Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Meeting at Benley in less than an hour - Vietnamese food with Rudi Wiest German Riesling

In less than an hour, I have an appointment to meet Allie Mitchell of Rudi Wiest Selections at a local Vietnamese restaurant called Benley. Benley has won a lot of fans locally for their interesting, authentically prepared Vietnamese food with maybe just a hint of fusion.

Many of our customers stop by before they go to Benley to pick up a few bottles of German Riesling, and sometimes Vouvray or other Loire wine, to go with that light yet spicy and flavorful Asian fare.

So, I finally approached the owner and suggested he try some of these German Riesling straight from the source to see if he would like them on his list.

I'm excited, first because I'll be tasting them too (always a pleasure), second, because we might plan a German wine dinner there, and third, because after the tasting meeting, we'll be having dinner there! And we'll have all these opened bottles of German Riesling! Oh, no, what will we do???

Saturday, July 26, 2008

How a Barolo Took my Breath Away, Then I Had to Taste Southern Hemisphere Blockbusters

So here's what happened.

It was Friday, and I was scheduled to do an evening tasting of New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Argentina's best blockbuster wines. I came into work in the afternoon, started putting together my tasting sheet, which includes big names like Craggy Range and Cloudy Bay Te Koko from New Zealand, Penfolds RWT and Torbreck Run Rig from Australia, Don Melchor and Clos Apalta from Chile, and Achaval Ferrer and Catena Alta from Argentina - all my heavy hitters and top-notch producers from those four Southern Hemisphere countries. I was pretty happy with my line-up and looking forward to opening these high-end wines for my class of 24 participants.

But then lo and behold, my coworker and Italian wine buyer Ronnie opens his personal bottle of 1990 Borgogno Barolo Reserva, an aged Barolo that, when he bought it, was priced at about $169 a bottle, but now is being marked down to a paltry $132.99 in our big Barolo Blowout Sale. I had tasted the 1996 Borgogno Barolo Reserva with my family about a month ago when I went up to Canada and brought it up with me, and was at the time, not impressed. I dunno, we drank it but I didn't find it noteworthy and even doubted whether I even liked classically styled Barolo. I wondered at the time if maybe my tastes were more for the new modern styled Barolos that some people called "spoofulated" because I actually like Parusso.

But what I found when Ronnie so generously gave me a nice pour of his 1990 Borgogno was that this was a different animal from the 1996. A better vintage, I'm thinking? I don't know, since I'm not up on my Italian wine, especially in terms of knowing which vintages were good ones and which were not in the 1990s. Ronnie said that maybe the 1996 needed more time to be good. I wasn't sure about that since when I tasted the 1996 I thought maybe it was done. Who knows. Maybe another 6 years in the bottle would have done it good - there certainly have been times when I opened a wine possibly too early.

Anyway, back to the 1990. This was gorgeous, absolutely, with a nose that kept mine in the glass for a long, long time, inhaling its seductive bouquet. It had that perfectly aged wine nose, the one that keeps on inviting - a heady melange of smoked berry - if there is such a thing - fresh earth, and savory olive. The kind of aroma that makes one's mouth water. On the palate, the wine followed through without disappointing - the palate was rich without heaviness, like what I think a Burgundy of that age would do - give tons of flavor without tons of weight, but at the same time, not being thin at all. Know what I mean?

The wine was just fabulous. If it were a student, I would give it A+++.

Then, I had to start opening my wines for the evening class, and give them time to open up. And taste them to check if the order I was planning on serving them was okay. And I'm being honest here, I was not impressed with how the wines tasted, how they attacked my palate with extract and weight, how clumsy they felt against that elegant, mature Barolo. They were a bunch of unruly, noisy teenagers compared to a picture-perfect Supermodel with a PhD. But of course, I was not treating them fairly. The 1990 Barolo was a hard act to follow, for sure.

My saving grace is that the participants in my class did not taste a top-notch aged Barolo first, before tasting my line-up of Southern Hemisphere greats. They were happy, very happy with my wines, from the two starting whites to the New Zealand Pinot Noirs to the big bold Malbecs, Cabernets, and Shirazes. The other saving grace was that the audience was a group that already appreciated big, bold, yet well-made wines, so they knew what they were in for and liked that style. So they loved the wines. So all was well in the world and I was happy that the wines did what they were supposed to do. My audience's happiness made me happy.

The star in the line-up ended up being 2004 Torbreck Run Rig from Barossa Valley, which was our last wine, and a great way to end because it really did steal the show. Even I admit to liking that wine, especially later on the evening after this big boy had some time to open up. Also in its favor, I think being an '04 helped, because it has had some bottle time to mellow out and integrate. The wine was velvetty and showed off its lineage of being a wine made from old, old vines. There was a nice discussion that did ensue about how to tell when vines are old, and why are old vines better, and that was fun. Let's just say that the audience was great, and interactive and into the whole tasting. A tasting like that makes one love a job like mine.

So all ended well, even though in the afternoon about 4pm, I was a little worried! Great wine like Barolo, aged with care - I thought, man, my Southern Hems cannot compete! But in the end, all was well in the world of wine, where diversity reigns supreme, and everyone gets to have the wine they love. I'm not religious, but AMEN!

Friday, July 25, 2008

2007 Monchhof Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese

I couldn't really sleep tonight, so decided to just get up and drink something and do some reading and a bit of work. What I chose to drink was 2007 Monchhof Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese, a bottle I put in the fridge earlier, which was given to me personally by Robert Eymael, owner of Monchhof Estate. He is a generous and jolly man who jokes and laughs so naturally, and the last time I saw him was at the Rudi Wiest vintage tasting, where he gave me several bottles of his wines. Last weekend I already enjoyed the 2007 Monchhof Erdener Pralat Riesling Auslese which I brought to a dinner party in Orange County, and the whole table absolutely fell for the wine - there wasn't enough for people to have seconds and for this I was sorry! Now I have the Urziger Wurzgarten Spatlese left - the last one of the ones he gave me - and boy it is tasty!

This is a clean and fresh-tasting Spatlese without too much sweetness, just enough to balance its acidity. The wine in fact almost finishes bone dry. It is so unlike the 2006 Spatleses with their high proportion of botrytized grapes - this Spatlese is free from botrytis and all of that honeyed type of flavor. This is pure fruit. Wonderfully refreshing on the palate. It's a wine you can have sip after sip and glass after glass with no fatigue whatsoever.

I don't know how that man does it, but those Monchhof wines are just plain good, no doubt about it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Austria Part VI: The Final 24 Hours & Conclusion

The last day of the Austria trip was spent in Carnuntum and Burgenland, and later in the evening on the Neusiedlersee. This was a day to see Red Wine Country, and also the Noble Sweet Wine Country.

Our first visit of the morning was to Glatzer in Carnuntum, where we tasted Glatzer wines along with Sattler, another red wine specialist. I didn't take any pictures of the Glatzer facilities, only the wonderful lunch we had there, which is partially pictured above. The food they serve at Glatzer is well known to be delicious - they don't make it themselves, but get it catered by a local first-class restaurant - and they are gracious hosts. I mean the food was fantastic and plentiful, like a full-on dinner instead of a simple winery lunch. The facility, on the other hand, did not inspire me to take photos - not because it was unpleasant, but because it was quite sterile looking, with row and rows of stainless steel fermenters in one room, and rows and rows of barriques in another. I personally am not a huge fan of photos of stainless steel tanks and rows of barrels just because it is not that exciting. They are like factory pictures; not very romantic. What I can say about Glatzer is the place looks meticulous and clean, and so are their wines. The basic Blaufrankisch from Glatzer is balanced and delicious and totally underpriced, which is fantastic. Retailing at less than $20, it is a perfect food-friendly and expressive red wine to get people into Blaufrankisch.

After leaving Glatzer, we took a long bus ride through Burgenland to the historic town of Rust, which sits on the edge of the large famous shallow lake, Neusiedlersee. The town also sits on the edge of Austria, bordering Hungary. Here, we meet with Heidi Schrock, female winemaker extraordinaire, whom I have already met at the Vie Vinum tasting in Vienna about 5 days prior. She is as bright and bubbly as I first met her, full of life and knowledge and elegance in a way that seemed so strikingly unique to me.

I was totally rude and snapped this picture of her when I just stepped off the bus, because she just looked so darned cute I couldn't resist. I was very proud of this picture I took of her because it seemed to capture her essence so. She is so photogenic! In retrospect, I could have waited till anytime to take the picture because she was like this the whole time - no need to rush to capture a moment when she exuded such happiness - she exuded happiness all the time I saw her!
Heidi Schrock is the owner of a winery of the same name and produces some cult dry wines as well as some noble sweet wines, the most famous of which is called Ruster Ausbruck, which is named after the historic town from which she hails, Rust. She gave us a tour of this little old town, where her winery is located.

Throughout the town of Rust, there are stork nests which have been placed there by humans (not storks) for the storks to return home to. Apparently, this is a tradition of which they are very proud. The storks migrate to South Africa in the winter and return to Rust in Austria in the summer. As we were there in June, the storks were just returning from their long flight. Apparently, each stork returns to the same nest each year. At the end of the summer, when the cold weather starts to come, the storks one day just all up and leave, simultaneously in flight, Heidi explained. She said that is usually a sad day for the Rust people. They love the storks.

After the tour through Rust, we board a boat which taxis us across the big shallow lake that is Neusiedlersee (pronounced NOI-ZEED-ler-ZAY). We are destined for Hungary. When I saw that on the itinerary before the trip, I imagined that we were going to a town in Hungary, and I would see a whole different country and culture on this Austrian trip. But that was not really what happened. We actually were going to an old border station, which is now just a resort-y hut which is owned by a 2-star Michelin restaurant, which uses the hut for catered parties. We were going to this isolated post to do our final tasting for the trip, and then have a relaxing dinner by the lake.
So no Hungarian culture trip this time. But we did hear some stuff about Hungary from our hosts. Apparently, this part of Austria used to be very closely associated with this part of Hungary in the not-so-distant past. They were in the same country, and the townspeople and the countryside folk from the now-Austrian side used to go into the town in Hungary to do lots of their shopping and other city stuff. Now it is a different country, so things have changed. But more recently, since Hungary and Austria are part of the European Union, things have become more open again, so there is again movement among the people who have historically considered themselves one and the same.

On this boat ride, we were also joined by Silvia Prieler of the winery Prieler in Burgenland owned by her family. Prieler makes some delicious red wines including a very famous Blaufrankisch from the Leitaberg sub-region, as well as a few white varieties such as Weissburgunder and Chardonnay. Note they don't really do Gruner Veltliner or Riesling down here in the Burgenland, since the climate is much warmer than the Kamptal, Kremstal, and Wachau, and here it is more suitable for red wines and some white varieties that are better in slightly warmer climes.

Above pictured is Kevin Pike of Skurnik Wines, the fearless leader for this trip and this group of over 26 of their clients, which included distributors, sommeliers, and retail buyers like myself. Kevin was super organized, a guy full of knowledge and total sense of the places he was taking us and the growers. He did such a superb job of organizing this effort, I am awed by what he put together. Truly, it was a great view of Austria, not just the wines, but the entire culture of the place, from the oppulent city of Vienna to the vast, gorgeous countryside, to the quaint villages.
Here he is sipping a delicious glass of one of our host's Rose wines, which almost has a hue not unlike that of his jacket. He's taking a brief chill on the boat ride.

And here we are, unloading off the boat, onto the old Hungarian border station. I guess this was a functional border station before Hungary and Austria both joined the European Union, when they would check passports. Now, it is a wooden structure for us to do tastings and such in. What a tranquil setting, looking out onto that mysterious lake.

Here are some of us chilling after tasting some pretty serious wines.

After tasting some wines, I was surpised to start tasting some Eau de Vie from a producer called Hans Reisetbauer. This guy is full-on passionate about making Eau de Vie. And other liquors. I even tasted a gin that was pretty fantastic. Just so fresh. His Eau de Vies are all distilled pure fruit products and he uses only the best fruit, from his orchard or fruit he sources that is of top quality, and he ferments it all down and then distills to make these pure concoctions. And he made some bizarre ones: ginger and carrot were two that come to mind. I think he is the only one to ferment ginger, which is not that easy to do, and then distill the resultant "ginger wine" into an Eau de Vie. It wasn't really my cup of tea, but it was full of the aroma of fresh young ginger and it was true to its origins. The young ginger he sources from China. He made some other berry and apple and pear Eau de Vies which I found to be lovely. He also made vintage stuff, ie. he feels there is as much vintage variation in Eau de Vie as in wine - one vintage can be really hot and ripe and produce intensely ripe and fruity Eau de Vies, and another vintage of the same fruit, same orchard can produce a leaner, steelier one.

I was so impressed by those Eau de Vies that I woke up early the next morning and hit the fine grocer Julius Meinl in Vienna to buy one of his products, the Pear William one for Johan as a souvenir.

Here's an interior shot of this upscale grocery store. Very nice. Has a glass elevator running through it as well.

And here's the last place I went to before the Vienna airport to fly home that Friday morning, the Hotel Sacher, which has that famous torte, Sachertorte. I shared a cab with a Sharon, a restaurant owner in Dallas, TX and journalist David Rosengarten, who were going there that morning on the way to the airport to pick up a torte to take home. I didn't get one since I really wasn't that into it (had heard it wasn't that great), but I did get to pop into the hotel and take in its very old school ambiance. Almost everything is done in red velvet.
So that sums up my Austria trip. The last 24 hours were so relaxing and enjoyable, not rushed or stressed. It gave me such a good feeling about Austria. I shared with another on the trip that I still liked Germany better, and German wines better, but Austria and its wines were definitely growing on me. The trip gave me the impetus to try more of the wines at the dinner table. The trip was also definitely informative, giving so much information for me to chew on - about its wines, its estates, its vineyards and region, and about its culture in general. I love this stuff, tons of mental goodies for me to mix and knead in my mind. Mind food. Yes. This was a trip full of that, and it made me feel so fortunate to be in this business, meeting people of like minds, delving into a culture that is not my own, but takes me in with such generosity and kindness.
Austria will forever be etched in my mind as a gorgeous place with solid, worthy, delicious wines and even more delicious food. I hope to return there soon. But in the meantime, I have the wines at my fingertips.

Friday, July 18, 2008

White Wine with Meat

So Samantha and I have been discussing for about a month the concept of White Wine with Meat. I think Samantha has actually been doing this concept for years, having for example Sauvignon Blanc with Steak, but I am not as familiar with the concept, as I have not been a white wine lover for that long. But after returning from Austria, and drinking more Gruner Veltliner, I'm starting to really enjoy white wine with meat.

I am a German Riesling lover, and still love German Riesling more than I love Gruner Veltliner, but I have to admit that drinking German Riesling did not inspire me to drink white wine with meat. Sure, aged German Riesling can pair well with certain meat-like dishes such as foie gras or pate, but your typical fruity German Riesling is not what I think of having with burgers, etc. When I think German Riesling, I'm thinking of eating more Asian-type dishes such as spicy crabmeat noodles or some Lotus of Siam-type creation, or even a Chinese stir-fry I mike make at home, but not so much just a red meat. But Gruner Veltliner seems to work well with meat-type dishes.

Take for example last evening - we were scheduled to have bison burgers, done on the barbecue, topped with Stilton blue cheese, alongside some grilled zucchini that has been marinated in champagne vinegar and olive oil and a few dashes of seasoned salt. This meal went GREAT with 2006 Johann Donabaum Gruner Veltliner "Johann" from the Wachau. It was perfect! In fact, my husband Johan did consider for a brief moment opening a red wine, which I did not outright object to, but I did say that I would slightly prefer the perfectly cold bottle of white that was already in the fridge...... it turned out to be a very good choice. Given the season, especially, this refreshing, yet full bodied white almost gave the impression of a Chardonnay, but without a stitch of oak. Even Johan picked up on this - and in fact, Wachau Gruner Veltliners do appeal to those who like white Burgundy and Chardonnay, but not so much oak. There is a rich aroma on the nose of apricots and white flowers, followed but an equally rich palate that has really no greeness to it, just ripe fruit and balancing acidity and a touch of minerals.

Finally, here are some pictures of the famous David Rosengarten which I took on my Austria trip, which he was a part of. I didn't know who he was prior to meeting him, but he is a food writer/journalist who used to be on the Food Network, and wrote the book Red Wine with Fish. I am now crediting him with my phrase White Wine with Meat, which I think he might have covered in his book, but I think another book could be written just about White Wine with Meat!

These pics are taken on the final day of our Austria journey. We are at an old border station on the Hungarian side of the Lake Neusiedl (Neusiedlersee), which is located in the region of Burgenland. This huge lake is very shallow and muddy-appearing, but gives such a relaxing aura, with its water plants that grow up out of it, and the whole muggy humidity it gives to the air.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I was remiss in forgetting to mention I tasted my first 1996 Chave Hermitage at the Grand Aioli.....

Oh yes, sorry, I got carried away with the beautiful food pictures, so carried away I forgot that I and everyone else in attendance also enjoyed Samantha's contribution to the evening, a wine that is not a Rose, but a red, none other than the 1996 Chave Hermitage. This is a wine I have never experienced before, but it gave me one of those "Ah, yes, this is why it is good to cellar wine" moments, which I have too few of, because I don't really cellar wine (don't have a wine fridge yet).

The wine is one of those wines you stick your nose in to greet, and it greets you back with seduction. It says "Come here nose, and stay awhile. What's your rush?" It has that great bouquet that grabs you and stops you from taking a sip, because the bouquet is where it is at, and it demands attention and time. I can't really relate it to smokiness per se, it's just a wine aroma that is not really aged, but just perfect, not too old, not too young, though of course this wine can still go another 10 years in the bottle with no problem. But that's the aroma I like, a wine on its way up, not on its way down, nor even necessarily at its peak.

I liked it. I cherished the opportunity to taste such a great wine.

Thank you Sam for sharing!

The Grand Aioli 2008 at Randy and Dale's house

I had never been to a Grand Aioli before, until this past Sunday, when The Wine Country owners Randy and Dale hosted the best barbecue I've ever been to.

A Grand Aioli is a Provencal outdoor feast featuring Rose and a garlicy sauce called Aioli. Along with the Rose wines and Aioli is a feast of seasonal vegetables and meats.

Here is but a small sampling of the Roses and other wines opened during the night. I think there were over 20 different Roses, along with some red Rhone wines, some Cali-Rhones, and some whites.

Above is Amy's pretty tomato salad, made with Dales own home-grown heirloom tomatoes, then topped with capers, olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and other goodies.

Above is the boneless leg of lamb that was cooked on a spit. Delicious!

And here is the tender roast chicken, alongside some perfectly roasted potatoes.

To the left is a plate of roasted vegetables, which includes carrots and cauliflower. To the right, a flavorful and zippy chick pea salad made by Samantha.

And some more legumes, these made by Bennett. These were some tasty and unique beans that melted in one's mouth. I'm going to have to get these bean recipes from Samantha and Bennett! What great summer dishes. And healthy too! I think!

Look at these beets. I don't recall having had golden beets before. They were my favorite. None of that pink bleed one gets with the regular red beets. And so full of beet richness.

I love cauliflower so when I saw these roasted heads, I was beside myself!

And finally, here is the very yellow Aioli sauce. I thought Aioli would be the color of mayonnaise (white), but little did I know, it is the color of curry. I thought it was from mustard, but it is actually from egg yolks, and the slight green tinge is from the olive oil. That's some potent sauce! But the perfect pair with that glass of rose.
What a summer party. Now that's doing it in style!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

An Evening of Nahe Wines Featuring Donnhoff and Schafer-Frohlich

On Friday evening, a small group convened at The Wine Country to indulge in some great wines from two superstar producers, Donnhoff and Schafer-Frohlich. We also learned a little bit about the Nahe, a small winegrowing region that has less renown than the Mosel and the Rheingau, but is being recognized for producing some real gems.

The Nahe region encompasses an area through which the Nahe river flows. It runs somewhat parallel to the Mosel river, but to the south, and the flows into the Rhein. The valley is not as deep and cut as the Mosel, though the hillside vineyards are still steep. The other major difference between the Mosel and the Nahe is that the Mosel primarily has slate as its growing medium, while the Nahe is made up of a blend of soil types, including slate, volcanic rock, and finer clay and loess. As a result of the more southerly location compared to the Mosel and the soil type here, Nahe wines are typically more fuller and weightier in the mouth compared to Mosel wines, and have some spice. However, they still tend to have elegance and structure and very good acidity (though not as high acid as say the Ruwer and Saar wines).

We tasted 8 wines, and there was not a bad one in the bunch. There were 3 Schafer-Frohlich wines and 5 Donnhoff wines, so that Donnhoff did end up dominating the tasting. The first flight was between 2 dry wines, 2006 Schafer-Frohlich Bockenauer Felseneck Spatlese Trocken and 2005 Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle Riesling Trocken Grosses Gewachs. Both wines showed exceedingly well, with the Schafer-Frohlich Spatlese Trocken showing that laser-beam focus and fantastic acidity for which his wines are well known. There is nothing vague or sloppy with Schafer-Frohlich wines - they always seem to me to be well delineated and purposeful, forward and direct, while showing a lean profile, never too fat. In contrast, the Donnhoff Hermannshohle Grosses Gewachs filled the glass with a rich aroma that almost seemed to indicate a touch of botrytis - rich pie spices and heady perfume-destined flower. On the palate, the Donnhoff went on and on, giving richness in mouthfeel and flavor from here to eternity. I was bowled over by the wine when I tasted it before the class, how the wine opened up in the glass with time, filling it with its very huge presence. When the class tasted it, they felt the same way. It was a superb, awe-inspiring wine.

The next flight was of two Kabinetts: 2006 Schafer-Frohlich Estate Kabinett and 2006 Donnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett. The Schafer-Frohlich had the telltale slatey-beery-matchsticky aroma that results from natural yeast fermentation, while showing apricot aroma underneath all that. On the palate, the wine is a true Kabinett without overly fat fruit - there was balance and good acidity. The Donnhoff Kabinett was delicate and spicy at the same time, also a true Kabinett without overblown fruitiness.

The 3rd flight consisted of two Donnhoff 2005 Spatleses: 2005 Donnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spatlese and 2005 Donnhoff Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Spatlese. The Norheimer Kirschheck showed brighter acidity and less weight, while the Felsenberg was more fleshy and fuller and bigger on fruit, body, and length. Both wines did not seem to express a great deal of acidity, reflecting possibly the ripeness of the vintage. They came off a bit soft, though the fruit was pure and clean. It is possible also that at this point in 2008, they are not in their best phase for drinking - perhaps there was more brightness a year ago, and more complexity in a few years.

For the last 2 wines, we decided to serve them on their own. The 7th wine was the 2004 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese. I had just brought this wine in (along with wine #2, the Donnhoff Hermannshohle Grosses Gewachs) for this tasting, so I was curious to try it. It turned out to be one of my favorites of the tasting. The wine simply had more balance and complexity than the 2 Spatleses from 2005. This may have been for several reasons. 2004 was a more classic vintage, not as warm, and the wine had more acidity, which was great for a Spatlese (or any wine, really). Second, it had more development, and just flavor beside simple fruit. It had also done that thing that people describe as "losing its baby fat" - so it was not just a wash of sweet fruit on the palate, but a balance of something almost saline - the minerality - being as prominent as the fruit, along with great acid - it was something I easily gulped down (while some of the 2005s had to be sacrificed to the dump bucket - not because I didn't like them, but because there is so much I can drink at a tasting, and I chose to drink the 2004!). Third, of course, is that the Brucke is an excellent vineyard. I'm not sure how the Brucke ranks compared to Donnhoff's other vineyards, but I'm sure it is up there - in the past I tasted an eiswein from this vineyard that was beyond amazing. And here was another example of the perfection that was this vineyard.

The very last wine was a 2005 Schafer-Frohlich Bockenauer Felseneck Riesling Beerenauslese. This wine delivered. It was a fabulous noble sweet wine from an excellent noble sweet wine vintage, and it was made by skilled hands. A botrytis-honey sweetness fills the glass with its intoxicating perfume, and leads you to a palate of rich wine that has enough acidity to back it up. This is a very special wine that would conclude the fanciest of wine dinners, or it could just serve as the meal itself with a great blue cheese like Stilton. Forget Port, this is where it is at!

In all, a very successful tasting. In a biased way, the Donnhoffs blew away the Schafer-Frohlichs, but that could have just been because the two houses should not be tasted side-by-side. No one had any complaints about any of the Schafer-Frohlichs though - they are all superb wines. But hedonistically, it was hard not to acknowledge and bow down to the master, Donnhoff. His style, to me, is not as subtle as I think importer Terry Theise describes him to be. It's not that I'm saying he hits you over the head with his wines, but they are by no means subtle. One class participant put it this way - if you want something to go with your meal, the Schafer-Frohlichs seem to do just that in a great way, but if you want the wine to be the star attraction, then serve the Donnhoff. The wines just seem to demand you to put other things and hold and behold it. The wines are super-rich, minerally, fleshy, and full of spice and goodies. They seem to show well in their youth and have the bones to age for decades. Pretty great stuff.

For my money, I crave the 2005 Donnhoff Hermannshohle Grosses Gewachs and the 2004 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke. They are both pricy wines, but I figure for the right occasion, bringing a bottle of these to a dinner party would be really, really fun.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Austria Part V: From the Kremstal to the Wachau

So to continue on with my trip in the Austrian wine country, our third day in the countryside was spent starting out at Nigl in the Kremstal, where owner and winemaker Martin Nigl reigns supreme.

The winery Nigl is nestled in the very lush green mountains, the specific region called the Krems valley. This is located somewhat north of the Danube. The winery was in the past a farmhouse at the base of a hill where a stone castle is located. The stone castle is now a ruin, but is owned by the same family who owned it when it was a functional castle. The vineyards run all the way up the hill toward the ruin. It is a beautiful sight indeed.

The winery has been remodeled beautifully, and includes a restaurant, in which we did our tasting. The wines from Nigl are fantastic, and a notch up from others in the region. They have an elegance and grace that makes other Gruner Veltliner and Riesling seem clunky and rustic. There's something in the palate that makes them wonderful.

We have currently the Nigl Kremser Freiheit 2007, which is a blend of 3 vineyards. Technically, on this label, it does not say Kremser Freiheit, but just Freiheit (which means "freedom"), because in 2007, there was some hail damage and Martin did harvest a block that was not technically in the Kremstal region. But typically, this entry level bottling is called Kremser Freiheit, so you will see it called that.

As far as I could tell, the 2 regions Kamptal and Kremstal are adjacent to one another and share the same soil type and climate, so it is difficult to tell the difference between the wines from these two regions. Maybe Kamptal has a slight bit more acidity from being slightly cooler than the Kremstal region, but only slightly. Both of these regions seem to have Gruners and Rieslings with crisp and appealing acidity. One can differentiate these wines from the wines of the Wachau, however, which has a completely different terroir.

And after leaving Nigl, the bus took the 28 of us over to the Danube river, where we drove along and saw some of the most beautiful views. We were heading to Jamek, where we would taste the wines of Alzinger and Jamek. This picturesque winery is located right on the Danube, and of course, has its own restaurant, of which it is very proud.
That's where we would have lunch, first! Apparently, the restaurant even predates the winery - the original owner first had a hotel and restaurant, and the wine came later - so the wines are always meant for the food. In fact, our lunch turned out to be almost like a wine dinner, with wine pairings for each course. The food was beautiful and tasted delicious. For example, this simple salad was one of the best things I had ever tasted. The vegetables and tiny strawberries were so fresh and flavorful, and the cheese was mouthwatering, as though a homemade local cheese. And the presentation was outstanding.

The wines of Alzinger and Jamek were bold and powerful, with great minerality, and more of a tropical fruit character than we had experienced in the Kamptal and Kremstal. This is typical for Wachau since the region is warmer. The region is warmer due to being right on the Danube river, a large body of water which retains heat and gives warmth to the surrounding vineyards.
Here in the Wachau, there is a different classification scheme that includes three levels of wine strengths, based on alcohol level, which is used as a measure of richness and body. The lightest of the three wines is called Steinfeder, which means "stone feather," and this type of wine, having a low alcohol level, is pretty much never seen in the United States because the wine doesn't travel well. Or, maybe it doesn't have much of a market. The next level up is called Federspiel, which means "feather play," and that is pretty much equivalent to a Kabinett Trocken, if you are more familiar with the German classification terms. The final level, which is like a reserve level, is called Smaragd, which is a type of emerald-colored lizard that suns itself on rocks in the Wachau region, and this level has the highest alcohol level and is usually a rich, full-bodied wine that is equivalent to a Spatlese Trocken in the German classification system.

But enough about terms, here are some vineyard pictures I took after we left Jamek and went for a walk up a terraced vineyard in the Wachau:

Note the terraced vineyards. Didn't see too many of these in Germany except in the Lower Mosel (Untermosel), which is also called Terrassenmosel, but it doesn't seem to exist in the Middle Mosel where all the premium Mosel sites are, nor in the Rheingau.
Terracing needs to occur more here in Austria due to the type of soil found here, which is called loess (pronounced "less"). This is a fine and sandy soil type on which Gruner Veltliner thrives. This loose soil retains more water than the slate and stony soils on which Riesling thrives. Gruner actually needs more water and does better without so much water stress (ie lack of water or drought).
At any rate, something I personally noticed was that with these terraces, the Gruner Veltliner vines are planted ACROSS the terrace and the hill (horizontally), in contrast to Riesling vines in the Mosel, which seemed to be planted DOWN a hill (vertically). I'm sure that has to do with the terracing found here in Austria, and not found in the slatey soil found in the Mosel.

Above is an old vine building itself right into the rocky terrace.

So here's the beautiful Danube river. This was the first time I was in Austria that I was reminded of Germany. It was like being in the Mosel, though the vineyards in the Mosel are way steeper. But the effect is similar, a river valley that has its vineyards facing the river and getting all its warmth.

Note the grey sky. We had to leave in haste when it began to pour. We ran back to the bus and we sped off to our final destination for the evening, Nikolaihof.
It was still pouring when we arrived at Nikolaihof, and we were not dropped off at the front door here and had to run through the rain some, so when we got inside, we were pretty soaked. Fortunately, we were treated like royalty and greeted with glasses of Gelber Muskateller wine. This is a fairly ubiquitous yellow muscat wine we seemed to taste at almost every winery as a fun aperatif sort of wine.

Note how dark it was outside. It was only just after 5pm or so. This is in June, so it should have stayed light out till 9pm if it were a sunny day. But it wasn't!

Here's a bit of the facade of the estate from one angle. There are better pics of this estate elsewhere, but that day, it was dark, so hard for me to capture.

Here's the dining table they set for us to taste at, followed by serving us a huge feast. Let me reiterate that I felt like we were being treated like royalty. It wasn't bad. It was one of those moments when all of us, wine distributors, restaurant sommeliers, retail grunts - we probably were all thinking - yeah, this is pretty nice. Maybe this is why I'm in the business!

We also did a cellar tour and learned that the estate is something like 2000 years old. I really didn't know such old estates existed in Austria! For some reason, my impression was that Austrian wine was somewhat of a new phenomenon. Maybe its the modern way they market themselves. Or maybe it is because the quality has gone up so much in the past 20 years that it is almost as if the industry had reinvented itself in the last 20 years and is portraying itself in this light alone. But on this trip, at places like Schloss Gobelsburg, which remains a monastery holding, and at Nikolaihof, I began to understand that Austrian wine is not just a new thing - it has been there for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years.
The dinner we had a Nikolaihof was a feast. I took some pics but they were too dark. Suffice it to say that even though we were chilled to the bone from being rained on and then stuffed into a dark, cold cellar, we had a great time. The wines are fantastic, amazing, and above and beyond the scope of other Austrian wineries. This is top notch stuff, all biodynamic, but more importantly, simply amazing stuff. I bought some amazing 1993 Nikolaihof Vinothek Gruner Veltliner on the Michael Skurnik/Terry Theise presale that will arrive to our store around November that is amazingly expensive, but I plan to sell and promote as my Wine of the Year choice. This wine is simply outstanding, complex, and a whole bunch of other words I can conjure right now and I don't want to steal Terry Theise's words at the moment. It is something to taste, and I hope I get it on as many lips as possible!!!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Can't we all just get along and drink each other's wines? Or, how wine and politics do not mix! A rant against prejudice against German wines

Pieces of the Berlin Wall, at Deutsche Echt in Koblenz
Inscription: "Dedicated to the Victims of the Separation"

My relationship with the German culture began when I immigrated to Canada at the age of 4. We moved to a neighborhood traditionally inhabited by immigrants - the wave previous to ours was of Germans and other central Europeans. So, we lived really close to a fantastic German delicatessen and several bakeries and pastry shops. Often, our family would treat ourselves to Black Forest ham sandwiches made on big tasty Kaiser buns, Black Forest cakes, and all sorts of other goodies.

When I entered Kindergarten (another German word), the coolest kid in school was a blond girl of 5 (we were all 5) who exuded a certain confidence and charm that made other kids, boys and girls, want to sit next to her. Her name was Jennifer Hildebrand, and I still remember it! No, I didn't have a girl-crush on her, but still, she was that popular and cool! She was the polar opposite to the ugly duckling that was me - black hair in an uncool style, boyish clothes, and not much of a command of the English language.

That's what it was like growing up in Canada, a country that I have finally figured out is way more Germanic than it is here. Even the town of Kitchener in the province of Ontario used to be called Berlin, until World War II when it became a shame to be associated with the German capital city, and it was changed to Kitchener. The fact was, many people in Canada were and are of German descent, so much so that it used to be taught frequently as a language course in university.
Fast forward to now, and I'm selling German wine with passion. It has been great and I've been very enthused. But what I have noticed from time to time is this underlying prejudice against German wine and maybe all things German, or maybe some select German things. It's odd. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was pouring a Gruner Veltliner (from Austria) for a gentleman, and he started telling me how he didn't like anything German, even though he himself was German (though grew up in the United States). He went on to explain that growing up during and after the second world war, it just wasn't good to be German, and that feeling stays with him even now. Plus, he added, he just didn't like German traits, which he perceived as strictness and rigidity. He did add that he had visited Germany and found everyone very, very nice. And yet he still had this prejudice against German wine, and of course, that spread to things that weren't German wine, such as Gruner Veltliner, which sounds German.

He is not the first person to express such sentiments. Sometimes, the comments are more subtle, less in words, more in non-verbals. Sometimes it comes veiled in a joke, or a warning, or a brush-off. Or a refusal to see anything beautiful in something already decided as the incarnation of evil.

It is like the winemakers in Germany should pay for the sins of the Nazis. That doesn't make sense to me! And it strikes me as so rude! It is like if someone suggested we go for sushi tonight that I break into a rant about how the Japanese raped the Chinese capital of Nanking, or that they ransacked as much of Asia as possible during the same second world war, doing inhumane human experimentations and taking on "comfort women" wherever they could.

See, that's just not cool!

Or, should we hold California winemakers accountable for the attrocities in Vietnam? Should we bring up napalm and other unpleasantness if someone is offering us a taste of Zinfandel? I think not!

The issue here is mistaking politics for ethnicity. Or mistaking a country's misguided and plainly bad political situation (and politician) with the people of that country. Because it is my view that the people of that country - whatever country one may think this and that about - have little control over what the politicians foreign policy is. Sure, there may be supporters, and that is hard to digest, but the fact is, humans, all humans, have the ability to do evil. And they have the ability to do good. And they have the ability to make beautiful things beyond your imagination: music, art, food, wine.

Still not sure what the stigma of German wine is all about some times - people fall over themselves buying BMWs and Mercedes Benzes, and even Volkswagons - that's apparently okay. I'm not saying most people have this issue but I'm just bringing up the notion that I don't think political views hold any weight when saying "no" to a wine - it's just an excuse. Same goes for French wines. Please! Making negative comments about "I just won't drink French" does NOT sound cool or patriotic or particularly knowledgeable. I'm not trying to stomp our freedom of speech, but just calling out what I see as rudeness and hypocrisy.
Here's another anecdote: Allie Mitchell of Rudi Wiest Selections and I did a German wine dinner in April of this year up in Santa Monica, and it was a lot of fun. One couple was a German lady married to an American man, and they met when he was stationed in Germany. The lady told me out of the blue that when phylloxera hit German vineyards, grape growers were scrambling because all their vines were dying from the louse. They were trying to import American rootstocks to graft their vines onto them, but Hitler wouldn't allow it - he didn't want anything American. I don't what this story means, but for me I guess it says how powerless we are as citizens sometimes to the whims of the government.
I'm not sure how this story here will read, whether it's a snore, or just another rant on a blog, but hopefully I have communicated what I feel. Finally, I'll just say I'm not saying that all Canadians are necessarily that tolerant or have so gotten over the world wars and things - especially since there are many European immigrants that were affected by various war atrocities. Also (another finally!), I hope I don't sound insensitive to people who were affected, though probably I do. People have a right to be sensitive! I'm just not sure it is a justification for prejudice. And sometimes, I think prejudice is a result of group-think, not just hurt and sensitivity, so I'd just like to see less of it.
Finally, finally, I'm just saying, let's all just get along and drink wine from various places, without too many hang-ups! It's not the winemaker's fault!! Drink German wines! And French and Austrian too!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

When it rains it pours: Another Great Wine at an Incredible Price!

H.u.M. Hofer Gruner Veltliner Liter Bottle - by Bio-Weingut H.u.M. Hofer. Another value wine priced at $11.99 a bottle, but a LITER bottle, which is fantastic! This wine is no light-weight at 13% alcohol, but it tastes light and refreshing and crisp and ripe at the same time. This is classic Gruner Veltliner at its best. This is what we are drinking tonight after a day at the office (the store, on Sunday), and it is perfect. We're having broiled red snapper with brussels sprouts, but this wine is so versatile it would go with just about anything. Oh yes, it is wonderful with these thin slices of Piave cheese that I am munching on before dinner!

Value wines - they can be so lovely!

Great Wine at a Great Price - Stefano Farina's Nebbiolo 2005

It's been a little while since I have really, really enjoyed a wine. Well, that might be an exaggeration, since I have been drinking good wines lately, but I really didn't feel inspired to write about any until I tasted this one from last evening: 2005 Stefano Farina Nebbiolo which happens to be The Wine Country's Wine of the Month right now. That's how I happened to buy a bottle to have with some leftover jerk chicken.

Right now, with the economy like it is, the mood out there just seems to be all about value wines. Being a consumer myself, I am not immune to this feeling. Value just feels right right now. Splurging - not so much. Weird. It's weird because when it is time to splurge, people, including myself, love to spend, spend, spend, the more something cost, the better the experience, and it's all about spending. When it is time to save, though, saving is the exciting thing and stuff with tons of quality for the price are so attractive. And so it is with this wine.

For $11, this Nebbiolo really delivers. Everything you would want in an Italian wine, and more. It was plenty great sipping out on the balcony, and I was want for nothing. At the time, I felt like buying a case would be a great idea. In fact, I still might. The wine has all the elements I am looking for in a wine - great nose, especially after it opens up some; firm structure yet silky; great fruit but not too fruity.

I might venture to say this is one of the best tasting Wines of the Month we have ever had! Up there with the 2005 La Cabotte Cotes du Rhone.