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Archive for June, 2009

Riesling Rocks

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Let’s talk about terroir.  Terroir is this magical concept, which the wine writer Matt Kramer has described as ‘sense of place’.  The French have for 100’s of years championed it as the secret to their success. It includes the soil, weather and how a particular vineyard is situated in its given location. Typically the wine from a given site should taste roughly the same year after year, if the wine making stays the same. The obvious exception to this is the weather of the vintage year… hot years with lots of sunshine produce bigger, more opulent wines and visa versa, rainy harvests result in washed out, more dilute wines. One could of course go into all kinds of permutations regarding the growing season.


The idea of terroir is primarily an old world one, as vines have been planted in Europe for over 2000 years, whereas the new world time frame is very much shorter. As such the ability to compare vintages of wines from a specific site in the old world has been an ongoing concept for 100’s of years. The same simply cannot be said for a newly planted vineyard in Niagara on the Lake for instance.


There are certain grape varieties which seem to transmit terroir better than others. I believe one of the best is the Riesling (pronounced Reezling) grape, grown throughout the old and the new world, but arguably the most important German contribution to the vinous planet.  The grape has grown alongside the major southern German rivers, Rhine and Mosel for 2000 years, first planted by the Romans, and since the middle Ages has produced outstanding, age worthy white wine…all except for a rough patch in the 1970’s, where in order to meet an increased demand for sweeter style wines, standards were dropped by less scrupulous wineries.


Young German Riesling is traditionally characterized by it’s off dry or even sweet nature, balanced by a healthy dose of acidity on the finish.  This interplay between sweet and tart flavours is an amazing sensation if the wine maker gets the balance right; it’s like walking on a knife’s edge.


The acidity comes in part from the marginal cool climate where the vines are grown, as this is as far north as any ‘serious’ wine is made in Europe. That the best vineyards are located on the big rivers is also not a fluke, as the flowing water moderates the cold spikes of the growing season.


The wine itself displays flavours of apple, pear and citrus fruit and it is never vinified in new oak.  Charred wood would kill the delicate fruit aromas that are present, and that is one of the most charming things about the young Riesling wines. However there are some producers which instead of using the standard stainless steel aging tanks, use older neutral oak tanks, that hold between 1000 and 5000 litres of wine. The tanks are up to 50 years old and impart no flavour of oak at all, but instead change the texture of the high acid wine into something that is softer, with a slightly rounder mouth feel.


The soils of the specific growing areas mark a sense of minerality, or a perceived “stoniness” of the wine. This happens especially along the Mosel River. The best vineyards are always on steep slate, so steep that special vineyard equipment has to be used to do a lot of the maintenance of the site throughout the year. The wines consequently result in a liquid that recalls a wonderful mix of wet rock, sweet stone fruit and lemon tartness.


Wines from the most famous German river, the Rhine however are quite different. The area is much warmer, with heavier loamy soils and even though the grape is the same, the wines will be bigger, with slightly more alcohol and a perceived roundness to the wine that comes as a result of the different terroir. The flavours will lean more towards peach and sometimes apricot, versus the stone fruit and citrus of the Mosel.  The whole aspect of a perceived minerality is also missing from a lot of the wines.


As of late, numerous German producers have been championing drier Rieslings, in part due to the fact that a lot of the domestic German market is now more interested in dry wines, and the fact that global warming is providing riper grapes with higher sugar levels, thus making it easier to produce drier wines with lower acidity.


The above new wave of German Rieslings is certainly commercially successful, but for my taste the most authentic and enticing is in the off dry style, which have had a long ‘terroir driven’ history.

Vinous change

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Not a lot of people know that 150 years ago German sweet wines were more costly at the London wine merchants than Bordeaux Grand Cru wines. At that time the consumer preferred sweeter wines to the best age worthy red wines that were available. But when you compared these reds to their current vintage today there is a noticeable difference: the colour of the wines a century and a half ago would be like a Pinot Noir would be today, and the alcohol levels would be very restrained. It was and still is called Claret by the English wine trade, referring to the “transparent” nature of the red wine. But if you looked at today’s Bordeaux wines they would look like all the rest of the Cabernets from around the world, deep red or purple with teeth staining powers.

Even the Napa Valley Cabernets, of the late 70’s and early 80’s would only have 11-12.5% alcohol which at that time would be perfectly respectable, as compared to now where if the wine does not have at least 14.5% no critic or ‘serious’ aficionado would even take a look at it. The most esteemed wine that the highly regarded Napa Valley producer Shafer made a few vintages ago weighed in at 16.5% which is at an alcohol level which years ago was reserved solely for sherry or port wines -both of which are fortified wines, i.e. wines to which alcohol has been added for more weight and/or to arrest the fermentation.

The above two paragraphs illustrate that just like everything else wine is constantly changing, even aside from the surfacing of new grape varieties and/or regions. There are various factors at work which determine a large amount of that change.

The first and perhaps most influential factor in the development of today’s wine consuming public would be the emergence of the über critic, both from the American side of the 49th parallel, notably the Wine Spectator Magazine and Robert Parker JR.

Both of them emerged in the early 1980’s and have gained a very strong foothold in wine related commerce, mostly because of their use of the 100 point scale and their combined love of full, high alcohol, up front, fruity concoctions which have unfortunately shaped the public’s taste and perception to a unhealthy degree.  I feel that this is in a large part a North American issue as the Old world has been drinking wine for centuries as a daily custom and as such is insulated to the new consumer habits of judging a wine like a term paper.  There is a saying in the wine trade, which goes like this “ if you have an 80 point wine you cannot sell it, and if you have a 90 point wine the consumer cannot buy it”- as it is sold out.

The positive side to the dominance of the American wine press is that in their formative years, i.e. the 1980’s there was an urgent need for some rigorous wine criticism as the business end of the wine trade and wine writing was done in a lot of cases by the same individuals, resulting in a lot of insecurity for the average wine buyer. “Is this a good wine? …or are you just writing about it in this wine magazine because you are also selling it?” There were horror stories (of mostly British) wine writers who would pull up to the back doors of French chateaus, and watched while their car trunks were being loaded up with cases of wine, for positive reviews in publications.

Robert Parker, a one time Lawyer from Maryland, became the Ralph Nader of the wine trade, at a time when it was crucial for the industry: The Wine Spectator, a wine and lifestyle magazine from NYC followed shortly thereafter, further popularizing the new “Wine Lifestyle”.

Currently, with the importance of the internet as a information source, including the wide availability of both professional and amateur wine blogs, and a myriad of other wine related information on the net, the whole wine world has become more democratized, which given the power accumulated by Parker and Friends over the last 2 decades, is probably a good thing.

When in doubt trust your own palate, as just like art, music or literature, wine is entirely a subjective endeavor.

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