Category Archives: Germany

It’s locals that are key to travels

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This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge 12. For more info go to the challenge’s blog!

Being challenged to get out of my writing hiatus by no lesser than Anatoli and Jeff, encouraged by Linda, and having felt the drag of not writing for a while, I checked out this month’s wine writing challenge’s theme: The Armchair Sommelier won the last challenge, and picked the topic “local”.

While I have mixed feelings relating to the word “local”, and tried to write a diatribe fueled by these, I decided to spare you my anti-hipster and local does not equate good rant, and instead use this theme to sing an ode to locals, the people that make my travels awesome. After all, I like to be positive and upbeat.

One of the reasons I love traveling so much is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, travelers and locals alike. I am keen on meeting people who have been living in a city for all their lives, or have intimate knowledge of the region (whether they are from there or just happen to live there or have spent a lot of time there). Our travels mostly revolve around where we can visit friends and tap into their local knowledge. Because it is locals that truly understand what is local and what should be part of our experience. Locals have a keen interest in you getting to know a region through their eyes, so that you can see why they love where they live.

This summer, we stayed in Tuscany for a week, in a small hamlet on a hill, about 10 miles from Siena. The next village was a couple of miles away, and it had an insanely typical tiny Italian grocery store which was our main source for fresh veggies, cheese, and meats. The store owner and I hit it off in Italian (I speak some), and one morning as I was there, a Belgian older man asked for a restaurant in English. The owner asked me to translate his directions to the Belgian and I did. As the man left, I told the owner that this was a great coincidence, because i had meant to ask him where we could eat well. He looked at me, horrified, and exclaimed: “No, no, no! Don’t go where I told him to go!! Let me think, there are no good restaurants here, but there is one, a couple of villages down the road.” He told me because he realized that I cared, and because we had a relationship with each other. It is always worth building up a relationship.

Sunset over Siena

Sunset over Siena

Last year, when we were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we stayed at a small guesthouse in the university part of town run by a young couple. The first morning when we came down the stairs, our host Tee asked whether we wanted western or Thai breakfast. When we said Thai (of course), he walked us to a tiny place in a side street, run by three women. The breakfast consisted of chopped chicken breast over rice cooked in chicken stock, and you added your own blend of ginger, chilis and soy sauce over it. It was divine. The ladies spoke no English, and when it was time to pay, we realized it was under a dollar. We went back every day, and our excitement about the place was only matched by the ladies’ excitement that we kept coming back. We communicated with hand and feet, as we say in German, and it was awesome. While I have no photo of the stall, I do have a photo of these local mushrooms, that our host’s mom had collected. They were delicious.

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This summer, we also went to Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy around Ancona, and visited Tenuta San Marcello, a young biodynamic estate, at the owner’s invitation. We had met Pascale and Massimo at VinItaly in New York this spring, and they invited us. When we arrived, we were floored by their hospitality (more on that in a separate post). However, one of the most amazing things was that Massimo wanted us to use one of our two days with them to visit other wineries in the region. He set up a whole itinerary for us, we visited an olive oil maker (a retired RAI journalist who gave us a two and a half hour tour) and several winemakers. It was a stunning show of what locals can do for you, and how their love of their region can make you fall in love as well. We fell in love so hard that we changed our plans and returned for another three days with my mother in law after our stay in Tuscany.

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

Staying at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, we had a long conversation with the reception staff. After Nina had convinced them that she is outright crazy when it comes to adventures, they told her that the world’s highest commercial bungee jump was six or seven hours away on the Garden Route. We changed our itinerary to make a detour there, and while I was so scared I had zero body control anymore, the result was this awesome photo, and the knowledge that I don’t ever have to do a bungee jump again. Needless to say, Nina jumped twice.

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

During our second visit to Le Marche, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports (I wrote about his awesome business here), arranged for us to visit another winery. Jonathan is considered a local by many of the people we met, including the owner of Vignamato, Maurizio, the estate we visited with Jonathan’s help. The owner had received Jonathan’s email Saturday morning, after hosting his birthday party on Friday night for over 100 people. We spent a good three hours with him that same Saturday evening, had tons of fun, and when I asked him “dove si mangia bene” (where does one eat well? – remember that sentence when in Italy!), he thought for a while, made a phone call, and then sent us to the most enchanted little husband and wife restaurant in an old Palazzo: Osteria sotto le Mura. At first, we missed the place, because there were no signs, but another local, a cute rotund septuagenarian walked us to the restaurant once I asked.

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

While we visited my host family in Burgundy (my host brother and I have known each other for 25 years this year!), they went on a mission to make me try true local foods. Everyone knows boeuf bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) and mustards, and some might be familiar with Dijon’s spice bread pain d’epices, but there is so much more! I tried jambon persillé for the first time, which is chunks of ham in a gelée of parsley, like a terrine. It was wonderful, and the genius idea of throwing it in scrambled eggs was Nina’s. Speaking of eggs, I also had my first oefs en meurette, poached eggs covered in a red wine sauce that is similar to a bouef bourguignon sauce, just without the beef. It was eye opening in its deliciousness. I had spent significant time in Burgundy before, but these were still firsts for me. Locals have an immense trove of treasures to share, and it never gets old.

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

I could go and on (like our friend in Milan making sure I have the most extensive restaurant list for Rome, where he had lived for a couple of years or the random Boer at a rural gas station who sent us to the most amazing guesthouse that was on no internet list), but my main message is this: When you travel, go find locals and talk to them, in bars, in restaurants, in shops. You don’t need to pay a fortune to get a “guided” tour by someone. I have never contemplated this as an option, because these tours don’t allow you to do whatever you please, and go wherever the wind or local advice takes you. Even if you find yourself in a bind, there are usually tours offered directly in a town or region and this cuts out the middleman. Locals are the true heroes of my travels, and I am thrilled to meet more on my next trip. So, thank you, locals, for making my travels awesome.

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Tasting with Friends: Unexpected Pinot Noirs

It had been way too long since we conducted one of our fairly regular wine tastings with friends. The rules are always the same: The host sets a topic (we did “European Reds“, “Strange Fruit“, “French and Argentinian Malbecs“, “Michigan vs. Mosel” and others in the past; you can find links to all of them here), and then guests bring a wine bottle each. The wines are usually accompanied by cheeses and meats, and as of late we try to taste them blindly.

Two of our friends had to move out of town for work, so we had been missing them dearly. When one of them came to town for a visit, we made sure to have a tasting. Since I was hosting, I had the honor of setting the rules. I called the tasting “Unexpected Pinot Noirs” and explained that I would like to try Pinot not from France or the U.S. usual suspects Oregon and California (but guests were free to ignore that rule). I am a huge fan of Pinot Noir and was looking for a chance to expand my palate.

We paired the wines with cheeses and meats from my local go to sausage maker Biercamp. These guys just know what they are doing: I got several bacons thinly sliced, including duck and lamb bacon, a wonderful garlic and herbs de Provence sausage with a nice kick, as well as smoke sticks from them. Delicious pairing options for sure.

Blind tasting has its own trappings, and I am always a bit weary of it because it is the most humbling experience you can imagine. You try to whittle down where the wine is from, and while doing that more often than not I convince myself that it is a particular style or region or vintage and then look for arguments to support that, thus closing off my mind. Nina tends to be way better than me at picking up nuances and determining characteristics about wine. She definitely owns me in blind tastings, and so it was with this one:

A Pinot from the Ruwer valley

A Pinot from the Ruwer valley

The first wine we tried was a German Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder, literally “late Burgundy”), a 2010 Heinrich Mertes Waldracher Meisenberg Cuveé Lara. My friend Mansoo had sent me this bottle a while back (as well as the other bottle we entered into the race), and I was eager to try it. Heinrich Mertes winery is located in the Ruwer valley, a small tributary to the Mosel river. The wine showed a medium-light red color. The nose was perfumy with currants and some heat. It wasn’t exciting at all. The heat was actually quite disturbing. On the palate, though, this wine shone: raspberry, red currant and tobacco aromas, and an awesome kick of acidity. The puzzling and intriguing thing about this wine was that the fruit tasted very ripe, yet the acidity kept it wonderfully fresh. This was a strong beginning. The nose not so much, but the flavor profile was awesome. For me, the acidity gave it away: Because I knew there was a 2010 from Germany in the race, a year with quite high acidity in general, I took my chances and guessed right (so did Nina).

Quite the label, huh?

Quite the label, huh?

Next up, a 2007 Arno Kruft Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenberg from the Mosel (our second entry). The color was in stark contrast to the first wine: dark, purplish red. The nose showed wet dirt, some rotting branches and what others described as compost aromas. Not very pleasant. I think the compost descriptor came from hyper-ripe fruit aromas, but I couldn’t nail down which fruit. On the palate, the first noticeable thing was that it was way chewier than the first wine. It also was somewhat smoky, with cherries and cranberry aromas as well as a bit of vanilla. In my mind, this was totally a new world Pinot with a lot of the characteristics I have encountered in some California Pinot Noir: too potent, too strong, no restraint. But I want my Pinot Noir less potent, less strong and with more restraint. I did not like this wine. I guessed it was from somewhere pretty warm, and definitely new world. Boy was I wrong.

Michigan high end winery with South African winemaker

Michigan high end winery with South African winemaker

The third wine of the evening was a 2012 Brys Estate Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Noir from Michigan. Apparently, Michigan winemakers consider 2012 one of the best Pinot Noir vintages yet, so this should be exciting. The color on this one was gorgeous: a red currant red, darker than wine 1, much lighter than wine 2. The nose was flowery, with some strawberry, rather intense smoke, but seemed quite closed at this point. On the palate, the wine felt creamy and heavy, which gave it a wonderful mouthfeel. But it is a mouthfeel I don’t expect or particularly cherish in a Pinot Noir, which I want more light footed and delicate. Still a solid showing. Nina guessed Michigan correctly, I had no clue.

Another established Michigan winery

Another established Michigan winery

Up next, a 2011 Black Star Farms Arcturos  Pinot Noir, also from Michigan. Again, the color was spectacular, a bright and shiny red currant. The nose was full of roses, almonds and cedar wood, with hints of red berries. I thought the nose was gorgeous. The palate also started off nicely, with spice and pepper aromas, and a light footed feel to it. But then the palate turned out to be a bit harsh: There were bitter aromas kicking in that were rather striking. It also felt like the wine had a bit too much alcohol (which was not the case, we checked later and it clocked in at only 12% ABV, but felt more like 14), and that really turned me off. I couldn’t get over the harshness in the wine. My guess was, because of the perceived high alcohol, a warm climate wine, maybe Southern Italy.

A New Zealand surprise and an Oregon Pinot

A New Zealand surprise and an Oregon Pinot

Second to last came a 2011 Oya Pointe Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Marlborough Valley. New Zealand has definitely gained some serious street cred for its Pinot production. The color was similar to the previous wine, and the nose was awesome: strawberry jam with rosemary and sage aromas. It was crazy, but good crazy! I loved it. The palate was very herbal as well, thyme, rosemary and sage aromas, with strong acidity with some iron aromas, great lightness to it and some red berries. This was very unique and therefore impressive wine. I hadn’t come across such an herbal Pinot before. This was an exciting wine. Because of the iron aroma that I had come across before in an Oregon Pinot Noir, I decided to guess Oregon…

The final wine was a 2012 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuveé Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The color was more purplish, maybe black currant. The nose was chalky, intensely perfumy, with cocoa aromas. On the palate, the wine seemed rather bland: some cherries, some strawberries, plum, not very expressive though. Straight-out fruit forward style, but all a bit thin. I would not have recognized it as a Pinot Noir if I hadn’t know it had to be one, maybe more of a Grenache or so. I just didn’t find much that excited me about this wine. Not bad, but quite standard. My guess, because it was a bit heavy, was California.

So, recap: My guesses were mostly off. My ranking of the wines from best to least favorite, is 1 (2010 German), 5 (2011 New Zealand), 4 (2011 Michigan), 3 (2012 Michigan) and 2 (2007 Germany) and 6 (Oregon) – the last two share the spot, I couldn’t decide.

Combined with the others rankings (6 points for favorite down to 1 point for least favorite), this is the likability ranking:

First place: 2010 Heinrich Mertes Cuveé Lara – 23 points (ranked first by three people out of four)

Second place: 2011 Oya Pointe Pinot Noir (New Zealand) – 17 points (ranked second twice)

Third place: 2012 Brys Pinot Noir and 2011 Black Star Farms Arcturos Pinot Noir – 16 points each (with the Arcturos being ranked first once)

Fifth place: 2012 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuveée Pinot Noir – 6 points

Sixth place: 2007 Arno Kruft Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenberg – 5 points (ranked last by three out of four)

The tasting was fun, and it was kind of interesting to have a German Pinot Noir ranked first and last. The Heinrich Mertes was just such a great expression of the grape, to me it was a rather easy winner. The New Zealand Pinot Noir was unique in a good way, expressing some aromas that were unfamiliar, yet seemed befitting to the grape.

The pretty clear winner

The pretty clear winner

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#WineStudio Session XII: Germany’s Lesser Known Varieties

The wines discussed in this article were provided as samples by Rudi Wiest Selections.

I remember talking with my good friend Stefano of Clicks and Corks sometime earlier this year, and we were talking about blogging and samples we sometimes receive. He was astonished that I did not seem to get as many samples as he receives (he blogs mostly about Italian wines), and I had to inform him that there are simply not that many distributors of scale that carry German wines: Rudi Wiest and Terry Theise being the two big ones, with several smaller importers like vom Boden filling in the niches. I told him I wish I could get to try some of Rudi Wiest of Terry Theise’s portfolio, but that it was unlikely, being rather far away from the bigger markets.

Imagine my surprise and happiness when I was approached by Tina Morey of Protocol Wines, the host of #WineStudio and #WineChat, informational weekly wine chats on Twitter, asking whether I was interested in participating in the #WineStudio they were organizing in cooperation with Rudi Wiest Selections to highlight some lesser known varieties from Germany!! I happily obliged. If you’re into German wine, it is hard not to have had wines that Rudi Wiest imports. Their list is not very extensive, but they boast some of the best producers in Germany.

#WineStudio is Protocol Wines’ wine education program in which wineries and distributors get a chance to provide a deeper look into what they or their area is doing wine-wise. The discussions are a lot of fun, I have to say, so it is usually worth checking out even if you don’t have the wines to try along.

While Germany doesn’t have the grape variety that Portugal or Italy or Greece have, there are still a bunch of grapes that are not really well known abroad but drunk by a significant number of Germans. This was our chance to explore these more.

We tried and discussed a total six wines over the course of four weeks, and in my book this was hands down the best #WineStudio event yet. I guess my predisposition for German wines and some background knowledge made this a really great exercise. Let me tell you about the wines, because they pretty drinkable! Also, they were all dry wines and I get many questions about which dry wines from Germany I can recommend, so this is a good list.

Schloss Hallburg Silvaner and Wirsching Scheurebe

Schloss Hallburg Silvaner and Wirsching Scheurebe

We started with a 2011 Graf von Schönborn – Schloss Hallburg Silvaner Dry and the 2012 Hans Wirsching Iphöfer Scheurebe Kabinett Dry, both from Northern Bavaria’s region Franconia (Franken). Silvaner, a cross between Traminer and Österreichisch-Weiss (literally “Austrian White”), rules in Franken. I have heard frequently that Silvaner is the grape for people that cannot deal with the acidity in Riesling but like Riesling aromatics, and it is widely used in Germany as a very food friendly wine. Scheurebe was created in 1916 by Mr Scheu by crossing Riesling with an unknown wild variety and is considered highly aromatic.

The 2011 Graf von Schönborn – Schloss Hallburg Silvaner Dry (12.5% ABV) was quite expressive in the nose, with tons of peach aromas, with melon and pear and some baked apple complementing the picture. On the palate, the wine showed hints of coconut, good balance, and a certain creaminess. I was missing some acidity, but that is just something I want in my whites, and 2011 wasn’t kind to those loving acidity…All in all a tasty wine that should be great with sushi from what I heard from others.

The 2012 Hans Wirsching Iphöfer Scheurebe Kabinett Dry (pronounced Shoy-ray-buh, 12.5% ABV) weirdly reminded me of a Gewürztraminer in the nose: I got lychee, papaya, then some grapefruit and lime. Intensive, intensive nose. Couldn’t stop smelling. On the palate, the wine showed a nicely tickly mineralitywith a light mouthfeel. The lychee persisted, with pineapple coming to the mix, what an interesting wine. I knew Scheurebe as a rather boring wine from my early youth, usually way too sweet and gooey, but this one had a great dry finish, and still brought out all those amazing aromatics….if you want to surprise friends, this would be a good choice, also for the bottle shape, which is the typical bottle in Franken called Bocksbeutel (which means “goat’s scrotum”), makes for a conversation starter…

Rebholz Pinot Blanc and Schloss Hallburg Pinot Gris

Rebholz Pinot Blanc and Schloss Hallburg Pinot Gris

The following week, we tried the 2012 Rebholz Pinot Blanc Dry from the Pfalz (Palatinate) and the 2012 Graf von Schönborn – Schloss Hallburg Pinot Gris from Franken. In German these grapes are known as Weissburgunder (Pinot blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot gris), and I have had good experiences with the two grapes in the past when they don’t make an appearance as a bland Pinot grigio or Pinot bianco. In Germany, these wines tend to be fruitier, which I appreciate…

The Rebholz Pinot Blanc (13.5% ABV) had a fresh nose with stone fruit, pear and melon as well as hints of vanilla (I doubt it saw any wood in the production process, though). On the palate, the wine was warming yet crisp, with coconut, liquorice, lychee and pear aromas. There was a good balance in the wine, despite the significant alcohol it still felt light-footed and had good length. The wine was made from mostly 70 year old vines, which is pretty impressive for an entry level wine. I liked this expression of the grape.

The Schloss Hallburg Pinot Gris (12.5% ABV), in contrast, was much more subdued on the nose. I got lemon, apples, almonds, and in general the aromas seemed more ripe than in the Pinot Blanc. The wine had a great mouthfeel to it, it was deep and drawing me in, with good heft and good acidity. The aromas I mostly got were peaches and melon paired with nice creaminess. This wine was rich, and yet remained refreshing. The interesting thing was that it felt heavier than the Pinot Blanc, despite having significantly less alcohol.

Becker Pinot Noir and Schnaitmann Lemberger

Becker Pinot Noir and Schnaitmann Lemberger (weird labels, huh?)

The final week was dedicated to two red wines: A 2011 Becker Pinot Noir Dry (from the Pfalz) and a 2011 Schnaitmann Lemberger Dry (from Württemberg). Germany has actually been making great strides in producing Pinot noir (also known as Spätburgunder in Germany), and it is always exciting trying more of these. Lemberger is prominent grape in the Southern-most parts of Germany.

The Becker Pinot Noir (13.5% ABV) poured in a surprisingly dark cherry red. I loved its nose, which was full of gummibear aromas (open a bag and stick your nose in, it’s divine!) and cooked cherries. On the palate, it was initially soft and pleasing, with good acidity. Then, it became spicy, with tons of cassis and red currant aromas, some branchiness with was welcome, and some smoke. The currant aromas persisted throughout the finish, and that made me like the wine. It might have been a bit rough around the edges, and there were some bitter aromas in the finish, but overall a decent wine.

The Schnaitmann Lemberger (13% ABV) poured as dark as a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, and its nose was full of flowers, raspberries and blackberries. What a great way to end a night! On the palate, very fruity, with strawberry and raspberry and all-spice and good vanilla aromas that gave it body. This was really, really tasty. As in want more of this right away tasty and the rather low alcohol ensures you won’t be in trouble for it. It remained refreshing all throughout, and this was Nina’s favorite of all the wines by an arms length…

All in all? It’s seriously worth trying other grapes from Germany. Will that replace my love for Riesling? Nope. Will I ever think as highly of a white grape as I do of Riesling? Nope. But the wine universe is full of interesting grapes that make for good switch ups when you want to expand your palate. Always worth it. And, if you’re on track for the Wine Century Club, some of these grapes will surely help you cross the finish line and you won’t suffer for it! :)

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