[Cross-posted at www.popandpour.ca]
Consider this less of a blog post and more of a public service announcement. If you’re going to remember a single message out of everything I’ve ever written about wine, make it this little piece of advice: DO NOT BE AFRAID OF GERMAN RIESLING. I wish I could tell you that this was self-evident information, but there remains this persistent and lingering seed of doubt planted deep in the brains of casual wine drinkers in North America irrationally warning them that German wine in general, and German Riesling in particular, is something to be wary of. Even (or rather, especially) people who haven’t tried it tend to avoid it, looking askance at its tall tapered bottles and Gothic multisyllabic labels, spouting the well-worn syllogism: ”I don’t like sweet wines. German Riesling is sweet. Therefore, I don’t like German Riesling.” Most people who say this probably don’t realize that:
1. NOT all German Riesling is sweet — in fact, there has been a concerted movement towards drier (“Trocken”) styles of wine in Germany over the past decade or so; and
2. Even sweeter German Riesling isn’t sweet like other wines are sweet. To me, the best expressions of Riesling are those where there is a little residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation, because that hint of sweetness is a necessary counterpart to the firestorm of acidity usually present in good German wines. The delicate razor’s-edge dance between sweet and tart is the very essence of what German Riesling is all about, and to dismiss a key component of that ballet as something akin to what you find in a $6 bottle of insipid white Zinfandel is to do both yourself and these amazing wines a disservice. Most people who say they don’t like “sweet wines” actually don’t like UNBALANCED sweet wines, wines with a bunch of leftover sugar and nothing else to level it out. German Riesling is the antithesis of these kinds of bottles, and the best illustration that not all “sweet” wines are created equal.
If you get past the stereotypes and try a bottle of German Riesling for yourself, I predict you will quickly fall in love; to me they are the most individual, remarkable and memorable wines in the world. And the best part about joining the German Riesling Revolution is that the wines usually offer remarkable levels of quality for a bargain price. Many top producers make entry-level bottles that are widely available for under $20 CDN, some of the most impressive of which come from the well-known Mosel Valley winery of St. Urbans-Hof, instantly recognizable for its striking black and copper label design (see the bottle pics below). Last Thursday, a lucky few of us attended at the Crowfoot location of Co-op Wine & Spirits to hear Urbans-Hof owner and winemaker Nik Weis talk about his property and share a half-dozen of his recent wines.
St. Urbans-Hof has been in Weis’ family for three generations; he took over the operations and winemaking duties for the estate in 2007. The winery is named after St. Urban, the German patron saint of winemakers (directly translated, the name means “St. Urban’s Estate”), and is located in the town of Leiwen, on the banks of the Mosel River in western Germany. The Weis family owns 80 acres of Riesling vineyards scattered along the Mosel, all of which feature slate soils (a trademark of German Riesling viticulture) and steep slopes (45-50 degrees or more) which dive down towards the river. This part of Germany is one of the northern-most wine-growing regions in the world — at around 50 degrees latitude, it runs almost parallel to Calgary in terms of distance from the North Pole — but the severity of its slopes allows for more of each planted vine to get exposed to the sun and makes it possible for grapes to get fully ripe. If you’re wondering how much effect slope can actually have on vine development, consider this: Weis says that the amount of sun intensity his vines get on the banks of the Mosel is equal to the level of sun intensity that a flat surface would get at the Equator! The Mosel’s combination of fierce sunlight during the day and a temperature-regulating northern climate at night makes for grapes that are perfectly ripe but that still retain crisp acid and bright flavours, an ideal mix for Riesling. Add in the aforementioned slate, which sucks in the sun’s heat during the day and reflects it back out to the vines at night, and you start to see why the Mosel is, in Weis’ words, “the cradle of Riesling, the original true Riesling region in the world.”
With that bold (but in my opinion, true) proclamation, bottles were opened and the tasting got underway. Weis brought along six different Riesling bottlings by St. Urbans-Hof which escalated in price and quality as the evening progressed. Since all six bottles were Mosel Valley German Riesling, and since all of them came from grapes harvested within a 60 km radius from each other, it really allowed the tasters to isolate the flavour differences created by specific vineyard sources and to notice the gradual improvements in the wines’ pedigrees from bottle 1 through bottle 6. Below are my tasting notes from last Thursday night as I relished an evening with my favourite kind of wine:
2011 Urban Riesling ($12.75)
The Urban Riesling is the only wine of the six we tried that did not bear the full “St. Urbans-Hof” name. This is because the Urban is not an estate wine (which would thus make the “St. Urban’s Estate” label inaccurate if used) — this means that it was not made from grapes grown in vineyards that are owned by the producer itself. Instead, this entry-level Riesling is created from grapes that Nik Weis purchased from growers in a lesser-known section of the Mosel and then vinified himself. His aim with this and all of his bottlings is to create what he calls a “true Mosel wine”, which he believes has three components: (1) lower levels of alcohol (this one clocks in at 9.5% abv), (2) heightened acidity (which Weis says makes the wine “dance on the palate”) and (3) discernable levels of residual sugar left after fermentation, which go hand in hand with the previous two points — by leaving sugar in the wine instead of allowing it to be fermented into alcohol, Weis keeps the wine’s alcohol levels in check, and this leftover sugar acts to counterbalance the wine’s naturally high acid levels.
Weis’ Urban Riesling is intended to be an “everyday wine”, and while not overly complex, it is a solid demonstration of grape and region for $13. The wine is a clean pale lemon colour with a nose that’s both tight and tart: Granny Smith apples and wet rocks. In a non-derogatory way, it sort of smells like yellow Gatorade. A touch of sweetness on the palate really rounds out a flavour profile of apple cinnamon, mineral water and slate, and despite the presence of sugar, the wine finishes totally clean. As Weis puts it, this is “a good ambassador for the Mosel” at a bargain price.
2010 St. Urbans-Hof Mosel Riesling ($17.29)
Now we move into the winery’s base estate Riesling, made from grapes that come exclusively from St. Urbans-Hof’s own vineyards. There is no specific vineyard designation on this bottle, which means that it is likely a blend of grapes from various St. U-H vineyards, but Weis advised that the majority of the vines used for this wine are over 60 years old. The colour on this Riesling is as pale and transparent as the first, but the smell of it is completely different, with no overt tartness, powerful intensity and a gorgeous blackcurrant undertone. ”Dramatically mineral” is the best way I can describe the taste of bottle #2 — if “spa” had a flavour, this would be it. Electric acidity made the wine’s green fruit notes seem juicier, and the sweetness seemed way less prominent than the previous bottle. An optical illusion, according to Weis: the estate Mosel Riesling has basically the same amount of residual sugar as the Urban Riesling, but since the estate bottling has more “stuff” to it (acid, minerality, flavour, etc.), it integrates the sugar more successfully and thus tastes much drier. A salty sharpness lingers pleasantly on the finish, something Weis proudly refers to as “the margarita effect”. I defy you to find a $17 bottle that’s better representative of a grape than this one is of Riesling.
2010 St. Urbans-Hof Wiltinger Alte Reben Riesling ($19.04)
If you think there are a lot of words on the label of this bottle, brace yourself for its true full name: 2010 St. Urbans-Hof Wiltinger Schlangengraben Alte Reben Riesling Kabinett Feinherb. In order: (1) “Wiltinger Schlangengraben” refers to the village (Wiltingen) and vineyard (Schlangengraben, which mysteriously/terrifyingly means “snake pit”) where this wine’s grapes were grown; (2) “Alte Reben” means “old vines” — Schlangengraben’s vines were planted in 1921!; (3) “Kabinett” is a ripeness classification indicating that this wine meets top German quality standards and that the grapes were normally ripe when picked; and (4) “Feinherb” means that the wine is off-dry, or slightly sweet. The fact that half these words don’t appear on the front of St. U-H’s bottles indicates that the producer is trying to reduce the fear factor tied to German wines by simplifying its labelling. I personally enjoy the longer label names (click here for a quick guide on how to decipher them), but I get the rationale.
I can’t believe this wine costs less than $20. For the additional $1.50 premium that you pay on top of the base estate Mosel Riesling, you get a LOT more wine. This one is a clearly deeper colour, a bright golden straw, and features an amazingly intense aroma which includes the night’s first whiff of the classic petrol (gas/kerosene) smell that’s a hallmark of German Riesling, mixed with peach fruit, spice and a green herbaceousness. The wine vibrates on the palate with tangy energy and launches an assault of constantly shifting flavours, from stone fruits to rocks to gasoline to mint and back again. Most amazingly, you can still vividly taste it (as if it’s still in your mouth) 30 seconds after you swallow. For a sub-$20 bottle, that’s completely insane. Killer wine. Find this and buy it.
2010 St. Urbans-Hof Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese ($26.40)
Now we’re starting to get into the cream of the crop: Piesporter Goldtröpfchen (the Goldtröpfchen vineyard, whose name means “little gold drops”, located above the village of Piesport) is one of the best Riesling vineyards in all of Germany. ”Spätlese” is the ripeness designation right above “Kabinett” — it translates to “late harvest” and means that the grapes have hung on the vines a little longer than the normally-ripe, and earlier-harvested, Kabinett grapes (according to Weis, Spätlese grapes are picked 10-12 days later than Kabinett grapes). It is amazingly obvious that we have progressed into Serious Wine territory; when I go back to try bottle #1 after tasting this bottle, even though I quite enjoyed it, it now serves to illustrate just how much more complex St. Urbans-Hof’s wines have gotten…no Gatorade notes here.
The 2010 Goldtröpfchen is a shimmering gold colour, and it explodes on the nose with huge petrol, smoke, flint and wet pavement aromas — like smelling a parking lot or a gas station, but awesome. Then, in a complete about-face, as soon as you take a sip, it’s a cascade of tropical fruit, pineapple and mango and apricot. There is a fairly prominent sweetness on the palate due to the higher ripeness level in the grapes, and yet the wine still finishes dry, and its memory lingers on the tastebuds for well over a minute after you swallow. Ladies and gentlemen, this is German Riesling. Wow.
2007 St. Urbans-Hof Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese ($36.99)
This is exactly the same wine as bottle #4 — same grape, vineyard and ripeness level — but it’s three years older, giving us a chance to see what the wine is like with a little age on it and illustrating the difference that vintage can make in the flavour and structure of a wine. The ’07 is still a bright, luminous gold, not yet exhibiting any deepening of colour due to its extra years in bottle, and to my surprise its nose was much quieter than the 2010, more closed off and less intense. It could be that the wine is currently going through a “dumb phase” aromatically, a period during the normal aging process when a wine’s aromas and flavours seem more muted. It certainly tastes much drier than its younger counterpart; Weis informs us that the sweetness of the wine’s residual sugar “steps back over time” as its molecules break down and form different carbohydrate chains. The secondary notes of petrol and flint that were so noticeable on the nose of the 2010 move onto the palate of the 2007, joined by flavours of rubber and candied pineapple, among others, but the wine’s whole flavour profile is overlaid by a distinct mellowness that only a few years of age can bring. Although I love getting the chance to try back-vintage wines, I think I preferred the intensity and purity of flavour offered by the 2010 Goldtrõpfchen to the slightly restrained impression left by its older brother.
2010 St. Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Auslese ($45.84)
Last but not least, we enter the realm of the truly sweet wines. Bottles with the “Auslese” classification are made using specially selected super-ripe bunches of grapes (the word “Auslese” means “selected harvest”) that turn into powerful, pristine, concentrated wines which last for decades. This one is darker in the glass than its tasting brethren, a more burnished golden colour, and it hasn’t fully come together cohesively, although you can already tell it’s going to be a stunner. It smells somewhat shy, but still offers up a cascade of slate, asian pear, an aroma I can best describe as “fresh rain”, rubber and lit matches. It is the cleanest and purest tasting Riesling of the six, with so much acidity packed into its frame that it makes my cheeks hurt and the most sugar of the lot (by a fairly wide margin, I would guess), but the way it dances effortlessly in the mouth, you can barely tell. There is so much condensed flavour here that has yet to fully unfold, red apple, peach, lemon meringue and potent minerality, matched with an eternal finish that just goes on and on. It’s a wine you could serve to your grandkids in half a century, and it costs $45. Welcome to German Riesling, everybody. This is a tasting I won’t forget for quite some time.