27 Feb 2012

Difference of opinion (Alsace, France - Day Four)

One of the major goals of my journey is to discover first hand what makes each great region in the wine world unique, to find a consistency if there is one. With so many regions to choose from as a wine consumer, it helps to have some element of the product to distinguish it from everything else. Most major regions in Europe usually have more producers than all of Australia, and when you only visit six of them it isn’t always easy to get an accurate snapshot. If you are visiting very high quality ones it does help, as the tenets of quality are usually the same (low yields, natural yeast fermentation etc.) Even in these circumstances you can get producers that have almost completely different philosophies, yet both produce outstanding wines. This is one of the many things that makes wine such an amazing product, and working in it exhilarating.

Old foudre with tartrite build-up at Kuentz-Bas

Steiner school (Alsace, France - Day Three)

On my trip thus far I have had the opportunity to visit quite a few biodynamic growers and producers, from California to Casablanca. With 15% of all vineyards (anecdotal) engaged in biodynamic viticulture in Alsace, this may be considered the unofficial home of it. As an atheist and natural cynic, my initial impression of the biodynamic principles outlined by Rudolf Steiner almost 100 years ago was that it sat somewhere between a cult and a pagan rite. Even after studying the principles through my Masters degree I understood the reasons for doing it, but didn’t necessarily understand the philosophies and some of the practices involved. Perhaps it is also my business and marketing background that makes me a little more cynical about it and it may be a different case if I were an agriculturalist myself. In my trip I have learnt a lot about the concept and met many passionate and committed individuals, but I have also met as many cynics. At the end of the day, if it makes better wine, that is all I care about. I certainly don’t ascribe to gaining certification merely as a marketing strategy, and respect people who truly believe in it to produce healthier soils and vines. My week in Alsace saw me visit many of the top producers using the philosophy, and all three of my visits on the third day were BD producers.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht

Familiar ground (Alsace, France – Day Two)

Returning to Alsace feels like coming home, as I feel an affinity to these wines are producers. After trying so many mediocre pinot gris (not pinot grigio, there is a difference) around the world it is nice to taste true examples of this seemingly elusive variety. It is nice to also visit producers I have visited before, or to visit ones whose wines I am familiar with. And although the weather is almost completely different to July 2010, it felt like only yesterday I was turning into the Domaine Weinbach Clos. They do say that familiarity breeds contempt, or in my case complacency. Much like when I was in Champagne, I got quite lazy updating this blog and now find myself chasing my own tail. No use in dilly-dallying then…

Domaine Trimbach in Ribeauville

25 Feb 2012

Palette fatigue (Alsace, France - Day One)

In 2010 the Alsace region was one of the five I visited whilst I travelled in France for three weeks, and was thus the second region that I would be returning to in Europe. Much like Champagne it is quite a different sight to see in winter compared to summer, but unlike Champagne has its own natural beauty not reliant on vines covered with leaves. The region is as I remember it, and supported my comparison with the Pfalz region. It should be noted that Alsace is not Germany, nor is it really France. The people here are very relaxed and generous, and certainly more humble than their counterparts in other French wine regions. One similarity they have with their German neighbours is their focus on single varietal wines, and a lot of them. In my honest opinion there is not one outstanding variety like there is in the Pfalz, but three (riesling, pinot gris and gewürztraminer). Between the numerous varieties and the dry and sweet wines, along with the classifications of vineyards, each producer may have as many as 30 wines at any given time, which would suggest dilution and confusion. I think it is both fantastic for variety, and also challenging to be able to promote such varied styles.

Brand vineyard

20 Feb 2012

Outside the square (Pfalz, Germany - Day Three)

After two and a half weeks of sub-zero temperatures, seven degree temperatures feel positively balmy in comparison. It’s almost to the point that I don’t need to wear my thermals under my clothes every time I go outside. It is nice to get to the point now when I am actually noticing a difference in my understanding of not only riesling, but also German riesling. My palate has picked up enough experience in the past three weeks to be able to detect subtle differences between vineyard sites within the same region, and the subtleties of style between producers and regions. My limited experience with German riesling back home was negligible at best, but at least I was able to determine quality. It is so nice to be able to take that further and understand the nuances, particularly when working with the top grosses lagen wines and sweet wines. My appreciation and respect for these wines has risen sharply, so much so that German white wines are some of the finest and diverse I have ever tasted.

Old barrels in the cellars of von Buhl

17 Feb 2012

Heir splitting (Pfalz, Germany - Day Two)

There seems to be a revolution taking place in the German wine industry, perhaps in reaction to market perceptions of the wine they produce. During the 1990s and 2000s there seemed to be a move away from the large volume blended sweet and fruity white wines of the 1970s and 1980s, towards very steely crisp and bone-dry wines. Today there seems to be a movement away from the aromatic and bright dry wines towards more complex textural and rich wines that retain concentration and mid-palate structure. Wineries also seem to be shifting towards more traditional techniques in an effort to craft wines in this style. Firstly in the vineyard the VDP is introducing classification of better parcels of vineyards, much like the French appellation system, and there also seems to be a movement to organic and biodynamic viticulture. Secondly in the cellars winemakers are reintroducing practices like extended must contact, barrel fermentations and oxidative handling. After almost three weeks in six German regions I am starting to wrap my head around the varietal, and see how each region expresses the variety using terroir and winemaking.

Vineyards near Bad Durkheim

15 Feb 2012

Pflalz start (Pfalz, Germany – Day One)

After four and a half months of visiting a few hundred wineries on three continents, it’s interesting looking back and deciding which were the best to visit, but not necessarily had the best wines. When I had the owner of the winery as a host it was always fascinating as you get the full story, and can ask any question and get a thoughtful and clear answer. Whether they own the winery or not, it is also great to get the perspective of the winemaker as they are the ones determining the style of the wine, and can also provide much more technical answers. Sometimes it has been great to get the perspective of a commercial/marketing director, as they provide insights on dynamics and branding. With no disrespect intended (particularly as I have worked in the position myself), rarely do hospitality/cellar door hosts provide any insights into the winery, and often are unable to provide all the answers. This is not to say that I don’t have enjoyable or interesting visits with these hosts, but I don’t always learn something. Occasionally they also don’t understand the nature of my visit, and in extreme cases ask if I would like to buy any bottles in spite of my restricted budget. This mostly happened in North America though.

Now that I am three weeks into my German wine adventure, I am finding that I have learnt quite a lot and have started to wrap my head around the riesling grape a bit more. It is such a great experience to see the way that terroir can influence the variety, as the Rhineland-Pfalz area of Germany is particularly diverse. It is also interesting (but not surprising) to note that the best examples tend to come from very small and specific areas, often in much larger viticultural regions. If you are lucky enough to own parcels of vines in these areas you owe it to yourself to translate the fruit they produce into good examples of wine. So it was with great enthusiasm that I entered the final great riesling region of Germany, the Pfalz, which is set back from the Rhine River and sits sheltered by the Haardt Mountains. The region is warmer than those to the north, so ripening has never been an issue. As such many other varieties are grown here, including those from the pinot family.

Wachenheim vineyards

A silvaner lining (Franken, Germany - Day Two)

The Franken region doesn’t export very much, at most about 20%. The wines that are exported tend to go predominantly to Scandinavia and BeNeLux, with very little leaving Northern Europe. I’m not sure why this is, as the Franken produces more wine than the more famous Rheingau and Mosel regions. It may be the very traditional nature of the region, particularly the Franken bocksbeutel they use, which although unique is harder to store in cellars and stock in retailers. It also looks a bit old-fashioned. Another reason may be that the general quality of wines in the region aren’t outstanding, and don’t have a history of being so, different to the Mosel and Rheingau. This may be something to do with the choice of varieties, but may also be the nature of the climate. In my humble opinion there is huge potential in the region, as there is great diversity of sites and soils, but they have to modernise and focus on certain varieties in certain areas.

Weingut Hans Wirsching

The Main vein (Franken, Germany - Day One)

Ask most Germans and they will agree that Frankfurt is a pretty boring, mostly functional/financial city, and serves as mostly a transportation hub to Europe and the world. So it was with no regret that I left after only one day in Frankfurt for Franconia, one of the most traditional regions in Germany. Thankfully the weather started to get a bit warmer, but still didn't get to zero degrees. Today it snowed again, which made this region look gorgeous with forests and vineyards covered in white. The Franken region in northern Bavaria sits on the banks of the Main River, which used to be much bigger several million years ago. As such there are large deposits of alluvial soils and limestone in different areas, and make the cultivation of grape vines on the mostly south-facing banks perfect for a range of varieties, including riesling, sylvaner, muller thurgau, spatburgunder, weisburgunder and more. The region is very large, and there are three major areas for viticulture; the Mainvierick (Main Square) in the west; the Maindreieck (Main Triangle) and the Steigerwald.

Escherndorfer Lump vineyards of Weingut Horst Sauer

11 Feb 2012

Due south (Rheinhessen, Germany)

As mentioned in a previous post, the Rhineland-Pfalz region has a lot of regions that are all a stones throw away from each other. This means that even though I had already been through the Rheinhessen region on my way to the Rheingau, it isn’t difficult to back track a little. Thus I was able to visit a few wineries here after all, who were kind enough to make some time for me at such short notice. The Rheinhessen is the largest viticultural area in Germany, stretching from the Nahe in the west to the Rhine in the east, from Worms in the south to Bingen in the north. In an area of roughly 26,000 hectares of land, you are undoubtedly going to get some variation in soil type, exposition and climate. Thus I was glad to visit two wineries at each end of the region, to see if the difference was discernible.

Vineyard in the Northern Rheinhessen
Vineyards in the Southern Rheinhessen

10 Feb 2012

Does size count? (Rheingau, Germany - Day Three)

One of the greatest things about German white wines is the high levels of acidity that keep them fresh and make them live for so long in the bottle, also make them food-friendly and mouth-watering. The result is they make you hungry like an aperitif should. In the current climate, you naturally want robust hearty food that warms you up, such as bratwurst, weiner schnitzel and sauerbraten. Thus any of the weight I lost in France three weeks ago, I have subsequently put back on as my appetite has gotten bigger and I have been eating more protein and carbohydrates. This is why German Riesling and Asian food is so great together, as everything tends to be fresher and lighter. Not to mention the higher sugar levels and lower alcohols really keep the spice in check.

Robert Weil estate

9 Feb 2012

Weathering the storm (Rheingau, Germany - Day Two)

The previous evening it snowed in the Rheingau, so in the morning I got to see parts of the region under a beautiful blanket of white. It is amazing when you consider not only how small the Rheingau region is, but also how close you are to several other regions. For fun I put some of the other wineries I plan on visiting in other regions when I was in Rudesheim on the previous day. Amazingly, a winery in the Pfalz which is virtually two regions away, was still less than an hours drive. It really shows how such a small area can have such a big difference on a wine, particularly if it is made from the same variety. The Rheingau sits on the northern bank of the Rhine, the Nahe region on the eastern side of the Nahe River, and the Rheinhessen sits on the western side of the Nahe between the Rhine.

Commemoration statue at Schloss Johannisberg

8 Feb 2012

Let it snow (Rheingau, Germany - Day One)

The past week in Germany has highlighted that classic adage that timing is everything. As mentioned in my last post, due to the confluence of the time of year (post-Christmas, mid-Winter), estates being small and very busy (bottling, in Australia for the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting) and the short notice I was giving many estates, I wasn’t able to secure any appointments in the Rheinhessen. So it was with some regret that I move onto the Rheingau, again hoping that I will be able to meet with some producers at Prowein.

The drive up the Rhine towards Mainz was quite lovely, and the clear days improve the extreme cold temperatures. The Rhine River itself is the largest in Germany, and the influence it has is quite profound, as the large body of water has a mitigating influence on temperature oscillations between day and night. In such extreme conditions as the Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany where it can get very cold at night, this is essential for slow even ripening of the fruit. In conjunction with this it is important to find sights that have good steep exposition to the sun, which shines from the South in Europe. The Rheingau region is warmer than many of its neighbours, and thus achieving ripeness isn’t as difficult as it is in the Mosel. The climate also means that vintners can work with other varieties such as spatburgunder, grauburgunder and weisburgunder, as well as the noble Riesling variety. The region stretches for less than 50km between Wiesbaden and Lorch, and includes vineyards on the Main River.

Vineyards above Rudesheim

5 Feb 2012

Breaking the ice (The Nahe, Germany)

Well I guess it's just my luck that I am in Germany during a severe cold snap in Europe. This has it's complications, such as roads being closed so having to circumvent and using a little extra fuel to heat up the car. But I guess I wanted to experience extremes, and this is certainly that. Driving the short distance from the Mosel to the Nahe was beautiful, as the past few days have been lovely and clear. The Nahe itself is a lot more rolling than the jaggedness of the Mosel, and certainly less steep. The river itself is a lot smaller, and as such there were many places that it had frozen over. I was pretty excited to see this, never having seen a frozen river before. There seems to be more variation in the soils from just slate, having quartz and some alluvial stones as well. Due to the timing of year, the unfortunate short notice I gave to some wineries, and the much smaller size of wineries here, I was only able to make it to one appointment in the Nahe for this two-day trip, but now that I have some tickets to Prowein in Dusseldorf in a month, I can catch up with some more producers there.

Vineyards above Oberhausen an der Nahe

3 Feb 2012

An Education (Mosel Valley, Germany - Day Four)

Tasting the wines from the Mosel, I started to come up with a theory as to why they are so unappreciated in so many markets. Consumers are led to believe that wine must be strong and possibly heavy, and if it a wine is easy to drink then it is simple and cheap. The nature of wines from the Mosel having residual sugar to offset the acids makes them very fresh, approachable and easy to drink. Therefore in their minds they almost feel guilty that they are so easy to drink. It also comes back to the idea that wine is an alcoholic beverage consumed to become intoxicated, rather than how it should be consumed, with food. Being so approachable and low in alcohol makes these wines so adaptable to food it begs the question; what does it take to get people to drink these wines more, and value them properly?

The definition of austerity (Mosel Valley, Germany - Day Three)

I shared an interesting discussion with Daniel Vollenweider over the nature of the riesling grape on my second day in the Mosel region. Previously he had spent time working in wineries in New Zealand and the United States, and he couldn't understand why the New World considered riesling an aromatic variety. Tasting many of the wines from the Mosel and seeing how complex they can be, it isn't hard to understand his point. But an investigation on Wikipedia classifies the variety as aromatic, and in other regions such as Alsace they may classify it as such too.What then is an aromatic variety. The literal interpretation would be that it has more bouquet than a complex wine, but this isn't necessarily the case. It is perhaps more pertinent to consider the nature of the winemaking, whereby it is generally fermented in stainless steel tanks, and sees no barrel maturation. The complexity comes in the variety itself, the environment (such as the minerals in the soil), and from bottle age. So in this sense riesling could be considered complex, much like chardonnay (complex variety) from the Chablis region. I guess the difference with riesling wines from the New World is that they are almost always consumed young. This would make them aromatic in nature, as they have little inherent complexity, compared to wines from the Mosel. What are your thoughts on the topic?

Castle Landshut above Bernkastel

2 Feb 2012

Back to the future (Mosel Valley, Germany - Day Two)

For the first time on my trip, I feel totally out of my depth in the Mosel Valley. Having started my wine career in the Yarra Valley, and working for a sparkling producer, means that I am very familiar with the varieties of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. When it comes to Riesling, I am a little bit out of my element. I have gained some familiarity with the wines of such regions as the Clare Valley and Eden Valley, and also other emerging regions in Australia and New Zealand. Visiting Alsace in 2010 helped a lot, but of course Riesling isn’t necessarily the focus. German Rieslings, particularly the wines of the Mosel, are in an entirely different league. This is of course why I have come to the region; to gain familiarity and experience.

On top of the world, looking down on creation!

1 Feb 2012

Take me to the river (Mosel Valley, Germany - Day One)

Whilst I admit that it was wonderful starting the European leg of my trip in the familiarity of Champagne, there was something quite exhilarating about arriving into a totally new region. I spent the past week staying with a friend in the German town of Neuss trying to organise my visa and a car, and then caught up with some friends I met in the States in Cologne over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon I drove down in very cold conditions towards my base for the next five nights, the town of Traben-Trarbach, situated in the middle of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. The town straddles the Mosel River; Traben on the North side and Trarbach on the South. Just as I was entering the valley above the Mosel River, it began to snow very lightly, which made it that much more beautiful. It was already dusk so it was a little too dark, but amazing nonetheless.