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.
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.
It’s autumn (fall to my American readers). Or is it? Our TV weather presenters say that autumn began on September 1st while my calendar tells me that the equinox, which I thought marked the start of autumn, falls on September 23rd this year; so, by that measure, we still have a couple of weeks of ‘official’ summer left.
Whichever is right, it’s certainly beginning to feel autumnal here with chilly mornings and evenings and noticeably shorter daylight hours. And, at home, we’re already marking the changing year by putting away most of our lighter, summer recipes and moving towards some of our more robust, wintery dishes. With wines to match, of course!
And where better to start my search for winter warmers than with Domaine Lupier’s El Terroir Garnacha (aka Grenache) from the under-rated Spanish region of Navarra (Wine Society, £17.50)? Its mix of intense red fruits with savoury, earthy flavours went perfectly with a chunky beef casserole. The intensity resulted from genuine old vines; I’ve mentioned before that the term has no official meaning, but here, some of the plantings date from 1903, making the vines well over 100 years old. The combination of a vast root system gained over this time and the naturally lower yields of ageing vines contributes a special depth of flavour to the wine.
The savoury, earthy flavours I noted arise mainly from a bit of bottle age; this wine was from the 2012 vintage, so 7 years old and having had an opportunity to mature and soften gently in bottle. Depending on your taste, some drinkers may already find it a little too mature, although I notice that the Wine Society suggests ‘now to 2023’ as a drinking window.
But we certainly enjoyed it and found it a perfect partner for our rich, flavoursome dish.
The silver seal on the bottle says that the wine is ‘from 53 year old vines’ – that’s quite old for a vine. But does that fact tell me anything about the likely quality of wine in the bottle or is it simply a meaningless marketing tool? I’d suggest the former.
As vines get older, their root system becomes more and more extensive. This means that they can draw up greater quantities of water and other nutrients from the soil enabling the vine to thrive. At the same time, older vines (like some older people!) become less vigorous, producing fewer bunches of grapes. So, all this extra goodness goes to feed fewer grapes; the likely result: a better wine with more intensity and richness of flavour.
And that is certainly true with Stellenrust’s delicious barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa (Majestic Wine, £14.99). Distinctly oaky at first on the nose, but the wood is far better integrated on the palate alongside lovely tropical fruit flavours and a hint of toffee and vanilla. With its 14% alcohol, this is clearly a robust, full-bodied white, but there is no heat on the finish and the alcohol simply contributes an attractive richness and food-friendliness: try with poultry or white meat in a creamy sauce.
While this bottle is specific about the age of the vines, more common is a general reference on the label to ‘Old Vines’ or the equivalent in the local language. So, how old does a vine have to be before it is designated ‘Old’? Sadly, there is no legal definition, although most commentators say about 35 years should be the minimum age to qualify. With fewer grapes per vine, you should expect to pay a little extra for old vines wine but be rewarded with noticeable extra quality.