Tag Archives: winemaker

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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Sunday Read: Which is more important for Fine Wine, Terroir or Technique?

Fine wines and premium Scotch too!

Disclaimer: I entered into a tentative agreement with the online wine retailer Wine Chateau under which they sponsor two of my posts per month. Wine Chateau has no influence on the topic I select for the post or its content. Opinions expressed are all mine.

Steve Heimoff published this excellent article, which becomes even better as you read the comments, in May and it has been sitting on my Sunday Read list for a while now…

As terroir is still one of the buzz words in the wine world, and as I for one am a proponent of it (remember my waxing poetically about how I can recognize a Scharzhofberger? Or how much I love an Erdener Treppchen, no matter who made the wine?), it is still a delicate question. How does one detect terroir in the first place? And does a good plot of land automatically mean a good wine (as the Premier and Grand Cru in Burgundy or the Classification in Bordeaux suggest)? But what about the winemaker?

These are interesting questions, and Steve Heimoff delves into them quite well, trying to find a balance.

Happy Sunday!

Steve Heimoff: Which is more important for fine wine, terroir or technique?

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Meeting the Vintners: Weingut Gunderloch, Nackenheim (Rheinhessen), Germany

Gunderloch Estate in Nackenheim (Photo taken from winery’s website)

I cannot believe it took me this long to write up our visit with Gunderloch winery last June. But finally, finally I found the time and being in the right spot for it. There is so much emotional connection to this winery for me. I’ve lived in Nackenheim until I went off to studies in Trier at age 19. Gunderloch winery is a mere 200 meters away from my home. I went to primary school with the owners’ eldest daughter. I know all of their children rather well. And yet, until that tasting, I never had a “real” tasting with them, as in sitting down and trying their wines in a specific order the way I tasted through Mosel wines that I love so much. I guess it is a common phenomenon: You don’t give as many thoughts about what is physically close as to what is further away. It’s like the gorgeous cathedral in Oppenheim, just two villages south of Nackenheim, that I only visited the first time when I was 17. And I was struck how awesome it was. Before that visit, I knew it existed but I never really bothered.

Gunderloch is pretty much a household name for any American Riesling drinker. Fritz Hasselbach, the current winemaker and husband of owner Agnes Hasselbach-Usinger, has done an amazing job of promoting his wines abroad, most of all in the U.S. I remember his daughter telling me that she went to a presentation somewhere in the U.S. in the mid-nineties and Kevin Costner came up to her and praised her father’s wines. That was pretty epic at the time (now, I wasn’t even sure anymore how to spell his last name…). The winery was established by Carl Gunderloch, a banker from Mainz, in 1890 and is currently run in the fifth generation. They own a bit over 12 hectares (around 31 acres) in Nackenheim and Nierstein on the so called “Roter Hang”, or red slope, a hill facing the Rhine going straight South from Nackenheim to Nierstein. The Roter Hang is considered one of the prime spots for vineyards in all of Rheinhessen, the growing region. Gunderloch owns plots in the following vineyards:  Nackenheim Rothenberg, Nackenheim Engelsberg, Nierstein Pettenthal, Nierstein Hipping and Nierstein Oelberg. They own an astounding 80% of Nackenheim Rothenberg, which together with Nierstein Pettenthal, is what they term their Grand Cru vineyards.

Roter Hang viewed from Nackenheim southwards to Nierstein

Roter Hang viewed from Nackenheim southwards to Nierstein

Over the last years, Johannes Hasselbach, Fritz’ and Agnes’ son, has begun taking over making more and more of the wines with Fritz Hasselbach still very much involved in the wine making. 85% of their wines are made from Riesling, 5% each from Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, with the remainder being Traminer and Silvaner, and the red varieties Dornfelder and Pinot Noir. The winery has considerable clout, being the only winery that ever received 1oo points in Wine Spectator for three different wines, their 1992, 1996 and 2001 Nackenheim Rothenberg TBA. The 2002 Rothenberg Spätlese was named best Spätlese by the German wine guide Gault Millau and it remains one of the best wines I ever tried (completely tropical fruit bomb). If you want to know more about the estate, you should check out Rudi Wiest’s, their U.S. importer’s website profile of the winery.

But to the tasting in June. I had contacted Johannes before we left for Germany and we managed to find a time for a tasting despite him being quite busy and in the midst of exams. I very much appreciated that. We took two friends along, a Canadian visiting us and a long time friend who just moved from Berlin to the Mainz area, and headed over to the estate on June 25, 2012. Johannes introduced us to their 2011 and some 2010 wines, a total of 13 wines. Up front, the line up was pretty impressive and there were a number of outstanding wines we tried. Johannes speaks great English and leads tastings in a professional and friendly way with lots of helpful insights. He started us off with showing us the characteristic red slate that forms the “red slope” which I grew up around. The slate on that hill is in different states of erosion, there are big plates of rock and small earthen chips of it. It crumbles rather easily was we experienced when touching it.

In the Gunderloch tasting room

In the Gunderloch tasting room

We started off with a comparison of their 2011 Gunderloch Weissburgunder (Pinot blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot gris). I am usually not a big fan of either grape, but both these wines were seriously yummy. The Weissburgunder promised gooseberry in the nose and was creamy without being heavy. It confirmed the gooseberry on the palate with a slightly salty finish. The Grauburgunder was heavier and riper than the Weissburgunder, with lots of peach aromas. According to Johannes, this was the first time that they harvested fully ripe Pinot blanc grapes. Usually they are not fully ripe which showed how warm 2011 was. Both wines can turn someone like me around who usually dismisses both grapes.

We then tried the 2011 Fritz’s Riesling trocken, an entry level wine they produce for European countries, and a bit sweeter for the U.S. market. The nose was beautifully floral with light fruit aromas. On the palate I got citrus notes and some slight bitter aromas. At 12.5% this was an alright and easy drinking wine.

And on to their 2011 Gunderloch Gutsriesling, their estate entry dry level wine. The nose was full of peach and some pineapple. On the palate, it was strong and spicy with citrus and bitter orange notes. According to Johannes it had a significant amount of acidity and showed great minerality. I couldn’t agree more and liked it quite a bit.

The 2011 Nackenheim Riesling trocken is their equivalent to a Burgundy village wine. On the nose, this wine showed ripe and mellow notes. On the palate it proved dry, full-bodied but too alcoholic for my taste with a tad of bitterness at the end. It seemed a bit closed and not quite ready. We compared this to the 2011 Nierstein Riesling trocken which I preferred much more: The nose had yellow fruit and peach aromas, and the flavor profile was alcoholic, citrussy and nicely fresh. Johannes explained that that was the usual set up for the Niersteiner and Nackenheimer Rieslings for them: Their Nierstein Pettenthal wines were usually more accessible early on with the Nackenheim Rothenberg wines coming later to the show. So it is always worth waiting a bit with the Nackenheim wines from Gunderloch. Lesson learned.

The next dry wines we tried were their flagship dry wines. First up was the 2010 Nierstein Pettenthal Riesling GG (Grosses Gewächs, a VDP designation for the most outstanding dry wines from a grand cru vineyard a winery produces). This wine proved that I actually can like and enjoy dry wines! On the nose it showed raisins, ripe fruits and some alcohol. I wrote down “awesome nose” in my notes. On the palate, it was dense and ripe, full of fruit with a racy acidity. To me, it tasted like the best of Riesling which I usually find in the sweeter Riesling Spätlesen…this one had 13% ABV and definitely was not sweet, though, but I loved it! Seriously outstanding.

The 2010 Nackenheim Rothenberg Riesling GG in contrast, proving Johannes’ point about the slower development of the Rothenberg wines, showed a very restrained nose, Nina got some papaya notes. On the palate, it was subtle with exotic fruits and a very long and enjoyable finish. The development curve of this awesome wine has just begun. It was just amazing to see how different these two wines were at this stage of their development. To a certain degree, Johannes told us, they have stopped presenting the Rothenberg wines to wine critics when they come out because they are just not ready and would risk a bad review…

My tasting notes.

My tasting notes.

Given that this blog post is pretty long already I will post the remaining notes about their off-dry and sweeter wines in another post (over here)…suffice it to say that we had a great time and tried some great wines from one of the best sites in Rheinhessen. It really moved me to taste what I only had read before but was never able to fully appreciate: That I was lucky to be born along one of the few true grand cru sites along the Rhine. What a blessing. Because of their successes, the wines tend to be more expensive than the usual Mosel Rieslings I present here. But the upside is that their wines are easily available in the United States, so go grab a bottle if you can and let Gunderloch transport you to where I come from.

Click the names for aerial views of the Nackenheim Rothenberg and Nierstein Pettenthal vineyards.

Johannes and I.

Johannes and I after a great tasting.

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