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A JUNE TASTING OF GERMAN WINES

June 28, 2001



The "theme" of this event, sponsored by the top American firm importing German wines, "Cellars International," was to demonstrate the (high) quality of a range of wines from four producers.


FLIGHT #1
Sptburgunders -=-  Pinot Noirs

1998 Von Buhl Sptburgunder Sptlese
Showing a mahogany color, this had a wonderfully complex forest floor fragrance.  Winemaker Frank John explained that Von Buhl, a famous Pfalz estate, grows its Rieslings in limestone soil, while Pinot Noir is cultivated on a chalky soil.  Made from ten to 12 year old vines, it's a three wine blend.  One batch was fermented at elevated temperatures, a second batch was fermented slightly cooler and a third batch was not de-stemmed and had a pre-fermentation maceration.  All was matured in oak, about 50-60% new barrels.  Mostly French cooperage was employed, though I understood Mr. John to mention something about Austrian wood.

1999 Dr. Heger "Ihringer Winklerberg" Sptburgunder ***
This wine showed a mushroomy, somewhat earthy note along with some woodsy elements.  I was not impressed initially, though having another sniff after the set of white wines made this a more interesting glass of wine.  The vineyards, not far from Alsace in the Baden region, were planted in 1951!  Its low acid made this, for my palate, a less stellar wine, though Heger gives it his Drei Stern (3 star) designation.  

1999 Franz Kunstler "Hochheimer Reichestal: Sptburgunder Auslese
Mr. Kunstler says he read an old British wine company's price list which offered a "Red Hock" wine (wines from this particular area were often sold as "hock," referring to Hochheim, a town near Wiesbaden.  Many Rheingau wines, of which Hochheim is considered a part, were similarly sold as "hock."  Kunstler decided to gamble and so he planted Pinot Noir on a site about one kilometer from the confluence of the Rhein and Main rivers.  He attempts to pick the fruit when it's got 13-14% potential alcohol, hoping to avoid having to add sugar to the juice.  In this regard he does a green harvest.  A cold soak, pre-fermentation maceration of three days is employed, the wine being fermented on its skins for about 10 days.  Twelve months in wood, half of it new (mostly Troncais, with some Alliers and Nevers barrels) gives the wine a nice vanillin note.  

I can't say any of the three challenge the very best Burgundy wines, but they were of good quality.  Unfortunately these sell for approximately $40, twice what they registered on my sensitive Taste-O-Meter.



FLIGHT # 2
 WEINGUT REICHSRAT VON BUHL
Mr. Frank John, winemaker



1996 Von Buhl "Blanc de Noir" Sekt
Winemaker Frank John explained his production of "Methode Champenoise" sparkling wine.  "It's the same as for Champagne except that we pick the grapes a bit riper and don't need to chaptalise (add sugar) to the must  (juice)."  There's a "chalky" sort of element to the fragrance of this wine.  It's not as crisp or bracingly acidic as most Champagne, but very nice.  Unfortunately it costs more than top non-vintage Brut Champagnes we have.

1999 Von Buhl "Ruppertsberger Reiterpfad" Riesling "Groes Gewchs"
The term "groes gewchs" refers to a top vineyard site.  It's a German classification based on the French "grand cru" and "premier cru" classifications.  In the Rheingau you'll find wines labeled as "Erstes Gewchs," or "first growths."  To confuse us, the Pfalz and Hessen regions use the term "Grosses Gewchs" 
In the Rheingau it carries a legal definition and applies to wines that are dry, off-dry or sweet.  In the Pfalz and Hessen regions the term has no legal, government sanction.  The wineries spearheading the movement for the usage of this term apply it only to dry wines and only to wines made of Riesling, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Noir.  While these wines, explained Mr. Frank, are picked at "Auslese" levels of sugar, the wineries will not label them as "Auslese" wines.  Instead, these wines will be designated as "Sptlese Trocken."  They prefer to reserve the "Auslese" designation exclusively for wines with substantial residual sugar.
 
 
This wine was quite good.  It has a touch of sweetness, but correspondingly high acidity for balance.  "It shows the soil and microclimate," said Frank John.  "The 'output' of our vineyard is on display here...chalky soil, a rarity for Riesling in our region."

1999 Von Buhl "Deidesheimer Mushhle" Riesling Sptlese Halb-Trocken
With about 14-15 grams of sugar per liter, this medium-dry white shows good fruit and is rather substantial on the palate, owing to about 13% alcohol.  Quite good.



FLIGHT # 3
WEINGUT DR. HEGER/WEINHAUS HEGER

This property was founded many years ago by Dr. Heger, a physician who was often paid in wine, vineyards or, eventually, vineyard work.  Today there are two firms, "Dr . Heger" accounting for some 15 hectares of vines, while Weinhaus Joachim Heger comprises some 19 hectares of vines, all in the Baden region. 
Mr. Heger is quite a fan of Sptburgunder and Riesling.

1999 Dr. Heger "Ihringer Winkelerberg" Riesling Sptlese Riesling Trocken ***
Mr. Heger explained that this comes from a rather sunny patch of vineyard land and the soil is of a volcanic nature.  While Riesling is a minor variety in the Baden region, Heger's production of this grape tallies to some 20% of his total output.  Made only a few minutes' ride from Alsace, I found this to be a bit more elegant than many Alsatian Rieslings.  Heger exposes about one-third of this wine to wood.

1999 Weinhaus Heger Pinot Gris Kabinett Trocken
Grown on chalky soil, I found a slight earthy or mushroomy note to this Pinot Gris (Grauer Burgunder on the labels for Germany, but labeled as Pinot Gris for our market).  Heger says the stony soil allows him to tell people he's "stone rich," adding, "unfortunately it's only stones!"  This wine is done only in stainless steel and the must is not chaptalised.

1998 Dr. Heger "Achkarrer Schloberg" Pinot Blanc Sptlese Dry "Barrique" ***
Grown on volcanic soil on a particularly warm site, Heger used 50% new oak barrels for this excellent Pinot Blanc.  All the lot was matured in oak and the wine underwent a full malolactic fermentation.  Heger stirred the lees (spent yeast) every two weeks to create this smoky, toasty, vanillin, rich dry white.  Though it's not cheap in its home market (about 34DM or $15 at the winery), this arrives here for a retail price of $40, making it a wine for those in a lofty tax bracket.  The wine has a lovely fruit note of ripe pear and apples to go with the vanillin elements of the oak.



FLIGHT #4
WEINGUT FRANZ KNSTLER

Gunter Knstler joined his father in this Rheingau winery in 1988, assuming full control of the place in 1992.  The winery is just a short drive from Frankfurt and only a few minutes from Claus Bonifer's insurance company offices in Wiesbaden (Claus is a famous wine aficionado).  Knstler has some 26 hectares of vineyards, producing 85% Riesling and 15% Sptburgunder.
Gunter says "We make wines for the future," striving for cellar-worthy wines.
One of the people in the crowd tried to pin down Mr. Knstler as to which vineyard site is his favorite.  He didn't fall into that sneaky little trap, however, saying he didn't have a favorite.

1997 Franz  Knstler "Hochheimer Stielweg" Riesling Sptlese Trocken
Here's a wine that definitely shows a slatey, stony note to its fragrance.   Knstler describes it as "combining elegance, finesse and power."  Half the wine comes from 50 year old vines, the other half from 20 year old vineyards.  Fifty percent is vinified in stainless steel, the rest in wood.  Quite a good wine!

1999 Franz Knstler "Hochheimer Hlle" Riesling Auslese Dry
Here's a hell of a wine!  Cultivated on a patch of clay soil,  Knstler wants only fully ripened fruit with NO botrytis (the "noble" mold that contributes a honeyed note to the wines).  This is a big, powerful, deep, amazingly complex wine.   Knstler picks late, usually in November for this bottling. "This," he explains, "is like dancing on the edge of a knife."   The fragrance and flavors show ripe, peachy fruit.  Obviously, the man can dance!  (Parenthetically, I had purchased a bottle of one of these when visiting the winery in 1997.  We drank it last year and, at about 8 years of age, this was an incredibly good bottle of wine.)

1999 Franz  Knstler "Hochheimer Kirchenstck" Riesling Sptlese
 Knstler "declassified" this wine downwards from "Auslese" status to "merely" a Sptlese!  Some might say that's "cheating."  The wine is incredible, showing fabulous fruit, with great finesse on the palate.  Sweet, yet crisp.  Here's a wine you can stash for five or ten more years without giving it a second thought!



FLIGHT #5
WEINGUT FRITZ HAAG

The representative of a competing importer told me his boss had been to Germany earlier this year and tasted the wines of many estates.  "The 2000s are all defective." he said.
Wilhelm Haag, at the helm of the family estate since the 1957 vintage admitted the 2000 vintage was the most difficult he's experienced.  Yet he said while the wines he made are not "exceptional, they are very good wines."
Indeed!

2000 Fritz Haag "Estate Riesling" Halb-Trocken
This had nice fruit and was correct in every way, though not especially stunning.  Of course, it was following Knstler's work of art!

2000 Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling Kabinett
All of Haag's vines are on a slate soil, contributing to the lacy, racy notes in his wines.  Of course, it helps to have a master winemaker, too!  Haag seemed proud of the fact his wine has but 7.5% alcohol, something virtually all California winemakers would never dream of bottling!  This shows excellent fruit and delicacy on the palate.  Off dry and yet crisply acidic and bright.

2000 Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling Sptlese
Wilhelm Haag says the harvest amounted to about 60% of its normal yield in 2000.  Maybe that accounts for this wine's finesse and refinement.  Bright and floral, with hints of a smoky, almost gun-flint note.  

2000 Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling Auslese
Haag explained the Auslese typically comes from a special part of his vineyard, a place which gets some early morning sun. The wine is absolutely stellar!  Plenty of fresh, fruity and floral Riesling aromas with a fine balance of sugar and acidity.  Not the least bit "shallow."  And it certainly is not defective!



FLIGHT #6
"Noble Sweet Wines"

2000 Fritz Haag "Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr" Riesling "BA" (Beerenauslese)
The importer had been strong-arming Mr. Haag on their flight from Chicago to San Francisco, pressing him to ship more bottles of this to the United States.  Two "hard heads" battling it out, Haag agreed to ship 24 375ml bottles and six 750ml bottles.  Importer Rudi Wiest exclaimed "Twelve 750s!" and Haag shouted back "Six!!"
I can understand Mr. Wiest's desire for as much of this as Herr Haag can offer.  Showing the usual deft balance of fruit and acidity, Haag explained that in this vintage, "...to make a Beerenauslese you was called 'crazy'."  This guy, then, is crazy.   Like a fox.

1999 Franz Knstler "Hochheimer Hlle" Riesling "BA" (Beerenauslese)
"This vintage is a gift," explained Gunter Knstler, adding "It's the best vintage of the last decade.  We had really dried out berries with a must weight of 140!"  The wine is rich, concentrated and yet not cloyingly sweet.  The contrast between it and the preceding wine show clearly the difference between Rheingau and Mosel wines.

1998 Dr. Heger "Ihringer Winklerberg" Riesling "TBA" (Trockenbeerenauslese)
I can see how some people are impressed with the sugar, sweetness and intensity of this sort of wine.  It is darker in color than the others in this flight of wines.  I can't say I'm a fan, finding some nutty and slightly oxidized notes in the fragrance of this.  It is certainly quite good, but the oxidized notes recall some Vin Santo wines of Tuscany more than fine German dessert wine.

1998 Von Buhl "Forster Ungeheuer" Riesling "TBA" (Trockenbeerenauslese)
I found a slight piney or resiny note in the aroma of this wine, but the flavor is absolutely extraordinary.  Winemaker Frank John told about his cellar assistant being wary of "crushing" or "pressing" juice out of the raisined fruit they'd collected.
"It takes about four weeks of careful selection to have enough grapes or raisins to make this wine.  We got a yield of 120 liters (about 31 gallons) from a ton of dried grapes!"
Note: a "normal" yield is about 150+ gallons of juice from a ton of grapes.
I didn't hear how many 375ml bottles of this will arrive here, but at $175-$200 a 'copy,' I can't imagine there's a crowd lining up to buy this.  Price aside, the wine is fabulous!

 

Kudos to Rudi & Brent Wiest of Cellars International for their tireless campaign to bring German wine into the consciousness of merchants and restaurateurs around America.  In a world full of Chardonnay and Merlot, these guys are swimming mightily up a stream full of high alcohol, high oak wines.  Also a "thanks" to wine wizard Tom Elliott for this tasting.


SEE THE MASTER CLASS TASTING OF 2002

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