Sunday, January 30, 2011

2010 German wine vintage report - a review from 11 days in Germany

Hello everyone, freshly back from Germany following an approximately 2-week long trip through the wine regions of Franken, Wurttemburg, Baden, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Mosel, and Ahr. Here are my impressions of the 2010 vintage.

My reaction was that the wines were surprisingly good. There were murmurs prior to going on this trip that the 2010 vintage was a difficult one, compared to the perfect 2009 vintage, given how cold the weather was in 2010. My taste buds braced for an assault. Instead, they were treated to a happy surprise.

So how come the wines were so shockingly good in a vintage some described as cold and difficult?

The truth was that the vintage was different. Completely different from the one before it, 2009, and different from many other vintages too. Wilhelm Haag from the estate Fritz Haag in the Mosel, who is now retired in his 70s and has passed his estate onto his son Oliver Haag, but is still involved in the family business for which he was a winemaker for 50 years (from the age of 20 to 70), said he has never in his 50 years making wine seen a vintage like this one: high must weights (meaning very good ripeness levels) AND high acidity. Typically, one sees acidity and must weights working in opposite directions - if you have high acidity in your grapes, it means there is inadequate ripeness, and conversely, if you have a great deal of ripeness, the acidity in the grapes is low. But this year was unique. Both acidity and ripeness (measured as must weight, or density, and in Germany, in units of Oeschle; in the U.S., measured in units of Brix) were high in this vintage. So what resulted were wines of a great intensity of flavor.

How did this come about? Well, we heard that good wine was not made at all estates in Germany, but it did seem to occur at all the estates we visited, in other words, top estates. Lesser estates did not always achieve this unique balance of high ripeness and acidity - if they picked too early, fearing the loss of crop to frosts and other naturally occurring problems, they ended up with grapes not quite ripe and full of tons of acidity. The estates in our portfolio tended to pick late. They tended to do a pre-harvest in early to mid-October, clipping off rotting grapes so they would not affect the healthy grapes, then doing a tedious, laborious harvest with two or three passes through the vineyard, picking only ripe, healthy grapes sometime in the end of October to the beginning of November. While they worried about their diminishing yields, they ultimately chose quality over quantity. This focus resulted in the pay-off - sensational wines with very good ripeness levels and very high levels of acidity as well.

Speaking of the low yields and high acidity - how did this come about this vintage? It started well before harvest... to the beginning, when flowering took place. Very likely due to the effect of the volcanic eruption in Iceland, which shut down flights all over Europe in the spring of 2010, the climactic pattern had changed and affected the normal flowering of grape vines. What resulted was a very poor flowering, followed by both a much decreased number of berries produced and small size of berries. This stage of the development of the grapes resulted in yields at the estates were visited to be decreased by 30% to 50%. Very signficant.

After flowering, the small number of small berries then enjoyed a cool summer in virtually all the regions. Development and ripening occured at a very slow pace. The fortunate factor in most regions was that in the fall, during the normal harvesting season, a high pressure weather front arrived and ripened the small clusters. As the berries were small, ripening seemed to take place rather quickly once some warm weather arrived. This saved the situation for the winemakers who waited long enough to let some of the acidity go down and some more physiologic ripening to take place.

So then, in summary, 2010 was a different vintage, but an excellent one for our estates. Yields were miniscule - decreased by 30% to 50% from 2009 (and 2009 wasn't even a high yield vintage, per se). Labor costs increased both in the vineyard and in the cellar (so costs went up while final product went down). Winemakers needed skill and experience to deal with this vintage, so wines at top estates were exceptional, but not everywhere. But when the wines were good, they were top notch, explosive with flavor. But there is not much of it!

Here are some scenes from our trip and some highlights. Above is the view from the Rudolf Furst Estate's new tasting room, a gorgeous modern structure with a breathtaking view of their vineyards and the town of Burgstadt below. Furst is in the Franken region and makes some of the prettiest Pinot Noirs I have tasted.

This is a romantic candle-lit cellar in Von Buhl in Deidesheim, in the Pfalz. We arrived here for a tasting at about 7pm one evening, and started, ritualistically, tasting sparkling wine in their cellar. Though we were tired, we cannot turn down great sparkling wine in a candle-lit cellar, can we?

Even though I have taken tons of pictures of the Monchhof Estate, I still cannot resist taking more. This time, the resident swans that are usually floating on the Mosel River were in front on the lawn having breakfast, so I snapped a pic of them doing so in front of the iconic winery.

We unfortunately had some sad news during the trip. We lost one of our winemakers to a tragic car accident just days after we tasted with him at his estate. Wolf Dietrich Salwey of Weingut Salwey in Oberrotweil in Baden was taken at age 69. Sad. We were happy to have spent some time with him and his terrific wines, which he made with his son Konrad Salwey.

Finally, here's a picture of Team California, enjoying a much needed beer from Eisgrub Brau in Mainz on the final evening of the tour. We made it! 27 estates in 11 days. 7 different hotels, about 23 hours of total flying time...... but it was all worthwhile because we got a first glimpse of a most interesting and delicious vintage.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Champagne, Caviar, and Old Red Wines, Oh My!

Last month, during the holiday season, I had the good fortune to be a part of a our wine tasting group's annual Champagne and Caviar party, which is indulgence at its best. Every couple brings a bottle of Champagne and a red wine, and the host supplies the caviar (which we chip in for), and we all bring an appetizer or side dish to add to the festivities.

I bought one of my favorite Champagnes 2002 Camille Saves Grand Cru which is always good - I'm sure I have had it a couple of times before - and while there were many terrific Champagnes poured on this evening, I think I still held this one as my favorite. Rich yet crisp with tons of good acidity and minerality and flavor that goes on and on... wow, I miss it already.

We had those fine Champagnes with heaps of caviar served on buttery crisp toast points. I don't think I've ever had caviar on toast points (had it with blinis and crackers), and I found that I really enjoyed the light and crisp toast points. The caviar was fantastically salty and fatty like nice tuna belly, but in black eggs form. Very nice with the Champagnes!

The table of appetizers and side dishes were fantastic and a feast for the eyes and the stomach.

Then we moved on to some exciting red wines. This 1982 Chateau Gruaud Larose, a Bordeaux from Saint-Julien, was Johan's red wine of the night, and had all the characteristics one desires from a mature Bordeaux - silky tannins, earthiness, some red fruits after all those years.

This 1987 La Jota Vineyard Napa Valley Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon tasted also a bit like a Bordeaux to me though I don't recall exactly the specific tasting notes...

The 2008 Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir was plummy and rich, with some oaky notes, a nice little young Pinot Noir.

A lot of folks like this 1992 Dunn Vineyards Napa Valley Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, which also drank like a rich, fruit-forward aged Bordeaux. I quite liked it as well, though for me it was a toss-up between it and the Larose (real Bordeaux).

Finally, there was this 1990 Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges (Burgundy) which was very good, smoky, still with a lot of fruit.... some others in the group were not so fond of it, but I was!All in all, a very exciting night for wine and caviar lovers!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Young Bordeaux

Among the wines consumed over the Christmas and New Years holiday season was this one: 2001 Calon-Segur from Saint-Estephe, Bordeaux, France. I acquired this fun wine from my friend Adam Zuckert who represents the portfolio The Old and Rare Wine Co., which has some interesting wines such as this Bordeaux and many others.

This 9 year old wine was fresh and youthful, silky and medium-bodied, without too much age or development on the palate. It seemed like it was ready to easily age another 20 years and would likely taste more interesting and better after maybe another 10 years. The wine did not show excessive tannin or green pepper aspects, which for some reason I was concerned that it might - it might be that I have tasted another vintage of Calon-Segur before in the past and experienced grippy tannins or over-the-top green pepper flavors. But not in this 2001. It was well balanced and very easy to drink.

We enjoyed this with a roast leg of lamb and it was very enjoyable. I would buy this wine again, cellar it longer, and open it among good friends or family.

I'll post some more wine notes of some other wines enjoyed over the holidays shortly!

Hope you all had some delicious wines over the holidays.