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 has not yet (March 2018) decided which wines will be made in 2018. But there is reason for optimism overall. Maidenstoen Rieslings 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.


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.




John Haeger at Handford Wines (London, UK) — 19 March 2018

On Monday 19 March 2018, John Haeger and James Handford MW will join forces at Handford’s award-winning retail store in South Kensington, for a tasting of dry Rieslings from around the world. The tasting list is not yet final, but will include some of the stunning bone-dry Rieslings made by Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl from iconic sites in Forst; Rangen and Rosacker Grand Cru Rieslings from Alsace’s Domaine Schaal; acclaimed Rheinhessen bottlings from BattenfeldSpanier, whose husband-and-wife owners emerged as 2017 Winzer-Winzerin des Jahres per Vinum-Weinguide … and more from the USA, Australia and South Africa. Handford Wine is found at 105 Old Brompton Road in London SW7. The tasting will begin at 6.30 pm. Contact the store on +44 (0)20 7589 6113 for additional details and reservations.

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





Dry Riesling at 36,000 feet

No one of my acquaintance – myself included – chooses air carriers these days to taste wines in flight. If one did, however, European and Asian carriers would probably have an edge, at least in the forward cabins. Consider, for example, Krug Grande Cuvée on Cathay Pacific, Salon Cuvée S on JAL, and Laurent-Perrier Grande Cuvée on BA and Swiss. So imagine how elated this author of a book about dry Riesling was to discover the 2016 vintage of Trefethen Family Vineyards’ Dry Riesling aboard Delta’s Delta One™ transcontinental service last week from JFK to San Francisco. First because it is a stellar wine applauded by critics of all stripes. Second because, bright with acid and tank-raised, loaded with flavorful terpenes and convincingly dry, 12.5° with just 5.0 g/L of residual sugar, it was perfect (as many otherwise good wines are not) at 36000 feet. Third because it takes a bit of courage these days to put America’s most misunderstood white varietal on any mainstream wine list. Kudos to Delta; to Andrea Immer Robinson MS, the respected sommelier who chooses wines for Delta One™; and to the Trefethen family, which has been stubbornly loyal to Riesling-qua-variety and Riesling-made-dry for all forty years since the estate was founded in 1976. Evidence that Dan Berger was correct in his 19 December column for the [Santa Rosa] Press Democrat that dry Riesling is “on the march,” with sales rising for both German and American exemplars? On my flight, the first bottle was fully consumed in just one trip down one of two aisles, outselling a well-known California chardonnay at least 2-to-1! It did not hurt that that the wine paired very well with both an appetizer of lobster salad and a main course of succulent chicken breast and tiny discs of fingerling potato salad; thank you Delta Catering. On terra firma, savvy consumers can still buy the 2016 vintage from the winery – it is a well-priced point of entry into the dry persona of the world’s seventh most planted wine grape variety.






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.

John Haeger at Brooks Winery (Amity, OR) 11-12 November 2017

From the outset in 1998, Jimi Brooks (1968-2004) focused his young namesake winery on Riesling and Pinot Noir, and the winery has remained true to his founding vision.  While Pinot has since become Oregon’s signature variety, covering more vineyard surface than any other, and anchoring the portfolios of most Willamette Valley producers, and Brooks does well with it, Brooks also stands out for its equally serious commitment to Riesling, the multitude of Riesling lots fermented here each year, the sheer number of its vineyard-designated Rieslings, and the brand’s full-spectrum coverage of Riesling’s panoply of styles.  On 12 and 13 November 2017, John Haeger joined the winery’s managing director (Jimi’s sister) Janie Brooks Heuck, winery chef Abby McManigle, assistant winemaker Claire Jarreau, and other members of the Brooks team, for a tasting-seminar built around four Brooks Rieslings and four Rieslings from (variously) Germany, Austria and Alsace.  The idea was to contrast the variety’s ability to create recognizable similarity across wines from many regions with the infinite differentiation that site-specificity and winemaking choices involve, making each of the eight wines unique.  The wines — all dry — were tasted in pairs of two, each European Riesling paired with a different Brooks Riesling, the experience further enhanced with tasty tidbits conceived and prepared by Chef McManigle.  The wine list for the tasting-seminar follows:


Riesling Tasting with John Haeger


[Germany] Nahe Riesling “Tonschiefer” 2015 (Helmut Dönnhoff)

Eola Hills Orchards Fold Riesling 2014 (Brooks)

[Austria] Kremstal Riesling “Dornleiten” 2015 (Martin Nigl)

Willamette Valley Riesling 2016 (Brooks)


[Austria] Wachau Liebenberg Riesling Smaragd 2015 (Leo Alzinger)

Eola-Amity Hills Riesling Brooks Estate Vineyard 2015 (Brooks)

[France] Alsace Riesling Grand Cru Muenchberg 2014 (André Ostertag)

Eola-Amity Hills Riesling Muska Vineyard 2014


The tasting-seminar was embedded in a bustling weekend of activitites in the winery’s large and scenic tasting room overlooking the Willamette River and west slope of the Cascades, enjoyed by members of Brooks wine clubs, and guests.  Brooks wines were featured throughout, but so were olive oils, vinegars, honey, charcuterie and chocolate from farm and artisan friends and neighbors.  For readers there was also Riesling Rediscovered, or course, but also Vintage, a “wine thriller”  by David Baker, the writer and director of American Wine Story, an acclaimed documentary film featuring — what else? — the Brooks story.   For more about Baker’s book, see

Readers interested in signed copies of Riesling Rediscovered should contact the tasting room at 503-435-1278; such copies may remain available into the December holidays.  Gift bags in which the book is offered with two bottles of Brooks Rieslings are also on offer while supplies last.


South of Colmar: notable achievements with Riesling and Pinot Noir

The south end of viticultural Alsace, between Colmar and Thann, often seems overshadowed by the abundance of famous vineyards, postcard villages, Michelin stars and tourist services that cluster a bit farther north. But the south has its advantages. Its towns are mostly smaller and calmer, and there is more open space between them, including parks, natural reserves and other contributors to biodiversity. Elevations are also higher overall as one moves upstream toward the Alps, and the Vosges Mountains are also higher, keeping maritime influences even more effectively at bay, and driving the tops of many Grand Cru vineyards (think Kitterlé, Rangen and Zinnkoepflé for starters) close to the 400-meter contour. In the context of global warming, which has markedly affected Alsace over the last four decades, the extra elevation is often advantageous. True that vineyards and cellars are sometimes less well signposted in the south – I once spent more than an hour trying to find an access path to Rangen at Thann – but the vintners are no less serious, and the best wines no less impressive. In fact, a good case could be made that south of Colmar (and north of Andlau) are now the most vibrant regions in viticultural Alsace.


This post is an introduction to three wine estates south of Colmar: Domaine Barmès-Buecher in Wettolsheim, a stone’s throw from Eguisheim; Domaine Léon Boesch in Westhalten, at the mouth of the picturesque Vallée Noble; and Domaine Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr, on a rise between the Vallée Noble and the valley of the Lauch. All are bonafide family enterprises, with various family members actively involved. All are estate wineries; growing most or all of the grapes they crush, and they bottle everything they produce, that is, nothing is sold in bulk. At each one the torch has been passed to a new generation quite recently — at Zusslin the transition occurred just last year, following the untimely death of Jean-Marie Zusslin, though his daughter Marie and son Jean-Paul have managed the estate since 2000. At Barmès-Buecher, Maxime and his sister Sophie have been in charge since losing their father to a bicycle accident in 2011. At Léon Boesch, the eleventh generation (Matthieu) and his wife Marie work with tenth-generation Gérard and his wife Colette. (Gérard and his brother Jean divided a larger business some years earlier, leaving Domaine Jean Boesch et Petit-Fils in Soultzmatt, while Léon Boesch set up in a new cellar down the road in Westhalten, though not without having moved an 18th Century door to the new cellar, which is an ingenious bioclimatic building built of limestone, wood and processed straw, topped with a green roof.


Barmès-Buecher, Léon Boesch and Zusslin are all matter-of-factly biodynamic estates that farm in the neighborhood of 15 hectares each, and all work with some vineyard parcels that are marginal owing to slope, elevation or exposure; Barmès-Buecher and Zusslin cultivate some sites with a horse to enable tighter vine spacing while minimizing soil compaction. All insist on prodigious handwork in the vineyard, on the sorting table and in the cellar. Like most Alsace estates, all work with most or all of the varieties that are permitted in Alsace, but these three have given more than routine attention to Riesling and Pinot Noir. All rely entirely on naturally-occurring yeasts, long press cycles and little sulfur, and all embrace extended lees contact; Zusslin is also an unusually late-bottler, usually waiting until two years after the harvest, and holding substantial stocks for even later release, especially to sommeliers thirsty for mature vintages.


For the visits I made in August 2017, I concentrated on Riesling and Pinot Noir.


Barmès-Buecher makes site-designated Riesling from six sites. The two Grand Cru sites are Hengst, a south-facing calcareous-clay site in Wintzenheim, and Steingrubler, an east-facing combination of calcareous clay and colored sandstone, in Wettolsheim. Unsurprisingly these sites make the biggest and most structured wines. The 2015 Hengst Riesling (13.6°, TA 5.6, RS 4.0) showed the grip of grape skins, spice and abundant phenols, some candied lemon, and stone fruit peel, and was long and mouth-filling. For Maxime it is a big-framed, masculine wine, and spice is its signature. The 2015 Steingrubler (13.1°, TA 5.4, RS 9.9) was very complex, seemingly built of herbs, very tightly knit, and off-dry. While both wines have their place and their fans, the 2015s from Rosenberg (13.3°, TA 6.5, RS 4.1), Herrenweg (11.5°, TA 5.2 RS 4.1), and above all Clos Sand (12.2°, TA 7.3 RS 3.1) were brighter, tenser and more interesting. Indeed Clos Sand, a single, southeast-facing hillside isolated between swaths of forest, with another vineyard nearby, planted densely (8300 vines per hectare) in 1999 by Maxime’s father in granitic soil strewn with mica and crumbled sandstone, and covering less than a half hectare, makes amazing Riesling: intensely lemony and very bright with hints of smoke. This is fine, pure, taut, dry Riesling that could make anyone salivate, and a personal favorite among all the wines reported in this post.


Barmès-Buecher’s top Pinot Noir comes from less than half a hectare of half-centenary vines in Hengst, which is bottled as Vieilles Vignes. The estate foot-treads these grapes, and raises the wine entirely in oak barrels of which forty percent are new in most vintages. In 2017, the 2013 showed as a still quite young wine, and the slightly angular structure of a cool vintage, but the cherry flavors were clean and the wine well built. The 2015, from a warmer vintage, was already lovely in 2017, round and ripe but still elegant, and almost velvety. The estate also makes a Reserve Pinot Noir every year, its fruit sourced from a handful of parcels in Wintzenheim, Wettolsheim and Eguisheim. In 2015 this wine spent just ten months entirely in barrels that had been previously used, giving it considerable charm, presenting as soil-driven and mineral rich, surmounted with red fruit; although it was very slightly grippy on the finish, this Pinot was also very good, and exceptionally good value.


Léon Boesch grows its flagship bottlings of both Riesling and Pinot Noir in the same site, called Luss, which faces southeast across a gentle slope low on the Pfingstberg hill, just above the D5 road linkling Soultzmatt with Orschwihr. The topsoil is limestone-studded clay-loam, over base rock of almost pure limestone. The family planted a bit less than a hectare of Pinot Noir and Riesling here during the 1970s; in 2007 they added a bit of Gewurztraminer. The 2016 Riesling from Luss was intensely fruity and totally dry, displaying fantastic tension, grip and structure, and flavors of lemon and grapefruit. The wine was whole cluster pressed in cycles lasting 8-10 hours, and the new wine was left on its full fermentation lees, without racking until just before bottling. The 2015 (13.3°, TA 6.6, RS 1.3) showed similarly, full of exuberant acid, citrus fruit flavors and fresh herb aromas, chalk, ripe fruit and, and lemon zest. Spectacular Riesling! The estate’s other site-designated Riesling comes from several parcels in Breitenberg, a high elevation sandstone site at the west end of the Vallée Noble, possessed of stunning south-facing views. The combination of full south exposure and high elevation leads to high diurnal variation. If Luss Rieslings seem symphonic, punctuated with dramatic chords involving many instruments, the Breitenbergs are more like concertos: elegant, disciplined, nuanced and (often) slow to open when the wines are young. The 2016 was flinty and slightly spicy, showing white pepper, white peach and lemon, giving an impression of length and delicacy. The 2015, 2014 and 2013 were all variations on this theme, showing white pepper and lemon zest repeatedly, highlights of white peach and pear. A cool growing season made the 2013 seem especially angular.


The estate’s third Riesling is called Les Grandes Lignes, and is anchored with fruit from Bollenberg. Bollenberg is a single north-south oriented hill, detached geologically from the neighboring pre-Vosgian slopes, covering almost nine kilometers from Rouffach to Issenheim, built variously of limestone, marl and sandstone. Its ridgetop and some flanks are mostly protected reserves that provide refuge for various bird, insect, plant and animal species, but there are vineyards on both sides of the hill, and therefore both east and west facing. When the two slopes are counted together, total vineyard surface on Bollenberg amounts to about 300 hectares. Bollenberg is especially dry (annual precipitation here is barely 350 mm, or about half of what prevails around Trier in the upper Mosel). It is also relatively warm, creating a hospitable environment for tropical plants like orchids. Léon Boesch farms about 0.7 hectare of 30+ year old Riesling on Bollenberg, which anchors the fruitiest and most approachable of the estate’s three Rieslings. The 2015 was very attractive; the 2012 showed unmistakably evolved aromas over a core of herbs and stone fruits.


Pinot Noir at Léon Boesch is noteworthy, owing in part to the two years that Matthieu Boesch spent in Burgundy. A “basic” Pinot called Les Jardins relies on fruit from several parcels on the Pfingstberg slope and one on Breitenberg; the 2015 edition of this wine was all about berry fruit on the nose followed by a bit of earthiness on the palate. Fruit signals were less prominent in the 2012, but the wine had developed considerable palate strength, showing richness and texture. The flagship bottling, from Luss, was a much more serious wine. The 2015 was fruity and vibrant with pronounced aromas of cherry, raspberry and red currant; the 2012 was also noticeably fruity, but also smoky, spicy and delicious. Luss also shows noticeable stoniness from the calcareous soils in which it grows, and firm, silky tannins. Pinot Noir is the only grape that is destemmed here before it is crushed, and it is fermented in small open-top tanks before going into well-used (for four or more wines) barriques for twelve months’ élevage.


Léon Boesch has an especially firm commitment to a very dry style for white wines. All of the Riesling finish year in and year out with less than 4 grams of residual sugar, and often with barely more than one gram, notwithstanding pH values under 3.0, and (usually) seven or more grams of acid. But Riesling is not an exception here; it is the rule. Silvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Pinot Gris and even Gewurztraminer are made “bone” dry here, because the family thinks residual sugar is unnecessary, interferes with terroir expression, makes food pairing problematic – and, in the end, because it is kind of wine they themselves like to drink. How can this be done consistently when the house relies entirely on naturally-occurring yeasts? Matthieu Boesch has taken a page from the cellarbook of red wine makers here. Realizing that red wine fermentations almost never stick, he make sure his whites get plenty of oxygen during fermentation and especially in the final phases of fermentation, in the spring following the vintage. Each tank of white is therefore drained and refilled at least three times while the wine remains in contact with the full lees, the unfinished wine being oxygenated in the process. Et voilà: every tank of white is made reliably dry without heating, or added exogenous yeast, or any other intervention!


  Domaine Valentin Zusslin is only minutes by car from Boesch, across the lower slopes of the Pfingstberg hill. Marie and Jean-Paul, sister and brother in the 13th generation of Zusslins since the family relocated to Alsace from Switzerland in the 17th Century, are now in charge of the estate, which has important vineyard holdings across the Bollenberg and Pfingstberg hills, and in the Lutzeltal, above Rouffach. Riesling is grown across several parcels on the Bollenberg, and in the Pfingstberg Grand Cru and in Clos Liebenberg, a monopole adjacent to the south end of the Pfingstberg Grand Cru. Made of the same marl and sandstone soils as Pfingstberg Grand Cru, and with a similar altitude and orientation, Liebenberg is a genuine clos, walled or hedged on all sides, within which the biodiversity of multiple insect and bird species, and fruit trees in addition to vines, help maintain a naturally healthy environment for viticulture. Zusslin’s 2014 Riesling from Clos Liebenberg was a lovely, lively and intense wine, herbal with tarragon and well-textured on the long finish. To my palate it was finer than their 2014 Riesling from Pfingstberg Grand Cru, which was noteworthy for its density and concentration. Zusslin’s Rieslings from Bollenberg, one of which carries the Bollenberg name and one of which is called Neuberg, are the estate’s more approachable Rieslings, more fruit-expressive, and featuring a few exotic flavors. Neuberg is actually a single parcel within Bollenberg, high on the hill and east-facing, planted in the 1970s. The 2014 Neuberg was a cocktail of ginger and stone fruits, while the Bollenberg blended citrus with the same notes of ginger. The Neuberg was also lighter of foot and brighter. Bollenberg is also home to Zusslin’s rather extensive Pinot Noir program (almost 19 percent of the estate’s total production is Pinot Noir), which is one of the most successful in all of Alsace. The basic bottling carries just the Bollenberg name, while the “better” bottling is called Bollenberg Harmonie, and is made from the “best” parcels. Basic winemaking is identical for both. The grapes are completely destemmed, and spend 15 days fermenting in large wood tanks, punched down three times.  Then the new wine is pressed off straightaway with no post-fermentation maceration. Barrels for the straight Bollenberg are one third each of new, one-year-old, and two-years-old pièces from Meyrieux in Nuits-Saint-Georges; the Harmonie sees a larger share of new wood. Both are bottled after a year in barrel. The 2015 Bollenberg was a nicely balanced and savory wine that already drinks well. 2013 Harmonie was a lovely garnet-colored wine, round, sober, elegant and ample. Similarly elegant, the 2012 was slightly more austere. Zusslin’s Harmonie is always well-built wines from perfectly ripe grapes, although minor differences in winemaking (e.g., little or no use of sulfur, and variable proportions of new wood) can affect how individual vintages show.


It is no secret that both Riesling and Pinot Noir are ascendant varieties in Alsace, along with “the other pinots;” and that Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer are now the region’s most planted varieties. (The big losers of the last half-century have been Chasselas and Silvaner.) Although interpretations of the quantitative data vary, it seems clear to me that Riesling and Pinot Noir have received especially serious attention since the 1990s. For Riesling the attention seems to reflect a growing though still imperfect consensus among the region’s vintners that Alsace Riesling really is best when it is made genuinely dry. Not just dry-ish, but seriously dry, with residual sugar well under 5 g/L. Certainly all of the three producers discussed in this post are comfortable with very dry Rieslings. All have also learned to marry this dryness with modest alcoholic strength – often between 12° and 13° – a trick that escaped many makers until they embraced viticultural practices that could mitigate the undeniable effects of global warming. (Sometimes it helps to be biodynamic!) With Pinot Noir, the seriousness is wrapped in a newfound familiarity with Burgundy (where many younger vintners now go to earn their winemaking credentials), inevitable attention to the region’s only red variety at a time when red wine is gaining popularity across northern Europe, better viticulture overall that is especially useful with Pinot, and a great willingness to experiment with various cellar parameters including less sulfur, back-to-the-future approaches to pigeage, and lighter filtration. The southern end of the Alsace wine road may sense a special aptitude for Pinot Noir given the longish track record of quite good Pinots from the Muré family’s monopole in Vorburg (Clos St-Landelin) and Hengst-based Pinots from Albert Mann in Wettolsheim. In any case, the quasi-rosé that passed for Pinot Noir when I first visited Alsace in the 1970s is no longer acceptable to anyone, and (happily) is fast disappearing. I think it is fair to say that the top quartile of Alsace Riesling now competes without handicap worldwide (OK, true that Clos Ste. Hune has never needed to blush!), and that Alsace Pinot Noir may soon command as much attention, at least among cognoscente, as the top tier of German Spätburgunder have claimed in the last decade. It would not surprise me to see one or more of the Pinots described in this post among internationally top scoring Pinots quite soon.



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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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