the Wrecking Crew tackles Germany…
So it was a lot of work, but we proved ourselves equal to the task. My friends Aaron and Marie and I crammed ourselves and two of our better customers—one resto, one retail—into a new MB station wagon, and set off to see the sights of Germany. Is five a lucky number? Or just a handful? And does three-times-five have any special meaning, as in: five people, five regions, five days? Or is it just too much for two hands to hold? The silver station wagon got parked on our first night under a tree in front of Weingut Hans Lang in Hattenheim, where a family of birds turned out to be diligently digesting… ‘twas a comic sight to see the next morning…
There were two thoughts I had in mind whilst organising this trip. Since I was travelling with four people who had not yet been on a wine-tasting tour of Germany, there were a couple points I wanted to make:
1. Although Riesling is by far the finest and most noble grape grown in Germany, there is much else growing on vines which produces fine and idiomatic wine, most notably Spätburgunder, Weißburgunder and Silvaner.
2. Although Rheingau and Mosel are the most storied and famous of the wine-growing regions, they represent by no means the entire picture.
3. Incidental to this, the regional cuisine can be quite satisfying.
4. NB there’s not much of a regional cuisine in the Mosel… It’s always been “wine for wine’s sake” territory
An added impetus to make the trip at this point was provided by the rather marvelous wines of the 2007 vintage in Germany. There were not so many seventeen-syllable extravaganzas bottled as were produced in 03 and 05, but the good growers made lovely elegant Spätlesen and Auslesen, big expressive dry wines—and even some yummy Kabinett, which has recently been a sore and frayed spot in the fabric of German wine-culture.
Regional cuisines showed rather as promised, including some pretty delicious asparagus—although when we first landed, the Spargel season had been delayed by weather, and it looked like my promise and big buildup would turn out to be nothing but a tease. But as we proceeded further south, there was plenty of white asparagus to be had, and my companions soon began to appreciate what I’d been talking about.
First stop on our whirlwind tour took place right after we landed, some forty-five minutes down the highway at Weingut Fürst zu Löwenstein, in the little Rheingau town of Hallgarten. The proprietor’s real name is Carl Friedrich Erbprinz zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, so in the spirit of “simplify” which has become in recent years a theme of the changing German wine-culture, he is colloquially known as Leo. Leo’s got a new winemaker, Frau Friederike Voigtländer, a Winzerin from the Nahe, who started working with the current vintage. Although the recently departed Robert Haller gives her a hard act to follow, she couldn’t have made a better debut. There are lovely 07s not too far down the line for us, including a really delicious Kabinett. We got a good look at the vineyards which gave Löwenstein its turboboosted entrée to the upper echelons of German wine, when in the late nineties they took back the production of vineyards which they had leased to Schloss Vollrads for the previous twenty years. Included is a very special site called the Hendelberg, which is planted in Urgestein—that conglomeration of quartzite and granulite more frequently associated with Wachau than Rheingau. Situated uphill in a cooler spot, it’s recently become warm enough to produce some remarkable raw material. We were greeted in the tasting room by a delicious spread of cold-cuts (mostly the product of winegrowers defending their vines against the rampaging Wildschwein) and the local Spundkäs. Fresh bread that is the daily staff of life in Europe, but still a luxury in America, completed the picture. Oh, yes, and wine for lunch! Of particular interest is the dry Estate riesling, the Riesling Erstes Gewächs “Hallgartner Schönhell” and a very fine Rheingau version of pinot noir, the Hallgartner Schönhell Spätburgunder Spätlese Trocken. Here we felt quite content to combine tasting duties with a welcome meal after a long flight.
Hans Lang produces delicious Rieslings and Spätburgunders out of the best sites in Hattenheim… This town, the second on our tour, lay just a couple kilometers down the hill from Hallgarten, though the wines are marked by significant changes in the soil, most notably the emergence of gravel and slate as one gets down closer to the Rhine. Lang’s 06 Charta Riesling is very fine, and shows bright fruit and crisp acids. (The other important Charta Riesling in the local market comes from the Johanneshof, which is distributed by our colleagues at Lauber Imports. I tasted it the other day at their portfolio show, and it describes the perfect expression of the difference between Johannesberg and Hattenheim—it’s leaner and more elegant, a little drier—while the Lang shows more ostensible flavour and power in an equally polished package.) The 07 Lang Liter Riesling is as reliable as any, and better than most. Hans took us downstairs and led us through tank samples of the latest vintage, pouring us tastings of lots that were tantilisingly delicious in some way, while incomplete in others, even as he explained that we would get to try the harmonised, blended versions on the morrow. Which we did in due course, and it proved very instructive. Of special interest are the single vineyard Riesling “Vom Bunten Schiefer”, which means ‘from coloured slate’, and the Erstes Gewächs “Hattenheim Wisselbrunnen”. There are a couple different Spätburgunders which come from this estate, which shortly got sampled in the course of action, when Hans and Gabi took us to dinner at their vinotheque, which is about five minutes away from the winery by foot.
And after getting once more well fed we headed for the Kronenschlößchen, the local luxury hotel and gourmet-getaway, where we drank some immortally great Rheingau Rieslings—1971 Schloss Vollrads Spätlese, 1990 Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese—and made an ill-advised attempt to drink a 1993 Méo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée Les Chaumes after the Weil Auslese… by this time I was ready for a bottle of beer and a talk with the mattress. If you want to see a really sick wine-list, tap this addy into your browser:
and special thanks go to a very generous Hans Lang, who paid the rather extravagant bar-tab.
Next day found us on the road to the Mosel…
But first Gabi Lang took us on a little detour to Kloster Eberbach, the mediaeval monastery in the Rheingau, which had been so important to the birth and growth of wine in this part of Germany. Our tourguide was a Wisconsin native whose fluent English was curiously accented by virtue of it having become her second language over the course of at least a couple decades… She showed us the path trod by Sean Connery during the filming of “The Name of the Rose”… and enumerated various and many reasons why it couldn’t have been very much fun to be a monk in the Middle Ages. We admired the old wooden presses, and made hamfisted guesses at deciphering the Latin inscriptions which adorned them.
Then we crammed back into the car and started off across the Hunsrück to visit Andreas Schmitges in Erden. Nice day for a drive, didn’t get stuck behind trucks on the Landstraße—what more could a band of travellers want? Food! That’s what… Frau Schmitges had luncheon ready for us when we walked in the door: quite a hearty and toothsome Schnitzelauflauf, with a greenleafy salad alongside. (Side-salad-comment—one of the dangers of travelling to taste wines in situ is that you’re often travelling during the hours where most of the people in the region are having lunch. IF they wait lunch for you, it’s a sure and secure sign of affection.) Well fed, we trooped over into the tasting room, where Andreas led us through his excellent 2007 vintage, which spanned the range all the way from the dry Grauschiefer up to an outstanding Auslese. Here in the middle-Mosel, Schmitges’s motto is “pure finesse, rather than sheer power”… the wines bear this out; none of them are heavyhanded or alcohol-laden—neither are they sharp acidic taskmasters, which is sometimes a danger in the Mosel Valley, in those instances when a wine is finished drier rather than sweeter. Schmitges has found a way to imbue his wines with a little extra texture, more than one might normally expect from this part of the world. At the same time he remains resistant to the trend which he describes as “Rubens meets the Governator”… So, there’s a bit of weight, coupled with agility and grace. But still more of a ballerina than a linebacker. Andreas makes the two estate Rieslings, one being the drier Grauschiefer (the name means ‘grey slate’), and both of which have proven beautifully consistent within the context of vintage variation, ever since I had him in the programme. To close the visit he guided us on a short excursion up into the heights of the Erdner Prälat, where we could see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles… But, truth to tell, the micro-landscape of the soil variants in this precipitously steep riverside vineyard were as interesting as the river itself, or the distant undulating hills of the Hunsrück.
Then on to the Hofgut Falkenstein. Since my normal navigator wasn’t with me this year, I didn’t get lost driving there like I did last year—out in a back alley of the Saar river valley, where actually once the lovely river Miss Mosel flowed, back in those days when the man in the moon was a little boy... I first stumbled upon this bastion of antique handiwork when I was touring with Schildknecht in the early years of the current century, and I was very happy to bring in selected lots during my time at VOS. I am still looking for a good reason why some German rivers have masculine names, and some feminine: der Rhein, der Neckar—but, die Mosel, die Nagold, die Isaar—all rather confusing, that…
The thing that comes most to mind was how absolutely unique and inspiring the wines of Erich Weber’s Hofgut Falkenstein taste. Weber has been in business getting on for thirty years, during which time he has developed a small but fine wine estate, to which he has been adding vineyard parcels steadily over the past couple decades, and is now farming some 10+ hectares. He is fortunate to have two contrasting terroir-profiles to choose from: the red slate of Niedermennig, and the blue slate of Krettnach. Many of his vineyards have never experienced the ravage of phylloxera, and his ungrafted Riesling vines aged forty to eighty years yield harvests in the 20s-30s hectolitres per hectare range. The wines are fermented in age-old barrels, with natural yeasts, usually over the course of a couple to several months, during which time the wines gain a marvelous degree of texture, which allows them to balance the typically high Saar acid level without resorting to a lot of residual sugar. The winemaker himself is a bit of an anomaly, a thoroughly modern fellow who just got on an airplane for the very first time to come to our last portfolio show in April. The vineyard practices at this estate could hardly be more organic, but Erich doesn’t care about certification. He makes wine in a way appropriate to these fine old vineyards in this sheltered valley. Many of you have heard me say “Weber makes wine like it’s 1899”. And he doesn’t really make it, he grows it… (his colleagues say “Weber, you’ve got so much clover in your vineyard, you produce more hay than wine!”)
It would do well, at this point, to consider the wines that have just arrived from Hofgut Falkenstein. In stark contrast to many good and even fine estates, Erich Weber made a masterpiece out of a vintage that was often more of a disasterpiece, a vintage that Weber described as “great and crazy—winter till June— rain, rot and fog, and it took three times the effort.” So he waited for a dry and warm November, till things dried out, and then he picked.
2006 Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spätlese—this from a red-slate site, lovely aromas of peach and peach pit, gripping mineral profile, beautifully textured, a perfect balance of acid (9g) with residual sugar (10g) and alcohol (12%), showing a classic presence and uncommon persistence on the palate. Even with the ten grams of residual sugar, the overall impression is that of a dry finish.
2006 Krettnacher Altenberg Spätlese—the blue-slate special, this from a site with a little more dirt—clay and loam—on top of the rocks, and comes from the best part of the Altenberg, which is South-South exposure. This wine is finer and more delicate, although the numerical statistics are the same as for the Herrenberg Spätlese above. Beautiful apple and yellow fruit aromas, rolls gloriously across the palate, and finishes in a glorious burst of mineral and finish aromatics.
2006 Krettnacher Euchariusberg Auslese—this comes from a patch of 80 year-old ungrafted Riesling vines. A true masterpiece, a fact and fancy faceful of apples and golden fruits: peach and quince and pear... A finish as long as the name. The tale of the tape is, acid (9.5) residual sugar (40 grams) and alcohol (11,5%)… This wine shows a masterfully eloquent presence on the palate, perfectly integrated minerality and beautifully interpolated ripe acidity. The texture is quite notable, and wraps the wine around tastebuds you won’t have used for a while, my friends…
And after all this, Frau Weber fed us dinner, and we made our way back to Zeltingen, where we checked in to our hotel—which didn’t have our reservation, but, thankfully, did have rooms! I then led people to an ATM, here called “Geldautomat,” to refill empty wallets, then dropped the party-animules off in neighbouring Bernkastel at the disco before returning to having a quiet glass of beer in the bar accompanied by Marie, who sipped her German pinot noir with appropriate appreciation, before she retired and left me to a second quiet glass of beer.
Next morning we were up early and got off on a flying start for Franconia, where we visited Prince Leo at his other winery in the Main-riverside market town of Kreuzwertheim. This estate has been for hundreds of years in the family, unlike the Rheingau estate which dates from the late nineteenth century. Leo trooped us down the street to the local lunchery, Gasthaus zum Stern, where we very shortly started digging in to serious Spargel—and more Wildschwein, out of the local forest. And one must not neglect to mention the fresh water fishes found nearby, like the Forelle (trout), and, very importantly, Herr Zander Vitreus Vitreus: noneother than the fabulously delectable walleye of Wisconsin… (Note: German fish do not swim in fresh water. There it’s called sweet water.) Löwenstein’s other family business is forestry and lumber, so they actually send the produce of their own woods to François Frères, where they are coopered into barrels which return to the two wine estates.
And in Kreuzwertheim we met Leo’s new winemaker, Frederike, herself a woman of few words, none of them English. She let her wines do the talking, and they spoke very eloquently indeed. We got a bit more mileage and info out of Löwenstein’s Scottish regisseur Robert MacGregor, especially about the Homberger Kallmuth, that geologically massive edifice of sandstone and limestone, a two-story split-level study in contrasting rockpiles which is one of the three most historically storied vineyards of Franconia, whence comes remarkable Silvaner and Riesling (Würzburger Stein is the second, and we’ll meet the third on the next page...) One big surprise from our tasting with Mr. MacGregor was Löwenstein’s 05 Lengfurter Oberrot Spätburgunder. This is midrange pinot-noir at its finest.
Then we said goodbye to Leo-san after a lingering foto-op, and piled back in the car for a short drive through construction-traffic on the Autobahn to Randersacker, where we were warmly received at Weingut Schmitt’s Kinder. (Along the way, I explained to my passengers that the German word for traffic-jam, “Verkehrsverstockung”, is just plain too long, so the Germans say instead “Stau”, which is the word for ‘flood’.) (However much explaining I may have done, all of my companions proved themselves time and again very patient with it…)
And we shortly found ourselves at the foot of the vineyard named Randersackerer Sonnenstuhl, the sun’s chair, that favoured site farmed by my favourite estate among those I sold at VOS, Weingut Schmitt’s Kinder.This is Franconia, so it’s not really Riesling country—here the greatest wines are more typically produced from Silvaner—although the thing that initially attracted me to Schmitt’s Kinder was the beauty and expressiveness of their Randersackerer Marsberg Riesling… After I had a brief dialog with the new piano, we sat down to taste. The current offerings are not only impressively proportioned, but also elegant, in a region that is better known for things other than elegance. Schmitt’s have recently added Weißburgunder to their Sortiment, a move that seems to show early fruits of success… Our tasting ended with a magnificent 2002 Randersackerer Sonnenstuhl Scheurebe Beerenauslese—or so we thought, until its brother Trockenbeerenauslese followed hard on its heels… I think I can still taste it.
By that time, young Martin Schmitt had joined us, and he piled us into the winery van for a trip up into the Randersackerer Pfülben, the third of those historic sites of Franconia, limestony in character. Up the hill, being careful not to run over joggers, climbing out and getting our feet in the dirt, then going down the hill, likewise—we made then a quick look in to the cellar before going off to our hotel and dinner.
Both of which were to be found in the majestic old city of Würzburg. This municipality has been on the map for some thirteen hundred years, and just barely remained standing by the time I got the party animals packed into the car and out of town the next morning.
Dinner took place in Weinhaus zum Stachel. This is one of my favourite restaurants in Germany, and is devoted to the local cuisine, using the local ingredients, but rather finely presented, sensitively prepared and deftly done. We started with a delicious bottle of Weingut Cassell Silvaner Kabinett Trocken, followed then by the majestic Pfülben Riesling GG from Schmitt’s… I explained to Herr Schmitt over dinner, that “with dining in Germany, I started with Michelin stars, and then I worked my way downward until I found what I really liked, which is this.” In addition to the cuisine at Stachel, there are some rather rococco and suggestive paintings decorating the ceiling in the dining room, which soon found Aaron with his sketchbook out, and a pen in his paw… After dinner I was pleased to find a pub called the Irish Pixie, which had real Guiness on tap, rather welcome after the Canadian substitute we get here in the US…
And then in the morning, my patient passengers endured a rather long drive to Baden, where we went to visit our friends at the co-op Winzergenossenschaft Königsschaffhausen. I had tasted their 07 vintage shortly before at Prowein in Düsseldorf, and was determined that we not miss them on our trip—even though it meant a good bit of Autobahn in close quarters. And it was a lovely day on the Kaiserstuhl, where the Herren Zimmerman and Henninger took us on a walk up in to the two best vineyards, the Hasenberg and the Steingrüble. Amazing, how several hundred small growers can be marshalled into an effective farming unit, all producing top quality fruit, weather co-operating— Our walk up into the vines was followed by an extensive tasting from the Edelstahl (inox, or super-stainless, although the German name ‘noble steel’ is very evocative) tanks in the cellar of this wonderfully modern facility—which was followed by an exhaustive (not exhausting, exhaustive—repeat after me…) tasting from bottle of the year’s best wines—and this included some wines for which the appreciation might be second-nature to the natives, but which don’t quite appeal so easily to the American perspective. (This being said, I think all who were visiting now appreciate what we importers go through on a yearly basis, trying to select the couple of wines that might be right for our market, out of a couple dozen which the winemakers love all like their own children, and promote like the most rabid Little-League parents…) 07er Flaneur and 07er Grauerburgunder are quite tasty...
And we dined on a lovely dinner in the Gasthaus zum Ochsen, the table laden yet again with local provender, not quite so delicately prepared as the evening before: more Spargel for those who wanted Spargel—which was still nearly all of us—excellent Wildschwein, and for me a rather delicious and gamy hunk of hare with spätzle—American supermarket rabbit might well taste like chicken, but a Badenser Feldhase, the local hare, does not. And we had a waitress who could’ve taken on Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” and left him smoldering in a heap on his chair… afterwards we held a quick discussion about there being no nightlife in Königschaffhausen—there really isn’t—and a quick consult about whether to head to Freiburg or Colmar, and headed off to the former, where my dead-reckoning navigation system dropped us off right between the university and the more secular nightlife. No great adventures there, just a rather aggravating parking garage which found my patience at low ebb, happy to take advantage of the late hour and an unused in-ramp, along with the well-armoured underside of the Mercedes-Benz to make a bit of a getaway… but we were all tucked in to bed by four, and ready to head off next day at the crack of noon.
A word or two about GPS—I don’t like the damn thing. Refused to use it. Always found where we wanted to go. Even when the road was gone. I do look at the map, and I will ask directions, dammit.
And next day we even stopped to play along the way—we took Marie to France for lunch—even if it’s not a very French part of France, we did get to see the Tricolour wave in front of the Mairie as we dined on Tartine d’Auvergnat on the sidewalk at the only sidewalk-café in the town of Bischwiller—and really, it wasn’t really only about our française Marie. According to Cornelia Kessler, the way you get from Baden up to the Pfalz is in fact best through Alsace, rather than getting caught foreveer in truck-traffic on the A5… (and this is where Aaron took the photo of me that graces the frontspiece...)
Cornelia and brother-in law Gunter Kessler at the Münzberg were kind enough to receive us on the day before the Mainzer Weinbörse, the most important wine-fair in the wine country. This estate is one of the finest in that part of the Pfalz known as the Südliche Weinstraße—the Southern Wine-Trail. Here the lovely Kessler daughter and her Geisenheim-colleague boyfriend took us on a detailed tour of the cellar and presshouse, answered all questions, then sat us down outside at a nice big table with lovely cheeses and a stellar collection of Weißburgunder (pinot blanc) from the 07 vintage, along with a couple lovely Rieslings and some very impressive Spätburgunder. And we got to watch the Rottweiler puppy chase the cat…
Last dinner best dinner, I thought, at the Sonnenhof in Siebeldingen. Matthias Goldberg is the chef at this weekend retreat, and he’s been just short of a Michelin star for the past couple years. This little town is home to the very famous wine-estate of Ökonomierat Rebholz, which is locally distributed by our colleagues at David Bowler Wine… Dinner started with a bottle of sparkling wine, Rebholz π-no Sekt (ouch! “Pi-no”!…) at the pickanick table outside in the sculpture garden outside the hotel, accompanied by the furious percussive sounds of Marie slaughtering every mosquito in the southern Pfalz as they lit upon the glass… I found the sekt a bit on the woody side, but my opinion constituted a minority in this case. Dinner in the Sonnenhof was quite satisfying and enjoyable—Goldberg has even found a way to make the hearty Saumagen of the Pfalz (a stuffed pig-stomach) into a light appetizer, to say nothing of what he does with a pork tenderloin... For the first dinner wine, we stayed with the local product Rebholz, and drank a 06er Riesling Vom Bunten Sandstein Kabinett Trocken that was not quite so generous as we might’ve liked. (Ah well, the 05er was brilliant, and I’m sure the 07er will be as well… This while we studied the menu…) Then with the first course came one of my favourite whites of the trip, a bottle of Münzberg 2004 Weißburgunder Schlangenpfiff. This Grosses Gewächs, whose name means ‘the snake’s hiss,’ comes from the best part of Kessler’s vines in the Godramsteiner Münzberg, and showed itself to be truly memorable. If you can imagine the dimension and texture of great white burgundy, only without any oak at all, than you might begin to get the picture. Here in the Pfalz, Weißburgunder has very little at all to do with its namesake, the pinot blanc of Alsace… Second course brought with it red wine from one of the neighbours, Herbert Meßmer in Burrweiler, a 2004 Burrweiler Schloßgarten Spätburgunder Selekt. Meßmer has been a mainstay of the Terry Theise collection for a couple decades now, and his red wines have recently started finding their way to America. The wine list was actually a wine-book, and at the very back of it close to the index I found a 1996 Ridge Geyserville (my favourite American wine) for 28€, which showed very eloquently in this international setting, and even wandered back and forth between conveying impressions of the Veneto and those of Bordeaux—for the short while that it lasted.
And then after dinner I ordered a glass of beer, the boys ordered more wine—another four bottles, I think, which the long-suffering (and well-tipped) waiter put on ice for them—and I said goodnight around half-past one…
Half-past six I was knocking on doors and ringing cellphones: “Off your ass and on your feet!” This was the one appearance made by Sergeant James during the expedition (who just then just momentarily took the place of “good ol’ James”) since, during the entirety of the trip, everyone behaved in a faultlessly professional fashion, whenever they were one the job, in cellar or tasting room. And as I loaded everybody into the car for the 75minute sprint up the A5 back to Frankfurt and the airport, I marvelled that nobody was groaning with the symptoms of hang-over. Then it dawned on me the reason why: they were all still drunk—