Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Reign of Riesling

Of all the confusing things that have tripped up wine drinkers over the years, trying to make sense of German wine may be the most confusing. Wine places with difficult-to-pronounce names, undecipherable label terms like spatlese and trockenbeerenauslese, are just two of the things that have us scratching our heads. 

The structure propping up German wine is systematic and with a few basic facts, a better understanding of German wine, and specifically Riesling, will fall into place. 

 No better place to begin than geography. Germany's wine regions lie in the southwest part of the country, bordering Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium. There are more than a dozen designated wine regions, mainly  along the Rhine, Mosel, Saar and Ahr rivers.  The smallest is Ahr, near the Belgium border,  while long and skinny Baden is the largest, stretching east of Heidelberg then south to Freiberg, along the Rhine River.

Beilstein an der Mosel
Castle on the Rhine
 Then there are the grape varieties, most of which are not familiar to American wine drinkers. Except for Riesling. While Americans were going gaga for Chardonnay, German winemakers were quietly, perhaps too quietly, talking up the virtues of Riesling. There was even the suggestion that Riesling was the king of white wines.  

Just a minute, cried Chardonnay lovers!  That's going to far.

Perhaps, but to understand that claim means getting your head around German wine, something that many wine drinkers discovered ain't easy. That's why the German Wine Academy was started. 

A Personal Remembrance of An Irish/German Prank! 

(There are times in life (some would say far too many) when you don't have a clue. Everything appears to be moving ahead normally and you're confidant you know what's in the future. But a friend has been laying the framework for a practical joke that will slowly mess with your mind.

For me, it started when Denis Broderick and I met at the German Wine Academy, an educational effort with the sole purpose of  providing clarity about German wine. Denis hails from Northern Ireland and has a love of wine. He is a gregarious Irishman with a quick wit, and an easy way with people, so naturally we quickly became friends.

Throughout the week, Denis and I muddled along, learning about German wine, in the classroom and on the road visiting various wineries, large and small along the Rheingau and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. It was an immersive experience that served to expand my interest in all things Riesling.

After graduation, Denis returned to a small town outside Belfast and I went back to California.  It never occurred to me then that my friend Denis was cooking up a delicious joke that didn't begin to unfold until months later.

I had an assignment to write a piece about Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, so I packed my bags and headed for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Doing a distillery tour through the Scottish Highlands is a pleasant way to experience the beauty of Scotland, eventually ending up along the rugged west coast. (Note: The Scots and Canadians prefer the spelling "whisky," while the Irish and Americans use "whiskey."

To get from Scotland to Northern Ireland, you can fly. A more interesting, low-key way to cross the Irish Sea, is by sea-going ferry. You board in Cairnryan, on the west coast of Scotland and land in Larne, the eastern port north of Belfast. It's not as fast as flying but is far more civilized and relaxing.

An appointment was set for me at Bushmill's, the premier northern Irish whiskey, the following morning, so I checked in to my lodging.  

"Ah, Mr. Boyd, I have a message for you," said the desk clerk with a friendly smile. 

My wife had my itinerary, so it could be from her... maybe something is wrong?  "Welcome to Ireland, Jerry," signed "Your German girlfriend."  What's up with that, I thought?

In the days that followed, there was a message waiting for me, from my mysterious "German girlfriend,"  when I checked in to my lodging. My traveling companions were beginning to eye me with suspicion.

Then on the day before leaving, I was invited to lunch at a very nice country inn. I don't remember the name of the inn, but I distinctly remember the owner's greeting. 

"Jerry, I regret to tell you that the rabbit died!"  Signed by you know who. 

Here I am, standing there dumbfounded in the middle of this lovely Irish inn, feeling like everyone was in on the "German girlfriend" thing but me. So, I tried to act nonchalant, but my brain was spinning. Then a light went on. 

"Do you know Denis Broderick," I asked the inn owner?  He laughed, slapped me on the back and admitted that he was in on the joke. I had forgotten that Denis was in Northern Ireland catering and that I had sent him my itinerary.  

So, is there a take-away or moral to be learned from all this?  Don't mix German wine and Irish whiskey and remember where your friends live.)

But back to Riesling. Here are a few facts about Riesling, Germany's best-known white wine, compared to Chardonnay, the world's most popular white wine: Riesling stands extremely well on its own, with no oak to prop it up; Riesling is more versatile than Chardonnay, made in a wide range of styles, from very dry to very sweet, even sparkling; Riesling tends to be relatively low in alcohol. Riesling pairs with a variety of foods, from seafood to Asian dishes. 
glass of local dry white wine, Moselle region
Riesling in German wine glass

Riesling's charm is its fresh fruit aroma and flavors, balanced with bracing mouth-watering acidity, a combination that makes Riesling an ideal choice with food. And there is a certain floral note in Riesling like jasmine, but often with a hint of honey and minerals.

While the popularity for dry Riesling has been on the rise, Riesling's sweeter side remains under-appreciated. German sweet wines fall into two general classes: eiswein (ice wine) and botrytized wines. To make eiswein, grapes are picked and pressed while frozen. Freezing concentrates the grape sugars and acids. Botrytized wines are made from grapes infected by a good form of bunch rot, known as botrytis, or "noble rot." A botrytized wine, especially Riesling, has a unique honeyed bouquet and flavor. Botrytis is also responsible, on Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion, for the great French sweet wine, Sauternes.

The German Wine Law of 1930, revised in 1971, established a precise set of rules for dry and sweet wines and, in fact, everything from vineyard designations to grape ripeness. Some German winemakers feel that the wine laws are too rigid and strict, not allowing for such things as climate change and the fast moving international wine market. All of this bureaucracy sets standards for the precision and reliability of German wine.
There is so much more to know about Riesling and how it all fits in to German grape growing and winemaking. An excellent source I recommend is "The Oxford Companion to Wine." And, here's a short list of German Riesling producers you might look for.  Mosel and Saar: Dr. Loosen, Dr.Thanisch, J. J. Prum, J & H Selbach, Markus Molitor, Monchof Estate, Maximin Grunhau. From the Rheingau: Georg Breuer, Goldatzel, Kunstler, Leitz, Schloss Johannisberg, Schloss Vollrads, Spreitzer Estate. 


Please contact me at for my policy on submitting wine samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender.

Next Blog: I'll be on vacation, so the next blog, on Syrah/Shiraz, will be posted on September 17, 2019.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Adding Oak Seasoning

The history of using wood for barrels and tanks is almost as old as wine itself. From about the 6th century to the 3rd century BCE, clay amphorae were used to store and transport various liquids such as oil and wine. But there was an inherent problem with amphorae: clay is porous and liquid leaks through it. So, the answer was to coat interior surfaces of the amphorae with pine resins.Today's Greek Retsina is the descendant of those early wines.

Yet, as important as wood is to winemaking, wine consumers hardly know of the presence of wood in the wine they are enjoying. 

Wine Cellars, Caves, Tunnel, Parabolic
Barrel Cave
Oaked Chardonnay is a case in point.  Beginning in the late 1970s, California Chardonnay, often with a heavy hit of new toasted French oak, became synonymous with white wine. An order in a fashionable city wine bar of the era for a glass of white wine, meant oaked Chardonnay.  

For hundreds of years, French oak has been the wood of choice for winemakers around the world. But shipping oak barrels from France to far-flung places like Australia, Chile and California was costly, so cost-cutting strategies were employed or locally grown woods were used.  Australian wineries opted to import American oak blanks, then fashion the barrels there. Chileans opted for an evergreen beech called rauli and California winemakers built large tanks from native redwood. For many years, chestnut was widely used in northern Italy.  Now wineries can choose from American, French, Russian and Eastern European oaks.

Winemakers, however, have settled mainly on either French oak or American oak. The planting, cultivating and harvesting of oak trees, mainly in northern France, is closely regulated by the French government. American white oak forests, mostly in the mid-west states of Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio and Indiana, are privately owned. 

The use of wood as a seasoning for wine is an integral part of the wine's flavor and texture. Wood, more specifically oak, gives a wine texture, and more importantly, an added dimension of flavor. The trick is to select the type of oak that is most compatible with the wine and to gauge the right amount of time a wine is in contact with the wood.

The grain structure of American oak is tighter and less porous.  Thus, some winemakers   believe that American oak is too strong and sappy, especially for white wines. The feeling is that the more forceful American oak is better suited to big reds like Australian Shiraz (Syrah) and Cabernet Sauvignon grown in warmer climates. The flavor profile of American oak includes: vanillin (vanilla) higher in American oak than, coconut-like notes from lactones, cloves and firmer more assertive tannins 

French oak has an open grain and is more porous. There is a range of French oak types,  although a lot of the barrels are being sold as bois du centre, wood from the center of France. These are the most  common French oak types: Allier, a tight-grain oak from south of Sancere; Limousin, a wide-grain oak more often used for brandy aging than wine; Nevers, a tight-grain oak from forests near Allier; Troncais, a central France oak. Vosges, a tight-grained oak, similar to Allier and Never  French oak is noted for its softer tannins, sweet spices, sometimes with a hint of vanilla.

(How I Almost Raised a Barrel.  It's a snap, a piece of cake, I innocently thought as a burly man handed me a large metal hoop and pointed to an array of oak staves. 

The place was Napa, California and I was a "student" at the impressively named "College of the Oaks," administered by the French cooperage Seguin Moreau . During my years in college, I had struggled with many assignments, but building an oak barrel was a task I never expected to undertake. 

A cooperage is where barrels are made by a cooper. A cooper builds "raises" barrels forn the aging of wine and spirits, although there are other uses for wood barrels such as the maturing of balsamic vinegar. 

Image result for coopering tools
Cooper's tools
Traditionally, the coopers craft was a hands-on manual process that, until the last decade or so, had resisted mechanization. Oak staves were sawed, shaped and assembled, all by hand, to form a water-tight container. Today, machines do a lot of the hard tedious work, like shaping a stave and forcing the metal hoops in place to hold the barrel together.
Still, the inside of a cooperage is hot and loud. I was told by a director of one of the cooperages I visited in France that the coopers union is one of the best in France, assuring members work shorter hours, earn good salaries and retire earlier than members of many other unions in France. 

It was in this hot and noisy atmosphere where I faced my final test in the College of the Oaks.  Earlier, my fellow students and I had attended classes on the craft of coopering and the various types of oak trees and their characteristics that are used for wine barrels. Then, on the cooperage floor, we were asked to put our knowledge to the test. 

Basically, the process of raising a barrel by hand, involves selecting the required number of staves from a rack (including a strong and wide stave for the bung hole), resting one side of a "raising up" iron hoop on a stable surface, holding the other side of the hoop and then arranging the staves around the inside of the hoop.  

Sounds easy, right?  Well, you need a keen trained eye to select the staves that will fit exactly, one beside the other, so that the barrel will be tight and not leak.  All while keeping the other staves upright and holding the metal working hoop up, which is now getting heavier by the minute. 

Assuming you pass all of those steps successfully, with the hoop holding all of the staves upright (which is probably not gonna happen unless you're a nimble Dwayne Johnson), you then grab a wooden wedge and a hammer and work the hoop into its temporary position (?) by walking around the barrel while repeatedly striking the wedge driving the hoop down over the staves. The hammer doesn't feel that heavy when you pick it up, but think of bashing the wedge with the business end of a 12-pound sledge hammer, but with a short handle. 
Wine, Barrel, Wine Barrel, Barrels
Barrels waiting to be filled

Then, you tip the barrel and roll it over a fire fed by oak chips,to toast the interior and shape the barrel. Cables are wrapped around the base of the barrel and you turn a capstan bending the staves into shape. The two heads need to be inserted and the bung hole drilled, but by now, I've turned the barrel raising over to a cooper.

Full disclosure: I had more than a little help from a cooper raising my barrel.)

Toasting a wine barrel requires setting the open end of the barrel over a hot fire, for between five and 15 minutes, depending on the level of toasting: light, medium or heavy.. Toast levels vary by cooper, but in general the vanilla and coffee seasoning begin to show with a medium toasting, while a heavy toast is more roasted coffee, spices and even smoked meats.   

Finally, the heads are fitted into place and the new barrel is tested for leaks by injecting steam or hot water into a small hole drilled in the bung stave.  If the barrel is water-tight, the hole is drilled to bung size and the barrel is ready to be sold. 


Please contact me at for my policy on submitting wine samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender. 

Next Blog: Is Riesling the World's Finest White Wine?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Bordeaux Options

Single variety wines or blends, which one is best?  The question has troubled wine drinkers for years and while most people would agree that it's a matter of personal taste, there is one historic example that may help an undecided wine drinker to come down on one side or the other. 

California winemakers started building a reputation for red wine with 100% varietal wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. About 35 years ago (can you believe it!) a shift toward blends began to build steam, and in 1981, the Meritage Association (now Alliance) was formed to distinguish those red blends made from two or more of the Bordeaux grapes from other red blends. There is also a white Meritage.

For more than one hundred years, winemakers in Bordeaux have relied on a blend of up to five grapes to produce a red wine that has become a benchmark around the world. French winemaking is regulated by the Appellation d'Origine Controlee, known commonly as AOC.  One stipulation for Bordeaux AOC is that wines are not identified by a single variety, but as a blend of at least two of the five authorized red grapes. 

The five grapes, in order of planted acreage are: Merlot (the most planted), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot. and Malbec. Carmenere, an historic red grape in Bordeaux, is also an accepted red grape, but it is a minor player today.

The decision to  plant which grapes where was based mainly on the terroir and geography of each of the major wine districts. Hugging the left bank of the Gironne esturary is the Medoc, the largest of the major districts  and arguably the most important. Within the Medoc are such noted sub-appellations as St.-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux. South of the Medoc and the city of Bordeaux are Pessac-Leognan and Graves.
Terroir is the French term for all of the natural factors, such as soil and topography, that influence a vineyard site.

On the right bank, closer to the Dordogne, are St. Emilion (and its sub appellations such as 

St. Georges-Saint Emilion), Pomerol and Lalande-de-Pomerol. Tempering the sometimes harsh climate of Bordeaux are the Atlantic, the Gironne estuary, the Garonne river that feeds into the Gironne and to the northeast, the Dordogne river. 

Not all five red grapes are planted in all parts of Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the major red grapes along with a little Petit Verdot, in  the Medoc and Graves.  There is virtually no Malbec left in the Medoc. Merlot and Cabernet Franc predominate in the cooler right bank soils of St. Emilion and Pomerol.  

Over the years Bordeaux winemakers have observed the importance of terroir while showing a personal preference for one grape over the other as factors dictating the blend.  First Growth Pauillac chateau blends are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, in that order. Chateau Mouton Rothschild has the highest amount of Cabernet Sauvignon at 80%,and 16% Merlot. Chateau Latour's blend contains 75% Cebernet Sauvignon and 24% Merlot,  Further south in the Graves district, Chateau Haut-Brion opts for a nearly equal amount of Cabernet Sauvignon (40%) and Merlot (49%). Haut Brion also has the highest amount of Cabernet Franc, 11%.

(Tasting Chateau Latour. I have long admired the elegance and complexity of Ch. Latour, so I jumped at the chance to attend "La Fete du Chateau Latour," an impressive two-day tasting of 89 vintages of Latour, from 1861 to 1979, in 1981 at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel in San Francisco. The marathon tasting was led by Michael Broadbent, M.W., then of Christies Auction House in London.

To say that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, is an understatement, for which I was not sure I was up to...but I was anxious to give it a try.

There were two tastings on day one, the first at the civilized hour of 11 am, and the second at 6 pm. The morning tasting consisted of 30 wines, from 1950 to 1979, with standouts (for me): 1955,1961 (a storied 20-year-old Pauillac with depth and richness), 1964, 1966, 1970, 1975 and 1979. 

That evening, another 30 wines were poured, from older vintages 1918 to 1949. I especially liked 1920, 1926 (full fruit, complex), 1928 (sweet fruit), 1934 and 1936 (both nicely knit wines with delicate flavors and great length), Wines from the war years suffered, but Latour bounced back with very impressive wines in 1946 and 1948. 

On the second day, we re-assembled to taste 29 older wines, from 1861 to 1917.  With few exceptions, the wines from 1861 to 1899, were in good but not great shape, with 1865 and 1870 noteworthy for their exceptional balance and firm delicate flavors. 

Perhaps it's a stretch to say that a wine more than 100 years old still shows vitality and length, but it did!  This is a testament to the longevity of Cabernet Sauvignon, the talent of the winemaker and the positive merits of a blended wine.  But it is also a plea not to drink your wines too young.

What impressed me, besides the wines, was Latour's consistency of style, year after year, especially when you consider how many maitre de chais (cellarmaster) were trusted with that style. And, even considering a tweaking of the blend to account for vintage differences, the power of Cabernet Sauvignon came through, supported by Merlot's softening fruit.)

What's the take away?  That can best be answered by looking at what each of the five Bordeaux grapes contribute to a blend.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Black berry, black cherry, tobacco, dried herbs, mint, sometimes  eucalyptus, firm tannins and structure. Unripe cabernet an be green, like green bell pepper.
Merlot: Black fruits like plums, black cherry, black berry, sweet spices like cloves, the impression of softer tannins.  Under ripe Merlot often shows hints of dill.
Cabernet Franc: Perfumed sweet fruits like raspberries, softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. 
Petit Verdot: Floral notes like violets, sweet spices, medium tannins, crisp acidity.
Malbec: Ripe rich fruit flavors, plums, floral notes, full tannins, good structure and length.

With blends, the sum is more pleasureable than the individual components, but if the characteristics of one of the five Bordeaux grapes strikes your fancy, then go with the single variety wine.
Please contact me at for my policy on submitting wine samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender.

Next Blog: Making Wine with Wood