Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Old World Riesling for WBW #45

Call it cheating if you will. I prefer to think of it as synchronicity. Today’s edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, hosted by Tim Elliott at Winecast, follows just one day after my class on German wines at Tria Fermentation School. And this month’s theme – Old World Riesling – falls right into the core of last night’s curriculum. So, as much as I was tempted to go for the relatively obscure and track down an Italian Riesling or two, it seems much more appropriate to answer the call of chance and write up the German Rieslings that I selected for yesterday’s course.

My objective for the class was to showcase the diversity of wine styles, vines and regions of Germany, and to provide a basic foundation for understanding the terminology found on German labels as well as the regulations that govern and influence contemporary German viticulture. All, mind you, within the context of a 90-minute class. We started off with a Spätburguner from the Mittelrhein, a Rheinpfalz Weißer Burgunder and a Scheurebe from Baden. The rest of the evening was spent exploring the beauty of what I consider to be the world’s most noble white vine – Riesling – grown in the country where it reaches its pinnacle of quality and expression.

Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Kabinett trocken, Weingut Emrich-Schönleber 2006
Werner Schönleber and his son Frank are widely considered to be, along with Dönnhoff, at the top of the game in the Nahe. In recent years, the portfolio of wines they produce has been in constant evolution. At the dry and off-dry ends of the spectrum, they’ve been reducing their number of bottlings and instead focusing on fewer but stronger statements about the terroir of their two estate vineyards: Halenberg and Frühlingsplätzchen. The Kabinett and Spätlese halbtrockens from both vineyards, as well as their basic QbA halbtrocken, already went by the wayside a few years back, replaced by a single wine called “Lenz” (archaic German for Spring). And it appears that 2006 was the last vintage for this, the Kabinett trocken from Frühlingsplätzchen. Going forward, at least for now, they’ll continue to produce their basic QbA trocken, adding a trocken wine called “Mineral” and further consolidating their vineyard designated dry Rieslings. The Pradikat (Kabinett, Spätlese), and presumably the QmP designation, will be dropped and they will produce Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling trocken and Halenberg Riesling trocken. Großes Gewächs wines will continue to be produced from both vineyards, vintage conditions allowing. Confused yet? Or beginning to understand the challenge of cramming an overview of German wines into an hour-and-a-half?

Now, on to the tasting note: this was the most challenging wine of the night, as it is clamped pretty tightly shut at the moment. Lots of lemon zest and grapefruit, along with bright, tingly minerality and a hint of green apples, are carried on a bone dry frame. High acidity is at the forefront, decidedly making this a wine for the dinner table – or for holding for a couple of years. Experience with past vintages has shown this cuvée to evolve positively with a few years in the cellar, unfurling to show broader texture and finer balance. However, the 2006 may be a bit narrower than other recent vintages. $28. 12% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Riesling trocken “von der Fels,” Weingut Keller 2006
This was one of two non-QmP wines and the only wine from the Rheinhessen included in the lineup. Keller and Schönleber are both members of the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VdP), a quality, peer-based organization that’s focused on changing the German wine laws of 1971 and returning to the importance of site. Its members are simultaneously working within the QmP system and selectively eschewing its definitions and its prioritization of ripeness levels over vineyard sites. “von der Fels” – literally, from the rocks – is Klaus-Peter Keller’s statement name for this wine, which is meant to reflect the limestone rich terroir which he seeks out and farms. It is a selection of fruit from the lower slopes of all four of his Großes Gewächs (great growth, Grand Cru) vineyard sites, generally harvested at ripeness levels equating to Spätlese. It is fermented to dryness and labeled simply as Riesling trocken, along with Keller’s “von der Fels” designation.

In contrast to the Kabinett trocken from Schönleber, Klaus-Peter’s 2006 “von der Fels” is all about generous fruit and round, polished texture. Partly, that stems from the wine’s greater degree of ripeness. There’s also a difference in terroir at work, as Keller’s flatter vineyard and slightly warmer setting yield consistently different textures than wines from the steep slopes in the Nahe. But my mouth tells me there’s something else at work: a subtle touch of sweetness. This year’s iteration of “von der Fels” would seem to run toward the upper half of the trocken scale, which allows for up to nine grams of residual sugar per liter. Peach, golden apples and unmistakably limey minerality abound, supported by medium-acidity and some serious flesh on the palate. Nice long finish, too. $30. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Bacharacher Kloster Fürstental Riesling Sekt Brut, Weingut Ratzenberger 2003
This is the other non-QmP wine of the night and the one and only sparkling wine. I waffled with where to place it in the progression, considering it as an aperitif, as the first Riesling and even in the final position, as a palate cleanup hitter so to speak. I finally opted to slot it in between the dry and fruity/noble style Rieslings, as a wake-up call and to demonstrate another element of Riesling’s versatility. Jochen Ratzenberger is also a member of the VdP. His Sekt is a long standing favorite of mine. It’s made in the Méthode Traditionelle – Traditionelle Flaschengärung in German – and entirely by hand, right down to the remuage. Many of the bottles bear a brushstroke of white paint in the punt, a marker used by Ratzenberger to remember where he left off when called away from his duties as riddler.

2003 was a hot year, even in this normally chilly area of the Mittelrhein around the town of Bacharach. The extra degree of ripeness fostered by the growing season shows, as this is richer, riper and creamier in flavor and texture than in typical years. That doesn’t stop it from being terribly tasty. It’s also more intensely fruity, less noticeably yeasty than in cooler vintages. Yet it’s still a great food wine, though I might be more inclined to pair it with a richer, mid-meal course rather than serving it with more delicate dishes. A fine mousse lights up its medium-golden color. Peaches and cream, a hint of apricot and slate spiciness linger, buoyed by medium acid and fine balance. The down side is the dollar. This baby’s price is up over 25% since the previous vintage. $32. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Kanzemer Altenberg Riesling Spätlese “Lot 1902,” Weingut Johann Peter Reinert 2001
If the Kabinett trocken from Schönleber was the most difficult wine of the night, this just may have been the biggest “Wow!” wine of the night. Classic, fruity style Saar Riesling. Low alcohol, totally delicate and graceful, yet profound in its depth of flavor. White peaches, baked apples, mace and an intense slate minerality all last for ages on the palate. It was the nose, though, that first got everyone’s attention, redolent of the bouquet that comes to German Rieslings, particularly from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, only with age. Call it what you will – diesel, kerosene, petrol – but, combined with the wine’s beautiful fruit and nervy acidity, it makes for an intoxicating little package. I’d pour it as an aperitif just as happily as I’d pair it with poached salmon or pan seared scallops. Reinert, a member of the Bernkasteller Ring (his area’s answer to the VdP), makes some great, unknown and underappreciated Rieslings, in dry, off-dry, fruity and nobly sweet styles. This Spätlese should continue to develop in interest for at least another decade and then hold steady for another. At its price, it would be more than worth stowing away a few bottles for a rainy day. $25. 8% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel, Weingut Ratzenberger 1997
Even though he’s increasingly recognized as one of the best producers in the Mittelrhein – if not the best – Ratzenberger does not get the same level of global buzz as producers like Keller and Schönleber. One of the lucky side effects of that relative obscurity is that he still has some old wines to sell. And he’ll release some of them to the market, in small lots, as he feels they’re ready to be appreciated.

At a little over ten years of age, this is definitely ready to be appreciated. Jochen’s plot of the Wolfshöhle vineyard is perfectly suited to the production of Spätlesen, Auslesen and, when vintage conditions permit, Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen. As with many other producers, Ratzenberger uses a Goldkapsel to indicate a very special bottling, most likely a declassified Beerenauslese in this case. The tropical and musky characteristics of this Auslese – pineapple, citrus confit, orange oil, clove and mango – definitely suggest at least a moderate percentage of botrytis affected fruit. An intense flavor of apricot preserves, a signature of the Wolfshöhle terroir, is present from start to finish. 1997 was a relatively low acid year, which shows in the wine’s fairly rich, somewhat oily texture. However, its texture also has a crystalline character that, along with the wine’s racy, confectionery sweetness, helps to keep things alive in the mouth. It lacks the structure and acidity for long term aging, but it’s easy to like now. So drink. And enjoy. $40 (500ml). 8% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

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Lyle Fass said...

il.comGreat choices. I just bought the Ratzie sekt for the store and it is the fruitiest version I can remember. Schonleber can do no wrong in my book. Love his trocken wines in somes cases better than his GG's. I feel bad . . .I did one lazy Riesling and you did like ten. I gotta get off my ass and blog. Still on CA lazy time.

David McDuff said...

Not to worry, Lyle. Lazy is good sometimes.

Glad to see you're carrying some of Jochen's goods. Sharing the love can only help to support a great, small grower.

Wicker Parker said...

That the US Dollar has become the Bush Dollar is hardly the worst thing to happen over the last 7 years, but the price of the Sekt has risen 25% in one year? Mein Gott! I can hardly blame the producers for refusing to subsidize our currency any longer; I'm just a bit stunned is all.

In any case, this is a terrific post and I admire that you went off the beaten path to showcase these wines; and it's further evidence that I need to rummage up some of the Petit Pois portfolio via the internets somehow. Fascinating that Schonleber is ditching their pradikat wines altogether. What's their thinking behind this?

Tim Elliott | Winecast said...

Great post David. Glad the theme was so close to your tasting... sometimes things just work out that way ;-)

Tim Elliott

David McDuff said...

Howdy WP,

I must admit I was shocked at the leap in price for Ratzenberger's Sekt. Then again, it's been under-priced relative to its value for a long time so maybe he's finally realizing a return on its intrinsic value (in other words, raising his prices beyond just the effects of inflation and weak currency).

Schönleber is not ditching pradikat wines altogether, as they'll certainly continue to produce QmP wines at the Auslese level and above. It just seems that they're focusing on letting their terroir speak for itself in the dry wines, without the inclusion/confusion of ripeness level information. It's definitely part personal statement on their part, which makes sense given their involvement in the VdP. I expect it's also a response to the current market within Germany.

Petit Pois is a regional distributor only, working in PA, NJ, DE, NY and, oddly, OR. As only NY and OR have open shipping laws, you'll do best searching there for viable retailers. Some of the wines in their portfolio are certainly handled by different importers/distributors in other parts of the country.

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Tim. It was indeed fortuitous timing. Not that I wouldn't have found something good to taste otherwise....

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had as much fun with your Riesling as I did on this Wine Blogging Wednesday!

David McDuff said...

Hey Dale,
Thanks for stopping by. I'll be sure to check out your post, even if you don't like German wine labels.

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