Friday, 29 May 2009

Hail storm on Weiler Schlipf

I meant to post this over two weeks ago, but - as in the past two months - I've been too busy to blog.

Anyway, earlier this month, a hail storm hit the Weiler Schlipf vineyard at its eastern extremities within a narrow 150-metre band. According to Claus Schneider of Weingut Schneider, around 30 to 40% of the future crop - mainly pinot varieties - may already have been lost within this part of the vineyard as a result of the hail.

However, there is a chance that the damaged vines may yet recover during the course of the season, given that its still early days in this year's vegetation period.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Basler Staatswein

The high season for asparagus will soon be drawing to a close in these climes, I imagine. Germans just love their Spargel. Unlike their foreign counterparts, German growers cover their asparagus in plastic before the tips break through. This enforced light deprivation results in white asparagus and not the green variety seen elsewhere. I like both variations, but you can't beat the white variety with Sauce Hollandaise, smoked ham and Kratzede (that's Alemannisch for pancake cut into small slices). From mid-April to June, I can see from my kitchen window the Spargel woman from Weingut Fritz Wassmer (he also grows asparagus) standing outside the Apotheke every morning selling her produce to (mostly) pensioners who queue up from the crack of dawn.

According to general consensus, the best wine with Spargel tends to be light and white. In Gutedel, we therefore have a local grape here that's tailor-made for asparagus. This particular specimen, an Isteiner Kirchberg "Exklusiv" trocken QbA, goes down a treat. I do like it when white wines such as this one still exhibit small bubbles in the glass after pouring. If nothing else, the bubbles gives the wine a fresh appearance. On the nose, nutty and grapey as per Gutedel par excellence. On the palate, you can tell that the grapes must have been immaculate when picked. Lovely and refreshing - uncomplicated, but in a good way. And the price? An absolute bargain at just under 5 euro. Available at all good stockists in the Basel area, or alternatively direct from the Bezirkskellerei Markgräflerland in Efringen-Kirchen.

So far so good, you may say. However, this wine has a certain claim to fame: in the 2005, the government of the Swiss canton of Basel-Stadt named it the Basler Staatswein, i.e. the wine to be poured at official functions and such like in the red-coloured city hall on Basel's Marktplatz. Here is the official media release (in German) to prove my point. And here are two photos:

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Bull in a china shop

The "bull" is Germany's finance minister and the "china shop" is Switzerland.

Excuse me for going slightly off-topic, but it would be remiss of me not to mention what has been the news topic in Switzerland over the last couple of weeks.

Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, has become Switzerland's most hated man owing to his rather unfortunate comments of late concerning Switzerland's banking secrecy laws, not least his most recent one about the cavalry and the Indians.

In response, a number of restaurateurs and a local supermarket chain in my local area near the Swiss border have now published an ad in the Basler Zeitung denouncing and distancing themselves from Steinbrück's comments. The many comments below the article (in German) speak for themselves.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

"To-do" wine list for the rest of this year (provisional and from the top of my head)

Just off the top of my head, I can think of the following (in no particular order of preference):

1. Try more wines from other regions than just Baden and the Pfalz
2. Try more Weißburgunder - it is an underrated and beautiful thing
3. Try more wines from the best, and nearest, local producers (e.g. Schneider in Weil, Ziereisen from Efringen, Blankenhorn from Schliengen, Schlossgut Istein..)
4. Try more "international" varietals grown increasingly in Germany, such as Chard, Sauv Blanc, Cab Sauv - but don't overdo it.
5. Continue my quest for decent but inexpensive Spätburgunder

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Blood, sweat and tears

Sometimes, being a vigneron can be bloody hard work. Obviously, some knowledge of wine is a prerequisite. Yet, you also need to work tractors and the like, be prepared to get your elbows dirty, have some scientific knowledge, be a dab hand at marketing, be able to keep the books in order etc. etc. Plus, good-quality wine wouldn't go amiss either, thank you very much... In short, winemaking is a line of work that not requires specialist expertise but also spades of enthusiasm, patience and resilience.

Weingut Emrich-Schönleber from the Nahe recently took this a step further by purchasing an old parcel of land situated in their Erste Lage Halenberg site that had become overrun with hedges during the previous 30 years. Over a two-year period beginning in 2006, they cleared the overgrowth, prepared the soil, planted and nurtured new vines before finally harvesting their first crop in the 2008. Here is the illustrated story (in German) of their project.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Rally synopnis

I must say, I enjoyed taking part in the wine rally for the first time. In any case, it certainly helped to concentrate the mind. As always, this month's rally "host" subsequently offered a synopsis of all the various contributions. And there were some real crackers in there, too. All in German, of course - which it made all the more exciting to have my humble English-language blog mentioned in such exalted company!

Anyway, this has given me a lot of motivation to update more regularly now. Maybe I could even write something in German for the wine rally one day.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Terra rossa

This is my Weinrallye piece, so I feel I should include a preface in German:

Lange habe ich überlegt, ob ich diesen kurzen Artikel auf deutsch oder englisch schreibe. Fürs Letztere habe ich mich nun entschieden. Dafür bitte ich meine deutschsprechende Leserschaft um Verständnis. Ich schreibe in meiner Muttersprache, da ich mich bei diesem Thema möglichst "praxisnah" ausdrücken möchte. Ausserdem steht schließlich unter den Spielregeln zum Weinrallye nirgendwo, dass man seinen jeweiligen Artikel unbedingt auf deutsch verfassen sollte. Diese Regellücke nutze ich also heute dankend aus.

As it says in my blog profile, I live in the German region of Südbaden, or to be more precise, in Markgräflerland, an area that stretches from Freiburg down to Weil am Rhein where I live - a town which hugs the border with Basel and is thus situated at Germany's southwestern extremity. I have a lot of affection for the wines of Markgräflerland, especially Gutedel, which is still very much the local speciality. However, the Pfalz is my native wine country, so to speak. It's where I first "discovered" German wine, and where I always enjoy returning - for pleasure, if not for business.

I first fell in love with Riesling during a four-week placement at von Buhl in Deidesheim in the summer of 1997. My time at von Buhl entailed a lot of hard work but was ultimately rewarding. Apart from numerous menial tasks in the cellar (labelling, loading pallets, remuage etc.) , I also spent time "auf dem Feld", i.e. trimming, defoliating and generally taming the vines in Ungeheuer and Pechstein. However, more glamourous assignments included pouring the wine at a function for a party of visiting Japanese. Extra-curricular activities tended to involve weekend trips to local wine fests in the company of my cellar rat peers, all of whom were Portuguese.

As fond as my memories are of Deidesheim and the surrounding villages of Forst, Ruppertsberg etc., I realise that the Pfalz is much, much more than just the "three Bs" (Bassermann-Jordan, Bürklin-Wolf, Buhl) or famed vineyards such as Kirchenstück, Grainhübel or Gaisböhl.

While on a short break in the Pfalz in autumn 2005, I was not only able to explore some of the rolling wine country south of Neustadt but also the area north of Bad Dürkheim. One of the wineries I visited then was Weingut Pfeffingen Fuhrmann-Eymael, a wine estate surrounded alone literally in a sea of vines just on the outskirts of Bad Dürkheim. Although harvest was in full swing at the time, both Herr Fuhrmann and Frau Eymael were kind enough to stop for a minute and chat and give me an impromptu taste of some of their Rieslings and Scheurebes, despite the fact I had arrived unannounced. Herr Fuhrmann was even kind enough to give me a lift in his car to the next village (Ungstein). Apart from the wine I tasted, it was this warmth and friendliness which left an impression on me.

The Grosses Gewächs vineyard, Weilberg - my intended destination that day - was just a short walk uphill from Ungstein. One prominent geological feature characterises Weilberg: its red clay soil called Terra Rossa (see my photo below), which is not too dissimilar to the soil found in the Coonawarra district of South Australia. According to the Pfeffingen website, it was the Romans who first recognised the advantages of Weilberg's favourable, generally south-facing exposition. Weilberg is clearly a vineyard of great tradition. To underscore this fact, the remains of an old Roman villa and wine press are situated on the crest of the vineyard. The (scanned) photo to the right was taken that warm, hazy early-October day in 2005.

Today's wine is from that same 2005 vintage:

2005 Ungsteiner Weilberg Riesling "Großes Gewächs" (Weingut Pfeffingen)
For me, Weilberg tends to produce wines that somehow combine exotic spiciness and lusciousness with elegance and minerality. This "GG" is no exception. On the nose, it has developed what Hugh Johnson once described as "the whiff of the forecourt" - the obvious sign of an aging Riesling. However, this is no geriatric. It is barely out of its short trousers on this showing. Whether it is still to undergo a moody adolescence (or even middle age?) is anyone's guess, but this is just beguiling at the moment. On the palate, it is extremely succulent and fresh, yet also tightly woven. However, to me, the core inside feels more like technicolor and sunlight than dark volcanic brooding. And, more to the point, this wine is well balanced. I can taste exotic grapefruit...maybe even oranges, wrapped in a lovely ripe acidity. At the risk of simplifying matters, this is "Pfalz in a glass".
Weilberg may be less heralded than your proverbial Kirchenstücks or Pechsteins, but, for me, it sums up better than any other vineyard all that is special and different about the Pfalz.

(Photo of the VDP Pfalz map hung up in my study ("Die Herkunft der Großen Gewächse des VDP Pfalz" (2005)). In the caption, the village name "Ungstein" is shown to the north of Weilberg - but that should really be Kallstadt, proud home of Saumagen.)

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Wine rally

Or "Weinrallye", as it's known in these climes.

This is an initiative which was brought to life by Heidelberg vintner Thomas Lippert via his blog. The idea is that each month a designated "host blogger" announces a topic generally related to wine and publishes this on his or her blog. People who wish to participate in the "rally" then have until a certain date to write a piece on their blog devoted to the topic in question. All participants then publish their respective pieces within a given 24-hour window, hence the comparison with a "rally".

This month's wine rally, the 21st such event, is devoted to the mother of them all, Riesling. But not any old Riesling. Bloggers must write pieces about Riesling from any one of Germany's top vineyards. The question of whether a given vineyard is worthy of being considered as belonging to Germany's top echelon of vinous real estate is a subjective matter which will be left to the respective participating author. The one condition though is that any wine covered must have a vineyard name mentioned on its label.

Sunday, 8 February 2009


Lemberger is a varietal I've heard quite a lot about in recent times. In Austria, where is widely grown, it is called Blaufränkisch. Oddly, I remember British wine writer Stuart Pigott drinking a glass of it on air during a chat show called Nachtcafé a couple of years back on Südwest Fernsehen. I know he was drinking Lemberger, because he said so himself. It's funny how certain things stick in your mind, but that particular television appearance - the name Lemberger - certainly did.

I'd always associated Lemberger with the Württemberg region of Germany, about which I would freely admit I know a minimum amount of information. Maybe it was fear of the unknown, or just apathy, but I'd never really felt the urge to acquaint myself with Lemberger - until now, that is.

Weingut Drautz-Able, Lemberger trocken 2007, QbA, Württemberg
Now, I'd heard of the name "Drautz-Able" before, though I'm not sure when and how. I guess it's one of those names which you pick up through "osmosis", so to speak, when reading about Württemberg wine.
Anyway, here are my scribbled notes:
First day: light, very "straight-lined", or - shall we say - gradlinig. Green pepper, veggy, but cheerful enough.
Second day: Nose almost threatens to descend into kitsch. Candied cherry aroma. But quite a bit of charm coming through. I think I "understand" this wine a bit better now. "Drink me!" it's imploring.

Hm, on balance, the jury is still out on Lemberger, but there's enough there to make me want to have another try before too long.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Jagged elbows

Here in Baden, wine cooperatives (Winzergenossenschaften or Winzerkeller) seem to play a much more prominent role than in other regions. For example, the big daddy of all these cooperatives, the Badische Winzerkeller, is not only Baden's biggest winemaker but also one of the largest wineries in Europe.

Down here near the Swiss border we have the Haltinger Winzergenossenschaft. Although tiny compared to its cousin from Breisach, this cooperative very much dominates the local terrain in and around Weil.

Such organisations are very much the "workhorse" of winemaking down here in Baden. That is not to belittle them, I'm just stating a fact. While private wine estates rightly represent the creme de la creme of vinous endeavour in Baden, cooperatives, too, can attain excellence, and are doing so with increasing frequency. With that in mind, my attention was drawn the other day to this particular bottle of SB (aka Pinot Noir) by the aforementioned concern from Haltingen. It had been a while since I'd last tasted one of their reds, so I thought I'd give this one a try. The cooperative recently revamped its labels, thus bringing its brand kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Goodness, you should have since their previous labels. Firmly rooted in the 1980s. The epitome of naffness. Unfortunately, I hadn't been all that enamoured by their wines, either. Maybe their whites were their strong points, but their reds - for my palate at least - tended to be shrill, acidic and "green". However, I was hopeful this time that a bit of the sleekness in the new label design had maybe rubbed off on the wines.

Haltinger Stiege Spätburgunder QbA trocken 2007, Haltinger Winzergenossenschaft
Cost EUR 5.79. Open the bottle, the cork is surprisingly made out of cork, as opposed to plastic. A nice ruby colour, too. So far so good, I think. I swirl the liquid around the glass, and what do I get? Hm, nothing much at all, to be honest. Try again. I doubt the wine was matured in barrels, but maybe in large wooden vats, because I can eventually detect something along those lines. Then some cherry and redcurrant on the nose, but the overall effect is muted. On the palate, undeniably acidic - and gaunt with jagged elbows. And the finish...? Short, to say the least. This is a cleanly made wine, but overall, I'm disappointed. For little more than five euros, I'm not looking for anything special, but even in this price bracket I do expect red wines to be more forgiving than this one.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Like a "GG" but minus the price

Although Germany's high-end dry grand cru Rieslings are still a total snip compared to the best Burgundy whites have to offer, I'm now increasingly of the opinion that they offer less value for money than wines classified further down a notch. For me, one of a number of problems with the Grosses Gewächs (or "GG") concept is that participating wine estates have to sell their GGs at a minimum price. The last I heard, the minimum for a bottle of GG had to be EUR 15, though judging by price rises over the last couple of years, this figure may well have risen. This is all well and good if you produce something warranting the price, but all too often wine estates have used the system as a chance to cash in by charging inflated prices for what would otherwise be "Spätlese trockens" but for the abbreviation "GG" on the label. Admittedly, things have improved in recent years, though quality is still patchy.

However, one of the happier upshots of the GG movement in certain regions such as the Pfalz or Rheinhessen is that wineries have introduced quality levels for their various wines which partially mimick the Burgundy classification. Whereas you might have premier cru as the next level down for your Burgundies, you have klassifizierte Lagen or similar as the next designation down in these regions. This basically means wine from designated vineyards, as would be the case with premier cru (e.g. Deidesheimer Kieselberg), but without any "P.C." designation, or equivalent (although Weingut Bürklin-Wolf are a notable exception to this). The next level down would be Ortswein, i.e. wine only named after the village in question - whereby the similarity here to Burgundy is that, while you might have a Cru Village, the equivalent in, say, the Mittelhaardt in the Pfalz would be "Wachenheimer Riesling", for example. Then the "lowest" level - with the exception of wine from litre bottles for everyday consumption (or cooking) - would be Gutswein, i.e. the equivalent to, say, Bourgogne Rouge. These latter wines would normally be the "estate wines" in English-speaking parlance, e.g. "Bürklin Estate Riesling".

Maybe the result of this French-inspired classification system is that the "underclass" below GG is where the real steals are to be found. For the level next down from GG, for example, a lot of wine estates actually use fruit from their grand cru vineyards. In practice, the grapes might have been picked during the initial "dry" run through the grand cru parcel, or they may come from younger vines. Often, the resultant wines can be almost as stupendously good as the GGs, but half the price or less. They tend to be regarded as the terroir wines of the wine estate's portfolio, and are therefore a category replete with suffix designations such as Muschelkalk, Terrassen, Bundsandstein, Rotliegendes, vom Porphyr, von der Fels. Blauschiefer or Keuper - to name but a few examples.

The wine featured here, however, a 2007 Riesling Spätlese trocken by Weingut Pfeffingen from the "Ungsteiner Herrenberg" grand cru site in the Pfalz - cost EUR 10.50 - has no need for such frills.

Weingut Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken 2007
Lovely nose. Intense yellow apple and apricot (to be honest, this was the description in the wine price list I received from the winery, though I would fully concur with it). I think I detected some pineapple, too. Minerally on the palate, but with that unmistakable Pfalz Riesling "earthiness". Great wine at an affordable price.