbrian vintners are also working seriously now with Grechetto, though d’Agata makes clear that Grechetto is actually two unrelated varieties, so that even supposedly monovarietal instances may be cuvées in fact. Locals accuse Grechetto of being rustic, which is not unfair, but properly handled it can make quite serious and delicious wine: tense and mineral with hints of white flowers, citrus and apples, kept crisp with good acidity. My favorite during the October visit was from the Tili estate in Assisi: a 2015 Assisi Grechetto DOC. Two actually. The so-called “reserve” is made (exclusively?) for Enoteca Properzio, an wine store cum bar and restaurant in the heart of hill-perched Terni, while the straight version, less impressive and less overtly mineral, is an attractive “baby” version of the reserve — for about a quarter of its price.


On the red side of the Umbrian wine ledger, there is Sagrentino. As with many varieties believed native to Italy, its etymology, origins and original habitat are unknown, but there now seems to be more of it in Umbria than anywhere else. The variety is famous for its giant load of tannins and related polyphenols, and is slow and late to ripen, leading to wines that are often high in alcohol. But successful Sagrentino is also rich and flavorful – perhaps suggestive of what vintage-quality port could taste like if it were fermented to dryness rather than fortified to arrest fermentation. The aforementioned Arnaldo Caprai (Società Agricola Arnaldo Caprai) is often given credit for having reestablished Sagrentino’s reputation in the last quarter of the 20th Century, his Montefalco Sagrentino “25 Anni” bottling often cited as the best example of the genre. (See Bastianich, Grandi Vini [2010] for example.) The 2013 vintage of this wine, also tasted at Enoteca Properzio, was rich, smoky and enormous, with cigar-box aromas and, true to form, a very grippy finish. It had also been “internationalized” by élevage in new oak barrels.


As with Trebbiano Spoletino, however, the most exciting expression of the variety, at least on this trip, was chez Bea. Bea makes three dry reds entirely from Sagrantino, while two other reds are mostly Sangiovese signed with small percentages of Sagrentino. Like the Bea whites, the Sagrentini are methodologically very similar to each other; their differences reflecting terroir rather than technique. “Rosso de Veo” is made from the younger vines in the Cerrete vineyard, which sits atop the hills west of Montefalco, at an elevation of between 370 and 450 meters, in marl and limestone soils mixed with uplifted alluvia. Even at 15° and totally ripe, this wine is electric at its edges, showing brightly, the 2010 saturated with red fruit flavors accented with nuttiness. In exceptional years only, Bea makes a second Sagrantino from Cerrete, built from its older vines The 2009 Cerrete was lovely, like a great Vosne-Romanée: seamless, strong, graceful, and symphonic. When Cerrete is not made, a third Sagrantino is the estate’s flagship. This is Pagliaro, the name of another high elevation site, though a trifle lower than Cerrete. The 2010 vintage of this wine was deeply flavored and symphonic with impressions of moist earth and chocolate. Like the whites, all three Sagrentini feature exceptionally long vattings that extend well beyond the full length of the primary fermentation, before a first racking separates the new wine from grape skins and the heaviest detritus. This stage is followed by even more extended élevage, beginning with a year in stainless steel, then a year or more in large-format Slavonian oak tanks. A year or more in bottle before release is also normal.


Giampiero Bea is the man in charge at Azienda Paolo Bea since his father substantially retired. An architect by training, as is also his wife Francesca, Giampiero speaks slowly and respectfully about winegrowing that “assists nature,” wines “with the taste of the earth,” “technology that does not substitute for natural processes” and protocols that avoid “every artificial acceleration.” Although sentiments of this sort seem to fit in Umbria, where roads wider than two lanes are the exceptions, towns are small, and population is spread thin, the Beas and their wines are really viticultural and enological outliers, marching to a drummer of their own. Their Sagrantinos seem almost comparable: just more seamless, symphonic, convincing, compelling – and released later – than other serious examples made across the Valle Umbra. But Bea’s whites are something else entirely. No other Umbrian Trebbiano Spoletino or Grechetto is even recognizable alongside Santa Chiara, Arboreus or Lapideus. The latter may have a superficial similarity to so-called orange wines, or to late disgorged Champagne owing to their long contact with lees, but are singular in ways and to degrees that frustrate comparison, not only with other Umbrian whites, but with white wines of almost any provenance. They are sui generis. Singularity generally deserves applause in the wine world, especially as a contrast to the surfeit of homogenous wines in the marketplace. Still it can be hard to know what foods pair well with Bea’s wines. While not unfriendly to food, especially Umbrian specialties like Norcian corallina or freshly grated white truffles – Bea’s whites are objects of attention on their own, stealing oxygen from any comestible within reach. Nevermind. Try Bea’s Sagrentini and his whites anyway if you have not already, in Umbria or in the foreign markets into which eighty percent of production is sold. (In the USA, the importer is Neal Rosenthal, contact for additional information.)  Give the wines the concentration and attention they deserve, even if you need to sublimate truffles, salumi or some other comestible to make the necessary time and space.


Apart from  Paolo Bea there is plenty of tasty product in local wines stores and restaurant lists, much of which scores high on price-performance. And Umbria is rather a good place to discover art, enjoy an Indian summer, pass the autumn equinox, celebrate uncrowded towns, and unwind.


Two American Rieslings that Push-the-Envelope

Sometimes epiphanies come in pairs. In April of this year, on different days in different places, I happened to taste two American dry Rieslings of vastly more than routine interest. Each pushes the dry Riesling envelope in a distinctive way, with surprising results that I report here.

Stirm Los Alamos Valley Riesling Kick-On Ranch “eøølian” 2016

A special lot of Riesling from the Kick-On Ranch in Santa Barbara’s Los Alamos Valley; see Riesling Rediscovered, p. 333-335 for details on the vineyard. Ryan Stirm of Stirm Wine Company, about whom more is found in an earlier post on this site (, enjoys pushing vinous envelopes of many kinds. In 2016 he elected to experiment with a zero-sulfur protocol for part of the fruit he takes from Kick-On, dubbing it Kick-On “eøølian.”  Half of this lot was sold in kegs to high-end on-premise establishments where keg wines by the glass have good visibility. Visibility aside, kegs can be advantageous when sulfur has been excluded from winemaking; not only are keg wine sold through quickly, but inert gas automatically replaces wine as the latter is removed, avoiding oxidization. The rest of the lot was bottled conventionally. My notes: Aromas of lemon and straw. A cornucopia of citrus, pear, apple and melon flavors on the palate is punctuated with sabers of minerality. A combination of malolactic conversion, long lees contact and abundant (ripe) acid creates rich texture, tension and a long bone-dry finish. This wine is persistently exciting from first sniff to last drop. 11.4°! Note that Stirm’s “classic” vatting from Kick-On in the same vintage is also excellent. Without the eøølian for comparison, the classic cuvee would have been impressive enough.  In comparison, however the eøølian soared, showing exceptional purity, precision and jump-from-the-glass excitement.  My notes on the classic cuvee follow: Macerated yellow flowers and yellow plum buttressed with citrus pith and a tense structure, and delicious, and a friendly 12.9°.  Chalk up a goo example for the folks who have often said that “natural” wines display a brilliance lacking in their sulfured siblings.


Weinbau Paetra Eola-Amity Hills Riesling “Elwedritsche” 2016

This wine has nothing in common with the Stirm except that it is exciting, and pushes the envelope for dry Riesling. This is an  Eola-Amity Riesling dubbed “Elwedritsche.” The grapes come from Methven Family Vineyards at the northeast corner of the AVA, whose cellar also happens to be home to Weinbau Paetra, the creation of Bill Hooper and his family. Hooper personally farms for Methven the vine rows used for Elwedritsche and other Rieslings; he insists on this, so that he can grow grapes as he wants them for his wines. (Elwedritsch, for the curious, is the name for a possibly mythical, possibly extinct gallinaceous bird said to inhabit [or to have inhabited] woods on the east flank of the Haardt Mountains in the German Palatinate, just north of Alsace. There is even a museum dedicated to this creature in Speyer, a historic city on the Rhine in the Palatinate.) Hooper learned winemaking not far from this habitat, at Fachschule für Weinbau und Oenologie in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, between 2009 and 2012. While a handful (or two) of Americans have studied at Geisenheim over the years, Germany’s highest-profile wine school and research center, Hooper is one of only two to have completed the entire curriculum at Neustadt, including associated apprenticeships, one of which was worked with the talented Andreas Schumann, the mind behind Weingut Odinstal ( How an American from the upper Midwest was launched on this trajectory — which took him through wine retailing in Minnesota to a special interest in Riesling, then to a German girlfriend who became his wife, then to Germany for the aforementioned studies, and finally to Oregon — is too long a story to tell here, where the point is Elwedritsche-the wine. There were only 88 cases of this wine made in 2016, but it is a tour de force. It begins with a deep, rich nose of yellow stone fruits, especially apricot. The palate is intense and concentrated, laced with spicy fruit, ginger and mint, and it tastes clean, with no bitterness, though it makes a poly-phenolic impression. It is also intentionally evocative of the Palatinate (Pfalz) – dry and stone-fruit-driven as these wines typically present — but with an exceptionally powerful personality. The must macerated on the skins for 24 hours before fermentation, which is long by Pfälzisch standards; thereafter there was neither added yeast, nor enzymes, nor fining agents of any kind, and only modest additions of sulfur.   Although the alcohol is modest at 13°, acidity substantial at 7.5 g/L, and residual sugar low at just 4g/L, this is a powerful wine, to be savored, discussed and remembered, but perhaps paired cautiously with food. It is also a bold indicator that very serious Riesling has been grown and made at Weinbau Paetra since 2014. Volumes are tiny, quality high and prices very reasonable. ‘Nuf said. (


1er Crus for Marsannay?


For a visitor, Marsannay presents today much like other wine communes in the Côte d’Or. The village core is small, covering less surface than a single block in midtown Manhattan. A church and partially shaded benches mark the main place. A modern and generously-appointed municipal complex stands out among older and lesser structures. Signage directs visitors to the cellars of Marsannay’s dozen-plus vignerons, most within a short walk of the village core. The distribution of vineyards is much like other communes too. The best climats are found just upslope of the Route des Grands Crus between the 300 and 400 meter contours, facing predominantly east, and form a nearly continuous ribbon more or less unbroken by fallow land or scrub; lesser sites sit below the Route on flatter and loamier terrain that is shared with other crops and buildings. As elsewhere in the Côte d’Or, Pinot Noir is the sole red tenant in Marsannay’s vineyards, and Chardonnay the main variety among whites.


Marsannay, however, is a special case. It lies just nine kilometers from the Palais des Ducs in Dijon, and barely maintains any degree of separation from Dijon’s seemingly limitless sprawl. Its population has quintupled since 1950, a majority of which is now either retired or works in Dijon, a fact that helps explain the village’s hefty investment in municipal services. The sprawl has also imperiled vineyards, driving Marcenacien vignerons to fight suburbanization, sometimes successfully.


A century ago, however, a different relationship with Dijon changed Marsannay fundamentally, separating its fortunes from the rest of the Côte d’Or and impacting its viticulture in ways that continue to be felt. After mostly prosperous centuries as the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, and additional centuries of rule by French kings and a regional parlement, Dijon changed vocations after the Revolution. A large urban proletariat replaced erstwhile aristocrats and bureaucrats, creating interalia a new, intense and persistent demand for very ordinary wine. Apparently recognizing an opportunity, Marsannay’s vignerons (and their neighbors at Couchey and Chenôve) uprooted the Pinot Noir that had made the Côte d’Or famous, but yielded parsimoniously, and scrambled to plant more prolific varieties that were well suited to mass market wines, mostly Gamay and Aligoté.


In the 1820s some Marsannay vineyards had figured on lists compiled by André Jullien and Denis Morelot, the first godfathers of vineyard classification in the Côte d’Or. But by 1855 Jules Lavalle, another godfather of the classification, was able to find only a few vineyards anywhere in the Côte Dijonnaise where Pinot was still the main tenant, effectively removing Marsannay and its neighbors from the laborious work that would culminate, by the 1930s, in the ensemble of Burgundy’s controlled appellation arrangements. Phylloxera in the 1870s compounded the impact of the shift to Gamay and Aligoté. Now focused on cheap wine and high margins, Marcenacien vignerons were reluctant to replant after phylloxera struck their vines. Marsannay and its neighbors then missed yet another opportunity to rejoin the mainstream of Côte d’Or activity in the 1920s. Now finally willing to restore Pinot Noir in lieu of Gamay and Aligoté, they dedicated nearly all of their crop to rosé. So it came to pass in the 1930s, when the Burgundian AOCs, including village appellations and cru designations, were created, that no village appellation was approved north of Fixin, nor was any climat north of Fixin accorded cru status.


Today the Marsannay story is all about revival, and quality that is comparable to the rest of the Côte de Nuits. The deep roots of this revival can be traced back to the same to the same “dark” days in the 1920s that has deepened its problems. The bright light was the marriage of one Josef Clair (1889-1971) to Marguerite Daü. Clair replanted Marguerite’s inheritance to eliminate the damage caused by phylloxera, and privileged Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the process. He also founded Domaine Clair-Daü, the first widely respected estate at Marsannay since the middle of the 19th Century. But the estate’s reputation depended more on its holding outside Marsannay, and most of its replantings of Pinot Noir within the commune went to make rosé.


Not until the 1970s and 1980s was there a serious revivial within Marsannay proper, led by a cohort of native sons and exogenous vintners To some degree this cohort was catalyzed by the liquidation of Clair-Daü.   The liquidation literally forced Bruno Clair, Josef Clair’s grandson, to set himself up de novo with his part of the sundered estate. Another piece of the estate passed to Monique Bart; this is now the core of Domaine Bart, ably exploited by Monique’s son Martin and nephew Pierre.  Other Marcenacien winemakers also rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, notably Sylvain Pataille, Laurent Fournier (Domaine Jean Fournier) and Philippe Huguenot (Huguenot Père et Fils). Signs of seriousness were widespread. Pataille was a trained enologist before creating his estate; Bruno Clair hired a full-time enologist so that he could devote the lion’s share of his personal attention to the vines rather than the cellar. Again there was an elbow effect from the proximity of Marsannay to Dijon: to prevent good vineyard land from falling victim to shopping centers and suburban housing, the Marcenacien vintners were forced to make common cause. The same sense of common cause was then deployed in support of a shift from simple rosé back to serious red wines from historically superior sites. This embrace of red wines as the commune’s crown jewels, and the steady increase in the planted surface devoted to red wine production, were key factors in the INAO’s 1987 approval of a Marsannay AOC including parts of Chenôve and Couchey – enfin.


Now young Marcenacien vintners have launched the commune’s most ambitious quest yet: to secure 1er Cru status for the AOC’s best lieux-dits. With the help of geologists who worked to align geological maps of the area with the boundaries of lieux-dits, a proposal was first agreed locally, then refined in collaboration with regional authorities, and finally sent forward to the national INAO. The current proposal, under discussion in one form or another since ca. 2008, asks 1er Cru status for 14 of 78 lieux-dits within in the AOC.


The northernmost of the 14 sites is the Clos du Roy, which had once belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy but passed to the French crown at the end of the 15th Century. As befits a site named for royalty, Clos du Roy gives especially handsome, elegant wines. The coolest site is said to be Les Echézots, sometimes spelled Es Chezot, which straddles a hill between two combes, basking in downdrafts from both. Echézots gives wines with a somewhat softer elegance than those from Clos du Roy; Echézots’ tannins seem to be wrapped in velvet. The smallest sites are Saint-Jacques and Clos de Jeu, southwest of the village core, and the southernmost is Champ Perdrix, in Couchey. The total surface occupied by the 14 sites amounts to 174 hectares, or roughly 58 percent of the approximately 300 hectares currently approved for the production of red wines within the Marsannay AOC.


Herein lies both ambition and problem. Nearly everyone with responsibility for the reputation of Burgundy’s wines realizes that Marsannay was shortchanged in the 1930s. But vineyard classifications being political as well as scientific, too much change too quickly is not possible. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that, as it stands, the proposal would give Marsannay, in a single stroke, the greatest concentration of 1er Cru Pinot Noir vineyards of any commune in the Côte d’Or which is without Grands Crus. More than neighboring Fixin where 1er Cru vineyards occupy just 19 percent of the surface planted to red grapes. More than Savigny-les-Beaune where the 1er Cru share of the total red surface is 43 percent. Higher even than Nuits-St-Georges, where the analogous number is 45 percent.


Marcenacien vintners being realists, the current bet among them (based on informal conversations I had at this year’s Grands Jours de Bourgogne) is roughly as follows: First, the INAO will approve 1er Cru status for much less than the 174 hectares in the current proposal, probably sometime in the next two or so years. Second, while a few lieux-dits will be approved in their entirety, others will be approved in part only, especially those which are known to contain some land that is too low on the slope or too loamy for top-quality wines. Third, some lieux-dits not approved in whole or in part when the first promotions re announced may still be promoted later. These are bets only. Time will tell.


Although the reclassification saga will likely continue to make headlines, especially when the deed is done, the real story about Marsannay is the persistent increase, year after year, in the number of very good single site wines. Many such wines have already developed enviable reputations. Jérôme Galeyrand has turned heads with his Combe du Pré bottling since 2011. Bruno Clair’s Marsannay flagship, from Les Longeroies, is regarded as sure value-for-money, while his 2014 edition of Les Grasses Têtes, shown at this year’s Grands Jours, was fine and elegant. Also at the Grands Jours, Fougeray de Beauclair’s Les St-Jacques was beautiful and blackberry-inflected; Hervé Charlopin’s 2016 Langerois long and fluid, while Régis Bouvier’s 2016 Longerois was also long but especially rich and velvety.


Despite the press of business associated with the Grands Jours, Martin Bart made time to taste with me in his cellar. Few producers, I would argue, have been more comprehensively serious about their single site wines than Bart. In 2013, the estate, made single site wines from each of nine different lieux-dits: seven climats in Marsannay itself plus Clos du Roy in Chenôve and Champs Salomon in Couchey. Martin does not pretend that all of these are candidates for 1er Cru. Certainly not Les Finottes, a diminutive triangular parcel on nearly flat land composed mostly of deep sand, which gives a lovely, savory and herb-inflected wine that Martin describes as the estate’s “entrée de gamme” among the single site bottlings. It has been made separately since since it became a monopole of the estate simply because it is distinctive, not because it pretends in any way to greatness. It is also worth noting that Domaine Bart cleaves generally to vineyard and cellar practices that showcase the differences among neighboring terroirs. Enlightened farming creates healthier vines in self-sustaining ecosystems. Then, in the cellar, many parameters are terroir-revealing. Sane and appropriate combinations of pre-fermentation cold soaks with fermentation temperatures that begin around 18° C, naturally occurring yeasts, restrained use of pump-overs and pigeage, all help to avoid excessive extraction, which can be terroir-obscuring. The parsimonious use of new oak barrels, rarely more than 25 percent, mixed with older barrels, demi-muids and stainless tanks, helps too, especially for sites in Marsannay which tend generally toward understated, mid-weight wines that open politely but not voluptuously.


When 1er Cru is appended to the names some Marsannay climats in the years ahead, Marcenacien vignerons will have every reason to celebrate. With many of the wines from these lieux-dits already showing praiseworthy excellence, one is perhaps allowed to hope that the new imprimatur, when it comes, will be allowed to lie lightly on Marcenacien labels. Will prices for the newly designated 1er crus rise? Officially, the answer is negative since prices for these wines as site-designated village wine are already higher than village wines without site designations, but in the end supply and demand will rule. On verra.


Fact Check: California’s Oldest Riesling


Where in California are the oldest Riesling vines still in production? When Riesling Rediscovered went to press in 2015, the answer was clear enough: the oldest such vines were in Block 3 of the Stony Hill Vineyard, in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains northwest of St. Helena, planted in 1948. In 2015, however, Block 3 gave just 0.83 tons of fruit per acre, and in 2016 only a trifle more – an even ton to the acre. Because such yield is not even close to profitable, and the vines seemed to be losing a long battle with red blotch virus, Stony Hill was obliged to consider replanting, and did so seriously.

Three years later, however, Block 3 is still in production. Bravo. Slightly improved yield in 2017 (1.2 tons per acre) deserves partial credit for the reprieve.   So does the burden associated with expensive re-plantings in other blocks, and the chance to include some new Riesling (0.67 acre) in the replant of Block 6. Plus, confesses Sarah McCrea, granddaughter of the Stony Hill founders, “we have such a soft spot in our hearts for those vines,” now 70-years old. Block 3 thus remains in 2018, as it was in 2015, the oldest stand of California Riesling that is still in production.

When the clock finally runs out for Block 3, presumably sometime “a few years” hence, next in line for the “oldest California Riesling” title is probably a chunk of the Wirz Vineyard, about three hours’ drive south of Stony Hill in the Cienega Valley AVA. But some fuzziness surrounds exactly when the oldest Riesling at Wirz was planted. Winemakers who now buy Riesling from this vineyard cite dates between 1952 and 1965. At the early end of this range, Wirz’s claim would probably be uncontested. By the 1960s, however, the earliest plantings of Riesling in Arroyo Seco would also need to be considered. Records at FPS show that Riesling cuttings taken from the Foundation vineyard at Davis were used to plant Increase Block 36 in Wente’s Arroyo Seco Vineyard “between 1963 and 1968.” The planting history of vineyards is often imperfectly recorded by the original actors, and can be genuinely difficult to reconstruct 50, 60 or 70 years after the fact.

Buerklin-Wolf: A Long History and Finessed Rieslings

The history.  In its canonical version, the history of Weingut Dr. Bürklin-Wolf begins in 1597, more or less exactly where its cellars are found today. Its putative founder, Bernhard Bürklin (1580-1636), scion of an already well-established family of Bavarian clerks, came to Wachenheim from elsewhere, probably from Durlach, the seat of the Markgrafschaft of Baden-Durlach. Within a few years of his arrival, Bürklin became Wachenheim’s town clerk, and later, its mayor. In 1606 he built a house in Wachenheim; the family crest and date are still found on the oriel of the house at what is now Weinstrasse 15. Whether Bürklin also bought agricultural land in or around Wachenheim, or planted vines, is unclear. The historical record grows even murkier after about 1720, as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) swirled around Wachenheim. The town was occupied twice, and at least once its surviving population fled for safety to a castle in Bad Durkheim. It is known that crops were repeatedly destroyed and land ownership was made chaos throughout the Rhine basin. Some Bürklins may have remained in Wachenheim over this long period; some may have left and returned; again, the record is not clear.


Fast forward two-plus centuries. In 1875, Albert Bürklin (1844-1924), a young lawyer from Durlach – definitely Durlach this time, now part of burgeoning Karlsruhe about twenty kilometers east of Wachenheim — married Luise Wolf (1847-1925), the granddaughter of a prosperous Wachenheimer. Luise brought to this marriage an enviable accumulation of fine vineyard parcels in Wachenheim, Forst and Deidesheim that she had inherited from her grandfather Johann Ludwig Wolf (1777-1840), who was both a celebrated vintner and a wealthy banker. These parcels were foundational for Bürklin-Wolf, the couple’s new business. From the moment of its creation, it was the largest wine estate in the Pfalz since Andreas Jordan’s even larger estate was sundered following his death in 1848. Albert Bürklin moved to Wachenheim at the time of his marriage, and lived there the rest of his life, functioning as the active chief executive of the new business, while also making philanthropic gifts to the town. His roots in Durlach-Karlsruhe also remained strong, however. His “city” residence there is said to have been a focus of local cultural life, while a personal passion for the theatre led to his appointment as the Generalintendent des Hoftheaters. He was also one of the most prominent politicians of his generation, made Abgeordnete of the Reichstag in 1877 and its vice president in 1893. If Bernhard Bürklin’s connection to Wachenheim and to wine at the turn on the 17th Century are prologue to the story of Bürklin-Wolf, the lifetime of Albert Bürklin was its first chapter. (Note that an honorary degree conferred on Bürklin by Universität Freiburg was reflected in the estate’s official name after 1875; thus Weingut Dr. Bürklin-Wolf.)


A second chapter began after the aforementioned Albert Bürklin’s death in 1924, when the estate passed to his grandnephew of exactly the same name. (For clarity Albert Bürklin [1844-1924] is often glossed as Abgeordneten Albert Bürklin, while Albert Bürklin [1907-1979] is glossed as Ökonomierat Albert Bürklin.) Neither the law, nor politics, nor cultural administration competed for the latter’s attention; apart from military service during the World War II, he was first and always a winegrower. Beyond his own estate, however, he worked tirelessly for the common good. He was a founder of the Naturweinversteigerer der Rheinpfalz, which later morphed into the Pfalz chapter of the VDP; an early supporter of Rudolph Steiner, the mind behind biodynamics; and a tireless advocate for the qualitative reconstruction of Germany’s wine industry after the war. In 1962 he arranged the sale of his estate’s non-viticultural properties so that he and it could focus entirely on wine. He purchased modern presses, stainless steel tanks, and a new generation of large-format Doppelstücke. Before Müller-Catoir (under the leadership of Hans Günter Schwarz) became the regional mecca of choice for newly minted winemakers, it was Dr. Bürklin-Wolf that made sure to offer on-the-job training to apprentices and practitioners from across Germany and elsewhere, building a list of more than 400 alumni across the wine world. For his efforts on behalf on German viticulture, Ökonomierat Bürklin received numerous awards, not least the Bundesverdienstkreuz of the German Federal Republic in 1967.


The most recent chapter in this multi-generational epic began in 1990, when Ökonomierat Bürklin’s oldest daughter Bettina Bürklin-von Guradze took the reins of the estate, armed with a diploma in enology from Geisenheim. In this chapter the estate consists of more than 100 hectares of vineyard distributed across Wachenheim, Forst, Deidesheim and Ruppertsberg, of which about 80 are cultivated to produce estate wines, while the balance are rented to other winegrowers.   Riesling accounts for more than three quarters of gthe estate’s total production, but there is also serious attention to Pinot Noir – in fact Pinot was the reason for my first visit to this estate in 2001. Planted surface includes vines in Forst’s most iconic sites, notably Pechstein, Kirchenstück, Jesuitengarten and Ungeheuer; and in similarly iconic sites in Deidesheim, notably Kalkofen, Hohenmorgen and Langenmorgen. Gaisböhl, an exceptional monopole in Ruppertsberg, anchors the estate’s south end, while no fewer than 24 hectares are planted in classified vineyards at its north end, within the town limits of Wachenheim. The estate also occupies historic buildings, 19th Century gardens and extensive cellars in the heart of Wachenheim, a second Vinothek in Deidesheim, and a comfortable farm-to-table restaurant in Ruppertsberg. Notwithstanding her Geisenheim qualifications, Bettina Bürklin-von Guradze is not the hands-on winemaker, nor its general manger, but instead its gracious leader, its face to the world and its tie to four hundred years of history. The hands-on winemaker is cellarmaster Nicola Libelli, trained at the Instituto di Frutti-Viticoltura at Piacenza in Italy, and at Geisenheim, broadly experienced in Spain, California and Australia before landing at Dr. Bürklin-Wolf in 2011. Libelli is emblematic of the effortless cosmopolitanism that suffuses this fine estate, cellars filled at harvest with interns from all over, its main tasting room staffed by a genial Englishman who came to work the harvest here in 1991 — and never left.


More or less immediately after taking the reins in 1990, Bürklin–von Guradze cut yields, invested again in cellar equipment, focused the estate overwhelmingly on Riesling, and embraced “full, rich and dry” as the house style. To achieve dry wines reliably without resort to commercial yeasts, the estate also worked to isolate naturally-occurring yeasts from its best vineyards, especially Pechstein; today this yeast is also used by neighbors like Reichsrat von Buhl. In 1994, having discovered a tax map drawn in 1828, Bürklin-von Guradze and her husband began a reassessment of the estate’s vineyards, establishing which were its best sites, finally settling on a estate-specific classification that designated 12.5 ha of its best parcels as G.C. (a silent but obvious tip of the hat to the grands crus of Burgundy) while 24 ha in a second tier were dubbed P.C. for premier cru, the classification visible as nine G.C. bottlings and six P.C. bottlings effective with the 1999 vintage. The work turned out to be both prophetic and seminal, the first shot, as it were, in a campaign by Germany’s quality-oriented producers to undo the damage caused in and after 1971, when German wine law certified must-weight rather than terroir as the main determinant of wine quality. Neighbors were inspired by Dr. Burklin-Wolf’s initiative; within a few years VDP groups in several regions were busy classifying vineyards on the basis of old tax maps; within a few more years Grosse Lagen, Erste Lagen and Grosses Gewächs were the talk of the land, and generally accepted yardstick of quality. At Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, attention meanwhile shifted from the classification of sites to protocols that could enhance the expression of each site – like biodynamics.


The wines.  Winemaking at Dr. Bürklin-Wolf today is straightforward, although tolerance for botrytis has a higher threshold here than in neighboring cellars. Fruit is pressed as whole clusters. Fermentations rely on naturally-occurring yeasts, or on selected yeasts isolated from estate vineyards, see above. Village wines are fermented in stainless steel; P.C. and G.C. wines ferment in wood. Relatively warm fermentations (up to 18 C°) are tolerated. The wines are first racked about three months after primary fermentations have finished, and then again before bottling, which takes place in early spring for most wines, though G.C. wines are not bottled until July after the vintage.


The best news about Dr. Bürklin-Wolf is the wine that fills its bottles. I tasted twelve dry Rieslings here in June 2017, representing variously the 2016, 2015 and 2014 vintages. Without exception these were fresh, cool, precise, wines that showcased their individual terroirs, expressing their herb and fruit components distinctly, often in layers; they were elegant, well-bred, slightly round, and ample, but neither challenging nor effusive.  Alcohols were very well-controlled, Gutswein and Ortsweine hovering around 12.5°, while the Lagenweine were closer to 13°. The 2016 Gutswein (Riesling Trocken), mostly from Wachenheim vineyards, was bright with a lemon-herb edge and attractive tension. Village wine from Ruppertsberg (2016), reflecting deeper and loamier soils, was more fruit-driven than its cousins from Deidesheim (2016) and Wachenheim (2015), which showed more citrus, white stone fruit and the textural properties we often describe as “minerality.” The Wachenheim wine qualified as a personal favorite in this category: alive with texture (imagine fruit peel and apple skin), almost piquant, racy and very pure. Moving on to the P.C. wines, the Ruppertsberger Höheburg 2015 was rich, velvety and borderline opulent, while P.C.s from Goldbächel and Böhlig, both southeast-facing slopes just south of Wachenheim, showed fruit-pit flavors. These wines, from adjacent vineyards, are always a study in differing terroirs. In this tasting Goldbächel was the rounder and Böhlig the leaner, the latter finishing salty with just a touch of cream. This difference reflects a difference of soil types: Goldbächel sits on a base of sandstone and sandstone debris while Böhlig surmounts a partially calcareous base. Goldbächel is a 1.6 ha site planted in 1991; Böhlig is about three times its size with vines that average four years older. It should be noted that Bürklin-Wolf’s P.C. wines are exceptional value-for-money. They are distinctive, terroir-specific, admirably complex and substantial, but sell for less than half the price of most of the estate’s G.C. bottlings. Moving now to this final category, Gaisböhl, previously mentioned, is a monopole in Ruppertsberg. The 2015 edition of this wine was lively and mineral, showing lime pith, summer herbs and salt. Even in loamy Ruppertsberg, a top quality site can and does show much more than fruit. For contrast there was also a 2015 Hohenmorgen G.C. Hohenmorgen faces south across the roofs of Deidesheim to Ruppertsberg, its soils a mix of loam with sandstone, and limestone detritus over calcareous substrata. Dr. Bürklin-Wolf’s parcels in Hohenmorgen give fine-grained, elegant, and thought-provoking Rieslings of which the 2015 is a textbook example.


In the States, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf wines are available in several markets via local distributors, but there is no national importer. Since each distributor makes its own selections from the total portfolio, available wines may differ from market to market. Consider contacting Yountville Wine Imports in California, A. H. D. Vintners in Michigan, Verity Wine Partners in New York, Lemma Wine Company in Oregon, or Southern Wine and Spirits in Florida for additional information. Meanwhile, visitors to the Mittelhaardt will find fine hospitality and good tasting in the estate’s two Vinotheke!


Maidenstoen: Another New Benchmark in California Dry Riesling

Raised at Danville, in the San Ramon Valley east of San Francisco, Mike Callahan grew up a self-described snowboarder. Once he had finished high school, he headed directly to the powder-covered slopes around Steamboat Springs.   When his parents persuaded him to try college, he moved to Boulder, where he began working outside of class hours at a local beer, wine and liquor store. Those unfamiliar with Colorado are often surprised to learn that its wine market is unexpectedly sophisticated, with imported wines accounting for almost half of total sales. Callahan reports that the store’s owner “brought him from beer keg to wine cellar,” changing fundamentally his ideas about life and career.


If wine over beer was Callahan’s first epiphany, wine’s geographic diversity was the second. Conveniently, his father worked for airlines and took his family to Europe, where the multifarious geography of wine “blew [his son’s] mind.” In 2003, Mike Callahan returned to California, married a young woman with roots in Los Angeles, and looked for jobs at wineries in Santa Barbara County. He worked mostly tasting room jobs at first, then moved on to assignments in cellars and a harvest at Orcutt Road Cellars, a large state-of-the-art production facility in Edna Valley. In 2005, he spent most of the year with Ken Volk, a legendary wine pioneer on the Central Coast, following the latter’s purchase of the old Byron winery.   Eight vintages at Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos followed, where Callahan worked as assistant winemaker to Bill Brosseau, who had built the Testarossa Brand for founder Rob Jensen. This time was formative. Callahan learned to read vineyards, adjust winemaking to their individual personae, and grew facile with technical wine analysis.


By 2012 Callahan had developed a personal set of “quality metrics” for the kind of wine he liked, which included low pH, moderate to high acids, clean juice, and “microbial stability,” all in the service of flavor and age-ability. These metrics led him to white wines created without skin maceration. As it happened, one of Testarossa’s many sources for pinot noir and chardonnay was Luis Zabala’s vineyard in Arroyo Seco, and Zabala also grew Riesling. Rather a lot of Riesling actually; Zabala had planted just under 20 hectares of FPS 12 (~N90, from Neustadt) in 2007. Callahan liked the looks of Zabala’s vineyard: water-washed stones everywhere, plus scattered rocky outcroppings. He also knew that Riesling developed lots of flavor early in the ripening process, and retained acid well in the last weeks before harvest, making it score high against his personal set of quality metrics. Plus Riesling was an out-of-favor variety, and Callahan had always “rooted for underdogs,” in sports and in life. So he cast the dice, launching Maidenstoen, his own label, devoted entirely to Riesling and to single-vineyard wines, which he made at Micah Cellars in Watsonville, conveniently located between Zabala’s vineyard and his day job at Testarossa.


Maidenstoen’s winemaking protocol was (and generally remains) straightforward. To choose a pick date, Callahan assesses physiological ripeness, looking for good flavor before the pH rises above 3.2, and while acid is still abundant. The fruit is pressed as whole clusters, and settled without additives for 24 hours before being racked to fermentors, which are a combination of stainless steel drums and well-used French barrels. The yeast of choice is QA23, isolated by the Universidade de Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro in Portugal, which is widely used across the New World for sauvignon blanc and other aromatic varieties. It is also known to work quickly and completely even at relatively low temperatures (between 12 and 16° C), leaving very little unfermented sugar. Once dry each new vineyard-specific wine is racked from the drums and barrels in which it was fermented to a new array of drums and barrels where it remains for nine months’ élevage. At this point each component of each wine is evaluated before a final blend of each wine is made, sterile filtered and bottled. No fining has been necessary for any of the fourteen wines produced through the 2016 vintage.


Callahan’s 2012 from Zabala was not released commercially; Maidenstoen debuted the following year. There were two wines that year: one from Zabala and one from a high-elevation vineyard a few miles northeast of Zabala called Coast View.   Both were dry, taut, linear and delicious. (See below for tasting notes.) In 2014, Callahan added a third vineyard to his portfolio, Lafond on Santa Rosa Road in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Lafond made a slightly rounder and fruitier Riesling than either of the Salinas Valley sites, but was still taut and dry. In 2015 Tondré’s Grapefield in the Santa Lucia Highlands was added to the list of source vineyards, in part to offset the parsimonious yield that year from Coast View, whose high elevation makes it vulnerable to wind and rain from the Pacific. In 2016 Callahan replaced Tondré with fruit from Oliver’s Vineyard in the Edna Valley, fastidiously farmed by Brian Talley. He also changed the style of the wine from Zabala, leaving it with 11.8 g/L of residual sugar, but maintaining the bone-dry style for all of the other wines.


Meanwhile, in the spring of 2014, Callahan had changed day jobs, moving from Testarossa to Chamisal Vineyards in Edna Valley. Maidenstoen moved with him of course, but the transition turned out bumpy logistically, requiring two unexpected relocations and a good deal of lost sleep. In 2017 he remarried, purchasing property with his new bride on enough acreage that both an on-site winery and vines became imaginable. Sorting these changes and opportunities, Callahan shrank the Maidenstoen portfolio in 2017 to a single wine – from Lafond – and will redefine it for 2018 to rely on a compact array of Central Coast vineyards.  He has also taken budwood from several California vineyards to create plant material for a three-acre all-Riesling estate vineyard a short distance from Avila Beach.  Meanwhile, the 2015s and 2016s  have shown well in several high-profile trade tastings, scored well in the Wine Enthusiast, and found their way to the shelves of a few enlightened wine shops in California, Tennessee and Colorado.   And the brand remains devoted entirely to Riesling and (with the aforementioned single exception) to Riesling’s dry persona.  All of which augers well for the future of Maidenstoen.


Tasting Notes.


Arroyo Seco Riesling Zabala Vineyard 2013

Lean, tightly-wound attack; on the palate, dried herbs and macerated flowers against a crescendo of minerality; citrus and top notes of white-fleshed melon at mid-palate; dry with great tension and considerable length. Excellent and age worthy.


Arroyo Seco Riesling Zabala Vineyard 2016

Sweet pear, apple and citrus attack; then savory at mid-palate. With 11.8 g/L of residual sugar and 9.5 g/L of acid, and pH just a hair under 3.0, the wine is dry-ish, attractive and friendly, but lacks the cut, edge and tension of earlier vintages, all of which were much lower in residual sugar. Callahan made the style change very deliberately, worrying that Zabala’s typicially high acidity, atypically high in 2016 even when some of the grapes were picked atypically late, risked making a wine that would have been “sour” and “too challenging” if all lots had been permitted to go fully dry.


Monterey County Riesling Coast View Vineyard 2016

Slightly closed aromatically, but generous on the palate, with melon, citrus and resinous herbs (especially bay laurel). Very dry, linear and taut; built to age felicitously, but already delicious in the spring of 2018. In 2016 this bottling replaced the slightly off-dry Zabala as my personal favorite among the Maidenstoen Rieslings. Alas, however, this will be the last Riesling from Coast View; facing unpredictable and sometimes derisory yields, the vineyard’s owner has now re-budded his Riesling vines to another variety.


Edna Valley Riesling Oliver’s Vineyard 2016

Broad-shouldered, muscular and fruit-driven wine, showing orange and tangerine peel on the attack, then stone fruits and cantaloupe. Almost lush but still tightly-wrapped at mid-palate, higher pH and lower acid than either Zabala or Coast View, this wine lacks their tension, but is still delicious.









Waits-Mast: Elegant Pinots from Anderson Valley




The story.  Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast, wife and husband and parents of a pre-teen daughter, live in San Francisco and have day jobs; she is an expert on college radio who writes and podcasts about radio culture; he in communications and public relations services to start-up tech companies. They appear in these pages because they also own and operate a boutique wine brand called Waits-Mast Family Cellars, which makes about 600 cases of mostly-vineyard-designated pinot noir annually. They deserve attention for this wine, which is very good indeed. I discovered Waits-Mast at a trade tasting organized by the Anderson Valley Winegrowers late last year (November 2017) but was actually quite late to the train. The brand had attracted attention from alert observers of the California wine scene almost a decade earlier, appearing on the best-of lists promulgated by the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, and other publications. It can also be found on the shelves of a few enlightened retailers on both coasts, and on the lists of an impressive cohort of restaurants in California, New York, and Chicago.

The Waits-Mast story began innocently enough soon after the couple met in 1998. Neither was a serious wine person then, but both enjoyed romantic getaway trips to the Mendocino Coast that traversed Anderson Valley.   They visited tasting rooms, developed a taste for pinot noir, and became regulars at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, held annually in May. Gradually their interest in wine deepened, and they imagined making some themselves. Enter Crushpad in 2004, a groundbreaking urban winery conveniently located about ten minutes’ drive from their home in San Francisco. Explicitly designed to give ordinary folks a chance to create wine projects of their own, each project executed with as much (or as little) professional support as the client might desire, Crushpad seemed tailor-made for a project of uncertain trajectory. In 2005, the couple made a single barrel of pinot (from the Amber Ridge Vineyard in Russian River Valley near Windsor) at Crushpad; a second barrel, from the Hein Vineyard in Anderson Valley, followed in 2006. Their first commercial release was one barrel of pinot from Anderson Valley’s Wentzel Vineyard (see below), and one from the La Encantada Vineuard in Sta Rita Hills, in 2007. Drawn to the Crushpad story in 2009, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonne happened on a bottle of Waits-Mast’s first commercial release. To the surprise of both principals, the wine figured in the newspaper’s 2009 Best Wines list a few months later.

To say that the rest is history would be a gargantuan oversimplification. Only a few years after its ballyhooed opening, Crushpad moved its premises from San Francisco to Napa, then ceased operations entirely a year later, orphaning hundreds of projects. To preserve their brand, Waits and Mast applied for their own TTB permit. They also burnished their growing network of growers and fellow winemakers, negotiated their own contracts for grapes, used personal shoe leather and time squeezed from their day jobs to sell wine to Bay Area retailers and restaurants, piggy-backed out-of-area market development on travel related to their day jobs, changed winemakers as necessary, and relocated production twice.

Today (February 2018), on the verge of bottling their tenth commercial vintage, the brand is critically successful and commercially stable, but still semi-itinerant. Production is currently done on a custom crush basis at Roar Wines in Dogpatch, not far from Crushpad’s old premises; the winemaker is Shalini Sekhar, a Cal State Fresno-trained enologist with prior experience at Rosenblum Cellars, Williams-Selyem and Copain Custom Crush. The portfolio consists of single-vineyard pinots from three Anderson Valley sites: the aforementioned Wentzel, Deer Meadows Vineyard above Boonville and Nash Mill, not far from Wentzel in the valley’s “deep end.” In addition, the brand works with two sites outside the valley but nearby: Mariah in the Mendocino Ridge AVA, southwest of Boonville, overlooking Point Arena; and Oppenlander near Comptche, a tiny unincorporated hamlet about 20 miles north-northwest of Philo. Notes on a tasting of several Waits-Mast wines are found at the end of this post.

Mast explains that the brand strives for medium weight wines made from just-ripe fruit, modestly extracted, and not overtly fruit-forward. Whenever possible, they aim for finished alcohol at or below 14°. This last element is not always possible because Waits-Mast buys fruit in very small quantities, usually just two or three tons per site per year, and growers are not always in a position to pick exactly when Waits and Mast would prefer. They negotiate with growers and fellow fruit-clients to arrive as close as possible to their preferences, but in the end many forces are in play, not least weather, transportation and crew availability, so they adapt. The exception to this generalization is Wentzel, which has historically picked with a dedicated crew, giving the growers the flexibility to accommodate each client’s special preferences.

In the cellar fermentation and élevage protocols favor the expression of individual terroirs. Whenever possible, fermentations are unyeasted, and all of them take place in small t-bins. Cooperage sources, the percentage of new oak, and time in barrel all vary by vineyard and vintage, but overall new oak is used sparingly, varying between 25 and 35 percent, so that it does not mark the wine obviously, and there is a preference overall for coopers that privilege elegance, like Sirugue and Remond. Wines spend eleven to sixteen months in barrel before being bottled without fining or filtration. Although “blending” decisions are made proactively, the quantities of each wine are so small (typically two to four barrels) that no barrel of wine from any Anderson Valley site has ever been declassified, although some barrels of Mariah and Oppenlander have been blended to make a Mendocino cuvée.

Waits-Mast is an interesting case study among tiny boutique brands. Like most of the genre, it is minimally capitalized, propelled primarily by passion and hard work, dependent on a host of third parties, and managed in fragile symbioses with important personal realities like family and day-jobs. But it also seems unlike most in several key ways. First it has survived, and garnered recognition. Good luck deserves part of the credit for this, but so does the principals’ seriousness. They have been patient with a gently sloped learning curve. (“Wine is a business you don’t get very good at very fast,” the late Jack Davies of Schramsberg told me years ago.) Second, it has been impressively faithful to Wait’s and Mast’s personal tastes. From the beginning they have known quite clearly what kind and shape of pinots they liked; in conversations with prospective winemakers before their first wines were made, they were able to illustrate their stylistic preferences with examples. Mary Elke’s pinots from Donnelly Creek Vineyard were an early inspiration as were some bottlings of Londer. It may also have helped that Waits and Mast came to pinot without either inspiration or baggage from Burgundy, saving themselves and their winemakers from tilting at windmills. Finally, Waits and Mast still seem to like their day jobs. Even as they can imagine turning to wine as their principal business some day, they are content to learn, and grow, patiently.

Meanwhile, twists and turns continue. Roar’s prospective move, later in 2018, to new premises outside San Francisco will necessitate another change of venue for Waits-Mast’s production. Nor will Deer Meadows’ fruit be available to Waits-Mast in 2018; Ted Lemon will keep all of it for his own brand, at least for the immediate future. Waits and Mast seem calm about these challenges, however. One has the impression that for them, and for the brand, the next year, and decade, are not likely to be any less interesting than the last.


Tasting Notes

2016 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, Deer Meadows Vineyard. Owned for many years by Rich Savoy but recently sold to Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines, this site has proven its unique character both before and after a 2001 replanting, not least to Lemon, whose One Acre bottling was (and now is again) sourced from it. In Waits-Mast hands, it is also impressive. Tasted from tank, the 2016 Waits-Mast was a very transparent dark ruby red wine with a keen balance among fruit, earth and exotic south Asian spice.

2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, Deer Meadows Vineyard. A perfect example of what a few years of bottle age can do for wines from vineyards that tend toward understatement when the wines are young. The 2013 was alive with intoxicating perfume. Decidedly floral now, but still marked with the site’s signature of south Asian spice, it was also a tad weightier at mid-palate than the 2016. This was (and is) an elegant and genuinely beautiful wine.


2014 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Wentzel Vineyard. More spicy than the Deer Meadows, and spicier in a southeast-Asian way. Some of the impression of spice is owed to the inclusion of whole clusters in the fermentation. More obviously fruity too: bright with cranberry, raspberry and strawberry; all three lifted with acid. A very attractive wine.


2015 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Nash Mill Vineyard. Burlier, rounder and larger-framed than either of Deer Meadows and Wentzel, despite a deceptively bright, pale robe. Higher alcohol here, and more black fruit than red, both probably driven by later picking than the ideal Waits-Mast style should demand, especially when one considers that the site is actually cool compared to both Deer Meadows and Wentzel.


2016 Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir Mariah Vineyard. This tank sample was a dark and earthy wine touched with aromatics that evoked redwood trees, wet bark, moss and mocha. The site was new to me in this tasting, and was unarguably distinctive, giving mossy, deeply-flavored wines that are brawny, round at mid-palate and mouth-filling.




A Fine Mosel Estate is Reinvented

Gernot Kollmann visited the west coast of the United States a few months back, his stops in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles better measured in hours than in days, hurrying home in time to pick Riesling in the Mosel. Kollman is the man in charge at Weingut Immich-Batterieberg, here to visit accounts with his Bay Area distributor, Keven Clancy of Farm Wine Imports. Dinner with them and Gilian Handelman (Director of Education and Communications at Jackson Family Wines and Keven’s wife) at Aster, a Michelin-starred establishment in San Francisco’s Mission district, was a great and welcome opportunity to catch up on recent editions of the property’s single-vineyard Rieslings. All of these are sourced within a stone’s throw of Enkirch, a town downstream of Traben and Trarbach. (Coincidentally, Enkirch is also about eleven kilometers northwest of Hahn, Frankfurt’s “second” airport, a well-kept secret except from aficionados of Ryanair!)


One of Immich-Batterieberg’s single-vineyard Rieslings comes from Steffensberg, a full-south facing site north of Enkirch in the Grossbachtal, a side valley just east of the Mosel, notable for its generous endowment of red slate. This site gives Immich-Batterieberg’s most generous, full-flavored and precocious wine, a combination of red fruit aromas like cassis with juicy stone fruits, with both wrapped around a flinty core. The other sites used for single-vineyard wines are found along the Starkenberger Hang, a steep escarpment between the D53 road along the Mosel’s right bank and the much narrower L192 road that snakes uphill from Enkirch and then to Starkenburg along the ridgetop. Because the Mosel here flows almost perfectly south-to-north, all of these sites are west- or southwest-oriented. Moving south from Enkirch, and skipping Herrenberg, wherein the estate does not farm any parcels, Batterieberg and Zeppwingert come first. Batterieberg is a 1.1 hectare monopole within Zeppwingert, created between 1841 and 1845 when Carl August Immich dynamited an especially intractable part of the hill to make it terrace-able, plant-able and viable as vineyard. Locals nicknamed the hill for his crazy intervention; much the way Alaska became Seward’s Folly, Immich’s new vineyard was dubbed something like “artillery hill” or hill made with explosive charges. In due season, however, Carl August attached the newly-minted Batterieberg name to his own, officially rebaptizing his estate. Finally, south of both Batterieberg and Zeppwingert, the estate also farms parcels in Ellergrub, the southernmost of the Enkircher vineyards, on the escarpment just below Starkenburg. With the exception of Herrenberg, which was redeveloped in the 1970s pursuant to Flurbereinigung, the vineyards along the Starkenberger Hang contain an impressive population of ungrafted vines, some of which date back as far as the end of the 19th Century.


Batterieberg is a grey-slate site loaded with quartz. Perhaps fittingly given its name, it has a reputation for length and power as well as finesse, and for being tightly wound in its youth. Zeppwingert is less rocky than Batterieberg, and the surface soil is darker than Batterieberg’s grey slate. It gives fruit-sweet (but not necessarily sugar-sweet) wines with honeysuckle prominent among various floral properties. Ellergrub, a blue slate site, makes a cool, elegant, and silky wine in which floral elements are often mixed with notes of citrus oil and almonds. Kollmann is especially proud of it; for him it is the estate’s best wine in most vintages.


Dinner with Kollmann was also a good opportunity to fill some gaps in the estate’s recent history. The basic story is clear enough. The estate, which has monastic roots, is mentioned as early as the 10th Century. At the end of the 15th it was purchased by members of the Immich family, whose proprietorship lasted nearly five centuries. Georg Immich, the last Immich to own the estate, sold it in 1989. David Schildknecht, who knew Immich quite well, describes the circumstances surrounding the sale and its aftermath as “a tale of … betrayal, divorce, decline and criminal deceit,” but even observers without Schildknecht’s insight know that the estate’s prevailing style (relatively dry wines fermented with naturally occurring yeast and raised in large oak casks) was turned on its head after the sale, that old oak in the cellar was replaced with stainless steel, that natural yeasts were displaced by exogenous inoculates, and that dry-ish complexity was lost to clean, reductive, fruitiness – from 1992 until the estate went bankrupt in 2007.


It is in 2007 that the stories of Weingut Immich-Batterieberg and Gernot Kollmann intersect. Kollmann is not from winemaking stock, nor a native Moselaner. As a very young man, he imagined a career in medicine. But he was also powerfully interested in wine. In the 1990s he worked at Dr. Loosen. Then he studied viticulture and enology at the Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Wein- und Obstbau at Weinsburg, in Württemberg. Whereupon followed time at the Bischöfliche Weingüter Trier, van Volxem in the Saar, Weingut Jakob Sebastian in the Ahr, and Weingut Knebel at Winningen — of which von Volxem seems to have been the most impactful. When Immich-Batterieberg filed for bankruptcy in 2007, Kollmann saw an opportunity to recapture the estate’s historic distinction – if he could partner with investors. Save for the financial nonsense spawned by the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, which mushroomed into a worldwide recession, swallowing Wall Street banks, Kollmann’s task might have been consummated straightforwardly; in the event potential investors came and went, and Goldman Sachs, Inc., which came to represent the sellers of Immich-Batterieberg, required bailout funds from the American government to remain in business. The investors who worked with Kollmann in 2009 – the Auerbach and Probst families of Hamburg — were successful, however, taking control before the 2009 vintage was harvested.  In some ways the delay may have been helpful since it gave Kollmann time to plan carefully for full turnaround bei Immich, which amazed observers and critics when first the 2009 wines, and then subsequent vintages, were released to wildly enthusiastic reviews. The American counter-culture importer Lyle Fass (admittedly given to hyperbole) wrote that Kollmann “shocked the wine world with absolutely one of the greatest wine debuts I have ever encountered;” while David Schildknecht, who is never hyperbolical, reported success “far beyond my skeptical imagination.” (Schildknecht’s observation was made in connection with Kollmann’s decision to use a combination of barrels and stainless tanks in lieu of large Fuder, the latter being unavailable on short notice.) I have no experience with the 2009s, but vintages since 2011 have been stellar, including all the wines (except for one corked bottle) tasted with Kollmann in San Francisco.


Kollmann is a firm believer in the fundamental importance of sites, especially sites enhanced with own-rooted vines, and populated with the grasses and herbs that grow wild even in the rockiest vineyards. And sites in which yields are stringently limited.  In the cellar, he works with very little sulfur, which is added only after the wine is essentially made. And yeasts that thrive naturally in the vineyards and cellar, which control fermentations. There are no additions or adjustments to naturally-occuring sugar or acid, and no use of enzymes or colloidal material. This non-interventionist protocol means that fermentations do as they please, giving finished wines with as little as a gram or two of residual sugar, or as much as twelve or seventeen depending on the wine and the vintage, but Kollmann made clear that he is happiest when the wines are truly and completely dry.  Across the portfolio, Immich-Batterieberg Rieslings are bright, textured, pure wines, with abundant aromatics, great balance of fruit and structure; sleek, complex and balanced.


In addition to the single-vineyard Rieslings, Immich-Batterieberg makes two blended Rieslings, one called C.A.I. in honor of the aforementioned Carl August Immich, the other Escheburg. The C.A.I. relies on the bottom rows of Batterieberg in combination with purchased grapes; Escheburg is a blend of lots from estate vineyards (see above) that are not used to make the single-vineyard wines. Kollmann also makes some Spätburgunder, but refers to it as a hobby project.


4 January 2018





Von Buhl Turns a Page (Deidesheim, Pfalz) – June 2017

In 2013 a page was turned at Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl in Deidesheim. With a new team in charge, the first tranche of new Franconian oak tanks and lightly used French puncheons in the cellar, a bone-dry style in place for white (and rosé) wines, and counting on timely-picked ne plus ultra fruit from vineyards that had been converted to organic farming six years earlier, von Buhl was poised to attract attention after an extended period of relative under-achievement. When the 2013s could be tasted the following year, and since, most critics have reacted enthusiastically. My first peek came at Weinbörse 2015, where the 2014 village Riesling from Deidesheim was an amazing value for money, and a cask sample of 2014 Kieselberg Riesling Erste Lage demonstrated the estate’s potential for excellence in the category informally known informally as premier cru. A visit to the estate on the last day of May this year painted a more complete picture even though I concentrated solely on Riesling: not only is von Buhl now making intensely exciting wines, the team is also brimming with personal energy, keenly aware that the combination of historically great vineyard parcels and now impeccable farming, supported by new owners who are more interested in long-term excellence than in short-term profits, gives von Buhl a opportunity to reach for the stars for the first time since early in the 20th Century.


The Buhls and the Jordans. To put this news in context, two stories must be told. The first concerns the ties that linked the Buhls, originally from Ettingen, near Karlsruhe, with the Jordans, originally from Roschbach, near Landau, during the first half of the 19th Century, both before and after scions of both families became neighbors at Deidesheim in 1806. Jordans and Buhls both cleaved toward political liberalism. From 1806 they were also linked by marriage, Franz Anton Christoph Buhl (1779-1844), a member of the Bavarian Abgeordnetenkammer, having married Maria Barbara Jordan, sister of Andreas Jordan (1775-1848), who was also an Abgeordnete. Buhl moved to Deidesheim immediately after his marriage. For his part, Jordan was an iconic figure who did more than any other to establish the Pfalz on Europe’s viticultural map. Educated in philosophy at Mainz and trained about winegrowing in the Rheingau, Jordan had assumed the reins at his family’s estate as French troops left in 1795. He argued for always planting the best grape varieties in the best south-facing sites, and for quality over quantity. After his marriage, Buhl also took up winegrowing; by the 1840s his winery had become a gathering place for liberal Abgeordnete. Meanwhile, in the 1830s, two further marriages had linked Jordans and Buhls. Franz Peter Buhl (1809-1862), Franz Anton Christoph’s son, married Andreas Jordan’s daughter Josephine in 1836; two years later Andreas Jordan’s son Ludwig Andreas (1811-1883) married Franz Peter Buhl’s sister Seraphine. When Andreas Jordan’s brother Peter Heinrich, also a local winegrower, died in 1830, he left his wine business to his sister Maria Barbara’s children; for a time Franz Peter Buhl and Ludwig Andreas Jordan functioned as co-managers of Weingut P. H. Jordans Erben.


When Andreas Jordan died in 1848, he did not have a will, leaving his family and inlaws to agree a division that would be generally consistent with the default principle that a man’s children should inherit, and do so equally. So large was the estate, and so consequential for the individual beneficiaries and the town – Ludwig Andreas had followed his father as mayor — that the agreement, which came to be called the Jordan’sche Teilung, was closely followed. The core business and approximately 15 hectares of very good vineyard passed to Andreas’ son. Another 15 hectares, more or less, went to elder daughter Josephine, who was married to Franz Peter Buhl. These parties also split Peter Heinrich’s estate. A lesser amount of vineyard plus other property went to younger daughter Auguste Margarete, who had married Friedrich Deinhard (1812-1871) of Mainz in 1844.


The Teilung effectively created three wine estates from one, all of which have survived to the present day, albeit with normal ebb and flow of acquisitions and alienations, and name changes, that punctuate business history everywhere. After Ludwig Andreas’s death in 1883, the core estate passed via his daughter Auguste to her husband Emil Bassermann, who then suffixed –Jordan to his own name and title, creating Weingut Geheimer Rat Dr. Bassermann-Jordan. (The suffixed surname apparently required approval from high authority; it is said to have been blessed by no less than Ludwig II, King of Bavaria from 1864-1886.) Franz Peter Buhl forged Weingut F. P. Buhl from Josephine’s share of Andreas’ estate. Much later, in 1912, the name of this business was changed to Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl, see below. Meanwhile, in 1849, Friedrich Deinhard created Weingut Dr. Deinhard with Auguste Margarete’s share of the estate, but separate from the Deinhard’s pre-existing wholesale wine business in Mainz. There was a name change here too: in 1907 Friedrich’s son Andreas renamed this estate for his son-in-law Leopold von Winning.


All of Dr. Deinhard, Bassermann-Jordan and von Buhl prospered through the second half of the 19th Century, but among them Buhl seems to have excelled. Franz Peter Buhl’s son Franz Armand (1837-1896) was a savvy businessman and passionate vintner keenly interested in an array of wine-related technical problems, not least spoilage after bottling. Franz Armand also married into some exceptional vineyards in Forst, about two kilometers north of Deidesheim. Fruit from some of these vineyards came to Weingut F. P. Buhl almost immediately after his marriage to Juliane Schellhorn-Wallbillich in 1865, making interalia the “Forster” wine that was famously served when the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. The estate’s high profile was further embellished after Franz Armand’s son Franz Eberhard (1867-1921) took the reins in 1909, seamlessly integrating the Schellhorn-Wallbillich assets with those devolved from the Teilung; this established Buhl as the largest wine estate in the Pfalz. Once Peter Eberhard had been named in 1911 to the Kammer des Reichsräte for his political contributions, he renamed the family business to incorporate his new title.


Fast forward to the second half of the 20th Century. Two wars had left their mark on all three beneficiaries of the Teilung, as on much else in Germany, but there were special problems at von Buhl. Because Franz Eberhard and his wife were childless, they adopted offspring of their friends in an effort to ensure succession for the wine estate. Franz Eberhard died 1921; his widow Frida then managed the estate until her own death in 1952, whereupon it passed to Enoch zu Guttenberg, the then six-year-old progeny of Franz Eberhard’s and Frida’s very good friends. The Guttenbergs were indeed a distinguished family, liberal politically like the Buhls, courageous against the Nazis, and champions of European unity after World War II, but neither Enoch (who went on to a career in music) nor other members of the family were enough interested in the wine business to give it hands-on attention. By the 1980s some winery assets had been sold in an effort to keep the estate solvent, but in 1989 it nonetheless passed into bankruptcy. The Guttenbergs then leased the estate, still in bankruptcy, to a Japanese businessman. This step stabilized von Buhl, prevented the further the sale of assets, and enabled the conversion of its vineyards to organic protocols. The cellars were also improved, old concrete tanks replaced with stainless steel, and a respected winemaker was installed, but by this time the Trockenwelle had transformed the prevailing style of German wines, and a new generation of professionally-trained winemakers had taken over neighboring estates in the Pfalz and Rheinhessen. Against this tableau, von Buhl was able to persist, but did not excel.


Niederberger: Reunification of the Jordan Estate. Here begins the second of the two stories. Enter Achim Niederberger (1957-2013), a self-made man from very nearby, in Neustadt. Niederberger had first grown a tiny start-up business into a printing-, publishing- and advertising-based colossus, creating a large personal fortune. He had also become a wine connoisseur and collector. His fascination with wine had led to the acquisition of a one-hectare vineyard near his home, which he persuaded no less than Weingut Müller-Catoir’s iconic winemaker Hans Günter Schwarz to manage. While it is scarcely unusual that wealthy individuals with vinous tastes enter the wine business, Niederberger was animated by a singular vision: he wanted to purchase in pieces, reunify, and restore to paramount greatness a wine estate that had been sundered 150 years earlier, namely the estate of Andreas Jordan described above. His first completed step was to acquire Bassermann-Jordan in 2002. Von Winning (ex-Dr. Deinhard) came next, in 2007. Von Buhl required patience. Niederberger was able to negotiate a purchase agreement as early as 2003, but was unable to become owner-in-fact until the aforementioned ten-year lease had run its course in 2013. On the plus side, however, the delay allowed him time to plan a renaissance for von Buhl, and to assemble a renaissance team. Ironically, it also gave fate time to interfere. In 2011 Niederberger was diagnosed with an incurable disease that would claim his life before the lease expired. While this could easily have been the end of the Grand Plan, it was not. Niederberger’s wife Jana stepped into his shoes, prepared to direct the management of all three estates until such time as their young daughters could assume roles of their own.


Von Buhl Today: What matters now is neither of the two stories but the present and future of von Buhl. The new team, each member recruited and selected separately by Niederberger before his death, is in some ways an unlikely duo. The general manager is Richard Grosche, a journalist by training, and a veteran of Meininger Verlag, a German food and wine publisher based in Neustadt. Niederberger first met him in 2011. Although widely known and knowledgeable about wine, Grosche had no previous experience in wine production. The winemaker is Mathieu Kauffmann, Alsace-born, Montpellier-trained, and chef de caves at Champagne Bollinger from 2001 to 2013. Kauffmann downsized to make the move: he is now hands-on in the von Buhl cellar, with a staff of just seven, down from 55 at Bollinger.   Pure serendipity had connected Kauffmann with Niederberger. It happened that a professor of philosophy at Munich who knew Kauffmann also knew Hans Günter Schwarz, who (see above) also knew Niederberger. Unlikely or not, serendipitous or not, Grosche and Kauffmann are now a genuinely electric team, each animating the other. It was Grosche, before he was recruited, who had convinced Neiderberger that von Buhl’s extraordinary endowment in top sites made it the jewel in the Jordan’sche crown. And it was a tour of these sites (followed by some serious tasting!) that had convinced Kauffmann that he would have a chance to make even finer wines at von Buhl than he had done chez Bollinger.


The core of the renaissance is a new style for von Buhl’s Riesling program, which accounts for 85 percent of total production. Point One in the new style is reliance on fully ripe fruit from the exceptionally fine sites that are the estate’s core strength. Kauffmann assesses ripeness straightforwardly: he “eat[s] kilos of grapes straight from the vines” in the weeks leading up to harvest. “You cannot make a good wine from tasteless fruit,” he explains, as if it were obvious. Low yields help too: the combination of low yields and organic (now verging toward biodynamic) viticulture deliver ripe fruit at low levels of sugar accumulation. Point Two is the converse of Point One: as soon as the grapes are ripe, they are picked without delay. This means that each vineyard is picked several times, often four times, not (as Austrians often argue) to achieve a bit more flavor, but to get all the fruit as close as possible to its own perfect ripeness. Point Three: Kauffmann trusts active yeasts, and spent yeast in the form of lees. “Energy comes from the yeasts,” he asserts, “they keep the wine fresh and give it the potential to age for many years. Yeast [also] inoculate the wine against oxygen.” It follows that new wines are kept on the full lees as long as possible, in fact, until the final cuvees are made, sometime in the spring following the vintage, but one or two years later in the case of the best wines. Kauffmann does not fine wines, or juice, and uses sulfur very parsimoniously; he also likes wooden fermentation vessels, in a combination of 500-liter barrels and 2400-litre Doppelstücke. Winemaking is thus oxidative, not reductive, ensuring that the wines, though tense, are never brittle. Finally, Point Four is that wines made this way do not need residual sugar. Except for a handful of self-proclaimed Kabinette and Spätlesen, all wines at von Buhl are now dry, and all dry wines are really dry (barely one gram of residual sugar), a choice that has led to wines of exceptional precision, cut and tension, while the fine quality of the grapes themselves assures concentration, complexity and nuance. It also puts von Buhl in the company of (so far) very few producers for whom dry is very dry indeed; see the post on this site about Dreissigacker for another example.  All fermentations begin with naturally-occurring yeast, but a yeast isolated by Weingut Dr. Bürklin-Wolf in Pechstein is added when each ferment contains about 13 g/L of unfermented sugar, and this yeast works until the job is done. Erste and Grosse Lage wines spend at least 14 and up to 22 months of the full lees. While it is not surprising that this protocol yields benchmark editions of the estate’s top site-specific wines, the team’s approach has also created astonishingly good results with the basic village wines, which consumers are invited to take seriously.


Although von Buhl has always made sparkling wines alongside its still wine portfolio, it will now deepen this program, taking advantage of Kauffmann’s Champagne experience. Making both bottle-fermented late-disgorged wines as all-Riesling cuvees, and as all-Pinot blanc de noirs, and all of the above made exclusively from the first press fraction, and never dosed beyond 5 g/L. Standby for the first release of these sparkling wines in another year or two. Expect some exciting still (and site-designated) Spätburgunder as well: the 2014 Spätburgunder “Suez” is a peek into the future.


The stylistic insistence on very dry wines is what tasters notice first today. Those familiar with earlier, friendlier vintages of von Buhl are sometimes aghast, and sales reps cfound the first of the dry Rieslings, especially at the estate and village levels very hard to sell. (Grosche says sales fell by 20 percent when the 2013s were released.)  Perseverance paid off, however, in the form of critical acclaim. The 2016 Estate Trocken, made entirely from vineyards in Ruppertsberg with no fruit from any Erste or Grosse Lage, was bracing in the spring of 2017 — citrus-y, dry, modestly mineral and a sound value for money (ca. USD 17 in the USA). A 2016 blend called Suez (in memory of the Forst-based wine served back in 1869), sourced primarily from Grosse Lagen in Forst and sporting a bit more sugar (3.3 g/L) is offered for about double the price. It is a beach wave of fruit and flowers with Grosse Lage complexity on the finish. Both 2016 village wines, one from Deidesheim and one from Forst were delicious, the Deidesheimer sourced entirely from Erste Lagen within Herrgottsacker and Mäushöhle, showing bright citrus and stone fruit cores plus abundant minerality, grit and tension; the Forster showing mostly stone fruit with just hints of citrus, but also smokier and borderline voluptuous. These wines finished with 1.3 and 1.4 grams of residual sugar respectively. The 2016 Mäushöhle, from a steepish, E-SE-facing slope surmounting a pretty stream, was a lovely, clean white-fruited wine with a lean, columnar structure and oodles of texture on the back palate that counted as a personal favorite. From the 2015 vintage there was also an Erste Lage bottling from parcels (Vogelsang and Hahneböhl) in the upper part of Herrgottsacker, the northernmost vineyard in Deidesheim: fruit driven, concentrated and brilliant, showing the imprint of rather more limestone that is found in any of the preceding sites. Plus the gems you would expect from Herrgottsacker (concentrated and brilliant and borderline saline from the higher elevation and limestone) and Paradiesgarten (great depth of flavor, abundant fruit and complexity.)


In short, Weingut Reichrat von Buhl is now making some of the Pfalz’s most exciting Rieslings. Rudy Wiest Selections (Carlsbad, CA) is the USA importer.