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Meeting the Vintners: Kleine Zalze, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Entering the estate in the evening

Entering the estate in the evening

It is hard not to notice the size of Kleine Zalze’s business endeavors as you enter the compound through a security gate: To your left, you find rows of apartments, there is a lodge, and in the distance is a golf course operated by Kleine Zalze, but at the heart of these operations, geographically and by importance, is its winery.

Kleine Zalze was founded in 1685 and was purchased by the current owners Kobus and Mariette Basson in 1996. Its production is 720,000 bottles per year. The winery has between 50 and 60 hectares under vine, but it also buys grapes from 23 suppliers that have long-term contracts with Kleine Zalze. This stems from the simple fact that some grapes are simply not suited for Kleine Zalze’s holdings (like Sauvignon blanc), but are seen as essential by the owners for their portfolio. These contract growers are spread out over the Cape, with some over 400 km away from Stellenbosch. The logistics of this seemed to be quite intense, with regular inspections at the vineyards and then bringing the grapes in cooling vans to Stellenbosch so that they don’t start fermenting after picking. I know that this practice is common in many wine regions, but I think it was the first time I got to talk with a winemaker about the logistics.

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

Dirk van Zyl is an assistant winemaker and vineyard manager at Kleine Zalze. His family owns a small winery, so it was natural for him to go into the wine business. At Kleine Zalze, he is in charge of integrating vineyard management and winemaking. This means that a big part of his job is driving to the contract growers and inspecting their vineyards, adjusting methods and doing what is necessary there. In the cellar, he is involved in all areas of winemaking. Dirk very clearly loves his job, and he loves working at Kleine Zalze. When I asked him about future plans, he told me he wants to stay with Kleine Zalze as long as he can to learn more about different vineyard sites and cellaring methods. Eventually, he plans to return to the family farm but not for now.

Kleine Zalze produces three lines of wines (a practice that seems common in the Stellenbosch region): the Cellar Selection, which is meant for early drinking with usually low use of oak and more fruity in taste; the Vineyard Selection as the middle tier of quality, in which all white wines are barreled; and the Family Reserve, which is their highest tier.

Our line up for the night

Our line up for the night

I will focus these reviews on the high end wines for the sake of readability, but I want to point out the two whites we tasted of the Cellar Selection, a 2014 Sauvignon blanc and a 2014 Chenin blanc, which were both great easy drinking wines. The Sauvignon blanc was fruity with great acidity, and the Chenin blanc struck me with its fruit mix of guava, gooseberry and peach.

The 2012 Sauvignon blanc Family Reserve spent 12 months on the lees in stainless steel and is meant to be more in an Old World style. The color was slightly golden, and the nose was intriguing: full aromas of tropical fruit (and some banana?) and honey, with some acidity noticeable in the nose already. Most of all there was something that reminded of an older Riesling. I couldn’t nail it down to what it was, but definitely intriguing. Its mouthfeel was nicely velvety, much heavier than the Cellar Selection. Aroma-wise, I got gooseberry and green pepper, but all in all it was rather restrained, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was nice mixture of soft and muscular, with good acidity and a nice finish to it.

The 2012 Chenin blanc Family Reserve was the maiden vintage for this line’s Chenin blanc. The grapes come from three sites in Stellenbosch, which all have different soil types (granite, decomposed shell, and sand and clay mix). Vinification begins in stainless steel and then the wine spends one year on the lees in first and second fill barrels. The color was golden, and the nose quite expressive and complex. There was tons of tropical fruit (probably pineapple most prominently). On the palate, you could taste a bunch of minerality, acidity was again spot on, and the wine was creamy and balanced with an elegant finish. Everything was well made in this wine, but somehow it didn’t touch me the way it probably should have. It probably needs more time to age.

And two of the whites we tried...

And two of the whites we tried…

The 2010 Shiraz Family Reserve was made from grapes from one block which contains three different soil types which produce different kinds of grapes: some with thicker skins, others with thinner skin and therefore less tannin potential. The batches are fermented separately, some in open cement containers, and then are blended afterwards. The color was a dark ruby red, and the nose was intense and concentrated, with chocolate and coffee aromas. Nina and I both loved how well integrated the wine tasted: it was grippy with great tannins that held it all together, with dark fruit aromas and a long finish. The balance of it all was great. When I just checked Nina’s notes, I saw a smiling face beside this wine. Mine has a bunch of plusses. A total winner.

The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve we tried comes from one block in Stellenbosch and is aged in first fill barrels for 26 months. The nose of the wine was complex and very intense, almost aggressively so. I picked up boiled green peppers, bitter chocolate and what I would describe as tomato stalks (have you ever smelled them?). Nina’s notes read pencil shavings and spice with lots of red fruit. On the palate, despite its age, the 2008 was still very firm and closed, with restrained fruit, and still a bunch of green aromas. It was very hard to assess at this stage because it didn’t really want to come out of its shell. When I voiced some frustration about this, and that I would love to try it again in three years, Dirk got up and told us to wait. He came back with a bottle of 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve that had been opened a few days before! While the nose was pretty much gone, just a whiff of prunes left, the flavor worked on this one: great tannins and what I would describe as port wine like flavors (fortified, prunes, sweet cherry). It was succulent and full, enticing and alluring. All of that topped by a long finish. This was an impressive wine, and it did give an idea of where the 2008 might be headed…if that’s the case, there’s some good times ahead for it…and what a great way to finish the tasting.

If you visit the estate, make sure you book lunch or dinner at Terroir, the restaurant on the estate. The food is exquisite and very well prepared. A must for me in Stellenbosch.

2005 Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve

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Meeting the Vintners: Weingut Kistenmacher und Hengerer, Heilbronn (Württemberg), Germany

The wines of Württemberg winery Kistenmacher & Hengerer

The wines of Württemberg VDP winery Kistenmacher & Hengerer

While visiting Germany back in November, Delta’s weird flight scheduling and pricing made it so that flying into Stuttgart instead of Frankfurt made my flight $400 cheaper. Stuttgart is about 2 1/2 hours from my hometown, and a train ride is about $30, so this was a no-brainer. A good friend of mine lives in Heilbronn, about 45 minutes from Stuttgart, and I decided to visit him for a weekend as well. While making those plans, I figured it could also be worthwhile to expand my scope and palate and go try some wines at a winery in Württemberg, an area I had never visited. A quick Google search made it clear that Kistenmacher & Hengerer should be the place to visit in Heilbronn: They were admitted to the elite winemaker association VDP in January 2013, are part of the Slow Food movement, and have garnered great reviews for their wines. In other words: Another no-brainer. I contacted the winery and after some very friendly back and forth we agreed on meeting on a Sunday morning to have some quiet time with each other.

Let me give you some background on the German wine region of Württemberg first (you can find more info on this website): Württemberg is Germany’s fourth largest wine region (only topped by Rheinhessen, Palatinate, and Baden) with 11,359 hectares (approximately 28,000 acres) under vine according to the German Wine Institute’s 2012 statistics. It’s located in Southern Germany, roughly in the area along the river Neckar between Stuttgart and Heilbronn. Unlike many other wine regions in Germany, the focus in this region is not on white grapes but rather red grapes. Again citing the German Wine Institute’s 2012 numbers the most prevalent grapes are: Trollinger (red) with 20.4% of the total area under vine, Riesling with 18.5% of total area, Lemberger (red) with 14.6%, Schwarzriesling (red) with 13.8%, and Spätburgunder (aka Pinot noir) with 11.4%. You probably have not heard of some of these grapes, and that is the other great news about this area: It’s bursting with indigenous grapes which are rather unique for this area and make distinct and interesting wines. And can boost your Wine Century Club application if you need more grapes…

When the day of the visit came, it was pouring cats and dogs, but only after I had decided to walk the 30 minutes to the winery…and on a Sunday morning in Heilbronn, no cabs could me made out…the greater my joy when I arrived at Kistenmacher & Hengerer, where Sabine Hengerer greeted me with warmth and a smile, and some hearty breakfast foods. How better to start a wine tasting? Plus: There were some pretty excited dogs to be greeted! Still, I was quite nervous. I felt a bit out of my comfort zone, which in Germany is the Mosel and some of Rheinhessen regions. This was going to be different, wine-wise, people-wise. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in front of someone I had never met, and the list of wines and unknown grapes was long…

Yes, we were both excited...

Yes, we were both excited…

When Hans Hengerer first came down the stairs, he initially seemed the quiet type. There is a calm about him that struck me: He knows what he wants, and he knows how to achieve that. He is sincere about his wine philosophy and work, and not prone to long introductions to his wines. He likes to let them speak for themselves, and gave me plenty of time to assess them on my own, before we would talk about them. I really liked that. But let’s take a look at the winery:

Kistenmacher & Hengerer is the result of a “merger” between the Hengerer and Kistenmacher families that happened in the 1950s, and Hans Hengerer took over operations in the mid-1990s. Yet, the two families have a long history, with winemaking dating back to the 1400s and 1500s. But that does not really seem to matter all that much to winemaker Hans Hengerer. When I asked him about the long history, he was rather dismissive as if he saw it as potentially inhibiting. We talked about the differences to his parents’ generation when it comes to winemaking and it is clear that he has respect for what they did, but is finding his own ways. They took him to South Africa, and upon his return led him to explore the older and at times forgotten local grapes Muskateller and Samtrot, and Clevner, grapes many (including me) are, if even, only dimly aware of. All the while, he also produces Riesling and Spätburgunder (Germany’s Pinot noir). Hengerer strongly believes in intensive vineyard work and low yields: he produces between 70,000 and 80,000 bottles per year. Terroir matters to him, the soils he works on can be challenging, and he wants every wine to be the result of its climate and soil. Uniformity is as far from his idea of wines as you can imagine. Most of his wines are made in the dry style (90% of his Riesling is dry).

Sigh...

Sigh…

Hengerer is also a founding member of the group “Junges Schwaben” (aka “Young Swabia”), a group of five winemakers from the Württemberg growing region that began cooperating in 2002, and in which every one of the quintet makes one particular wine that is marketed particularly as a Junges Schwaben wine (in Hengerer’s case a Spätburgunder). Hans Hengerer’s sense of humor, a quiet, witty humor, shone through when he insisted with a wink that the group was called Young Swabia, and not Young Swabian”s” because none of the winemakers should qualify as “young” anymore (he was born in 1967). They wanted to highlight the awakening of the region, which is indeed moving rapidly from Trollinger-dominated vineyards to broader and more experimental wine making.

The tasting at the winery took around three hours, as I said, the Hengerers were generous with their time. I got to try 16 of their wines, beginning with the Rieslings from estate wine to late harvest, with a Gelber Muskateller and a cuvee of Riesling and Kerner thrown in, and then on to the reds, from lighter Trollinger to Samtrot to Clevner and his outstanding Spätburgunder. I will go into more detail about some of the wines in the next post, but let me say this: I loved the variety of grapes, and the variety of wines within single grapes. None of his wines were “easy”, they all had character. It really was like every wine was telling its own story. Hengerer insists that his wines take time, that they need to continue developing in the bottle and I can see what he means.

I wasn’t able to take many wines with me, but I decided to take some of the more unusual ones that I wanted Nina to try: the Muskateller, the Samtrot, a Lemberger and some cuvees. Most of them, and I am sure Hans Hengerer would like that, will still be waiting for a while until we open them…you can find more detailed reviews of the wines I tried in my notes here.

You can visit Kistenmacher & Hengerer Monday through Friday from 4pm until 6.30pm, Saturdays from 9am until 11am and from 1pm until 4pm or make an appointment via email or telephone. The winery is located at Eugen-Nägele-Str. 23-25, Heilbronn. Heilbronn is about a 45 minutes drive from Stuttgart.

With Hans Hengerer

With Hans Hengerer

    

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Impressions of VinItaly NYC 2014

VinItaly Logo

I apologize in advance that this post is text-heavy, but I don’t like taking a camera to these kind of events. I want to focus on the experience, the wines I try, the personal connections I make. I find taking photos distracts me from that. For another impression check out Anatoli’s excellent post he just published.

More often than not I have these moments where I am asking myself: How did I get here? And how do I deserve this? This year’s VinItaly and Slow Food tasting in New York was definitely one of those moments that made me appreciate my blogging and all that it has brought to my life. Before we get to the tasting, I need to give credit where credit is due:

I would never have gone had it not been for my formidable partner in crime and friend Stefano, of Clicks and Corks, who sent me an email in November telling me to see whether I could make it to New York for VinItaly. This put the idea in my head, and when I found decently priced tickets Nina and I decided to go. We stayed in Connecticut with Stefano and Francesca (of the wonderful food blog Flora’s Table), who were the most hospitable hosts you can imagine. We flew in Saturday, and Sunday we had a big dinner with fellow bloggers Anatoli (the inimitable Talk-a-vino) and his wife, Suzanne (of the great food blog A Pug in the Kitchen) and Azita (of the Persian, mouthwatering food blog Fig and Quince). As you can tell, Francesca was on a suicide mission, inviting all these fellow food bloggers to her house and cooking dinner for them….just as us wine bloggers were trying to outdo each other with our wines (Nina and I had checked a bag to be able to bring some wines). It was a competition of sorts, but tampered by the mutual respect for each other and the fun we had with the meal, wines, and company. What a night it was! Francesca truly outdid herself with her apple and speck risotto, which will become a staple for me, and her veal roast which was so so so tender. Incredible! It was wonderful meeting Stefano and Francesca again, and then meeting these online friends that I now am able to count as real world friends! Thank you all, for a spectacular evening!!

Monday morning, we braved the snow and headed to downtown Manhattan for the VinItaly NYC tasting. Let me give you a tiny bit of background: VinItaly is the largest tasting of Italian wines in the world, held every year in Verona, Italy. Not long ago, the organization decided to branch out and hold tastings in New York, Moscow, Chengdu, and Hong Kong as VinItaly International. VinItaly teamed up with Slow Wine who also brought wineries to New York for what turned out to be a great tasting experience. The tasting lasted from 1pm until 5.30pm, but there were all sorts of classes in the morning as well. While I did not manage to get into any, Nina was able to snatch a place in a tasting class on Franciacorta (Italy’s Champagne, as they dub themselves) and one on Amarone (lucky her!).

If you have never been to a tasting like this, it is hard to imagine what goes on there, so let me give you an idea: You enter a hall that has rows and rows of tables, behind which winery representatives stand, three bottles of wine in front of them. If I say row upon row, I mean row upon row: Slow Wine alone had brought 70 wineries, and VinItaly another 50. You can do the math, but that is a lot of wine. And naturally, I wasn’t able to taste them all. But I tasted a fair share: I have, just to give you one example, never had that much Barolo in my life (combined), and it was a marvelous experience. The best part to me, though, is talking to the winemakers, hearing their stories (not their sales pitches necessarily)…these tastings are a great opportunity to meet these folks, while the tasting itself is completely overwhelming. You don’t have much time to fully experience the wine, and the whole spitting is also not necessarily conducive to a full wine experience….given that notes are cryptic and hardly worth sharing, let me just share a few stories with you:

Treasure trove for Wine Century Club aspirants
VinItaly is a feast for Wine Century Club aspirants. Italy, along with Portugal and Greece, is a cornucopia of indigenous grapes that only grow in minuscule quantities and still survive. Case in point: The white grape Timorasso that I tried. The winemaker told me that total production by 23 producers is 300,000 bottles. Worldwide. That’s it. How incredible is that? I am not saying there aren’t reasons why this grape is not more popular (the wine was rather bland), but the odds of ever being able to try this grape are so low, how can I not be excited about this? We added about 30 grapes to our list with this tasting alone and are halfway to Double Membership!

Re-trying rare grapes you only tried once
In that same vein, it’s also really exciting to find several wines of a particular grape that one has only tried once in the past. Case in point: Remember my post on a wine called Lacrima di Morro d’Alba? I really, really liked that wine. And there we were, towards the end, standing at a table, glancing over, and I see the words Lacrima di Morro d’Alba and almost jump!! Massimo and Pascale, the owners of Tenuta San Marcello in the Marche region, were surprised I was aware of the grape, and my ecstatic behavior paired with their gentle humor and friendly demeanor made for quite the match. Unsurprisingly, their wines were very good and since it was towards the end of VinItaly they were my last impression there…couldn’t have asked for more!

200 year old vines?
A winemaker from Mount Etna had an eye opening revelation for me: He told me that his vines are over 200 years old. 200 years, I am not kidding you! I looked at him in disbelief and then asked how low the yield was. Because in Germany, these 120 year old vines have way lower yields. Now was his turn to look at me in disbelief: NOOOOO, the yields were super high! I just stared at him. He then pulled out his phone and started showing me pictures: His vines looked like trees, seriously. The trunks were massive, like trees. And then he smiled and explained: Yes, yields go down, but it is a curve, and after 180 years or so, yields go up again….go figure. Reason to hold on to the old vines for my German winemaker friends!

Can your face muscles be sore?
After tasting dozens and dozens of wines, mostly red, mostly young, mostly quite tannic and acidic, swishing them around in my mouth, my facial muscles got so tired that it became harder and harder to muster the force to spit the wine out in style….towards the end, I had to grab the spit bucket, hold it under my mouth, and just let it run. That was embarrassing and I will need to train my muscles more!

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