Not Normal Times

Book and Wine

At this time of year, I’m normally busy attending tastings, running wine classes or events or preparing for them or, perhaps, planning a trip away – spring and early summer are lovely times to visit winemaking areas. But these are not normal times – we’re now almost 4 weeks into the coronavirus restrictions so, instead, I’d like to share some tips that might help wine lovers fill those spare at-home hours and try to make the best of these unprecedented and anxious times.

I’d been meaning to re-read Don and Petie Kladstrup’s ‘Wine and War’ for some time. It’s a fascinating insight into how the French wine industry coped under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Set against the tragic background, the book tells the stories of real winemaking families as they tried to survive – and protect their finest wines from theft or destruction.

I’ve also been following a series of mini wine talks on You Tube, recommended to me by Diana, a fellow wine educator and Secretary of the (currently suspended) Bristol Tasting Circle. ‘The Wine Show at Home’ is a spin-off from The Wine Show which is due to start a new series on TV soon. The ‘at home’ version features wine writer Joe Fattorini – always interesting to listen to with his wine-related anecdotes and informed recommendations. Definitely worth catching up with.

Although my wife, Hilary, and I have had to find new routines, there’s one aspect of our life that won’t change: our tradition of opening a bottle to share over dinner at weekends. Dr Bϋrklin-Wolf’s dry Riesling from Wackenheim in Germany’s Pfalz region (Wine Society, £10.95) is an absolute bargain. Delightfully crisp and fresh and with that typical tang – often strangely described as ‘petrol’ – of a Riesling with a few years in bottle (this one was 2015 vintage). A perfect partner for some oven-baked salmon steaks with a creamy spinach and avocado dressing.

So, that’s some of the things I’ve been doing; if you have any interesting or unusual suggestions for wine lovers to do during the present restrictions, do, please, share them in the comments box below.

Take care and stay safe.

A Winning Riesling

“The Wines of Germany, Austria and Hungary” – perhaps not the most popular choices for a wine course. But every place on a day course I ran recently at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre was booked. We tasted samples right across the spectrum: white, red, rosé, dry, off-dry and various degrees of sweetness. And, as usual, I asked the group to vote for their favourites at the end of the day.

Their top choices were as diverse as the wines. The narrow winner was Schloss Lieser’s classy, intense dry Riesling from the Mosel in Germany (Wine Society, £12.50).

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This showed the beautiful balance between fruit and acidity that all the best Rieslings have and was also beginning to develop interestingly in the glass – if only we could have lingered over it a little longer.

Just a single vote behind, there was a triple tie for 2nd place with one wine each from each of the 3 featured countries.

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From Germany, Johann Wolf’s Pinot Noir Rosé (Waitrose Cellar, £9.99) was deliciously clean and fresh with subtle strawberry fruit flavours. Above all, it was perfectly dry making it an ideal accompaniment to light food dishes.

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On the other hand, the group’s favourite red, A.Gere’s Kekfrankos from the volcanic Villany Hills region in southern Hungary (Wine Society, £11.25), needed to partner a really robust dish. Rich and with intense black fruits and a hint of spice, this is a bottle to leave under the stairs for a couple of years, as it will undoubtedly develop with time.

I might have guessed that the day’s final wine would have been the overall winner, but it, too, had to share 2nd place.

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Feiler-Artinger’s Traminer Beerenauslese from Rust in Austria (Waitrose Cellar, £12.49 per half bottle) is a wonderful, focussed sweet wine made by specially selecting the ripest grapes from the bunches. Yet, alongside the sweetness, there is a crisp balancing acidity meaning that the wine is not cloying at all, just really enjoyable either on its own or with a pudding or blue cheese.

So, although these 3 countries might not be among the most popular for all wine lovers, they certainly provided plenty of discussion and real drinking pleasure for our group.

Still Misunderstood

When I was young, there was a hit song by the pop group, The Animals, called ‘Please don’t let me be misunderstood’. Its sentiments spoke to many young men at the time but, subsequently, I’ve thought how well the title could apply to German wine, especially in the UK. “It’s too sweet” and “the labels are too complicated” are just 2 of the more frequent complaints and, as a result most supermarkets and even many wine merchants simply don’t stock it, believing that it will just stick on their shelves.

But, search a little and you can prove many of the common views about German wine wrong – as well as finding some delicious bottles to enjoy.

Trollinger

Take Aldinger’s Fellbacher Alte Reben Trollinger, for example (Wine Society, £16). For a start it’s red! Many would be surprised to know that just over ⅓ of all German wine is red, mainly made with Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder as its known there), but also Dornfelder, Portugieser and, as in the wine we opened, Trollinger. The grape is a speciality of the Wϋrttemberg region of southern Germany and would make a good alternative to a Cru Beaujolais. It’s a thin-skinned variety so produces quite pale-coloured reds but that in no way reflects the flavour. Our bottle showed all the lovely intensity of a wine made from old vines (alte reben in German) yet is fairly light-bodied, but with attractive bitter cherry fruit and a pleasant spicy bite.

Nothing like the semi-sweet, thin examples that are widely thought of as ‘typical’ of the country’s wines and proof, if any were needed, of how much German wine is misunderstood.

For those local to Bristol who might like to explore further, there are still a few places available on my day course ‘the Wines of Germany, Austria and Hungary’ at the Stoke Lodge Centre on Saturday 7 March. For more details and to book, go to www.bristolcourses.com.

Plain and Simple

I think it was the former US President Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.  Those who design most traditional German wine labels should take note!  Take the example below:

German Label

It has the producer’s name, the vintage, the grape variety, the region, village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown and even an indication of how ripe the grapes were at harvest.  This is typical of German wine labels and makes them among the most informative in the world.  But that – and the common use of the difficult-to-read antique font – also puts off many wine lovers who don’t want – or understand – all the detail.  “Just give me a clear idea what the wine is going to taste like”!

So, I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a German wine with one of the barest labels I’ve seen:

Grauburgunder

Just the producer’s name, the grape variety (Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris) and the vintage.  Anyone interested in the region (Rheinhessen) or village (Nierstein) could check the back label where you also find, far more importantly, that the wine is dry (trocken) and has, unusually for a German white, 14% alcohol. In some wines, this level of alcohol can taste ‘hot’ or dominate the flavour but not here; it brings a lovely richness in the mouth – closer in style to a good Alsace Pinot Gris rather than a light and quaffable Pinot Grigio.  The wine is quite savoury with a delightful saline character that makes it really food-friendly – a noble fish in a creamy sauce comes to mind. 

From the label to the taste and style, this is about as far away from normal expectations of a German wine as it could be, but it’s really delicious.  And a bargain, too: Louis Guntrum’s Grauburgunder is just £11.50 from the Wine Society.

The Steepest Vineyards

DSCN1357We’ve just returned from a few days in Germany visiting the famous wine regions of the Rheingau and the Mosel. Of course, I’d seen lots of pictures of the area and read plenty about it, but this was my first visit and I was truly amazed by what I saw. Wherever I looked, there were vines clinging to impossibly steep hillsides – some up to 65% elevation. How can people possibly work those sites? And why do they choose to plant there?

The answer to the first of those questions may be obvious: with great difficulty! There are posts at the top of some of the vineyards that workers can tie ropes onto and let themselves down to prune the vines or harvest and, in some of the more high-tech places, you find miniature monorail systems that run up and down the slopes to carry the grapes to somewhere slightly more accessible.

But why plant on these slopes? The area is at the northern-most boundary of where wine grapes will ripen properly so growers have to take every opportunity to help the vines. Using south-facing slopes gives better exposure to the sun and protection from cold north winds. The slopes mean that rain drains quickly so that the vines’ roots are in warmer, dry earth and frosts roll away down the hillside; also much of the ground itself is comprised of decomposed slate which acts like a storage heater and holds the heat.

Even with all these advantages, growers still need to choose a variety that will survive the bitterly cold winters. And, for most, the one that works best is Riesling. It’s a grape that many in the UK avoid but, for me, apart from the very cheapest examples, it’s a variety that can produce some remarkable wines. I’ll tell you more about them in my next blog.

We travelled with Railtrail Tours Ltd. For more information about this and other tours they run, go to http://www.railtrail.co.uk.