Tuesday, March 18, 2014

a couple thoughts about the hometown hero...

Zinfandel is the great American success story. It is a versatile performer capable of wearing many masks, of playing many roles in the drama of modern wine—or is it a comedy? Jury is still out...

my favorite Zinfandel moments include a dinner with a noted (very, and for that reason anonymous in this instance) American importer of fine wines from France and elsewhere in the Old World. Among other foolishness, I had concealed a bottle of 1973 Ridge Geyserville in a paper bag, and soon had the fellow swirling the wine in his glass and trying his damndest to guess which château in Pauillac the wine had come from. Oh dear…

Ridge will figure prominently in any story about Zinfandel—nearly twenty years ago I had invited a couple topnotch German winegrowers from the Pfalz to dine with me in Los Angeles at my favorite haunt, and spared no resource in digging out some extraordinarily good California wines for them to enjoy—very fine examples: 1978 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon—but the one wine that took the cake, not to mention making the braised lamb-shank bleat out of sheer ecstasy was the 1970 Jimsomare Zinfandel from Ridge. Still a baby at twenty-five years of age, a subsequent bottle ten years later was approaching perfection. 

and lest one infer that I'm just reciting ancient history, not too long ago I had taken a group of colleagues and customers on my Different Germany tour, which ended up in Siebeldingen in the Pfalz, where we came to roost in the Hotel Sonnenhof, and had a wonderful dinner in their restaurant. Top wine of the night? 1994 Ridge Geyserville — which during its rather fast half-life in decanter and glasses managed to hover weightlessly—not a bad trick at 14.3° alcohol—between Bordeaux and the Veneto. And had cost the princely sum of  24€ on the Sonnenhof's wine list.

and we want to get to know this versatile fellow just a little better. Every few years a new theory has been hatched concerning the origin of Zinfandel, and its relationship (very close) to the Italian variety Primitivo along with is relationship (close) to the Plavac Mali from Croatia. But now the mystery has been solved once and for all, by Californian vine-geneticist Carole Merideth, who has identified the original Zinfandel—Tribidrag—in an obscure vineyard on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kastelanski. And what's more, there are historical records of the Tribidrag being traded —and mentioned by name—across the Adriatic Sea to Venice in the early 1400s. One excellent appreciation of the variety was published by David Darlington in 1991; his Angels' Visits remained one of my favorite wine-books for quite some time. Darlington places Zinfandel's initial American appearance made in the1820s, brought over from the Imperial collection in Vienna, Austria. In the 1830s it was offered for sale by a Boston nursery, and became a popular table grape—grown under glass—in New England. In the 1850s Zinfandel was introduced to California, where it became a mainstay of the burgeoning viticulture that developed after the gold rush, and was widely planted during the wine-boom of the 1880s.

i am in the minority among serious wine professionals in not blanketly condemning the phenomenon of White Zinfandel, that wine tailored to the American consumer who’d grown up drinking Kool-Aid (not the metaphorical, but the original) and had a taste for that sort of sweetness. I actually served a bottle once along with Mulligitawny, and it was fine. And it introduced consumers to wine that otherwise would not have dared a step in that direction. But more importantly, it kept some really good old-vines vineyards from either getting hacked-out or budded-over during the 1990s.

zinfandel is rather disease-resistant in the vineyard; it produces generous bunches of grapes, but these will quite have unripe, ripe and over-ripe grapes hanging together. Once in the bottle he holds his liquor rather well. Common characteristics of aroma and flavor include spice-notes; the clove, cinnamon, black pepper and mint. Fruits belong to the dark-berry variety, black currant and black raspberry, black cherry. One notable Zinfandel that has always appealed to me is the gentler style practiced by Doug Nalle, who told me he always tried to get his Zin into the house at or under 24° brix, which meant into the bottle right around fourteen percent alcohol. This is a variety that works and plays well with others. Ridge’s wines can either be primarily zinfandel, like their Lytton Springs, or a field-blend like Geyserville that actually doesn’t have enough Zinf on the lot to wear the name by law—although it certainly wears the heart on its sleeve. Favorite playmates include Carignane, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah.

Joel Peterson and Ravenswood hardly need any introduction, but another estate I greatly admire is Green and Red. Propreitor Jay Heminway was a maverick, who planted Zinfandel on Howell Mountain at a time where anybody with any sense was planting CS & M. His wines buck the general trend toward bubblegumminess in Napa Zinfandel, and manage to show plenty of balance at north of 15% alcohol.

my personal favorite locale for this variety is Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. And that means growers like Rafanelli, Quivira, Ridge Lytton and Unti, along with urban pioneers Dashe, who make wines from the ancient vines in Louvau Vineyard and Toll Brothers Ranch. Dry Creek was already overgrown with Zinfandel well before the end of the 19th century, although the growers suffered one significant setback with the pandemic of phylloxera in the early 20th century—which found Zin being replanted on the resistant St George rootstock—and then another with the unmitigated disaster of Prohibition. Fortunately many of these old vineyards survived the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, and still form a significant part of the 2400 acres of Zinfandel in the AVA.

of course it is important to acknowledge Sonoma Valley's Stellwagen and Old Hill vineyards as well... And then there’s Amador & Shenandoah. Mountain wine. Thicker skins and stewed fruit notes, offering great depth of flavor and sometimes a little heat going down the dolce vita… Lodi, Paso Robles, Contra Costa County—all of these are good Zin territory. 

one excellent tribute to Zinfandel was paid on the public wine forum Wine Berserkers recently, where the members took great pains to compile a list of the venerable sites in the Golden State where Zinfandel is grown. The URL is: http://www.wineberserkers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=18190&hilit=california+old+zinfandel+vineyards


zinfandel is currently enjoying a resurgence on the NYC gastro-scene. Food matching with the variety is eminently rewarding; there are few directions in which this versatile fellow fears to tread, and most of those are better fed with—any culinary manifestations Italianate heritage, most red meat dishes—and lighter Zins will do as nicely as Chianti with seared salmon. Zinfandel likes cheeses like Reggiano, Mimolette and Roomano from Holland; some of the bigger ones will even take on Gorgonzola rather handily.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013



Top Ratings for Roland Velich’s Moric Wines 
now in Austria as well—
 






Wine-ratings are a very delicate issue. Out-and-out subjective, they purport to deliver an objective accuracy right down to the decimal place. And many ratings are the result of comparison-tastings, where many wines are sampled together and described, then given a numerical score.

Since its inception, Roland Velich’s Moric Estate, founded in 2001, has kept itself apart from these tastings. This was not because Roland was unwilling to look his competition in the eye, but rather that he aimed from the very beginning to make a wine whose characteristics were markedly different from the others—and radically new in terms of style. Velich recognised a ‘great grape variety’ in the native Blaufränkisch. He got down to business, making wines harvested from vines nearly 100 years old, realising their potential in wines whose elegance, finesse and spice articulated the great potential of the Blaufränkisch, as well as that of the soils in which the vines grow.

Velich’s wines tasted different from anything else that one had hitherto known as Blaufränkisch. This was—as we know today—the beginning of a new segment in the history of Austrian wine culture. But it also the story of a sensory confusion regarding the nature of language itself. Velich’s wines spoke what was for many Austrian wine-afficionados a foreign tongue. They did not join in the choir of powerful and fruit-driven red wines, muscular cuvées or warm-blooded and accessible drinkers. They spoke their own language; they were marvellously aromatic, with highly developed acidity—adhering less to any sense of style than to their own individual imperatives. Allow the wine to happen — this was far more than just a rough abbreviation of Roland Velich’s basic tenet.

A number of foreign wine critics received the Moric wines rather euphorically. 95 Parker-points (from David Schildknecht) for the Alte Reben (vieilles vignes) Neckenmarkt 2006 represented the highest rating that was ever given to an Austrian red wine. The highly respected magazine Wine & Spirits has named Moric three times among their Top 100 Wineries of the World. European wine-magazine Vinum offered its thanks to ‘legendary winegrower Roland Velich’ regarding his having discovered for the world a new, great red wine: Blaufränkisch.

At home in Austria, folks needed a bit of time in order to incorporate Velich and his style of winemaking into their conceptualisations concerning the very nature of Austrian wine. Wines and critics as well required time to find one another—and to understand each other. But now we can pronounce this development fully realised.

Roland Velich’s Moric Estate just took top honours in all of the recently published Austrian wine journals. The Gault Millau wine-guide rated his Blaufränkisch Neckenmarkt Alte Reben with their top score of 19.5 out of 20 possible points, while the Alte Reben Lutzmannsburg received with 19 points the second highest rating of the year. A la Carte awarded the Blaufränkisch Jagini Zagersdort 2011, which Velich produces together with Hannes Schuster in St. Margarethen, 97 out of 100 points—and with this their highest rating of the year—while the Blaufränkisch Alte Reben Neckenmarkt 2011 was rated 96 points and the Blaufränkisch Alte Reben Lutzmannsburg 95 points. In the Falstaff Weinguide, the Alte Reben Neckenmarkt 2011 was rated 95-97 points, while the Alte Reben Lutzmannsburg 2011 garnered 94-96 points—the highest and second-highest ratings for the vintage.

It means a lot to me, says Velich, that our wines are understood and appreciated, here where they come into being. I am very grateful to all of the tasters, that they have engaged themselves to such an intensive degree with our wines.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

...and now a word from the man behind the Moric: Wine and Culture

 —friend and colleague Roland Velich sent me this piece he'd written for Cultivino in Switzerland couple of weeks ago, about some of the Factors Underlying.
I got to liking it; have been always disposed to take a look at the cultural elements that frequently lurk behind the bottle—and before too long had cobbled together an English version...
There can be no doubt at this juncture that the world has another great red wine grape-variety, finding its way into the bottle.
  
Wine and Culture
the history of a borderland as seen through a glass of Blaufränkisch
by Roland Velich

It has been said that wine is one of the oldest elements of human culture. And so we ask ourselves how, then, did wine evolve into a cultural asset? The initial glance would suggest perhaps the fact that human intervention sought to achieve regular harvests out of a plant growing wild, in that the wild plant was cultivated and domesticated. People became settled and less nomadic, and thanks to an expanded dietary basis could spend the winter in secure quarters, where they were able to thrive and multiply—a well known and time-honoured story. And along with this, wine became a spiritual companion to the most widely different and various cultures.


The Foundation—
Ödenburg, known today as Sopron, was famous for its wine, the Ödenburger Blaufränkisch, which grew on the hillsides along Lake Neusiedl on the eastern outskirts of the city, as well as on the northern and southern foothills of the Ödenburg Mountains. A wine that had achieved great popularity, and as far as we know was successfully exported all over the world. Founder and sustainer, financier and daily bread for generations in Ödenburg and environs. Many aspects of the wealth and beauty of this city and neighbouring localities can still be seen today. Our wine is now grown on these last hillsides of the eastern Alps—geologically speaking, foothills of the Alps, covered with sediments left long ago by the Pannonian Sea. The climate here is continental, influenced by the Pannonian Plain. Our wine is grown at the intersection of the two great and dominant formations of the middle-European landscape, the Alps and the Pannonian Plain.
Conclusio I:
Bacchus amat colles. And it is not only Bacchus who loves the hillsides—Blaufränkisch loves them as well, along with other particular geologic, climatic and social circumstances conducive to achieving extraordinary quality.

The Undergrowth—
Blaufränkisch, a wine that achieved its first flight of fame at the time of the Napoleonic wars, and according to legend, was praised by the First Consul himself as one of the best red wines in all of Europe. The fine red wine was considered a valuable payment and exchange medium, equivalent to the hardest Napoleonic French currency, the franc—also a blue note. Is this where the name originated? Or is that just another good story? Others say that Charlemagne—personally, even—introduced the Blaufränkisch to the country. And of course, Empress Sissi of Austria, Franz Liszt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Iron Chancellor Bismarck—and so forth and so on—were allegedly great fans of the Blaufränkisch. Many stories, great names from the cultural world, but very little hard fact. Told in order to provide the wine with a cultural context and to solidify its value? More likely to make the good stuff taste even better to potential customers—shall we say, as an early PR gimmick...
Conclusio II:
Marketing, a technique long present in our culture, which doesn't really help us much in our presentation and findings. We've got to find things out ourselves.

Interruption—
Burgenland, a narrow stretch of land to the south of Vienna, bordered on the north by Slovakia, in the south by Slovenia, and at its longest border to the east by Hungary. Once known as German West Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as an integrated constituent part of the Kingdom of Hungary—and this Hungary once one of the worlds greatest wine-producers. In 1921 Burgenland became part of Austria, seen as a source of supply for the city of Vienna. But the dictates of the victors in the First World War made a point of leaving all the cities of the former Deutsch Westungarn behind in Hungary: Steinamanger, Pressburg (now Bratislava in Slovakia) and Guens, as well as Ödenburg, the naturally-evolved centre-point of the region. Central point as well of a prospering wine-culture, with Blaufränkisch and Furmint as its most important grape varieties. Burgenland remained, but as a land without cities, and worst of all as a land without a capital to hold it together, bereft of its centuries-old historical context. The land of the Ödenburger Blaufränkisch was cut to pieces, and with this the history of the grape variety became lost in the dark labyrinth of Hungary's political confusions.
Conclusio III:
Politics as a great destroyer of cultural assets and traditional values.

Warmth—
Two wars and the barbed-wire they left behind in their wake, running across a once-unified region, the breaking-off of essential rural territory on the one side and the centre-point on the other, meant a great loss for all concerned. Loss of establishment, loss of identity, loss of self-confidence as well as confidence in the splendid circumstances the region had previously enjoyed. The result often expressed itself in terms of indifferent wines designed according to belief in the quality of other styles and belief in the omnipotence of homogenised taste— industrialised wines bereft of any soul, arisen out of the merciless categorical imperative of a Five Year Plan. The consciousness of a common history concerning a product that we share, a product rooted in its own strength and peerless character, as well as the sense of security that comes from being rooted in a common cultural identity, will demonstrate to us that it's not always the shirt that's closer to us than the jacket. On the contrary, 'tis the jacket keeps us warm in stormy weather. A grape variety like the Blaufränkisch would certainly have the ability to spread wonderful warmth out over the borders.
Conclusio IV:
Self-reflection as a spur to cultural development.

Culture—
Cultural achievement consists of the collection, amplification and implementation of techniques whereby with the passage of time a crude block is fashioned into an artistically expressive object capable of arousing emotions:
Natural circumstances of climate and soil, the directional orientation and incline-factor of hillsides; trial & error and the lessons learned. Recognising mistakes in previous interpretations of empirical data and correcting them, the choice of rootstock, the grape variety and which clone—the selection of seedlings and the research concerning where they might be planted to obtain the best result—vine-training techniques, plantation density, cultivation of the soil according to conditions, knowledge about the physiology of the vine and applying this to their cultivation—optimisation of harvest time according to style, and above all the most effective interpretation of the grape and its location... Picking (Lesen—the German verb means to read as well as to pick grapes) the individual vintages and accepting the characteristics and peculiarities that render each unique. Triage during harvest, instinct, influence of the soil upon flavour, destemming, maceration, active intervention or simple TLC (?), patience, risk, willingness, sleeplessness, maturing, casks, tasting, despair, enthusiasm, bottling-appointments, bottling. And all this every year all over again, each facet a new experience every time, which can exert its influence on the subsequent vintage. And finally we paste our label on the bottle!
Conclusio V:
The span of time from when first the semi-nomadic horseman discovered a flavourful berry in the forest—with which he filled his saddlebags and then after a week's journey home found something in the saddlebags that perhaps didn't taste as good, but had something inspiring about it—until today. Wine as a secularised object of desire and big business—but still great fascination as well—has developed its cultural history into a double helix with the deeply interwoven strands Humanity and Wine.

Roland Velich, born in  1963, comes from Apetlon on Lake Neusiedl in Burgenland. Together with his younger brother Heinz he led the family estate Weingut Velich to the top rank of Austrian viticulture, creating among others the white cult-wine Tiglat. In 2001, Velich embarked upon his visionary Blaufränkisch project MORIC, where he interpreted (within the context of Burgenland) a previously unknown, delicate and subtle style of wine made from old-vines parcels. Roland is one of the few individuals most keenly responsible for today's worldwide success and recognition of Burgenländer Blaufränkisch.

 

Friday, February 15, 2013

the voice of Riesling, now mature...

foto: Dorli Muhr
so tonight is Parsifal at the Met—this last work by that old bastard Wagner is somehow less problematic on stage than the majority of his oeuvre… perhaps because it lacks the bloated and hysterical poetry of the Ring, and makes no significant pretense at drama, invoking rather the ritually devotional, filling it out with the various stuffs of legendry stitched reasonably well together. The first several minutes of instrumental music—I have heard a lot, but can think of nothing more sublime that’s ever reached my ears.
My first time was late July 1976, in Wagner’s own hillside temple in Bayreuth. And I had the excellent fortune of arriving in Germany for the first time as the brilliant 1975 vintage was hitting the café tables… And since then have been a devoted partisan of German Riesling, even while I do acknowledge that the boys in Austria and Alsace—and even Down Under in Oz—also make respectable examples.

...so last Easter I was in Vienna, and had the good fortune to experience my second straight Easter Sunday performance of Parsifal in the Staatsoper. I preferred Waltraud Meier from the year before as Kundry, but Kwangchul Youn was spectacular as Gurnemanz, and Wolfgang Bankl—a fine actor, btw—was quite well-staged as a porno-film director in the role of the self-emasculated sorcerer Klingsor.

and afterward? Well, it was 11PM on Easter Sunday in Vienna—not the liveliest of European capitals—where does one go for a late snack? Answer was, the bistro at Palais Coburg—and there we found a bite to eat, along with a bottle of 1975 Rauenthaler Baiken Spätlese from Schloß Eltz. I did raise an eyebrow when the sommelier first decanted the 37-year-old Riesling and then brought out red Burgundy glasses for it—but he seemed to have done this before, so I didn’t bleat.

and what a treat! The wine could not have been in better shape from this vintage that sometimes gets short shrift in between the monsters from 1976 and the grand & eloquent 71ers...  Not only is Baiken among the more photogenic of the Rheingau vineyards, but it also has the reputation of bringing forth rather long-lived wines. The name comes from the word Biegen, which refers to the way that the vineyard arches its back as it flows over the hillside. There’s not much in the way of limestone here, but rather decomposed slate, mica schist and quarzite, blown over with loess.

and the venerable Spätlese, from this legendary but vanished estate—from what had been a difficult period for the storied Rheingau? Bottle in perfect shape. Dark gold in the glass, not nearly gotten to amber, and the secondaries were in full flower, not yet arrived at the forest-floor that someday would come out in the aromatix—and easy on the petrol... the wine possessed a vibrant acidity still; these ’75ers remain lively, and this one played on the palate with a nice breath of passion fruit and a hint of apple—which had certainly been more prominent in its youth—with lovely mineral highlights on the way down. Not so much residual sugar perceptible in the wine... and the background dishes—nothing fancy—served to bring accentuate its texture. A memorable experience.



Friday, February 8, 2013

~ good beginns on the Hungarian side of the fence

—to be sure, something rather promising this way comes...
thanks to my developing relationship with Viennese PR firm Wine&Partners, I recently received the assignment to translate a press-kit into English on behalf of an Austrian entrepreneur, who has in the last dozen years planned and planted some 5 hectares of vineyard on the Hungarian side of the Eisenberg—all with Blaufränkisch; or more properly in the local lingo, Kékfrankos.
Rainer Garger is the man behind the project, with his Hungarian cousin Imre Garger managing the vineyards and Reinhold Krutzler—who needs little introduction—as cellarmaster.
and Herr Garger very kindly sent me a sample bottle of his first release, the 2009 Nador Kékfrankos Reserve, which I lost little time in first carefully examining, then quite happily drinking.
we bear here in mind that all of Burgenland was until shortly after World War I known as Deutsch-Westungarn (Germanophone West Hungary, to put it delicately), and when Burgenland left Hungary and joined Austria, Ödenburg a.k.a Sopron decided to stay, along with Wieselburg (Moson) and Eisenburg (Vas), while Pressburg became Bratislava. So though the name remains, Burgenland lost all four burgs in its birth-pangs...
and there is much about Burgenland that has still little in common with more familiar Austrian neighbourhoods like the Kremstal and Wachau. It's a different culinary culture to be sure, and while there is more Grüner Veltliner planted in Burgenland than anything else, this region that had made its reputation on very fine nobly sweet wines has in the last half-dozen years come up with reds from their three native vines that stand a satisfying comparison to many better bottlings of Burgundy and Piedmont. Reinhold Krutzler and Uwe Schiefer are just a couple growers who’ve been bottling excellent wines in Südburgenland for quite some time now; there had to be untapped potential on the other side of this border that wasn’t always there...

and the wine:
Nador 2009 Reserve started out with a wonderful aromaticity, a whiff of dark chocolate and a bit of anis on top of dried fruit, fried fruit, true-and-tried fruit, mostly of the Weichsel/Zwetschke persuasion—dark cherries and plums... The wood was held nicely in check by Mr Krutzler; it's so easy to overload young vines with it. On the palate the cherries check in once more, rich and deftly textured with much nice spice about it, offering an encouraging mineral touch in the finish. One can imagine the potential for additional depth that will be realised in further vintages when the vines get a little bit older...


Monday, January 28, 2013

a visit to the Karthäuserhof ~

so perhaps it is exactly because webloggery is so-o-o-o 2008 that I am going to revive this one, which I have sorely neglected for the past eighteen+ months—
also, the Schindlers have put me on a very long leash with the Winemonger Imports weblog—this has not gone unappreciated—and I have gotten a great deal of pleasure writing about the wines I sell on their behalf. So although I do enjoy communicating via FB & Tw...
let us therefore call it a Groundhog’s Day resolution—a favourite holiday of mine—when every year I ask myself if I’ve seen my Shadow: the answer, Dr Jung, always seems to be—yes, rather; on many occasions...

and so: a quick look at the bottle up in the corner. Known to all, the pride of the Ruwer, the longest name on the shortest label, Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg. Was just reading the daily, and it seems that Mr Tyrell has sold the place—to a family member resident on this side of the Atlantic—although the long-time principal is not going anyplace any time soon.

I owe a great deal to Christoph Tyrell. And not just because of the wines I’ve always enjoyed, everything from bright and lively Kabinett to the dramatic Auslese trocken. I first met him one day on a solo visit to Germany in the early nineties. He was one of several German growers who, upon learning of my interest in their language—others include Wilhelm Haag and Rainer Lingenfelder—have barely spoken a word of English to me since, which in the early nineties was a sink-or-swim proposition... I remember his patient elucidation of the way their language generates new material, speaking about hailstone damage. ‘Hagelschade,’ he intoned. ‘Hagel, Schade—von dem Hagel kommt der Schade...’

but the best thing Tyrell did for me was to persuade me to reschedule all of my appointments I’d made for the next day, and drive down to Tübingen—a university town way to Hell and gone away from Eitelsbach, 25 miles down the far side of Stuttgart in Schwabenland—and he was very emphatic, in the sense of ‘Do not fail to do this!’ Christoph had just returned from an exhibition of paintings by Paul Cézanne in the Kunsthalle in Tübingen, the most comprehensive exhibit for decades, and made very clear that it had been a rare and extraordinarily rewarding experience. So I took his advice, got on the phone and begged the necessary pardons, and early next morning headed south down the A61.

I had known of Cézanne for years, seen many of the paintings, but I was totally unprepared for the effect that such a widely-ranging collection would have upon the way I looked at visual art—and I have always felt fortunate to have been born in my favourite period of Art History: the first time I walked into the Hirschhorn Museum at nineteen years of age and saw the violent canvases of Willem de Kooning, along with many equally distinctive by Motherwell and Rothko, I had felt right at home. So I had always, fortunately, seen things from a flexible perspective. Perspective: there’s the word, and Cézanne was the innovator.

and it took me a while, but what finally got me farther back than Matisse and Monet was the visit with Christoph Tyrell, and his gentle insistence that I take a day off from wine-tasting. My appreciation of all visual art has ever since been richly informed by a more thorough acquaintance with the works of Paul Cézanne.

here is Der Spiegel’s writeup of the exhibit at the Tübingen Kunsthalle in 1993:

http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-13679560.html