Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Daniel Hubbard
The German Wine Society (Washington DC Chapter) had the pleasure to spend an evening with Daniel Hubbard from Domaine Select Wine Estate (DSWE) in New York. He poured the outstanding wines of Christmann, Kuehling-Gillot, Kuehn and Melsheimer.
Spruce in San Francisco versus Rutz in Berlin
What a contrast to the last wine tasting with Phil Bernstein from MacArthur Beverages! At Phil’s tasting the large majority wines were delicious low alcohol, sweet-style Rieslings from the Mosel. These were all exceptional wines, skillfully made by first-class winemakers like Ernst Loosen, essentially made by not letting the fermentation going its full course so that natural sugar remains in the wine and/or adding a bit of sweet-reserve (sterilized grape juice) to increase the sweetness level in the wine. These are the wines that are so popular among the fans of German wine in the world. When you go to the trendy restaurant Spruce in San Francisco, which has won many awards for its exceptional German wine portfolio, these are the wines you find there.
But when you go for a drink to Rutz Wein Bar in Berlin, one of the best wine bars in Germany, you find very few of Phil Bernstein wines and instead the wines that Daniel Hubbard presented. Today, wine loving German drinks dry. There is no doubt about it. The overwhelming majority of the wines produced in Germany is dry. And the German (dry) grand cru Rieslings can compete with the best wines in the world. The word is getting around - slowly but surely - and more and more dry German Rieslings appear on the international market.
So, what we had in the course of a couple of months were 2 exceptional wine tasting: the first one was what I would call the American (Spruce) selection of German Rieslings and the second one what I would call the German (Rutz) selection of German Rieslings.
What is the future? I think the Phil Bernstein wines will definitely stay, although they have become “niche wines” as David Schildknecht said at the 1. International Riesling Symposium last year. These are very well crafted wines that are kind of unique in the world. They have an USP that the dry wines cannot take away from them. But the dry German wines, I am sure, will establish themselves on the world market. These Rieslings are exceptional as well. Not as unique as the sweet style wines, but also sensational.
A New Classification of German Wines
Many producers and consumers of German wine are unhappy about the German approach to classifying its wine and are pushing a new classification. The VDP – Germany’s elite winemaker – is at the forefront of this movement.
Picture: German Wine Society National Chairman of the Board George Marling with Daniel Hubbard
In the traditional German wine classification, the ripeness of the grapes is the key quality factor for German wine. The riper the grapes, the higher the finished wine is classified. In its new approach, the VDP winemakers are maintaining this classification for the sweet-style wines and supplementing it with a new classification system for the dry wines that is more terroir driven, as for example in neighboring France. The Daniel Hubbard tasting provided a good opportunity to get familiar with the new approach.
Classification of Sweet-style Wines
For sweet-style wines, the traditional wine classification with the Praedikats Kabinet, Spaetlese and Auslese is maintained, and of course, also for the noble-sweet wines. The ripeness of the grapes at harvest is the key quality factor. When a consumer sees Spaetlese or Auslese, he or she knows, this is a sweet-style wine. In Daniel’s tasting the last 3 wines were sweet-style wines and we had all three levels of sweetness: Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese, clearly indicated.
Classification of Dry Wines
The classification of dry wines is radically different. All dry wines are labeled as QbA (Qualitaetswein besonderer Anbaugebiete) wines – without any Praedikat – and the level of quality is then expressed by the terroir principle; the narrower the specification, the higher the quality of the wine is. The ripeness of the grapes at harvest as an indication of quality is on the backburner.
The following 3 quality levels are distinguished and we had all three of them in the tasting.
Grosse Gewaechs Wein (Grand Cru wine) – These are the best of the best: grand cru wines from the best vineyards that the country has to offer (1. Lage). There are other conditions, one of them being that in terms of ripeness of the grapes, the wine has to be at least at Spaetlese level. We had three of these wines - the third wine of Christmann, Kuehling-Gillaut and Kuehn – and all of them were breathtaking. They are all in the ultra premium category and expensive.
Lagenwein (Specific Vineyard Wines) - These are the best wines from other specific vineyards; with the winemaker, village, vineyard and grape variety indicated on the label; a number of conditions apply such as the maximum yield. We had one of them – from Christmann.
Ortswein (Regional Wine) - the quality level below Lagenwein, with the winemaker, village and the grape variety indicated on the label; there is no vineyard indicated. We had one Ortswein: the 2009 Kuhling-Gillot, Riesling, Nierstein from the Red Slope in Nierstein. See more about the Red Slope here.
Gutswein (House Wine) – wines of the winery, with only the winemaker and the grape variety indicated on the label; they go from so-called Literwein, the reasonably priced wine for daily consumption, to Gutsweine with a remarkable quality. The 2009 Christmann, Riesling was a typical Gutswein; the other Gutsweine were a notch above it, which the winemakers tried to indicate with the addition of Quintera, Jacobus, Quarzit.
Picture: Daniel Hubbard Speaking at the Tasting
This is all difficult to understand for anybody, in Germany as well as in the rest of the world. In the old days, QbA on the label would tell the wine consumer that this was an entry-level wine. It no longer does. Finally, as an additional complication, the Rheingau does not use this concept of Grosses Gewaechs, but the concept of Erstes Gewaechs, which, however, basically means the same thing. Jakob-Peter Kuehn’s ultra-premium wine was a Erstes Gewaechs, as he is from the Rheingau.
German Organic and Biodynamic Wines
Daniel’s wines stood out in another respect. These were all eco-wines. What are eco-wines? Generally speaking, wines made with an ecological concept in mind.
It may not yet be so obvious outside of Germany, but Germany is full swing on a green trip, particular after the events in Japan. The Green Party continues to rise and for the first time in the history of Germany, one of the German States is now lead by a Green Minister-President (Governor). I would not exclude that the next German Chancellor will be somebody from the Green Party.
Organic: Organic generally means the use of natural as opposed to chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The key is: no chemicals. Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. Pesticides are giving way to introducing low-growing plants between vine rows that host beneficial insects that keep the pest insects in check.
Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what organic wine making as opposed to organic wine growing means. The main issue is the use of sulfur in the fermentation process. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with basically zero sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.
Biodynamic: Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Biodynamic is an approach following the rules and ideas of Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolph Steiner. In his 1924 lectures, he viewed the farm as an entire living ecosystem starting with the soil which is treated as a living organism and receives special applications to enhance its health.
Sustainable: Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.
Natural: The idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for nature. For example, only natural yeasts are used, the fermentation is slow, there is little or no use of new oak barrels; and there are no filtrations or cold stabilization. Natural wines are minimalist wines produced with as little intervention as possible.
Daniel Hubbard of Domaine Select Wine Estates
Daniel Hubbard of DSWE did a very informative and entertaining power-point presentation to share with us his extensive knowledge of German wine. As DSWE’s Central European portfolio manager and Mid-Atlantic sales manager, Daniel is well established with the German wine scene, as I can testify. We met initially on facebook, but in person at the 1st International Riesling Symposium last year at Schloss Reinhartshausen in the Rheingau.
Picture: Daniel Hubbard
In 2010, DSWE was named Food & Wine magazine's Importer of the Year. The German wine portfolio of DSWE is exquisite, containing at the one end the wines of somebody like Steffen Christmann, the current VDP President and at the other end the wines of Dirk Wuertz, a young and upcoming German winemaker who sells his Rieslings as bag-in box wines at Whole Foods and New York’s trendy wine bar “The Ten Bells.”
The Wines Daniel Poured
2009 Christmann, Riesling
2009 Christmann, Riesling, Deidesheimer Paradiesgarten
2009 Christmann, Riesling, Deidesheimer Idig, GG
Steffen Christmann is one of the superstars from the Pfalz. Weingut Christmann – located in Neustadt-Gimmeldingen - was founded in 1845. The vineyard area totals 14 hectares, planted mainly with Riesling (9 ha) and Pinot Noir (2,5 ha). Except for a few noble-sweet wines, all Christmann wines are vinified in a dry style. We had the Idig, a Grosses Gewächs site, which Steffen owns almost entirely.
Devotion to soil vitality and the preservation and individuality of the terroir has lead Weingut Christmann to practice biodynamic agriculture, strict vineyard management, and severe yield reduction. In the cellar they employ long and gentle pressing with low pressure, clarification through natural sedimentation, and a slow, not too cool fermentation sometimes until as late as June with only one filtration.
Pictures: Steffen Christmann in Berlin in 2010 with Wine Journalists Stuart Pigott and Hugh Johnson
2009 Kuehling-Gillot, Riesling Quinterra
2009 Kuehling-Gillot, Riesling Nierstein
2008 Kuehling-Gillot, Riesling Nierstein Pettenthal GG
Weingut Kuehling-Gillot – in the northern part of Rheinhessen - is owned by Carolin Spanier- Gillot and her husband H.O. Spanier, who married in 2002; the couple also ownes Weingut Battenfeld-Spanier, in the southern part of Rheinhessen. The vineyard area of Weingut Kuehling-Gillot totals 11 hectares. Although Weingut Kühling-Gillot is a young winery, formed in 1970 through a marriage of Carolin’s parents, it has over 200 years of history behind it through the Kühling and Gillot families. Carolin Spanier-Gillot is a dynamic winemaker, full of creativity and committed to organic viticulture, as is her husband H.O. Weingut Kuehling-Gillot is situated in the picturesque town of Bodenheim, outside of Mainz, just 30 minutes away from Frankfurt airport by Metro.
Christian G.E.Schiller with Weingut Kuehling-Gillot Co-owner, Co-winemaker and Carolin Husband H.O. Spanier in Mainz
Weingut Peter-Jakob Kuehn
2009 Peter-Jakob Kühn, Riesling Jacobus
2009 Peter-Jakob Kühn, Riesling Quarzit
2009 Peter-Jakob Kühn, Riesling Doosberg, GG (1. Gewächs)
Peter-Jakob enjoys guru status in some circles. He is in the front line of making biodynamic wines in Germany. His wines are very sought after for their expression of terroir. For Peter Jakob Kuehn, the winemaking process begins in the roots of the vines. He is convinced that diversity and harmony in the wine presupposes diversity and harmony in the vineyard. He is the 11th generation of the family to run the winery (founded by Jacobus Kühn in 1786) and thinks with everything he does in the vineyard about the generations to come. In order to express the genuine origin of his wines, the musts are fermented without any manipulation of their natural sweetness or acidity. He is traditional and modern at the same time. After much of his 1999 harvest was spoiled by tainted corks, Peter Jakob Kühn joined the ranks of other courageous producers around the world, unhesitatingly adopting stainless steel caps in place of corks, even for his most expensive wines. 18 hectares.
Pictures: Annette Schiller with Angela and Peter-Jakob Kuehn in Berlin
2009 Melsheimer, Riesling Kabinett, Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, MSR
2009 Melsheimer, Riesling Spätlese “Schäf”, Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, MSR
2007 Melsheimer, Riesling Auslese #34, Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, MSR
Finally, we tasted 3 sweet-style wines. They all had considerably less alcohol than the dry wines and a noticeable remaining sweetness. They were classified as Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese, in the tradional way. The wines were all from the same vineyard – the Reiler Mullay-Hofberg, but the grapes were harvested at different ripeness levels. Interestingly, none of them had been chaptalized as they were labeled at Praedikat wines and this is illegal for these wines, while all the dry wines we had before were possibly chaptalized, as they were labeled as QbA wines. But Torsten Melsheimer might have added sweet-reserve (sterilized juice) to his Praedikat wines to increase the level of remaining sweetness; this is allowed under German law.
For more than 200 years, the Melsheimers have been growing grapes in the quaint Mosel town of Reil. With 10 hectares of mostly steep vineyards, all work is done by hand, and a large majority of the vineyards are certified as cultural landscape. Thorsten and his wife Steffi have worked organically since 1995, and focus exclusively on Riesling. The main vineyard Thorsten focuses on is the Mullay-Hofberg, where the slate-dominated soil is maintained in terraced plots, along with extremely steep pitches. All of the work is done by hand, and only traditional methods are used in the cellar.
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