Tag Archives: spätburgunder

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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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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Sunday read: Black Forest Chateau

This Sunday, let’s broaden our horizon about German wines a bit further. While I am focused on rieslings mostly, there is another revolution going on in Germany and that is Spätburgunder, aka pinot noir. John Stimpfig wrote a great piece for the Financial Times.

Germany has been growing more and more of this grape variety, many of them clones from Burgundy. This article does a good job at explaining the wonder that these pinots can be. The article starts out fun:

“Should you ever need to accurately calibrate an oenophile’s knowledge of wine, here’s a handy question that will immediately expose them as buff or bluffer. Simply ask them what they think about German Spätburgunder, aka Pinot Noir. The bluffer will either stare at you blankly or snort with derision at such a preposterous idea. In marked contrast, the buff’s eyes will immediately light up before he or she enthusiastically acknowledges that Germany’s top Pinots are unquestionably giving the best of Burgundy a real run for its money.”

But he also dampens expectations with this:

“But as Monego diplomatically points out: “Compared to burgundy, we’ve only just reached Everest base camp, so there’s still a long way to go. German Pinot is a work in progress and there are many different routes to the summit.” What everyone can agree on is that there’s now a much greater recognition of German Spätburgunder beyond its home territory. But before you rush out to stock up on the latest must-have vintages, there are a couple of things you need to know. The first is that some are even harder to find and buy than burgundy. The other is that they’re often just as expensive.”

I for one, am just excited that there are exciting red wines in Germany, too…more choice, more to drink.

Have a great Sunday!

Black Forest Chateau

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