Archive for June 11, 2012

Germany 2011: After Some hiccups, a Soft, Fruity and Easy to Drink Vintage

The Roter Hang in Rheinhessen

While 2010 was “the best and the worst, with little in between,” the story of 2011 seems to be quite the opposite; easy to drink, fruit forward vintage that is guaranteed to please—and for some, an outstanding vintage.  Already some in the German wine press are declaring the vintage to be in line with top vintages of prior centuries.

Michael Burgdorf of the Wegeler estate in the Rheingau described the vintage as a “cross between 2008 (acidity) and 2009 (ripeness),” which could be translated to mean a “classic vintage” combined with above average ripe fruit characteristics.  A classic vintage with above average ripeness means for delicious wines ready to be drunk now—not a bad thing by any standard and after tasting the vintage is how I am persuaded to describe 2011.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but admit that I miss the highs offered by 2010, which I can only call a “wine geek” vintage, due to the über-high acidity and intense concentration.   However, what lovers of fine Burgundy know, and German wine drinkers of 2010 experienced; a few duds had to be drunk, along with some loss of tooth enamel, before that really “cool” bottle was found.   And of course, 2010 yields were extremely low.

At the Mainzer Weinbörse end of April, I found myself over and over writing about the very ripe white peach, apricot, citrus or pear flavors.  For me, the vintage, depending on the region, reminded me a little of 1997; very easy, ripe wines which seemed to have more tropical than ripe fruit notes as in 2011, but where the vintage embodied easy, fruity wines, harmonious wines, but minus acid-head levels, as in 2010.  All in all, 2011 is a vintage that screams to be drunk now, with not much thought for cellaring, except for the higher prädikat levels.

Most of the 2011s I tasted had good weight on the palate with more than a few estates harvesting their basic estate wines at Auslese degree ripeness levels.  Some producers I spoke with admitted to chapitalizing up to 5 degrees on their QbA wines to create a bit more body and offer consumers a distinguishable difference between their Estate and Kabinett wines.   This vintage was the first time I noticed the widespread use of native yeasts to some degree or other even for the dry wines, as the trend continues towards producing more natural wines.

The Growing Season

In 2011, wine makers from all over Germany’s wine regions seemed universally very happy with the quality of the vintage.   The growing season in much of Germany got off to an early start with very warm, summer-like weather; many estates reporting record breaking early bud break dates.   While budding early can be a good sign, it can often end badly if the temperatures drop suddenly to freezing levels as often happens in early spring.   Sadly in 2011, growers’ fear of a frost came to fruition when temperatures took a nose dive around the 3rd and 4th of May.

The frost had particularly devastating effect in Franken and Württemberg, with less damage, but still significant effect in Rheinhessen and the Pfalz.  Despite all this, most regions reported above average yields as compared to a 10 year average, according to the German Wine Institute. Only the Pfalz, Franken and Württemberg experienced below average yields due to their problems with the frost; Franken and Württemberg remained in line with the miniscule 2010 vintage yield levels.

The rest of spring continued with summer-like warm and dry weather across the regions, some areas almost a bit too dry and sunny.

The summer, in contrast, was cooler than normal and allowed the grapes to ripen slower and to develop more complex flavors.   Rain that was lacking in the spring finally came in June-July, with some areas receiving the right quantity of rain and others a bit too much.  For most areas, August proved to be sunnier and the rains more even, allowing for grapes to ripen nicely.  However, in parts of the Rheingau, heavy rains necessitated heavy selection in vineyards, particularly in areas with heavier soils, like in Hochheim.   Also, producers in the Pfalz reported of high humidity and the need to select in August.

On August 25-26th, a large hail storm hit hard in the Mosel, and peripherally in some other regions as in the northern part of the Pfalz.  The storm devastated yields particularly hard in areas of the middle Mosel, some estates reportedly losing half of their crop.  Luckily, the mostly dry, sunny weather in September and October helped keep the vineyards as healthy as possible leading into harvest and allowing further physiological ripeness to take place.

In summary, the growing period for 2011 was very uneven leading to early September, when an Indian summer ostensibly saved the vintage.   For most regions, September and October was relatively dry with warm summer-like weather that allowed for the physiological ripeness to take place after the combination of very warm and dry spring leading to a cool summer with some areas experiencing significant rain necessitating thorough selection in the vineyards.  All in all, 2011 has all the appearance of being a “classic” vintage, with good ripeness and acidity, well balanced and drinkable, but probably lacking the ability to go the long haul in the cellar.

Below is a listing of some of the estates I liked in 2011; many of which I have worked with personally over the years.  I wasn’t able to taste all the VDP estates unfortunately, so the following list is incomplete.  I hope to update this as more tastings in the summer are scheduled.   Until then, zum wohl—Drink lots of German wine!­

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Bert Selbach of Dr.F. Weins-Prüm

Weingut Dr. F. Weins-Prüm, Mosel

2011 was a really solid vintage from Bert Selbach at Weins-Prüm.  Very ripe flavors of pear, mineral notes, soft acidity, and wonderful finesse were characteristics of the vintage at Bert’s estate.  I especially liked the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, the Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese and the Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese Feinherb, but all were very good to excellent.

Weingut Reinhold Haart, Mosel

Another fine vintage for the Haart estate, the wines showed that typical cassis notes combined with a rich ripeness of tropical fruits flavors like mangos and pineapple.  In 2011, the wines at Haart’s estate uniformly seemed to possess velvet silkiness and significant weight on the palate, of course due to the obvious high degree of ripeness attained.  I particularly liked the Ohligsberger Riesling Spätlese and the Goldtröpfchen wines were fine, as well.

Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, Saar

Dorothee and Hanno Zilliken of Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken

Dorothee Zilliken was very pleased with this vintage and I could see why.  As usual, the wines were very elegant, reflecting the minerality of their particular slate soil, this year dominated by flavors of juicy peach, pear and apple notes.  The wines are lean with laser precision and layers of fruit, most of the range is made with a combination of cultured and natural yeasts.  My favorite of the collection the Saarburger Alte Reben Riesling Trocken made from 42 year old vines.  Also, all the 2011 Rausch Erste Lage wines were excellent.

Weingut Gunderloch, Rheinhessen

Agnes Hasselbach of Gunderloch

The first harvest for the next generation, Johannes Hasselbach, went off without a hitch.  The wines were all well-balanced and really showed off their special “Roter Hang” terroir of iron rich red slate and clay.   As seems to be typical of the vintage, the range was well balanced, soft acidity and ripe juicy fruit flavors of mostly apricots and peach flavors.  I really liked the dry Rieslings from Nierstein and Nackenheim and the Rothenberg Spätlese and Auslese were stuffed with layers of juicy fruit and mineral notes.

On a side note, the Pettenthal and Rothenberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs have developed beautifully since I last tasted them; powerful, bright wines with a long future—Wow! I was lucky to be able to make a stop at the estate on a recent trip to Germany.  Pictures to follow.

Weingut Hans Wirsching, Franken

Andrea Wirsching of Weingut Wirsching

Despite the significant problems in the Franken in 2011, the end result were wines of clarity and power, at same time as great finesse—in short, some superb wines.  I particularly liked the Wirsching collection, which seemed to have layers of citrus, honey and mineral notes.  Wirsching not only managed to make stellar Rieslings in 2011, but some really fine Silvaner, Scheurebe and Weißer Burgunder (Pinot Blanc).  I particularly liked the Iphöfer Kronsberg Silvaner Trocken Alte Reben, the Julius-Echter-Berg Silvaner Grosses Gewächs and the Iphöfer Kronsberg Weißer Burgunder Kabinett Trocken.

They also introduced a new wine called “Sister Act” to celebrate the Wirsching Estate’s direction by two sisters.  The wine is made from 100% Riesling using only wild native yeasts with time spent maturing in large oak barrels.  The vineyard where the grapes were sourced is over 40 years old, the final numbers for the wine coming in at 3.7 grams RS and 7.5 grams Acidity.   This is a fun wine, but also one with some real complexity, lemon zest, grapefruit and mineral notes.

Weingut Künstler, Rheingau

You would never know that there was a significant amount of rain in August in Hochheim, the wines are that concentrated, often with apricot, spiced peach and mineral notes; I particularly like the Hochheimer Kirchenstück Riesling Kabinett trocken and the Hochheimer Hölle Riesling BA and Riesling Kabinett trocken.   All across the board, the collection from Künstler was solid, with some glimpses of true excellence in the 2011 collection, as mention from the Kirchenstück and Hölle, but also very good wines from the Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck with the Riesling Spätlese.

On a side note, the 2010 Kostheimer Weiss Erd Riesling Erstes Gewächs is really developing nicely!   It will be interesting to see how this continues to develop, but in any event, the Weiss Erd vineyard is worth looking out for.  The soil comprises of white calcareous marl with the location of the vineyard south-facing and the altitude of 90 meters above sea level attracting very high levels of solar-radiation. This means that the grapes mature slowly over a long period of time while getting plenty of water and minerals.

Weingüter Geheimrat J. Wegeler, Rheingau

Michael Burgdorf winemaker at the Wegeler Estate in Rheingau

Great minerality and purity seem to define this vintage for Wegeler, especially with the aptly named “Pur” Riesling Kabinett feinherb, which made me think of the perfect wine for everyday to enjoy at home.  I also kept thinking about oysters…but, I digress!  On the fruity end of the spectrum, the Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland was decadent, with layers of red fruit, mango, peach and floral notes.  The Geisenheim Rothenberg Riesling Auslese was also another favorite of the collection in 2011.

Weingut Robert Weil, Rheingau

Year in year out, in bad vintages and good, Weil is one of the most consistent producers with a signature style that is remarkably consistent and identifiable even tasting blind.  All in all, 2011 was just another solid effort at Weil, which this year seemed to incorporate flavors of juicy pink grapefruit, lemon, nectarine and floral notes.  I liked the wines from Turmberg and Gräfenberg, particularly the dry wines and their spätleses and ausleses.

Weingut Friedrich Becker, Pfalz

Fritz Becker, winemaker at Weingut Friedrich Becker

2011 was high PH and relatively low acid vintage for Becker, and as such, like most producers across Germany, their wines are soft, fruity, with a high degree of concentration.   Both the Schweigener and Kalkgestin Weißer Burgunder showed great minerality and citrus notes, the Schweigener a bit less complex and more reductive due to its time in stainless steel.

My favorite white wine of the vintage from Becker was the Muskat Ottonel, due in part to its uniqueness and the high quality of its Muskat Ottonel, which is not often attained elsewhere.  Muskat Ottonel is a difficult to produce grape, susceptible to wet weather and oidium and mainly produces medium quality level wines.  However, when all goes well MO can produces luscious, complex late harvest wines.  From the Schweigner vineyard logging in at 25 grams RS and harvested at 95 Öe with no signs of botrytis, Becker produced a late harvest Muskat Ottonel that displayed a stunning combination of muskat, lychee, pear and chamomile flavors.   Part of the appeal of this wine may be that it was a fun diversion from all the Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir that I tasted at the Mainzer Weinbörse, but I like to think that it is the nature of muscat when it is made well that makes this wine so appealing.  And, it is always so fragrant and floral.  It pairs great with soft goat cheese and Asian cuisine.

The Pinot Noirs I tasted were all from 2009 and drinking really beautifully—2009 another very good vintage with relatively high acidity.  The whole range showed great depth, particularly the Kalkgestein and Steinwingert.

Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl, Pfalz

The von Buhl Sekt sourced from Pechstein

2011 was another solid vintage for von Buhl.  As in most years, I tend to be attracted to the wines of Pechstein, Jesuitengarten and Ungeheuer Forst and this vintage was not different for the later two…I have not had the chance to taste the 2011 Pechstein yet.  So, the Jesuitengarten Spätlese seems to display soft flavors of spicy apricot and peach marmalade and the Ungeheuer Forst Riesling Auslese naturally richer and more complex, with earthy flavors and mineral notes.

Not from the current vintage, but something worth looking out for, was the 2009 Forster Riesling Sekt Brut, I believe sourced from Pechstein, had peach, citrus and floral flavors.  Also, the 2010 Pechstein Riesling Grosses Gewächs, which is starting to integrate and become a harmonious wine, with lots of promise down the road for continued development.

Weingut Ökonomierat Rebholz, Pfalz

Birgit Rebholz

Overall, one of the best collections of wines I tasted at the VDP Mainzer Weinbörse.  The Rebholz wines universally showed purity, laser precision with a depth of fruit and mineral flavors that seemed to belie the winery’s habit of vinifying to almost zero residual sugar.

The “Vom Muschelkalk” (Shell Limestone) Riesling S trocken was packed with citrus, white peach and mineral flavors while “Vom Rotliegenden” (Red Slate/Loess) showed wild strawberry, apricots and floral notes. The Muskateller trocken had all the floral and aromatic qualities associated with Muskateller, but without the bitterness that can accompany the grape when it is fermented dry.  The Grauer Burgunder and Weißer Burgunder were also typical Rebholz; weighty on the palate, layers of citrus and other fruit and mineral notes, complex and well balanced.

I particularly like the 2009 Vom Muschelkalk Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) which had some black and red fruits; red plums, raspberries and black cherry flavors.

Perhaps my favorite wine from the collection (disclaimer: I love sparkling wines!) was the 2007 Sekt, made from 100% Pinot Noir.   Sourced from a limestone/clay soil the wine was left an impressive 40 months on the lees.  As might be expected from this estate, no dosage was added.  This sparkling had all the elegance and biscuity complexity that one might expect from a top Blanc de Noir from champagne for significantly less money.  Unfortunately, this is not available in the UK, unlike their other wines.

One of the Rebholz Twins...

Weingut Andreas Laible, Baden

Petra Laible of Weingut Andreas Laible

Baden, the southern-most wine region produces some great dry wines from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Pinot Blanc.  Laible is a great example of the best this region can offer with particular strength on their white wines.   Across the range, their white wines were very good to excellent; very weighty on the palate with concentrated citrus flavors, primarily.  I particularly like the Durbacher Plauelrain Riesling Spätlese trocken and the Durbacher Plauelrain Weißer Burgunder Spätlese trocken.   The 2010 Durbacher Plauelrain Spätburgunder Spätlese trocken further demonstrated what I liked about 2010; concentration of red fruit flavors, the back bone of acidity, finesse, yet power.

Weingut Bernhard Huber, Baden

This estate is one of the top producers of Pinot Noir in Germany, if not the top producer.  I had the opportunity to recently taste a range of their Pinots from 2009 and 2010.  Everything from the Malterdinger, Wildenstein to their grosses gewächs Beinenberg to Sommerhalde were excellent, while the wines will benefit from further development in bottle.  While they are known for their Pinot Noir, the whites were also very good. I especially liked the Bienenberg Grauer Burgunder Grosses Gewächs.

Weingut Kreuzberg, Ahr

Sandra and Ludwig Kreuzberg of Weingut Kreuzberg

In addition to being one of Germany’s smallest regions and northernmost wine regions in Europe, the Ahr has a relatively small amount of top producers, currently a bit more than a handful in the region.  So, it is not surprising that wines from the Ahr are not very prevalent outside of Germany.  Of course, the lack of awareness abroad that Germany can produce world-class Pinot Noir, the Ahr’s specialty, and the price tag of most top Pinots from this region conspire to make the wines from this region a “best kept secret.”

Weingut Kreuzberg produces some compelling wine and has consistently rated well among wine critics; in 2011 winning the prestigious “Collection of the Year” from Feinschmecker magazine.  The Kreuzberg Cuvee Noir trocken is a fun blend of Dornfelder and Portugieser, light and flavorful, similar to a gamay or cannonau from Sardinia in weight and flavor profile.  I really liked the 2010 Devonschiefer Spätburgunder trocken and the Sonnenberg Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs; both reflecting their respective terroirs with great elegance.

I especially liked Kreuzberg’s Frühburgunder, an early ripening mutation of Pinot Noir.  I was able to taste both the 2011 and 2010 vintages.  The 2011 was lighter and less complex than the 2010, as might be expected.  The 2010 was soft and velvety, but offered a depth that the 2011 lacked, lots of brambly black raspberry and red plum notes.

 

A Trip to the Douro and a Visit to Quinta do Noval

Quinta do Noval

Port, and particularly premium port, may be suffering in sales since the world economy has begun its slump, but that hasn’t stopped some of the top producers from continuing to create outstanding ports and, in many instances, very compelling table wines.

On a recent trip to Portugal I was able to see first-hand the quality, both in terms of the fortified wines, and more and more, the increased quality and uniqueness of the still wines from the Douro Valley.  In the age of globalization and the increasing homogenization of wine styles and grape varieties, it is refreshing to find a wine region whose main interest, so far, is in making top quality wines mostly from varietals that are native and unique to their region.

 

Vila Nova de Gaia waterfront, Porto across the river

 

I started my visit by checking out the Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia which lie across the Douro River from Porto.  Since the 1600s, Villa Nova de Gaia, a cheaper and cooler alternative to Porto, has been where most port shippers have maintained their lodges to blend and age their premium ports before shipment to other markets.  The immense role of traders and merchants from Britain in establishing the Port trade cannot be denied, with some of the most prestigious Port shippers founded by British tradesman, notably Croft, Sandemans and Taylor.

For many years Britain was the main market for Port, and even today is the fifth largest consumer of Port in the world.  Of course, a whole book could be written on the Port business and the role the Brits have played but, I digress…

As wonderful and important as seeing and understanding the business of Port and ostensibly the importance of Vila Nova de Gaia in the development of the Port trade, my trip to the Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 100 Miles outside of Porto was the highlight of my trip.  I was lucky to secure visits to two very prestigious estates in the Douro Valley; Niepoort’s Quinta de Napoles and Quinta do Noval (more about Niepoort to follow).  Both estates are arguably at the very top of Port production; both are innovative in their own way.

My first appointment was at Quinta do Noval.  I gave myself three hours to get to the estate from Vila Nova de Gaia, knowing that the roads in the Douro are treacherous and realizing that I wasn’t able to even locate the quinta with my GPS.  The Douro is remote, to say the least, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that the GPS must have been set to no toll roads and/or quickest route in terms of miles—which is actually not the most ideal way to travel in the Douro!

I ended up on roads that seemed barely sufficient at times for one car, somehow getting stuck in a road closure where the only means of getting to my destination necessitated going up steep, windy roads with no guard rails and little visibility of cars coming in the opposite direction. Did I mention that the roads barely wide enough for two cars passing?!

Three and half hours later, I arrived at Quinta do Noval where I met Liliana Sùcio who works at the estate, handling much of the sales and marketing.   I was treated to an amazing tour of this iconic estate, experiencing how this traditional estate runs much the same way it has for generations despite the estate’s purchase by AXA Insurance in 1993.

The bell that is still used to alert workers to meal time

Where the estate workers eat

The Chef is using ingredients sourced from the estate to cook for workers and visitors to the estate

The Cooks are using ingredients sourced from the estate to cook for workers and visitors

Livestock is raised on the estate

But, before describing the tour further, it is important to understand the impressive history of this estate…

Since Quinta do Noval’s founding, thought to be in 1715, the estate has distinguished itself from other major port producers by sourcing most of its grapes from its own estate and single vineyard, Noval.   The estate’s fame has been in its single quinta vintage ports from Noval and Nacional.   However, even before this acclaim, there has been a sense that the terroir here was special.  In fact, Quinta do Noval in the only historic port shipper to name itself after its vineyard.

The estate changed hands a few times before the estate was purchased in 1894 by António José da Silva, just on the heels of phylloxera’s arrival and subsequent devastation of the estate’s vineyard.   After da Silva’s purchase, and later, his son-in-law Luiz Vasconcelos Porto’s take-over of the estate, new life was breathed into the estate. Terraces were widened in what was a revolutionary way at the time, allowing for better use of the land and for more sun exposure.  The vineyards were also replanted.

The very narrow vineyard roads- surrounded by schist

Discussion of Quinta do Noval would not be complete without mention of Nacional, the famous 6 acre plot of ungrafted vines located at the heart of the Noval vineyard.   The name “Nacional” reflects the lack of barrier the vines and its roots have to the soil of the nation, as no American rootstock was needed for the vines to thrive.

Part of Nacional

There is much mystery surrounding the Nacional plot.  No one knows when the ungrafted vines were planted and more importantly, why the roots seem impervious to phylloxera.   Interestingly, when ungrafted vines have been planted elsewhere on the estate, phylloxera has predictably attacked and destroyed.

The terroir around Nacional

Since 1994, Nacional is only produced in exceptional declared years with a max production of 200-300 cases.  Ports produced from Nacional have been some of the most sought after, cherished wines in the world, often pricing upon release in the hundreds of dollars a bottle.  Certainly, the famed 1931 vintage Quinta do Noval Nacional was instrumental in setting the reputation of Nacional, widely attributed as one of the top ports of the 20th Century.  In fact, the Wine Spectator lauded the 1931 Quinta do Noval Nacional as one of the top 12 wines of the century in its 1999 report of top wines of the 20th century; the only non-table wine selected.

While Quinta do Noval is defined by its classic ports, it can be easy to forget the role the estate has played in defining some key innovation in port production.  In 1958, Noval released the first LBV, the 1954 Quinta do Noval.   Quinta do Noval is also thought to be the first to make a tawny port to indicate the average age of the contents on the label.

Below some photos detailing how ports are aged at Quinta do Noval:

Lots of Ageing Port-mostly Tawnies

The Rubies are Ageing

A Barrel of 1937 Port

Quinta do Noval’s focus on quality led it to pull 60% percent of its vineyards and to replant with top varietals in 1994.   Starting in 1997, the estate became one of the first to start blending, bottling, aging and storing all its ports in the Douro, rather than at lodges in Villa Nova de Gaia.  All grapes harvested at the estate used for its vintage ports are crushed by foot in one of their small granite lagares located on the estate (see photos below).

Granite Lagares - where grapes are crushed

Another Lagar

The tour ended with a line-up of ports and wine for tasting. Not in any particular order, the 2008 Cedro do Noval Red, Noval Black, 10 year Tawny, 2005 LBV and the 2008 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port, descriptions as follow:

The Noval Black was easy to drink, very velvety on the palate, spicy black plum and blackberry notes, Black is lighter than the other ports in the line-up, developed to be a new type of port drunk chilled, paired with dark chocolate or as an addition to cocktails.    This port was aged in oak and steel tanks for two years.

 

 

10 Year Tawny –Wonderful dried fruit, vanilla and nut flavors, still nervy and youthful, but with enough development to add complexity.

 

 

 

2005 Unfiltered LBV –sourced uniquely from the Noval vineyard, crushed by foot in granite lagares on the estate and then aged for a minimum of 4 years in oak barrels, this LBV is youthful, dense with lots of ripe black and red fruit flavors.

 

 

2008 Vintage Port—the wine was very dense, red plum, black berry, black cherry with some vanilla notes.  Seemed a bit closed. Aged 18 months in wooden vats.

 

 

 

2008 Cedro do Noval—named after the cedars that line the terrace at Quinta do Noval, this wine was made up of a combination of Syrah and other Portuguese varieties, notably Touriga Nacional.  This is a big wine, dense and chewy with some black currant, blackberry and red cherry notes and cedar notes.  All the fruit was sourced from Noval.

 

For more information about the estate and where distributed, check out: http://www.quintadonoval.com