Text and photos by Rhys Pender MW
Learning about the world of wine can be more confusing than enlightening, especially when learning about wine regions. Things are complicated and it is no wonder wine is intimidating. Everything seems clear after diligent studying of textbooks, encyclopedias and sitting through wine classes. But when you start to delve deeper into what makes a wine region tick, and look at the different aspects, altitudes, soils and more, you find that the more you try to generalize about any one place, the less accurate those simplifications become. Not only is it impossible to learn all the nuances that make a region unique but there is also the fact that things are always changing and evolving – wine styles, people and even climate. To understand a region properly, there is no better way than to jump in your car or on a plane and go there and find out for yourself what is really happening. That is really the only way to know what is going on.
Wine writers and educators spend a lot of time travelling, trying to answer those questions that exist only between the lines in our textbooks. We want to give current and accurate information in our articles and lectures, and believe me, keeping up with the world of wine is a full-time job.
A few months ago I took a fascinating journey that I recommend to anyone: a wine adventure from the homelands of riesling in Germany, south through Alsace and Burgundy, into the embrace of Beaujolais’s lovely gamay and to the refreshing jugs of rosé in the south of France. I learned a lot, answered a lot of questions, and created many more.
With daily flights from various parts of Canada to Frankfurt, Germany, this is a wine route that is well suited for Canadians to get a taste of many different styles of European wine. The only difficulty is that at the end you are stuck in the south of France and you need to get back to Frankfurt. Or, maybe, you could just stay there, something I have been tempted by many times before. Here is part 1 of what I found out is happening on my road trip from Riesling to Rosé.
I set off on my trip in March with a visit to ProWein in Germany. ProWein is the annual trade wine show in Düsseldorf where the wine world, literally, comes to Germany. Talking to producers, it seems this show has become number one on the international calendar. I had two and half days to work through 5,800 wineries. As you can imagine, you need to have a plan and having appointments is highly recommended. But if you are in the trade, ProWein is definitely your one stop shop for accessing the world of wine.
I had never been to German wine country before this trip and was completely blown away by the severity of some of the vineyards, particularly in the Mosel and Rheingau. It is inconceivable today that anyone would plant vineyards on sheer, near-vertical cliffs, and even more so that anyone in this modern age would work them. I drove around for hours mesmerized by the staked vines clinging tenuously to the rock. It is not surprising that in some areas these steep vineyards are being abandoned, but the best of them make wine that is too good to ignore. The industrious Germans have found a way to make it work with trolley systems to transport grapes, and equipment strung up between the vines.
Germany is one of those countries that seems to always be a step or two ahead of what is written in any textbook. Thankfully, most of us have managed to get over the misconception that Germany is all about cheap, sweet, fruity white wines, and most people now think of good quality, low alcohol, delicate yet intense Riesling that nicely walks the tightrope between residual sugar and vibrant acidity. This is the image of Germany through textbooks, but the reality on the ground is something different again. These sweeter wines are still made but most of it is for the export market. The Germans are drinking dry (trocken), powerful Rieslings that often are closer in style to those of Alsace or Austria than the German stereotype. They have been at it for a long time in Germany and change is inevitable. The kids running around at Peter Jakob Kühn winery were the 13th generation. I wonder how many guises German wine has been through in that time?
The other misconception is that Germany produces almost exclusively white wine. Riesling still, thankfully, has 22.9% of the acreage but Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) is up to 11.5% and Dornfelder up to 7.8%. Red varieties now account for over 35% of production, but we rarely see these in Canada (Canada is Germany’s fifth largest export market by value) because the Germans drink it all themselves. In Germany, you will get to try some pretty tasty Pinot Noir (See David Lawrason’s take on Germany and Pinot Noir here). Thirty years ago, at a time when many north Americans formed their opinions about German wines, red grapes made up only 13%. This is quite a significant change for the world’s tenth largest producer of wine.
There is also a move away from the traditional Prädikat labelling (terms like Kabinett, Spätlese, etc.) to more of a single vineyard focus. The VDP (Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter), known by its black eagle logo that appears on member’s bottles, is an association that has always focused on the combination of producer, site and quality. It uses a Burgundian model based on vineyard site, with the top wines known as Erste Lage or Grosse Lage, the Grand Crus of the movement. The dry wines from a Grosse Lage vineyard will be labelled Grosses Gewächs and be labelled Qualitätswein Trocken. Sweeter versions use the Prädikat terms.
A lot of the best wines I tasted are not available in Canada but a few of the producers I visited that do appear from time to time are Auguste Kesseler, Baron Knyphausen, Kloster Eberbach and Künstler. There were also delicious sparkling wines from Schloss Vaux but I haven’t seen these in Canada yet.
After Germany it is a just a few hours drive across a deserted border into France and Alsace.
France – Alsace
Being in Alsace is like being in a fairy tale, at least in some villages. It is a cross between Germany and France, therefore becoming its own unique world. The food is brown, hearty and German. But for wine, Alsace is like no other place on earth. It is not just the stunning terroir of near vertical vineyards but also the attitude of the people. Alsace is a bit of a hub for the natural, the biodynamic, for those who want their wines to express the terroir without the winemaker sticking his bag of tricks in the way. Certainly not all Alsatian wine is of this low-manipulation style but there are enough producers to make it a movement rather than just a novel rarity.
The best quality wines of Alsace, in my opinion, come in two different styles. There are those like Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Weinbach, Bott-Geyl and Barmès-Buecher who make incredibly interesting wines that vary from vintage to vintage and are never boring. The other style of top Alsatian wine is a little more predictable and is based on purity of flavours and intensity. I would put the wines of Domaine Zinck and Trimbach in this category.
There is a lot of character in the different terroirs of Alsace and these will often show through in the wines. Acidity, power, complexity, body and minerality all vary considerably from site to site and many producers make an impressive number of different wines.
Riesling is king, and to me, makes the best wines, but the Gewurztraminer is also something that can be very special in Alsace. Gewurz better suits the sweetness that the warm, dry, sunny Alsatian climate gives, handling it better than Pinot Gris, which can be overblown in alcohol levels. The Alsatians like to drink their Gewurz with a bit of age, something we don’t really do much in Canada, but a bit of time in the bottle serves to give a nice savoury edge and the wine drinks a little drier than the overt floral, fruity sweetness it often shows in its youth.
It can be hard work tasting in Alsace, not because the wines aren’t delicious, but because the curiosity of the producers means that many of them make dozens of different wines. At Zind-Humbrecht I tasted through 14 wines and it was amazing how different each wine was, showing how much terroir can differ within a region and how much it can influence the wines. Winemaking at Zind-Humbrecht is pretty hands off. It isn’t religiously “natural” winemaking in the extreme sense but the farming is biodynamic and basically the wines are left to do their own thing in big old vats, sometimes taking a year or more to finish fermenting in the cool cellar (the ambient temperature is about 8°C in winter) and often stopping with a smidge of residual sugar. The wines are always intensely flavoured, interesting and most of all have a wonderful texture that is hard to match in Riesling from other parts of the world.
I learned some interesting things about using horses in the vineyard too. Zind-Humbrecht uses two horses as part of their viticulture program, but to do the entire vineyard they would need 10-12 horses. The animals need feeding three hours before working and then can only work for three hours. It is slow going too, taking about one week to plow one hectare of vines. Basically it takes a horse five days to do what a tractor could in half a day. They now match the soil conditions to the choice of tractor or horse. In some cases the tractor can be too powerful and do more damage than good. I found this pretty fascinating stuff. For viticulture geeks there was plenty of ground breaking (no pun intended) stuff at Zind-Humbrecht; the most important thing about organic or biodynamic viticulture is how close the grower observes what is happening in the vineyard and can adapt unique management to the unique situations.
At Domaine Weinbach (a tasting of 13 wines) the wines are of a similar style to Zind-Humbrecht. They make wine from 120 different plots, and all the wines show intensity of flavour, rich textures and complexity. The Riesling and the Gewurztraminer again stood out for me as well as the delicious 2014 Sylvaner Reserve. Two of the Gewurztraminer are now available in BC, the delicious Cuvée Laurence 2012, and the crazy Furstentum Grand Cru 2011.
My next stop was at Bott-Geyl where I notched up a tasting of 19 wines. The single vineyard and Grand Cru Rieslings showed amazing minerality and great richness of texture. These wines are also wild ferments and spend up to a year in old wood before bottling.
At Barmès-Buecher, the dynamic family team of Geneviève Barmès and her children Sophie and Max are creating some eclectic and often delicious naturally inspired wines from some of the old vineyards that came together when Geneviève Buecher and her late husband François Barmès started the winery in 1985, incorporating vineyards that had been in the families since the 17th century. The family was hit with tragedy in 2011 when François passed away, but his children Max and Sophie came to the rescue to help their mother and I don’t think I have ever met a nicer, more generous and more energetic family in the wine business. I tasted through another 19 wines with the three of them and found more rich, delicious, textured and layered Riesling showing off a number of different terroirs (nine different vineyards including three Grand Cru sites). Quebecers get the best selection including the tasty 2011 Riesling Steingrubler GC. The 2012 Crémant d’Alsace Brut is also a good value bubbly.
My final Alsace visit was at Domaine Zinck, in Eguisheim. I thought that storks’ nests on top of fairy tale-like buildings hundreds of years old was something only of movies and imagination, but in Eguisheim it is alive and well. So is the young family of Phillippe & Pascale Zinck of Domaine Zinck. The winery was started by Phillippe’s father Paul, and now runs 20 hectares of grapes spread over 50 plots ranging in size from the largest at 1.7 ha down to just 0.06 ha. It sounds like a logistical nightmare, but 15 ha is located around the town of Eguisheim. Phillippe was born in Eguisheim and is a strong believer that 80% of the flavour in the wine comes from the grapes. They mostly work with stainless steel but are slowly incorporating larger oak casks into the mix. Phillippe talks of the difficulty in making Pinot Gris, saying there is only a small window to harvest when you get the right balance. They must be pretty good at finding this because their Pinot Gris Portrait 2012 won the International Trophy Best Off-Dry at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards.
The Portrait Series Riesling 2013 is a good value choice and is available in BC through private stores. There is also a little bit of the Grand Cru Riesling around and both the Pfersigberg 2012, a chalky, mineral, laser wine, and the Eichberg 2012, plusher, richer and more exotic, were delicious. It is worth putting these away for a few years. As Phillippe puts it, “when the Grand Cru wines are young you can’t smell the terroir, it takes about 5 years and then you have both the fruit and the aged complexities.” There is also the delicious Zinck Cremant d’Alsace which is excellent value at just over $20 in BC.
I feel like in Western Canada we are missing a lot of the best of Alsace. The top wines are definitely the Rieslings but the market seems keener on the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer here. It would be nice to see more people try these intense, mostly dry, mineral driven Rieslings and see what they are missing out on.
Part 2 will see the adventure continue south into Beaujolais…
Rhys Pender, MW