I f only more residents of the United States would even consider drinking a glass of German riesling. But the ABR (Anything But Riesling) crowd is a resistant population segment. The problem isn't riesling's bouquet or flavor. As Rocky Balboa used to say, "It's the rep." Riesling's reputation is one of sweet, sugary stuff. Much of the blame rests squarely on Germany's old export strategy. Too many years of Blue Nun, Black Tower and anonymous Liebfraumilch turned the response to all of Germany's output into an automatic "Thanks, but I don't like sweet wines" proposition. Whether this will change in my lifetime is like betting that Pamela Anderson will play Lady Macbeth--long odds indeed. But I can hope, and I can write, and I can try to change people's minds about this splendor in a glass.
It's been a blessed time for recent German wine vintages. Weather has been uncharacteristically warm and dry during the last three harvest seasons. The 2001 vintage may well be the finest of the last 30 years, but there is precious little still available to purchase at retail. (Hey, some Americans can spot a great thing.) We are now in the midst of the 2002 vintage importation, with the 2003's just over the horizon. A very informative trade tasting was recently held in the Triangle to introduce the bounty of 14 wineries, where either the owners or the winemakers were there to represent their estates. This made for stimulating tasting and conversation; where you could muse out loud about what excites or ultimately disappoints. It made for a heady tete-a-tete.
Today's German has a terrific craving, almost an obsession, for dry wines. Outside of Franconia, long famous for its high-alcohol, dry wines, most German wines feature floral essences coupled with refined flavors, excellent acidity and fruity flavor components. These are the diamonds of German viticulture. Still, the rage of the new generation to drink very dry (trocken) or almost dry (halb trocken) wines have forced many established estates to satisfy this lust for dust. When all the sugar is fermented out of basic, normally harvested riesling, the finished product usually tastes austere, bitter and mean. Despite protestations to the contrary from some of the representatives at this tasting, I found this to be almost always the case. The best bet for success is to use an ultra-ripe, sugar-laden wine, say an auslese, and then vinify it to total dryness. In this manner, a wine of tremendous mouth texture is achieved from these super-ripe grapes, and any bluntness of the finish is less of a shock. This was the case with Schloss Schoenborn's 2002 Marcobrunn, a remarkable achievement. Still, at $45 a bottle, not many will test the waters.
Call me traditional, but I feel that a meticulously crafted Kabinett or Spatlese (both table wines) from a top German estate makes for the finest riesling experience, and at a cost that is a bargain given the tremendous quality. Kabinetts are generally drier and crisp, with a brisk finish. Spatleses will tend to be rounder, fuller and more luxurious, but still retain refreshment value due to excellent acid levels. Auslesen are better after a meal, to sip with soft cheeses, a simple pound cake or all by themselves.
The following is a list I gathered, from over 100 examples tasted (all rieslings), that I found excellent and worthy of your interest. They are either in the marketplace or coming soon.
*Indicates a superb example.
I know. If you're still reading this, your eyes are glazing over with these long, complicated names and interminable syllables. Hey, I get tired just typing them. So, how do you remember these long, sentence-length names? You don't. You cut out this list and show it to your wine merchant. He will find them for you, or show you something of comparable quality and price that can be taken home and discovered.
Advancing a large generalization, I would say that the 2002 wines are more characteristically "German" with nervous elegance, fragrance and refined qualities. The 2003s are more generous: fat, unctuous, very atypical in their lushness, but a fascinating foray into bold bodied, slightly lower acid wines.
The general qualities overlapping these two vintages can be characterized as: vibrant, bracing, flowery, often like a fresh breeze, racy, often expansive with flavor, minerally, and balanced, balanced, balanced. Despite all the obstacles to carefree shopping, these wines are worth the effort. Try and purchase at least one or two to see if the bug will bite you.
Of the earth's most popular grape varieties, the most finicky is pinot noir (by far). For countless wine aficionados, nothing is more satisfying or sensual than a perfect pinot. Yet a disappointing pinot seems to me to be far more horrible than a comparable cabernet or sangiovese. Pinot can really stink up a glass. Here are some New World pinots displaying various stages of success. One of the most common faults is pinot noir that smells cooked, overheated or almost dirty. This seems to be the result of trying to grow pinot in a climate that is simply too warm. Many examples in this grouping produced this thoroughly unattractive bouquet that drives the drinker away before the liquid ever touches her lips. Getting it right is a great challenge. But we the drinker must be there for the inevitable breakthrough, and many wines performed admirably. One bottling, the 2001 Witness Tree from Oregon was, unfortunately, "corked" and undrinkable. Here are the wines that scored 80 points or above, tasted blindly:
2003 Kim Crawford,Marlborough New Zealand $17. Fresh raspberries on a small scale, fresh bouquet. Drinks with a pleasant berry sensation and decent balance. A bit hollow. Grade: 83 points.
2002 Beringer, Carneros, $16. Nice, earthy, root vegetable nose of simple, ripe and pleasant fruit. Drinks moderately well with integrated flavors and a fully oaked, butterscotchy aftertaste. 84
2002 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County $19. Nice varietal bouquet shining through. Very attractive and very shy. The flavors are nicely concentrated and positive, but the wine is backward and hard to judge. Maybe going through a "dumb" period. 85 (needs retasting)
2002 Meridian Reserve, Santa Barbara County $16. "Come hither" sweet fruit. A soft, supple and velvety bouquet. Rich flavors and aftertaste; a bit too much wood and a slightly tart bitterness. A lot of wine. 86
2002 Elk Cove, Willamette Valley Oregon $24.50. A dark, alcoholic, earthy, powerful, deep black cherry bouquet. Polished, concentrated and satisfying flavors with a twist too much acid on the finish. 86
2002 Sebastiani, Sonoma Coast $15. Very attractive, pure and understated nose. A fruit forward wine with fine mouth texture and a tight but pleasing finish. Needs 12-18 months in the bottle. 87
2002 Barefoot Reserve, Russian River Valley $17. Gentle, subtle and polished with an intriguing pinpoint bouquet. An elegant, graceful, effortless drink. Excellent weight, fabulous texture and pure aftertaste. 90. Terrific value.
2001 Sebastiani, Russian River Valley $24. Pure, flowery, delicate yet slightly sensual bouquet; most attractive violets and roses. Well rounded flavors worth grainy substance among the wild cherry component. Well crafted and special. 89
2001 Dutton-Goldfield, Russian River Valley $35. Power tempered by grace; nothing is overdone. Charming fruit with dark berries and roses on a "snuggly" bouquet. Graceful fruit flavors on a medium bodied frame. A touch lean and harsh, but small details in this delicious and well-integrated wine. 89
2002 St. Innocent, Willamette Valley $16.50. Slightly gamy with an assertive, powerful, heady and wild bouquet. Totally integrated. Full throttle flavors and excellent mouth texture. Refreshing acids. Will improve. 91 BEST BUY
82 2002 Mirassou, Central Coast $11
81 2002 Reserve, Gallo of Sonoma $15
81 2002 MacMurray Ranch, Sonoma Coast $20
80 2000 Abundance Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley $35
How about "good"? Leave it to the Brits, and a wine chain called Phillips Newman, to make wine shopping a breeze. These new outlets will dispense with complicated wine jargon and describe whites and reds in six simple words. Whites are either "bright," "smooth" or "rounded." Reds are "fruity," "mellow" or "chunky." Got that? Ian McLernon (how'd a Scot get in there?), marketing director, says that customers had quickly picked up the system. While he's at it, why not make it simpler still? I can't for the life of me differentiate between "smooth" and "rounded." Two words should really suffice for whites.
Arturo Ciompi's WineBeat column runs the second week of the month. He can be reached at email@example.com