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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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Sunday Read: And That was in Michigan???

Today’s suggested read comes from Stuart Pigott. I might have mentioned him before, he is an English wine writer and critic who has done huge things for German Riesling, on the producer side as well as the consumer side, over the last 20 years or so. His book “Wein spricht Deutsch” (Wine speaks German) although published in 2007 is still one of the bible’s of German wine making and the culture behind it. I once took part in a tasting of Stuart’s, back in the late 1990s in Trier, and he was as fun as he came across as eccentric…

Stuart is on a Riesling mission, and it is good to see him publish in English these days, because Riesling can take any help it can get. He is currently traveling the United States, promoting German Riesling but also trying American Rieslings. On his tour, he stopped in Michigan, and boy was he surprised by the quality! I have to agree. What I have tasted so far from up North (it is quite a bit from Ann Arbor) has been pretty good. But read for yourself…

Yay, Michigan!! And happy Sunday!

Stuart Pigott: On the Riesling Road Day 3 – And that was in Michigan???

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Michigan vs. Mosel Riesling Tasting with friends

The Michigan vs. Mosel tasting line up

Last Friday (a week ago, I know…) we had our first just-tasting with friends at our place. I have written about my thoughts on doing tastings with friends here. The idea for this tasting was born a while back. Me being the Mosel riesling snob that I am, I have only made small progress into the Michigan riesling scene. Some of them I liked or was intrigued by (see for example here or here or here), some of them, well…Now, two friends of ours got married recently and they decided to spend their honeymoon in and around Traverse City, Michigan’s riesling mecca. While we were talking about that trip, we decided to do a comparison tasting. They had brought some stuff back, and we had some Mosel rieslings to share. We also invited another riesling nut to the tasting, who falls in love with virtually every riesling we serve her, which makes me feel good. And another friend, who was crashing with us, participated as well. To lessen the suspense: We had a blast. We had so much fun, and the comparison went quite well. If we had done that tasting blind, I don’t know whether I would have been able to pick which ones are from there.

Some cork art. It does not get much fancier…

Here is our line up:

1) 2010 Chateau Grand Traverse Riesling Dry (Michigan)

2) 2011 Brys Estate Dry Riesling (Michigan)

3) 2009 Karl Erbes Erdener Treppchen Spätlese halbtrocken (semi-sweet) (Mosel)

4) 2006 St. Julian Riesling (Michigan)

5) 2011 Left Foot Charley Missing Spire Riesling (Michigan)

6) 2011 Karl Erbes Ürziger Würzgarten Kabinett (Mosel)

7) 2009 Hohe Domkirche Trier Scharzhofberger Spätlese (Saar)

8) 2009 Macquariedale Hunter Valley Late Picked Semillon (Australia)

In blind tastings, it is fun to throw a wine in that not necessarily fits the restrictions on the wines that you imposed prior to tasting. It is something outside the box, to throw you off, and to make the blind tasting even more fun. We usually referred to these as black pirates. The black pirate in this tasting was the Australian dessert wine, which was brought by the friend crashing with us.

But to my thoughts on the wines:

The Michigan line

First up, the 2010 Chateau Grand Traverse Riesling Dry. I do like their semisweet standard wine and their Late Harvest Riesling, so I was excited about trying the dry. Upon opening and pouring, a dark yellow wine showed itself which was bit confusing. Did not expect that from a young dry wine. The nose showed ripe fruit, but not much of it. On the palate, the first noticeable taste was bitterness. There was some slight peach, but hardly discernible. The wine felt quite alcoholic (which was confirmed when we checked the label: 12.5% ABV). The short finish was topped by a burnt taste. In short, it was quite the disappointment. I could never have guessed this was a riesling if tasted blindly, and it seemed way past its prime already.

(Addendum: I received word from the winery in the comments section that the discoloration in the 2010 CGT Riesling Dry indicates that the wine was actually flawed, either by a bad cork or bad storage…I guess I could have guessed that given that I got all the clues: wrong color, bitter notes and burnt taste; I just did not make the connection when tasting.)

Next in line, the 2011 Brys Estate Dry Riesling. The color was lighter straw, with a nose of ripe fruit, peaches and sugar, slightly confusing in a dry wine. The texture was lovely, it gave you a silky mouthful of wine. It had a nice amount of acidity, and first fruit notes I discovered were grapes, yellow apples, pineapple and then citrus. While holding on to my glass and continuing to try, I thought I discerned some vegetable notes in the beginning (maybe squash, maybe zucchini). The wine had a nicely long finish. The 11% ABV were hardly noticeable. In short: This was delicious. It was fresh, and reminded me of German rieslings, albeit not a German dry riesling, it would have been an off-dry in Germany. Very nice wine!!

Up next, the 2009 Karl Erbes Erdener Treppchen Spätlese halbtrocken (semi-sweet). A tad higher in alcohol content than the Brys wine at 11.5% ABV, I was curious how these two would match up. The color was a light yellow with a nose of sweetness and yellow fruit, with ripe aromas. On the palate, the wine had a quite condensed feel to it. It tasted very ripe, older than a 2009 should taste. It had some apricots and vegetal notes, but I could not get over the fact that it might have been flawed. I did not detect a cork flaw, and if so, it was mild. But the wine tasted off. So I really do not feel like I can rate it.

The Mosel line

The next wine was the 2006 St. Julian Riesling. Our friend had been excited when she found the single bottle of this wine in a wine shop and bought it for us to try. She has been fond of older rieslings, and so we wanted to experience this together. Open opening the screw cap and pouring the wine, we saw a lighter, saturated yellow in our glasses. The nose was …mmmmh…. interesting? To me, it smelled of band aids. Others said glue. It also smelled quite musty. It was very unappealing. On the palate, that continued. The wine was clearly way past its prime, probably had been stored in horrible conditions…this one had been dead for a while.

St Julian 2006 – Stay away!

It was on the 2011 Left Foot Charley Missing Spire Riesling to redeem Michigan. And boy, it did!! Of very light and almost water color, it had a beautiful, beautiful nose of grapes and green grass. The taste was floral and herbal (I also wrote down perfumy, but I know that these descriptions do not really help…), with a wonderful creaminess to it. There were some hints of bitterness towards the end. The finish was rather short, though. I found this wine wonderfully refreshing. Its 43 grams of residual sugar and 9% ABV made it a great sipping wine. In its beauty, it did remind me of Prälat wines, but I might have gotten carried away, especially after the two disappointments we tried before. Nina disagreed with me on that assessment, and I suppose she is right.

By that time, we had brought out the cheeses, and that definitely enhanced the tasting as well. Nothing like sweeter rieslings and cheese…

Up next was the 2011 Karl Erbes Ürziger Würzgarten Kabinett. At 8% ABV it had the typical alcohol content of a sweeter Mosel riesling, and I remembered it fondly from our tasting at the winery in June. The color was light straw and the nose had honey and a rather distinct grape note, very fresh. My tasting notes focused on my emotional response rather than the tastes. They read: “refreshing, sweet, honey, warm, nice acidity, deep, not very long, great with cheese”. I admit it, I had already had my fair share of wine, and my tasting capabilities went downhill. The wine just made me smile. It was just so pleasant.

This was followed by my highlight, the 2009 Hohe Domkirche Scharzhofberger Spätlese. You can find the review here (I needed more space for that).

We finished off with the 2009 Macquariedale Hunter Valley Late Picked Semillon from Australia, which is described here.

The black pirate

Like I said, it was a great experience. My cousin asked me who won. I really don’t feel like I can declare a winner here. The Brys and the Left Foot Charley were both pretty awesome wines, and so were the Erbes Kabinett and the Scharzhofberger. I think the biggest surprise for me was the quality of the Brys and the Left Foot Charley. They definitely convinced me that there is great riesling in Michigan and I am determined more than ever to go and find them.

Has anyone tried these wines or others from those wineries? Please share!!

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