Wine of the Week 9 – a winning Riesling

Columbia Valley / Ancient Lakes, Washington State.

Columbia Valley / Ancient Lakes, Washington State.

Many of you regular readers will know that I love the Riesling grape. For me Riesling produces some of the very best white wines in the world and, in my opinion even a modest example can deliver a huge amount of pleasure. I am well aware though that many people do not love Riesling as I do and that many wine drinkers who have excellent taste in all other respects often lose all reason when it comes to Riesling.

Some of the people I serve Riesling too tell me it is too sweet, even when I pour them a dry wine. Others just seem to think it is a passé 1970s thing to be locked away in a vault along with the equally dubious and hilarious safari suits, bell bottoms and wing mirrors – when was the last time you saw an old-fashioned wing mirror on a car?

Riesling is frequently damned as being the grape that gave us Liebfraumilch, a wine people loved to drink in the 1970s, but now like to pretend was only ever drunk by others. In actual fact Liebfraumilch and all those other cheap German wines – Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, Piesporter Michelsberg etc. – that have almost, but not quite, disappeared from the supermarket shelves were never made from Riesling, but the lesser quality Müller-Thurgau. By the way it is possible to make good wines from that under appreciated grape too.

The other day I wanted a white wine with some intrinsic purity, minerality and elegance to go with my rather wonderful home made spaghetti alle vongolespecial ingredient here & here  and amazingly simple recipe at the bottom of this article hereMy thoughts turned initially to those lovely white wines from the slopes of Etna in Sicily. Sadly the branch of Marks and Spencer I was in did not stock their Etna Bianco and so I had to rethink my plan.

At first glance they did not seem to stock many wines that did what I wanted. Last week’s Wine of the Week would have been a great match with my spaghetti and clams too, but they didn’t have that either, so I had to get creative. Focussing on the wine style rather than origin and grape variety I eventually chose a Riesling from Washington State in America’s Pacific North West. In my mind a wine like that would be a more natural partner with Pacific Rim and spicy Asian cuisine, but my spaghetti had a similar purity to it as well as a little kick of red chilli in true Sicilian style – and hey isn’t spaghetti a type of noodle?

Sadly I have never been to that part of the world, but I do know that the climate is much cooler than California, so delicate grapes perform very well there.

Honourable Riesling2013 The Honourable Riesling
Charles Smith Wines
Washington State, USA

Charles Smith has become a sort of rock star wine maker since his first vintage in 2001. Originally from central California, where wine would have been all around him, he travelled the world managing bands and music tours before catching the bug and settling in Seattle to retail wine. That same year on a trip to Walla Walla, an important wine growing area in Washington, the itch became more serious and he soon settled in the area and started to make wine. His first vintage was the 2001 and he released just 330 cases. Well that small acorn has grown and Charles now commands a loyal following as a committed, passionate and self-taught wine maker and original marketeer of his wines, much like Randall Graham in California. He makes a wide range of wines, but can be regarded as something of a Riesling specialist, one of his most famous wines is Kung Fu Girl Riesling.

Evergreen Vineyard from the air - photo from Milbrandt Vineyards.

Evergreen Vineyard from the air – photo from Milbrandt Vineyards.

This wine is actually a single vineyard wine from the Evergreen Vineyard which is owned by the Milbrandt Brothers, Butch and Jerry, not David and Ed by the way. Also a source of fruit for Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Evergreen is situated in the far north of Washington’s Columbia Valley A.V.A. and since 2012 the area has had it’s own Ancient Lakes A.V.A.. Although Seattle is famously wet, this far inland the area is very dry. What’s more the place is high, cool and windy, which together with plenty of sun delivers ripe flavours at lower sugar levels, which hopefully makes balanced wines. The thin rocky soils ensures the vines have to work hard and produce concentrated grapes with good minerality, which suits Riesling very well.

The man himself, Charles Smith looking suitably rock & roll.

The man himself, Charles Smith looking suitably rock & roll.

I assumed that I would like this wine, but it is very, very good in a seductively easy drinking style. The nose is aromatic, lifted, richly floral and full of tropical tinged citrus, lime drenched in fact. This limey character goes on to the palate too and while the acidity is refreshingly high and keeps the wine clean and pure, it is not tart at all. In fact the acidity has a soft sweetness to it – the wine though is dry – like lime curd or a rich key lime pie. The flavours pull off a great balancing act between being vibrant and powerful, while the whole thing is actually rather elegant, pure and laced with cleansing acidity and complex mineral characters. The Honourable Riesling delivers a huge amount of pleasure and if you are anything like me you will find it just slips down – 91/100 points. I gave it an extra point for the sheer pleasure it gave!

A lovely wine to drink on its own, with spicy food, Asian food, Pacific Rim cuisine and yes it was perfect with my spaghetti alle vongole, I would like to have it with tapas too.

Available in the UK from Marks & Spencer at £12 per bottle.

If you are one of those people who have failed to find the joy that Riesling can offer, then this might well be the wine – give it a go, I think you will enjoy it.

 

 

Wine of the Week 6 – a great dry white wine & great value too

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

I presented a wine at a tasting last night that had all the criteria to be my wine of the week. It is delicious to drink, stunning quality and great value for money – what more could you ask for?

Well, for me nothing, but it will leave a great many people cold because this wine is a Riesling. Riesling – pronounced Reez-ling – is one of my absolute favourite grapes. It is a grape that, when it’s good, shows such diversity of styles and yet always maintains a purity and a minerality which makes the wines feel poised, fine and elegant.

Most UK consumers seem to resist the delights of Riesling because they think that they shouldn’t like it, just as they shouldn’t like Chardonnay anymore, because they now drink Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Many UK consumers assume that all Riesling is sweet and even when they taste a dry one often pull a face and pronounce it to be sweet. I find the resistance to Riesling in this country to be very odd, I love dry Riesling and I also love Riesling with some sweetness – what’s not to like about a wine with a little sweetness?

Anyway, my wine of the week is a dry Riesling from the wonderful French region of Alsace. Despite being in the north east of the country Alsace is one of the driest, warmest and sunniest spots in France and that is why they can produce fully ripe, dry Rieslings.

With the Vosges mountains, its half timbered houses and walled medieval villages it is also one of France’s most beautiful regions, although it’s Germanic culture does set it apart from the rest of the country. The people speak a Germanic language and much of the superb cuisine has a German slant to it. It is that Germanic culture that has given them both of their most important grape varieties – Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

trimbach_riesling_bot2011 Trimbach Riesling
Maison Trimbach
Ribeauvillé
A.C. Alsace

Founded in 1626 Trimbach is one of the great old wine houses of Alsace and 12 generations on is still family run in the delightful town of Ribeauvillé. They produce a wide range of wines including all the famous Alsatian grapes, but are something of Riesling specialists as they produce two of the most iconic examples in their Riesling Clos Sainte Hune and Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile.

This example though is their most humble Riesling from their ‘classic’ range, but it is a splendid example of just how delicious Alsace Riesling can be.

This wine is bone dry with an elegant, stony and apply nose. The palate is wonderfully concentrated with some fresh and cooked apple notes, lemons and dry honey. It also has pure, fresh, clean acidity and minerality that keeps it lively, crisp and taut. The finish is refreshing, thrilling and long with some apple and pear skin succulence to it too.

This is a superb dry white wine that everyone should try as it is delicious and versatile. I would expect anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would enjoy it if they are open  index enough to give it a taste. It is wonderful as an aperitif, with fish or light meals and even with Thai cuisine – 89/100 points, it scores high marks for being such great value.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.95 per bottle and £11.99 per bottle from Majestic. Other UK stockists are available here.
US stockists are available here.

So, please do try this wine, it is a great dry white for summer that will go with all sorts of food, it’s salads and goat’s cheese as well as fish, white meat and spicy food. What’s more if you don’t finish the whole case, the high acidity ensures that it ages well too, so there’s no hurry to drink it all.

 

Austria part 1: passionate wine makers

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Neusiedlersee from the vineyards.

A little while ago I was lucky enough to have a fabulous trip around most of Austria’s wine regions. I was pretty excited about it as I had long wanted to get a real look at this resurgent wine producing country.

Personally I have always been drawn to the Austrian /  Central European culture and have always enjoyed the food and the beer and liked the look of this part of the world. So, I was looking forward to getting better acquainted with it as well as seeing the wine regions and meeting many of the important winemakers.

For reasons of economy I flew in through Bratislava, which is very close to Vienna and was for hundreds of years the Imperial Austrian city of Pressburg or Preßburg. I didn’t have time for a meal, unusually for me I didn’t have the inclination either as I knew my plans for later that evening in Vienna, so I grabbed a sandwich and a beer at the airport.

I was already somewhere interesting when something as a simple ham and cheese sandwich bore no relation to its counterparts at home. It came on black bread with smoky Black Forest ham, rich cream cheese, loads of pickles and was delicious. The beer too was far better than such a simple thing as a lager would normally be in my life, it had a rich hoppy character and a depth of flavour that would astonish most members of CAMRA.

Arriving in Vienna for the first time in 27 years I strolled around this grand city trying out some of the wonderful coffee houses and cafés for which the place is justly famous. It seemed as though almost every building housed a cake shop – do they really eat that much cake I wondered? Watching the Viennese at play over the course of the evening it seemed that they really did – and later I joined them myself.

Dinner that night was a sort of pilgrimage for me. All my life I have been excited by schnitzels – I know it sounds strange, it even looks odd to me now I have actually typed the words, which is akin to saying them out loud. Hell, it’s cheaper than therapy! I am always drawn to schnitzel on a menu though, even if there is finer fare to be had. I have this theory that schnitzel is the best dish in the world – no not a theory, a belief! So I went to the place where the schnitzel began.

The Wiener Schnitzel is a classic dish, but it seems that no one can actually find much of a history for it. I remember reading that General Joseph Radetzky von Radetz – he of the march / waltz fame – was supposed to have brought it back to Austria after campaigning in Lombardy and Milan. A Milanese Cutlet / Cotoletta alla Milanese is superficially similar and the Austrians were supposed to have refined it by bashing the meat out to tenderise it and make it very thin. Sadly it seems that this is a myth though and no one knows exactly where it came from or when.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller with a €2 piece for comparison.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller alongside a €2 to compare the sizes.

In Vienna there is a restaurant called Figlmüller that not only claims to have invented the schnitzel, but to have done so as recently as 1905. I find that extraordinary as 1905 is only just beyond living memory, my grandfather was 20 and my own parents births were only 22 years away. How can something so famous and so universal be that recent? Anyway I went and had a most excellent Wiener Schnitzel washed down with a rather splendid beer and copious amounts of Grüner Veltliner from the restaurants’ own vineyards.

For desert I visited the Café Sacher inthe world famous Hotel Sacher, which makes probably the most famous chocolate cake in the world. I felt that at least once in my life I should try the original in the actual place that gave the world the sachertorte. The café is rather lovely with genuine old world charm, open till midnight and serves a stunning red Zweigelt Beerenauslese, from Weingut Kracher in Burgenland, which is absolutely perfect with a slice of sachertorte – a better match than coffee actually.

Having immersed myself in the most famous, possibly clichéd, but certainly delicious, aspects of Austria’s gastronomic culture, the next morning I felt ready to explore her wines.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

Touring the Vineyards
The start of my trip was billed as a vineyard rally through Leithaberg and Neusiedlersee. Of course with my new found instant knowledge I knew that Leithaberg was a Districtus Austriae Controllatus / D.A.C wine region near Eisenstadt that covered the lower reaches of the Leithaberg mountain and faced south east towards the beautiful lake called Neusiedlersee.

Despite sounding mysterious, the vineyard rally turned out to be simplicity itself, no hard hat or special training was required. We were taken to two different spots in the surrounding vineyards to meet some winemakers and taste their wines.

Our first stop was right in the middle of the vines with barely a building insight – other than church towers in the far, far distance. The weather was warm with clear blue skies and the spot stunningly beautiful with that feeling of total peace that I associate more with vineyards than anywhere else. Spying a falcon in flight just added to the feeling of being somewhere special.

Leo Sommer

Leo Sommer

Weingut Sommer
There we were met by the impossibly youthful looking Leo Sommer who was representing Weingut Sommer, the winery his family have run since 1698. Leo had set up a tasting for us right where the slope stopped at the foot of a rocky ridge. Looking one way I saw the vineyards sloping gently down towards the lake that shimmered enticingly in the distance. In the other direction the land became much steeper with fewer vineyards.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

The Sommers farm 30 hectares here and they aim to capture the essence of the place in their wines. The summer here is hot and dry, with ripening helped by the warm winds blowing in from Hungary’s Pannonian plain. The nearby lake though manages to temper and balance that heat in the height of summer, while helping to keep the autumn cold at bay during the later part of the ripening season. This is the important Altweibersommer or Indian Summer that allows them to harvest very late in this area.

Looking away from the lake towards the ridge - the van is where we had our tasting.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

A close up of the same scene.

White Leithaberg D.A.C. wines can be made from Pinot Blanc  / Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Grüner Veltliner or a blend of any of these and we tasted two of the Sommer’s Grüner Veltliners. One had some oak with lees stirring, while the other was all stainless steel, yet they both summed this place up to my mind. To different degrees they both had a richly textured ripeness leading to a taut, stony mineral finish and when looking around this glorious sun drenched landscape with its sandy loam and slate soils, it struck me – this was precisely what these slopes should produce.

In many ways standing here felt as though I was in a little protected pocket by other less forgiving climates – much like Alsace or Central Otago. The more I thought about that when we visited all the different regions the more I realised that is exactly what the Austrian wine regions are – mountains and more extreme weather dominate the rest of the country – we often glimpsed snow-capped ridges , so these places in the far east of Austria are an oasis of temperate growing conditions.

Our next port of call reinforced this view. This time we were nearer the lake, right at the bottom of the gentle slope before the flat land that surrounds the Neusiedlersee and our hosts were Martin Palser and Birgit Braunstein, a married couple who just happen to both be winemakers and each runs their own winery.

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Birgit Braunstein & Martin Palser

Martin Palser 
Down here it seems there is much more limestone and Martin grows Chardonnay on this soil, which makes his take on the Leithaberg D.A.C. very different from Leo Sommer’s wines. His 2011 Chardonnay Reserve impressed me very much with its lovely balance, very Burgundian character and pronounced minerality – I know, I know – and Martin told us that this minerality was the character of the place and was more important than grape variety in his opinion.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

Birgit Braunstein
Then Martin handed over to his wife who presented two red wines made from the region’s signature black grape – Blaufränkisch. Red Leithaberg D.A.C. wines must contain at least 85% of this with up to 15% of St. Laurent, Zweigelt or Pinot Noir. I have enjoyed Blaufränkisch before – even as Lemberger in New York’s Finger Lakes, but none have impressed me quite as much as these two made by Brigit Braunstein. Her 2009 Blaufränkisch Reserve Leithaberg D.A.C. was beautifully fruity and balanced with gorgeously ripe fruit together with elegant spice, the delicious cherry-like acidity that I associate with the grape – and a streak of pure minerality. Somehow the wine managed to keep quiet about the 18 months it had spent in new oak and was superbly integrated.

Standing on their terrace looking across the vineyards to the lake I was struck by the place, conditions and landscape and how they seemed to echo the wines that I had just tasted. The breezes blew the otherwise searing heat away – “air conditioning for the vines” as Martin put it – and these are ripe, cool climate wines. They are keen on biodiversity here and the fields were a colourful riot of cherry trees, wildflowers, grasses and herbs as covercrop between and around the vines, while the sandy loam soil, slate and limestone that it all grows in is key here. The defining characteristic of Leithaberg D.A.C. seems to be the minerality and I felt that it was all around me as well as being in the glass.

All in all it was an excellent beginning to the day, I felt peaceful, invigorated, more experienced and better informed and it wasn’t yet 11 o’clock.

Weingut Birgit Eichinger
Funny things wine trips. You live in close proximity to people you barely see the rest of your life, you lose all track of time and get dragged from one place to the next at breakneck speed with barely a backward glance – until you start writing anyway. You get given far more meals in a day than is strictly required – and sadly get to like them. What does stand out though, what makes all the suffering (really?) worthwhile is when we visit somewhere that touches the heart and a good few of the visits on this Austrian trip did just that, but one of the most memorable was to Weingut Birgit Eichinger.

Brigit Eichinger

Brigit Eichinger

There aren’t many women winemakers in Austria, so Brigit Eichinger is pretty unnusual – strangely the only other one we met was also called Birgit, Birgit Braunstein – what’s more Birgit Eichinger and her builder husband Christian have only been running their estate since 1992 when they started with 3.5 hectares. The winery was built in 1994 and they have been adding vineyards when they can and today they farm some 15 hectares in Strass.

Strass is in Kamptal which in turn is part of Niederösterreich, which is in many ways the heartland of Austrian wine as it includes the famous regions of Wachau, Kremstal and Wagram amongst many others and so certainly defines my view of Austrian wine – the whites anyway.

Site matters here as there is no one single terroir. Many of the vineyards have loess over gravel and loam, but others have sandstone, slate and schist, so as in Alsace matching the grape variety to the site makes real differences to the wine. There is even volcanic rock on the Heiligenstein slope from where Birgit produces a stunning, spicy, pure and intensely mineral Riesling.

To qualify as Kamptal D.A.C. a wine must be made from Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, so Birgit’s deliciously floral and exotic Roter Veltliner – also known as the Roter Muskateller and no relation to Grüner at all – and her Chardonnay are simply labelled as coming from the wider area of Niederösterreich.

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The landscape here is spectacularly beautiful – actually everywhere we went was – with the terraced vineyards cascading down the slopes towards the small town of Strass where Birgit’s winery sits at the foot of the Gaisberg slope.

All the wines were superb and I know that many of us would have purchased a few bottles if we had had the space in our luggage. The Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners in particular showed their class with a concentration and yet lightness of touch that gave them a feeling of tension and sophistication that certainly brought a smile to my face.

Birgit’s beautiful wines are available in the UK from John Armit Wines and in the US through Weygandt-Metzler Importing for other teritories check here.

The whole trip was a delight – apart from being locked out of my hotel room and two of my colleagues missing their flights – and my enthusiasm for the country and its wines has been totally rekindled. I will write about some of the other places I visited and wines I tasted in Austria soon.

If Austrian wines have passed you by then you really do owe it to yourself to give them a go. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had by exploring the wines of Austria.

My Summer Wine Part 2 – Welsh Riesling?

The weather has changed and Summer feels a long time ago now, but I thought you might well be interested in these wines that I was able to try when the weather was a little better.

I love trying new things, so I was thrilled to be able to taste some Welsh wines during the Summer. I suppose I knew there was some Welsh wine, Sweden can make it for heaven’s sake, and so Wales certainly can. However, tasting Welsh wines was a first for me and although they were not actually made from Riesling, but I can never resist a pun. I wish they did grow Riesling in Wales, how could a grower pass up the chance to label a wine as Welsh Riesling?

Monnow Valley Vineyards by kind permission

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Hungarian Rhapsody

Everywhere I go at the moment I keep stumbling across excitingly different white wines. Many of them are made from grapes and in regions that I am aware of, but have only very limited experience of tasting until now – I suspect that is a good thing as wines are so much better now than in my youth. I am sure that if I had tried wines from these places 28 years ago then I might have not been anything like as impressed as I am now.
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Winning you round to Riesling

In keeping with many of us in the wine business, I love the Riesling grape. In many ways, for me, it is the grape. The one I love before all others. If a Riesling is on offer, it always calls to me and it pains me that so many people seem indifferent to its charms.

It follows from this that I like to present Riesling to consumers and hope that my love of the grape variety will rub off on to them. To that end I am always trying to win people round to Riesling. It has to be admitted that my success has been patchy, many people who enjoy other wines seem unable to find the pleasure in a fine Riesling that I do, but I have had some converts recently and it was two particular Rieslings that did it, so I thought that I would share them with you. They are both very different in style, but both are hugely enjoyable as well as being affordable.

If the delights of Riesling have passed you by, will you do me a favour – give it one last try. Today may be the day that you see the Riesling light and these may be the examples that win you round.

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Crisp wines are so yesterday!

All my working life the wine world has described certain wine styles as crisp, so widespread is it that I have even heard these wines incorrectly referred to as ‘crispy’ by those who are unaware of the linguistic differences.

Most of us know what crisp means; fresh, firm and steely with a hard-edged green apple or lemon acidity. Basically it means a wine where the fruit is less dominant than the fresh dryness and the sharp (crisp) acidity, so these wines leave the palate clean, refreshed and a little sour rather than leaving the faintly sweet deposit of fruity wines. At least that is how I explain it to myself. Continue reading